I’m driving toward the Missouri Gulch trailhead, 8 miles off the main highway and even further from the nearest sign of life. There are thousand acre ranches on either side but they look as lifeless as the sand brown grasses scattered amongst the dense snowpack. It’s well into the night and my my visibility is limited to the narrow beam of light my car spits out in front. The moon is a thumbnail on the horizon, with clouds occasionally hiding it from view. The road is packed dirt with occasional keep-you-awake patches of ice and snow scattered about. I’m acting like I’m in a hurry but really I have nowhere I need to be other than prepping for the big day tomorrow and then making a pitiful effort at sleep before an early rise.
A coyote prances off to the side of the road, turns around and stares at me with its devilishly haunting grin, red eyes peering at me. He doesn’t move any further, just stands there until I pass and then I see him scamper off in the red glow of my tail lights as I pass. A white hare bounds across the road just a couple hundred yards later and I can’t help but feeling like I’ve interrupted something.
It’s harsher out here than the east coast, sort of the down under of North America. It takes a special kind of person and creature to survive where the populations of bighorn sheep and carnivorous predators ready to take them down outnumber the people. Back home it’s squirrels and dogs. Out here I see more animals that outweigh me two-to-one than I do other humans. I love it; I love the inhospitability where I am just a visitor above 12,000 feet, certainly not welcome here.
The Missouri Gulch trailhead, likely a bustling car park filled with tall wool socks, wide brim hats, and clunky Merrell boots on summer days, is empty. The snow is broken by snowmobile tracks and the scattered gravel and dirt surrounding a deep well in the snow from a car once stuck. I was here last night, drove in expecting to be stopped four miles down the road where the plows turn around. But someone had dug tracks in the snow with their lifted truck and the lack of precipitation in the previous couple weeks had made it easy to drive my city car up here.
Yesterday I had attempted this route, woke up just after dawn, readied my back, ate a light breakfast, drank a liter of water, and then worked my way up the glacier carved gulch. The Missouri Gulch is steep, steep enough to necessitate switchbacks up the slopes otherwise it would be reminiscent of trails in New England, built by a bunch of masochists. I worked my way up to tree line, inconsiderate of the sweat building up beneath my jacket and on my forehead. Just below tree line, logs of a cabin that may have once been someone’s home lay crisscrossed with a small sheet of the old tin roof collapsed in the middle.
The trail disappears out of there, any traces of tracks buried by the snow carried by the wind. I struggled to find my way and ended up tracing a long “S” over the course of the gulch. Missouri and Belford come strikingly into view at tree line, Missouri with its menacing north face couloirs, and Belford with its towering Northwest ridge. Both look daunting to climb taken as a whole, the entire half mile of vertical gain left making the challenge seem less appealing than it did on paper. I haven’t decided which I will attempt to climb first; it’s all dependent on where the snow is and where I think I can glissade down to make the descents a little less exhausting. But when the clouds roll in and Missouri fades out of view, it makes the decision for me. I’ll attempt Belford and Oxford before hopefully heading on to Missouri when the clouds may clear and I’ll have a better view of the more complicated route.
I say it’s complicated when it’s actually quite straightforward. In fact it’s about as simple as it gets, an impossible climb in the summer and a daunting one in the winter. Stand at the base of the north face, and go straight up. The intimidating thing is ensuring I ascend the right couloir. While one climb may be a relatively gentle 30-40 degree slope, another may crest at 60 degrees with an overhanging cornice, or a gully that terminates with a 5.8 rock pitch. But once I find the right route, it’s just a matter of keeping my head down, pacing myself, and moving forward and up.
But on Belford the wind has cleared the route and the stones marking the narrow switchbacks are easy to find, albeit nearly impossible to follow. The sloped snow has made for ankle twisting traverses along each switchback. So with the light snow covering the gentle alpine plants, I opt for a more direct route. I ascend quickly, the summit slopes within view the entire time, a teaser for the mountaineer incompetent at judging distance. But nearly up on the summit ridge the wind pierces through my layers and gnaws at my exposed face. Wind chills hover around -30 and dip even further with each concentrated gust. At those temperatures any exposed skin can be frostbitten within minutes. And here I am with my nose peeking out into the brunt of the wind waiting to turn it purple and black.
I attempt to shield my face to no avail and resort to dropping my pack and pulling out my balaclava. With only my glove liners on my hands become useless within a couple minutes so I have to work quickly before returning them to the warm mittens. But once the balaclava is on I have a serious problem. My goggles instantly fog up and I can’t see a damn thing through the thick haze. I pull them off and attempt to clear them but the moisture is frozen solid on the lenses. I take my gloves off again, scratch the ice off the lenses and return them to my face, this time with the balaclava carefully untucked from the underside of the goggles. But the rapid breaths at nearly 14,000 feet fog them up again despite my precaution. I know the solutions, cut a hole in the balaclava and wipe a bit of shampoo on the lenses of my goggles. But the tools to do so sit miles down the trail back in my car and I’m on an exposed ridge getting blasted by grating icy needles.
I’m not happy. I don’t want to be here. I don’t feel safe or comfortable with the situation but I don’t want to turn back when conditions may be exponentially better on the ridge. But I call it. The summit isn’t going anywhere and the weather is forecasted to stay tolerable for a couple more days. I can always come back with a breathing hole in the balaclava and a thin layer of anti-fog on the goggles.
I descend quickly and with relief with the decision having been made. On the way down, I glance over at Missouri, clouds parted, revealing what appears to be a calmer climb, thinking of what I could do still. But I come to my senses quickly and accept one failure knowing that I’ll have to come back for the other summits anyway.
Just above tree line two ptarmigans, blending into the blank environment with their beautiful crisp all white coats, dance around on the deep snow. They lack of hesitation around me, undoubtedly to save energy and due to confidence in their camouflage. But in an absurdly human bout of envy I feel mocked by their casual nature in the brutal conditions. I want to thrive up here like they do, but they’re the only others and are certainly struggling in their own way. All the other animals have either dug themselves in, migrated, or descended. And here we are, the dumbasses of the alpine, prancing around in January likes it’s a beautiful summer day at the beach.
So I’ve come back to the Missouri Gulch to make an another attempt. The winds are no less fierce, tossing my car around in this empty parking lot. It’s hard to imagine what it would like like here on a late July weekend with the hikers getting set for their day long trek. Half of them with throbbing headaches from the altitude, too worried about seeming wimpy in front of their friends to say anything, or too naïve to realize what the boiling basicity in their blood could do to them.
I imagine another car driving up, pulling into the Missouri Gulch trailhead, and sharing breaking trail with me in the morning. They would certainly wake before my lazy ass, set the tracks for the first half of the morning and I would come trotting up in their ready-made trail wishing them a good morning and a wonderful hike as I moved on and took up the grueling task of post holing ahead of them. The wind would cover my tracks at altitude and even higher the landscape would be barren rock, swept clean from the blasting sixty mile-per-hour gusts. But it’s unlikely they’ll come. It’s not a popular route this time of year and I haven’t seen a soul in the two days I’ve been camped out at this trailhead.
I crave the comfort of another human on those slopes with me. Sometimes I can get incredibly overwhelmed out their on those behemoth mountains alone. But sometimes it is incredibly empowering knowing that I am the sole human on a landscape so humbling that it’s terrifying. I feel like a stubborn child breaking into an adults only pool. I’m not welcome here but goddamnit I’m coming anyway.