What do you do when you find yourself on the pinnacle of one of the highest mountains in North America alone after sunset with windchills down to 40 below? From personal experience, you get down as quickly as you can. Which for me meant sliding on my ass down a 40 degree snow filled couloir that I had just ascended.
I didn’t expect my day to start like this but when I began it certainly wasn’t out of the question. I began my day at 9am from the Missouri Gulch trailhead with intentions of summiting Mts. Belford, Oxford, Missouri. I had slept there three nights now, waiting for the soreness from my climb up Mt. Elbert to dissipate and my inspiration to elevate. I had a big goal in mind and really wanted to be 100% for the climb. I wanted to climb three summits, Belford, Oxford, Missouri, all in one day. A big day by summer standards but a monumental challenge in the winter with winds gusting over 60 miles per hour.
I had attempted the feat a couple days earlier but turned around nearing the summit of the first climb up Belford. To be bluntly honest, I had forgotten the sock I usually shove down my pants. To neglect my most valuable appendage seemed blasphemous to me so I decided to live to fight again another day. With a day of rest after the brutal endeavor I started again this morning at 9am.
With nearly a mile of vertical to gain over the course of less than four miles, Mt. Belford is one of the biggest beasts of a climb I’ve ever done. It makes the elevation gain up Mt. Katahdin at the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail look like a bunny slope. It’s entirely non-technical but if you’re not in tip-top shape, you’re in for a long, grueling day.
The trail below treeline was packed from the steps of other hikers in the days before me and above treeline it was windswept and clear. So it was straightforward hiking until the summit of Belford. It took me nearly four hours, and an uncountable number of rests to complete the simple stretch of trail to that first summit. But once up on the summit, a little after noon the wind began blasting me. It had been persistent all day but down at the lower elevations I had fought against sweating by stripping down. Now it would be a battle against hypothermia. I ducked behind the summit pillar and found shelter but knew I had a long day ahead of me and had to get moving again. The ridge between Belford and Oxford is 1.5 miles down and up of wind-swept, snow-free hiking so I took off my snowshoes and left them on Belford’s rocky ridge.
Immediately when I began my descent down to Oxford though the wind blasted me with force that I haven’t felt since my encounter with 100mph winds on the summit of Gros Morne in Newfoundland. The weather had anticipated gale force winds so I came prepared. With every inch of skin covered with the exception of a small breathing and eating hole for my mouth, the biggest challenge of the wind was trying to descend the slick knife edge ridge down to Oxford. But despite being covered in windproof nylon, the cold still penetrated and occasionally I would have to huddle up behind a rock and warm some part of me that felt frozen in the bitter -40 windchill. Above the ridge I began violently shivering and had to put on my down jacket.
It was a constant struggle with the brutal winds and I made it to the summit of Oxford a little over an hour later. I felt comfortable underneath my four layers but was ready to get back and descend. I spent maybe a minute on the summit and turned around for the climb back up to Belford’s ridge. Despite wearing a down jacket I normally sweat in sitting still I was still cool even on the sharp ridge up Belford. I was exhausted at this point, having ascended nearly 6,000 feet of vertical gain. Nearly every step required a rest and I reminded myself that once I was on the ridge I had the full opportunity to accept two 14ers for the day and descend. It would be 4 miles without even five steps of elevation gain. This realization excited me but I knew it wouldn’t last.
Once reaquainted with my snowshoes I looked over at Missouri. The warmth of the sun was now hidden behind a blanket of gray clouds spitting out a light snow. Despite its long broad ridge, Missouri is one of the most powerful and menacing looking mountains I have seen out here. It’s broad steep north face begs to be climbed while the ridge connecting it to Belford almost commands climbers to stay off. In the summer the north face couloirs are scree fields too slick to be ascended. But with a solid base of snow in the winter, the steep, straight, broad channels become a mountaineer’s dream.
Before Thanksgiving I ascended a couloir in Rocky Mountain National Park that scared the absolute crap out of me. Starting out gradual and broad, the Taylor Glacier narrowed at the top and turned to rock. With boulders strewn throughout the ice field, I knew a fall wouldn’t mean a simple sled down to the bottom. I saw my body colliding with those boulders as I fell like some sort of human Plinko game. I was forced to shimmy across a category 4 climb over to another couloir to finish the climb. While traversing the steep rock I had a moment when my center of gravity tipped back, feeling my body drifting off into open space. The kind of loss of balance where you’d normally simply put a foot back, but up here there was no place to put my foot. I quickly grabbed the rock in front of me and planted the pick of my ice axe and was able to regain balance. But the feeling sent my heart racing and reinforced my fragile position up there. I managed to work my way up the chest high snow and over a small cornice to the summit of the Continental Divide. Over the top I laid down on the warm rocks and cried with happiness at being alive and safely on flat ground. And I vowed to never do anything like it again.
So when I saw the couloirs on the north face of Missouri and read the beta on how to climb them, with ample reassurance that they were simply class 2 climbing, basically steep hiking where one may occasionally have to put down a hand, I felt the need to prove to myself that I could climb safely. The runout, or area you’ll fall into if you slip, was a broad snowfield with only a couple small boulders peeking out. It would give me ample time to self arrest in case of a slip. I knew it was safe. I knew I could do it. But I was still scared out of my mind of getting myself into a similar situation that I was in on Taylor Glacier in RMNP.
I stood on top of Belford, in the little notch behind the summit, looking over at Missouri. I had two options and it was no small decision. I could either glissade (sled down on my butt) down a gully on the slopes of Belford toward my car, or descend the wall of loose stones, away from my car, toward Missouri. I desperately wanted to return to my car, but I knew it was only laziness and not simply lack of ability or energy. I could do this and still had time. I downed a bag of Famous Amos cookies and worked my way toward the cirque at the base of the couloirs on Missouri.
The climb had looked incredibly daunting from afar, like a wall of snow and rock, but when I reached the base I could see it was a much more gradual slope, possibly deceptively so. I switched out my trekking poles for my ice axe and began working my way up. With front points and a heel lift on my snowshoes to save my calves, I left them on instead of switching out for crampons. The firm snow at the base made for easy walking and I ascended the first half quickly. But midway up the hard surface cracked under my weight and eventually turned to loose powder covering the scree below. I didn’t feel comfortable with the transition, knowing that it would take my axe much longer to catch if I needed to self-arrest, but my steps felt firm and the runout still meant a safe slide if I were to fall. After over an hour of ascending the 1500 foot wall, I finally saw the top slip into view on the C-shaped couloir. The snow disappeared and turned to the small stones frozen into the soil. I was elated when I got there because it meant I didn’t need to dig away the loose snow every step.
I summited a little after sunset and was welcomed by a bleak, cloudy sky which I had neglected to pay attention to on the climb up. The snow was coming down in full force now and the wind had not relented. On the climb up the gully I had considered descending via the standard route so I could take a deep breath on some easier terrain. But with the darkness making it impossible to see with goggles on and the icy daggers being blown into my face making it impossible to see with them off, I decided to glissade down the couloir and get the hell off this summit. The hike back also didn’t look like the joyride I had expected either. I had expected a broad summit ridge and the jagged narrow rocks and fragile cornices seemed a little less welcoming than I had anticipated. So with my ice axe in self arrest position, spike digging into the snow, I descended the entire face which I had practically crawled up in less than 10 minutes.
But while I was absolutely relieved to be back down in the Missouri Gulch, I knew my day wasn’t over yet. Navigation would be easy in the dark, if I took more than five steps uphill, I was going the wrong way. But with my goggles off, the snow blasted at my corneas and I had to settle for hiking with my eyes closed. Up on the broad snowfields it was easy, but when shrubs started appearing and eventually small trees, I found navigating through them extremely difficult and slow. I hiked with one eye open and tripped over some obstacle every few steps. I wasn’t really panicking at this point; I knew I was still safe and within my tolerable limits. But I was getting pretty fed up with the blasting winds and was ready to be back at my car.
When I reached my tracks I had set earlier in the day I was too exhausted to celebrate so just cut left and followed them down. Once below treeline I stopped to remove my frozen balaclava, pulling out moustache hairs stuck to it along with it. I scratched my head which had been bundled up under my fleece cap for nearly ten hours, and popped in my headphones to rock out to some Zero 7 for the last hour of the hike.
I’m relieved to be done and have topped out on Belford, Oxford, Missouri, sort of the summit of the past few weeks. It’s the hardest climbing and most challenging conditions that I’ve faced solo and feel I’ve done it safely and within my comfort zone. When everything goes well it’s hard to reflect and feel like I’ve accomplished anything. Sometimes I feel like I might as well have gone to the movies. Sure it’s always beautiful and entertaining, but without the challenge I can’t lay back and fall asleep knowing I deserved it. But when things go sour, and I find myself on the summit of a sharp 14er summit after dark , wind battering me for an entire day, struggling to keep my Gatorade liquid, and I handle each blow with confidence and grace, those are the adventures I love.
Video I made of the epic day:
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