Pecks Peak - 13,270 feet
Mt. Belford - 14,202 feet
Mt. Oxford - 14,158 feet
Pecks Peak - 13,270 feet
Mt. Belford - 14,202 feet
Mt. Oxford - 14,158 feet
|Pecks Bel Ox winter lessons learned|
This is a combined report of 2 attempts at snowflaking Oxford – the first (unsuccessful) via the standard Belford summer route, then the second (successful) coming up via Pecks Peak to Belford to Oxford.
Included in this report will be:
Stats for successful 3 peak route:
Mileage: ~16.75 miles
Total elevation gain: ~6,600ft
Total time: 15 hours, 46 minutes
Difficulty: Class 2 if on route; very brief class 3 if off route (see "Navigational Error #1: Class 3 Oops on the way to Belford")
As usual, look for large bolded section headers if you want to quickly zoom in on a particular topic/piece of beta.
One of the tough things about this route, unless you get lucky with a very low snow window, is the extra mileage to reach the summer trailhead. In my case the road was plowed to within 3.1 miles of the summer trailhead making for an added 6.2 miles roundtrip (yes, that's 6.2 miles, not 6.0 - you can really feel every bit of that extra 0.2 miles by the end of a day like this...)
It should probably be noted that there appears to technically be no parking here in winter as the road ends in a snowplow turnaround area but I made sure to arrive on a day when I was 100% sure there was no new snow that would need to be plowed and tucked my Jeep as far into the corner of the very generously large turnaround region as I could just in case.
Beyond that point snowmobiles and such helped ensure a well packed road to and beyond the summer trailhead but evidence from the first hundred feet or so past the end of the plowing showed that road made a mockery of even the best 4WD vehicles which tried in vain to go up it.
If you're lucky you might have some old tracks to follow at least up to the old avy scar where's there's a good chance you'll need to do some re-trenching due to the wind filling everything in. Then you may or may not get the benefit of someone else's trenching labor up to the old cabin and out the the turnoff for Pecks. After that, expect to find your own way.
If you're concerned about the old avy zone you can read my extensive analysis of the slight danger for this particular route here: Belford/Oxford with avalanche analysis
Gaining Pecks Peak
There's not a trail going up Pecks Peak but I'll provide detail on exactly where I turned as well as thoughts on other possibilities.
A quick disclaimer: THE SLOPES GOING UP PECKS PEAK ARE POTENTIAL AVALANCHE TERRAIN!!! However, they tend to be scoured enough by the wind for this to not be a problem. But do take note just in case!
Basically I turned left (east) off of the summer Belford trail just shortly before the split of the Belford and Missouri routes. In retrospect I could probably have done ok going up to the Belford/Missouri split as well.
Based on photos it doesn't look like turning prior to where I did would have been too bad but the slope shading shows it being steeper so I stuck with this lower angle approach, though I was somewhat following some summer GPX tracks from the library which pulled me slightly uphill of the lowest angle approach which might have been a smidge easier.
I went a ways past the big gash in the slopes of Pecks Peak before turning to start the ascent.
From either just past the revegetation sign sign or from the Belford/Missouri split the idea is to blaze your own trail up the path of least resistance. There will be a somewhat obvious low angle option that gradually becomes more obvious as you cut left (east) off the Belford trail to Pecks.
I debated a few times as it became clear that I was rising above the lowest angle approach as to whether or not I wanted to maintain my current heading.
Basically there's a trade-off:
Bottom line: if you're only going for Belford, take the lowest angle approach! If you want Pecks as well: pick your poison - low angle with backtrack or higher angle without.
The Rest Step
I'll pause here to speak about the "rest step" which I've heard occasionally referenced by people on this site. I'm not 100% sure if the version of it I'll describe below fully matches the true official rest step but this is my rendition of it and I felt like it was indeed helpful.
The idea behind the rest step is simple but it's a little more precise than merely resting with each step - it's important how you position your body as you do this rest step if you want the full benefits. Here's my rendition of it:
I tried this technique on both that never-ending slope up Belford's standard route and the long slopes of Pecks. I reached the following verdicts:
Verdict #1: The rest step is very valuable for controlling heart rate and breathing and keeping your legs going at an acceptable rate up steep slopes.
Verdict #2: The rest step will only take you so far if you're a weekend warrior who doesn't really exercise during the week... (I worked on that a bit after my failed first attempt where I turned back after collapsing on Belford's summit).
Missouri Mountain from across the valley
For reference, here are a few photos from these two trips looking across at Missouri Mountain. While there were some people reporting successful summits on the very days I was out there on these adjacent peaks, I took one look over at the heavily loaded slopes and thought - oh my goodness, they're going up that?!?!
Maybe those folks are crazy or maybe they're avy experts or perhaps I'm just an avy chicken but I have no plans of risking slopes like that at this stage in my winter experience.
But for the record, here are several photos from these trips showing the options (or lack thereof) for gaining the ridge to Missouri.
Navigational Error #1: Class 3 Oops on the way to Belford
Now back to the route and onto a description of the first minor navigational error. This could have easily been avoided by a little more research ahead of time or a little closer observation in the field but my laziness in not wanting to drop even a little elevation gave me a couple brief moments of trepidation.
In summer I would typically be drawn to just such features as this to add a sprinkle of spice to an otherwise tame class 2 route. In winter, at least so far, I tend to try to keep my routes pretty tame.
As is - though it briefly felt worse at the time - upon review I think all I did was hit a very short, mild class 3 stint. But in comparison to the class 1 or 2 that makes up most of this route it grabbed my attention simply due to the contrast.
I've annotated these photos with the orange line at the right showing the easiest way (drop down a bit from the ridge); the blue line in the middle showing a notch that I'd probably do in summer just for grins, and the red line off to the left which is where I got lured over to with the hope of not needing to descend for what I wasn't sure would even be a better bypass anyways. That's where I hit a little class 3.
On the way back I confirmed dropping down to the right (or left when coming from Belford) is a much smoother route. Objectively the class 3 that I did on the opposite side wasn't terrible but the contrast from strolling across a flat ridge to suddenly engaging all 4 limbs made it feel more dramatic than I think it otherwise would have.
If you intentionally want a little scramble to break things up, go this way. But with a hike this long, if you just want to get these peaks in the most efficient way then stick with the orange line.
I'm including below a few shots from the Belford only trip to show a different angle on this ridge from Pecks.
Other than that one hump with the minor notch obstacle near the top, it's a pretty tame stroll overall getting to Belford.
The final approach to Belford offers an optional chance for the most spice you'll find on this route. I didn't really look close enough to properly judge but I'm guessing you could get some gratuitous class 4 or above if you did a direct assault on the summit block.
But with so many miles left in the day I opted to just swing around to the right and join up with the summer trail to gain the summit.
Belford Northwest Ridge vs. Belford from Pecks Peak
I wanted to briefly call this out in it's own section since I've now done Belford 4 times: twice in winter, once in summer and once in the shoulder season. In 3/4 I used Belford's Northwest Ridge. This last time I went up via Pecks Peak.
To me the difference is night and day and I don't think I'll ever hike up Belford's northwest ridge again if I come back this way. What's the difference?
To some that may not make much of a difference - I suppose it's as much a phycological thing as an actual physical challenge but the ascent via Pecks just felt a lot less grueling to me. And there was only so much rest stepping I could endure going up Belford's Northwest Ridge...
Traversing to Oxford
In summer the traverse to Oxford is pretty ho-hum other than being a really stinking long seeming addition to the day. In winter it's a mixed bag depending on conditions.
On my first trip, when I sputtered out at Belford, the ridge looked really, really dry. By my second trip it was still overall relatively dry thanks to the wind but there were some notable chunks of snow coming down off Belford to add a little flavor.
In some places the snow was soft, in other spots hard as a rock. Traction is recommended for that stint.
One last thing I'll note: while the worst part of this is regaining the 700ft to go back over Belford on the way back, DON'T expect gaining Oxford to be quick/easy! I made the classic mental blunder after crossing most of the ridge of thinking 'oh, it's just right up here' and of course the final climb up the far side of that ridge went on and on and on as soon as I adopted that mindset.
It's a very long, monotonous - albeit not terribly steep - trudge up to Oxford. If you mentally brace yourself for that it shouldn't be too bad except you'll already have LOTS of miles and elevation under your belt at this point in the day.
A Series of Blunders/Questionable Decisions
Here's where a series of blunders/questionable decisions started to stack up and lead me down a path that could have ended very poorly but thankfully didn't. I'm confessing them here as a cautionary tale for others to learn from/be reminded by.
It started after I had made it over to Oxford and dropped my pack in the ring of rocks that may or may not be the actual summit (yes, I did go on slightly further to the other obvious contender for the highest point and tagged every possible highest rock).
After completing that obligatory obsession I came back and collapsed in that ring of rocks where I could be more or less sheltered from the rather cold wind that had been pestering but not really hampering me throughout the day.
After chugging some hot apple cider from my thermos, breaking off semi-frozen pieces of my Pro-bar to melt and chew in my mouth and adjusting my boots, etc I become aware of a distinct alteration in the ambient noise level.
I heard what must have been a jet buzzing the summit of Belford - no actually it was more like the entire USAF flying by in one huge formation 100ft above the ground!
Anyone who has done more than a handful of winter summits on other than perfect bluebird days probably knows exactly what I'm talking about. That horrible roar that tells you the s**t is hitting the fan...
The photo below as it was starting to crank up doesn't do justice at all to how strong the wind got back - right before I needed to cross back over that ridge!!!
All winter long I had lugged around some emergency layers in my excessively large winter pack (which is the same as my summer camping pack if that gives you any idea...).
Those layers had stayed untouched in the bottom of my pack all winter long. Today they came out. ALL OF THEM!!!
The windchill forecast from NOAA called for -25F wind chill with gusts up to 48mph. Open Summit called for gusts up to 68mph (their app doesn't specify windchill).
I'm not 100% sure what the actual number was but, based on previous experience (see The Devil is Bald) I'm guessing it was likely somewhere between those 2 forecasts.
My layering was as such:
Oh, actually I technically didn't have everything out - my Eskimo type hat that I wore to the last Winter Welcomer was still in the bottom of my pack along with an emergency blanket - other than that my pack was pretty near empty of additional layering options.
Questionable Decision #1
So as you might imagine, the above layering, together with the exertion of hurrying across the ridge back to Belford while trying to remain standing upright, kinda pushed me to the overly warm side of things despite the negative double digit wind chill.
But I was paranoid about even partly opening any pit zips or other zippers for fear of converting myself into a parachute in wind that was regularly causing me to stagger across the ridge so I left every single layer on and cinched/sealed tight.
The leeward side of the ridge had lots of steep snowfields that I didn't want to mess with (plus I knew from mighty Cameron that winds can sweep down even the leeward sides of slopes). I also knew from the previously referenced experience on Bald Mountain that hiking on the top of a narrow ridge in strong winds is decidedly unpleasant.
So that left me to hike on the side of the ridge receiving the full brunt of the wind.
In any other conditions the sort of layering I had on now would have turned me into a soggy mess of sweat. Part of the reason I'm at least somewhat confident in the numbers reported is that I only ever got just slightly sweaty despite the mass of layers I had on.
So a little sweat in exceedingly cold temps vs. a chance of wind ripping layers away... it was probably the right call but flirting with trouble.
Questionable Decision #2
The next judgement call was also a little tricky - do I press on hard despite growing fatigue in the hopes of regaining the main trail down in the valley before sunset or do I take time for adequate rest after hoofing it rather quickly across the ridge from Oxford back up to Belford?
I opted for a somewhat brief rest behind the partial shelter of Belford's summit block and then decided to keep pushing hard to get down to the valley as the sun sank lower and lower.
Again, I've learned the hard way how amazingly fast temperatures can plummet if you're at 14k when the sun sets, and I knew the wind might have obliterated any tracks I might otherwise have been able to follow to get me back to the trail, so I had reason to keep pushing, but at the same time that set me up for the next decision in this chain of events...
Questionable Decision #3 / Navigational Error #2
Now is where the stakes started to raise. I'm still up near 14,000ft, I'm exhausted, I'm a little overheated since I'm still being battered by strong wind - now pretty much direct in my face - that's making reluctant to remove layers. I've less than an hour of daylight left and I still have roughly 7 miles to hike to get back to the Jeep, with thousands of feet of elevation to drop in that span, and a likely obscured trail to try to locate down in the valley.
My options were:
1) Take the standard trail down Belford (but not knowing if anyone had been up that route since the last snowstorm which likely obliterated my tracks from a couple weekends ago).
2) Follow the ridge back over towards Pecks and drop down there (knowing there's not an established trail and my tracks from the morning might already have been blown away).
I decided to go with the standard descent down Belford since it was straightforward and I had done it a few times before. Here's where the 2 earlier decisions piled on to put me in a mental state where I started making what could have turned into serious blunders.
Ii think basically every time I've come down Belford I've made the same exact mistake. There's a spot right around 13,900ft where you're strolling down the ridge and suddenly the trail takes a sharp right. I overshoot that turn EVERY SINGLE TIME! There's a large lump of rocks just past that which I always find myself among before I notice something doesn't seem right and I turn and look back to my right to see the trail back over there.
As I started down the ridge, sure enough, I saw a clump of rocks ahead of me! Dang it, not again!! I do this every single time!!
So I turned to my right and looked back... but the trail wasn't in the right spot... I could see some tracks but something wasn't quite right about their position in relation to the trail...
Normally I would have pulled out my GPS at this point for a quick check to easily get me back on track. But in the hurry to layer up against the intense winds before leaving Oxford I had left my phone in the pocket of one of my now buried layers. With the wind still being pretty intense I decided to NOT unzip and dig down for my phone to check my position.
I turned and walked a little more to the rocks ahead, sure that I'd get my bearing upon hitting that all too familiar clump of deceiving rocks. But as I staggered back and forth while being blasted by the wind I only got more disoriented. I convinced myself that way would lead me down to Elkhead Pass (not realizing until reviewing the trip afterwards that the route to Elkhead Pass is on the opposite side of Belford).
So I turned and went towards the tracks I could see, feeling certain it would all make sense once I went along a little ways.
Well, I soon recognized I was heading back over to Pecks Peak but by that point it I felt it was too late to change course. It wasn't until studying my tracks at home that I figured out where I went wrong.
It took no small studying of the map and my tracks to eventually realize that my typical overshoot of the Belford standard route is shown in the photo up above where the blue line goes into yellow circle 1. At that pile of rocks is where I always realize I lost the trail and look back to my right and see it.
But on this late afternoon, being tired, overheated, beaten by the wind, etc I came upon the rocks shown in circle 2 and thought they were the pile of rocks in circle 1 that I always encounter after overshooting the hard right on the way down. So I knew to stop and look back to my right but the tracks I saw in the distance were too far away and not quite at the right angle (you can see from my orange tracks that I was actually exactly on course at the moment I thought I had done my typical overshoot).
I knew something wasn't right but I was disoriented and anxious to reach the main trail in the valley before dark so I went for those tracks anyways. It fortunately didn't take too long to realize they were my tracks from Pecks Peak that morning.
At that point I didn't want to try to backtrack more so I decided to just go back down Pecks.
More Questionable Decisions
As I started to head back towards Pecks Peak I was thinking in my mind of that low angle approach that I had been a little to the left of coming up. In my mind, I just needed to stroll a little ways over then drop down into that bowl and be home free.
A time or two I did in fact start to angle a slight bit downward but was puzzled and disturbed by the terrain I saw below me.
Finally I made a smart decision and knelt with my back to the wind to dig out my GPS. 'Oh yeah dummy, that was a long ridge stroll to get over here' I told myself as I groaned with the realization that I was now going to have to walk along another long stretch of wind blasted ridge before I could be confident I could safely drop down and regain the trail (I was lucid enough to not risk plunging down the North Face Couloirs route, solo in waning light without known the route or the conditions).
But I finally decided to get off the ridge and started plunging down as soon as I thought I could hopefully connect with that lower angle route back to the valley. I crisscrossed a bit to try to minimize the amount of wind blasting me direct in the face.
Upon finally getting down near the valley floor and at last finding a place pretty much out of the wind I dropped my heavy pack and started to unzip my outer layer only to have the wind change direction and blast me hard again.
Cursing the wind I zipped back up, pulled on my pack and pushed on trying to reach the site of the cabin ruins where the trees get thicker. By now it was getting dark but I was getting irrationally irritated with the wind and forged ahead without pulling out my headlamp. I lost the trail a couple times in the growing darkness before finally getting a grip on myself and realizing this is how disasters happen.
So I forced myself to stop and extract my headlamp, check my GPS and get back on the trail - soon finding the ruins of the cabin. I then waited to get down past the avy scar (which I knew would be wind blasted) before finally peeling off several of the extra layers I had on. From there it was a long but uneventful trek of several more miles back to the Jeep.
Mileage: ~16.75 miles
Total elevation gain: ~6,600ft
Total time: 15 hours, 46 minutes
4:14am Departed from where the plowing stops
5:28am Almost overshot the summer trailhead
6:44am Reached the start of the old avy zone
7:17am Reached the top of the old avy zone
7:29am At the cabin ruins where I took a 20 minute break
8:27am Turn to head up Pecks
10:46am Summit of Pecks Peak
12:30pm Summit of Belford
12:53pm Continue to Oxford
1:33pm At the saddle
2:26pm Oxford summit (but a little later I look closer at my GPS...)
2:39pm Oxford's other damn summit (mumble, mumble, grumble)
2:54pm Start return to Belford in crazy wind
4:16pm Back on Belford AGAIN (I'm getting a little sick of this summit...)
8pm sharp Finally back at the Jeep
GPX tracks note: These tracks are a cleaned up combination of my Belford only hike and the Pecks version with the navigational blunders edited out.
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
|Comments or Questions|
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