Runtrails' Rocky Mountain Journal
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"This is not a walk in the park. You gain almost six thousand feet of elevation if you get to Oxford and back. Bring a lot of water and start as early as possible. I recommend starting an hour before daybreak."
- from the 14ers.com website re: climbing Mts. Belford and Oxford in one day 


[WARNING: lots of photos in this one, over 40. Epic adventures = lots of pictures. They may take a while to download if you have a slow dial-up connection. Just start reading and they will eventually appear]

After several days of no running, but working hard on our volunteer jobs for the LT100 bike race, Jim and I were ready to hit the trail again yesterday (Sunday). We didn't want to do too much because we got up late and were tired from being on our feet all day at Columbine Mine on Saturday.

We drove up into the mining district to about 12,000 feet on Ball Mountain, then climbed to the top (about 12,300 feet) with the dogs and walked around there for a while. We had great views of the Mosquito Range, including Mt. Sherman (middle back of photo), to the east and north:

and the mining district, Leadville, Turquoise Lake, and the Sawatch Range, including Hope Pass, to the west and south:

That satisfied our urge to get out and walk a little bit. We spent the rest of the day, well, resting and doing laundry and planning for new adventures on Monday.


My plan was to climb one or two of the 14ers near Winfield before returning home. I'm in the best shape altitude-wise that I've ever been: I can climb steadily and don't have nausea, headaches, or dizziness at 14,000+ feet. Even though I should be training for a relatively flat, low-altitude 24-hour race in hot and humid North Carolina at the end of September, I was determined to climb another mountain if the weather was good today or Tuesday.

One last hurrah, so to speak.

It's a good little drive from Leadville to Winfield, so Jim's plan was to do just one more hike up to Hope Pass from the south side while he was in the vicinity. The race trail head is conveniently only a couple more miles up Clear Creek AKA Winfield Road from the trail head where I'd be starting. He'd drop Cody and me off at the Missouri Gulch trail head, then drive to the LT100 trail head at Sheep Gulch and take Tater up the mountain at a leisurely pace. It'd be a good chance to acclimate on top if it wasn't too cold or windy while he waited for me.

North side of Hope, looking down at the lake (foreground) near the "Hopeless" aid station location

Since I was planning to run parts of the Continental Divide Trail this summer and not climb several 14ers, I brought the Colorado CDT book but NOT our Colorado Fourteeners book. The information about trail heads that I obtained was from the www.14ers.com website, which was fine because we could print out directions that I could take with me on unfamiliar climbs.

On Sunday I researched the four 14ers that can be reached from the Winfield area: Huron, Missouri, Belford, and Oxford.

Huron Peak (elev. 14,003 feet) appealed to me because our friend Jim Ballard enjoyed the climb and the description sounded like there would be great views. The trail gains 3,500 feet in less than three miles up, which is fairly steep, but the Class 2 trail is pretty good. If I had time, I'd also be able to cross a ridge over to one or more of the Three Apostles, 13ers that are just south of Huron.

Missouri Mountain (14,067 feet, shown below) didn't sound so good. The distance and gain are OK, 4,500 feet in a little over five miles up, but I was concerned about a rocky traverse through a talus slope above tree line and a "difficult Class 2" rock climb near the summit. Photos on the web site show a rock wall that might be difficult for me to climb with arthritic hands and maybe impossible to negotiate if I took Cody with me. He's too heavy for me to lift.

Missouri Mountain, above, as seen from the ascent to Mt. Belford

The Class 2 route to both Belford and Oxford appealed to me the most. The only way up to Oxford is to climb Belford first. If the weather turned bad or I was having any problems, I could turn around on Belford and come back down without doing Oxford, too. However, that would mean another climb up Belford in the future if I ever wanted to "bag" Oxford.

As the quote said, doing both summits is no walk in the park. There is a 4,600-foot gain from the Missouri Gulch trail head to the summit of Belford at 14,197 feet. You drop down a steep, rough trail to ~13,500 feet in the saddle between the two mountains, climb back up to 14,153 feet to reach Oxford's summit, go back down almost 700 feet to the saddle, then scramble back up the ridge to Belford's summit -- a gain of about 6,000 feet for both summits, with the same descent on the way back.

That's 12,000 feet up and down in eleven miles, no small feat.

To do both mountains in one day you actually get THREE 14,000+ summits because you have to go back up to the top of Belford on the return. Funny how I didn't fully realize that until I was going back to the Belford summit the second time, trying to beat the rain I could see in the distance!

We both got our packs and clothing ready to go on Sunday night so we could head out in the morning if the weather looked good. We'd had about five days without rain. We knew we were "due" for the monsoons to return and neither one of us wanted to be above tree line if it was a crummy day.


We woke up to clear weather this morning at 6 AM so it was a "go." Today was the day for Jim's last climb up Mount Hope and probably my last 14er of the season.

Cody and I started at the Missouri Gulch trail head at 7:45 AM, which was late enough to be risking running into a storm. I should have started earlier and recommend that for anyone else trying to do both summits in one hike.

I passed three attractive information boards (one is above) and a sign for the San Isabel National Forest at the trail head. The trail immediately goes down a little bank to boisterous Clear Creek and crosses on a nice bridge. After signing the trail register, Cody and I began climbing steep switchbacks through the forest until we came out above the trees at around 11,300 feet.

The current trail to Belford and Oxford was built in cooperation between Colorado Fourteeners Initiative volunteers and the US Forest Service. It is easy to follow and well-maintained, although very rocky most of the way.


Near tree line is this old log structure:

Coming out of the trees I began seeing Belford's unusual summit "crown" in the distance. It didn't look like too hard of a climb from there:

Looks can be deceiving.

As I climbed higher and higher through a less steep part of the trail through willows (generic name for sub-alpine shrubs in Colorado) I got better and better views of Quail and Hope mountains to the north and Missouri to the southwest. Here are two more views of the Belford summit from the willows and at the trail junction for Belford (left turn) and Missouri (right turn):


Then came the REAL work to summit Belford -- a 2,300-foot gain through rocky terrain on a gazillion switchbacks that are scarier looking from the top than from the bottom. From the top you can see the whole picture to the valley below, even if you can't see all of the trail. From the bottom, it looks like a long way up, but part of the time you can't even see the summit.


Soon after starting up from this point, Max Welker came up from behind with his Australian shepherd mix, Skeeter. Max is running LT100 in five days, so I was surprised to see him climbing a 14er. He hasn't been up this one and was in for a surprise, I think. He said he'd stay behind me and "go slowly" so as not to wear himself out for the race. I encouraged him several times to go around, but he didn't. It was nice having company on the way up the mountain and helped me forget how hard it was!

We'd reached about 12,800 feet and had a great view of Hope Pass and other mountains to the north and west (below) when Jim called me on the phone.

The wonders of technology! He'd already gone over Hope Pass and dropped down the north side where the "Hopeless" aid station is located during the race. We both had good Verizon signals and could talk for a couple minutes. Max and I could see the trail above tree line on the south side of the pass and I swear we might have even been able to see Jim if he had been on our side of the mountain right then (well, maybe with binoculars!).

In the photo below, three fellows are descending the trail Max and I just came up. You can see some of the switchbacks down to Missouri Gulch. Mount Hope is the peak on the left in the distance and Quail Mountain is in the middle. Hope Pass is the saddle between them.

I was glad I could let Jim know I was probably NOT going to be done with my trek in five or six hours, as I'd guessed from reading the course description. I based that on the time it took me to get up and down Elbert and Massive.


Let me tell you, Belford and Oxford are a different story!

First is that climb up to Belford. It's rocky and it's steep even with about a hundred switchbacks. I knew it would be tough coming down and I wouldn't be running much. There are numerous large "steps" on and off rocks, which is trickier for my Granny Knees than a continuous slope.

I felt like I was climbing up pretty steadily, and I was able to gain on the [much younger] folks ahead of me, but it still took me until 11 AM (3:15 hours) to go only four miles to the Belford summit.

This is one of the views to the southwest near Belford's summit:

The summit is an interesting "block" of yellowish rocks.

I found a round metal summit marker embedded in the rock, but no register. A young woman named Jennifer that I met on the summit said both Belford and Oxford have had registers previously, but neither did today. Oxford has a similar metal marker on its summit, although another point about a hundred feet away looks a tiny bit higher.

Max wisely chose to turn around on the Belford summit. He didn't have adequate water and that was a LOT of climb and descent so close to the race. In retrospect, I probably should have turned around, too, but I was determined after all that work to keep going another mile and a half to Oxford. After that tough climb, I was darned if I was going to come up here again to "bag" Oxford!

At that point, some billowing white cumulus clouds were forming to the south and west but the sun was still shining brightly. There was virtually no wind on the top of Belford. If I wasn't pressed for time, I would have enjoyed sitting up there for a while.

There was a bit of a drop down through green tundra to a rocky outcrop on the east side of Belford (photo above). Jennifer and her friend Diane and I determined that Oxford was the peak to the left, not the right. We could clearly see the trail on the saddle and up to the summit, but not the trail down from Belford to the saddle:

Jennifer and Diane kept going up through the rocks while I followed a trail around to the right. Both trails met at the top of the VERY STEEP, ROCKY trail down to the summit. Oh, my gosh! Photos just don't do justice to that steep drop!

Diane (shown above) and I both had problems negotiating the loose grit and rocks on the way down but we made it OK and neither of us fell.

I passed Diane when she stopped to talk to some guys on their way back up, and didn't see her for another couple hours. At some point near the saddle she turned around. Jennifer kept going to the Oxford summit with her tiny pug named, ahem, "Pug." That's one tough little doggie to climb two 14ers! So is Cody, who did just fine today. He's well acclimated, too.

On the way up to the summit of Oxford my old nemesis, my adductors, decided to cramp up, probably from dehydration and the stress of the climb. I've had no problems with cramping since the Big Horn race in June, and this was NOT a good time for it to recur. Usually it starts with the calves, then the hamstrings, then sometimes the adductors. This time it was sudden cramping in my right adductor. BAM!

I quickly took two Endurolytes, massaged the sore muscle, and stretched it. Then it was OK the rest of the hike/run. Whew!

It took me exactly an hour to hike that mile and a half to Oxford's summit. The only possible running was on the saddle, and that wasn't long lived because the trail was soon going back uphill. What looked like nice smooth trail from a distance was deceiving. There were rocks to climb through on that ascent, too (above).

I had great views of Mt. Harvard and Pine Creek to the south. I know the Colorado Trail goes through that area, but couldn't see it in the trees at the bottom of the gulch:

By now the pretty white cumulus clouds were turning gray and I could see a storm south of Belford and Oxford. Gosh, that was fast!

I had about half a mile to the summit of Oxford. If I didn't do it now, I'd have to come back some day to finish the job. I wasn't so sure I EVER wanted to do that descent from Belford's east side again, so I did what any adventure-seeker would do -- I kept going up to the summit of Oxford! I figured if the weather got really bad I could drop down into Belford Gulch north of the saddle and eventually find my way back to Missouri Gulch and the truck. The two gulches are parallel and drop down to Clear Creek Road.

Jennifer, our two dogs, and I were the only hikers on the summit of Oxford. The metal marker is shown in the photo below, looking toward the northwest. The panoramic views were just awesome from here:



I met six hikers going back to Belford on my way to the Oxford summit, and there were two behind me going my direction. I spent only six minutes on the Oxford summit taking photos and giving Cody water before I turned around. It was 12:06 PM and the sky was looking more and more menacing to the south and west (above), although I was still in sunshine until reaching the other side of Belford.


With that kind of incentive, I made the one and a half mile return to the summit of Belford (you can see the summit block in the photo below, center back) ten minutes faster than outbound.

I could run down part of Oxford's trail to the saddle, but it was slow going with many stops back up the steep, steep rocky ridge to Belford's summit:


I was hustling as fast as I could, not wanting to get caught in a storm on top. Although I could still see blue sky to the west in the photos above, it was already raining to the south:

On the way up, my left adductor decided to cramp. I did the same routine again: two Endurolytes, massage, stretching for a minute, and then it was OK the rest of the trek. Good thing.

I finally made it up the ridge, climbed the rocky eastern side of the "summit block" (below, back left, the only place I had to use my hands to climb today),

and started running down the NE side to the switchbacks. I was in such a hurry that I passed seven [much younger] hikers on the way down! Now it was finally getting windy and the skies were more menacing to the west, too:


I had to be very careful, though. It's a miracle I didn't trip or fall on all the rocks. Although some parts of the trail are fairly smooth, in general it's not very runnable for a klutz going back down, even in the woods. I got back to the truck at 2:45 PM, exactly seven hours after I began. It took me 4:15 hours to reach the summit of Oxford (only 5 miles), plus six minutes at the turn-around, and 2:39 hours to get back down (that includes the ~700-foot climb back up to Belford after Oxford).

It's still a long way down there

I could hear thunder and see several storms to the south, east, and west but I never felt even one raindrop. Jim didn't get wet either. He got done well before I did and had time to drive down to Buena Vista to get lunch and gas (much cheaper than in Leadville) AND sit waiting for me at Missouri Gulch before I got back. I was extremely fortunate because it started raining just a few minutes after I got done. By the time we reached Hwy. 24 around 3 PM we could see heavy rain back toward Hope and Belford/Oxford. I was lucky.

Look what I found! A marmot! (Cody doesn't chase them, but he's interested in their squeaking.)

We had fun telling each other about our respective run/hikes on the way home. It was too windy for Jim to sit on Hope Pass very long, so he and Tater spent an hour acclimating on the north side down near the aid station and little alpine lake until they couldn't stand the bugs any more. They got in about six miles of trail today.

Jim felt like he could have gone faster up the steep south side of Hope. Tater went up pretty slowly and held him back, which was probably a good thing. He made it up in the same time it usually takes him, ninety minutes. If he'd gone faster, he might have worn himself out too much this close to the race. They got back down much faster after Tater was rejuvenated in the lake.

Jim saw several LT runners on the trail, including Grand Slammer Don Halke and a family from Albuquerque who "knows" us through this journal. Although I saw about twenty hikers on my trek, the only one I knew was Max.

I was like Chatty Cathy on the way back home with all the endorphins and adrenaline still coursing through my veins! I was excited about my climb and wishing I could do more 14ers in the few remaining days we have in Colorado. I was tired but happy.

Still dropping down into Missouri Gulch, probably about three miles from the trail head

However, I may pay a heavy price for my enthusiasm today -- this evening my left knee was swollen and so sore I could hardly bend it. I iced it and wore a stretchy "brace" on it until bedtime, which came very early because I was so tired. By then the endorphins and adrenaline had worn off, and acetaminophen wasn't taking their place very well! I've been having a strange problem with my left knee for several months, but it's never, ever bothered me during a run or hike, only when walking inside and making a right turn. Now I'll definitely have to get it checked out when we get back home. I won't be climbing any more 14ers while we're here.

I've completed six 14ers now: in order, Pikes Peak, Mt. Elbert, Mt. Massive, Mt. Sherman, Mt. Belford, and Mt. Oxford. All were more than 3,000 feet except Sherman, which I suppose I'll have to do over to officially count (supposed to be at least 3,000 feet of gain for a single summit, and 500 feet or more for two together like Oxford and Belford). Only forty-eight summits to go!

Back in the "willows" in Missouri Gulch below Mt. Belford;  Quail Mountain is in the distance, above.

In summary re: climbing Mts. Belford and Oxford:

  • Don't believe the profile on the web site; it's steeper than it looks and it will probably take you longer to get up and down than you expect.
  • Don't believe the "easy trail" description, either. It's clearly defined, but not so easy to negotiate in many places, especially on the ridge east of Belford down to the saddle to Oxford.
  • Take plenty of water. There are two water crossings and you're close to the stream coming down through the gulch for a little while in the willows, but above that you're on your own.
  • Start early. The trail up Missouri Gulch is easy to follow even in the dark if you take a light. You're above tree line a lot and there's no place to hide in a storm after you leave the trees.
  • The trail is rocky and steep most of the way above tree line. Don't expect to run much on the way back down.
  • You WILL get to the top of Belford eventually.
  • The views are fantastic all the way up and on top.
  • There are more flowers than on Elbert but many fewer than on Massive. The views compensate for any lack of flora.

I saw this unusual thistle or cactus blooming very high on Belford (between 13,750 and 14,000 feet). It's the first time I've seen it. Some plants had five or six flower balls in bloom:

Next up: probably pre-race activities for the LT100 run. Packet-stuffing is Wednesday . . .

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2007 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil