Lake Fork Loop: Emerald, Iowa, and Missouri

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The girls on the West Slopes of Emerald Peak.

This weekend before last the wife and I got out to the Sawatch for a little camping and peak bagging combo. A few of Anna-Lisa’s coworkers, Mike and Michelle (+1 pooch, Rogan), decided to join, along with a mutual friend of ours, Eli, for whom hiking a Colorado peak would be a brand new experience. Originally we intending to head to Ice Lakes Basin and make a long weekend out of it. For awhile now I’ve been particularly excited to check out the Vermillion Group scrambles and hit the Wiesbaden Vapor Caves in Ouray on the way home. But, as so often seems to happens these days, for various reasons related to adult life, our plan had to be redone at the last minute in favor of a closer, shorter outing. Oh well, Ice Lakes will always be there right?

As a consolation we elected to check out the Emerald group from Lake Fork with the option of extending the ridge run to Missouri Mountain if things went well. We left Denver Friday afternoon and headed for Leadville. From a distance we could see evening storm clouds brewing over the nothern Sawatch, so it was clear a little reliance on the daily monsoon cycle would be required on this one. We arrived at Rockdale and set up camp, enjoying a package of Bertolli’s Four Cheese Tortellini for dinner, and in the beverage department, Mike’s Hard Lemonade (for Anna-Lisa), and Gordon’s (for Eli and I). Michelle was touting her Mountain House dehydrated Chili Mac food pack, which I must admit tasted better than I remember Mountain House ever tasting, and to be honest I have no idea what Mike ate for dinner. Hearing the routine splashing of a family of beavers that lived nearby, as well as being able to see the stars thorough the treetops for the first time since I can remember, I felt right at home in the serenity of the Colorado backcountry. After a few hours of enjoying the simply comforts of camp, we hit the sack in preparation for an early start.

A pond and beaver dam near our camp site, photo taken the next day.

A 3am wake up had us fording the creek an hour later in Mike’s Jeep Cherokee. The river was the lowest I’ve ever seen it, making the crossing a non factor. Beyond that, we were able to drive to the 4WD lot just short of Clohesy Lake with ease. I’m not sure a Subaru would be sufficient to ford the river, but any 4WD will do the trick. From the parking lot we made quick progress on foot up through Lake Fork, admiring the morning light on the peaks above. I love this particular area in the Sawatch, as the Apostles and Huron’s East Face seem a tad more wild and rugged than most of the rest of the range. After a few miles we popped above treeline and the terrain to our east flattened out into a gorgeous alpine meadow. With Emerald straight ahead, we had good views of Pear Lake to the south and Sheep Gulch to the north.

The crew above treeline.

Pear Lake and surrounding greenery.

After a good break at the mining ruins, we started up what we considered to be Emerald’s West Face. From the old cabin, you pretty much have your choice of ascent routes on this face, the idea is more or less to just pick a line that looks reasonable and go for it. Our route involved trudging through 800′ of loose, crumbly talus at an angle of about 30 degrees. In hindsight there may have been other, better options available to us, but ours worked out. Though we made slow progress, everyone’s spirits seemed to stay high throughout the entire ascent. After a long while we crested the summit ridge and had only a short jaunt to the north to the true summit of Emerald.

Mining ruins in upper Lake Fork.

After taking in the views of Huron and the Apostles to the west, Harvard and Yale to southeast, and the rest of the ridge run to the north, we continued along the circuit. Following a faint climber’s trail through the choss on Emerald’s North Face had us down to the flat expanse in between it and unranked Iowa Peak within 20 minutes. Everyone was feeling well at this point and the weather looked to be in a holding pattern, so we decided to commit to Iowa and Missouri. Along the way I had a fun time explaining the concept of “ranked” vs. “unranked” peaks to Anna-Lisa, who often times I feel finds all of this peak classification nonsense to be a tad silly. She probably has a point.

Summit of Emerald, 9:00am.

Our canine companion.

From Iowa, we headed on over to our 3rd and final summit of the day, 14er Missouri Mountain. One of the benefits of hitting Missouri from Rockdale, whether you include Emerald and Iowa or not, is the relative absence of people compared to what you’d find in Missouri Gulch. Upon summiting Missouri we were reminded of this fact, as we shared the summit with no less than 12 people (the only others we saw the entire day). High fives and group photos went around before we decided it was time to get off of the summit. A decent sized squall seemed to be heading our way from the south. Running the ridge that makes up the final portion of the standard route, we heard a distant thunder clap and felt happy we didn’t hit Missouri any later than we did.

Looking back at Emerald from the south side of Iowa.

Ptarmigan camouflage.

Where the standard route heads hiker’s right off of the ridge crest, we headed left and began the descent of Missouri’s broad west shoulder. Rain shells kept us dry from the intermittent rain and graupel as we descended, and by the time we hit treeline the storm had all but subsided. Down past Clohesy Lake, we arrived back at the car for a round trip time of just over 8 hours.

Another shot of the crew on Missouri (L to R – Michelle, Eli, myself, Anna-Lisa, and Mike).

All in all this is a great loop for scenery, nabbing a few Centennials, and taking in a different perspective on Missouri. I’d highly recommend checking it out sometimes. Thanks gang for a fun day out, and great job on making it look easy!

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