For about six weeks, I’d been planning to go with a group of people to climb Capitol Peak, a pretty big test for me and one that I’d been looking forward to for some time.
Then historic rains and flooding hit Colorado. The same rains that flooded Boulder, Estes Park, Lyons, Longmont and other cities in the Front Range made the weather in the Elk Range pretty bad. Capitol Peak is a tough climb in good weather. Wet – or icy – conditions on the mountain made the climb a no-go.
So we discussed other options. None of them looked all that good, though Missouri Mountain popped up as a potential Plan B.
But as the weather stayed rotten, more people dropped out. I settled on doing this one on a Monday – the first day with a decent weather window – and hoped maybe some of the rest group could join in.
The problem is most people work on Mondays. One of my friends, Noel, was still suffering from rockfall injuries suffered last month and couldn’t make it. When I was about an hour from the trailhead, the last member of the group had to bow out for good reasons of his own.
So as darkness closed in and the rains kept coming, the realization hit me that I’d be on my own on this one.
I’m cool with people doing solo hikes and climbs, provided they stay within their abilities and take the necessary precautions to prevent mishaps. Heck, I’ve done plenty of long solo trail runs where no one was within miles of me, as well as a wilderness hike on my own a few years back.
But it was on that solo hike, in Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, that I almost got run over by a buffalo. Had I been trampled, it might have been hours, or even days, before anyone would have gotten to me.
So while I’m all for people doing solo trips, let’s just say my preference is to go with others. There is safety in numbers, and when you’re on your own your margin of error shrinks considerably.
Nevertheless, I’d driven a long way to get my elevation fix, and there were a lot of things about going solo that appealed to me. I could go at my own pace, start when I wanted to start and pretty much set the tone for the entire ascent. Maybe a little meditative time in the hills on my own would do me some good, I thought.
I had a few things going for me. I’m familiar with Missouri Gulch, having been there before. I studied the route pretty well and packed all the gear I’d need in case things went sideways. And if that happened, I’d asked Noel to get the search and rescue ball rolling if she didn’t hear from me by a certain time Monday evening.
Solo ascents in the Sawatch Range are usually relative anyway. These peaks are readily accessible and popular places to go. Even if I was going alone, surely there would be other people on the mountain.
So when I pulled into the trailhead parking lot, I was a bit surprised to see that the entire lot was empty. Not a soul to be found. My thinking changed at that point.
I realized that, being a weekday and the usual summer hiking and climbing season coming to a close, there was a good chance that I’d be the only person in Missouri Gulch and the three main peaks therein.
That will give you some food for thought. Busted ankle at 13,000 feet? Hostile wildlife encounter in dark? Freak storm above timberline? Mental gymnastics ensued.
I car camped overnight, then woke up around 4 a.m. and started getting ready. Breakfast, a change of clothes and last-minute additions to my pack, with no one else around. That is, until I was ready to leave. A truck pulled up and out popped one of those uber-fit-and-trim Colorado hiker types. We chatted for a bit. His name was Chris, and he told me he was going up Mount Belford and Mount Oxford. So he’d be in the area, though I was sure he’d pass me quickly and I wouldn’t see him again. I was right about that.
Like I said, I’d been up this trail before, 10 years earlier, when me and nine friends camped higher up and hiked Mount Belford. I remember the approach hike as being steep. But I guess I didn’t remember just how tough it was.
Low on the trail, you cross a bridge, hike uphill a bit and then reach a series of switchbacks in the woods. This part of the route is notorious for being a steep and taxing slog – one heck of a way to start your ascent. There are 11 of these (yep, I counted) that take you up to about 10,400 feet. The steepness eases here.
In the middle of the switchbacks, I realized that I would not be at my physical best, a real disappointment considering how good I felt in June going up Mount Evans and Mount Sneffels. No, despite all the miles I’ve been running and weight I’d lost, this would not be my day. It was still dark and foggy, and in the back of my mind a nagging case of doubt started to creep up.
It was telling me to quit.
As is often the case, the light of dawn spurred me on. Familiar landmarks showed up – double creek crossings first, and then the site of an old trapper’s cabin. Or what remained of it. It was a welcome sight, one that told me that Missouri Gulch’s basin was close.
Alpenglow began to hit the peaks, and as I emerged from the trees at the cabin I saw an old friend – Mount Belford, with a dusting of snow covering its 14,197-foot summit. I looked hard at Belford’s steep slopes to see if I could spot Chris, and eventually I found him – a tiny speck inching his way up Belford’s steep switchbacks. For some reason, Belford just looked huge to me, a daunting hike that gave me more respect for the people who do Belford and neighboring Oxford in a day. The way I was feeling that day, I knew that wasn’t happening for me.
I blame diet. I ate heavy foods in the days prior to the ascent, and a lack of sleep probably didn’t help either. My heart rate was going through the roof on the steeper sections – even higher than what I’d see when running 800-meter intervals in the heat. Like I said, it just wasn’t my day.
The weather was also concerning me. All the storms that struck Colorado the prior week were up in the mountains too, and just a few days earlier two women from Maine had gone up Longs Peak in the middle of a storm and were stranded there in winter conditions. They eventually got out OK, but had called for help out of fear of hypothermia.
I wanted no part of that.
Swirling clouds, snow dusting up high and self-doubt made me pause several times going up.
The trail through the basin left the trees, through some willows and up a hill until you eventually reach tundra. By then, the massive wall that is Missouri Mountain loomed ahead.
Missouri Mountain forms the southern wall of a huge amphitheater that forms around Missouri Gulch. Its north face is steep and can be climbed in winter and spring when its couloirs fill up with snow. Tackling it by its northwest slopes means another grueling series of switchbacks through rockier paths.
Again, self doubt. The nagging voice telling me to quit. Me stopping for a breather. And then looking at the clouds. I couldn’t tell what the weather was going to do, so every pause made me reassess if it was OK to keep going or if it was time to pull the plug.
I came to the conclusion that the disappointment of falling short would weigh on me for months. But still, if the weather said “no,” who was I to argue?
That’s not to say I wasn’t having some fun. The sun and the clouds played games with shadows and light, giving the entire basin an ethereal quality, like something out of an ancient Norse myth. Marmots, pikas and all sorts of birds called out, and the physical characteristics of the basin made sounds carry and echo in ways that made me marvel at the natural acoustics at play. The lack of conversation made me more aware of these things. I even was more aware of the silence.
About that time I heard conversation. I searched the trails below and could barely make out two people about a quarter-mile away and 500 feet or so below. Despite the distance, I could almost make out what they were saying. So I didn’t quite have the mountain to myself.
Soon I was close to gaining the ridge and all the doubting crap came to an end. I was making decent enough time, and there were no storms around, just those wispy blowing clouds. The terrain on Missouri eases once you hit the ridge at 13,700 feet.
The clouds were still swirling around, and there were times that the trail just seemed to disappear into a gray void. Those sorts of atmospherics made for a moody hike for the final mile or so.
The last “challenge” of the mountain is a notch that dips down from the ridge. It’s rocky, sandy and steep, so it can present some tricky difficulties. Still, just a few careful hand placements and care in going down get you through it easily enough. Climbing back up the notch is easier.
From there, it was just about 100 feet to Missouri’s 14,067-foot summit.
Every 14er and 13er summit I’ve visited has had great views, but some are more memorable than others. Missouri, especially on that day, ranks right up there in some of the best I’ve seen. Below me to the north is the expansive basin from where I’d just come. Emerald Peak and Iowa Peak were nearby to the south, shrouded in mists, as was Huron Peak with its rugged north face. I was blown away by what I saw.
I stopped to eat and drink, then got up to leave when I spotted the fellas I saw earlier that morning. They were negotiating the notch just below the summit. I watched them for a little while, just to see if they’d get through that obstacle OK.
When I ran into them on the way down, we talked for a bit. Both guys were from San Antonio (three people on the mountain and all were from the southern plains!). They said they saw me march past their campsite earlier that morning. They asked me if I knew how the Alabama-Texas A&M game went. I regretted to inform them that their Aggies lost.
They were getting cold and were eager to summit, and I was just as eager to make some time getting down. It took me five freaking hours to summit, so I was determined to get down as quickly as my legs would allow.
Going downhill is always an exercise in slow torture for me. Gravity pulls you down and pounds the knees pretty good. But there is a way around that: Run down the trail.
With such a slow ascent, I wanted to make some time going downhill. So where I could, I did some slow, careful running down.
Running in the 12,000 to 14,000-foot range is not the easiest thing. As a matter of disclosure, it’s not like I ran a bunch of it at all. Some sections were too steep, and when the trail leveled out it made more sense to walk to conserve energy. But portions of the trail that were steep enough to pound the knees are just easier to run. It’s a little tougher on the cardio but letting gravity work for you instead of against you sped things up a bit while also saving some wear and tear on the joints. Yep, all that trail running over the years finally got put to good use on a 14er!
When I finally got down to the basin I ran into one more person. A woman was hiking up the trail, and we stopped to chat for a second or two. She asked me about trail conditions on the peak, and then told me she was intending to hike over to Buena Vista. I can only assume that Elkhead Pass would take her in that direction, but holy cow. Driving from Buena Vista to the trailhead took every bit of an hour or so. That gal was going to hike it.
Funny side note about hiking on your own: Your mind tends to get caught up in a single-song music loop. Many times this can be pretty irritating, especially if it’s a bad or annoying song. On this day, it was a catchy tune from Kings of Leon called “Molly’s Chambers.” Thank goodness; it could have been some random Taylor Swift offering.
The good thing about going solo that day was not holding anyone up. I’m notoriously slow hiking down the mountain. Without needing to worry about slowing anyone down I was able to stop when I wanted, eat, drink and just take quick breathers when needed. Somehow I still managed to get down in about 2½ hours. I did get rained on, but it was pretty light and actually felt good.
All of the worries I had about going solo were pretty much unfounded. Wildlife encounters (with the exception of getting buzzed by a falcon or kite, I couldn’t tell which) were pretty benign and the weather held up.
The weekend was supposed to be a unique experience, and Capitol Peak would have been just that. My Plan B, while not what I had originally envisioned, proved to be special in a different way. All of the sights, sounds, smells, sufferings and joys were all mine. I love sharing these times with others, but there is a different feel to going through a day like this on your own. Sometimes you need your busy, noisy life interrupted by the silence of wilderness.
ABOUT THE ROUTE: From the trailhead, hike across a bridge and about a quarter-mile, where you will reach a series of steep switchbacks. The incline relents slightly as you continue hiking through the woods. Near 10,800 feet you will reach two creek crossings. Near 11,000 feet you will reach a more level area where the remains of an old trapper’s cabin sit. This is a good spot to take a breather or, if you’re backpacking, to set up camp.
Leaving the trees at 11,300 feet, the trail continues uphill through a large patch of willows. Here you will reach a split in the trail; going left will take you up to Mount Belford, while heading left keeps you on track to Missouri Mountain. Continue up a hill just below 13,000 feet where you’ll reach another fork in the trail. Left takes you to Elkhead Pass, right takes you to Missouri Mountain’s northwest slopes. The trail will lead you to a series of steep and at times rocky switchbacks. A few sections of this part of the route have moderate exposure.
Around 13,700 feet you will gain Missouri’s ridge, and the hiking will ease. Continue following the trail east toward the summit. There will be moderate exposure to your left. Just shy of 14,000 feet you’ll reach a notch that drops about 30 feet. This requires a more careful descent on rocky and sandy ground, but is not quite Class 3. Once down the notch, continue up the trail for a last bit of steeper hiking to Missouri’s summit. The route is Class 2, with the notch Class 2+, and third-class (moderate) exposure. Route length is 10.5 miles round-trip with 4,500 feet of elevation gain.
EXTRA CREDIT: During winter or spring, climb Missouri’s north face couloirs (Class 2+, moderate exposure). If you’re feeling extra stout, hike neighboring 14ers Mount Belford and Mount Oxford. South of Missouri Mountain, you can also hike a couple of 13ers, Emerald Peak and Iowa Peak.
GETTING THERE: Take U.S. 24 from Leadville from the north or Buena Vista from the south and turn west on County Road 390. Drive about 7 miles, and to your left will be a parking lot at the Missouri Gulch trailhead. There is an outhouse at the trailhead, but no campsites.
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