Monday, September 7, 2009

Mt. Belford, 14,197 feet; Leadville Colorado

On Saturday September 5th, Labor Day weekend, Josh, Rock and I hiked Mt. Belford which is outside of Leadville, Colorado in the Collegiate Peak Wilderness that is part of the San Isabel National Forest. This was our first fourteener (peak over 14,000 feet) of the 2009 season, and the 8th that we have hiked so far in Colorado. Mt. Belford proved to be one of the most beautiful and most difficult hikes that we have ever done!

Getting there:
We woke up at 4:00am Saturday morning and hoped to be on the road by 4:30. We needed to drive out to the area to get a campsite and set up our tent before we went to the trail-head for the day. Being Labor Day weekend, we figured we'd get a better campsite in the morning to ensure we'd get a good site, also if there was bad weather when we were done with the hike we would have shelter already to sleep in while it rained.

As always, Josh and I got on the road a little later than we had planned, but were on I-70 by 4:45am with a bright full moon lighting our way. Just as we were nearing the top of Lookout Mountain, there was a huge black thing in the road, quickly we realized it was a BEAR and it had just been hit by the car stopped on the side of the road! Wow, only in Colorado, right? Poor bear.
I love driving early in the morning with the moon so bright in the sky and lighting our way down the road, the mountains look so beautiful in the silhouette of the moon. The trail-head was relatively easy to get to, compared to other 14ers we have done and it is just outside of Leadville, Colorado.
  1. From Leadville; drive east (south) on Highway 24 for approx 20 miles until mile marker 195.
  2. From Buena Vista; drive west (north) on Highway 24 for approx 14 miles until mile marker 196.
  3. Turn West onto Chaffe County Road 390 (also called Clear Creek Canyon Road). This is a dirt road.
  4. Drive 7.7 miles up 390 until you reach the well marked trail-head. Road is well maintained, cars can make the drive easily.
Just as we turned down 390, we were met with the most incredible view. The full moon was setting behind the mountains as the sun was rising and shining on the mountains. Both were reflecting in the reservoir water below.
The reservoir you see to the right is Clear Creek Reservoir, the road also follows the Clear Creek River, which makes for a beautiful drive and amazing views all the way up the road.

We arrived at the parking lot, after finding the most amazing dispersed campsite on the way to the trail-head, at 8:00am. Eight o'clock is late to be starting a long hike like this, and I hoped the weather would hold out. After using the bathrooms at the trail-head and getting our gear together, we were ready to begin the hike at 8:20.

The trail up Mt. Belford is only about 4 miles one way to the peak, but there is 4,500 feet of elevation gain in the meantime. The parking lot elevation is just under 10,000 feet.
The trail can be broken up into three parts; the woods in the beginning, next the hike through the valley, finally the climb to the summit.

The Woods;
The hike starts in the woods and the steepness of the trail begins immediately after a quick walk down the hill to the Clear Creek River. You cross the river on a bridge here for the first time on the hike, and then continue up the mountain into the woods.
The trail is pretty heavily wooded for the first hour of the hike, and you are met with incredible views when the trees part of the Collegiate Peak Wilderness. There is a small baby grave early on in the hike which is part of the Vicksburg Cemetery, Vicksburg was a town of 600-700 people in the late 1800s.
Eventually the pine trees change to Aspen trees and you have some great views of Pecks Peak to the right at 13,270 feet.
Shortly after this, you will have to cross Clear Creek River again. This time, the bridge is made up of skinny logs that seem pretty unstable as you walk out on them. Keep your footing on the logs or fall into the shallow river below.
Eventually, you can tell you are getting closer to being out of the treeline, as the trees become smaller and thinner. The remains of an old cabin are at the very end of the steep climb through the woods at approximately 11,300 feet. This is a popular spot for backpackers who camp here at the end of the woods. Next, the trees finally part and you are in the valley with Mount Belford straight ahead of you.

The Valley;

The hike through the valley is the most scenic part of the hike. As you walk down the well maintained trail, there are huge mountains surrounding you, the river runs beside the trail, and there are waterfalls and summer flowers along the path. Mount Belford Peak is in front of you, and you can see the challenge you have ahead of you.
There are many great backpacking campsites along the river in the valley if you want to hike a little farther past the treeline.
As you walk through the valley, enjoy the more even terrain here because the steepness of the climb to the summit will soon come. Hiking through the valley this late in the season, the fall colors were in bloom, and all the bushes and small trees were bright yellow and orange. This is one of the reasons I love to hike in the late summer! As you near the end of the valley you are met with a split in the trail and a sign. Going left at the sign will take you up Mt. Belford, going right will take you to Elkhorn Pass. It was at this time that we saw our first hiker coming back from Elkhorn at around 10-11am in the morning. Just shortly past the sign you will start your climb to the summit, leaving the green lush trees and rivers behind to climb up the rocks.

The Climb to the Summit:
In the photo to the left, the peak is actually the far left peak that you are climbing toward. The route takes you up to a false peak, and you are only able to see the Peak itself from the valley and the start of the summit climb. To reach this point in the hike took us two hours (though we did have a backpack issue which caused us to stop for 20 minutes). If you look up early in the climb towards the summit, you can see the peak, it is round and craggy looking.
When you start climbing up the steep rocks to the summit, you have 2,300 feet to climb before you reach the top. The photo to the left also shows how steep this climb really is. We were breathing hard just starting the climb up the rocks! The trail starts very steeply up the mountain at first, then evens out somewhat while you walk up several switchbacks only to get steeper and more difficult as you climb. There were several times in the hike where I was leaning forward and using my hands to keep my balance up the mountain.
In the photo to the right, I am looking back at where we have come, you can see Josh below. Eventually as you hike on, you tower over the mountains on the left in the photo!
It was at this point we finally started to meet the climbers coming down from the hike, and I am always jealous when I see people climbing DOWN, as I struggle to breathe in the high altitude and steep mountain.
The higher we climbed up the mountain the more colorful and beautiful Mt. Belford became. The small plants that grow on the mountain were changing from green to bright red with the beginning of fall. (someone please send me a link where I can find high altitude plant names!) The colors were so pretty, its hard to believe anything can grow so high up on the mountain. We also had many little marmots that taunted my dog Rock along the way. The larger marmots chirp very loudly to signal to the others that intruders are climbing up their mountain. They are fun to watch as you hike, and even funny when the dog tries to chase them, with no luck.
Here you can see the little marmot who posed for this photo. He chirped and chirped as we went past. You can also see how red the mountain looks behind him.

At about 13,000 feet I began to wonder if we were ever going to make it to the top! The mountain peak didn't seem to be getting any closer, but the ominous clouds in the distance seemed to be moving very fast toward us. I was very tired at this point, the 4am wake-up time was catching up to me, and I should have eaten more food, but instead I just kept climbing, very determined to make it to the top.
Finally, I reached the top of the false peak, and it really looks like you are on the top. Unfortunately, you have another 10 minutes of climbing to go. It was at this time that the clouds that were once in the distance, were over my head and the heavens opened up and hailed on us. I was just thankful it wasn't rain. The hail was small enough that it didn't hurt too badly, but it made all the rocks slippery and the trail even more treacherous. Finally, Rock and I saw the peak, we ran and climbed up to the top! Josh was still out of sight, but it gave me time to look for the marker (which I forgot to photograph) and search for the tube to sign your name (which I never found?). I called my parents, who love to hear from us at the top of the mountain, (my dad has hiked two 14ers with us) and my dad quizzed me on the views, the trail and the weather, which was getting worse by the moment.
Earlier in the day, Josh and I had hoped to hike Mt. Oxford and make a double summit, but the weather was not in our favor at the late hour of 1pm. Josh came up over the ridge and summited the peak also. We took lots of pictures, then started down the mountain before the weather got worse. Below are a few of my favorite summit photos. You can see the weather and hail coming in from the west.

Both of us were feeling pretty terrible on the hike back, our legs were jelly, and the steep mountain climb on the way up, was just as difficult going down. We started down from the summit at 1pm, and passed the marmots chirping at us along the way. The thunder and lightening was rolling in, and we both wanted to get off the rocks into the valley to get some shelter if the storm caught up to us. Once we got into the valley the hike evened out and gave our legs a break as it rained lightly on us, next the steep hike back through the woods took a tool on our bodies as we finally got back to the car at 4pm.
After 3 long hours of knee and leg pounding steepness on the way down, we made it back to the car. It was pretty treacherous and there were several slips, falls, and close calls along the way. Fortunately, we made it back safely and it rained only lightly, but we heard lots of thunder and saw lightening that was pretty scary out on the mountain.
Both Josh and I were exhausted and hungry, and we drove the .3 miles back to our campsite and cooked dinner, drank a beer, and headed to bed!
It was a great climb, but I am still sore as I write this today :)

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