| Mt. Sneffels through Blue lakes
Mt Sneffels. July 2013
Independence Day camping in mountains is usually our favorite way of escaping from summer heat in Denver. The idea of camping at Blue Lakes and then hike Mount Sneffels in San Juan Mountains matured in my brain for a long time. Kayla, my wife, is from Montrose and Mount Sneffels is included in the standard view from her bedroom window, among other peaks in San Juan range (Picture 1). Whenever I was in Montrose I was watching and picturing it from the distance and tempted to climb one day. It was further engraved in my mind by the story in Backpacker Magazine that Blue Lake Camp ground on western slopes of Mount Sneffels is on the list of top 10 camping places in America! There are three Blue Lakes: the largest one at 10,900 ft and two higher above 11,500 ft. Only later, viewing lakes from the top of Mt Sneffels, I realized that there is also Blue Lake Pond, probably too small to qualify as the lake.
Finally I received unexpected support from Kayla’s stepfather David. Kayla’s mother Carolyn and David married in 1982 and ceremony and party was held at Willow Swamp, just north of Blue Lakes trailhead! We decided to meet after hiking Mt. Sneffels and camp together for 1st Family Reunion at Willow Swamp.
Driving Hwy 285 from Denver to Montrose over Monarch Pass is every time exciting experience of seeing South Park, Collegiate Peaks and Gunnison River valley. Born on flat terrain of western Poland I cannot stop inhaling mountains. Kayla never trusts me in safe driving through high passes and I enjoy switchbacks mostly from passenger seat.
We arrived early morning with our dog Monty on back seat in Montrose on Sunday July 2nd, trying to avoid missing the final game at European Championship in soccer between Spain and Italy. Of course across the Big Pond they call it football, and properly play with foot, occasionally only players throw the ball by hands from side line. Since games happen only once every four years, and this year (2012) they were played jointly in Poland and Ukraine, everybody was eager to watch each game and the final is just an icing on the top of previously played 30 qualifying games. Spain humiliated Azzurri 4:0.
As we traveled next day to Ridgeway on US 550 we saw Mt. Sneffels from different perspectives: massive mountain with multiple spires around it (Picture 2). In Ridgeway we turned onto Colorado Hwy 62 and took a quick look at familiar town square where “True Grit” was made. We continued on County Road 7 that is easy to overlook. It enters private land with frequent, annoying and misleading “no trespassing” signs. We drove along picturesque Dallas Creek. There is a bend from which is a great view of entire valley and Mt. Sneffels. We were already late and I had no time to aim my camera on it! Arrived at Blue Lakes trailhead shortly after noon, parked and immediately load the gear on our backs and started climbing. Early afternoon rain continued as weather forecast predicted, but luckily stopped in the middle of hike. We knew it was the begging of monsoon season, but we gambled for few days of clear sky.
The trail to Blue Lakes winds mostly through dense forest ((Picture 3) and later through wild flowers carpeted meadows ((Picture 4). We arrived at lower Blue Lake camp site at 4 pm. Surprisingly to us there were only few tents. Fallen trees provided natural fencing for sites with pleasant feeling of seclusion. We have found our sweet spot and quickly run through our routine tasks trained well through years of hiking and camping together. Kayla loves to pitch tent ((Picture 5) and I was left with hanging of our pantry on one of these slanted pine tree on steep slope. Before sunset we had enough time to walk around the lake and take some pictures of mountains, columbines and paint brushes (Picture 6). Sitting on a big boulder and basking in sun we enjoyed this majestic place. To me lower Blue Lake looked more turquoise then blue and patches of snow still provided ample supply of fresh water.
At night, full and bright moon tired us very much. We did not sleep well and got up later than we planned. After usual breakfast with oatmeal and coffee we started climbing at 7:30 am. We moved toward upper lakes and watched sun moving quickly. We saw our tent as little yellow dot in a sea of green trees soon to disappear. Around 9 am we started ridiculous, multiple switchbacks leading to Blue Lakes Pass at 13,000 feet. There is a short route to the peak on the South-West Ridge. Instead taking this way we decided to descend to the popular trail from Yankee Boy basin and hike easier Lavender Col route.
Because of crumbling rocks on the ridge, decision was probably wise, but additional walk tired us and with rain coming from East, Kayla said no for further hiking, but let me to hike solo.
I run quickly through the broad gully full of loose rock south-east of the peak. Climbing on moving stones is terrible. You make two steps forward and rolling stones bring you one step back. Reached the Lavender Col between Mt Sneffels and Kismet Peak at 11:45 am and continued narrow, steep gully east of the peak (Picture 7). I almost missed the famous V shape notch on the left hand side that is absolutely critical for this hike. Luckily I was directed there by the last hiker that was returning from the peak. The notch is very narrow and I had to leave my backpack and started climbing only with the camera. Immediately I was lost. No signs, no cairns, no traces of trail. Temperature dropped and I knew, that I needed to find peak quickly. Climbing gradually to highest elevation and marking my movement, every 10 steps I inevitably got there at 12:30 pm. Nobody was there. Clouds were building above and first snow in shape of Styrofoam flakes fell and I heard distant thunders. View from the top is one of kind: red slopes of Red Mountain, rugged Wilson peaks, plains in North toward Montrose and all Blue Lakes (Picture 8).
On return way to V notch I follow miniature cairns that I made on the way up. I met Kayla sitting on big boulder in the valley completely exhausted. After a lot of gulps of water and snacks we hiked again toward Blue Lakes Pass. As we were slowly descending to lower lake weather changed completely. Clouds broke and bright setting Sun helped to take plenty of pictures of wild flowers, butterflies and vigilant marmots (Picture 9). We made last and long stop above lower lake for snack and contemplation (Picture 10).
Night was calm with low clouds building above us. In the morning we packed quickly to escape coming storm. As we moved toward the trail rain come down with thunders and lightning. Completely nude couple was running in panic away from the lake not finishing the morning swim. We put our ponchos around backpacks and continued walking. Rain was pouring and we had to stop and hide under canopy of large trees. It rained more than an hour. We watched dozens of guys unprepared for this weather and escaping toward the trail head. Trail now was muddy and slippery. We reached parking and our truck at 4:00 pm tired, but so happy (Picture 11).
Kayla’s parents waited for us at Willow Swamp that is an open meadow between East Fork Dallas Creek and Wilson Creek. Immediately we gave Monty big hug and pitched our monstrous four person tent, took showers on the side of camper and started drinking chilled Chardonnay. Suddenly we noticed stray moose that aimed toward our camp site. Unfortunately my sense of direction was significantly impaired by wine and before I pointed the camera the moose was gone.
So it rained two days except evenings, when I was able to take some pictures of clouds covered skies lit with sunset light (Picture 12). We gave up camp fire, outside grilling and any outdoor activities except quick commuting from tent to the camper. Johnson brats cooked in Guinness beer were awesome for the dinner, so were eggs and bacon for breakfast. I do not remember snacks, desserts and specific bottles of wine (mostly red) and how much time we spent on frivolous and serious talking. By any standards this was true family reunion.
On way back to Montrose we stopped by Ray’s Good Stuff jerky store south of town where we got our usual supply of black peppered and teriyaki beef jerky that remain our favorite. We personally met the owner and chat about hiking in Weminuche Wilderness.
Next day after another family breakfast we took CO 50 back home. As we passed Kenosha Pass we knew for sure that summer in Denver was awaiting us. You cannot escape the heat for long time.
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