Skies were clear at the trailhead at 2:38am when I started up. I had decided to do something I've done once before and start climbing a 14er well before first light. This time I had just purchased a headlamp from Wal-Mart and was ready to test it out. The trailhead register contained a note from the Chaffee County Sheriff's office about a missing hiker. Two hikers had disappeared in the area last October; one body was found near a trail (no specifics given on time or place), the other was still missing and they were asking anybody to contact the office if they saw the name in any of the summit registers. I was in this area a month ago and this note wasn't there then.
In addition to the unusual start time, I was also going to use an uncommon approach to Missouri's summit. The standard route ascends the relatively steep NE face to the NW ridge. One infrequently used alternative route is the one from the west featured in Tim Loser's recent Missouri reports [posted on rec.backcountry a week or two before my hike]. However, I decided to hike over 13,220ft Elkhead Pass and reach Missouri from the south.
The approach for this route is the same as for the standard route, up the excellent Missouri Gulch Trail. This is also the approach for two other 14ers, Belford and Oxford, and I reached this turnoff just before 4am. By this time, you are completely out of the trees, and it was hard to keep hiking as opposed to staring at the sky. In particular I noted the recently risen Alpha Persei and Pleiades star clusters, containing stars that I will be scientifically observing in late November/early December.
Unfortunately, about 15 minutes later, the batteries in my lamp started to fade. Even worse, I only had the usual two spare batteries for my flashlight (the headlamp takes four), and I didn't even have the flashlight. Rather poor planning on my part. As I confirmed later, it was mostly the cold that was weakening the batteries, and I was able to get brief illumination at times. In general the trail is easy to follow even under the feeble illumination of the night sky, but there are many stream crossings. None of these are difficult, but several require a careful choice of rocks to step on to avoid water above the tops of your boots. I mostly managed to do this, but I didn't get my socks damp enough to change into my spares. I probably lost about 20 minutes total at the crossings, but this was OK as this was a long hike and I didn't want to burn myself out early.
I reached Elkhead Pass at 5:48, before sunrise, which was my only real time goal on the trip. The view from here is quite nice. Unfortunately, the route from here on Missouri's east ridge is a technical climb, with dangerously loose rock to boot. I have a couple guidebooks which give route descriptions to Iowa Peak and Emerald Peak which are high points on the ridge south of Missouri. One is more adament than the other about making sure you drop low enough into the basin to avoid steep terrain on Missouri's SE face. As I would find out, this was good advice.
My ascent to the saddle between Missouri and Iowa was quite tedious, sidehilling on loose talus, scree, and dirt because I didn't descend quite far enough into the basin. It didn't even save any altitude loss as I had to go up and down several times. On one of these downs I slipped on a loose slope and scraped and bruised the back of my right calf in two places.
By the time I had made it to the 13500ft+ saddle between Iowa and Missouri, the sun was up and I was quite tired. I plodded up the last 500 vertical feet to Missouri's summit on a steep climber's trail and was on top at 7:16am. As indicated in Tim's report, the view from up there is great. The weather was also beautiful.
I was quite tired and comtemplated whether or not I wanted to do the traverse over to Iowa Peak. The rise from the saddle is only 291ft (+/- 20) so I knew it wouldn't require much more effort (being less than a 300ft rise from the saddle also means that it doesn't make the list of "ranked" 13ers in Garrett and Martin's book). I had pretty much decided not to do it, but on the way down to the saddle, I convinced myself to go for it. Just 23 minutes after leaving Missouri, I reached the summit.
Unlike on Missouri, the Iowa Peak summit register was in place. As I expected, the number of ascents was quite small. As was the case with me, many people who signed in had climbed Iowa Peak because they live in Iowa or grew up in Iowa.
I headed down at 8:05. From above I was able to see that the best way down was to pass near a small, round, unnamed lake (more like a pond, really), thus avoiding the sidehilling (this was mentioned in one of the guidebooks). As an added bonus, there looked to be some glissade potential. The snow had been very crusty early in the morning, but it had softened up a lot in the bright sunshine, and I did about 3/4th of the 500ft+ descent on my butt. As far as using this as an ascent route, the snow would be avoidable if it wasn't in condition. It would still be a steep hike, but likely much better than my ascent.
The 500ft gain back to Elkhead Pass was arduous. This was a personal one-day total altitude gain record for me and I was really feeling it. Each time I have to use it, I gain a new appreciation for the rest step. An hour after leaving Iowa Peak, I was back at Elkhead Pass.
The descent went better than I expected. Although it is steep in spots, the trail isn't nearly as steep as some climber's trails I've been on and so it wasn't too bad on my legs. As I had observed on the way up, there were quite a few wildflowers along the trail. I finally started seeing people after descending to 12000ft or so; I probably met 15 or so total on the way down.
Shortly after 11am, I crossed the wilderness boundary and re- entered civilization at the parking area. The weather was still quite nice, but as I drove up through Leadville and eventually to I-70, t-storms started building and I was glad I had started so early.
Another great hike, a beautiful morning, and another 14er climbed (although I'm not committed to this goal, this puts me at the 1/3 mark; 18 out of the 54 Colorado 14ers).
To the chronological trip index
To the Missouri Mountain page
To the Iowa Peak page
File last modified: 20 December 2004