On the Trail: Fourteeners – squared

Charles AgarAspen, CO Colorado

BUENA VISTA, Colo. When my friend Tom suggested a 4:30 a.m. start to hit two 14,000-foot peaks – Mount Belford and Mount Oxford in the Collegiate Peaks range near Buena Vista – I didn’t give it a second thought.I packed a bag Sunday evening, read a boring book that put me to sleep earlier than usual, and as if the alarm clock and I were on the same team (instead of mortal enemies) I hopped out of bed at 4 a.m., fired up the car, picked up Tom in town and headed for the hills.We zipped over Independence Pass in darkness, but as we rounded the corner for our first view of Twin Lakes, we got a blast of the red morning sun and the promise of a hot day.I always have doubts on the first few hundred yards of a hike: Do I have enough water? Food? Energy? But we kept a good, steady pace from the Missouri Gulch trailhead to the base of Belford – a gradual uphill through the strata of high-alpine diversity, from dense pines and low-alpine meadows speckled with multicolored flowers to the high craggy peaks and ridges.And once limbered up by the hike from the valley floor to the high meadows, we took on the high spine of Belford, trudging along the steep switchbacks and switching leads with a friendly family of fourteener-baggers from Paonia.After a brief stop at the top of Belford for that sandwich that tastes that oh so good after being carried to altitude, we pondered our next move.Why would anyone, after hoofing up four miles and more than 4,000 feet of vertical, want to hike down and up a 1,000-foot saddle twice to stand on another pile of rocks a mile away?To say you did two fourteeners in one day.The down-climb and steep uphill from Belford to Oxford nearly did me in, but inch-by-inch, my lungs gasping for air, I followed Tom back up to Belford before the 5,000 feet of descent.And, even following a more gradual route down to Elk Head Pass and through the valley, with the scorching afternoon sun my footfalls felt like hammer strikes on molten steel.But a foot-soak in the cool stream near the trailhead and a cool Gatorade from the gas station on the way home set things right and I got to tick two more fourteeners off my list – now just 51 to go.