June 18, 2011
Mt. Sneffels Snow Climb via Lavender Couloir
Trailhead: Yankee Boy Basin Lower Trailhead
Round Trip Mileage: 6.0 miles supposedly - seemed much longer!
Start Time: 6:30 am
Return to Trailhead: 3:30 pm
We left Colorado Springs on Friday afternoon at approx 4 pm, stopping in Gunnison, CO for an "authentic" Mexican meal (that's what the sign said, anyway). We continued to Ouray, CO and then on CR 361 to Yankee Boy Basin. We could not find any available camping spots along the route so we continued all the way to the lower trailhead parking area (11,350'), arriving at midnight. We managed to sleep in our car a little over the next few hrs. and ignored the initial signs of daylight, finally rising at 5:45 am.
The road is clear to the lower trailhead where the restroom is located and we encountered no snow to that point. The last mile or so requires 4WD and higher clearance. A large snowdrift blocks the road at that point and there is still substantial snow between the lower and upper trailhead. I would guess that the upper trailhead will not be accessible for a few more weeks.
After arranging our gear and having something to eat we finally hit the trail at 6:30 am - about an hour later than we intended. We found the conditions to be perfect for our climb, with none of the rain/snow forecasted for Friday night.
Starting out at Yankee Boy Basin trailhead
There were four in our climbing party, two middle aged men, a middle-aged woman and the youngster of the group, a 13 year-old young man who would surprise us all this time with his adroit mountaineering skills.
The early morning hike was pleasant, but we were all surprised and a little concerned at how soft the snow was. After some early postholing we put on our snowshoes and continued at a leisurely pace, enjoying the Yankee Boy Basin and the spectacular views of Kismet Mountain (13,694').
We finally reached the upper trailhead and then continued northwest for another 1/2 mile till the trail angled north to the very broad Lavender Couloir.
Our first look at the Lavender Couloir
Already the snow was quite soft, which significantly impeded our progress up the couloir. The sun was bright and the skies clear, and it was warm enough at this point to shed layers, all the way down to a short-sleeved shirt and jacket. We put on our crampons and slowly made our way up the couloir to the saddle (13,560').
Halfway up the Lavender Couloir
View from the saddle (13,560')
Here we got our first glimpse at the steep, narrow couloir to the summit block.
Looking up at the steep couloir to the summit block
Here we took an extended break and consulted with a couple climbers, including one who turned back at this point because of the soft snow conditions in the couloir. One of our party decided to turn back, due in part to a nagging pain in the knee. The three of us continued on, encouraged by the sight of climbers ahead of us who seemed to be managing quite well.
We made slow, careful, steady progress up the couloir, taking care to leave plenty of space between the three of us. The youngest climber (13) amazed us with his speedy ascent while we two older men climbed much more slowly.
The couloir narrows as you approach the summit and gets quite steep at times. I'm guessing 45 degrees, but perhaps one of you readers has a more accurate estimate of the slope here?
Nearing the top of the couloir
At the top of the gully there is a "V" notch and there we met a middle-aged woman who was making her way down from the summit. I was surprised that she made the climb without crampons - just boots and ice axe.
We made our way through the narrow notch, then turned sharply to the right and scrambled up to the summit, finally arriving at 12:30 pm.
Finally at the summit!
The weather was absolutely perfect and we lingered for quite a while, enjoying a hard-earned summit view.
The snow continued to soften which required a very careful descent down the couloir. I stopped many times and enjoyed the indescribable views of the San Juans.
We were relieved to reach the saddle and then enjoyed a few glissades down the Lavender Couloir. The snow was so soft at this point that our glissades were frequently interrupted as we had to pull our rear ends out of the deep holes in the snow. Finally we gave up glissading altogether and made the slow walk back to the trailhead.
The route description indicates 6.0 miles roundtrip. We had quite a discussion about this. Either the length is significantly understated or this is the longest 6-mile hike of my life! I'm sure the soft snow conditions made it seem even longer. We finally returned to the trailhead at 3:30 pm, after taking a couple more stops on the way down.
We enjoyed quite a laugh when a family of four from Texas strolled by in their shorts and sneakers. We exchanged pleasantries and I enquired where they had been hiking. When they said they had made it "almost to the top of Mt. Sneffels" I was amused and kindly explained to them where Sneffels was located and what the conditions were like. They had been hiking just an hour or two but stuck to their guns - they had been nearly to the top of Sneffels, turning back just before the summit. They were a bit offended that I didn't buy their story. Whatever!
What a fabulous day! - one I will enjoy remembering for a long, long time, and one that I hope to repeat on another sunny, clear day in the San Juans somewhere down the road.
Can't beat springtime in the San Juans.
The narrow road to Yankee Boy Basin.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):