| Oxford Via Belford and a Dash of Humility
Mt. Oxford was first on my sights exactly fifteen years ago. My hiking partner, Mountain Goat Mike and I set off one August morning with the goal of summiting both Belford and Oxford. We had hiked Missouri just a couple of weeks ago from the same trailhead and knew the approach to the other two. By the time we summited Belford, dark clouds had gathered over the peak and were threatening to unleash their fury; I remember taking a longing look down the ridge at Oxford but wisely deciding not to pursue the traverse. Truth be told, I wasn’t feeling entirely up to the task of adding another 1,400 vertical feet to the day’s tally, the toll of climbing 4,500 feet starting to tell on my body. We decided to tackle Oxford another day, but that opportunity never came. Most of my hiking partners from those days of little care have either moved to other states or shifted their priorities away from the pursuit of high peaks. Mountains were my first love and I’ve continued my adventures to their wilderness, albeit as a soloist for the most part. I had put off Oxford until now as I consider it to be the toughest hike in the Sawatch, but with only two of the fifteen Sawatchers remaining to be added to my personal list, the time had come to face my nemesis.
When I arrived at the parking lot at the Missouri Gulch trailhead, the lot was full (no surprise, since I was late as usual and it was a long weekend) so I drove up a bit and parked at the Vicksburg Museum parking lot which was empty. Bill Middlebrook recommends starting this hike before daybreak and rightly so given the nearly 6,000 feet of ascent at hand (or should that be foot ). It was 8:15 a.m. when I started from the trailhead and the fear that this would be an encore from that day in 1997 weighed on my mind as I set out.
Missouri Gulch Trailhead
The details of the trail from my previous hike were no longer fresh in my mind but I remembered the steepness which grabs you immediately with little warning. The trail to Belford’s summit climbs over 4,500 feet in 3.5 miles, so gentle transitions are the anomaly on this route.
Trail starts out steep and stays that way!
It has to be said here that the Missouri Gulch trail is simply excellent but the first and most critical creek crossing can be easy to miss. In my bid to make up for the late start, I completely blew past this crossing but in my defense, I wasn’t the only one! Two groups, one that was just ahead of me and the other behind did the same as the trail actually continues past this detour and immediately branches into two paths leading to a quick debate among the first group on which one to take. I quickly realized that something was amiss and started to retrace my path and then, there it was! The small cairn and a pointer beautifully carved out of wood but somewhat inconspicuous, pointing to the the crossing on the left. You’ll have to look closely in the next picture to spot the cairn at the bottom of the second tree trunk from the left, the pointer a little farther to its left. The trail immediately ahead of this spot hits a Y-junction.
Don't miss the cairn at the bottom left
After crossing the stream on the logs, the trail resumes its steep ascent alongside the gulch. The sun had now cleared the ridge to the east and the valley behind me to the north was cloaked in gold.
Valley of the Sun?
The next landmark, an old dilapidated log cabin, arrived as the trail emerged out the woods and brought forth the first sight of Belford’s beautiful northwest ridge.
Ruins of the log cabin
First look at Belford's northwest ridge
Aside from being a beautiful trail, the Missouri Gulch trail is also very popular, providing access to not only the three aforementioned fourteeners but also four thirteeners of which two are Centennials, and of course, Elkhead pass. There was certainly good evidence today of that popularity, as hikers were present en masse at every section of the trail.
An hour into the hike, I passed the junction where the trail to Belford splits off from the Missouri Gulch trail.
Another stream crossing emerges at the base of the ridge and is seen at the bottom of this picture that I took on my descent.
Steam crossing at the base of the ridge
The terrain above treeline becomes rocky but the trail itself is solid and a breeze to follow as it swithbacks up the massive shoulder of Belford.
Hikers can be spotted high on the ridge in the following shot, giving some perspective to the 2,300 feet of elevation gain that still remains but is stretched over a distance of just over a mile!
Trail switchbacks up Belford's grassy shoulder
While the myriad swithbacks attempted to lessen the load on my legs, I maintained a strong pace knowing that the sooner I summited Belford, the better my chances of making the long traverse to Oxford and back before the weather started to release any shenanigans that would render this attempt a déjà vu single peak bagger for me.
The following picture, also taken on my descent gives a better idea of the steepness of the terrain just covered. Peering farther down the ridge, numerous hikers can be spotted appearing like nothing more than ants strewn on the hillside.
Looking down at the terrain covered
The trail eases around 13,800’ as it reaches a notch on the shoulder before beginning the final pitch east (left, in this shot) toward the summit.
Reaching a notch at 13,800'
I pulled out a snack from my backpack but didn’t stop, intent as I was on reaching the summit before the clouds that were now starting to form assumed a more dangerous form.
Starting the final pitch to Belford's summit
About two hours and fifteen minutes after leaving the trailhead, I was standing on top of the yellow rock, triumphant in completing phase one of this saga. I had prepared a note as a memorial for Rob Jansen, the great hiker/climber, loving son, geologist, and ardent student of life that we lost just recently, and was able to talk one of the many peak baggers into taking this picture which I offer as a token of my respect and sympathy to Rob's friends, family, and those that were fortunate enough to have known him. I hope that this would mean something to them but it would only dawn on me at the very end what it meant to me!
Memorial to Rob Jansen
Having handily beaten my own prediction for time to Belford’s summit, I enjoyed the views of Missouri and Emerald peak to the south.
View of Missouri; Emerald peak is on the left
I then eyed the ridge route to Oxford and after checking the skies quickly broke into a jog down to the saddle.
Ridge trail to Oxford
If it is even possible, the ridge trail to Oxford manages to be about as good as the trail to Belford’s summit. Unlike many of the connecting ridges in the Sawatch which require boulder hopping and negotiating over towers, this one is a runner’s delight as it elegantly weaves thorough the scattered rocky sections en route to the saddle some 700 feet below.
Descending down the ridge trail
The trail was so clean that the trip to the saddle was a romp, but I knew there were two more ascents before the uphill slogging could be all said and done; I also hadn’t forgotten that the final ascent back to Belford’s summit would be the harder one.
The trail from the saddle to Oxford’s summit is steady, gentle and somewhat unremarkable but I wasn’t about to complain. Over the years, I have learned to accept the freebies and appreciate them for what they’re worth! Challenges are abundant in such ventures so an occasional cakewalk, if this traverse could even be called that, is quite welcome.
Ascent toward Oxford
Oxford's summit in sight
When I finally summited Oxford, I was briefly alone atop the peak; I had prepared a similar note in honor of Chris Gray whom the 14er community also lost this week during his quest for the summit of Crestone, and needed someone to take this picture so I enjoyed the views as the wind howled around me while I waited for the next hiker to summit.
Memorial to Chris Gray
As was the case with Rob, I had not had the opportunity to meet Chris but the myriad tributes that have shown up on this website this week give us a glimpse into the hiker, husband and man of character that he was. I hope also that his wife, Taylor, and the rest of his friends and family will accept this as a token of my respect; I’m sure others will follow suit in remembering Chris.
The wind was now blowing hard so I wasted little time in starting my return to Oxford. Reaching the saddle, I briefly stopped to take in the view of the valley to the south and the majestic surrounding mountains.
View to the south from the saddle
As I gazed over to Belford’s summit, I noticed the dark clouds hovering above and knew that time was of the essence.
Dark clouds over Belford
The crux of this pitch can be seen in the next picture, but it doesn’t begin to capture the steepness of this climb. I had taken all measures to stay well hydrated on this high traverse and had also fueled sufficiently to ensure that I wouldn’t bonk on this leg.
Got legs, will climb!
I didn’t bonk but for the first time in the hike, my calves were beginning to feel the strain of nearly 6,000 feet of relentless climbing. The darkening cloud cover provided just the motivation I needed to maintain my pace over this steep ascent.
When the trail final eased, Belford was within sight as were the dark clouds above its peak.
On the summit of Belford for the second time, I stopped for a bit to chat with some of the other hikers while enjoying the views. I briefly toyed with the idea of descending off route via Pecks peak (13,270’) which can be seen along the ridge in the right of the following picture.
Looking a bit stormy!
I had read Greg Fischer’s report on his marathon climbing/running expedition bagging all summits in the area starting out with Pecks, but decided that I couldn’t take the chance of getting caught in a thunderstorm on unfamiliar terrain. I quickly began my descent, jogging through most sections, thankful for how near perfect the trail was.
It's all downhill from here!
It was not until I was below treeline that it started to drizzle and I picked up my pace but the rains thankfully never came. When I had started the descent, there were a couple of hikers atop Belford that I'd met at the trailhead that were debating whether to continue to Oxford and I hoped they were ok if they’d chosen to do so.
Just a drizzle today
The trip from Belford’s summit to the trailhead took me just under two hours and I had covered every segment of the hike in less time than I’d predicted, improving on my previous bests in ascent and descent times, so I had some reason to be elated. Indeed I was a better hiker in every respect than I was in 1997 or at any other time for that matter. And then it occurred to me: my own skill, capability and preparation were the only variables within my control. To borrow a phrase, all I had done was “sneak up on the mountains when they were sleeping” and come away with a few nice pictures and some great memories. I thought of the two hikers that we lost, Rob and Chris, whom I’d toasted today in my own small way atop these summits that they so cherished climbing. "If the fates allow", I may hike the innumerable trails of these glorious mountains for some time to come, but I will never be half the hiker or climber that these young men were. In short, we may each get to the pinnacle of our game but that simply pales in comparison to nature’s fury.
Many of us seek these peaks in the hopes that they will shower their esoteric gifts and whisper their untold mysteries unto us, which they so often do. But sometimes, they don’t and sometimes the consequences are dire. So, go forth and “conquer” those lofty summits and revel in those accomplishments; but be safe and remember to celebrate every successful venture as if you stole it while the mountains weren’t looking.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):