Peak(s):  Mt. Belford  -  14,197 feet
Date Posted:  03/29/2019
Date Climbed:   03/28/2019
Author:  amderr22
 Mt. Belford - Where's the trail... and forest?   

I've tried to climb Mt. Belford twice before: once back in August when thunderstorms turned us around just past where the trail splits off from Missouri Mountain route, and again in November with a friend where we made it to the Ridge but wind and snow sent us home. This time, I was determined to make it up: I brought crampons for the Ridge (I recalled last time the mix of snow, ice and rock, in steep terrain, was a bit daunting), snowshoes for the advance, and started around 5am to give myself plenty of time. I thought I had worked in enough margin for error to still climb Belford and Oxford too if I was lucky.

I woke up around 3:30 in my Leadville motel, grabbed my gear and some coffee, and jumped into my car. I didn't know how far I'd be able to make it to the trailhead- past trail reports seemed to suggest it could be anywhere from half a mile to 3 miles at this point. Based on averages, I figured it would be around 2 miles or less. Of course, it was 3 miles: In my 2WD vehicle I wasn't prepared to drive on hard ice, miles from cell coverage. That added 2 miles round-trip, which made a difference later on. The approach itself wasn't difficult at all, things were still very frozen and there were snowmobile tracks to follow, providing plenty of traction. A little over an hour later I arrived at the trailhead, just as the first signs of of dawn were visible.

The moment I stepped off the snowmobile tracks there, I sunk into a foot of snow. I pulled out my snowshoes, and headed for the bridge. There was no trench, but there were faintly visible tracks: From a skiller, a hiker, and what looked like a dog. They were my guide through the switchbacks and into the Gully itself. This is where things got weird. Anyone who's taken this trail knows of the stream crossing around 10'800 feet. It's a nice little clearing and after passing you take a series of switchbacks through pine forests up into the gulch further. When I rounded the corner below the crossing, I ran into a pile of timber: snapped logs and piles of snow... never a good sign. Entering the clearing... or what I think is the clearing, I saw a massive avalanche runout where there once was a forest. The trail in that section was impossible to see, if it was there at all. The tracks I had been following all split into different directions: some crossed the creek into the remaining forest, others headed right up the gully. I wasn't sure what to do next. I could tell that there had been snowfall since this run, so I wasn't exactly sure how stable the slope was, footprints or not. I spent at least 20 or 30 minutes there looking at my maps and GPS to figure out where the trail was supposed to be, and try to map out a route that was safe now, and would still be on the return with the warming snow. I finally decided to climb up the slop along the trees in what seemed to be the most gradual part of the slope. Things seemed stable, and it was clear that there was a lot of debris helping solidify things from the trees and branches poking out from the snow. I should have taken a picture from the bottom, but here's one from the top looking down at what used to be forest.


The red marks the now cleared area below. You can tell that it's a path from the demarcation between new and old trees, but from their age, this slide probably hasn't run like this in decades, if not longer.


Walking along the top of the runout, looking across the gulch, I could see that his avalanche was fed, and probably sparked, by a larger slide from one of the valley peaks above us. A good reminder for me to look up periodically as I hiked along.


At this point, I hugged the gully before popping out by the log cabin, barely visible under 4-5 feet of snow. I pushed a bit further, finding the snow was largely windblown here with a hard crust. On a rocky outcrop, I stopped for a snack, and switched into microspikes, stashing my snowshoes. The snow here was very stable, and on the rare occasion my foot broke through, I found solid snow just next to it. Here's what this area looked like, looking down the gulch.


I finally reached the base of the Northwest Ridge, which is really the crux of the climb. In the summer you've got a clearly marked trail with steps. I got a steep, icy and snow covered rock wall, and I was glad to have the crampons and ice axe. I took my time, finally reaching the ridge proper, and swapped to microspikes as the slope decreased and snow became more sparse. Here's a picture climbing up the beginning of the ridge.


I slowed down a lot at this point: It was a steeper climb, the wind picked up with gusts strong enough to force me to pause moving and hug the ground, and I was getting absolutely exhausted. I could tell that extra mile had drained me... and reminded myself I had another on the way back. Looking at my watch, my 11am turn-around time came, and went. I was still at13,600 ft according to my GPS. I decided it was time to call it and head back, as I was also wary of getting down the steep ridge, especially when exhausted. It's a lot harder to judge those climbers you hear about who make dumb decisions on their return trip at high elevation, when you've been there yourself. I wanted to go on, but it just didn't feel smart given the several unanticipated challenges that day. I stopped and snapped a few pictures from my high point. 19289_06

Looking above at the climb yet to come. It would've been slow and tiring. In hindsight, I'm totally alright having turned around :)


The return trip went as well as can be expected. Things warmed up: I went from 4 layers to 2, and was on the watch for any signs of wet avalanches. Temperatures below treeline were around 35, and the sun was HOT. I was especially concerned about the runout slope, but even there things were stable heading down. I was glad to be at the bottom though. I stopped to take a final picture or two at the bridge at the trailhead and just as I started the road back. Things were wet now, so my snowshoes stayed on all the way back.


I got home and told my roommates I didn't summit. They told me "Oh well, you'll do better next time," but they missed the point completely. For me, mountaineering is about the journey. The summit is nice, but it's just a means to an end: An excuse for wild adventures like this, growing and learning along the way. I learned a lot today, definitely grew, and can't wait to go back for another staf at Belford!

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
The journey...
03/29/2019 11:08
It IS about the journey - I totally agree...

the journey, yes.
03/29/2019 11:24
i stole this from a Smithsonian article about Apsley Cherry-Garrard:
it's not about being the first to get somewhere; it's about falling in love with world, and then going out in it and doing something wild with your friends, as an act of devotion.

beautiful report.

Totally Agreed!
03/29/2019 15:35
@shelly+, I love that quote, thank you! I'm definitely going to steal that for the future!

Another way
03/29/2019 18:38
This route might be a better way to get Belford in winter.
I did it last month. I could have easily walked over and summitted Belford after Oxford, but had already done Belford.

me too
03/30/2019 18:26
Nice report. I, too, had to turn around on Belford in the summer of 2015 (due to lightening) and still want to summit it. Thus I follow reports, like yours, regarding ol' Belford. Maybe 2019 can be the year??

03/31/2019 07:58
Awesome report and some great photos! Way to use your head out there! You€„˘ll get em next time without a doubt.

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