| Missouri Gulch to Denny Creek - 2 of 3
Mt. Belford, Mt. Oxford & Pine Creek
Tuesday, September 1st, 2009
Start: Missouri Gulch/Elkhead Pass Junction at 8:52am
Elevation Gain: 2,097
Distance: 5.57 miles
Google Map (from GPS): http://tinyurl.com/missouri-gulch-to-denny-creek
Apparently the necessary parameters for restful sleep do not include tent-blasting gusts of wind intermixed with periods of absolute silence. Our first night at 12,600 and three hours was the total sleep time consensus.
The last time I spent the night out at altitude I froze my butt off in a musty thirty-year old flannel boy scout sleeping bag. My determination to never let that happen again found my aforementioned butt sweating in an ALPS Navajo 15 degree down mummy bag. I was in my skivvies with the thing half open... still sweating.
At 6:20am our resident photo-journalist sneaked out of the tent and caught some amazing Missouri Gulch sunrise photos. Belford's ridge and our tent placement.
Missouri, with the sun slowly coming up (6:51am).
Same angle on Missouri (8:18am).
Missouri Gulch/Elkhead Pass trail junction with Missouri's ridge.
After grabbing a bagel and breaking camp we headed for Belford at 8:52am. Our goal for the day was Belford, Oxford, then a southeast descent off of Oxford to Pine Creek and our camp.
The Elkhead Pass trail was well defined the entire way up.
Looking northwest at our route up to the pass.
From the trail junction we reached the top of the pass in about forty minutes. Finally cresting Elkhead Pass was another breath-taking moment, similar to the first views of Huron from the previous day.
Looking south from the pass, Harvard and Yale are visible.
We took a break to eat our first of three daily Clif Bars then got back on the trail. As we made our way up the ridge walk, before it heads north towards Belford, we passed a crumbled out section of the ridge.
A view of the rotten class 4 east ridge of Missouri.
The remaining route up Belford doesn't directly follow the ridge like we expected. It curves to the north and gently ascends Belford's southern ridge. We took many breaks on our way up; the packs demanded so.
Belford's summit is intriguing. Wonderfully abrasive, it juts out of the surrounding rock like a defiant step-child. We dropped our packs at the base of the summit and scrambled ten feet to the top. We were once again the only ones on top.
Summit picture with ridge route in the foreground, Harvard in the background.
West facing view from Belford. Elkhead Pass and Missouri are in view.
Taking in the vista with our next target, Oxford, in the background.
Excellent photo of the ridge walk from Belford to the Oxford saddle.
Group summit shot.
At 11:22am, after thirty minutes on Belford's summit we set off for Oxford. I had planned on the ridge and saddle walk to take us about an hour. As we headed over to Oxford the weather turned. Dark clouds settled in and rain was falling in patches around us. We actually walked right past Oxford's summit believing it was further east. After searching for the summit marker for a few minutes we realized our error and headed back to the true summit of Oxford. At 12:38pm, the three of us stood on top.
Northeast view into the valley. Elbert is visible from this picture.
Excellent resting area with rock wall for wind break.
Southwest view into the upper Pine Creek basin.
After a short break for another Clif Bar and an attempt to call our families we began the descent. Our goal was to find the southeast ridge and make our way, albeit with some bushwhacking, to Pine Creek. We had stayed on Oxford's summit for thirty-one minutes.
After a short spell of boulder hopping what appeared to be the ridge was before us. We checked the GPS and NG topo, discussed our options, and headed down.
Brief rest after the initial boulder hopping.
Examining the route.
What we thought was the beginning of the southeast ridge.
Shortly after this point things got ugly fast. We quickly realized that we had missed the ridge but attempting to regain the ridge meant crossing some very dangerous terrain. We had gone down far enough and the weather continued to worsen. It was imperative to get down as fast as possible.
The next two hours and thirteen minutes were terrifying. We had ended up just short of the ridge and found ourselves in the middle of a nasty scree, mud, and loose-dirt gully. Mix in a few hundred monstrous nettle bushes and things got very interesting. As we slid down at an aggressive angle it became obvious that we were not comfortable with the situation. About every five minutes someone would loose a big rock and then we would all stop and watch as it gained considerable speed and ricocheted down the gully.
With no helmets we made the decision to descend the gully single file to a safe point. After finding solid perches high up we went down, one by one. I went first and admittedly put speed ahead of safety. My thought was if worse comes to worse I'll just fall back on my butt. Most of my descent was spent leaning back and sliding. I would jump, lean into the mountain, and slide down five to ten feet, then repeat. At times my pants bore the brunt of the load as the only option was to slide on my butt.
I felt somewhat responsible for leading us into this nasty mess and I was not about to hold up the rest of the group. After close to thirty minutes I located a massive boulder at the bottom of the gully and took refuge behind it.
Watching the rest of the group come down was gut-wrenching. Every step they took was loose and shaky. I feared for the worse but something assured me they would be ok. With each rock that was loosed I ducked behind my boulder and waited for it to go flying past.
Safely down we took a break to gather ourselves and look at the map. This picture shows the steep upper section of the gully in the upper right hand corner of the image. The southeast ridge that we missed is on the left.
An attempt to convey the steepness of the upper gully, the bottom of it runs directly into my hat.
From that point smooth sailing it was not. It was 5:30pm, we were hungry, and it was getting dark. We still had another two-thousand feet to descend and no trail to follow. Thankfully another team member took over the leading responsibilities.
The fear now was that we would cliff-out. As we bushwhacked through dense forest and rock we passed copious amounts of fresh bear sign and what appeared to be a bear or lion den. Needless to say we had plenty of motivation to continue our descent. The terrain shifted frequently from pine to aspen, molded over rock to soft dirt and fallen trees. After an hour and twelve minutes of stumbling through the woods we broke into a wonderful clearing just west of Little John's cabin.
A nice view of the forest we bushwhacked through. The offending gully is upper-right.
We ventured west up the Pine Creek trail in search of a campsite. After about a quarter mile we found an excellent spot forty feet south of the Pine Creek trail down a somewhat steep grade, within twenty feet of the creek.
As we set camp we were very happy to not have sustained any serious injuries. We had endured a few bumps and bruises, scratches and cuts, but otherwise we were ok. Our Day 3 plan of hiking up the north face of Harvard was unanimously cut. At some point during the gully descent we laughed at the thought of slogging forty-pound packs up that behemoth. Not after a day like this. Day 3 would be a rest day. We would get as close to the Silver Creek trail head as possible, setting us up for a bid on Mt. Yale.
Mentally and physically exhausted the rushing creek and soft bed of pine needles made for the best evening of rest the entire trip. I fell asleep thankful for our safe descent and excellent weather, anticipating what the next day had in store.
Click the following link for day three and four of our adventure:
Day 2 Elevation Profile:
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):