August 15, 2010
Today’s Miles: 9
Total Miles: 211.2
Breakfast Elevation: 10,000 ft
Dinner Elevation: 12,500 ft
High Point: 14,067 ft
Nothing like a cold can of Mountain Dew to start a day in the Colorado mountains. I have two bananas with it for breakfast, thanks to the generosity of Ernest, last night’s super ultra-runner.
Drinking Mountain Dew in an outdoor setting reminds me of this hitchhiker that I met 4 years ago, during my bicycle tour. We shared a campsite together.
He has a few screws loose. He was obsessed with Mountain Dew and Mountain Hardwear, and more or less any product with the word “mountain” in its name, with delusions of getting sponsorships with all these companies. I think he’d had quite enough Mountain Dew for that one night, because he just kept talking and talking.
Last night’s campsite was near a dirt road. I’ll be following it to the Missouri Gulch trailhead, which leads to Elkhead Pass. It’s all off of the official Colorado Trail – I won’t set foot on the real CT today.
Along the road I see a family that’s car camping for the weekend, and I kindly decide to ask if they’d be willing to take my banana peels and soda can with their garbage. The father says sure, and asks where I’m hikingmme from. One thing leads to another, and soon I’m being fed breakfast number two! They feed me hot dogs, sausages, and all their other extra food as they begin to load the trucks at the end of a weekend camping trip.
Unfamiliar with backpacking, they ask me the typical questions: where do I sleep, what do I eat, what do I do when it rains, and what about bears? It’s fun talking and I enjoy the conversation (And the food!). There’s a backdrop of atv’s hitched to a trailer and a beaver pond that was utilized for fishing.
What’s interesting to me when I travel like this is the way it inspires strangers to initiate thoughtful and “deep” conversations, telling me about their major life decisions and taking stock of things.
It’s late in the morning when I leave this family and begin walking the dirt road to the Missouri Gulch trailhead. The pain in my right foot that I’d mentioned yesterday is suddenly unbearable, especially as I now walk on a relatively flat, even surface. The day is hot and bright, and now uncomfortable with my stomach loaded with food.
I’m limping and all I can think about is the pain. It’s pretty bad. I wonder how I’m ever going to hike the remaining 300 miles in this condition, and thoughts come of getting off the trail. I could be in a hotel in town tonight, plotting my drive home to Pennsylvania. This isn’t a wistful notion, but more of a very real consideration.
The trailhead is filled with vehicles. Today is Sunday, and this is the primary access trail for three of Colorado’s 14,000 foot peaks. There’s an outhouse, so that eases some of the discomfort.
I step up along the steep, winding switchbacks that begin this trail, and stop almost immediately. My body is tired… or more accurately, my mind just isn’t in a good place, with the discomfort in my foot and heavy stomach. A number of hikers pass, headed down the mountain and back to their vehicles already. I sit on a rock at the corner of a switchback, and muster a greeting as they go by.
I had big plans for today with the fourteeners, but it looks as though this day wasn’t cut out for it. I close my eyes and relax a little.
Believe it or not, it strikes me as an odd thing to nap on a trail such as this in Colorado – this lack of motion as the ultra runners and weekend warriors rush by.
But he trail is my home for the month, so nothing could be more natural.
After an hour or more of rest, I pick up and begin walking again. Things aren’t so bad anymore.
Everyone is day-hiking and returning to their vehicles.
Elkhead Pass is immediately to the left of this dramatic ridge.
About a mile before the pass there’s a junction with a trail that leads to the summit of Missouri Mountain. It’s only a mile from the junction to the top of the mountain. The distance may not sound like much, but things are different at 12,500 feet.
I take a break here and watch three men work their way down from the mountain. We have a short conversation, and they continue on their way.
I empty some gear from my pack, hide it behind a rock near this alpine vegetation, and make my way up Missouri Mountain.
Elkhead Pass is the low spot in the ridge seen above, to the upper right. The high point on the left is Mount Belford, another 14er.
Looking closely at the ridge to left (above), you’ll see the silhouette of a man.
That’s where I’m going.
I meet two descending backpackers, young men with full loads of backpacking gear. They tell me they’re going on this evening to climb the nearby Mount Belford and Mount Oxford, and planning to camp somewhere high near the summits.
I had aspirations of bagging all three peaks today as well, but those hopes disappeared with this morning’s events. Now with the encouragement of possible companions, I entertain the thought of following after them… dependent on how Missouri Mountain treats me.
The way up Missouri Mountain follows a steep, sloping trail to the crest of a ridge. The remaining route to the peak from the saddle appears to be a simple walk, with absolutely stunning views.
The path is horribly eroded. Loose footing is the cause behind the leading hiker’s pose. These guys tell me I have the mountain all to myself now, late on this afternoon.
The photo above looks down Missouri Gulch.
There’s a sketchy spot where I take no photos.
The path slopes laterally away to a very steep collection of scree. It goes on for thousands of feet. The footing is gravelly, loose, and basically horrible, in a spot where just one slip could be very, very bad. I feel horribly exposed when crossing this place. It’s immediately before the summit.
The summit is magnificent.
The descent along the “scary spot” is even more unnerving on the way down. I veer up and off the path to the spine of the ridge. There at least I have the comfort of handholds. Maybe hiking poles would help in this situation… but probably not.
Maybe it’s the unsettling feeling of being alone here late in the day with a tender foot, but I wonder if I’d be willing to cross that spot ever again.
One more hiker visits the mountain after all.
I return to my gear at the junction, and choose to opt out of following the hikers I’d met earlier to the other peaks. There may be just enough daylight to summit Belford and locate their camp, if I hustle… but I’m in no shape for hustling. My water supply is questionable as well.
Instead I backtrack to a nearby water source and set up a comfortable camp for the evening.
It’s cold at 12,500 feet when the sun falls behind the ridge, but the setting is silent and spectacular.
This is what backpacking is all about. I thoroughly enjoy my dinner, with the babbling headwaters of Missouri Gulch as company.
I stroll up a hill to photograph the sunset scene, and view my camp from a distance. The solitude is broken by an orange tent about a half mile below me. A solo hiker strides near it, comfortably wearing long johns like me. He stretches out, and presumably swigs a deep gulp of cold mountain air.