Belford and Oxford Spring Ski Descents

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Partners: Carl Dowdy, Caroline Moore, Sam Anderson
Routes: Ascent of Belford‘s Northwest Gully from camp, ski descent of East Face into Belford Gulch, ascent of Belford/Oxford saddle, ski descent back down ridge, ascent back to Belford‘s summit, ski descent of Northwest Gully
Stats: 6,000‘ hiked, 4,500‘ skied, 9.5 miles

We were all up for some more descents this past weekend despite the deteriorating weather forecast. For awhile Carl, Caroline, and I had talked about a two night camping trip to Elkhead Basin to ski Belford, Oxford, and Missouri. As fortune had it, we all left with less than we wanted to leave with, but some good ski mountaineering was had nonetheless.

Caroline, Carl, and I met up in Golden after work on Friday and headed for Leadville. The plan was to meet Sam at Vicksburg and backpack into lower Elkhead Basin as a group of four. The plan went off without a hitch, we were pitching a camp near the old broken cabin just below treeline after a few hours of tough skinning. We flattened out some tent platforms with skis and shovels and found ourselves warm inside sleeping bags by 11:30pm. High nighttime winds had us apprehensive about the weather, but we figured we would see what the next morning had in store. Caroline and Carl reported having a hard time sleeping with the howling winds, all I remember was getting into my bag and the alarm going off six hours later.

Excavating tent platforms at 11:00pm. Photo by Caroline

6:00am rolled around and we were on the trail an hour later, hiking first to a small water hole where we pumped a few liters from the cold mountain stream, then towards the Northwest Gully at the foot of Mt. Belford. Hard and firm snow conditions in the gully made for some decent skinning, we were all moving well and were optimistic at this point. A cold breeze mitigated any danger from warming slopes that may have been otherwise present, it was felt early on that a rewarding day was in the works.

Hiking towards our gully. I was excited to get the day rolling. Photo by Carl.

The skins came out at the base of the gully. Photo by Carl.

Belford‘s Northwest Gully is a long slog, it just keeps going and going. We encountered a different type of snow climber‘s right; a soft, almost powdery layer atop a hard crust. Soon the gully widened and I was able to drive in a switchback track, my legs welcomed the reduced angle and I was able to move more efficiently up the slope. I could see the top of the gully was not far now, I grunted the final few hundred feet and topped out on the summit plateau with a final burst of Sawatchian effort.

The summit was cold and windy, continuous snow nestled right up to the true summit so no summit ramps today. Caroline and Sam showed up a few minutes later and admired the views. As Carl and I discussed our strategy for the descent, Sam and Caroline made the decision to forgo Oxford and ski back to camp, understandable given the day we‘d already had by that point (that and Caroline got little more than a wink of sleep the night before).

Mt. Oxford as seen from Mt. Belford.  Photo by Caroline.

Still intent on heading over for Oxford, Carl and I stood at the top of the snow and took turns touching our poles to the summit register. We said farewell to Caroline and Sam, traversed from the summit out to the east shoulder, and dropped in onto the face. The snow was rock hard from the melt/freeze cycle that had hit it, the cold wind and overcast did its job almost too well. The snow softened a little further down, Carl and I made a few low forty degree turns on the rollover and the slope eased up as we traversed towards the saddle.

Skiing the East Face.  Photo by Carl.

Ski Route to the Belford/Oxford saddle as seen from Oxford‘s summit.  Photo by Carl.

With the skis on our packs, we hiked the undulating ridge over multiple false summits and topped out on Oxford as the weather began to deteriorate. The winds picked up and made the hiking incredibly difficult, at times we would have to stop and wait for a break in the wind to continue on to avoid our “sails” from pushing us around. From Oxford‘s summit we made the quick decision to ski the ridge route. I would have loved to ski the gully, but given that our group was already separated and there was clearly a storm headed our way, our interests turned to saving time. Maybe I‘ll head back in the future and ski marvelous Oxford by itself from Pine Creek.

Continuous snow ran from the summit to the south and wrapped around to the West Ridge. The snow was horrendous; rock hard wind formations riddled the surface which threw our skis all over the place, add the wind into the equation and you get a miserable ski descent on an already boring peak…we booted back up to Belford‘s summit ridge, happy to have the final vertical gain of the day over and done with.

We clicked in from the third summit of the day and contoured around Belford‘s summit block, this required a funny body-flop-with-skis-on move over a wind cornice, graceful skiing these 14ers require. Atop the Northwest Gully we were happy to have nowhere to go but down…the following is Caroline‘s account of her and Sam‘s descent a few hours earlier:

I stood on the rocks touching my pole to the summit rock and took a few side-steps down the rock to the snow. Sam and I contoured southwest around the summit block to where it crossed paths with the standard route. To get to the gully, we dropped in just east of a false summit and made a few ski cuts to find wind-slab on top of a solid base. Up here, we had to ski more cautiously through rocky sections before we entered the top of the northwest gully. We found snow conditions were the same as they were on the ascent despite sun-hit – icy hardpack all throughout the gully on skiers‘ right and softer sastrugi on skiers‘ left. The gully is a very mellow and long ski. We made it back to camp in an hour and ten minutes from the summit.

Their pictures tell the rest of the story:

Caroline – Upper Northwest Gully.  Photo by Sam.

Trailing by a few hours, Carl and I followed their tracks through the upper talus field.

Making turns in basically the same spot. Photo by Carl.

Carl airing it out lower down in the gully.  The snow through here was decent.

We skied across the valley and down the stream bed back to camp, waking Caroline and Sam from an afternoon nap.

Back at camp, Carl already has the celebration in hand.

After a ton of effort skiing with heavy packs through breakable crust, we descended below treeline and slogged out. On the way back to the highway the storm hit big, we made it out just in the nick of time after all. These were two fun descents, the line off Belford into Belford Gulch was the best skiing of the day, let get some more soon guys! Thanks for reading.

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