| Belford & Oxford Combo - Missouri Gulch TH
Summitted both peaks although this turned out to be my first mini-epic. The main reason was a late start, of which I was outvoted by the members in my group, even though the goal was to make 2 summits (of which I made very clear, otherwise I would go solo). We did not hit the trail until 7:30AM even though I had shared with the team leader that there was a 50% chance of t-storms by 2PM (NOAA had been waivering between noon and 2PM all last week and finally changed it to 2PM early Sat. morning). Our 4 man team made pretty decent time to the summit of Belford (11:30AM), however clouds were starting to roll in to the Sawatch range. None of them looked particulary ominous however 2-3 clouds were forming thunderheads.
Wanting to not have to reclimb this route again we started off towards Oxford, around 11:50 or so (just enough time to take a few pics, eat and rehydrate). Within just a few minutes it appeared that the worst cloud cover was gathering right over Oxford (of course). I proceeded to leave the rest of the group behind making a mad dash down the saddle, only slowing down to make the final ascent (this was a pretty dumb move but my goal-oriented nature had kicked in and I figured it was pretty obvious where I was headed). I actually dropped my 15lb pack ~250' below the summit to speed up my ascent. By the time I hit the summit of Oxford I was the only one there and stayed only long enough to touch the summit rocks with my hiking pole, for fear that I might get hit by lightning, as it was now lightning over the next set of smaller peaks to the north.
Two members of the rest of the team were ascending as I reached my pack. As I stayed low for cover they booked up to within 50' or so of the summit, only to turn back as it looked pretty ugly. We regrouped within a few minutes and donned our rain gear just in time as it began to hail. At this point I found out that our last man had turned back in the middle of the saddle as he was pooped out and would have no chance of making the summit (as it turned out it happened to be our team leader, who was the very same person who did not want to change the start time).
As we approached the middle of the saddle we were getting pelted with pea-size hail and it looked like there was no end in sight to this storm. Another member and I had talked while we were getting our rain gear on that our action plan in the event lightning struck close by would be to make a rapid descent into Belford Gulch. Given our luck the inevitable happened - two lightning bolts slammed into the upper reaches of Oxford. At this point we made the executive decision to descend, after having stayed low for cover for a couple minutes.
We then proceeded to make our way down into Belford Gulch. I had actually looked at this gulch as a potential escape route and had noticed that while it looked good at the higher elevations it gets pretty ugly due to a rare waterfall near the base of the gulch, so when this route was offered by a member of the team I quickly advised them of the hazards. We reached a quick agreement that the best way back was to traverse on a sideways slant up to the northern ridge off Belford and then slip over this ridge back into Missouri Gulch (just south of a named 13er) - I remember reading about a 13er in Roach's book but couldn't remember the name at the time (turned out to be Pecks Peak, when I looked it up getting back home).
We slogged our way over game trails and the weather improved a little bit prior to hauling our dead butts over the ridge line (actually saw 4-5 elk at the bottom of the gulch). At that point we attempted to reach our team leader via cell phone however it was to no avail (we actually could never make contact). We proceeded to make our way down the grassy, flower-laden slopes, cutting our own switchbacks to reduce strain on our already chewed up feet and legs. We could get a visual on the upper switchbacks to Belford and the willows near the Elk Pass trail junction, so we made our way back to that point. About the time we reached the junction we noticed a lone hiker that looked like it could be our final member, so we waited for the hiker to descend (approx. 20 minutes or so). As it turned out this was not our member but it allowed time for us to check our feet (luckily I only had hot spots and changed into some dry socks). We made our way down the trail and bumped into an ascending hiker who indicated that he had seen our fourth member an hour or so ago.
We proceeded to make our way down to the TH, getting back around 4:45 PM. Our fourth member had reached the TH around 3:15. Unfortunately I did not keep an eye on the clock for when I summitted Oxford, but I'm guessing 45 minutes or so after leaving Belford. I'm guessing that our unplanned route added little distance but 30-45 to the trip, although making our way back up the ridge to Belford with hail & icy conditions could have been just as slow.
This was a good hike as we were all prepared for the elements, however there were a few lessons learned: hit the TH early, particulary on 2 summit days (and when the weather report clearly is not in your favor), keep the group together & if you do separate talk about the action plan, bring adequate gear to be in the elements (I wore boots but was contemplating using my trail runners, which would have been poor footwear on the unplanned sideways traverse up to Pecks Peak).
I had a fun time on this trail and look forward to doing Missouri soon!!!