Ah, the Sawatch Range of Colorado. The 14ers in this range have to be some of my least favorite in the state. I thought I had completed all the 14ers in the Sawatch a few years ago, but with Amy wanting to complete all the 14ers as well, I find myself repeating many of these hulking giants for a second time. We hadnít been over 14,000 feet for almost two months, and after learning on 14erworld that the road to the Missouri Gulch Trailhead was passable, the plan was set to hike Mt. Belford and Mt. Oxford on Saturday.
Our routine of driving to the trailhead the night before and sleeping in the 4runner had become a little rusty over the winter, so we didnít depart Boulder until after 7 p.m. Traffic on I-70 was nonexistent, so it was smooth sailing through Leadville and down Chaffee County Road 390 to Missouri Gulch. When we arrived around 10 p.m. there was only one other car in the parking lot, a party that must have backpacked up the gulch and camped out. It didnít take long to set up shop in back of the 4runner and the fresh, cold mountain air put us to sleep in no time.
The alarm sounded at 5:30 a.m. and after savoring the warmth of our sleeping bags for just a little longer, we ate breakfast and packed our gear. One guy pulled up as we ate breakfast and started hiking about 30 minutes before we got started. We began hiking at 6:30 a.m. and the steep trail quickly warmed us up. The trail was covered with snow but it was firm enough that we could leave our snowshoes on our packs. The morning was glorious and soon we were sweating, the kind of sweat that streams down your face. Unzipping all the vents on my softshell helped and we continued upward, making quick work of switchback after switchback. Amy bet that we would catch and pass the guy who left before us within an hour and a half. I thought it would take less than that, and after 50 minutes we passed the guy below the stream crossing and quickly left him in our wake. Ok, it was more of a ripple really.
We reached the old log cabin after 1 hour and the views up Missouri Gulch began opening up in front of us. Missouri Mountain was blanketed with a healthy covering of snow and didnít appear to be safely accessible. About 20 minutes above the cabin we could see the route up Belford was mainly snow-free, so we decided we had lugged the snowshoes far enough. We took a 20-minute break to stash our snowshoes and adjust our clothing situation since the wind had kicked up making it quite cold in the shadowy confines of the gulch.
Climbing almost 2,500 feet in about a mile, the trail up the west slopes of Mt. Belford definitely does not mess around. We decided it was time to get the mp3s streaming to motivate us to tackle the steep slopes above. The CFI has done a good job on the lower portion of the route building a nice rock Staircase to the Sky. Song after song we kept plugging away at the slopes, following the trail where we could, and kicking steps up the snowfields when necessary. Belfordís west slopes seemed endless but eventually we topped out on a shoulder and casually strolled to the summit. We reached the summit of Mt. Belford right at 10 a.m., taking us 3.5 hours to make the 4,500 foot ascent. We signed the register and noticed many familiar names from 14erworld in there. I decided I better put on my gaitors since it looked like we would have to do some plunge stepping down some snowfields over to Mt. Oxford. The high peaks of the Sawatch Range stood tall in all directions. Mt. Harvard dominated the scene to the south with Missouri Mountain commanding attention to the west. After about 30 minutes we pressed onward towards Mt. Oxford.
The trail drops steeply off Mt. Belford and plunge stepping down some snowfields had us quickly at the low point of the Belford / Oxford saddle. It is a nice gradual climb up to Oxfordís summit where we topped out around 11:30 a.m. Mt. Oxfordís summit is a little more unadorned than Belfordís, but does provide a more impressive view of Mt. Harvard. There are two highpoints and Oxfordís summit, and each one looks higher while standing on the other. We spent about 30 minutes on the summit eating and soaking up the views before the amplified wind chased us back towards Mt. Belford.
The route back to Mt. Belford had a high misery factor since the wind was blasting us head on now. I had to cinch down my hood to keep it from blowing off repeatedly and I cranked up the mp3s again to drown out the wind. We passed a lone gentleman at the base of the steep slopes below Mt. Belford who wasnít the same guy we passed earlier. It was quite a grind up the steep slopes with the wind gusts strong enough to stop us in our tracks. We persevere and make it back to Mt. Belford at 1 p.m.
As we begin the steep descent back down Belfordís west slopes, we stop to chat with two guys whose tent we passed in Missouri Gulch earlier in the morning. They wanted the snow to soften up so they chose to make a really late start from their campsite. We made good time down the west slopes, taking advantage of snowfields whenever we could. Back in Missouri Gulch the wind ceased and the day had become quite pleasant. We took a 30-minute break to eat, shed layers, and soak up the sun.
We depart again and luckily the larger snowfields we had to cross again held our weight. We reach our snowshoes and decide to carry them for now. Below the log cabin things get a little more interesting. Thereís a 1-foot wide path in the snow where everyone has walked. If you stay on this path the snow holds your weight. Step off of it even an inch in either direction and you sink into the snow up to your waist. We know itís a short distance back down to the stream crossing where snow conditions will improve, so we comically continue downward, feeling out the snow with our feet and poles almost like a blind person would. I can always tell when Amy sinks in behind me because of the 4 letter expletives bouncing off the rock walls of Missouri Gulch. I throw a few out of my own here and there, blaming too many episodes of The Sopranos for my language. After many 4 letter words we reach the stream crossing and find somewhat better snow conditions. The trail is so narrow and full of depressions and divots, that snowshoes would probably make the descent worse. We sink, slip and slide back down the switchbacks so much that once we reach dry ground, our muscles donít know how to walk normally anymore. Kind of like when youíre on a boat all day long and then get back on dry land.
After 11 miles, 5,900 vertical feet, and 5,241 calories the glorious site of the trailhead comes into view. We arrive back at 3:30 p.m. bringing our roundtrip hiking time to 9 hours. Amy and I havenít had a 6,000 vertical foot day since the Boulder Skyline Traverse a few months ago and definitely feel the efforts. Besides being a good workout, this hike is also a good acclimation hike since around 3 to 4 hours are spent over 13,500 feet. As we head back down Chaffee County Road 390 we are both excited for different reasons. Amy is excited to have 2 new 14ers under her belt and is now up to 42 total. Iím excited she only has 2 more left in the Sawatch Range, which means I only have 2 left in the Sawatch RangeÖagain.