Tom Vervaeke and I knew this was going to be a long day when we planned it… probably the biggest since we started our quest to climb the 54 14ers in Colorado. We were not to be disappointed….
Since we knew it was going to be a tough we decided to leave very early in the morning from Colorado Springs to get a jump start on the day. As the days ticked down to last Saturday our departure time got earlier and earlier until it became obvious we were not going to get any sleep on Friday night before our departure, so we ended up leaving at 11:00 pm Friday night. Tom was able to get 1.5 hours of sleep and myself, none. But what the hey, it was an adventure. We drove the 2.5 hours to the trailhead and started up at 2:00 am under a full moon, but utilizing our Petzel headlamps as the first part was through dense forest.
Always a bit eerie climbing with headlamps and we tackled the steep switchbacks with gusto, eager to get to the first mountain. It was amazingly warm and we started in light poly pro underwear tops and bottom under shorts. We grunted up to tree line at about 12,000 where we took a break. As I was sitting my pack down, my headlamp illuminated a tent tucked back into the trees. We quickly and quietly moved up the trail a bit so as not to disturb the sleeping climbers who would be getting their own early start within hours.
Once free from the trees a number of things happened; one, we could hike by the light of the overhead full moon, two, the wind picked up coming over Elk head Pass, three, the temperature dropped, and fourth, the northwest ridge up Belford got a lot steeper dramatically in a “climbers trail” As we got up to 13,000′ the temperature plummeted and we donned hats, heavier tops, gloves, and finally at the summit, our wind shells. The temperature when we started was probably high 50’s and we were not embracing a low 30 degree temperature with a 35mph winds. Gee winter again! 🙂
Tom was exhibiting super human strength leading the entire route from tree line to the summit as I strangled behind him. I learn something every time I climb and this time I was to learn another lesson the hard way. Remembering how hot it had been on Mt Yale last weekend, I had frozen my water bottles to keep a cool drink available. Well, at 30 degrees in the dark, ice does not have a tendency to melt quickly. I had led the early part of the climb to tree line and was unable to drink much water, other than sucking on the ice in the bottles. Hence, by the time we reached the summit I was probably at least a quart behind what I should have normally consumed. This was to haunt me later….
We then headed across the summit plateau on Belford and exited the steep ridge down to the saddle to Oxford. What a terrible lost in elevation (700+ feet) and then up to the Oxford Summit! By this time I was having difficulty keeping even within shouting distance of Tom who continued to hike very strongly. The sunrise had been spectacular on Belford and was equally impressive on Oxford. We had been on the top of 2 14er’s and it was only 6:30am!
We headed back down in strong cold winds and reclimbed the ridge to Belford (that’s 3 mountains now) and looking at Missouri tried to decide the best and easiest way to get to the top. There was a group of friends climbing Missouri that day and we had reversed our order of climbing the mountains so we could meet them on top of Missouri. The standard way of getting over there would have been to descend down Belford and pick up the trail to Missouri. I looked hopefully at the snow couloirs heading directly to the summit as it got my vote as the most direct, less taxing route to the summit. We also scoped out the east ridge that is known for its loose rock and exposure in some sections. We thought just maybe we should skirt the east ridge and come up from the SE face. We decided to down climb to Elk head Pass, look over both routes and decide.
When we got the pass, I was feeling weak, and unable to sustain much of an appetite even though I was bonking from lack of energy. After a short break we climbed the ridge a short distance to survey our options. It immediately became obvious that we were already much too high to get to the snow couloirs easily and that the ridge was our only option. We began the traverse on impossibly loose rocks. Each of us had the opportunity to send a table size rock shattering down the slope when it let loose under our weight. We continued the death traverse with Tom doing all of the route finding and me humbling following as best as I could. Finally, Tom decided traversing anymore was too painful and he mounted a direct climb to the summit on more solid rock. At least the better rock was a welcome relief…. I was just concerned we climb into something we could not get up and have then have problems down climbing. It was not to be the case and Tom broke us out just 100 ‘ below the summit. We made it to the Missouri summit at 1045, after almost 3 hours of energy zapping traversing on the ridge. We vowed never to do that again!
Tom checked the register and our friends had not summited yet so we sat down to wait on them. At this point I was probably way too dehydrated and promptly fell ill. I felt better after that but it was a sure sign I needed to get down and get hydrated. We waited until 1115 and decided to head down as there was no one in sight from our friends. (BTW there is a tricky scrambling section right before the summit where we watched two different parties spent at least 15 minutes getting through. The last party dropped a new climber’s guide during their scramble and did not retrieve it. If you wish, it probably still lying there down in the chute by the summit! They were some folks from Europe and I think and did not wish to risk going after it)
We decided on a snow couloir on the north face to glissade and headed down in perfect glissading snow, losing at least 1,000 feet in 3-4 minutes. The only way to descend! At the base we took off our layers and headed the 3-4 miles back down the trailhead in the heat. We arrived back to the cars 12 hours after we had left them. Tried puppies we were as we drove back to Colorado Springs with more lessons learned from this trip to the high country.
Round Trip: 14.5 miles Elevation Gain: 7,900’+