MISSION MOUNTAINS — Although looming as the ever-present backdrop of the Mission Valley, only a small fraction of local residents are adventurous enough to heed the call of the Mission Mountains Wilderness. Over Labor Day weekend, however, a few individuals made time to embark on the hike of a lifetime, trekking five days through the remote alpine grandeur of our own backyard.
Ronan’s Marv Maki, Polson’s Rob Edington, and Bill Agnew, from Washington state, covered about 25 miles over their five-day expedition, almost all of which was above 8,000 feet in elevation. Besides battling the rigors of altitude and terrain, the group was forced to combat the usual wear-and-tear of hiking plus some ambient smoke from wildfires and a thunderstorm on their first night in the backcountry.
Maki and Agnew are both in their 60s, but the trek proves that age has not dampened their adventurous spirits in the slightest. At twenty-some years their junior, Edington was the young buck of the group and displayed plenty of his own grit over the long and arduous haul.
Edington and Maki, who met years ago while working together as electricians, said that the hike was the realization of a life-long dream.
“I spent quite a bit of time in the Missions growing up, but I’d always wanted to do the southern part,” Edington said.
For the Mission Valley natives, the highly anticipated trip lived up to, and perhaps exceeded, their lofty expectations.
A wealth of highlights come to mind when the two are prodded for the details of the journey. While particularly memorable moments included seeing mountain goats, hiking along a ridge skirting the edge of the restricted-access Grizzly Bear Management Zone, and being treated to gourmet meals prepared by Agnew, both agreed that the “crux” of the trip was the perilous mountain crossing of the Garden Wall on the trip’s third day, approaching Mountaineer Peak.
The treacherous path hugging the sheer rock face of the mountainside is nothing more than a hard-to-find goat trail hidden behind a distinctive rock formation called “The Monk’s Head.” But finding the trail was easy compared to running the intimidating gauntlet to safety on the other side, with a precipitous fall right beside the narrow path littered with scree.
“My insides were churning because I asked myself, ‘What are we going to do?’,” Maki said, describing the crossing. “It was really unnerving because we didn’t have ropes.”
Slowly and steadily, the team conquered the “rather frightening” trail and made it across.
With the goat path hurdle cleared, Maki says the remainder of the trip consisted of lots of scenic “high mountain sidehilling” as the group pushed toward the Jocko Basin.
Despite the enchanting scenery and gourmet food, this was no leisurely stroll through the woods. Maki suffered from blisters in the trip’s early stages, while Agnew dealt with knee problems on the final day.
But reflecting on the trip, those hardships couldn’t take the edge off of the euphoria that each mountaintop vista inspired. Recounting one view overlooking a chain of high mountain lakes, Maki says “just to remember it buckles my knees.”
Maki says he would certainly do it again, if given the chance. “I’ve been in the mountains a lot, but never experienced anything that equals that.”
That same sense of amazement is shared by Edington, who finally fulfilled the long-awaited trip to the peaks towering at the southern extent of the Mission range.
“The enormity of the southern Missions really hit home,” he said.
The rugged ensemble had their mountaintop playground all to themselves, as they hardly encountered any other hikers once they got into the backcountry.
“For two days you didn’t see a single person,” said Edington. “Part of the magic of being there is the seclusion.”
Maki agreed. “Nothing compares to the beauty and solitude.”
The crew enjoyed this bird’s eye view of Sunset Crag and High Park Lake during their 25-mile excursion from Glacier Lake to the Jocko, through the southern portion of the Mission Mountains.
From left to right, Maki, Agnew and Edington prepare to set off into the wilderness from the Glacier Lake Trailhead, on the eastern side of the Mission Mountains.
The approach to Mountaineer Peak, shown in the distance, was one of the trip’s major hurdles.
The steep rock slopes of the Garden Wall make for a formidable mountain crossing.
Agnew climbs up the “ramp” of a goat trail as he makes his way across the Garden Wall to safety.