Missouri Mountain (14,067'/4288m): May 15, 2010
After a careful research day and scouting trip to the start of the Tigiwon TH leading to Holy Cross on May 13th, I discovered that Chris Tomer and I would not be able to access
Notch Mountain or Mount of the Holy Cross. We opted instead to meet in Leadville on Saturday morning May 15th, and go for an alpine mountaineering attempt of Missouri Mountain, located deep in the heart of the Sawatch Range about 30 minutes south of leadville by truck.
The areas in the vicinity of Leadville and Buena Vista, Colorado recieved a good dumping of snow overnight on May 14th to the 15th. Anywhere from 4 to 10 inches was accumulated even in valley locations. A lot of fresh snow for this late in the spring, but Colorado weather can be unpredictable! Chris and I met at "Saturday's" Gas station just south of Leadville in the Shadow of Mount Elbert at about 630am and headed down to the Belford Trailhead to access Missouri Mountain.
The fresh snow made the roads quite treacherous and very muddy as we approached Vicksburg off of Highway 24. The scenery was spectacular, however, and before we even made it to the trailhead we encountered a herd of elk near a pond just off the dirt road.
By 730am we had found our way to the Belford TH and were quickly decked out in our warm gear, including making sure we had our snowshoes, Ice Axes and Crampons. We made fresh tracks up the Belford trail as it climbed steeply and switched back out of the valley. In about an hour's time we busted out of the trees and were greeted by some light rays of sunshine. The fresh powder was up to a foot deep up at 11,500', and by the time we headed further up into the Belford basin towards the Northeast face of Missouri Mountain, we had to utilize the snowshoes we brought with us to prevent sinking through the crust of older layers of snow beneath the fresh blanket of powder.
Another mile up the basin and we were at about 12,000'/3600m and now had to make a decision. Light snow continued to fall and we could make out the steep avalanche chutes of Missouri's Northeast face. Large cornices protected the ridges above the chutes which all were between 45 and 65 degree slopes. With all that fresh powder on top of old crust, there was high avalanche danger and a recipe for disaster. I had been up on Missouri Mountain three other times in my climbing career and yet have never seen such conditions at this location. In order to make the summit, you had to gain the ridge, so we opted to take a sharp right hand turn while facing the peak, ascend a line we now call the "Branson Ridge" (about 35-40 degree slope and rib) and then follow the high northeast ridge of Missouri to the summit.
The introduction was over and we traded off ever few hundred feet breaking trail to gain the ridge. It was tough work! Like trying to stand in a jar of molasses and walk....not easy! We broke through the crust that was under a foot of fresh powder sometimes even sinking unto 4 or five feet of snow!
By 12 Noon we had made it to the ridgeline at 13,700'. With 367 more vertical feet over about a 2 mile distance, we were about to follow a challenging ridge up and down over several sub-summits and corniced ridges to reach the highest point. To make matters worse, the visibility was terrible! Facing the summit, the wind was howling at 20-30mph consistently gusting to 40mph and it was wise to stay off of the left side of the ridge and climb along rocks to the right that had less snow on them. This would help us avoid tragically breaking off the end of a cornice and plummetting back to the Belford Valley 2,000 feet below as part of a definite avalanche!
At 145p we reached the route's crux: only 150 yards and 150 vertical feet from the summit a set of 50-foot high rock pillars, gendarmes and towers blocked easy passage to the summit (Pictured here). At this point we put our crampons on and I gingerly led a path while kicking steps into hard ice and snow just to the left of the towers before climbing straight up to the summit. This part was tricky because the right side of the towers was angled down about 60 to 70 degrees, and if you slipped you would likely slide into some rocks about 200 feet below.
Chris climbing the final Ice and Snow Pitch to the Summit.
In a confident rythym, Chris followed me up the slope and just before our 2pm turn-around time, we reached the summit of Missouri in heavy fog and clouds!
After a celebratory Red Bull and some PB&J, we shot some quick video and decided it was time to retreat back to safety.
As we headed back down the long ridge to find our exit point down the "Branson Ridge", the weather actually improved enough to snap some pretty good photos. By 330pm we had made it to our exit point off the ridge and quickly snowshoed down the Branson Line to the Belford Valley floor. By the time we were at tree-line the sun was out and the snow was quite slushy. We reached my truck at the trailhead by 530, making the adventure complete in a 10 hour day! But one positive factor about this climb was that we started the same time as some other people who climbed Belford, a much shorter climb from the same trailhead, and they took about an hour longer than us! All in all it was a very successful and fun climb.