Sunday, August 14, 2011

Of Mice and Man II - Belford Group

Belford Group
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. 

Coming back to the cars 2 days later, I  realized how steep the approach trail actually was.  At the time we went up the approach trail, it did not seem as steep as it did coming down later.  All I remember of the first part of the approach trail was the heels of Jon's boots.  I guess that should have been my first clue of how steep the trail was.  It took us just over two hours to climb the 2 miles to the basin below the peaks. 

By the time we hit the basin I was beat.  I was willing to take the first descent camp spot that we came to.  Jon found us a great spot about 100 yards or so towards Missouri Mountain from where the trail splits to the 3 peaks.  Dropping my pack I pulled out the ridge rest, and took a rest for a half hour while Jon and Doug set up their tents.  Feeling a little rested I managed to set up my tent and cooked dinner before turning in early.  Our plan was to head out for Mt Belford and Mt Oxford by 6:30 a.m. on Monday.

I slept well until about 3 a.m. when I woke up freezing.  It felt as if the temperature had suddenly dropped 20 degrees.  I spent the next 3 hours tossing and turning in my sleeping bag trying to stay warm, while attempting to catch some more sleep.  A 6a.m. alarm had us headed up the to Mt Belford by 6:45 a.m.

The trail to Belford's summit climbs about 2,300 feet  from the basin to summit.  Most of the trail is one switch back after another.  Picture the laces on a pair of ladies knee-high boots and you have a good idea of the trail up Belford.  There was only one way to make the summit: one step after another.  It was that thought that kept me going to the top, which we reached at 9:11 a.m.  With another summit to reach, we only spent 15 minutes on top before we dropped off the summit and headed for the ridge leading to Mt Oxford.

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 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!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Of Mice and Men

Huron Peak
August 7th, 2011


To paraphrase, as many have, the poet/farmer Robert Baum the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”  Since last fall I had been developing a plan to make a truly memorable 14er outing to Chicago Basin.  I even managed to rope in Doug H and Jon C into my plan.  Everything was lining up nicely over the last month.  I had talked my wife into letting me take off for 5 days. Doug and Jon were still on board.  We began planning equipment, discussing meals.  We called to get hotel reservations for the first night in Durango and even got our train tickets.  So you can imagine my surprise when I got onto the Wednesday night before we were planning on leaving (Saturday morning) only to see that there had been a major rock and mud slide over the railroad tracks that were to take us into the Chicago Basin area. 

Over the next 2 days I got various responses when I called the Durango Silverton train office as to when the train would be running again.  With the prospect of a possible 8 hour plus car ride for nothing we decided to postpone the trip for this summer.  This left me with 5 open days and no plans.  So I scrambled.  I dove into Roach's Colorado's Fourteeners to find a replacement.  What I came up with was a trip back into the Sawatch Range, to tackle four 14ers in 3 days: Huron Peak and the Belford Group (Mount Belford, Mount Oxford and Missouri Mountain).  Doug was still planning on joining me for all 4, and Jon would join us a day later to take on the Belford Group.

The adventure began on the way into Huron Peak as we got detoured in Leadville due to the Boom Days celebration, and decided to stop and get some food.  Warning!  Do not eat foot long deep battered, deep fried corndogs from a street vender.  Not a good idea!  Not a good idea at all!  It became the running joke of the entire trip between Doug and I.

Our only real concern about the trip was if we would be able to drive all the way up to the trailhead on the 4WD road or if we would have to hike in the 3 miles.    Arriving at the start off the 4WD road we followed another pick-up truck in, (I was driving my 2005 Tundra) and had no problems with the road.  You do need some clearance to make the road, but nothing extreme.  We set up camp 30 yards from the trailhead on a flat spot over-looking a small pond.

I immediately set off with fly rod in hand to check out the stream 100 yards to the west.  Every other 14er I did this year had a great trout stream on the way to them, so I decided not to possibly miss out on another and packed the rod this time.  I managed to bring 9 small Brookies to hand and lost at least that many. Not a bad outing.

Due to the relatively short distance up and back to Huron Peak (4.3 miles), via the Northwest Slope, we slept in and did not hit the trail until 6:4 a.m.  We kept a pretty steady pace as the trail climbed steadily though the forest and passed several parties by the time we broke out of tree line.  The meadow above tree line gave our legs a brief respite from the uphill grind as we worked our way across it.  The wildflowers were out in full force.  I felt like I was in the Sound of Music ("the hills are alive with the sound of muuuuuuuuuuusic").  The trail climbed steeply out of the north-east corner of the meadow for a short distance to reach the northwest slope proper. 

The trail was well laid out and never too steep as it climbed the slope.  The switchbacks were not right on top of one another, alleviating the tedious feeling they often bring on.  We were passed by 1 man and his dog as they made quick work of the slope.  Before we knew it we were atop the slope at the base of the 400-600 long class II section. (Side note/message to the person who relived themselves directly on the side of the table: No one wants to see your poop and T.P.  - First of all step of the trail a way to do your business.  Secondly learn and live some Leave No Trace ethics).

The class II scramble to the summit gave me a second wind and Doug and I both made quick work of this section, making the summit by 9:10 a..m. On top we found ourselves with 10 or so other people, with more coming up behind us.  As many people do we chatted with others and searched out nearby peaks that we had done or wanted to do.  As the summit started to get more crowed, be snapped our summit shots and started down after 20 minutes or so on top

The trip back to the trailhead was uneventful except for the large number of people that were still coming up.  There was not a cloud in the sky on this bluebird day, so the late comers were  not in danger of any afternoon thunderstorms.  Once back to the truck, we broke camp and headed back down the 4WD to meet up with Jon C at the Missouri Gulch trailhead.  A great start to the outing.  One down and three more to go.