What a difference a year makes. One year and three days ago I attempted this "two-bagger", and was turned back at the summit of Belford in wind gusts to 65 mph and blowing snow. This year the weather has been the complete opposite, so I wasn't too worried about this type of bad weather. Since it's a few days after full moon, the trails are good, and I've night-hiked here before, I decided to time things so I would be on the first summit by sunrise.
The drive from Laramie sucked for a while because I was in and out of thunderstorms for the first couple hours (one lightning bolt struck less than 1/4 mile from me), and there was a lot of traffic because of the 4th of July and it being before midnight. However, by the time I reached Fremont Pass and the molybdenum mining operation (molybdenum...molybdenum...as Letterman would say, "I don't have a joke here, I just like saying 'molybdenum'"), I had pretty much driven out of the clouds, and I pretty much had an open road.
There were quite a few vehicles at the large parking area at the popular Missouri Gulch trailhead when I got there a little after 1:30am. I slowly geared up and started hiking at 2:05. You immediately cross Clear Creek (which would be a dangerous ford) on a bridge and immediately start up the steep switchbacks on the slopes to the right (west) of lower Missouri Gulch. And I mean steep. I like steep trails, as opposed to old jeep roadbeds, but I also like a chance to warm up before it gets too steep. The Moon was hidden by clouds, and the forest is dense here, so I was hiking by headlamp.
I took my first break at 3am at 'treeline' at about 11200ft. The term 'treeline' doesn't really apply here because treecover gets really thin here, but doesn't completely go away. There are also some scrub and short willows above this level. Anyway, this is the first open area you encounter. Also, this was the point where it started to feel cooler (it started out around 55F and it was down to 45F here). The clouds finally completely cleared and I was able to start back up without the headlamp. This area is the most gentle part of the hike. At about 11600ft, the trail up Belford branches off from the Elkhead Pass trail at a good sign which wasn't there last year.
The trail up Belford is relatively new, and I understand that some more work is planned, but it's quite good, especially since this is a steep slope. I had the slightly unrealistic idea in my head to make it up Belford in three hours, so I was on a brisk pace. High on the ridge, the lights of Leadville came into view to the north, as did brilliant Venus to the west. You have to skirt one minor false summit before reaching the rocky summit. I topped out at 5:17, before sunrise. It was about 40 degrees with a light breeze, but with no sunlight I had to bundle up a little to be warm. Unfortunately, the only clouds in the sky were low in the east, which didn't make for a particularly beautiful sunrise. Not that there's such a thing as a bad sunrise from the top of a mountain, though.
After a short hike down the south ridge of Belford, you take a sharp left to head for Oxford. The connecting saddle is at 13500ft, and the Belford side of the saddle was much steeper than the Oxford side. However, there is a good climbers trail on the whole ridge. In fact, this route barely qualifies as Class 2. I reached Oxford at 6:35 and sat up there for about a half-hour. Summit registers in Colorado are usually in metal pipes with PVC caps that are attached to a cable which is in turn wrapped around a rock. In this case, however, the cable was threaded through the 'biner hole of a piton hammered into a crack!
The grunt up from the saddle to Belford's south ridge was tough. I was worn out from my quick pace and all the elevation gain. From here you either have to reclimb the last 200ft to Belford (there's no way to skirt the summit), or descend down to the Elkhead Pass trail along the ridge. The latter option saves you the 200ft of gain at the expense of a longer hike. I opted to retrace my route, and re-summitted Belford about two hours after I left it the first time.
That brings me to the biggest story of the day, the weather. Even from Oxford, some clouds were building up about 20-30 miles west, and by the time I reached Belford, precipitation could be seen hanging below them. At 8 o'clock!! It didn't look awful, but it definitely had lightning potential. I've done about 40-50 days worth of summer hiking in Wyoming and Colorado, and I'd never seen it that bad even as early as 10am. I really wanted to stretch out and relax on Belford for a while to relieve my fatigue, but I wasn't confident I could even reach treeline before the possible storm might hit. Heading down, I was encountering people fairly regularly, including a Forest Service worker, and this was the big topic of discussion. Surprisingly, pretty much everyone expressed a respectable amount of concern about the weather. Still several hundred feet above treeline (but off the most exposed parts of the ridge), it started raining at about 9am. There were four of us there and we all donned our raingear. I kept heading down at a rapid pace, but that was as bad as the weather got and the rain stopped after 10 minutes. By the time I had some good lightning safety, the clouds were breaking up enough to feel safe up high.
The rest of the hike down was uneventful (a lot of columbines to look at, though) and I reached the trailhead at 10:26; elapsed time 8:21. That's a great time for hiking these mountains, but I was a lot more tired and sore the next day than I would have liked to have been!
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File last modified: 21 December 2004