Saturday, August 20, 2011

Mount Oxford

Mt. Oxford is in an area called the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness in Colorado which includes nine fourteeners. It has the highest average elevation of any wilderness area in the United States. The name comes from the peaks named for famous colleges in the rarefied air of academia: Mt. Harvard, Mt. Oxford, Mt. Yale, Mt. Princeton and Mt. Columbia. But what about Missouri Mountain, Mount Belford, La Plata Peak, and Huron Peak, the other fourteeners? Don't they also represent colleges? In the Times rankings of world universities for 2011, Harvard is ranked no. 1, Princeton no. 5, Oxford no. 6, Yale no. 10, and Columbia no. 18. The University of Missouri, with 32,000 students, doesn't make the top 200.  Neither does Belford University in Humble, Texas which offers unaccredited degrees for "life experience" with certificates mailed from the United Arab Emirates. Neither does Huron University in Huron, South Dakota, which closed in 2005, or the College of Southern Maryland in La Plata. I guess they aren't in the same rarefied air of academia, but in the rarefied air of mountain tops, they are all near equals.

Sam, Andrew and I hiked to the summit of Mt. Oxford (14,153 feet) from Mt. Belford. Unfortunately, I didn't take any great pictures of Mt. Oxford from Mt. Belford. I cropped the following picture from the three of us standing on Belford with Oxford in the background and that's the best I have. 
Like the trail to Belford, this trail is rated class 2 and I think it should be class 1. It is a good dirt trail most of the way. It is listed as having a little more exposure, but I can think of only one small section, where despite the pretty good trail, you might have had to use your hands to hold on to nearby rocks for support, but I don't really recall being conscious of exposure at that point, something I am usually quite attuned to. Below is a photo of that portion of the trail, taken from Mt. Oxford on the way back over to Mt. Belford. The upper portion of the trail, where it is steeper and less defined, is the portion I am referring to.
It is not in the same universe as the northwest ridge of Mt. Tyndall which is also rated class 2, with virtually no dirt trail (all rock climbing), and  massively greater levels of exposure.

From the summit of Mt. Belford, you hike east about a quarter mile (toward Mt. Harvard which is straight ahead), then turn left and hike the connecting ridge between Belford and Oxford. The picture below shows that connecting ridge to the left, looking at it backwards, from Mt. Oxford toward Mt. Belford. Mt. Belford is the high nob toward the upper right-hand part of the picture. 
If you look right, you see another ridge which connects Belford and Missouri Mountain, which is Elkhead Pass. The photo of Elkhead Pass below, was taken from the summit of Mt. Belford. The summit of Missouri Mountain is to the far right of the photo. 
When we got to the top of Oxford we talked to several hikers who originally went up Missouri, then did Oxford, then were doing Belford and hiking out, completing three peaks in a day. They all started substantially earlier in the day than we did, one started at 4:45 a.m., 2 1/2 hours earlier than us, but I think if we could do do-overs, that is what I would do.

The connecting ridge starts down steeply among some rock outcroppings, but was not bad. The most memorable part of that trail was an abundance of of thistles with thorny stems  
and big fuzzy heads which made them look like octopus. 
By the midpoint and low point of the ridge, about 13,500 feet in elevation, the rock had disappeared and it was mostly a dirt trail among grass. The route up Oxford was much easier than the northwest ridge up Belford, or the saddle down from Belford. Below, Sam is a speck at the top of the ridge. 
It was pretty much all uphill, but was not as steep. Below, the summit of Oxford is left of middle below, even though the portion to the right looks higher. Sam is on the summit with another person. 
A closer picture of Sam on the summit (he is the person to the left and sits at the actual summit). 
The summit of Oxford is relatively flat and large, studded with rocks. There was a small area of rocks built up to provide protection in bad weather, which included one rock with the geographic marker for the peak imbedded in it. Below, Sam sitting at the summit.
The most impressive view from the top was the view back toward Belford (Sam and Andrew below, with Belford just to the left of Sam), 
which from this angle, looked quite imposing, with a steep cliff below it. 
Sam and I at the summit.
That is one of the fun things about mountains, similar to life, depending on the route, some ways of getting to the top are easier than others. I gave my attention to a couple of pikas that were playing around near the summit, cute little rabbit or hamster like animals that only live at very high elevations. 
I had one run by me within a couple of feet, but couldn't get my camera out fast enough to get a good picture of it. Then Andrew got my attention by waving to me and motioned me over to see a congregation of white-tailed ptarmigan hiding among the summit rocks. 
We probably spent 30 minutes or more watching the ptarmigans. 
We spent at least 45 minutes on the summit, a nice break. 

The hike back down Oxford was easy, then the most difficult part of the day's hike was going back up the  dividing ridge to the Belford massif. 
It was the steepest part of the trail and required a few short rests. Once back up to the ridge, we got the Belford summit in view 
and got there to find a group of several young families with young children on top. 
A number of very small children had made it up, the youngest being age four. It brought back fond memories of hikes with my boys when they were young, although I didn't do anything as adventurous as this at that young age. We did do Mt. San Jacinto when Andrew and Sam were 6 and 9, White Mountain (a fourteener) when Andrew and Sam were 8 and 11, and Mt. Whitney (a fourteener) when they were 9 and 12, respectively. Below, Sam still on the Belford summit ridge and Missouri Gulch and other Colorado high country in the background.
Once we got off the Belford top ridge the hiking got steep downhill and my toes were pretty much jammed into the tops of my tennis shoes most of the way down. It got much better once we hit the valley in Missouri Gulch. Looking back up Missouri Gulch toward Missouri Mountain.
Looking ahead at Sam in front of me as we hike down Missouri Gulch just below treeline. It got much steeper as we got lower, but not anywhere as steep as the northwest ridge of Belford. 
One of my big toes was missing a toe nail and the big toe nail was damaged and will come off at some point. My toes were also still a little sensitive from my Sierra climbs of Mt. Williamson and Mt. Tyndall a month earlier. So we had the interesting experience of taking almost as much time to go down the mountain as it took us to go up it. On the way up, I only recall one significant rest of a few minutes or more to eat something and drink. On the way down, we took a number of such rests. Part of it was being more tired, part of it was not being in a rush to get down, part of it was the extra stress on knees and toes from the downhill. I normally do these types of climbs with hiking poles. The poles provide stability on the steep downhill and take some of the pressure off the knees and toes. Those we watched with hiking poles were able to do this downhill much quicker than we did. I didn't bring my hiking polls because it would have required me to check a bag on the airplane, which adds about $50.00 to the cost of the flight, and then also takes time to wait for the baggage to make it off the airplane. I was ultimately happy to get off the mountain. The uphill, although significant, about 5,800 feet of elevation gain, was nice hiking on a very nice trail. The downhill, however, without poles, was very tough because of the steep descent. I had no blisters on the bottoms of my feet or toes, but had very large blisters with blood in them on the tops of both of my big toes, something I don't think I've ever experienced. I think it may partially relate to the beating my toes took last month and just never fully recovered from. 

From the standpoint of fourteeners, I was going to rate these as the easiest I've done, other than California's White Mountain (which is a longer hike, but much less elevation gain), and the ones I've cheated on, using the cog-railway up Pike's Peak and the road up Mount Evans. However, I then compare the one day trip up Grays and Torreys Peaks which was a combined 8.25 miles in length with 3,600 feet of elevation gain, to Belford and Oxford which were a combined 11 miles and 5,800 feet of elevation gain. Why would I rate Grays and Torreys as more difficult? That doesn't make any sense. I guess going back to my earlier comment about some routes going up mountains being easier than others, sometimes our experience with those routes are greatly impacted by the circumstances, both external and internal, that make a more difficult route seem easier and an easier route seem harder. When we did Grays and Torreys, the routes were extremely crowded with people, which greatly detracted from the enjoyment of the trip. There were much, much, much fewer people on Belford and Oxford and that greatly impacts the enjoyment, the sense of solitude. I was probably not in as good a shape when I did Grays and Torreys, and I had some altitude sickness, particularly some fluid in my lungs, on that hike which impacted my physicality and made that hike seem harder. It also rained on the Grays and Torreys trip which made it colder and a little miserable. So I guess I have to amend my impression and thoughts, formed while coming down Belford. For me, Belford and Oxford was a much more enjoyable trip. It was nicer weather, there were fewer people, we had wildlife encounters with white-tailed ptarmigans, pikas and marmots, and I felt better physically. I guess it works that way in other parts of life, where what should be an easier situation, based on an objective look at the facts, is more difficult because of circumstances.


  1. I love the camouflage on those ptarmigans. They look just like fat rocks. And I really like your observations in the final paragraph. That's just what I was thinking as I was reading your summary. I guess that is one of the reasons it is important not to judge others. We just don't ever really understand their surrounding circumstances.

  2. In view of the picture above it, I would propose a redaction of one of your sentences: "That is one of the fun things about mountains, similar to life, you will eventually be caught with your pants down."

  3. That is why I have such a big smile on my face.