| Bear Tracks up Mount Sneffels
Sneffels: Named after an Icelandic volcano, its innocent sounding name belies some tough, loose terrain higher up. Driving down into Ouray, you are greeted with stupendous views of Sneffels and her neighboring sister peaks in the San Juans. Having more than 7,000ft vertical relief from nearby Ridgeway, Sneffels stands tall and proud. Sights like this remind me why I come here.
I had to pull over and savor this view for a moment
I wanted to try and climb Sneffels in Spring snow, but wasn’t able to get down here this past Spring, so I settled for doing it this week. After the trek into and four days spent in the Chicago Basin earlier in the week, I was fully immersed in the San Juans and was eagerly looking forward to Sneffels, though was not particularly looking forward to the road getting to the trailhead. As viewed from the north, you can see some decent snow still holding in the couloirs.
This is a shapely mountain in any season.
When approach roads are 4wd and actually have exposure as some of the mountains they lead up to, it always give me and the rental car I’m driving, pause as I never know how far I can drive up and thus how much additional time I need to budget for the approach. Such was the case with the road leading up to Yankee Boy Basin and Mount Sneffels; a dirt road with single lane sections bordered in sections by an open cliff which vertically plummets hundreds of feet to the side is always an interesting way to start a climb.
Exposed parts of the shelf road enroute to Yankee Boy Basin
Not knowing how rough the road was, I assumed I’d get within 2-3 miles of the higher trailhead and would just tack that roundtrip mileage and corresponding gain onto the “standard route” making a 6-7 mi trip into a 10-12mi trip. No big deal. As it turns out, it was a nice road to walk up, complete will waterfalls and wildflower filled meadows, Since I’d be starting well before the standard trailhead, I’d figure I’d get my 3,000ft vertical gain in at a minimum.
I parked and began walking up the dirt road. Since it took me longer than anticipated driving from Durango, it was late enough and coupled with the fact I was on a *road*, I figured I didn’t need my headlamp any longer.
As I walked up the road I noticed a set of fresh black bear tracks. It was actually the longest, most continuous-unbroken set of good bear tracks I’ve ever seen. The track must have been 150ft long with more than 75 footprints. It was pretty cool and lead all the way along the road including following its turns in a couple spots. One of the tracks is below:
In such situations, my feelings of excitement are always tempered with a bit of uneasiness knowing the bruin was in the area probably within the last couple of hours since it had stopped raining. Was it a mother with two cubs she would be trying to protect? A hungry bear looking for a tasty New Yorker?? I made some extra noise as I walked up and approached some blind turns so as not to startle it. For anyone planning on camping on or near the trailhead, practice good bear safety and store any food properly to avoid any bear encounters.
The sun soon came up revealing a pretty thick cloud layer soon after. It was feeling like this was going to be a race on the clock like on Eolus all over again a couple days earlier. I start to double time my steps, which consequently, given the altitude, didn’t really work for sea-level lungs. I reverted back to my slower controlled cadence and make better time. Soon the high trailhead appears.
A nice group of folks were starting around the same time. Apparently they were having a family reunion of sorts on this morning and arrived at the trailhead as I walked up getting started a bit before me. From near the top of the first gulley, we intermittently hiked together for the rest of the day which made for a pleasant morning getting to know them and exchanging stories.
If you’re aiming to climb Sneffels, you better enjoy walking on talus since the entire route traverses on all sorts of talus on Sneffels – flatter and more gentle down lower, then the tougher, looser sharper stuff rears its ugly head higher up.
The scenery continues to improve with each step higher and never disappoints.
The route to Blue Lakes pass breaks off to the left on the approach (in the right in the pic below), the Sneffels Standard route continues up to the climbers right and steepens straight away. So if you're headed that way, make sure you make the correct turn off.
Heading up the main gulley through a field of talus; lots of ways up, but the most well-worn "path" is keeping towards the center. It would be pretty cool to climb a 14er for a family reunion!
Eye candy views looking down the standard gulley southwest you can see Blue Lakes Pass and the route up to the Ridge.
The lower section of the gully as it gets steeper
Taken from in the upper gully showing the typical terrain that you will see in the upper mountain
At Lavender Col after the first chute, before the second, steeper couloir which turns to the climbers left – careful eyes will spot a climber in the gulley, in red just about dead center below the snow.
As viewed from the Col, a closer view of the second steeper gulley; note remaining snow blocking access that needs to be passed through to gain the summit.
For scale, there is a climber standing on the top left in the photo at the very top. This is also a good spot to re-evaluate the weather before committing to continuing up higher where a quick descent won't be as easy as it would be from this point.
Looking down at the saddle from lower down in the second chute
In the second, steeper chute. Note the axes these two climbers carry. I was glad to have mine on the snow patch that still is holding in the gulley. Yes, there were some boot steps kicked in, but better safe than sorry. Some of the rocks here are not stable, so take care moving across them.
Incidentally, there were two climbers I helped down this section who had no axe or crampons or even poles. One of them slipped and slid 10-15 feet on the snow until I caught them, literally before hitting a rock at the base of the snow. So if you’re climbing this in late Spring/early Summer, bring your traction and an axe or at the very least poles.
Close to the top, looking down the steeper chute – this is an awesome view with the rugged, towering San Juan peaks all around you. I was thinking the whole time that this would be better in Spring snow cover. This is also a good route to wear a helmet on due to all of the loose rock.
Below, at the “V notch” and what I’d consider the crux of the route. There is some decent exposure here to climbers left going up, so take care as you make this move going up and down. There is another option to the hard right of this, but it appears much steeper and I wasn’t sure what the terrain looked like higher up as it was not visible. A few folks were taking their packs off to get passed this section.
After the V notch, the climbing is easier. As you climb higher and the terrain opens up in front of you, it really becomes spectacular.
Getting near the top
Views from Summit
The teal colored Blue Lakes in the distance. One day I have to check out that side from Dallas Creek.
From the solitude I had earlier in the week around the Windom Group, being on Sneffels on this day felt like a sustained party! There were probably 40+ people on the mountain that day, more than I saw the last four days in the mountains. Nonetheless it was a great day in the San Juans.
Coming down, just minutes before it was about to downpour, I need to say thank you to Kate and her family who were climbing that day for giving me a ride for that last mile back to my car which kept my dry!
Some Parting thoughts:
• Early season: Bring traction and an ice axe for the upper couloirs
• Any season: Trekking poles will greatly add to your enjoyment (or stave off pain) on the descent
• Watch Rockfall for those below you AND from those above you
• When descending the lower chute, scree skiing is easier than talus hopping down
• You might want to remove you pack before the V notch to get up there.
• Eat your Wheaties and have fun!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):