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Mount Belford
Elevation: 14,197 feet
Climbed: Sep 18, 2004
Mountain Range: Sawatch Range
Colorado Rank: 18th
Class Rating: 2
Latitude: 38.960600
Longitude: -106.361000

Trip Report

Sep 18, 2004
Belford/Oxford Combination

After climbing Mount Sneffels and San Luis Peak with Randy and Wild Mike two weeks earlier, I was looking for a few more peaks to climb before the winter snows began to fall in the mountains. Mount Belford, Mount Oxford, and Missouri Mountain looked like a good place to start.

I left Colorado Springs on Friday around sunset, heading west on highway 24 to Buena Vista. About 14 or 15 miles north of Buena Vista, I turned west onto Chaffee County 390. The Clear Creek Reservoir sits at the intersection, but it was probably 10 PM and pitch-black, so I couldn't see a thing. I traveled along Clear Creek, hidden in the blackness, following the dirt road for about 7 1/2 miles, until I arrived at the Missouri Gulch Trailhead. Turning left into the large parking area, I saw some other vehicles already parked for the night. From the sounds I heard, I knew at least some were spending the night in their vehicles. Others had parked there and backpacked to treeline to spend the night, as I learned the next morning. Since it was close to 10:30 PM, I turned out my lights as I quietly pulled into a parking space.

After getting a few things ready for the next morning's climb, I settled down for the night in the back of my Ford Ranger pickup. It was fairly warm when I went to sleep, but it cooled down quite a bit in the night. I woke around my planned time of 4:30 AM. There was no other activity in the parking area as I got dressed, pulled on my hiking boots, and ate a cup of yogurt. It was still totally dark when I started up the trail at 5:25 AM, with my headlamp guiding the way.

In the darkness, I found the trailhead and crossed Clear Creek via a strong, permanent bridge. I signed in at the trailhead register, indicating that I was climbing Belford and Oxford. I also wrote down Missouri Mountain, followed by a question mark. That would turn out to be a wildly optimistic thought; even though Gerry Roach mentions that all three peaks are accessible from this same trailhead, he states that it is a very tough day. For me, it would have been brutal, since doing both Belford and Oxford made for a pretty rough day. I met several people who were climbing Belford/Oxford or Missouri, but no one who tackled all three mountains that day.

Soon after crossing Clear Creek, the trail began to climb steeply through a series of switchbacks. The trail was very good as it snaked through the forest, but the switchbacks were definitely some of the steepest I've encountered on such a well-defined trail.

At about 1 1/4 miles, I was past the switchbacks and climbing through the forest at a more reasonable rate of ascent. The early traces of dawn were just beginning to filter through the trees, although not enough to turn off my headlamp. I could hear the rushing water of a stream getting closer to the trail. At about 1 3/4 miles, the trail finally crossed the noisy stream. There was too much water to wade across easily. Fortunately, there was a makeshift bridge spanning the running water; the bridge was comprised of several skinny tree trunks, laid side-by-side, several feet above the water. After a short, springy balancing act on the bridge, I was on the other side of the stream, continuing up the excellent trail.

The dawn was quickly brightening, as trees emerged from the darkness and golden leaves surrounded me. Even though the sun would not reach into these valleys for quite a while, by the time I reached treeline 2 miles from the trailhead, daylight had fully arrived.

I passed three different tents pitched in or near the trees at timberline, but only saw one person outside his tent. Later in the day, I learned he was from Florida and on a climbing vacation in the Colorado Rockies. Along the main trail at timberline was a sign, indicating that Elkhead Pass was to the right and Mount Belford to the left.

From the valley above timberline, Missouri Mountain was visible up ahead and to the right. Missouri Mountain is more of a high ridge than a distinct and separate peak. The sun was just beginning to touch Missouri's high summit as I emerged above the trees, casting a reddish tinge onto the tip of the craggy peak.

The northwest slope of Mount Belford rose steeply immediately ahead on the left side of the valley. The trail was visible as it rose and finally disappeared in a series of switchbacks high on the shoulder of the mountain.

Taking the left route, the strong climber's trail began immediately, switching its way up the slope toward Belford. Northeast of the trail, a deep ravine separated Belford's northwest slope from another expansive slope. High on that slope were eight mountain goats, their white coats easily visible against the brown rock and tundra. Through my small Pentax 8X binoculars, I could distinguish their black horns, as well as confirm that two of the goats were youngsters. The goats must have felt secure and comfortable on that slope, since they were still there several hours later as I descended.

While I was on my way up Belford's northwest slope, two climbers were descending. They had started very early from their base camp at timberline, reaching the summit of Mount Belford in time to see the sun rise. They reported extreme wind and cold on top. In fact, the wind and cold prevented them from attempting Mount Oxford; they chose to descend instead of traversing the saddle connecting Belford to Oxford.

At about 13,000 feet, the protection from the wind afforded by the mountain valleys had disappeared. The wind became fiercer and colder the higher I climbed; well before reaching the summit, I put on my rain/wind gear and some fleece.

After encountering a false summit near 14,000 feet or so, I reached the summit of Mount Belford. The weather continued to be extremely windy, with clouds moving through the region. Mount Harvard loomed large just southeast of Belford. Even closer, Mount Oxford rose in the east, connected to Belford by a 13,500 foot-high saddle. Missouri Mountain rose in the opposite direction, west-southwest of Belford.

The climber from Florida and another couple reached the summit about the same time I did. We all had a decision to make. With the somewhat ominous weather, it wasn't clear whether there was a threat of lightning catching us on the traverse to and from Oxford. After some discussion, the Florida climber and I decided we would attempt the traverse. The couple initially decided they would not climb Oxford; however, they changed their minds soon after I started descending Belford.

From Belford's 14,197 foot-high summit, a steep descent of 700 feet led to the bottom of the saddle. The climb was gentler on the Oxford side of the saddle, although the strong wind was a constant factor. It took about one hour to reach the 14,153 foot-high summit of Mount Oxford. After a very brief stay atop Oxford's summit, I descended to the saddle and ascended Belford for a second time that day.

Dangerous weather had never materialized during the traverse, and sunshine appeared intermittently during the descent. The changing aspens were at their most brilliant this particular weekend, with the golden valleys and avalanche chutes glowing far below.

The force of the wind continued until reaching about 13,000 feet. At that point, the steep descent became much more pleasant. I noticed that the mountain goats had spread out a bit, with two laying down far from the others, who continued to graze high above treeline.

The descent to treeline seemed long, though uneventful. A brief marmot scuffle was exciting, as a marmot bounded across the trail and landed on another marmot. I never knew if it was intentional or not, but either way, they soon separated and ended up in a standoff.

The trail dipped into the forest below timberline, which was very pleasant as it descended past mountainsides of golden aspens and the rushing water of the stream. I had crossed this entire section of the trail in darkness early that morning. After enduring the final steep switchbacks, I crossed the bridge and arrived back at the trailhead parking area.

I spent some quality time relaxing barefooted in the back of the truck, as the breeze floated across my feet and the golden aspen leaves fluttered in the air. Although I had considered climbing the next day, Belford and Oxford took quite a bit out of me. I decided to leave Missouri Mountain for another trip and headed for home.

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