Colorado: Winter hiking in the Collegiate Range

High in the Rockies with Kim Fenske


Missouri Peak from Mount Belford.


Kin Fenske on the summit of Mt. Belford.

Story and photos by Kim Fenske

The Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area comprises 168,000 acres of the Sawatch Range, including nine of the 14,000 foot peaks in Colorado. Fifty miles south of Copper Mountain, Missouri Gulch Trail ascends south from a trailhead parking area west of Clear Creek Reservoir. In winter, parking on one of several turn-outs along the road may be prudent due to steep, ice-covered grades before the trailhead parking area.

From the Missouri Gulch Trailhead, at 9,540 feet, a path leads across Clear Creek and ascends south in a series of switchbacks beside Missouri Gulch Creek. Along the way, a few tenths of a mile from the trailhead, the solitary grave site of an infant from the early mining days lies beside the trail. 

The trail levels briefly, crossing over Missouri Gulch Creek to the eastern side of the valley. Nearly two thousand feet above the trailhead, the trail arrives at the dilapidated mining cabin of an Nineteenth Century miner named Joe Anderson. 

Mount Oxford from Mount Belford.

On my first backpacking trip of in 2012, I established a base camp below tree line on flat ground near the cabin. After boiling four liters of water and drinking a bottle of hot chocolate, I hunkered deep into my down sleeping bag through twelve hours of a cold night in the dull glow of a nearly full moon.

At first light, I crawled out of my low-profile shelter and dined on a handful of nuts with another bottle of coffee blended with more hot chocolate. Following a path across tundra meadow and hip high willows, I turned southeast at a junction to ascend the northwest ridge of Mount Belford on snow-filled, crumbly switchbacks.

Four hours of climbing out of Missouri Gulch to the summit of Mount Belford, 14,197 feet, revealed the broad, sharp-toothed ridge of Missouri Mountain forming the western wall of the valley. The summit is nearly four miles from the trailhead. West of the summit, Elkhead Pass created a rounded rib of wind-blasted tundra from Mount Belford over to the summit of Missouri Mountain, 14,074 feet. 

Mount Belford from Mount Oxford.

I sat below the rocky rooster crest at the summit of Mount Belford, protected from a harsh wind from the north, and renewed my strength with slabs cut from a wheel of brie, a few rice chips, and a bottle of water. Then, I studied the slightly steep descent east on the snow-packed trail across the saddle to Mount Oxford.  An hour later, I reached the flat, rock-strewn tundra at the summit of Mount Oxford, 14,197 feet.

North of the summit, Leadville rests in the valley of the Arkansas River, east of Mount Massive and Mount Elbert. In the foreground, a portion of the eastern side of Twin Lakes Reservoir is visible at junction of Highway 82 and Highway 24, below Mount La Plata. Southwest of the summit, the broad, steep face of Mount Harvard forms part of a prickly horizon.

Now five miles from the trailhead in the mid-afternoon, I began my descent. I decided to head west on the longer, gradual drop to Elkhead Pass, rather than take the steep, slippery descent along the northwest ridge of Mount Belford.

Moon over Mt. Belford.

I hiked down to the cairn that marks the saddle crossing of Missouri Gulch Trail at 13,220 feet.  Then, I walked along bits of trail, obscured most of the distance by large patches of hardened snow. Since the entire western half of the valley was buried under a deep snowfield, I picked my own way down a steep tundra slope before crossing over to the trail below the northern ridge of Missouri Mountain. The trail resumed through a field of boot high willow.

A thousand feet below Elkhead Pass, the trail vanished into a thicket of willow that nearly touched my waist. With sunset a few minutes away, I hoped to reach the packed trail near tree line before dark. I quickly surveyed the features below me, observing the steep cut of Missouri Gulch Creek, high-rolling tundra beyond the willows, a rough boulder field at the base of steep chutes on the west side of the valley, and the northwest ridge of Mount Belford meeting the eastern valley a half mile across a snarled wetland. I captured reference points that would be visible after dark and devised my strategy for an unmarked descent to my base camp.

Elkhead Pass

I decided to ascend to high ground on a few plates of tundra meadow separated by dips covered in willow tangles. Crossing hardened snow plates, I took small steps to keep my feet close together. The crusted snow gave way many times, swallowing me to my thighs in a conglomerate of loose powder and sticky branches. Reaching a grassy knoll, I tracked a few scattered footprints and found brief traces of the trail.

The moon rose over the summit of Mount Belford and the sky glowed brilliantly pink in alpenglow. I descended through a few more patches of powder-buried willow, crossed turtle shells of hardened snow, and caught a switchback of trail over a shallow ledge. Then, I crossed the wetland to the eastern side of the valley and found the merger between the Missouri Gulch Trail and the switchbacks ascending Mount Belford from the northwest. My odometer clicked over to ten miles from the trailhead. 

The alpenglow darkened to shades of purple as the skylight diminished enough for me to mount a headlamp. A half-mile down the trail, I found my base camp, stuffed my gear, guzzled my last bottle of water, and dropped down to the trailhead. The loop was complete after twelve easy miles of hiking. Finally, I strolled the final mile down the hilly, snow-coated road to where I left my vehicle pointed downward toward the highway on a dry patch of gravel.

Alpenglow over the base of Mount Belford.

Kim Fenske is a former wilderness ranger, firefighter who has hiked thousands of miles in the Colorado mountains. He has served on the board of directors of Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.

Fenske has authored several hiking books filled with hundreds of photographs of Colorado wildlife, wildflowers, and scenery. His books are enjoyed by thousands of outdoor enthusiasts. His current electronic book titles are published on Amazon for Kindle, as well as Barnes and Noble for Nook. Search for these titles: “Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado,” “Holy Cross Wilderness Area,” and “Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.”

More stories by Kim Fenske:


3 thoughts on “Colorado: Winter hiking in the Collegiate Range

  1. k. fenske’s ‘winter’ fourteener travels/pics have been great reading. given that last winter and the current winter are anomalies at both ends of the spectrum, how might a ‘normal’ or close to normal (145″ +/- for breck ski area) winter snowpack-as opposed to the current 45% of normal (62″) hinder winter fourteener travel?

  2. Conditions on Fourteeners vary considerably in winter. In December, 2010, I ascended Quandary, one of the easiest Fourteeners. During the summer, the hike from the trailhead at 10,000 feet to the summit takes about four hours up and two hours down. With powder between knee-and-waist depth up to tree line, the hike took me about eleven hours. Above the trees, the trail was substantially blown-off, similar to this winter on Belford and Oxford. Of approximately twenty hikers who attempted Quandary that day, only two joined me at the summit. The remainder retreated at 12,000 feet.

    During June, 2011, I avoided Fourteeners entirely due to what I believed to be dangerous snowpack conditions. During 2010, ten climbers died on difficult climbs like Little Bear, Longs, Maroon Bells. During 2011, the first half-dozen fatalities were on easy Fourteeners, including Torreys, Princeton, Evans, Missouri, Quandary, and Snowmass due to avalanche, slip-and-fall, rock slide, and heart attack.

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