Peak(s):  Missouri Mountain  -  14,067 feet
Iowa Pk  -  13,831 feet
Emerald Pk  -  13,904 feet
Date Posted:  09/16/2015
Date Climbed:   09/13/2015
Author:  thePhoenix
 3 Summits - 2 Gals - 1 Pass   

A few weeks ago a planned trip to Capital turned into yet another weather bust for the season, so my climbing partner suggested we head for Belford/Oxford to still get in some miles and elevation for the day. Man, was I on the struggle bus that day. Not sure if it was the lack of sleep or the freezing hands, but just getting up Belford was a big challenge that day. We headed for Oxford, and returned down to Elkhead. When we passed the Missouri Gulch sign, Nicole made a joke about climbing Missouri. Turns out she wasn't joking. We spent awhile discussing the idea. I was feeling a lot better by now, we both had the energy, it wouldn't take that long, but due to weather conditions we decided to turn around. This was Nicole's 8th trip up Missouri you can imagine she didn't have a lot of interest in returning.

Becky however, had two attempts of Missouri with no summit, and was very anxious to get back out for a 3rd try. 3rd time's a charm, right? We made a plan to camp close to the trailhead and go for Missouri, Iowa, and Emerald either Sept 13th or 14th.

Labor Day Monday, I found myself up at South Colony Lakes with a group of friends ready for the Crestones Traverse with one exception, I felt terrible. I finally gave in to the crappy feeling about half way between the south lake and broken hand pass. Turning around on such an awesome, challenging route was hard, but based on my physical state over the next couple of days, it was the absolute right decision. I couldn't keep anything down - I was averaging about 1.5 meals a day until Thursday that week. Knowing Becky and I were planning on at least 11 miles for Missouri, with the potential to do Iowa and Emerald, I left work early on Friday for a quick trip to the mountains.

Parked at Loveland Pass with the intention of heading for just Grizzly. I was feeling pretty good, and even debated popping over to Grays and Torreys, but after counting at least 10 people on those trails, I opted to stay solo. When I returned to the last saddle back to the parking lot, I did decide to go ahead over to Sniktau. I'm not sure what kind of bug I had, but it seemed to be completely gone. The miles and elevation were minimal, and I felt great, so I was back in the right mindset for a more miles and elevation.

Views from the Grizzly Bear. 13ers=solitude on summits.

"It's like that everywhere, I'm sure. You have to go out, enjoy yourself and do what you do." ~Craig Stansberry

Becky and I camped up the road from the trailhead Saturday night, and went through a couple of routes plans and trip reports for the next day. Sure it's only Class 1 and 2, but that's no reason to shirk on preparation and planning. With the expectation of going 13+ miles and close to 6,000 feet of gain, I packed my MSR AutoFlow Microfilter. It's lightweight, easy to use for multiple people, and packs small. This saved us from having to carry the extra weight in water that we could replace with more food (we checked on water sources before making the decision to go lighter on water).

Route: Missouri Gulch Trailhead - Missouri Northwest Ridge - Iowa - Emerald - Down/Up Elkhead Pass to Return
Miles: ~13.5
Gain: ~5,500

Topo for the full route.

We decided to head for the trailhead by 4am. The weather looked great, but we didn't want to push to far into the afternoon if we didn't have to. There we were, dark and early, at the trailhead ready to go with boots on trail at 4:15am. We made it up the swtichbacks, and to the shack by 5:20. The trail is easy to follow by headlamp. What you really want to watch for is an arrow made out of rocks on the ground - it will be to your right when ascending. This is where you will cross the stream. At this point in time, there are two crossings. The lower crossing has a lot more tree fall to navigate. I recommend going a few feet upstream to a smaller two part crossing. Both have clear trails that join together on the other side (if you don't see the rock arrow, and a clear trail it probably isn't the crossing). Sorry, no pics - still too dark.

Becky and I had both discussed our plan to stay fueled and hydrated for the day, so stopping for more breaks wasn't a problem. We met two guys that camped around the shack the night before, and wound up leap frogging each other to the summit. If you start early, try to keep in mind a lot of hikers are camping along the trail. They may still be sleeping, so be courteous :-) If you are heading for Missouri, the next marker you should be watching for after the shack is a sign post at a fork in the trail. Belford/Oxford is the left. Elkhead Pass is to the right. You'll follow Elkhead Pass through a mellow grade of willows further into the gulch. After the infamous switchbacks right off the start, the trail through the willows is quite enjoyable. Eventually you'll reach another signpost for Missouri to the right.

Sunrise over the gulch.

Spicy class 5 traverse from Missouri to Belford.

Turn Left for Elkhead Pass. Turn Right for Missouri

At this point you will start on the trail up to the Northwest ridge of Missouri Mountain. The trail is clearly defined and easy to follow. We had our group of two, the two guys from the shack, and one solo guy that spent the remainder of the trail leap frogging each other. By this point in the morning the sun was shining into the gulch, but the trail follows along the opposite side of the NW ridge, which was still shaded. It turned out to be quite chilly, so pack/wear layers accordingly. I think we were a little surprised by the trail on the NW ridge. It's not particularly difficult, but it is a bit marbly. You'll definitely want to watch your step. It's likely that you will not fall, but if you did there is a ways to go in some spots.

Trail to Missouri's NW ridge.

Shadow selfie from the first views of the Sawatch that morning.

Becky and I made it to the summit around 8:45am, and were feeling good. We spent 30 minutes or so refueling, hydrating, chatting, taking photos, waiving to our friend Mikey and Team over on Capital. We would have waived to Senad and Team too, but we didn't know they were on Snowmass. The weather was looking great, and there was no question about whether or not to go for Iowa and Emerald. As expected you can see the slopes between all three summits from Missouri. This day was going to be more about endurance than anything technical.

Looking back at Missouri's NW ridge from the summit.

Congrats to Mikey Zdero on finishing the CO 14ers!

Our route from here took us over to Iowa first (Red), then further to Emerald (Green), and into the basin before heading back up Elkhead pass (Orange). Knowing we would be refilling water, we spent some time identifying sources in the basin. You can see several stream systems running, along with the small lakes. Aside from some wildfire haze, this was an optimal day for the route.

The ridge route (photo by Becky)

After some careful footwork off the summit from Missouri (nothing technical...just more marbles), the ascent of Iowa was a piece of cake. It took us about 30-40 minutes (Iowa at 9:50am). Becky was born in Iowa, and lived there for a good part of her childhood before coming to Colorado, so this particular summit had a special meaning to her family. We spent another 10-15 on the summit sending updates to those waiting back home, and talking about our route up Emerald. Becky called it with something along the lines of, "There's Emerald looking all Brossy," and boy did it. You can see what looks like a number of game trails braiding up the side of Emerald to the summit, but we had a feeling once we got a closer look, the two of us would take a different line.

Becky heading for the summit of Iowa. There are large patches of white quarts on this part of the ridge.

A look back from Iowa to Missouri.

Emerald looks all Brossy and chossy.

Summit selfie while we're waiting for a text message to send.

As we neared Emerald, you could tell every two steps up would likely be another step down if we took the direct route to the summit. We spotted some mountain goats along the ridge to looker's left, and opted to follow our inner mountain critter spirits. Instead of the direct route, we followed the green tundra up to the ridge, and from there headed for the summit. Similar to the NW ridge of Missouri not being technically difficult, but watching your step, I recommend following the same thought process for Emerald. Most of the rocks are pretty solid and stable, but we encountered a few that were pretty wobbly and a few others that were clearly loaded. Just be you should on any mountain. We summitted Emerald about 11:10am.

Emerald's chossy slope that was a nope.

A look back from Emerald to Missouri.

From the summit of Emerald, it looks like you can head straight for the lake. As you get closer on the descent, you'll find that you'll be forced off to the right, unless you want to spend time hiking around on either marbles or dinner plates. We refilled our water bladders off a stream from the lake, and took in the views of this beautiful basin with early fall colors. At this point, we knew we had one more big "Up" for the day. The ground in the basin was dry, but you can tell it spends most of the boggy and saturated. Watch your step because it wouldn't be difficult to twist an ankle. We were down to the lake around 12:15pm.

The first lake at the base of MO, Iowa, and Emerald.

This is what you'll run into if you try to stay high off Emerald and take a direct line to Elkhead Pass.

From the lake, you can see a faint trail making its way up the slopes up to Elkhead Pass. It becomes more clear as you approach it, and would be pretty difficult to miss. Even if you don't see the trail along the slope, it is clearly defined out into the basin. We made quick progress across and back towards Elkhead Pass. By 1:15pm we were back on top of Elkhead Pass talking to a group of guys that spent 3 nights camping at Silverking lake. They mentioned this would be a great place to catch/release cutthroat. They were off to summit Belford, and we were off to the descend the never ending switchbacks to the trailhead.

The views of Belford from the basin.

The trail back up Elkhead Pass (blue).

One more up!

While we stopped at Elkhead Pass to look back on our day, and collect fishing reports for Silverking, a solo hiker passed us from the Belford summit on the the descent. Becky and I caught up to him on one of his breaks, and recognized him as the solo hiker that summitted Missouri with us. Unfortunately, he had not heard about the Elkhead Pass route to get Belford and Oxford from Missouri. Instead, he had gone all the way back into Missouri Gulch on the standard trail before ascending Belford. I would like to think our happy spirits convinced him to return for Iowa and Emerald some day.

Why is it that the trail down always seems longer than the trail up? At least we had the sun with us now. The aspens have already started changing colors, and I would expect next week they will be at peak. We were back at the trailhead by 3:30pm.

Moving along at a leisurely pace, and enjoying each other's company the entire day took us just under 12 hours. I would estimate our breaks counted for at least 1-1.5 hours out of the day. It wasn't about racing to the finish or beating a speed record, it was really about enjoying the mountains for everything they have to offer. Just like Craig Stansberry says, "you have to go out, enjoy yourself and do what you do."

The fall colors over Missouri Gulch.

The aspens.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
Steve Climber
Nice report!
09/17/2015 12:32
Great write–up. Glad you guys had a successful (if not long) day

I–O–WAy to go!
09/17/2015 20:59
Great report, Sarah. Thanks for pulling it together. Did I mention I only slept an hour the night before? I kept telling myself "suck it up, buttercup" every time we headed up another a summit. Your great pace and attitude kept me moving and smiling along the trail. I couldn’t have done it without you. Thank you, thank you!!

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