Until I hiked Missouri Mountain this week, I hadn’t hiked a 14er for four years after having an extreme, two-day debilitating headache on the last double I completed, Shavano and Tabeguache. Now, with the hole in my heart closed and oxygen circulating through my blood correctly, I thought I’d give it another try.
My friend Tanya always summits a few each summer, so we agreed to tackle Mt. Princeton, part of the Collegiate Peaks in the Sawatch Range. Mt. Princeton is located about 2.5 hours southwest of Denver near Buena Vista, Colorado.
As a result of the distance and general best practices of being off the summit by noon, we camped the prior evening to get an early start.
We left Denver in the late afternoon with the intent to find dispersed camping, though we did not have a set location in mind. We first drove to the lower parking for Mt. Princeton and briefly ventured up the four-wheel drive road. Judging by the pace we were going, we were hardly going to cover the 3.5 miles by nightfall.
Camping Near Buena Vista
Since we didn’t want to set up camp in the dark, we ditched this road early and camped on Country Road 272, the same area where I camped when I hiked Kroenke Lake and Hunt Lake. On Tuesday night, once again, many of the campsites were taken. It seems camping is the new thing for COVID19 in 2020!
Regardless, we found a spot and pitched our tents as the sun set. Over our precooked dinners, we reviewed the plan for hiking Mt. Princeton as well as the reviews on the 14ers website. We learned the 4WD road is very narrow without places to pull over and walking it added 7 miles to our planned 6.5 mile hike.
I was not up for 13.5 miles on a 14er. Not to mention, previously I had walked down the road as part of the Colorado Trail, and it wasn’t exciting. Tanya wasn’t up for driving her car up the road. Additionally, the reviews claim, as far as 14ers go, Princeton isn’t that pretty.
All of these things combined caused us to change our plan. Before the night ended, we had resorted to Missouri Mountain another Class 2 14er in the area. For those who don’t know a Class 2 14er route is defined as a hiking trail that may require using your hands or a route that may have exposure, loose rock, or steep scree.
Of the 58 peaks in Colorado, only 7 rank as a class 1, while about 26 rank as a class 2, and the other 25 are harder. While hiking Missouri Mountain, I learned the hard way I likely won’t be hiking anything more than a Class 2 due to exposure!
Missouri Mountain is 14,067 feet and was named by miners from Missouri who came to Colorado during the silver mining rush for the 1880. It wasn’t until 1956, that the US Geological Survey recognized Missouri Mountain as a 14er.
The trailhead to Missouri Mountain is down CR 390, a well graded dirt road with lots of camping in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. The road passes Clear Creek Reservoir and ends at some abandoned mining towns. In between is the trailhead to Missouri Mountain, Oxford, and Belford, two other 14ers.
- Distance: 10.5 miles
- Type: Hard
- Elevation Gain: 4,500 ft
- Other: Dogs Allowed
Through the Forest
Our night was restless as mice kept smacking into the outside of our tents. That was a first for me, and I didn’t believe that it happened to a novice camper named Maddie that I met on the Colorado Trail. But apparently it can happen! Anyway, our pre-dawn morning came extra early without sleep.
We arrived by 6:30am and were surprised to see only a handful of cars in the parking lot, granted it was a Wednesday and the northern half of Colorado was on fire, literally. Regardless, we began our trek that immediately crossed the creek and climbed through evergreens and aspen.
We were surprised to see a small grave enclosed with a white picket fence. It dated all the way back to 1884 when a one month old child died from pneumonia. His father was a miner and his mother ran a boarding house in Vicksburg (all written on the grave stone).
After about an hour we finished the switchbacks through the trees and came out in a chute full of avalanche debris. Soon we were back in the forest where we met a few campers who were packing up to leave. We took the opportunity to ask them about the 20 foot drop near the summit.
The young men (and based on my age boys to me) advised that we “use poles, hug the wall, and make sure we get handholds.” One pointed his hand steeply down indicating the direction of the pitch along the exposed path. We were concerned about this section, and they didn’t make it sound too much better.
In our minds, we had trouble figuring out how to use poles and hold on at the same time. We would find out. Continuing on, we reached the remains of an old cabin before the trail entered a beautiful open gulch. The peaks of three 14ers surrounded us as we wandered through the willows, along the tundra and by the creek.
This 1.5-mile portion, with an average grade around 20%, provided a welcomed reprieve from steep incline in the beginning. We crossed two trail junctions along the way, both of which required veering right to summit Missouri Mountain.
To the Ridge
The second trail junction is located before another steep incline through talus. The boulder field featured the usual pika and marmots, but also crickets and caterpillar! If I were an insect, I would not live up there. This section was just less than a mile long and took an hour to climb. While I contributed to some of the slowness, we also stopped and talked with a gentleman closer to our age. Again, we asked about the drop and the conditions on the peak which can be drastically different from below.
He didn’t seem to be too concerned with the drop, and said it wasn’t that windy either. This gave us renewed confidence and hope as we slogged uphill to the ridge. The views at the top of multi-colored peaks dotting the horizon were breathtaking. We were so lucky to enjoy such clear skies amidst all the fires in Colorado.
From here, we followed the ridgeline on an undulating trail as we passed two 13ers. Then, we finally reached the dreaded drop. From above, the twenty foot drop didn’t look too bad. It was easy to grab hold of rocks and slide down on our butts as we extended our legs out to stable foot holds.
The tricky part was the slanted trail with loose gravel that crossed a steep pitch with considerable exposure. Mark my word: considerable. Though we likely made it worse in our minds than it really was, it felt like a slip would land us in unstable scree, and ultimately we would slide off the mountainside to our death.
Since I am more afraid of ledges than Tanya, I made her go first. She started out walking but soon resorted to sitting down on her butt and inching across with the help of her poles. Just beginning the traverse, which again didn’t seem that bad at first, I couldn’t help but chuckle and snap a quick photo of our adventure.
By the time I reached this half-way point on my butt, however, I was tired and the slope was slippery. Each heave to left with a push off our poles came with a small slide downward which unnerved me. I was frozen in fear. I sooo wish I had two poles instead of one for four points of contact rather than three. What was a big mistake!
On a side note, hikers generally use two trekking poles or none. I don’t know how anyone crossed the pitch without them (though those without a few of ledges likely don’t blink). I only hike with one because the repetitive motion tends to bother my left shoulder. Next time I’ll carry the other one with me!
Anyway, Tanya patiently waited at a protruding rock and offered words of encouragement, as I sat there, my brain flooding with thoughts.
After a minute, Tanya calmly asked, “Well do you want to turn around?”
I’m certain I looked at her like she had two heads, when I responded, “I can’t turn around.”
“On your belly,” she asked.
“Hell no,” I thought, or maybe exclaimed. At this point I don’t really know what I said to her because I just kept telling myself, “take deep breaths” and “you can do this.” Knowing I couldn’t just sit there all day, I channeled my fear, trusted my abilities and fought off my illogical thoughts.
I thought we were safe as we rose to our feet and looped around a rock, but goodness the pitch up was very steep. We found a few more hand holds as we climbed the last tenth of a mile to the very small summit. Surprisingly, we had Missouri Mountain to ourselves. I likely would have enjoyed the solitude on this 14er immensely if I hadn’t been so preoccupied with having to go back!
As we sat taking in the views and snacking on our lunch in the cool breeze, we spotted a guy coming across the ridge. We wanted to see what route he took, as upon our return, we considered hugging the wall rather than taking the trail.
Another Hiker’s Route
Just as we did, he sat on his butt to come down the drop. Then he got to his feet, hugged the wall and crossed the short, exposed section in like four strides and 10 seconds! Tanya was completely miffed as she questioned, “How did he do that?” and stated, “He just walked right across!”
Then he disappeared from our view for a while, and we couldn’t see what he was doing. Upon reaching the summit he said he sat down a couple of times. It certainly wasn’t nearly as long as we did! We were probably the only hikers that day and maybe this summer that inched along on our butts! And frankly, it was probably easier to walk, but obviously our comfort level was stretched, especially mine.
We felt a little better about ourselves, however, after he planned to summit seven 14ers over 20+ miles for the day. He was already gone to finish his route before I finished up my pushup for Veteran’s Suicide Prevention Awareness. I really wished he was only hiking Missouri Mountain, so upon our return he could hold my hand across!
In all, it took us about five hours to go 5.25 miles to the summit. We began at 6:30am and wanted to be off the summit by noon as afternoon thunderstorms were in the forecast. While the clouds did not look menacing, once our 30 minutes were up, we headed down as we didn’t want to add fear of a storm to our fear of the considerable exposure. Mark my word again, considerable!
Not to mention, just recently, my friend Bridget who volunteers for Colorado Search and Rescue, was called with a team to hike an experienced who had broken her ankle trying to run down the mountain when a storm came in that they couldn’t see from the turn around the ridge. On a side note, anyone who hikes in Colorado should buy the CORSAR card. The $3 annual fee covers the expenses that the organization incures to rescue hikers (not counting helicopter rides).
Upon our descent, we stayed on the inside of the rock that we previously looped around and hugged the wall. In between a few curse words and a constant barrage of questions to Tanya, “Where did you step?”, I made steady progress. Then I reached the last three feet.
OMG! The last three feet required edging around an outcrop with strong hand and foot holds while our poles dangled to the side. It also required a downward movement. Looking down on ledges gives me vertigo. I froze again.
Thoughts raced through my head again: I’m stuck. I can’t hold on forever. No one can save me. Don’t be ridiculous, you have a strong grip. Just stretch your foot to a stable place, it’s only a couple feet to safety. Then another frantic question to Tanya, “Where did you go?”
And she finally quipped, “I don’t know. I just found a stable spot and went.”
Once again, I just had to trust myself, keep my gaze forward toward the rocks, take short glances, down and feel for the most stable holds. Obviously I succeeded as I’m here to write about it, but I can’t say I liked it. It’s amazing what the mind can do. First to be frought with illogical fear only to overcome it with mind over matter. I plan to avoid the use of the “mind over matter” philosophy on considerable exposure ever again. Mark my word, considerable.
I later learned when reviewing the 14ers website that Missouri Mountain is the ONLY Class 2 peak with CONSIDERABLE exposure. With the exception of Missouri Mountain the ranking of considerable exposure only applies to Class 2+ and beyond.
In 14ers.com defense, it does say 20 feet of difficult Class 2. Unfortunately, I didn’t truly I understand what that meant. For me, it meant only hike Class 1 or Class 2 14ers with moderate exposure or less. That was truly a harrowing experience for me! While Tanya fared better, I don’t think she was crazy about it either, especially since she had to deal with me! Now we know why some of our friends coined Missouri Mountain, Misery Mountain!
Getting past that steep pitch was the biggest relief ever! I sat down for minute and let all the tension release from my body before continuing. I was a bit dismayed when I had to squat down on one foot and sort of skate down the trail shortly thereafter, but over all, I couldn’t have been more thankful to drop down the other side of the ridge to the gulch.
With the difficult part behind us and no threat of storms, we refueled at the trail junction before retracing our steps through the willows and the forest. The last three miles felt like an eternity…a long slog after such intensity. None-the-less, we felt a grand since of accomplishment.
As we sat by the creek soaking our feet and rinsing off the dirt that was all over us, we were already talking about our next journey. Tanya only has to summit Mt. Princeton to finish all the 14ers in the Sawatch Range. After that harrowing experience on Missouri Mountain, she was surprised to hear I’d join her, if she’ll have me! ETB