Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Six Peak Adventure in Missouri Gulch and Basin

Every now and then I enjoy pushing myself with a big hike that covers a long distance or hits many summits.  It had been a while since I have been on a big peak bagging hike.

I had a couple of hikes to tackle in mind.  For this trip I chose the peaks around Missouri Gulch.  There are many high summits in the area.  Three 14ers are the heart of this area in this northern Collegiate Peaks Wilderness.  Mt Belford and Mt Oxford are often climbed together.  Missouri Mountain is often climbed by itself but occasionally on a long hike with Belford and Oxford.  Beyond Missouri Mtn stands Iowa Peak and Emerald Peak.  These two peaks are often overlooked by hikers that are set on bagging 14ers and nothing else.  Iowa Peak is an unranked 13er that is high enough to be one of Colorado's 100 highest summits.  Emerald Peak stands at 13,904' making it one of Colorado's 100 highest.  If Emerald and Iowa are climbed, they are usually combined with Missouri but they tend to be overlooked by casual hikers.  The last peak on my agenda was Pecks Peak.  Pecks Peak is a high point on the Belford's north ridge and not so much a lofty summit.  Pecks unranked status and trailless route ensures it see very little traffic.

My goal was to tackle all six of these peaks.  I would start at the Missouri Gulch trailhead, climb Missouri Mtn by its standard route before climbing Iowa and Emerald.  From Emerald I would travel through Missouri Basin to Elkhead Pass.  From Elkhead Pass, I planned on climbing Oxford, move onto Belford, then travel to Pecks before returning to the trailhead.  Much of the route is trailless as well, adding a degree of challenge.  I knew my mileage would be over 15 miles and my vertical gain would be at least 8000 feet, but I never figured the exact numbers prior to the hike. I also knew in July, I would have a short window of weather with low thunderstorm risk.  On July 22nd I had a descent window of weather and was ready to make an attempt at this challenging route.

I started from the Missouri Gulch Trailhead right at 5AM.  I wanted to get an early start to cover as much ground early in case storms moved in.  Since it was so early, I began my hike with a headlamp.  The trail was pretty easy to follow.  There is a spot where the trail crosses a stream however.  The crossing isn't officially marked.  Someone spelled "cross" with small stones and made a small arrow from stones marking the crossing.  In the dim light, the stones weren't very noticeable and the crossing wasn't obvious, especially since numerous herd paths continue along the creek from previous hikers that missed the turn.  I followed one of the herd paths to no avail.  Another hiker caught up to me and also had difficulty finding the trail.  Eventually I backtracked enough to the proper crossing and was on my way.  Unfortunately, while on the wrong trail, I slipped on the wet bank into the water up to my knees.  I had a long day planned and my feet were soaked. As I backtracked I stumbled on a branch and hit my knee on a rock to add to my early woes.  I wasted at least 20 minutes or so until I found where the trail crossed the water.

After finding the crossing, the trail climbed quickly to treeline.  Along the way, it passed the remnants of an old cabin just before leaving the trees.  I would remain above treeline for at least six hours from this point and have continuous alpine.  I also passed a pair of hikers at treeline and they were the last people I would see for a long while.

Early view at treeline
Belford and Missouri coming into view
Above treeline, Missouri Gulch is a beautiful alpine basin.  It is surrounded by Pecks Peak and Mt Belford on one side and Missouri Mtns long ridge on the other with Elkhead Pass serving as the backdrop of the basin.  The trail is well defined and easy to follow as it travels through the basin which is lush tundra.  The tundra was full of wildflowers and the creek running through it was flowing strongly adding pleasant background noise.  Several times the trail crossed the creek as I climbed.  Missouri Gulch is deep and the sun took a long time to reach its floor with Mt Belford and Pecks Peak blocking the gulch.  There was a moderate breeze that added to the cool morning air .

First sun hitting Missouri's east ridge
Pleasant walking through Missouri Gulch
Alpine Sunflowers along the trail
In the early morning hours, I had several wildlife sighting as I traveled ahead of the crowds.  My first sighting was a mule deer.  Mule deer aren't that exciting but I usually don't see them so far above treeline.  On the horizon above me, ironically enough by Elkhead Pass, I could see several elk grazing in the distance.  As I neared the junction for Missouri Mountain, I also saw a lone coyote running over the tundra.  Unfortunately none of the subjects was close enough for a good photo.

After more than three miles, I started climbing the trail to Missouri Mountain.  The trail started to climb fairly quickly to gain Missouri's ridge.  It was in this section I had some difficulty.  Not so much because of the steepness but because of my stomach.  I awoke at 3AM and I forced myself to eat before I was ready.  The climbing caused my stomach to churn a little bit.  The trail encountered sections of rock and some fairly steep terrain but nothing too treacherous.  I did encounter one small snow crossing as well.

Starting to get rocky 
Looking ahead to Missouri's long ridge
Looking north along Missouri's ridge
Missouri Mountain is different than most of the mountains I have climbed in Colorado.  It isn't so much a big summit as it is a long ridge.  Once above the slopes,  the route travels over the long ridge with minimal elevation gain covering 3/4 of a mile or so.  There is a visible trail along the entire ridge with only minor difficulties encountered.  There were a few brief sections of snow along the ridge that posed no difficulty or risk and they could be avoided if desired. After 5+ miles, I reached the 14,067' summit around 8AM and had it to myself.    I assessed the sky and moved on after a few minutes since I still had a long day ahead of me.

Missouri's ridge
Following the trail enroute to Missouri
Most of the snow was avoidable on the ridge
Iowa Peak ahead with the top Emerald Peak visible beyond
Closer look of Iowa Peak with Emerald sticking up behind
Rock towers enroute to Missouri
Looking at Missouri's long ridge from the summit
Ice Mountain and the Apostles
Another view from Missouri's summit
Missouri's east ridge with Belford across the gulch
The route ahead to Iowa and Emerald
My next goal was Iowa Peak.  From Missouri, it is only .3 miles to the saddle between the two peaks.  I descended from Missouri to the saddle following the ridge which feature a faint, intermittent trail.  Even where the trail isn't visible, there is no route finding difficulty.  As I approached the saddle I was lucky enough to see a golden eagle fly by close to the ridge.  By the time I reached the saddle, what little bit of trail that existed was gone.  The route is fairly straightforward however.  A false summit stands before the true summit which is only .6 miles from Missouri Mtn and features less than 300' of elevation gain.  From Iowa's 13,831' summit, I had a nice vantage point for the next couple legs of my route.

View to the northeast
False summit of Iowa Peak
Ice Mtn and the Apostles
Emerald Peak was my next destination.  The walk between Iowa and Emerald is quite pleasant.  The route travels over a huge area of grassy tundra.  The two peaks are only .8 miles apart.  Emerald's north face looks intimidating as you approach.  Rather than approach Emerald directly via its rough north face, I climbed along its northeast ridge.  Despite it's pointy profile, Emerald was a fairly easy climb with much of the ridge traveling over grass.  I gained the summit rather quickly.  The views from Emerald were probably the best of the trip.  The view has alpine lakes in nearly every direction.   Ice Mtn and the Apostle's jagged profile sit just to the west with 14er Huron Peak.  The peaks of the rugged Elk Range stand to the west and northwest.  Missouri Mtn and its rugged east ridge sit just to the north with Mt Belford next door on the other side of Elkhead Pass.  To the east, the vast expanse of lush, alpine tundra of the Missouri Basin looks inviting with its several small lakes.  The Pine Creek Drainage drops from the Missouri Basin to the east.  Mt. Harvard's pointy profile stands just 3 miles to the east towering over the basin.  Mt Columbia is just below Harvard.  14ers Mt Yale and Princeton stand to the south with the rest of the Sawatch Range below with the rest of the southern Sawatch Range.

Emerald Peak from Iowa's summit
Nice stretch of tundra between Iowa and Emerald
Climbing Emerald's northeast ridge
Apostles, Ice Mtn, and Huron from the broad
grassy tundra on the Iowa/Emerald saddle
Looking south from Emerald's ridge
View south from Emerald
View south with I believe Silver King Lake
View north from Emerald
Looking toward Elkhead Pass
I was at the summit of Emerald at 9AM.  There is 500'+ of additional elevation gain to the summit. At this point clouds started to move in and looked a little threatening.  I still had a long time to spend above treeline and decided to make my way toward Elkhead Pass sooner than later.  Since I had no trail, I traveled directly toward the pass.  I was above treeline the entire time and had good visibility so cross country travel was easy.  As I dropped toward Missouri basin, I encountered a small section of cliffs and headwall that was easily avoidable and required a brief detour to bypass.  This route took me along two of the three small lakes below Emerald and Iowa and traveled over pleasant, grassy tundra majority of the route.  As I neared Elkhead Pass, I could eventually see the trail I was heading for come into view.  Just a short distance before the terrain began to climb toward the pass I intersected the trail.

Clouds moving in over Ice Mtn and the Apostles  
Hiking through the Missouri Basin was the highlight of my hike.  The basin is entirely above treeline surrounded by mountains with more than a handful of 14ers visible.  The area was quite green and lush.  There were several small freshets running throughout the basin from the lingering snow on the higher slopes and from the several small lakes.  I didn't have a trail on my route much of the way through the basin so I ambled through the lush tundra grasses and wildflowers.  Best of all, I had the entire area to myself.

A look back toward Emerald
Mt Harvard
Snowfields below Emerald
Short crossing of talus
Approaching the lakes in Missouri Basin
Looking back at Emerald Peak in the distance
Beautiful tundra in the Missouri Basin
East ridge of Missouri
Another look back at Emerald Peak
One of the lakes in Missouri Basin
Emerald Peak in the distance over the lake
Despite the scenery and pleasantness of the Missouri Basin, I had another minor setback.  With a fair amount of clouds building, I constantly kept moving and didn't stop to eat.  I was getting quite hungry.  The other obstacle was a migraine.  From time to time I get migraines and my biggest symptom is a visual aura.  It's difficult to describe the sensation, but I can see, but with waviness in my peripheral vision.  Usually it doesn't last more than 30 minutes but it is often followed by a splitting headache.  I never had one at such high elevation and wasn't sure what to expect.  Part way up the climb to the pass, I finally stopped and ate and closed my eyes for a few minutes to get a little relief from the migraine.  I also hydrated thoroughly and this seemed to do the trick.  The migraine symptoms seemed to subside except for a mild headache.  I think the hunger and a little hydration enhanced the migraine so the symptoms improved with food and water.  This was the first time I experienced this on a hike.

Another view from my break spot
The view from where I took my break
Emerald Peak from my break spot
Mt Harvard
Trail leading to Elkhead Pass
After my quick break, I soon reached Elkhead Pass around 10AM.  Since I was off-trail, I don't have the exact distance but I traveled at least 2 miles and gained another 500' reaching the pass since leaving Emerald Peak.  I studied the clouds to see if I should return to the trailhead or continue to Mt Oxford and Belford.  The most threatening clouds skirted to the south and  I was heading north.  The clouds to the north appeared to be fair weather clouds so I continued toward the next set of summits.  As I reached the pass I also saw another pair of hikers with a dog, the first people I saw in 4 hours.

View into Missouri Basin
View south from Elkhead Pass
View across Elkhead Pass below Missouri's east ridge
The view back to Missouri, Iowa, and Emerald
The trail to Oxford and Belford from Elkhead Pass is not the main route to the peaks.  From the trailhead this route is more gradual but longer.  Since it isn't the main route, I didn't see anyone besides the pair I saw by the pass.  This route actually quite pleasant as it climbed gently up the grassy slopes. The next summit on my trip was 14er Mt. Oxford.

Trail leaving Elkhead toward Belford
Looking back toward Elkhead
Getting closer to Belford's ridge
I didn't really pay attention to the map, but I expected the trail to intersect the Belford/Oxford trail in the saddle.  In reality, the trail intersected very close to Belford.  Not a huge deal, it just meant more climbing, another 1500' or so to Oxford.  There is about 1.5 miles between the two peaks over a well worn trail.  I passed a few people going in both directions on this stretch of trail.  From Belford, the trail drops rather steeply.  From the saddle between the two peaks, the climb to Oxford is fairly easy and gradual.  I reached Oxford a little after 11AM and this was my 4th summit of the day.  Perhaps the most interesting thing on this day on Oxford was a C130 military plane cruising by the summit at roughly the same elevation as the summit.

Looking toward Mt Oxford
Enjoying the scenery along the route
Nearing Oxford
View from Oxford
Mt Belford was my next destination.  Once again I passed several other hikers going both directions.  From the saddle, I began the fairly steep climb back up Belford's ridge.  I made it up rather quickly, passing a handful of people along the way.  I was starting to get quite hungry again but wanted to wait for lunch on the summit.

Mt Belford looms ahead
Wildflowers in the tundra between Oxford and Belford
Approaching Belford's summit
I reached Belford's summit a few minutes after noon. At 14,197', Mt Belford was the highest summit of my day and the third peak over 14,000' of the day.  It was also the 5th peak that I summited for the day.  Needless to say, I was starting to feel a little tired.  I took the longest break of the day on Belford to eat lunch and hydrate.  There were several other groups at the summit.  I enjoyed the scenery while I recovered.  I also had lunchtime entertainment watching numerous marmots playing hide and seek nearby as well as tussle with each other.

The view back toward Oxford from Belford
Endless peaks of the Sawatch Range
Even though I still had at least four miles to travel, the bulk of my climbing was finished. I still had one more small peak on my radar before descending for good.  The main route from Belford descends its namesake trail on a course involving numerous zigzagging switchbacks.  I never hiked it, but it didn't seem that appealing.  There were also several groups already hiking on it.  Instead, my sights were set on Belford's north ridge and eventually Pecks Peak.

Looking down Belford's north ridge
The north ridge and Pecks Peak was a worthwhile route.  The trail-free route descends from Belford , but never too steeply.  There are a few brief sections of easy routefinding with rock to bypass or traverse.  A great bulk of the ridge is grassy making for enjoyable walking.  There is a small saddle with a very short and easy stroll to the proper summit of Pecks Peak.  Pecks Peak stands at 13270' but isn't much of a summit, more of a bump on the ridge rising from the saddle.  There are excellent views from the summit and entire ridge.  The grassy slopes along the ridge were full of mountain goat scat and tracks but I didn't see any.  I did see a ptarmigan however scooting across the grass trying to hide behind rocks.  While along the ridge, you can see the trail in Missouri Gulch as well as people making their way down Mt. Belford's switchbacks.  Meanwhile I had this scenic and pleasant ridge to myself.

A look back at Belford
Continuing down the ridge
Lingering snow from an old cornice
Much of the walk along the ridge
was over grassy tundra
Near Pecks summit
A look back to Belford and its north ridge
from Pecks Peak
From Pecks, I descended directly to Missouri Gulch.  Once again, the descent traveled over mostly grassy slopes with no shortage of wildflowers.  There were a few minor scree patches but they were mostly avoidable.  I made good time descending and was back on the Missouri Gulch Trail rather quickly.   The last few miles of trails returned through Missouri Gulch on the same trail that I started my hike.  I made it back to the trailhead a few minutes after 2PM.

View on the descent from Pecks
Looking into Missouri Gulch
Looking at the ridge on Belford's standard route.  You can see
the trail switchbacking up the ridge.
View into Missouri Gulch on the descent of Pecks
The spot I rejoined the trail in Missouri Gulch
Descending toward treeline
One last look into Missouri Gulch with its
abundant wildflowers
Old cabin remnants just below treeline

Because a good chunk of the trip was off-trail and I don't carry electronics to determine distance, I don't know my exact distance, but my total trip was close to 17 miles and gained at least 8000 vertical feet.  My hiking time was just over 9 hours including breaks with at least 20 minutes of that wasted when I missed the creek crossing early in the morning.  I did have some bruising on my knee from earlier in the morning but didn't notice any discomfort.  I was tired enough from my early start and long day that the knee bruise wasn't noticeable.  Luckily I didn't get any blisters either despite having wet fee for the entire hike from my early morning slip into the creek.

While challenging, this was a beautiful hike.  While I do occasionally seek out hikes to Colorado 14,000 foot mountains, I don't have a great desire to knock out the list of peaks.  Sure the 14ers I climbed on this route were scenic, but they tend to be busy with other hikers. Belford and Oxford  in particular seemed busy for a Wednesday.  The time I spent off-trail, I didn't see another person while enjoying equally fine scenery.  Emerald and Iowa were my favorite two summits because of there isolation and solitude.  The solitude of the non-14er peaks is definitely a draw.

I also saw a bit of wildlife on this hike.  Like most alpine areas, I saw numerous marmots.  I saw several elk at a distance as well as a coyote.  The most unique wildlife sighting I had was a golden eagle that flew over the ridge between Missouri and Iowa.  I didn't see any mountain goats but there were endless tracks, especially on Pecks Peak.  In addition to the wildlife, the vast areas of tundra on this trip were full of blooming wildflowers.

Marmot closeup 
This hike had splendid scenery from start to finish.  Each peak that I summited is a worthwhile destination.  For a more secluded experience, I recommend the trailless sections of this hike the most.  Solitude can be hard to come by on the 14ers.  The off trail portions of the hike offer amazing scenery and solitude is easy to find.