Laila Hughes, Steve Bremner and Sam the Wolfdog
On Tuesday, June 26th, Laila Hughes, Steve Bremner, and Sam the Wolfdog did the grand tour of five of Elkhead and Missouri Basin's high peaks. We left our high camp site in Elkhead Basin (reachable from the Missouri Gulch Trailhead across from Vicksburg eight miles from the Highway 24 junction, 14 miles north of Buena Vista) by 5:30 A.M. as the morning dawn stretched its rosy fingers...or something like that. Anyway the weather started out great.
Instead of huffing and puffing our way directly up the slopes of Belford, we took the leisurely scenic route via Elkhead Pass, staying on gentle trail, though longer. At a relaxed pace we were standing on the summit in only an hour and fifteen minutes--Laila pronounced this her easiest fourteener (of seven at that early point in the day). Sam yawned.
Continuing on we reached Oxford in another hour. Now the fun would begin. My main goal on this day was to scout the quickest descent route from Oxford with Harvard in mind as the next peak. I didn't exactly recall the route Jonathan Cavner and I had taken last summer when we rounded up six fourteeners in just under 17 hours (La Plata to Harvard), but this time I wanted to drop directly south and see about accessing the NW ridge of Harvard. As it turned out this is essentially the same course we had done last summer. (The alternative and slightly longer in distance is to descend SE then ascend Harvard's NE ridge). We dropped to timberline angling to the right and towards the main drainage between Belford and Oxford. Far below we could see a flat delta shaped basin of willows fanning out above the next drop to the Pine Creek Valley. Skirting the wicked willows we remained high until timberline before traversing right and crossing two incipient creeks. We continued to drop steeply through timber, the ground heavily carpeted with decades of pine needles. Twice we found ourselves above 60-foot sheer granite cliffs, but moving to one side or the other were able to continue down. Towards the end we came to an avalanche of large scree that I distinctly remembered from our descent of last summer(and the tangle of willows that awaited us at its termination)--this time I knew the way was to NOT to go through it, but to move left to rejoin the woods. Just under two hours from Oxford's summit we found the Pine Creek Trail. Last summer, when trying for a speed record we had taken an hour and a half to reach the trail.
Hiking up trail past Belford Falls in ten minutes we found the two large logs laying across the creek we had used to cross last summer. Looking up at Harvard's NW ridge I now remembered everything about our route--the scree slope on its lower left flank we had rejected, the traverse through the woods on elk trails in the direction of the western (right) side, and the steep grassy slope we had found at timber line affording access to the ridge proper. So, I didn't learn anything new on this scouting expedition, but I was able to awaken memories and better understand the terrain.
We continued on up the trail towards Elkhead Pass. Our new objective: Emerald Peak, rising like the gem it's named for, solitary, and ascendant. Though not graced with fourteener status, this 13,908' foot giant is a great climb and about as far back in the wilderness as you can go within Colorado's Sawatch Range. Missouri Basin is unspeakably beautiful, surrounded by high peaks and alive with summer, the bees, wildflowers, and birds. The sun was still shining, though a wall of black threatened behind Emerald. We decided to just "go as we go" and if it looks dicey make a quick exit. Thunder storms in the mountains are relatively infrequent this time of year, fortunately. I'm not afraid to get rained or snowed on.
Just above timberline the trail to Elkhead Pass crossed a stream and switch backed to the right. We struck off across the grassy slopes in the direction of Emerald. Ascending a series of benches we passed a pair of small alpine ponds on the way to the broad saddle between Iowa and Emerald. The weather was holding up as we reached the top of Emerald three and a half hours after first stumbling on the Pine Creek Trail from our descent of Oxford. Hearing a rumble of thunder in the distance we quickly departed the summit in the direction of Iowa Peak, a 13,811' foot unranked thirteener (it earns a "soft rank" from Gerry Roach, though). As we hurried up Iowa's flanks it began to hail. Forty minutes after leaving Emerald we went up and over Iowa without stopping, now in a race against the weather we really turned it on and reached Missouri's summit half an hour later. The main storms remained distant so we tarried fifteen minutes before moving north on Missouri's long ridge to the eventual descent point for Roach's #5 route on Missouri. We reached our camp site an hour and fifteen minutes from the top of Missouri. Striking camp we backpacked out and reached the truck by 6:30 P.M. Next stop "Fiesta Mexicana" in Woodland Park for a well-earned repast.