After a good weather window on Friday we thought the grace would continue through Saturday. So Louie and I traveled over to Leadville, Colorado and camped at the Vicksburg trailhead in position for Mount Oxford and Mount Belford. These two fourteeners are frequently blown clear of snow and hard to catch for good backcountry skiing descents. More, doing them both in a day from car to car can be brutal as the vertical is big, the bushwhacking extreme and the winds often tornado like in character. But they are fourteeners so they’re worth the pain.
Partners in this mythical combo of hurt and heaven were Ted Mahon and Christy Sauer, and Jordan White, a young man who’s been climbing fourteeners since he was eight years old and now furiously ticking off ski descents between college classes. (Ted and Christy are just in from winning the co-ed class in the Elk Mountains Traverse — doing Oxford Belford was their idea, as Ted is actually quite close to skiing all the fourteeners, with 48 done including most of the hard ones. Christy has dropped quite a few ‘teeners herself, could she end up being the first woman to ski them all?)
|After a morning backcountry skiing in the Marble, Colorado area we experienced a powerful hunger. Leadville taco stand fit the bill. Tailgate dining can be fun, but is it fun at 10,152 feet, 40 degrees F. and with a stiff wind? Perhaps if you dress correctly. But when all you brought are your flipflops and ski boots (and choose flipflops), the chill might bite. Good torta though, right Louie? Perhaps try rubbing a little of that hot sauce on your frozen feet?|
|This guy was lucky we had dinner at the taco stand, as I now have the perfect bumper for elk harvesting.|
|The morning is a vertical explosion. We leave the Vicksburg trailhead at just after four a.m, and the next thing I know we’re summiting Mount Belford at nine ‘o clock in the morning, after 4,557 vertical of everything from dirt hiking, slipping backwards on icy switchbacks in the forest, to kicking steps in an icy crust layer. I’d always wanted to try snow climbing Belford by going up the gulch just NE of the summer hiking trail. The gulch route is efficient for ski travel as it wraps around enough to keep the angle nearly perfect for climbing on skis and skins, though we have to boot the last 500 vert or so because a hard crust makes for dicey skinning. (Ski crampons would be excellent here, but I leave those at home when I carry my boot crampons as I’m doing today.)|
|It’s windy and cold as a witch’s mammary when we reach Belford’s summit. Several good ski descents start from just below the rocky summit block, but since early descents of the peak were done from the exact summit, we want the same for our group (second time for me, first for everyone else.) How to warm our chilled bones? Build a Mahon/Sauer signature model summit ramp and get that exact summit ski descent, starting with your tails touching the summit register. Only this ramp has a twist — a small launch into a tricky dip. How we handle this is interesting. None of us would have won an X-games audition, but did we care?
Stunts aside, one of the most aesthetic things about today is the undercast in all the valleys below us. A common phenom in places like the northwest, having a cloud floor below you is rarer in Colorado and thus gives the day some extra visual umph. You can see the undercast in the background of the photo below, filling the valley.
|This is Christy’s technique. Dig one tip and demonstrate your toughness as well as your ability to dodge the ice axe spike just behind your head.|
|Jordan makes sparks fly.|
|I take the most conservative line by sidestepping to the edge of the table then doing a 3/4 modified peddle hop with a pole thrust, head tilt and corked shoulder shrug. I’m trying for that Redbull sponsorship and a TGR cameo, but the sidestepping blows my chance. Funny thing is, this might have been the first time in my life I ever built any sort of kicker. Good it is on top of a fourteener otherwise you could only call it weird. Or perhaps it’s strange anyhow? Altitude induced insanity.|
|A nice line drops easterly from our kicker landing into Belford Gulch. This is Jordan getting a taste of the white. Conditions are variable but fun.|
|Louie next. We drop into the basin at the head of Belford Gulch, climb back up to the ridge connecting Belford and Oxford (to right in photo), and slog to Oxford. It’s a long cold journey. We wonder if we can actually ski wind stripped Oxford. We do eventually find the line marked in the photo from the summit of Oxford. It required a bit of Davenporting over some snowy rockpiles, but most was actually quite good. (Davenporting is sort of like teleporting, it’s a move inspired by stories of Chris Davenport making sure he has his skis on for every inch of the mountain.)|
|On the ridge to Oxford looking back at Belford (ski route marked). Nothing quite like hiking in rando boots: stilt walking in the circus — with a 50 mph wind.|
|Louie measures the breeze with our Brunton ADC Pro combo altimeter/clock/thermometer/anemometer. Fifty seven miles per hour! The ADC has a wind chill alarm. I think I heard it — or was that the wind in my ears?
Incidentally, the Brunton ADC is an amazing device. It even measures water speed, humidity, and a bunch of other stuff. Humidity, you ask? Why measure humidity? Take my word for it, measuring humidity can be useful. But we’ll blog the ADC later, after we’re done studying the 73 page manual.
|Is he teleporting or davenporting? Louie gets the exact summit ski descent on Oxford. We work our way down the ridge for a few hundred vert, then dive over to the west face where a narrow, rocky but fun couloir spits us out in the head bowl of Belford Gulch.
If we head down Belford Gulch we get to enjoy catching air over Belford falls and walking the road several miles back to our cars. Nah. So we climb about 650 vertical feet out of the basin to the crest of Belford’s north ridge (Pecks Peak). By doing this we can ski down and intersect our ascent route somewhere around timberline.
Is this still fun? Turns out route out of the basin involves crossing three or four avalanche slopes. The snow is too hard for efficient skinning so I put on my crampons. Clouds scud the sun and visibility sours. Wind scours my face like I’m the nosecone on a bullet train. But I chuckle. Nothing like a hard day to define the kicked back fun-in-the-sun easy ones. More, how about some weather to keep me honest about carrying the right stuff in my pack? For example, leave the balaclava behind and I’d have maybe made one summit, or perhaps turned around when we broke timberline.
Christy kicks steps to the ridgecrest and the day’s climbing is over. With care for our tired legs we ski an intricate series of windpacked rolls and small gullies about 1,600 vertical down to our ascent trail in Missouri Gulch. Ted stops for a few ski photos. On breakable crust in flat light we know we’ll look like dorks in the pics, so we beg him to stop. He shoots a few anyway, probably to use for blackmail later.
|The real extreme skiing begins. Eight hundred vertical feet through dark timber, on a switchbacked trail that’s only slightly wider than your average bedroom hallway. Luckily, the dirt patches and rocks prevent boredom. Will this make the TGR flick Christy is vying for? Look at those wimps behind her with their skis off!|
|Myself and Louie at the summit of Oxford. I believe it was here, while munching on a Cliff bar, that we began discussing the Leadville taco stand. By 3:30 p.m. that eatery was indeed our location. Once back home we check the truck bumper for elk hair, clean the taco wrappers from between the seats, calculate our vertical for the day (just over 6,000 feet), enjoy our photos, then spend a restful night dreaming of warm spring snowclimbs and corn descents. We’ll get one yet.|