Climbing Mount Sneffels: San Juans paradise

You will be hard-pressed to find alpine scenery quite like this. (Noel Johnson photo)

You will be hard-pressed to find alpine scenery quite like this. (Noel Johnson photo)

“Geologic time is now.”

That’s one of my favorite quotes about the mountains, from Gerry Roach, the well-regarded mountaineer, trail runner and author of guidebooks on Colorado’s high peaks. It’s an admonition of sort to climbers and hikers, telling them not to assume that a rock that hasn’t moved in a million years won’t move the moment you’re nearby.

But I think that quote can also describe the process of how mountains are made.

Some peaks are formed by the slow but inexorable collision of tectonic plates, pushed together, folded over and bunched up to the point where the highest creases of the earth’s crust shove rock miles into the air.

Not quite as slow, but equally powerful in shaping the peaks are those ancient rivers of ice – glaciers – which grind and carve rock, leaving behind sheer cliffs, deep valleys and dramatic vistas. The process can be measured in tens of thousands of years or more, but the gashes they leave behind appear as enormous – and fresh – scars.

And then there’s the more immediate violence of volcanism. Deep in the bowels of the earth, where rock is a molten mass, hellish temperatures and pressure force magma upward, erupting with atomic power to blast huge craters into the surface. Mountains are born from this process, then grown, and sometimes blown apart when the forces keeping magma down finally relent to the explosive power that wants to be freed.

Most of the Rockies are formed by uplift, which is the first scenario portrayed here. For glacial carving, think Yosemite. A whole lot of us can remember the third situation unfolding before our eyes on TV when Mount Saint Helens blew itself to pieces back in 1980.

Rare is the place where you see all three forces at work. But such a place exists in Colorado’s southwest corner, in an extraordinary alpine wilderness that is the San Juan Range.

This long preamble is sort of an explainer of why the rest of the post will be more sparse on words and long on visuals. God used all of the geologic tools at his disposal to fashion the amazing and at times otherworldly skylines that soar upward in this fantastic place. I feel inadequate to describe it; thank goodness I have photographs to illustrate what I’m talking about.

A small group of us lit out from the Front Range’s east slope to south of Ouray, with the idea of climbing Mount Sneffels from its southwest ridge. You can see the peak all the way from Montrose to the north – the highest sentinel in an imposing ridge guarding the San Juans’ northwest flank. The peak is vertical, jagged and dark from afar, something I imagine was intimidating to those who first laid eyes on it, but now just inspires awe.

A trip like this is partly about the place, but it’s also about the company you keep. I lucked out here.

Clockwise, from top left, are Chuck, David, me and Noel.

Clockwise, from top left, are Chuck, David, me and Noel.

First was a guy I’d never met, David, who volunteered to drive.

David. (Noel Johnson photo)

David. (Noel Johnson photo)

Dave is a stout hiker, a cool dude and is one of the few non-bodybuilding people I know whose calves dwarf mine. I maintain that I have mondo calves, because I do – but they’re nothing compared to the hamhocks that power this guy up the hill.

Next there’s Chuck, who I’ve hiked and climbed with twice before.

Chuck. (David Bates photo)

Chuck. (David Bates photo)

Chuck is a finance pro by vocation, but also a stellar photographer and a strong hiker in the high country. He towers over me, and trust me, keeping up with a rangy, in-shape go-getter like Chuck is no small task.

And then there’s Noel.

Noel. (Chuck Erle photo)

Noel. (Chuck Erle photo)

The lone woman in our camp, I’d dare say she’s the most famous. Not too long after discovering hiking, losing a bunch of weight and turning into a hiking and climbing machine with more than 50 summits to her credit, Noel is even more well-known for delivering her tasty baked goods to complete strangers she meets at the mountaintop. People who have never met her know exactly who she is once she offers them a treat. She’s the Cookie Hiker. Like Chuck, I’ve joined her on two other climbs.

Or rather eaten their dust. All three of my companions are far more experienced in the mountains than me, stronger, and more accomplished. Three days earlier, I was the “guide” to a friend who’d never stood atop at 14,000-foot peak; now, with this bunch, I was the noob.

Our plan was to camp near Yankee Boy Basin, hike out of the basin, angle up Mount Sneffels’ southwest ridge, summit, then climb down a snow-filled gully on Sneffels’ south face.

The climb up would include sustained Class 3 climbing, narrow ledges, huge drop-offs and a solid, slabby finish to the top that was big on visual payoff. This is a mountain I’ve wanted to climb for many years now.

Anyway, time to let the photos do the storytelling.

First up was the hike to Blue Lakes Pass, where we’d gain the ridge. The trail was excellent and easy to follow.

The trail going up to Blue Lakes Pass, with a good view of the southwest ridge and Sneffels' summit.

The trail going up to Blue Lakes Pass, with a good view of the southwest ridge and Sneffels’ summit.

Immediately upon attaining the ridge, the views into Yankee Boy Basin are spectacular.

Starting out on the ridge, here's a view down into Yankee Boy Basin.

Starting out on the ridge, here’s a view down into Yankee Boy Basin.

The hiking gets a bit more rugged and steep, but is still Class2. The fun parts are coming.

snef3hike

As we went higher, amazing views of the Dallas Divide, with Gilpin Peak and Dallas Peak being the stars of the show. Dallas Peak is one of the toughest 13er climbs in the state.

Gilpin Peak, elev. 13,694.

Gilpin Peak, elev. 13,694.

Dallas Peak, elev. 13,809.

Dallas Peak, elev. 13,809.

It was about here that we donned our helmets as the first Class 3 climbs of the ridge were in front of us. Below, Dave and Chuck discuss the route, with the pics after that showing an airy ledge walk and then a climb up and around a snowy section.

Dave and Chuck discuss the route.

Dave and Chuck discuss the route.

The gang makes its way down this ledge.

The gang makes its way down this ledge.

Our first scramble, with some snow to negotiate.

Our first scramble, with some snow to negotiate.

Exiting the first gully. Some of the holds here were, shall we say, iffy. Test them all.

Exiting the first gully. Some of the holds here were, shall we say, iffy. Test them all.

We stumbled across this oddly shaped pinnacle, dubbed the Kissing Camels.

The kissing camels, in love for all eternity.

The kissing camels, in love for all eternity.

From here, we left the shaded confines of the lower part of the ridge and into a more airy, exposed section of the climb. As you’re going up, it’s less exposed if you stay to the climber’s right and more exposed toward the left.  Sneffels has third-class exposure on all its routes, but if you veer left at this part of the ridge it increases to a no-fall zone: fourth-class level of exposure, particularly if you climb on the ridge crest. It’s fun scrambling along the crest if you’re OK with the exposure level, but I’d steer clear of that if it’s windy. During our climb, it was not, so I indulged a bit.

Looking down the upper part of the ridge.

Looking down the upper part of the ridge.

Me on the ridge crest. (David Bates photo)

Me on the ridge crest. (David Bates photo)

Eventually, the face just below the summit comes clear. Whereas parts of the ridge had loose rocks, the face was solid and slabby. This led to us going up that section and to a final, steep rock-and-dirt hike to the top.

The group climbing up the south face toward the summit.

The group climbing up the south face toward the summit.

Me finally topping out. (Noel Johnson photo)

Me finally topping out. (Noel Johnson photo)

Needless to say, the summit views were more amazing than I could ever have imagined. The scenery of the Dallas Divide, Yankee Boy Basin and Blue Lakes blew me away.

Blue Lakes.

Blue Lakes.

The Dallas Divide.

The Dallas Divide.

Looking down into Yankee Boy Basin.

Looking down into Yankee Boy Basin.

The gang paused to get a shot of all of us atop Mount Sneffels.

The gang after a successful ascent. (Chuck Erle photo)

The gang after a successful ascent. (Chuck Erle photo)

Soon, it was time to head down. The crux of the standard route up the gully is the notch, which we would use as our entry into our path down. It’s a somewhat tricky move to get past this one.

Starting to go into the notch.

Starting to go into the notch.

Chuck dropping down into the notch.

Chuck dropping down into the notch.

This is where we decided to stop, put on our crampons and whip out our ice axes. The upper gully below the summit was still filled with snow, and it was steep enough that gear for traction was needed. I was surprised at the number of people who came up and down this way without proper snow gear, and I witnessed some near-accidents among other climbers who were unprepared for the conditions. I’ll write more about that later. Let’s just say I’m glad no one got hurt that day.

Anyway, this was a part I was looking forward to – being able to practice snow climbing on a steeper slope than my only other pervious snow climb, the Angel of Shavano. For me, it was bliss. The snow conditions were decent, with the snowpack firm enough to get good kicksteps in. It was softening quickly, though, making footing a little more difficult as the morning wore on. And unfortunately, it was too chunky for a glissade.

Noel and David coming down the gully, looking like pros.

Noel and David coming down the gully, looking like pros.

Chuck going down the gully.

Chuck going down the gully.

The bad news was the snow eventually ran out, revealing the bare, steep gully the rest of the way down. I told my buds that Sneffels was 75 percent pure joy and 25 percent scree hell. That last bit of hiking down was nothing but sand, dirt, loose pebbles and wobbly rocks. It was a quarter-mile of pure suck.

Looking up the lower part of the gully, aka, scree hell. (Noel Johnson photo)

Looking up the lower part of the gully, aka, scree hell. (Noel Johnson photo)

Eventually we hit the end of that mess at a double-cairned part of the trail known unofficially as “The Gates of Mordor.” For us, it meant escape from scree hell, but for the poor suckers going up Sneffels’ standard route, this is the beginning of a steep, arduous and frustrating ascent. Unlike Frodo and his band of adventurers, we were all too happy to see the gates marking the border of Sneffels’ own private Mordor.

I’d never judge a peak by a small section of unpleasantry, particularly when the rest of the climb was so enjoyable. Even then, suffering is part of the game. You learn to embrace it, and if you’re with the right people, laugh it off as each member grumbles and whines about it. We did our fair share of that.

The greater truth I took away from this place is that Sneffels gave us all the best of what the mountains are all about. You make bonds with your partners that are so different than your ties with others, particularly if your group works well together, which ours did.

And then there’s the mountain itself. The basin in general and Sneffels in particular offered far more than I could have hoped for from just viewing pictures. The forces that created this place – uplift, glaciers and volcanic eruptions – have long since finished their work. Only wind, snow, rain and gravity shape these peaks now.

But the handiwork is exquisite, even artistic. Michelangelo is long gone, but his works remain for us to appreciate. How much more so of this amazing, natural amphitheater forged and carved by the very hand of God from the earth on which we walk.

Built eons ago, for all time, and right now.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: The route is somewhat complicated, so I’m going to refer you to this link from 14ers.com for exact details about the route up the ridge. It rated as Class 3 climbing, and a helmet is recommended. If you are climbing Sneffels in spring or early summer, check route conditions with particular attention on how much snow is still on the mountain. Most of the snow on the ridge can be avoided or managed without special gear, but going up or down the gully below the notch when it is filled with snow makes use of crampons and an ice axe highly advisable. Total route length is about 3 miles, with 1,750 feet of elevation gain from the upper, 4WD trailhead. From the 2WD trailhead (where the outhouse is), it’s about 6.5 miles and nearly 3,000 feet of elevation gain.

GETTING THERE: I’m going to cheat here and once again refer to directions from 14ers.com:

Take US 550 to Ouray. 1/4 mile south of town, turn west onto Country Road (CR) 361 (2WD, Dirt) toward Yankee Boy Basin. Start measuring mileage from the start of this road. Your mileage may vary slightly, but the following list describes the turns and milestones:

– At 3 miles: The road has some shelf sections with exposure to the left.

– 4.7 miles: Stay right on CR 26.

– 5.3 miles: The road is cut into the cliffs like a “C” so there is rock hanging over the road.

– 6.1 miles: Stay right on CR 26 at the junction for Imogene Pass.

– 6.3 miles: Pass through the empty Sneffels townsite.

– 6.8 miles: Stay right and pass a Yankee Boy Basin info sign.

– 6.9 miles: Stay right onto the “853 1B” road. The remaining drive is 4WD and 2WD cars should park below this junction.

– 7.7 miles: Reach the lower “trailhead” where many people park. There is a restroom here.

Driving beyond this point requires 4WD.

– 100 yards after the restroom parking area, pass a large rock and stay right at a junction.

– 8.2 miles: Stay right.

– 8.5 miles: The road gets much worse after this point and there’s a sign that recommends only 4WD, high-clearance, short-wheelbase.

– 4WD vehicles (short wheelbase, good clearance, 4WD low) can continue another mile to the signed, upper trailhead at 12,460’.

EXTRA CREDIT: Test your hiking chops by going up the standard route (up the scree-filled gully) or gain the southwest ridge from Blue Lakes. If you’re up to the task, take a swing at the Class 5 climbing up Dallas Peak. For experienced trad climbers only.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Advertisements

12 thoughts on “Climbing Mount Sneffels: San Juans paradise

  1. Kudos for the guy who volunteered to drive. =) That road always scares me; it’s so steep. I was thinking to myself as I read, “I thought there would be more snow up there still.” But then I got further in the post and found the snowy pictures. Awesome post.

    • Thanks! Yes, I’m glad David drove, and had the rig to handle it.

      The San Juans were pretty dry this year, but Sneffels tends to hold snow in those shaded areas. I’m glad there was snow in the upper gully. Took some of the bite out of the rest of the scree hell below.

    • Make your plans. In addition to the awesomeness that is Mt. Sneffels and Yankee Boy Basin, there are some cool mountain towns nearby — Ouray and Telluride. I *highly* recommend doing this one!

  2. Excellent blog post. You describe the terrain and process very well. I’m FB friends with Noel and I hope I get a chance to taste one of her famous cookies someday. I haven’t come across any cookie hikers in the Sierras & Mt. Whitney.

  3. Pingback: San Juan Mountains | Podcast 13 | Climbing, Hiking, Mountaineering | In Ice Axe We Trust

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s