My goal this weekend was to climb a couple of 14ers, Mount Belford and Mount Oxford in the Collegiate Peaks. The traverse between the two is pretty short and straightforward, but there's a lot of elevation gain to get up Belford in the first place.
I ended up oversleeping a bit and didn't leave Laramie until 2:45am. I wanted to leave by 2am, so I would be hiking before the Sun would rise above the mountains, trying to get good consolidated snow. As it turned out, it wouldn't have mattered what time I would have left. I arrived at the trailhead at 6:30, after driving in rain for about 25 miles, and it was raining pretty good at the trailhead at 9640ft. Temps were in the 40s, so I presumed that it was snowing up high. After getting dressed and putting on my rain pants, the rain pretty much quit.
I started up at 6:58 and headed up the Missouri Gulch Trail. This quickly crosses Clear Creek on a solid bridge; the creek was flowing very strongly. The trail switchbacks steeply up the hillside to the right (west) of the bottom of the gulch. This whole area is quite scenic. At treeline, there was a short section of the trail that was covered by snow, but in general there wasn't much snow at all. At this point, I encountered some flurries, and it was obvious that a lot of the snow on the ground was recent, corresponding to the rain that fell down below.
At about 11600ft, a small trail branches off to the left to climb Belford while the main trail continues to Elkhead Pass. As it turned out, this steep trail was pretty much snow-free until above 12000ft on the way up, and then a lot of this was several inches of fresh snow. There was very little in the way of significant snowpack right on this ridge, presumably because of the direction it faces. However, the fresh snow was covering a fairly slick trail anyway so it was a bit tricky to keep my balance.
As I was ascending the NW ridge, the weather around me wasn't bad but wasn't great either. The tops of mountains on the other (south) side of Clear Creek were occasionally obscurred by snow showers and I was in occasional flurries until about 13000ft. The other big weather factor was the wind. It was quite variable, but when it was strong it was blowing around some of that new snow. However the wind was mostly from behind on the ascent.
There's a fairly deep gully to the left of the NW ridge and there was a two-person team ascending this while I was hiking. In between the gully and the ridge there was quite a bit of snow on the ground, as this was on the leeward side of the ridge. I did a little bit of step-kicking on that snow to avoid the slick trail, but the snow condition wasn't all that great. I had really been hoping that I would have some good crusty 30-40 degree angle snow to hike up, since I had just purchased a pair of 4-point instep crampons for snow hiking and wanted to test them out. In contrast to the west side of Belford, the north face of Missouri Mountain had a lot of snow, and likely some avalanche danger as it's pretty steep.
I reached a false summit at about 14000ft, but it appeared to be a short walk to the real summit across a snowfield. The wind was strong at this point with a lot of blowing snow, but I approached a rocky area and when I got on top of it, I finally noted the ubiquitous capped pipe for the CMC summit register; then I looked down and saw the USGS marker. This was at 10:15. The sky was about half cloudy with the rain/snow clouds dissipating and some lenticular clouds over the mountains. By the time I pulled out my wind gauge and compass the wind had lulled a bit and I measured a west wind of 28 mph gusting to 39, not too bad, and I got set to do the usual summit ritual - photos, signing register, food, water, etc.
Unfortunately, the wind really picked back up at this point, and I spent some time scrunched up in a ball avoiding the blowing snow. I decided to forego my usual summit mosaic and took a few random pictures. Also, I signed the summit register but didn't look at the past entries; I noted that someone had beaten me up the mountain on this day. Mainly I was trying to stay warm as my thermometer was reading 27F. I had my overmitts off to take pictures, and I had to put my hands in my jacket against my stomach to warm them up. The wind direction was such that it was blowing straight from Belford to Oxford and there was a lot of blowing snow so I didn't even want to try the traverse today. I had thought about hanging out for a while to see it conditions would improve, but it was too cold for that. Just before leaving the summit, I decided to try to measure the wind again. It was strong enough that I had difficulty standing still. When I lifted the gauge up into the wind it lept up to a sustained reading of 50 mph. The numbers on the dial only go up to 60 mph (it's not meant for mountaineering in particular), but there is still about 5 mph of movement above this. In spite of this, there was a gust that managed to peg the dial (and almost knock me over).
I left the summit just before 10:30, and moved quickly down to where the wind wasn't quite so bad. I had been contemplating glissading down that gully, but decided that the snow conditions might not be reliable. The pair that was ascending that way hadn't made it up to the summit area yet.
Past the false summit, the descent was pretty steep and even slicker now that the Sun had worked on the snow. I did a couple hundred feet of glissading just below the ridge on the gully side, but the snow wasn't great and there was no good runout. I ended up falling down twice trying to hike down the slushy trail, which is unusual. The snow had pretty much melted off the surrounding tundra, so there wasn't really any good option to the trail. Down at the 12500ft level or so, I could see the gully climbers were getting very close to the summit ridge, so I presume they made it. I could see their track in the snow in the gully very well, so I presume that they were postholing most of the way up; if this wasn't the case, they were just climbing very slowly.
Descending the last few hundred vertical feet back into Missouri Gulch, I could see a couple of people standing there. As it turned out, it was a retired couple from Texas who frequent the Rocky Mountains. They had backpacked in and had been in the area for four days; it had snowed on them every day. We stood there and talked for almost a half hour in what by now had become nice weather. At about noon I said goodbye and continued down the trail.
The rest of the descent was uneventful. I did encounter a few people on their way up Belford. Just before reaching the bridge at the trailhead, there was a group of five tourists with two video cameras and a dog. They had good taste in a location to shoot anyway.
As a postscript to the snow I saw while climbing, some snow mixed in with the rain in a thundershower near Fremont Pass (11300ft) on CO 91 between Leadville and I-70.
I kind of regretted not being able to do the traverse to Oxford, but this is supposed to be fun, and coming back into the wind to Belford certainly wouldn't have been. On the other hand, maybe the wind would have slacked off if I had waited...
To the chronological trip index
To the Mount Belford page
To the Mount Oxford page
File last modified: 20 December 2004