Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Missouri Gulch & Mt. Belford Backpacking with the Boys

Ever wanted to take 3 kids under the age of 10 on a backpacking trip?  We did.  My father and I have been avid backpacker's since our first trip in 1999 and with my 3 sons beginning to get older I wanted them to begin to have the same experience.  One big problem though: how do you get all the gear you need into the wilderness with little bodies that cannot carry much?   That's what we would find out.

Day 1: Monday, July 14

   We set our sights on Missouri Gulch for this first adventure.  It would give the kids an easy access backcountry experience, but also provide us with an easy retreat should things fall apart.  It would also give us a chance at another 14er summit for my boys.  Last year my oldest summitted his fourth on Quandary peak, while the younger two each summitted for the first time on Quandary.  They were all excited about another chance this year.

   My younger two still don't carry much at all and so we fitted the youngest with a basic REI kid's pack just putting water and some snacks in there for him.  The middle one we put the REI Tarn 18 pack on him and he carried his clothes and water in there.  My oldest we decided he was ready for some extra.  We got him an Osprey Ace 48 and he carried his sleeping bag, clothes, water as well as some basic cooking gear.  This left my father and I as the proverbial pack mules carry extra sleeping bags, the entire 4-person tent (for the 5 of us) and the remaining clothing.  Good thing this wasn't a long trail!

Trail Time   

Route Name: Missouri Gulch Trail
Trailhead Elevation: 9,659 ft.
Camp Elevation: 11,297 ft.
Distance: 1.59 mi.
Elevation Gain: 1,714 ft.
Start Time: 3:02pm
End Time: 5:08pm

With everyone all packed up we headed out from our condo in Frisco and made the drive to the Missouri Gulch trailhead.  We got the boys loaded up and we made our way onto the trail and over the bridge that helps the hiker over Clear Creek.  So far, so good.  We kept the boys busy talking and asking them questions about the outdoors as we got started to keep their minds off the tiring nature of uphill hiking.  From a few year's of experience hiking with sub-teen hikers, it is all a battle of the minds.  These little guys can handle amazing amounts of physical activity, so long as their minds think they can.  They can also tire quickly if their minds grow bored or they think too long on the challenge of the task at hand.  Okay, let's face it, us adults aren't that much different.

Slowly but surely working up the trail
We did have one early mishap as we moved along the trail, and it happened to be my own.  I was running through the gear needs in my head as I often do on the trail, and better yet, before we hit the trail, and I thought about the stove fuel.  I asked my father if he had grabbed it as it had made its way out to Colorado in his van since I couldn't fly with it.  He said no.  I knew I hadn't packed it or thought of it up to that point either so I had to haul back to the car.  Luckily we weren't even a half mile up trail yet.  I dropped pack and ran back to grab the very necessary fuel for the two nights of cooking.

Getting ready for a fun stream crossing
Just over half way up to the fallen log cabin, which was our intended destination, we began to see growing numbers of Columbine flowers in the grasses along the trail.  This was a highlight for the boys, myself included, who enjoy taking in the amazing wildflowers of Colorado.  Along the hiker up there are also three small creek crossings which the boys also enjoyed.  We had to help my youngest, at one point carrying him like a football, across as his shorter legs couldn't make the long steps.

Upon arriving at the log cabin we found another group staying in the area as well.  We left the 3 boys with orders to stay by the cabin while my father went uphill to scout out a campsite and I went up trail to scout further up the gulch.  I knew from previous looks at satellite maps that there were a few more groves of trees further up the trail.  The one in particular was just another 1/10 of a mile ahead, but was also on the other side of the creek.  I tried to find an easy place to cross over but found the hill to the creek too steep, and no easy crossing on the creek.

One of many Columbine's along the trail
My father did find a site about 100 feet uphill from the log cabin which was as good as it would get, though we still had the tent on a bit of an angle.  We enjoyed the process nevertheless as we taught the boys about picking good camp sites and now how to setup a camp.  They helped with the tent and then we worked with them to find a good cooking rock some distance from the tent to work on supper.

For supper we pulled out the freeze-dried lasagna as well as a chicken teriyaki with rice dinner.  The lasagna, not surprisingly, was the real hit with the boys.  Its sticky, but it also is tasty.  The boys wasted no time eating up their first backcountry meal and even enjoyed a bit of the chicken teriyaki.  

My youngest showing off for the camera
Even with all the good food, the real highlight was a campfire.  Nothing keeps little boys occupied better than watching and playing with fire. We spent time with them gathering dead wood off the ground and even tried to break some of the larger pieces up helplessly wishing we had brought a saw.  We did end up with a pretty good, roaring fire for a few hours that helped us pass time into the early night.

Our tent at night was a little snug sleeping five of us in my father's old Kelty 4-person tent, but with my sons being young and small we just fit.  It actually worked out, as with the tent on a slope our closer proximity nearly could have helped us sardine each other in place.  Overnight we had a good rain storm and could hear it coming down on the tent.  My oldest son even woke me at one point as some rain drops were finding their way in through a vent to drip on him.  In the morning we found my youngest at the bottom of the tent as he had given up fighting the hill.

Day 2: Tuesday, July 15

   We woke up to cool air and many wet things outside.  Our tent had slid about 3 inches downhill through the night which partly collapsed the lower vestibule, which then left some shoes partly exposed to the overnight rain.  This left my father and I both with wet shoes for the day's hike.  Nevertheless, we got breakfast going.  I walked with a small puddle in my trail-runner and grabbed our hanging food bag and fired up the stove to make oatmeal.  My oldest boy worked on stoking up what embers were left of the fire from last night and we had breakfast.

Trail Time   

Route Name: Mt. Belford Trail > Elkhead Pass Trail
Camp Elevation: 11,297 ft.
Mt. Belford Elevation: 14,197 ft.
Elkhead Pass Elevation: 13, 220 ft.
Distance: 6.39 mi.
Elevation Gain: 2,985 ft.
Start Time: 7:58am
End Time: 3:28pm

From camp the trail is quite a beautiful hike through Missouri Gulch gaining elevation at a fairly moderate pace up until you hit the first trail junction.  This junction where the Mt. Belford trail breaks left and the Elkhead Pass trail breaks right is about 6/10 of a mile up from the log cabin.  After this, the elevation starts coming fast.  In all, the summit was 2.3 miles from our camp but we would gain almost 3000 feet which is well above a more normal 1000 feet per mile.  To make matters worse, you only gain about 350 feet in the first 0.6 miles to the junction, after that it is almost 2600 feet in 1.7 miles.  To further illustrate, Google Earth's take on my GPX track shows an average slope of 11.3% in the first 0.6 miles.  From the junction to the summit was an average slope of 28%.  This would be foreboding of what was to come for my youngsters on the trail.

Another 3/10 of a mile up from the junction is where the ridge really begins.  There is a very steep, rocky slope that needs to be mastered before the slightly easier grassy slopes of the ridge could be gained.  There is an excellent rock step and traversing trail that heads up through this section which even offered a slight bit of exposure for my sub-10 hikers.  They did well with it and it offered us another teaching opportunity of safety and attention while scrambling through steep sections of trail.

Once on the ridge northwest ridge proper it is just one big haul.  The switchbacks are well laid out with good trail winding up through the alpine tundra, but boy do they gain elevation at every opportunity.  My middle son struggled the most and he hiked by my side the whole way up.  I had to pull out every trick in the book of motivation to keep him moving bit by bit.  The other two even had their moments as the altitude began to work on them.  We kept them going however, with photo ops to send home to mom as well as the occasional marmot or pica sighting.

Its a lot of work on the ridge, but at least the views are good

At 13,900 the trail gains a flat saddle area and you think you have the summit in sight.  My father was already well ahead with my oldest and youngest sons and I was there motivating my middle guy saying "there it is, we can make it, almost there."  I moved ahead of him for a bit to drop off a jacket with my oldest son as the temps were cooling and then looked back trying to motivate my middle guy more to get him to make it up.  As we began to gain that next hump on the ridge we realized our journey wouldn't quite end there.  It was a nasty false summit!  Fortunately, the true summit was indeed in sight and we found it was only a 1/10 of a mile away and with little elevation to gain.  I walked my middle guy across this flat area and we made it up the last summit push on the rock to gain Mt. Belford's highest point.  14er #2 for my youngest and middle sons, #5 for my oldest, and well earned today.  

At the final summit pitch, someone standing on the summit

Photosphere from the summit of Mt. Belford

We enjoyed the summit for awhile and I began scouting out Mt. Oxford as a possibility.  Given the time and energy it took to gain Belford I knew my sons wouldn't be going over today, and the weather was quickly shortening the time I would have to head over.  We were also having discussions of taking the Elkhead Pass route down the mountain as it would be an easier, albeit longer, descent.  I didn't want to leave my father with my 3 boys without knowing the initial route, however, so I spent time double-checking and scouting how to start the descent to Elkhead Pass.  Once we had verified that you can make that route by starting on the route over to Mt. Oxford I checked the sky one more time and realized that the window had closed.  Storms were evident in several areas around us and even working at a high speed, it wouldn't be good to make an effort at Oxford.

Looking over to Mt. Oxford

Panorama of Missouri Mountain as we work on the descent to Elkhead Pass

We gathered up and started the descent towards Elkhead Pass.  It is a well-defined trail the whole way and even quite scenic from the start.  It is a much more gradual rate of elevation gain/loss and we enjoyed the trek down to the Pass.  It did begin to sprinkle off and on over us as we hiked.  At the pass we were greeted with heavy winds and a great view.  The former caused us to quickly leave behind the latter so we could get to a lower elevation and hopefully out of the wind.

Looking up at Missouri Mountain, some snow remained on the standard route
The descent further into Missouri Gulch met us with more great views of wildflowers and the surrounding peaks, as well as numerous sightings of furry little friends.  My oldest, using the whistle on his backpack, even tried to strike up conversation with one of the chirping marmots.  We learned one thing about our young hikers in this portion of the trek: while they struggle a lot with the uphill, they are masters of the downhill.  Where they had seemed out of energy gaining the summit now they were like gazelles leaping down the trail with endless excitement for what was next. My middle son especially, who had lagged and struggle so much to gain the top, was always out front on the descent.  There must be something about having small bodies and less weight to hold on the legs that makes the downhill a delight for them.  Or maybe its just all up in the head as usual.

A small stream crossing with snow guarding it

 We passed a couple of tents on the way out from two different groups who had found campsites above treeline in the gulch.  The storm clouds kept coming and going occasionally threatening us with sprinkles.  As we neared the Belford junction once again the sprinkles began to turn into light rain which wouldn't stop.  This helped us hurry our way back to camp.

Missouri Gulch sure is beautiful up here
It was about 3:30pm when we returned to camp and things were starting to get wet.  We quickly worked to get the fire going as we were also getting cold.  The boys after the day's long hike were tired and starting to cool and wanting in that tent soo bad.  We kept them out, however, as we knew a long nap at this point would disrupt supper plans and probably getting them to bed in the evening.  We helped each other take shelter in the drier spots under the tall trees and with the fire going we used it to try to warm up in between the passing showers.  At one point it even began to hail on us and after coming down heavy for about 10 minutes looked like we had had a light snow storm pass through.

Looking a little white around here
The storms seemed to subside around 5:30pm and we then shifted to work on supper to feed our hungry crew.  Tonight's meal was chicken and rice as well as chicken breast and mashed potatoes.  The chicken & rice is a decent backcountry staple though somewhat lacking in flavor.  The chicken breast + mashed potatoes was surprisingly good to me, especially as I usually don't care for mashed potatoes.  My older two sons ate fairly well and then enjoyed their hot cocoa (which was their favorite food by the way) while my youngest just went picky on us and wouldn't eat any of it.  To help him replenish a few calories at least we finally got him to eat some crackers and hot cocoa at the least.

The fire was the real life-saver tonight and with the hike out looming in the morning we kept on pouring on the wood to stay warm and to work on drying some of our wetter clothing out.  It seemed we were up around the fire til almost 11pm tonight just enjoying the warmth.

Day 3: Wednesday, July 16

   Once more we had some rain overnight, but this night's storm was much lighter.  We also had no further shifting in the tent which meant we had dry shoes under the vestibule this morning.  It was cool once again so we worked quickly to ready breakfast.  Today the boys enjoyed more hot cocoa to begin the day and this was a real help.

  This morning's task was to pray for a dry tent, which we received mostly, and to tear down and pack everything up.  This trip really tasked my organization skills as not only did I have to keep track of my own gear, but also that of my 3 boys who weren't a lot of help in this area.  

Trail Time   

Route Name: Missouri Gulch Trail
Camp Elevation: 11,297 ft.
Trailhead Elevation: 9,659 ft.
Distance: 1.59 mi.
Elevation Drop: -1,714 ft.
Start Time: 8:05am
End Time: 9:18am

One last look at our campsite. Tent was on the far upper right part of the photo, on a slope

The hike out went very quick.  We had a bit of a time schedule to keep as we were meeting my wife and mother, as well as my brother in Leadville, to do some people and gear trading.  My father, brother, and I were heading for Snowmass Creek in the afternoon to start our next trip and so we had to drop off the boys. We were meeting up at the Subway at 10:30 which meant we had a deadline to keep.  Though we left camp a few minutes later than my time table had planned, we made quick work of the descent.  The boys enjoyed the creek crossings again and with some good talk on the way down things passed quickly.  We even found a good-size boulder for the boys to practice just a little bouldering upon to gain one last photo op for their mother.  We reached the trailhead just over an hour after we started with some excited boys to see the car once again.  

On the way out of Missouri Gulch

Very thankful for this opportunity to show my 3 sons the joys of the backcountry as well as to help them learn more about motivation and meeting challenges, like Belford's northwest ridge, without giving up on them.  Some have asked whether I force my boys to go for mountain summits or whether this is really something they want to do.  There were a few moments on the northwest ridge where I may have doubted this endeavor.  But when they hit the summit and on the whole way down, and the next morning, and beyond they were nothing but smiles for having accomplished and learned what they did.  They're ready for next year already.

Climbed a rock to pose for one last picture


I have a few tracks and waypoints from the hike all contained in a KML file that you are welcome to download and use (at your own risk): .

My Tracks

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