My girlfriend Becky and I didn't have anything planned for the weekend, so we wanted to get out and do something. Three 14ers sounded like as good a time as any, so Friday night we were off to the Sawatch Range.
Our goal was to climb Mount Belford (14,197), Mount Oxford (14,153), and maybe Missouri Mountain (14,073).
There was plenty of camping along the gravel road leading to the Missouri Gulch Trailhead, the bulk of which was about 1 mile East of the trailhead. We pitched our tent, and after a 5 minute battle with a can of beans (Ben armed with a rock: 1, Can of beans: 0), we were eating a nice Mexican salad prepared by Iron Chef Becky.
We awoke at 4:00am, brewed some coffee, ate some cereal, and left the Missouri Gulch Trailhead (9,600 feet) by headlamp at 4:45am. We worked up through the switchbacks in the forest quickly, and by 5:30am we were above treeline.
A few parties had started before us, and we met them along the way - it was refreshing to see other people taking advantage of a nice alpine morning. The weather was really weird and overcast at sunrise, which made it difficult to read - a few low foggy clouds with high overcast. Really nothing too concerning as things didn't seemed to be building, especially that early in the morning.
Pretty early on in the day we made the decision not to attempt Missouri. From low in the valley it looked like a pretty challenging outing in its own right (and a nightmare after two fourteeners); lots of snow, lots of coldness, and basically just dangerous without an axe.
The switchbacks up to Belford were in great condition, but relentless. The temperature dropped considerably as we ascended the mountain. We crossed a good sized snowfield on the final 500 feet of Belford, and summited at 7:45am. We stayed on this summit for maybe 10 mins, then eyed up the neighboring Oxford.
Apparently the easiest way to climb Oxford is by first climbing Belford, so now was as good a time as any (even though we didn't really feel like it after climbing 4,600 feet). The weather looked like it was holding and the traverse looked pretty cavalier, so we went for it. Oh how looks can be deceiving!
The ridge basically dropped straight down a rocky switchback some 700 feet (so the guy with the altimeter tells me), and then went gradually back up to Oxford as the trail crossed short easy sections of snow. After briefly bonding with a marmot, we gained the summit of Oxford at 9:00am. Unfortunately, some of the low fog/clouds started to roll over the saddle of the ridge, effectively destroying the view. We left this summit at about 9:15am to re-traverse the same ridge back to Belford, which ended up being the crux of the day.
For the first time this season I started to get a little altitude sickness. I hadn't been drinking enough water, and I could feel my heartbeat in my brain (which nicely complimented the headache I had going). Becky was regretting doing weights with her legs the day before, and vowed never to do so again. With much relief, we regained the summit of Belford at 10:15am. By now we had climbed 6,000 feet (and descended 1,300) and had been above 13,500 ft for about 2.5 hours!
After approximately 7 seconds of celebration on the summit, we bolted for the car. Within 45 minutes of leaving the summit, the weather finally started to deteriorate with a light sprinkle. By the time we were back at the trailhead, the sprinkle had worked its way up to full on rain. Its hard to say what conditions were like up high, but I think its safe to assume: "not good."
We descended the 4,600 feet in 2 hours flat, rounding out the car to car time at 7.5 hours. By the end of it we were pretty beat, but happy with the full day effort. It's a lot of up and down!
4:45am Missouri Gulch TH (9,600)
7:45am Belford (14,197)
8:20am Belford Oxford saddle (13,500)
9:00am Oxford (14,153)
9:40am Belford Oxford saddle (13,500)
10:15am Belford (14,197)
12:15pm Missouri Gulch TH (9,600)
There is no substitute for an alpine start! We saw way too many parties that started after 9:00am, and I think its safe to say that none of them were successful (considering the weather).
Read the weather before you commit to Oxford, it looks closer than it is! You are very exposed to the elements with not much option for escape if you commit to it. It took us 3 hours to climb Belford, and 2 hours to get to Oxford and back - so if it took you 5 hours to climb Belford, you should be confident that you have at least a 3 hour weather window before you attempt Oxford. >>All the more reason to get the alpine start!<<