| Mt. Belford Northwest Ridge
14,197 Feet (18th Highest in Colorado)
Missouri Gulch Trailhead, 9,640 Feet
September 16th, 2007
7.1 Miles Roundtrip
4,560 Feet Elevation Gained
Slow Moving Fun Seeker, Greenhouseguy, Cairn Stomper, & Brian O. (Jay & 3 Brians)
Going by the Book in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness
I had the pleasure of meeting 14ers.com members Slow Moving Fun Seeker (Jay) and Cairn Stomper (Brian E.) near the summit of Pikes Peak a few weeks ago. We hiked down together, and having a larger group made that long slog much more enjoyable. We kicked around the notion of future hikes together.
Jay messaged me about doing a hike in the northern Sawatch Range, but he and his hiking partners could not decide which peak to hike. We narrowed it down to La Plata Peak, Mount Massive, or Mount Belford, but were unable to arrive at a decision. We chose to spend the night in Leadville and decide over dinner at The Grill. After consuming some exceptional Mexican food, we decided to hike La Plata Peak from the Winfield Trailhead.
When we met at the car at 5:00 a.m., we saw a most peculiar sight; lightning was illuminating the western skyline. It was distant, possibly in the Elks Range. However, this did not bode well for our hike. Ascending La Plata Peak from the south involves rock-hopping on a talus ridge, and escape would have been difficult in the event of a fast-moving thunderstorm. As we approached the Missouri Gulch Trailhead on Chaffee County Rd. 390, Jay decided to pull in. He made the case for Mt. Belford being a much safer route in the event of bad weather. The well-developed trail would make it easier to descend to safety if a thunderstorm rolled in while we were above treeline. We all agreed, so we parked the car and geared up in complete darkness.
Gearing up for an alpine start on the Missouri Gulch Trail
We hit the trail at about 6:15, and stopped to sign the trail register as we entered the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area.
Brian E., Jay, and Brian O. checking out the signage at the Missouri Gulch Trailhead
Sign should read: Collegiate Peaks Wilderness
We descended a little from the parking lot, and immediately crossed Clear Creek on a good bridge.
Footbridge over the appropriately-named Clear Creek
It was still dark as we started up the fabled switchbacks. Oddly, they didn't seem too steep in the morning. Later in the day when we descended, the steepness of the trail was obvious.
Starting up the switchbacks in the darkness
Although the temperature was mild, the weather was about to take a turn for the worse. We could make out rapidly-moving clouds in the pitch black skies. After a few minutes, a light rain began to fall. We donned our raingear, and kept going. There was no lightning or thunder in our vicinity.
When the sun rose, I was disappointed to see gray skies and plenty of cloud cover. While the weather was not particularly pleasant, there was no need to turn around. We found a comfortable pace, and continued up the fine Class 1 section of the trail. The altitude gain came at us rapidly on the lower part of the trail.
As we ascended in darkness, we could hear Clear Creek rumbling down the gulch. Soon after sunrise, we crossed the creek again and found ourselves on the lefthand side of the gulch.
Primitive log bridge over Clear Creek
As we approached treeline, there was a dilapidated cabin beside the trail. There was a large stone fire ring beside the cabin, and a couple of nice tent camping sites nearby. Technically, campsites should not be so close to the trail in a wilderness area. From a practical standpoint, however, these sites are in an excellent location for hikers who want to make a weekend of hiking Missouri Mountain, Mt. Belford, and Mt. Oxford.
Tumbledown cabin beside the Missouri Gulch Trail
As we emerged from the trees at about 11,355 feet, we got our first look at the frosty summit of Mt. Belford. A light snow had fallen during the night, giving the peak a distinguished look.
Mt. Belford's snowcapped peak in the distance
The trail leveled off above treeline. The trail wound through some chest-high willows that were just starting to assume their golden fall color. Aspens are not the only source of fall color in the mountains; in addition to the willows, the Squaw Currants were a brilliant gold, and the wild strawberry foliage was a bright red.
Like all good things, the level trail came to an end. Or rather, to a fork; the Elkhead Pass Trail continued up the gulch, and the Mt. Belford trail turned away to the southeast (left).
Trail sign at about 11,560 feet
We crossed over a small creek that drains a gully between Pecks Peak and Mt. Belford. There was not much water in this creek. At this point, we were at the base of Mt. Belford's Northwest Ridge. It looked steep, and there did not seem to be any relief between that spot and the summit. There was a staggering amount of altitude yet to be gained.
Looking up Mt. Belford's Northwest ridge from 12,058 feet
As we switchbacked up the Northwest Ridge, I noticed a herd of Mountain Goats busily grazing on a grassy slope. They seemed to be bound and determined to put on some weight before the harsh weather hits.
Three adult and four young goats grazing at about 12,200 feet
Some parts of the trail seemed to head straight up the slope, while other sections had switchbacks. The CFI installed stone steps in some of the steepest places. Our group had spread out a little bit by this time, but we never lost sight of each other. The wind was really picking up as we ascended the ridge, and the temperature dropped considerably. On the switchbacks, we alternated between leaning into the wind and having the wind at our backs. The gusts were powerful and bone-chilling.
The summit still looked far away from 13,068 feet
The true summit was not visible from the upper parts of the slope. I kept working towards a point that I thought was the summit, only to be disappointed when I realized that I had a few hundred feet to go. This false summit was at about 13,874 feet; the true summit was a very short distance to the north (left) of this rocky outcrop.
False summit viewed from 13,610 feet. The true summit is ¼ of a mile further north and about 300 feet higher
I stopped and put on my gloves when I reached the false summit at 13,874 feet. I had to use my trekking poles to brace myself against the gusty wind. The clouds were racing by at an incredible pace. I knew that if a thunderstorm was going to hit, it could hit so fast that we would have little time to get out of its way. The trail was not steep at all above this false summit. We still had to pass over a small bump before we could see the true summit.
The true summit lies just behind this bump
Cairn Stomper (Brian E.) and I approached the summit at the same time, while the others were just a few minutes behind. When I saw the summit block, my first impression was that it reminded me of a rooster's comb. The rock had a peculiar yellowish tinge that was unlike most of the other rock on the mountain. As we approached the summit block, a jovial Irishman who we met on the trail advised us to duck down on the opposite side to get out of the wind. I was shivering badly even when I got out of the wind. I put on another layer, and I was still cold. I did not intend to stay on the summit for very long.
Mt. Belford's summit block
Greenhouseguy on Mt. Belford's summit
Jay and Brian O. made it to the summit just a few minutes later, and lost no time finding the leeward side of the summit block.
Jay, Brian O., and Brian E. on Mt. Belford's windy summit. Missouri Mountain is in the background
We were in the heart of the Collegiate Peaks, and several fourteeners were immediately visible. Missouri Mountain was directly across the gulch. La Plata was mostly covered by clouds, which made our decision to hike Mt. Belford seem that much wiser. Clouds intermittently covered Huron Peak, but I was able to get a good look at it.
Looking over at Huron Peak's east side
Mount Harvard looked absolutely huge. Mount Columbia was mostly obscured from our vantage point.
Zoom shot of Mt. Harvard from Mt. Belford's summit
Mount Oxford looked very close, because it was very close. We chose not to take the ridge over to Mt. Oxford because we had serious concerns about the weather. If we had to bail off of Mt. Oxford or the saddle, it would have left us far from the trailhead. Several groups of hikers chose to make the trek over to Mt. Oxford, but we did not regret our decision to save it for another day.
Mt. Oxford's spacious summit
Mt. Yale and Mt. Princeton were not very far to the south. The cloud cover over these peaks looked rather unpleasant. My usual hiking partner KeithK was on Mt. Princeton, and he experienced severe hail and lightning. I did not envy him.
Mt. Yale and Mt. Princeton viewed from Mt. Belford's summit
We snacked a little, snapped some images, and wasted little time getting off of the summit. Just as we started to descend, graupel (pellet snow) started to fall. I have never experienced graupel without seeing lightning shortly afterwards, so I was in a hurry to get back down to the relative safety of the gulch.
Looking down our route into Missouri Gulch
Marmots, picas, and chipmunks were scurrying around the talus as we wound our way back to the gulch. This football-shaped critter appeared to be perfect for punting practice.
Plump Marmot taking a break on the talus
As we reached the base of the Northwest Ridge, we heard a couple of distant thunderclaps. No lightning was visible. Regardless, I was relieved to be back in the gulch and close to some tree cover. A light rain was falling, and the weather showed no signs of improving. As we hiked lower in the gulch, we were treated to a nice view of some golden Aspens.
Changing Aspens in Missouri Gulch
We had hiked much of the lower trail in the dark, so it was interesting to see what the route looked like in the daylight. It was a good trail, but it was steep in some places.
Descending on the lower part of the Missouri Gulch Trail
There is an infant's grave beside the trail not too far above the trailhead. This single grave is known as the Vicksburg Cemetery; TopoZone maps incorrectly show it as the Winfield Cemetery. The infant's name was William Huffman, and he died from pneumonia at the age of one month in 1884. His father was a miner, and his mother ran a boarding house in Vicksburg. The ghost town of Vicksburg is almost directly across the road from the trailhead. There are still about 10 cabins standing on the town site, and one of the cabins houses a museum. At the peak of the mining boom, the village of Vicksburg had as many as 500 residents.
Grave of William Huffman in the Vicksburg Cemetery
When we returned to the trailhead, it was clear that the weather was getting worse at higher altitudes. Dark clouds ringed Mt. Belford, and it appeared that some form of precipitation was falling. We had avoided the brunt of the bad weather because we did this Collegiate Peak by the book; early start, off of the summit by 11:00, and back at the car by 2:00.