Group: David Yarian, Brian Miller, Ben Conners
Route: Northwest Gully/Northwest Ridge from 4 miles below Vicksburg
Stats: 17 miles, 5,300′, 14 hours round trip
I managed to rouse a few friends of mine, Brian and David, to get out this past Saturday for what was undoubtedly one of the best weather windows Colorado has seen yet this winter. Temps in the high forties and low wind forecasts were to be enjoyed state-wide. When a weather window like this comes along I usually feel an urge to get out and give something a shot, even if I don’t necessarily have any specific goals in mind.
Well this time I didn’t have any specific goals, and neither did Brian. David on the other hand is still fervently working on his 14er list and had yet to check off Belford/Oxford, so he brought it up as a potential idea. We began a discussion. Brian is mainly in it for the skiing these days and was only really interested in Belford/Oxford if we made it a point to ski the Northwest Gully on Belford, an aesthetic 2,000’ chute running from the summit to the valley floor. I was certainly interested in skiing as well and didn’t mind the idea of checking out a few more 14ers during the winter months. In short, it seemed each of us had his own motivation for signing up for this trip.
7am Saturday morning, snowshoes were donned and skins were slapped on, and we started the 4 mile trek to the summer trailhead (unfortunately we were forced to park at the ranch, though someone with a burly 4WD and good driving skills may have been able to make it further). The road walk went fairly efficiently – we were able to achieve a two mile per hour pace over the well-packed surface. It seems this road sees a decent amount of winter snowmobile traffic. Arriving in Vicksburg at 9am, we took a much needed breather and stashed a few items near the outhouse. It was already hot out and we had yet to experienced direct sun hit, so we knew we were in for a sweat fest of epic proportions later in the day.
Near treeline the trench became fainter and then seemed to split off in multiple directions. We took the most well-defined option but still ended up well east of the summer route, fighting our way through dense forest before popping out at the base of two small avy chutes. After poking around a bit Brian agreed to give the first chute a go. We heard a whomp as he eased his way out onto the slope, but we were fairly confident it was just routine settling of a hard slab over a patch of willows. The second chute stayed cemented in place for us, above this chute we finally broke treeline. We headed around a corner and Belford and Missouri popped into view, these peaks are indeed magnificent draped in their winter coats.
I was in the lead and headed for the mouth of the Northwest Gully. I was curious to dig a pit and see what degree of stability we’d find on the shaded, north-facing aspects climber’s right in the gully. I slid to a halt just inside the gully and began digging. Brian showed up and pulled out his avy probe, we isolated a column and performed a Compression/Shear Test. The scores were CT 25/Shear 3. It looked like our findings were consistent with the CAIC’s down-trending danger on north to west to south slopes in the Sawatch.
With a green light, we began skinning up the Northwest Gully. This gully provides a nearly perfect skinning grade and surface – it really is a treat for skiers. David elected to jump out onto the Northwest Ridge, reasoning that for him talus hopping in mountaineering boots would be easier than snowshoeing.
We made good time up the lower-gully, achieving about a thousand vertical feet in an hour. Eventually it came time for Brian and I to make a decision; the gully proper heads climber’s left around a large rock buttress, eventually topping out on the summit plateau just a few feet shy of the summit, whereas a tributary gully heads right around the buttress and intersects the Northwest Ridge around 13,600’. We knew if we headed left we wouldn’t join up with David again until we summited, but on the other hand if we headed right we’d run right into him on the ridge. We elected to head right.
The climb out of the gully was one of the more strenuous sections of the entire day, we just climbed slow and steady and eventually came upon the ridge crest. We decided to stash our skis here where the snow ended, reasoning that we could just drop back into the gully on our descent. As planned, after topping out on the ridge we could see David heading towards us, and after we met up we took a long break in the sun.
We just sat on the rocks and ate and drank. The weather was absolutely gorgeous, one cannot ask for a better winter day. The most amazing aspect of it in my mind was the lack of wind (literally not a breath) and we were at 13,600’ in calendar winter. The time was 2:30pm, and we had roughly 600’ to go to the summit. After another hour or so of mindless talus hopping, we gained the summit plateau.
We topped out at 3:45pm. The views west into the Elks, and south into the Southern Sawatch were stunning. There’s something special about being on a summit in late-afternoon in winter, it just feels surreal.
We discussed the feasibility of going for Oxford. It was 4pm, which meant we had about an hour and a half of light remaining. At the rate we were moving it would have taken somewhere in the vicinity of 3 hours to head over to Oxford and back. As much as we didn’t want to admit it, Oxford would have to be saved for another day. It just wasn’t worth forcing it. Had we gone for Oxford we would have had to descend from Belford’s summit all the way to the car in the dark. After that decision was made, we decided to just relax on the summit for awhile longer. It’s not every day you get a windless, cloudless winter summit all to yourself.
At 4:45pm we left the summit and made good time down to our gear stash.
Back at our gear stash, Brian and I clicked in and got ready for some sunset turns, David headed on down the ridge. The plan was for him to meet us at the mouth of the Northwest Gully.
Brian and I dropped into the gully as the sun was on its last gasp. For about 2,000’ we had nothing but pure bliss; light, creamy recycled powder on top of a solid base. The turns were effortless…
We shot out the mouth of the gully, skiing by headlamp at this point, and stopped to exchange high fives. More often than not on 14ers the quality of the skiing is nothing to get excited about, but on this evening it was. The turn were without a doubt some of the best of the season for me. Looking up we saw a tiny headlamp on the ridge, still a good thousand feet above us, so we threw on some extra layers and broke out the food and liquids. When David showed up we departed together and made good time back to treeline. Below treeline I think David had the advantage being on snowshoes as the skiing was surprisingly challenging, but I wasn’t about to put the skis on my back. An hour or so of survival skiing had us back at Vicksburg, underneath an incredible starry sky. We had to kill headlamps for a bit in order to fully appreciate the beauty of the cosmos and God’s creation.
The road hike to the car was, well, I’ll refrain from using expletives, but let’s just say there are quite a few not-so-colorful descriptors I could assign to it. This road is literally a nightmare for skiers, as it does not maintain a grade consistent enough to ski or even skate down. Instead there are several long flat sections, as well as four or five uphill sections, each of which requires a transition. The downhill portions are really too short to make a transition to ski mode for each of them, so you end up doing a lot of downhill skinning. I think this road is better navigated on snowshoes to be honest, though I can’t imagine that’d be much fun either.
We arrived back at the car, feet blistered and knees swollen, at 9pm, a round trip of 14 hours. Another winter summit in the bag, and a tough one to boot! Thanks for reading.