Places I like: Missouri Gulch Basin, Colorado

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When I first laid eyes on Colorado’s Missouri Gulch Basin more than ten years ago, it was after a grueling, albeit short, hike with an overly loaded pack on my back. Ten other people were with me, most of whom were also laden with burdens a bit too heavy for their own good.

Lightning and rain pounded down on us from the skies. When we finally made camp and the skies cleared, we were treated to one of the sweetest alpine amphitheaters I’ve ever seen.

A high ridge flanked the west while Mount Belford stood tall to the east. To the north, the rugged and lofty wall that is Missouri Mountain. The basin itself was covered in green, willows down low and alpine grasses and flowers higher up. I knew that some point I’d come back to this amazing place.

Ten years later, I was back. My pack was considerably lighter. And this time, I was alone.

I can’t overemphasize how taxing the hike up is. Or how beautiful. The geological structure of the basin carries even the smallest sounds, which can be both magical and haunting: the pika’s high-pitched chirp, for example, versus the urgent call of the raven. Either way, sound carries much further and more clearly than it ought.

If I go back again, I’ll make sure I’m in better shape. If I do, I’m sure I’ll walk out of those woods with new and amazing impressions to go along with the memories I already have.

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Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Close encounters of the wild kind

Part of the allure of getting outside is to be away from the world we humans have manufactured for ourselves.

Our homes, workplaces, public spaces – they’re all built in ways to cater to our comforts. This is where all of our interactions with people occur, and even where most of our encounters with animals take place.

Seeing that most of those creatures are our pets, well, you get the idea. Very little occurs in our lives that haven’t been skewed by civilization.

That’s why people feel that urge to get away and unplug. They head to the hills, to the woods, to the ocean, to see, smell and hear the world sans civilization.

But those wild places are also home to a lot of creatures we never see close to home. Encounters with them make for some of the most memorable experiences of any adventure.

I spent some time thinking about just that. Several memories come to mind.

Campfire deer

In the middle of the summer of 2004, a group of nine friends and me had the hare-brained idea of backpacking to Missouri Gulch in the Collegiate Peaks region of central Colorado. We had a whole range of people with varying degrees of fitness, outdoor experience and age. One thing we had in common: We all knew how to have a good time.

Get a group of guys around a campfire and good times will abound. Memories of the previous day’s ascent of Mount Belford were retold, each time with a little more drama. Jokes were told. Farts were never funnier.

But as time passed, discussions grew more introspective, thoughtful and serious. The clamor that dominated earlier in the night gave way to calm.

It was about that time a healthy doe ambled into camp. We were right at treeline, but still inside the trees. So none of us saw her coming until she was right in our midst. She showed no fear, only curiosity. Perhaps she thought there might be some easy food to score, I’m not sure. But I like to think that once our group had settled down a bit, she thought it would be safer to join in. Given how skittish deer tend to be, I was amazed at how at ease she was in our presence. There were 10 of us gathered around the fire ring, but she was not bothered. She was with us for a few minutes, and then as suddenly as she appeared, she was gone, melting into the darkness of the surrounding woods.

The feeling I got out of that was not unlike being the dork at the party when the prettiest girl in the room pops in, approaches you, and then spends some time talking to you. Suddenly you’re the luckiest guy in town.

Breakfast with the Bighorn

A few years after that Belford backpacking trip, I went with another group to the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area in northern New Mexico’s Kit Carson National Forest. We were backpacking to Lost Lake to camp before looking to hit Wheeler Peak’s summit the next day.

No one slept too well that night, and everyone was slow to get up in the morning. I got up first to start boiling water for breakfast when I had some unexpected friends come to join me.

We’d seen bighorn sheep from a distance on the hike up, but on that morning I got a much closer look. While everyone else was snoozing, a spied a mother bighorn and her lamb walking down the slope toward our camp.

They approached within 20 feet of me, calmly inspecting the scene, giving me a glance, then heading down the hill. It was a quiet moment which I alone enjoyed that morning. I was struck by how unconcerned they appeared to be by my presence, more curious than anything else.

Not long after they’d gone, everyone else started crawling out of their tents. They just missed it.

Near miss

I was alone in the middle of a heavy rainstorm in southwestern Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains, tromping through a thickly wooded stretch of trail. A lot of my plans that day had been derailed by the rain and intermittent lightning, but I was determined to stay out there for the day and make the most of it.

One of the things about the Wichitas is that is crawling with wildlife, probably more here than just about anywhere else in the state. I’ve seen all kinds of creatures here – elk, deer, coyotes, prairie dogs and more.

But the king of the Wichitas is the buffalo. It’s been a long time since I’ve gone to the Wichitas and not seen them. But I usually spot buffalo from a distance, and approach them to no less than 50 feet away. They are, after all, wild animals. And they’re big. With horns. Getting gored or trampled by a buffalo does not sound like a good time, and they will charge someone when they feel threatened.

They also seem to be masters of concealment, at least for me.

The woods where I was hiking were thick. So was the underbrush. It was early June and the spring rains had lavished the state with abundance, meaning that the Wichitas were about as green as I’d ever seen them. Unless you were looking down the trail, you wouldn’t see anything more than 10 feet away.

Ahead of me I saw a creekbed that was a landmark of a place where I’d turn toward my next destination. Too bad I didn’t see the big guy in the thicket to my right.

The thickness of the foliage provided some cover from the rain, and I’d used it myself when the downpour was getting particularly hard. While the rainfall had let up some, it was still coming down, creating a soft din of noise that masked the sounds of my approach.

I must have surprised the buffalo that had expertly concealed itself in the underbrush to my right. I didn’t see it at first. I heard it. A miffed snort, and then a dark flash. And a near miss. I jumped to my left to avoid getting hit, turned, and then saw the buffalo down the trail about 50 feet away, facing me.

Fortunately, the big guy wasn’t blocking my path. Only seconds later did my heart begin to race a little, once my mind caught up with the fact that I just missed being run over by a beast nearly eight times my size.

That’s as close as I’d ever been to a wild animal of that sort of size. I felt fortunate to have been spared. I walked away with an appreciation for the risks of hiking solo and a respect for an animal, in its own environment, that was much more powerful than me.

What sort of wildlife experiences have you had that stick with you? Feel free to share!

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Colorado’s Mount Belford: My first 14er

Mount Belford’s upper slopes. (Rick Ponder photo)

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.

Me and friend Jeremiah Campo checking out a friend’s dangling pack rig. It was weighty and awkward, but would be repacked on the trail. Lessons learned. (Rick Ponder photo)

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.

Bill (left) and Mike offering contrasting styles in backpacking. (Rick Ponder photo)

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.

Rick shows off his ill-fated camp hammock. He switched it for a single bivvy the next night.

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.

Now THAT’S a water source. (Rick Ponder photo)

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!

Nearing the summit, but still on Belford’s steep switchbacks.

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.

Summit view. (Rick Ponder photo)

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.

Trent Gibson (left) and Mike on the summit. Missouri Mountain is in the background left.

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.

Jeremiah and Rick (seated) at the top.

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.

Jeff Goss on the summit, Mount Oxford in the background.

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.

The ragtag bunch as we’re packing up to head down the mountain.

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.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088