Mt Belford Northwest Couloir
(After the Storm of the Century)

5-6 Apr 2003 - by Tom Bacus

Last weekend (4/5 and 4/6) Tom Ritz and I finally pulled off the trip we had planned for the weekend following the "Storm of the Century", climbing up and skiing down the Northwest Couloir on Mt. Belford. Saturday morning found us pulling into the Vicksburg Trailhead parking. We were the only car in the lot. After a bit of gear sorting we hefted too heavy packs and started up the trail. We were able to put the skis on as soon as we crossed the bridge over Clear Creek and signed into the logbook. The register was showing about one group per weekend was heading up the Missouri Gulch drainage this winter. The trail was well covered with snow and had been broken by snowshoes in the recent past so our progress up was fairly quick up to the first place we came out of the trees and into an open meadow at about 10,800 feet. Here the trail breaking began, but the snow was well consolidated and the skinning up was not too hard. At about 10,800 feet we also encountered the first of want would be many avalanche debris fields. This one had slid from over a thousand feet above us on the opposite side of Missouri Gulch and had jumped across the drainage and continued to slide down the far side. We hit tree line at about 11,200 feet and with the wind picking up and the snow beginning to fall decided to make camp in the lee of an old cabin ruin to stay out of the wind.

Sunday morning dawned with clearing skies and mild (20 degree) temps. It looked to be a good day for going to the top so we strapped on the skis and began skinning up towards the base of the Northwest Couloir route. The snow overnight had left about 2-3 inches of new snow over the sun baked base below so the skinning was quite easy. We passed a number of avalanche debris fields as we proceeded towards the base of the couloir. Here we found another large debris field from a large avalanche that had come down the Northwest Couloir. All of the debris appeared to be over a week old, but we could tell that significant slides had occurred in the area, making us quite thankful we had postponed our trip until this weekend. Based on the snow evaluation we had been doing as we skinned up to the couloir, we felt pretty safe in proceeding into the couloir and decided to skin up to the first step in the couloir and see how things looked. The snow was very solid with a strong consolidated layer covered with a few inches of new snow. I don't think we broke through the consolidated layer all day long. We decided to keep going up the couloir. The skin up was quite easy with the exception of a few narrow steep steps requiring a bit of side stepping until we got to about 13,300 feet. Here the gully opens out onto a wide, open face and the wind had stripped most of the new snow away making the climb up on skis difficult. At about 13,500 feet we decided to take off the skis and hike up the exposed rocks to the left side of the snowfield. In hindsight we would have made better progress by putting on our crampons and going right up the snowfield. The snow was well consolidated and would have made for easy climbing. About this time the wind really picked up, blowing steadily in the 40 mph range. With the summit so close we made one last push and reached the top at 12:30 pm, about 4 hours after leaving our tree line camp at 11,200 feet. With the strong winds and snow picking up, we only spent a few minutes on the top. Just long enough to look towards Oxford and decide it was too far away for today. We quickly decended on foot to about 13,800' and then straped on our skis for the decent back to camp. The first 1,000 feet of skiing were tough. The snow had increased significantly and with the wind blowing it made for a very disorienting white out conditions. After a number of traverses and kick turns across the face, we made it off the face and back into the couloir. Here the walls of the couloir gave us some protection from the wind and blowing snow and we were able to start making turns down the snow filled gully. By this time the couloir had collected about 4 inches of snow over the old consolidated layer and the skiing was great all the way back down to our camp. We broke camp and skidded down the narrow trail to the car (still the only car in the lot), making out by 5pm. With the wind and snow on top, we didn't take the time to find the register, but based on the trailhead register, we were the second group this year to summit Mt. Belford.


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