|Mount Belford (14,205)||Mount Oxford (14,160)||Emerald Peak (13,904)||Iowa Peak (13,831)||Missouri Mountain (14,067)|
Round-trip Distance: 17 mi.
Elevation Gain: 8,160 ft.
It was still dark as I reached timberline after a hefty climb up the switchbacks of Missouri Gulch. Ahead, I could already see the silhouette of the gigantic Mount Belford illuminated by a myriad of stars. I had climbed this mountain before in deep snow; today the ground was bare and I was looking forward to the steep hike. I was on vacation from the east coast, and with one day to hike in Colorado I decided that I should tackle a mountain or two... or five. Several years ago I read Aaron Johnson’s account of Emerald and Iowa Peaks, befittingly entitled “A Secret in the Heart of the Wilderness.”
That, along with my desire to climb Colorado’s hundred highest mountains, led me to this beautiful gulch. I hoped to make it to Emerald and Iowa Peaks today, but first I had some unfinished business to attend to.
Two years ago I had summitted Mount Belford
, but decided against hiking over to Mount Oxford due to time constraints and the relentless deep snow. Today I came to the summit of Mount Belford at 8 a.m., four hours after leaving the trailhead, and decided to continue to that other fourteener I had previously been unable to summit. The wind was brutal above 14,000 feet, and I did not stay long at the first summit of the day. However, I was feeling great and loving the view, and the altitude did not begin to affect me until about the time I reached the Belford-Oxford saddle.
It was a simple hike up the trail to Mount Oxford, as I expected it would be. Unfortunately, I was already dragging at this point, and beginning to wonder if the other three summits would have to wait for another day. Reaching the summit of Mount Oxford at 9a.m. renewed my strength and energy, despite the again brutal winds. By the time I hiked back down to my pack at the saddle, I had gained my second wind. I downed some energy food and hiked back up the steep shoulder of Mount Belford, a necessary but painful 700 feet which seemed to take forever.The scenery so far had been fantastic, with the views of Mount Harvard to the southeast, and of course, Emerald Peak and Missouri Mountain to the southwest. As I descended the trail to Elkhead Pass, the view of the “in-between” mountain, Iowa Peak, opened up. The tundra was already turning to an autumn crimson, and the lack of wind here let me enjoy this place a little more.
As I came to Elkhead Pass, I considered my future. The weather had held to this point (there was not yet a cloud in the sky), and my body was feeling about normal for being at that altitude. Emerald Peak still appeared to be far away, and I had already ascended 5,900 feet to this point in my hike, but I could not resist going for it. I knew I could bail if the weather turned sour, as long as I could make it to the Emerald-Iowa saddle. Sure enough clouds started to build as I descended into Pine Creek Basin, but fortunately the weather still held. I monitored the weather carefully as I contoured over to the unnamed alpine lakes at 12,700.
Northern Unnamed Lake, 12,700 feet
I had left the Elkhead Pass trail rather low, perhaps too low, which at least allowed me to stay below the steeper rocky slopes under Missouri Mountain’s south face. Still, this required me to do some extra uphill hiking across the grassy tundra to finally arrive at the northernmost unnamed lake.
The unnamed lakes below Emerald Peak’s east slopes were without a doubt the highlight of my day. Surrounding the lakes there was nothing but tundra and willows, with prevalent elk sign. The lakes themselves were gorgeous and crystal clear, framed in the background by Mount Harvard and many other peaks of the Sawatch Range. The southern of these
two lakes was my favorite, with deep colored blue-and-green, yet completely clear water. I could see straight to the bottom of this lake, 15 or 20 feet down. Unfortunately it was hard to capture the depth with a picture, because the wind was causing so many ripples on the water’s surface.
There were two choices of where exactly to go from here. I could not decide which of two grassy ramps
above the lake led to the correct place. Actually both of them led to the correct slopes, but the upper ramp probably would have gotten me there a little faster. I chose the lower ramp, and had to go around a rocky knob and accomplish the same amount of elevation gain (with a little more distance) to make it to the same place. Above, the north slopes of Emerald Peak loomed; meanwhile I just longed to arrive at the saddle so I could better gauge the weather situation.
Finally I did make it the saddle, uttering a sigh of relief that the weather was holding, while gasping in surprise at the steep talus-covered slopes above me. I had some 500 feet of steep talus to ascend, and I was not looking forward to it. My legs and lungs were burning, but eventually I made it to the ridge just shy of the summit. Here I came upon a climber’s trail, which led me the rest of the way to the summit cairn. Time: 1 o’clock. I plopped down and tried to ignore my pain as I took in the amazing wilderness scenery. The views of Ice Mountain, North Apostle, and Huron Peak to the west were especially striking, and I was sure to capture the moment with my camera. The wind was relentless, however, so as usual I did not stay long at the summit, though I wanted to.
On the way back down to the saddle, I tried to stay on the climber’s trail I had come across during my ascent, but the loose scree mess was much more difficult and dangerous to my footing than the talus hopping, so I quickly resumed that method. As is often the case, going down was much easier than going up, and before long I arrived at the saddle, where I had stashed my pack.
Three summits down, two to go, and all I wanted was to lay down and take a nap. The altitude had already taken its toll, and my legs and lungs were feeling weak. I continued to down energy food and water, but at this point it felt like it wasn’t helping much. Nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other. The weather did not appear to be threatening now, so I could take as many breaks as necessary–and I did.
Iowa Peak would have been a pleasant stroll up reddish-colored grassy slopes, had it not been for the wind. I did stop at the summit (2:30), and stared for a few moments at what lay ahead: the south ridge to Missouri Mountain. As I left the summit, I was surprised to see four mountain goats lying on the grassy shoulder of the ridge–where I needed to go next. They obliged and moved out of my way as I approached.
This would be the first of a good variety of wildlife I would see on the remainder of my hike. Right after this, I spotted a ptarmigan running off ahead of me, and later I would encounter a curious pika at the summit of Missouri Mountain, and two twos of bighorn sheep. One of those pairs would try knocking rocks down on me from the cliffs on Missouri Mountain’s standard descent trail, and I was glad I had brought my helmet along.
Anyway, for now the focus was on reaching the summit of Missouri Mountain. The wind tried to blow me off the narrow ridge a couple times, but of course I had no choice but to persist. I alternated 50 footsteps and a three minute rest, over and over again, until at last I arrived at the summit of today’s fifth and final mountain, Missouri Mountain (3:30). Also for the fifth time, the wind was nasty and tried to make me leave, but I simply curled up and relaxed for a few moments, reflecting on the hike
and looking ahead to the descent.
Well, with five mountains and over 8,000 feet of elevation behind me, now came the hard part: the descent. Honestly it was not that bad, except for the first part which actually required some more down and uphill (arg!) around some gnarly rock towers. The rest of the trail was more or less down, down, down all the way. The farther I went, the more I felt my legs–but the less I felt the altitude sickness. Now I remember what being at altitude is like: a state of being perpetually unable to catch my breath. Thankfully, that ill feeling was finally starting to go away.
I met another hiker at the trail junction of the Elkhead Pass Trail and the Mount Belford Trail, the first person I saw all day any closer than a mile from me. It was now 5:15. We stopped and talked some as we made equipment adjustments; he had climbed Missouri and then Oxford and was now descending from Mount Belford, the same trail I had started up before sunrise. Now my loop was complete, and after another hour of downhill I would arrive at the trailhead.
About three pellets of sleet hit me during my trek to timberline, but other than that I never had any issues with precipitation. As I came to the trailhead however, I heard thunder and looked up to see a storm approaching. I watched in my rearview as this storm quickly swallowed the mountains and the valley as I drove out the dirt road. Strangely after such a workout, I felt no worse than after most other hikes and climbs I have done in Colorado; if anything I felt better than usual. Perhaps it was the adrenaline rush of being back, or maybe it was getting to experience this piece of Sawatch bliss. In any case, I knew I would feel it the next day. It was a great unforgettable hike, but I’m never going to do it again–not all at once, anyway.