Peak(s):  Mt. Belford  -  14,197 feet
Mt. Oxford  -  14,153 feet
Date Posted:  10/14/2019
Date Climbed:   10/12/2019
Author:  daway8
 Belford/Oxford with avalanche analysis   

Since this a a popular, highly documented and very straightforward route I'm not bothering to document it to the level of detail I've done in some other trip reports. Instead what you'll find in this trip report is:

  • Analysis of last year's avalanche that hit the main trail from the west in an area not previously highlighted as a danger zone.
  • Tricks for knowing if and how often a route has avalanches by using Google Earth historical images and map features which can be combined for a powerful prediction of avalanche danger in certain cases.
  • Several photos showing the start of the snow pack on nearby Missouri Mountain (which may or may not be relevant to some folks depending on if it melts before the next storm).
  • A few general photos/observations to add emphasis to the key traits of this route (windy/tiring).
  • My times

View of the slope going up Belford as seen from clearing below.
Looking up the trail towards Missouri Mountain.

Avalanche Analysis

The standard Northwest Ridge route up Belford from Missouri Gulch has in the past been deemed as a fairly safe route in winter as far as avalanches are concerned, based on descriptions found on the extremely valuable Summitpost site (which has since been updated). But last winter was a historic avalanche season which saw avalanches popping up in many places that weren't previously known to slide and a little detective work during the process of writing this report has shown this was apparently not the first time this path has slid.

Since I really only started paying close attention to avalanches last winter (that was the first time I did any 14ers in winter) I'm still learning the tricks of the trade in how to evaluate avalanche danger but one thing that has become clear in the research I've done so far is that the slopes with the highest risk of producing avalanches are those with a slope angle in the neighborhood of 35-45 degrees (various sources give slightly different numbers). On looking at the map on this site I saw that there is a good section of slopes which are shaded in this range along the approach from Missouri Gulch so I was surprised to hear this route is generally considered safe and not so surprised when I hiked up and saw there was avalanche damage here. map tips:

If you've not played with the map on under the Overlays drop-down on the top right you can turn on "Slope Angle" which shows color-coded shading to represent how steep the slopes are. Note that the shading vanishes if you zoom in too far. As a result you might also want to turn on "Contours" so you can make out the contour lines while zoomed out. It can also be useful to check the box for "14er Routes" to easily line up where the main routes go. Finally, under the "Peaks" drop-down in the top right in the 13ers section you can check "all" to see where other nearby peaks are (this may help if reports reference some 13er you're not familiar with).

Example of map with slope shading, contours and 14er routes turned on and avalanche zone circled.

Image of some of the avy debris along the main trail. This was near 10,800ft.
Another spot of avy debris. Note on the left (east) side there is a pine forest that has large undisturbed trees in the background with smaller ones in front.

As was the case on some of the hikes I did last winter (see for example my trip report: Cosgriff & Company w/ avalanche analysis ) there were some clues that I missed while I was on the actual hike which only jumped out at me after stopping to examine the pictures I was going through to prep this trip report. For example in the photo above I noticed the forest of pine trees on the east side of the valley which had clearly been undisturbed for quite a long time. This told me that the avalanche could not have come from the east side. However, I didn't key in on the medium height pine trees lining the edge of this forest. That should have been my first clue that this region has been swept clean in years past, with the medium height trees having regrown after a past avalanche had stripped the valley bare (this will be even more obvious in the historical Google Earth photos a little ways below).

Part of the main path of the avalanche.
Bare strips on west side of the valley give evidence of some other small slides but the tree pattern shows these didn't cause the main slide.

As I was walking up the trail I was looking all around to try to figure out where the avalanche originated from since there were tall pine trees on both sides of the valley which indicated it hadn't come down those routes, and as I got higher I could also see a stand of tall pine trees covering the far end of the valley so for a moment I was puzzled as to where it could have come from since there were tall pine trees seemingly shielding the valley on all sides. But just before the trail goes back into the trees at about 11,200ft I finally spotted the culprit - a gully on the west side with an unguarded path into the valley.

Getting closer to the source of the slide.
This photo taken on the main trail near 11,200ft shows the gully the avalanche came from.

The interesting thing is this gully dumps down into the creek and there's a hill on the east side of the creek that would seem to offer some protection. But by analyzing the layout of the valley and the direction the trees were laid down it became quickly obvious that the slide had to have come down the gully, into the creek then jumped up onto and over the hill before coming down into the valley and wrecking havoc. The photo below shows an intact wall of trees covering the drainage and thus showing the avalanche did not originate from that path.

Another shot of the gully the slide came from. Note it dropped down into the creek and jumped the small hill on the other side to get into the valley.

Google Earth - how often does this path slide? Just look and see... (at least when trees are involved)

Based on the of the quick research I did online I hadn't seen any mention of avalanche danger on this route but after seeing the above I decided to check Google Earth which has historical satellite images available (just click the "show historical imagery" button which looks like a clock with and arrow pointing back around it). For any peak with a forest at its base this is a powerful tool for spotting paths that are prone to avalanches - and you can even sometimes figure out how often they tend to have avalanches as seen and explained below.

Current Google Earth photo which rough sketch of Belford/Oxford route and circle on region of avalanche.
Google Earth image from 1999. Note the clean shaven line of trees in a pattern swooping out from the circled gully.
Google Earth image from 2006. Note some regrowth in the circled region and in the gully.
Google Earth image from 2015. Note slightly less growth in the gully but much more in the valley but still a distinct line of shorter trees.

As you can see in the photos, this region has various amounts of tree coverage that comes and goes over the years in this area. But even over the last few years when it was getting really overgrown (which is why it would have been easy to miss this from the ground) there is still a distinct difference in the height of the trees in this region as evidenced by the curved shadow along the boundary of the avalanche zone. You can tell from these photos that this spot sometimes goes for several years without an avalanche but it does slide from time to time.

Compare that to the Southeast Ridge route on Mount Elbert (see the trip report I mentioned above) where if you do the same Google Earth historical analysis you'll see that route seems to produce avalanches perhaps just about every year - leaving more or less permanent scars in the forests. I'm quickly learning what an amazingly useful tool the historical satellite images on Google Earth are.

Obviously this technique won't help for areas where there are no trees but then you can switch over to the slope shading on the map and go to websites like Summitpost, check trip reports, etc to get an idea of the likely avalanche danger for a given route. Of course if you're doing peaks in winter or spring you'll want to combine this with avalanche forecasts from CAIC along with learning what to watch for in terms of weather, snowpack, etc. Sometimes a route that looks horribly dangerous can be just fine if the conditions are really good and a spot that has never had an avalanche before can slide if the conditions are really bad - so you need to do some extra homework to hike safely in the winter.

Missouri Mountain early snowpack

I thought it might be useful to document the first main snow of the year in case any of this happens to stick around long enough to be covered by the next storm. If so, this might help provide some clues as to regions which could be of potential concern for forming a potentially weak layer at the base of the snow pack.

Missouri Mountain early season snow pack.
Missouri Mountain early season snow pack.
Missouri Mountain early season snow pack.
Missouri Mountain early season snow pack.

Belford/Oxford general route notes

Like I said before, this route is pretty straightforward and heavily documented so I'll just briefly highlight a few key spots to help emphasize the defining characteristics of this route.

Started seeing some snow near the switchbacks,

The first thing you'll notice on this trail, after a slight dip from the parking lot to the bridge going over the stream, is that this trail gets really stinking steep right out of the starting gate - at least as compared to the much more gradual starting slope of many of the standard route 14ers. There are a whole bunch of switchbacks which ease the angle of the climb but this route really puts your legs and lungs to work right from the start before leveling out somewhat as you come up into the valley.

Slope going up Belford. Note a couple climbers near the top of the main hump for scale.

But just after you've gotten some relief from the climb by going up the more gentle valley then you start the never ending slopes up Belford. I've been up this route a couple times now and it's a freakin beast of a hill that just grinds away at you with its relentless up and up and up and up. I prefer "easier" peaks like Capitol where the elevation gain is broken into shorter stints! (Lol, I'd take Capitol's Knife Edge any day over the relentless slug up Belford - I mean at least the view is great going up Belford but going up and down that slope just seems to take forever).

Getting closer to the top of Belford.
Summit finally coming into view.

Once you finally level out just a little bit then you get - yep, more elevation gain. A lot of mountains are nice enough to break things up with a little ridgeline or something but Belford just goes up relentlessly.

Then comes the trek over to Oxford. Note that most of the people I saw on the mountain that day were turning back without doing Oxford - the most common reason: the wind was freezing them to death! I knew this would be an issue (the forecast called for a -4F wind chill) so I had all the same layers I used when climbing in calendar winter last season and was cozy the whole time but the unprepared (including a guy with just a hoodie) didn't make it past (or in some cases even to) Belford. The wind is relentless and cold on this route - come prepared!!!

A thing to note is that Harvard isn't too far off this route. When I first headed out from Belford I got momentarily disoriented and confused Harvard with Oxford. But the drop in the saddle is MUCH greater between Belford and Harvard vs Belford and Oxford. When I first looked over at Harvard and thought it was Oxford and saw the huge drop in between I was like: "You've got to be kidding me!!!" Then I pulled out my GPS and got my bearings at which point I realized that Oxford was off to the left instead of straight ahead at which point I let out a big sigh of relief.

View from just past Belford looking over to Harvard. Note large drop between peaks.
View from just past Belford looking over to Oxford. Note the significant though smaller drop between peaks.

One thing to note about the route between Belford and Oxford is that much of the drop along the saddle occurs right as you first start down the ridgeline from Belford. This is where the snow packs in the most - much of the ridgeline gets scoured by the fierce winds which seem to almost always blast these peaks, but that little section when you first drop to the ridge had the most snow of any spot on the route - still not a huge amount but worth noting that this spot could pile up as winter approaches.

Starting onto the ridge between Belford and Oxford.
Some miniature wind slabs forming at the top of the ridge coming off Belford.

The trek over to Oxford is very straightforward but when coming back the worst of the gain is after you've done the most walking and have to get back up onto Belford. That can really wear on you. It's tempting to just drop down into the valley and hike out until you realize that's not the same valley you hiked up...

Looking back to Belford from Oxford.
Approaching Belford again after coming back from Oxford.


Below are my times - this was a bit slower than average since it had been almost a month and a half since my last hike and I really felt the time off...

6:52am start from Missouri Gulch (about 10 other vehicles already there)

7:55am reach bottom of avalanche path

8:27am reach origin of avalanche spot (was moving slow, taking lots of photos and notes to analyze the avy path)

8:42am reach remnants of cabin

9am at the trail split between Belford/Missouri

12:05pm Belford summit (oh that stinking, never ending hill climb - might not have been as bad if I hadn't started to get out of shape but uughh, that was a slog...)

12:22pm start for Oxford

12:49pm midpoint of saddle

1:35pm Oxford summit

2:10pm start return trip

3:50pm start down Belford after a long stop

4:52pm back down in the valley below Belford (so glad to get off that never ending slope!)

5:01pm at the trail split

5:57pm back at the Jeep, very tired...

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28

Comments or Questions
Gone w/ the Wind
10/14/2019 10:33
Thanks for the advice on some avalanche sleuthing. Definitely looking to get in some snow hikes myself. I did Missouri that day and it was weird how little wind there was, even on the ridge. I took my gloves and beanie off it was so warm. Not even the 20mph forecasted was accurate for more than maybe a 15min period. Again, thanks for the write-up!

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