RT Length: 11 miles
Elevation Gain: 5967’
I’ve been saving this hike as a practice hike for winter conditions, since the route is relatively straightforward and it has a 2WD trailhead. Unfortunately I don’t have much time in the winter to actually hike, so it had to wait until early spring.
I woke up at 3am and drove to the Missouri Gulch trailhead. There were a few easily manageable mud puddles to avoid, but nothing anyone would get stuck driving through. I made it much faster than I thought, as I was honestly waiting for daylight for this hike. After seeing a herd of elk on 390 I made it to the trailhead at 5:45am. There was one other vehicle in the parking lot, and it looked like it hadn’t been there long (no frost on the windows, etc). This would make my family happy, knowing there was someone else out on the trail today. They hate that I hike alone.
I usually love hiking well before sunrise, but today for several reasons I decided to sit in my truck for a bit and wait:
- I’m not a fan of hiking by graves in the dark. Does anyone else think it’s weird the baby’s grave is so far away from all the others? I mean, it’s across the street and up the hill and everything…
- I really didn’t want to play ‘leapfrog’ with whoever was already hiking on the trail. I figured I’d give them some time to get far enough ahead of me so we wouldn’t need to pass each other/hike together the whole time.
- I’ve heard reports there’s a mountain lion that frequents the area, and I’d rather not run into one in the dark. (side note: I’m not afraid of mountain lions, in fact I’d love to see one while hiking, I’d just rather it be in the daylight)
- But seriously, that baby grave in the dark freaks me out.
I debated for a while which hiking boots to wear (my regular ones or my winter ones) and whether or not to bring my snowshoes. There wasn’t a recent conditions report in the past week or so, and the last one said none were needed. I left the snowshoes in the truck and headed out at 6:15am in my snow boots and winter gear. It was still dark.
I made it about .25 of a mile when something told me to turn around and go back and get those snowshoes. It’s tough to head back after you’ve already started, but the feeling was strong and I thought how mad I’d be at myself if I made it up the trail 3 or 4 miles and needed to turn back because I didn’t have the proper gear. So I hiked back to my truck, pulled them out, and was on my way again.
The trail was covered in slush that quickly turned to packed snow. As I looked on the ground I could see clearly defined mountain lion tracks (noted by size and lack of claw marks) on the trail. Cool! I also saw trails made in the snow that were obviously from a large animal (the mountain lion?) that detached from the main trail and went off into the hillside. The tracks were going the opposite direction, but that didn’t stop me from looking all over for signs of animal life/more tracks. After about 1.5 miles in the tracks disappeared.
20 minutes into my hike I passed the couple belonging to the truck. They didn’t look like they had snowshoes and I felt a bit foolish for carrying mine. The trail was pretty hard packed here, and snowshoes didn’t seem necessary. I briefly asked them if they’d seen the animal tracks, they had, and I was on my way. I never saw them again.
I crossed a small stream and decided the snow was thick enough to put on those snowshoes I’d been carrying.
The snow got thicker, but luckily others had been here in the past few days because there was a pretty good trench all the way to the cabin.
I made it to the cabin much faster than I’d anticipated. I took this trail on my way to Missouri Mountain last summer, and from what I’d remembered it had been a long slog full of switchbacks. But for some reason today it didn’t seem to take me much time at all. The cabin was surrounded in snow.
From here on out snowshoes were mandatory. There was no trail from the cabin through the willows/gulch area, so I had to make my own trail. Luckily I kind of knew how the trail went, since I’d hiked this area before. It was really cool to be breaking my own trail, and doing so successfully! This was the first real time I’ve broken trail: I hiked Humboldt Friday and broke a little bit of trail, but mostly followed others’ tracks. In fact, this was only the second time I’ve ever been snowshoeing, and I kind of liked it! It was so cool to be 5 or more feet above the trail in the snow, traversing over willows instead of around them. There was no way I could have done this a year ago, and I was proud of my route finding.
When I turned around I saw the alpine glow of the sunrise
I stayed by the creek and headed towards the Elkhead Pass/Belford Summit Junction.
The sun was really starting to come up, and the view of Missouri Mountain was fantastic!
This is where the wind really started to pick up. It was relentless for the rest of the day, hovering around 35mph. It looked like all that snow in the gulch was directly blown down from the mountains.
I looked at the route before me up Belford, and as I was ascending thought not for the first time how grateful I was to have gone back for those snowshoes.
The hike up Belford took forever. It just kept going and going and going up, up, and up. And that wind! Without the sunlight that wind was chilling. I just kept moving, pretending it was the Manitou Incline, and trudged up that mountain wearing those snowshoes, breaking trail.
There were several false summits to Belford, which were a bit annoying but anticipated.
Finally (and I mean finally, as I was exhausted) the real summit of Mt Belford came into view and I thought to myself: 4500’ in snowshoes for 4 miles was exhausting!
I was frozen, but set up my gorillapod and camera and took a summit photo.
and just because it was there (they usually aren’t) a photo of the summit marker
I took a look around. The view was magnificent!!!
I didn’t take out my instructions/map, but remembered the route to Mt. Oxford would be clearly visible from this location. It was just 1.5 miles away. I followed the clearly defined path with my eyes and my jaw dropped.
No way! There was no way I was doing that today in these conditions! That’s when I took a closer look, realized I was looking at Mt. Harvard (which I’ve already hiked), breathed a sigh of relief and looked east. There I saw the second summit I was after today: Mt. Oxford.
It looked doable in today’s conditions. That is until I made it to the ridge. The ridge down from Belford to Oxford was covered in snow. There weren’t any tracks to follow (either no one had taken this trail in the past few days or that relentless wind had covered the tracks with snow). As with any hiking/climbing challenge, I don’t make a decision to hike/climb until I’m right up next to the obstacle. I often find it’s easier than it looks when you’re up close. I decided to just take this ridge one obstacle at a time, and if I felt uncomfortable gave myself permission to turn back. This was supposed to be an easy winter 14er, so I should be able to do this, even in these conditions.
I looked for the areas with the least exposure and least snow, and began my descent. It was really cool making tracks! I carefully made each foothold by drawing a line with my trekking pole and stamping it down with my boot, making sure I had a firm stance before traversing.
It was more than I’d anticipated running into today, but nothing I couldn’t handle. Microspikes/snowshoes weren’t needed.
I made it down to the saddle and looked back up at Belford, and then up at Oxford. Wow.
The saddle was dry and came with absolutely amazing views! I stowed my snowshoes and was off.
To the north there was a small cornice that provided interesting views as well.
I looked ahead of me at the route up Oxford. Piece of cake. And it was.
The summit was actually closer than I’d anticipated (the first outcropping, not the second). I took a summit photo.
And another one of the summit marker (because it had one too!)
I turned around to see what I’d accomplished thus far today. What a view of Belford!
I started back, ready to tackle that ridge again head on, and this time uphill. I gathered my snowshoes and kept an eye on the weather, since it was supposed to snow after 3pm (it was currently around noon). While all morning it had been windy and clear the clouds were now starting to form. I hiked back up the ridge using the footsteps I’d made on my way down. It took a while but I was successful!
At the summit of Belford the second time I stopped for a bit to really take in and enjoy the view. Since now the hardest part of the hike was behind me, I felt I could afford to rest for a bit. I sat down at the summit marker and took a deep breath.
After a grueling and extremely windy 6000 feet in elevation gain in 6 miles (in snowshoes) I sat at the summit of Mt Belford, my 3rd 14er Peak today (out and back, so 2nd time here today). Suddenly the wind stopped and all was still. This is what I saw.
Immediately tears came to my eyes. It was like God knew I was the only person in the world with this view and he wanted to show off just for me. I was absolutely mesmerized by the intense beauty before me. It’s the closest thing to a religious experience I’ve ever had. All the hard work of the day and the frozen extremities that came with it was worth it! I sat there for 5 minutes before he picked up the wind again and reminded me to get my butt off that mountain: a storms coming in.
Of course I took another photo, trying and failing to capture the beauty around me.
I walked over the summit and took a look at the rest of the route down to the gulch. It looked like the sun had melted some of that earlier snow.
I was making good time, so I decided to have a little fun and use my remoteness from any other human being to practice some winter skills without embarrassment. Much of the earlier snow was gone, so I was able to safely practice glissading and running down the snow without worrying about sliding too far or out of control. I did this for most of the hike back down, laughing as I went.
Back down at the gulch, this was my view back down towards the cabin and back up at the route I’d come. As you can see, clouds were just beginning to form for that storm anticipated for tonight.
I put my snowshoes back on, crossed a frozen river of ice, and waiting for me on the other side was a ptarmigan. I knew he was a male because he had a red stripe over his eye. He just stood there, looking at me, and then slowly turned towards Missouri Mountain and looked over his shoulder, as if he was beckoning me to follow.
I took several pictures, thanked him for being so cooperative, and followed my snowshoe tracks back through the gulch and down the mountain. It looked like several people had actually hiked up to the gulch today, as around the cabin there were several new ski and snowshoe marks, but no people to be seen. The trench was also a bit more compact than it had been earlier.
The hike back down seemed longer than the hike up, and I kept my snowshoes on for most of it. Somewhere along the way I lost my beanie which was unfortunate (I’ll make another one). As I was nearing the end of my route I kept looking for signs of a mountain lion (nope) or any other form of wildlife (again, nope). As I approached the area with the grave in the daylight I realized I was ‘told’ to get those snowshoes exactly as I passed the grave… Hmmm.
I crossed clear creek and my days hike was over.
On my drive home I thought about the details of today’s hike, and how this is something I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish a year ago. I was glad I’d saved these ‘easy’ 14ers for winter-like conditions, as it allowed me to apply the knowledge I’ve learned thus far (snowshoeing, traversing ridges covered in snow), while giving me time to practice more intense skills in a safe environment (glissading, self arrest, running down a snow field).
Here are some summit videos. The views were amazing!
Video of Mt. Oxford –