Mt Belford 14,197'
Mt Oxford 14,153'
Missouri Mountain 14,067'
August 8th & 9th
Having successfully summited Huron Peak in the morning, Doug H and I headed to Missouri Gulch trailhead to meet Jon C to attempt the Belford Group over the next two days. We took advantage of the wait for Jon in Missouri's parking lot to rearrange and repack our gear. It's hard to keep the backpack light when you are packing for not only a back packing trip but also for attempting to summit 14ers. We each ended up bringing an additional small day pack along as well, for the 14ers. By the time Jon arrived and we were all packed up and ready to head out, each of us was cringing under the weight of our packs. Wish my pack would have been a little heavier, as I was to later learn, I forgot to put in my water bladder when I was rearranging my gear.
To reach Mt Oxford one must first drop down a ridge and lose 400 - 500 feet of elevation. The trail is steep and lose in places, making for slow going to reach the bottom of the saddle/ridge. The trail then climbed gentler as it rose to Oxford's summit. The total distance from the Belford Ridge to Oxford's summit was a mile and a half. Once on the summit we were joined by a father/daughter pair with their black lab from Colorado Springs. Pikas chirped at us from between the rocks on the summit, as they tried to avoid the lab. The lab also flushed up a pair of ptarmigan, which I know we would not off seen as they blended in to the environment perfectly.
I broke the climb back up to Belford's ridge mentally into 3 sections. This seemed to help, as I was surprised at how quickly I reached the top of each section. Once to the ridge we decided to head back down to camp via a different route, because we didn't want to head back down the switchbacks, which we were feared were going to be lose.
From the ridge below Belford we spotted a trail that lead down to Elkhead Pass and looked like it would easily take us back to camp, on a gently sloping trail. While this route was a little longer, I think it was much easier on our bodies. The only problem with this route is that we would have to retrace part of it in the morning as we headed up to Missouri Mountain's summit. The wildflowers along this stretch of trail we explosive. Everywhere you looked reds, blues, whites and yellows were popping out.
We arrived back to camp by 1:20 p.m. and spent the rest of the day resting and recovering for the next day's summit attempt.. I am not sure if I would have been able to make both summits if we had started from the trailhead, as I was pretty beat by the time we arrived back at camp. I imagine that these 2 summits surprise a good number of people. Neither summit is harder than class II, and only 11 miles roundtrip, but you gain almost 6,300 feet of elevation between both summits. Roach says all one needs for these summits is "little more than a sturdy pair of legs". I think that this underplays the strenuous nature of these two climb combined, and anyone planning to do these both from the trailhead needs to understand what is in-store for them, before heading out.
Wanting to make the retracing of the trail up towards Elkhead Pass a little easier we decided to take off before sun-up and were on the trail by 5:15 a.m.. Even in the dark I could see the ridgeline of to the first basin looming above us. I tried to keep my eyes off it, as I did not want to mentally beat myself up. The trail climbed steadily out of the lower basin, pushing into 3 higher basins before the cut-off for Missouri Mountain. Having studied the route up the front side of Missouri Mountain yesterday on the way up to Belford I was nervous. The trail leading up to the northwest ridge looked nearly vertical. In the back of my mind was the thought that a father and daughter lost their lives on this mountain earlier this year. Climbing these peaks is fun and a challenge, but not a challenge worth my life.
Coming down from Elkhead Pass yesterday I started to feel a little better about the route. From up close the east face did not look vertical, and the trail looked very straight forward. Now as we headed up the Missouri Mountain trail from where it splits off from the Elkhead Pass trail, my confidence began to grow. The first 1/3 of a mile winds its way up a grassy slope before entering into a boulder field and working its way up the east face.. With each step I was feeling more at ease and my confidence quickly built. The east face only had 2 or 3 small sections that gave me pause due to loose scree. Working steadily upwards we topped out on the ridge in just under an hour. I was hoping that once we obtained the ridge most of the work and danger would be over. I was mistaken!
Looking up from where we encountered the ridge, I could see that we still had several hundred feet of elevation to gain. Worse than the elevation, was that the trail looked loose, with steep sides falling off to the west. My hiking poles came in handy; giving extra support in a few steep, loose scree sections. We took this section deliberately and had no problems. It was actually quite fun walking along the spine of the ridge, with steep drop offs of either side.
Middlebrook (of 14ers.com) claims that the crux of the ridge is a small section of class III climbing (8 vertical feet or so) 100 yards or so below the summit. I will, respectfully, disagree with him. My crux came 30 yards before this climb. We once again topped out on the ridge, only to find a short (15 feet) down climb leading to a loose looking section of scree. As soon as I saw this section I almost turned around right there. If it would not have been for Doug's confidence, and the fact that he went first, I would have given up the summit. Doug carefully worked his way down the rock and stopped below to spot Jon and I. The down climb once again proved not to be too difficult, as the rock was solid. Once down the we quickly overcame Middlebrook's crux and found one last section of lose, steeply climbing trail above us. I took a quick breather as I did not want to have to stop on this last section. With head down I charged up this final section, until I found myself on the top of the ridge and on solid ground again, only 15 yards below the summit.
The geomarker on the summit was once of the easiest ones I have had yet to look for. We were shortly joined by 2 younger ladies who had made quick work of the ridge. They left the summit just before us, and it was amazing watch them move effortlessly over the terrain that had given me such a start. I lead the way off of the ridge and pushed my pace as fast as could. I felt more confident in the lead, and moved downwards with hardly a rest. I finally was able to relax once I got back to the bottom of the saddle. It was a true relief to be off the ridge and onto relatively stable ground. Just above reaching the saddle again we ran into the dad/daughter/dog trio from yesterday.
Despite the fact (or maybe because of it) that this route really pushed my comfort leve,l this summit turned out to be my favorite summit of all the 14ers that I have done so far in this project. The hike back to camp for the saddle was uneventful. I was surprised, however, by the number of people coming up on a Tuesday. We must have past 20 plus people.
Once back to camp we took about an hour to break down camp and prepare for the hike back to the trailhead. We made the 2 miles back to the vehicles in just over an hour. The entire time going down I was surprised at how steep the trail had been on the way up. Only 2 days later and I had already forgotten the effort it took to make it up in the first place. One thought kept running threw my head on the way down: cheeseburgers (no not corn dogs!).
We quickly dropped our gear into the vehicles and headed into Leadville for those cheeseburgers that I had been dreaming about. They turned out to be much better than the corn dogs on the way in.
Four 14ers in 3 days. Not too bad at all! This was the hardest I have pushed myself on any of the 14ers so far. This trip showed me that I can push myself for several days in a row. Which will be important for many of my future outings. However, this trip also made me question if I am going to be able to complete Project 54/54.
Missouri's upper ridge was not all that hard compared to some of the peaks yet to come. I will need to build my confidence and skills before I tackle some of the harder peaks. Fifth class, roped climbing (not that I will have to do any of it on the remaining peaks) should not be a problem as I have climbed up to 5.11c in my younger years. It is the class III and IV un-roped scrambles that have me worried. One step at a time is the only way to make it happen.
~ Post Script ~ It only took me 4 days of being home before I started thinking about trying to get one or two more in before the end of the season. This is a good sign I guess!