Mount Sneffels trip report

Disclaimer

I decided to do this as a 'one-day' blitz from Laramie if possible, even though I estimated it to be a 7.5-8 hour drive without traffic. I left Laramie at 9pm and embarked on a test of a new driving route to the western San Juans. Basically west past Rawlins, then south through Craig, the east side of Grand Junction, and continuing south on US 50 and 550 (the "Million Dollar Highway"). The drive went remarkably well, and I reached the well-signed turnoff for the road up into Yankee Boy Basin before 4am. This road is pretty good and took less than a half- hour. The only bad part is on a spectacular shelf carved out of a cliff; in one short stretch one side of the road is actually under a car-width rock overhang!

The weather has been pretty much warm and stable recently, so I had decided to not start hiking until it got light enough to easily see without a headlamp. I had arrived much earlier than expected, so I ended up starting at about 5:20am with barely enough light to even hike up the 4WD road. I say 'about 5:20am' because two weeks after swearing that I would update my gear checklist and print up a bunch of them, I forgot my altimeter watch. I had my $20 car altimeter which is accurate to about 50-100ft if kept out of the sun, but not a watch. I've become rather religious about stopping once an hour on the way up, but I could deal with that issue.

There were quite a few vehicles parked at the passenger car trailhead and along the 4WD road. In Roach's book, he talks about staying on the 4WD road all the way up to 12300ft. However, well short of this a marked trail starts at a junction at a turn in the road. The views of Sneffels Creek along the first part of the trail are great, complete with waterfalls. Eventually you reach a multi-named lake. The sign at the beginning of the trail says Gilpin Lake (it's at the foot of Gilpin Peak), while Dawson's book calls it Wright Lake. The USGS and Trails Illustrated maps are non-commital. There were two ptarmigans on the shore, so I'll call it Ptarmigan Lake. :-P Sitting at the edge of this placcid little pond with the sun just illuminating the tops of the peaks and birds (or rodents) chirping in the background made for a serene rest spot.

Above Ptarmigan Lake you get a really good close-up view of the mountain. You can also see the trail that Roach describes as well as the short connector trail between the two trails. This is one case where the Trail Illustrated map has the best handle on where the roads and trails are. The gross features of the standard route as well as my more challenging route were visible. The lower part of the SW ridge looked unclimbable with it's jagged pinnacles while the upper ridge looked like a fairly clean ridge run. The trail continues up to Blue Lakes Pass at 13000ft. Interestingly, my ridge running down from Sneffels through Blue Lakes Pass and on up towards Gilpin Peak is part of the Mount Sneffels Wilderness boundary; the approach is not part of the legal Wilderness. From the pass you can see that, yep, those sure are some blue lakes down there.

Finally, it was time to put on the helmet and start climbing. To avoid the lower pinnacles, you have to stay on the left (west) side of the ridge. This involves some route-finding, and after the first gentle part, some Class 3 scrambling. Every once and a while I would come across a cairn and/or a footprint in a dirt patch and I was quite pleased with my route-finding. I climbed into the 13500ft notch and started looking for the "south-facing gully leading to the upper ridge (Class 3)". Uhhhhhh...uhhhhhh... hmmmmm. I tried a couple false routes, including a stupid foray up a steep dirt patch up to the base of some technical rock that took several minutes to descend so as to avoid a potentially long sliding fall. Finally, I tried the one thing I hadn't and came across a cairn, and from there the route was obvious, after wasting about 15-20 minutes. It actually should have been obvious from the start; the key is that you have to descend slightly and go around a corner (counter-clockwise). I did this on a wide ledge, but the main thing is not to descend too far to your right which would lead you into the top of a coulior.

Of course, the gully wasn't trivial, definitely Class 3, with some micro route-finding. From here things are more straightforward and I stayed on the right-hand side of the ridge until about 200ft below the summit. Here I got stymied and scrambled up the best rock of the climb to the ridge crest. As advertised, the exposure on the crest gets your attention and I found it prudent to use my hands even on the low-angle bits. I was tired and thirsty, but I had decided a ways back to wait until the summit before taking a sit-down rest.

I finally arrived on the summit huffing and puffing at 9am-ish. I took a compass bearing of the sun so I could have some fun later trying to determine the time, but it didn't seem to come out right. The summit is quite small, with just enough of a flat area for one person to sleep as at least one r.b. reader can attest. The weather was absolutely perfect, with the temperature probably well up into the 50s and a light breeze. It felt quite warm sitting in the sun. The summit view was tremendous. The rest of the San Juans make up the south half of the skyline. You get a really good look back down at Yankee Boy Basin. The other rugged peaks near Sneffels are dramatic. To the north, I could see forever. Well, not quite, but I think I was able to discern Grand Mesa 70 miles away.

There were a wide range of comments in the relatively new summit register. Some people had climbed the Snake Couloir which is a classic technical snow/ice climb on the north side. Comments from people who had done the standard route ranged from it being hard to "I could drive my truck up here". There were quite a few people for whom this was their first 14er, which is not necessarily a good idea unless you've done some other alpine scrambling routes.

After about a half-hour or so, I started down. This was the first time I had descended an easier route than I ascended that was still not a trivial walk-off. One possibility is the obvious couloir that starts about 100ft left the summit and empties out into Lavender Col (or Scree Col as it's usually called). I wasn't sure if there was still snow in the top part as was described in Tom Greene's report from a month ago. I had my axe, but I went down the rock on west side of the couloir which is supposed to be of the same difficulty (Class 2+). However, following the occasional cairns, and wherever my nose took me, I found one definitely Class 3 move. (Sorry to be so pre-occupied with ratings, but this is my subtle way of empasizing that Sneffels is more than a hike and you should be prepared.) This route leads to the bottom of the couloir and then down to Scree Col. From the Col, I noted that there was no snow visible looking back up the couloir.

I carried on a brief shouted conversation with a pair of women ascending the couloir, and another woman arrived at the Col just after I did. Her partner, another woman was still climbing the slope to the Col. I only mention all this because of recent discussions [on rec.backcountry] about the number of women in the backcountry, and here the first four people I met were women, which was unusual in my experience. Anyway, the woman at the Col seemed reasonably experienced but this was her partner's first mountain and she was lagging behind. She made sure to tell me that her partner was ascending the left-hand side of the slope from our perspective and wanted to make sure I didn't climb above her. That was fine with me so I stayed to the right. This slope is heavily eroded with scree and exposed dirt, except for a little bit more stable rock where the woman was ascending. Even with trekking poles, this was a big struggle for balance. Near the bottom, when I finally made it down even with the other person, I got on some slick dirt and fell on my butt. Fortunately, that only cost me some skin on my thumb as I tried to catch myself. Finally, with about a handful of pea gravel in my hiking shoes, I made it back down to the trail.

This trail is the one that leads back to the end of the 4WD road, but I took the short connector trail back to my ascent trail. At this junction a friendly dog came up to me, and I had a pleasant 20 minute conversation with a couple nearly my age who lived in Grand Junction. The weather was still great with just a few fair weather clouds forming. Just before Ptarmigan Lake, I encountered a family, and the kid in the lead mentioned the 'funny-looking birds' at the lake. Now there were three birds at the lake. As before, they didn't seem too perturbed by my presence and I took a couple pictures. Another 15 minutes down the trail, I started talking to a 60-something gentleman from Ouray and that ended up killing another 20 minutes or so.

By the time I made it back to the 4WD road, it was pretty warm and I was suffering a bit in long pants and long sleeves. There were a lot of motorcycles and other vehicles on the road and I was glad to finally reach my car (~1pm) and leave the crowds behind. The combination of the steep road and the car sitting out in the sun for several hours caused my brakes to start overheating, so it took me about twice as long to descend to the highway as to ascend. I still made it back home at 9pm, 24 hours after I left (I may get bored driving, but falling asleep at the wheel isn't really an issue).

A fine climb, a beautiful day, and good conversation; who could ask for anything more?

As a postscript, a few comments on the route. Dawson's route description mentions that there may be some Class 4 moves on the SW ridge. Maybe, maybe not, but I'm not a technical climber and I really didn't think any of the climbing was more difficult than the other sustained Class 3 routes I've been on. However, I felt there was more route-finding required than the other half-dozen alpine scrambles I've done on 14ers, with the exception of Pyramid Peak. The rock is pretty solid, but I've gradually accepted the wisdom of wearing a helmet on scrambling terrain unless there's a damn good reason not to. Although you may get funny looks, a helmet might be a good idea if there's someone above you on the scree slope below Scree Col, or even in-between the Col and the summit.


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File last modified: 21 December 2004

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