Sometimes there are things that you do that capture the imagination. And not just your own.
A year after hiking to the top of New Mexico’s Wheeler Peak, I found myself consumed by the idea of doing more high country hiking, backpacking, camping and climbing. I was itching to get back into the mountains as soon as I could.
I guess my excitement was contagious, because a whole bunch of other people got in on the act as well.
My older brother Mike had gotten me into this, as he had several of Colorado’s 14,000-foot summits under his belt already. And he was there with me and friend Rick Ponder when we hiked Wheeler Peak’s lengthy East Fork Trail the year before.
He’d meet us for a planned camping trip and ascent of Mount Belford, a 14,197-foot peak tucked away in the folds of the Collegiate Peaks. And by “us,” I’m talking about nine guys who never had been to the top of a 14er.
Our group was typical newb, which in so many ways made it great. We picked the mountain because of what appeared to be a pretty sweet campsite halfway up the route. Did we take into consideration the fitness level of the group? Or the steepness of the route? Nope.
It’s not to say we didn’t think other things through. Mike, Rick and I had varying degrees of experience in the high country. Longtime friend Jeff Goss had worked as a hunting guide near Crested Butte years before. And many other members of the group were likewise seasoned when it came to the outdoors.
It’s just none of us had ever done a 14er before, and all of us had our own ways of tackling the challenge.
Hilarity would ensue. As would some humbling. Mount Belford is not the toughest 14er in Colorado – far from it. But as your first? Maybe it’s not the best choice.
Mount Belford is a typical high peak of the Sawatch Range: a steep leg- and lung-buster with lots of elevation gain. Belford’s roundtrip route isn’t overly long (8 miles), but the 4-mile trip to the top includes 4,500 feet of elevation gain. Translation: It’s steep. Very steep. We’d tackle the lower part of the route with full packs, loaded with camping gear. This would be complicated further that few of us really knew what we were doing when it came to effective backpacking. More than a few of us found ways to load 50 pounds of gear and food for a three-day outing.
But these are the experiences you learn from. And if you can have fun doing it, all the better.
Preparations, or something like it
The newbie backpacking experience begins with a spending spree. For me, that included a 4,500 cc external frame pack, a two-man tent, a 20-degree bag, self-heating meals and trail food, among other things (I quickly switched to much lighter dehydrated foods to cut weight). It’s sort of a rite of passage to do the spree. Others did the same.
It got really fun when we saw some of the ingenious methods people came up with to haul their stuff to camp. I won’t name names, but the descriptions are mandatory, if for no other purpose than to set the mood for the first day’s hike.
One rig tested the premise that you can haul anything up the mountain that you can clip to your pack. The pack itself was filled, and everything that didn’t fit inside was tied together and left dangling at the bottom. This would be a pretty major problem early on.
Another friend won first prize for heaviest pack, which included a two-burner camp stove and fuel. He wore the pack, then strapped a hydration pack to his chest, and finished off the ensemble with a gun belt and holster holding a .40 caliber revolver. The gun itself had to weigh at least three pounds.
Shelter would be another facet of the trip which showed that enthusiasm doesn’t always translate into success. More on that later.
The approach hike: Watch out for that lightning bolt
As we took off from the trailhead, the degree of difficulty of the task ahead immediately presented itself. The Missouri Gulch Trail is beautiful, with thick woodlands gracing the slopes and surrounding the steep switchbacks going up.
There’s no wading in here, no easy warm-up before the tough hiking begins. It starts steep and stays that way for nearly two miles.
People’s differing levels of conditioning manifested themselves quickly. Less fit hikers dragged behind, and eventually, the gun had to be sherpa’d down the mountain and stowed away to cut weight. The dangling-rig pack had to be broken down and repacked, as the offending attachments kept striking the back of the poor soul’s legs.
We were also caught in a weird weather pattern. Normally, the summertime in the Rockies features afternoon storms that pop up, do their thing and move east to the plains. But on the days we were on the mountain, it seemed like the storms came in waves.
About half of us got to camp just as the first wave of storms hit. The old trapper’s cabin wouldn’t do any good here, as it was mostly just the remains of three log walls now. Lightning crashed close by, giving us that immediate FLASH/BANG! that puts the fear of God in you. Some of the trees around the camp appeared to have had their tops charred, making me believe that perhaps they’d been victims of similar storms in the past.
This proved to be pretty scary for the guys still working their way up. My brother decided to head back down the trail to help the others move faster while the rest of us set up tents. One of the stragglers, an experienced hunter named Bill Weeks, later told me he thinks Mike may have saved his life by lightening his load and guiding him up to the safety of camp.
A rather inauspicious start, to say the least!
Eventually the weather quieted down and the guys settled in. One fella set up his tent inside the remains of the cabin. Others selected places of varying quality. Mine, which I’d share with Mike, was unfortunately right over the bulge of a subterranean tree root. Sleep would be hard to come by.
And not just for me. The Grand Backpacking Experiment had decidedly mixed results for a lot of folks. Those who went the bargain route (cheap tents from, say, Walmart) soon discovered how easily they leaked rainwater. This happened to a couple of fellas.
Poor Rick’s own sleeping experiment sounded novel and interesting at first: A camping hammock/shelter. He even was able to line the bottom of it with a sleeping pad and his bag. To no avail. He froze as the subfreezing temps that night completely surrounded him as he dangled between two trees. The camp hammock was great for Okie camping, but not so much at treeline.
One thing that did work out was our water source. A stream flowed close to the campsite, and as our group was well-stocked with gear, we usually had two or three people filtering water for drinking, cooking and cleanliness. And that two-burner stove? It came in handy with two other guys’ stoves to keep a makeshift kitchen going with hot food and hot drinks. We got a fire going, and as a large group of guys are wont to do, the nonstop silliness of campfire talk kept us in stitches. Bill and my brother were two of the funniest people there, and to hear my friend Jeff (the one-time hunt guide) laugh just perpetuated the good times. Sometimes our discussions got serious, but mostly it was pretty light-hearted.
One thing I remember clearly was looking through the trees and scoping the route to the top of the mountain. I looked at one of my buddies, pointed, and said, “That’s going to be a bitch.”
No prediction was ever truer.
The ascent: Oh the humiliation!
The morning was close to perfect for our summit hike, bright and cool with a light breeze. The skies were blue and it appeared the storms that had raked over us the day before would be at bay for a little while that day.
Not everyone wanted to go to the top. Some realized after the tough slog to the campsite that another 3,000 feet of hiking wasn’t in the cards for them. Others were spooked by the previous day’s weather.
For the rest of us, Belford would have a few lessons. Well, mostly for me.
I was in pretty good shape at that time. I was active in sports, trim and in good cardiovascular condition. But as it turns out, not all cardio is equal. My training had mostly been playing full-court basketball, interval training and martial arts. All of those are great, but are geared more toward bursts of intensity, followed by quick recovery periods. They don’t do much for sustained endurance activities. It was the wrong time to discover that long-distance runners make better high altitude hikers and climbers than pick-up ballers and jujitsu gym rats.
So that, plus a tremendous lack of sleep, made my ascent painfully slow. I fell behind quickly as we hit the steeper switchbacks on the summit pitch. It ground on for a while, never letting up until the peak flattened out near the top. I was the last of the group to make the summit, which was a bit humbling for me. I figured I’d blast up the mountain before anyone else. Silly me.
But the reward at the top was significant. From Belford’s top, there is an awesome view of Missouri Mountain’s sweeping summit ridge. A long saddle connects Belford to neighboring Mount Oxford, which is often hiked as a combination with Belford for those fit enough for the challenge. Past Missouri, Emerald Peak’s striking outline juts into the sky, as do a number of significant 13ers and 14ers that comprise the central Sawatch Range.
I’d initially thought that it would be worth bagging Oxford while I was here, but the building clouds and my own fatigue pretty much ruled that out. The same was true of the rest of the group. I took my time heading down, dead tired from the ascent. Jeff had rocketed up to the summit, but was by that time feeling the adverse effects of altitude. He’d deposit his breakfast when he got back to camp – a nice multicolored puke pile right in front of his tent.
We all recovered pretty quick, however. The night was spent reliving old memories, talking about the peak and then marveling over a deer that casually wandered into camp just as the conversation got deep. Personal performance notwithstanding, this was a hugely rewarding experience not just being on the mountain, but being able to hang out with friends far away from the distractions of normal life.
Eight years later, that trip up Mount Belford has sort of set a standard in terms of mountain experiences. Those of us who got hooked on 14ers got our start there. Those who weren’t as enamored by it still walked back to the trailhead with some impressive memories.
If someone were to ask me if Belford would be a good choice for a first 14er, I’d probably say no. Pick something a little more mellow. But based on my memories, I don’t regret having Belford be my first.
GETTING THERE: From Buena Vista, drive 14.5 miles north on U.S. 24 and turn left (west) on Chaffee County 390. On 390, drive 7.5 miles to the Missouri Gulch trailhead. The trailhead and restrooms are here. This is also the same trailhead for Missouri Mountain, though the trails diverge at Missouri Gulch Basin.
ROUTE INFORMATION: As I’ve pointed out, the trail is steep. It starts out rugged and vertical, gaining 4,500 feet in four miles to the summit. The trail is Class 2 with minimal exposure. Hike up the steep switchbacks for about two miles until you reach an old trapper’s cabin at treeline. From there, the trail flattens out as you emerge from the trees. Hike on the trail toward the summit and across the basin (stay left; heading right will take you to Missouri Mountain’s trail). The steep sections begin anew with a series of switchbacks at the foot of the summit pitch. Continue to follow the trail to a point where it flattens out near the top. The final few hundred yards are over 14,000 feet and are fairly level hiking.
EXTRA CREDIT: From Belford’s summit, follow the connecting ridge between Belford and neighboring Mount Oxford. Oxford’s summit is about 1.5 miles away.
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