After so much time spent twiddling my thumbs and doing half-day walk-ups, I finally put in two legitimate days — Missouri/Huron for time/distance and La Plata for difficulty — albeit with an easy day on Massive in between.
Huron/Missouri (8h, 16mi, 7600ft)
The normal way to link these is by approaching from Cloises Lake, located in the valley between them. However, this requires fording Clear Creek by car or on foot, and either way looked scary (also, I didn’t see the turnoff).
So I ground my way up the 4WD road to Huron’s standard trailhead and turned in; I knew nothing about Huron’s standard route, but I figured good Colorado signage would save me. For once I managed to start before 6, and there were a prominent sign and a well-maintained trail. Things got ugly shortly after treeline, at what the route description I found at the summit described as a “cute meadow” or something. I prefer to call it Swamp Thing.
With careful route-finding, crawling to distribute my weight, and a few well-chosen expletives, I only postholed into running water once. Things got better from there: the trail was still a mess, but there was enough bare ground to head straight up the slope. I reached the summit in just under two hours, where I found both a large cornice and (a rarity) a register canister, though it only held two scraps of paper.
Looking west to Cloises Lake, I was glad I hadn’t tried that approach, as it was slushy and ugly. It was too early to hang around, so I bombed down the slope, then tried to retrace my route across the bog (incurring my worst foot-soaking). I jogged the trail, and was back at the car before 9 AM — plenty of day left for Missouri. On the drive back to the Missouri Gulch trailhead, I passed the museum/town of Winfield, well-maintained despite being in the middle of nowhere, and some poor guy who took a turn a bit fast.
Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t the only one at this trailhead: Oxford and Belford share the approach, and are popular beginner 14ers. While they are straightforward, they seem designed to make people hate mountains: the climb is hot and brutally steep (4600 ft. in 3.1 mi.), both peaks are unremarkable lumps, and you have to reclimb Belford on the return (700 ft.). Then again, I passed a guy from Florida climbing his first 14ers who seemed to be enjoying himself, so what do I know?
Missouri is a different beast. While it is a walk-up by its easiest route, it has a distinctive, rugged face and a longer approach. In current conditions, the approach requires much bog-crossing and finding one snow bridge.
I had a late start, and suffered in the heat lower down, but luckily the weather held. Once again, I had no idea where the route went, but put my faith in signage. I was not disappointed, but was surprised that the sign suggested I head west, rather than to Elkhead Pass. I saw two people starting down one of Missouri’s snow couloirs as I passed the sign. I thought they might be skiers, but they barely moved as, obeying the sign, I headed southwest.
Unfortunately, the trail soon disappeared into a snowfield. After a particularly bad bit of thigh-deep postholing, I swam/crawled to dry ground and cheered myself up with a can of sardines. The ridge to my left looked dry and not too gnarly, so I gave that a try. I saw some encouraging bootprints, perhaps those of the people in the couloir. As I climbed, I passed close enough to the other two to see what was happening. One of them was downclimbing facing in, obviously sketched out, while the other waited. The slope looked soft and gentle enough that this wasn’t necessary, so probably inexperience was to blame. In any case, I topped out on the ridge, regained the trail, and reached the summit (sans register).
I was tempted to descend either by a snow couloir or by taking the east ridge to Elkhead Pass, but I had left my axe behind, and didn’t feel like exploring (memories of Deerhorn). The mud/scree/snow ridge I had climbed wasn’t the best route down, but it worked well enough, and I was surprised to find the two I had seen just taking off their crampons at the bottom of the snow. I decided anything I said would come across as “man, you guys are slow,” so I just passed by.
Partly as training, and partly to get it over with, I jogged most of the trail, reaching the trailhead just before 3 PM, for a 5 hour round-trip. Finally, a respectable day: 8 trail hours, 7600 vertical, 16 miles.
Massive (4h45, 8mi, 3950ft)
The shortest route on Massive is quite short, so I briefly contemplated making it a bit tougher by starting at the Mount Massive trailhead. Severe flooding changed my mind.
Again, the trail was partially covered in snow, but my “head straight up” heuristic worked. Also, I continued my streak of taking the wrong gear, by lugging snowshoes all the way to the top. I used them for about 200 yards, but only because I had them with me — I could have just walked around the snow patch.
La Plata (7h, 9.5mi, 5900ft)
I normally choose the easiest way to the top of a mountain. Given my limited technical skills, if I want more of a challenge, I can always find a harder mountain. Unfortunately, there aren’t any harder mountains on the 14er list in this area, so I decided to try the Ellingwood Ridge, a long, class 3 climb. Hopefully the rock would be steep enough not to have held much snow.
I easily found the use trail where it splits off the main trail, and had no trouble following it until shortly before the creek in La Plata Basin Gulch, where it completely disappeared. I continued up the gulch, looking for the ridge in the route description. I found it easily where the gulch began to narrow and steepen, and regained a faint trail there. It was a straightforward grind up the ridge to treeline, where I got my first view of La Plata in the distance. The very distant distance.
Some boulder-hopping with a bit of class 3 thrown in got me to the base of the ridge, where it gained elevation on moderate, grassy slopes.
Once the ridge sharpened, things got complicated. The east side was generally less cliffy and windy than the west, but had more annoying slush-fields. The top was often passable, but the back sides of the many gendarmes were sharper than the front sides. I could not possibly describe the route I took. Sometimes I chose right and made progress; sometimes I chose wrong and had to backtrack; sometimes I chose wrong and just forced my way through with some class 4 or 5.easy moves. This kind of climbing is mentally exhausting, especially when you aren’t gaining elevation. The rock was fairly solid, though, and there were some nice, walkable sections on the ridge-top. I even startled what I think was a golden eagle, which took off maybe 20 feet ahead of me on the ridge.
It was a relief to get to the straightforward climb to “East La Plata,” though even that was complicated by the snow. I did some class 3/4 climbing on the ridge itself to avoid it, and continued to the summit. The weather was perfect, so I savored my tasty fish.
My assumption that the standard route was straightforward and well-marked was correct. A short way down, I saw someone climbing the snow, which I had been avoiding so far. The person turned out to be a young woman from Denver, well on her way to climbing all of the 14ers. She was surprised when I said that I had come up the Ellingwood Ridge. We talked a bit, and she told me that the road to Guanella Pass from the north might be closed, complicating my plans. Now that I knew the snow was solid, I finally used my axe to glissade some sections, and jogged some others. The trail was a littered with fallen trees lower down, but I made the trailhead around 1 PM, sooner than I had expected.
The road from I-70 to Guanella Pass is in fact closed for the entire summer, a huge irritation to people trying to climb Evans and Bierstadt. Plan accordingly.