| S Ridge
“Try to sneak up on it when it’s not looking” has been offered as a tongue-in-cheek strategy for climbing mountains. Snowmass Peak turned the tables and snuck up on us in a way. We started looking at it thinking we were considering a middle-of-the-road class 3 route. By the time we were done with the S ridge we all agreed it was the hardest 14er we’ve ever done.
It’s not like we were totally blindsided. A process of decisions led us to take on the S Ridge knowing it would be a serious challenge. After my brother hiked out of Chicago Basin last year while passing a kidney stone, we agreed this year’s trip would include no remote camps – so the 8+ miles to Snowmass Lake for the standard route was out. We were thinking the west slopes route, but the more we read about how loose and dangerous that route was, the more we started considering the S Ridge.
The ridge looked daunting, but also enticing. I suppose you could blame KeithK on this site for our decision to take it on. He makes quite a point in his TRs about being the “hiker guy,” no agile climbing fool, and he handled it. We’ve done several of the more difficult 14ers, and we loved the “sporting alternative” ridge routes on Sneffels, Quandary and Torreys. Could the S Ridge really be that much harder than any of those?
Well, yes. But we did it, and were glad to have a truly classic 14er experience to look back on. Just don’t ask any of us to do it again.
I tried to capture in this TR what it felt like to do this route, as well as offer some additional insight into some of the logistics, to compliment several other very good S Ridge TRs which have been posted in years past. It makes for a really long read, so if that’s not your thing, skip the text and enjoy the pics. They aren’t too shabby themselves. But if you’re thinking of trying this route, hopefully this TR will help provide a sense of what to expect.
Our trip started with an overnight in the quaint little village of Marble. Our plan was to drive to Lead King Basin and hike to Geneva Lake the next day. That would put us in position to get an early start on the ridge route on Sept. 5. With an idea of the difficulty of the route, and knowing we weren’t likely to move real fast on the ridge, shortening the route and getting an early start seemed to us to be essential safety precautions.
This also allowed us to take in some of the local “flavor” without trying to climb a mountain with a hangover. (The consensus of our group was that hiking to Geneva Lake with a hangover would be okay.) The Slow Groovin BBQ provided the perfect venue for that, a few blocks from our authentically historic cabin at the Beaver Lake Lodge.
Marble has quite a history based on its position essentially atop a huge vein of, yeah, marble. Marble sculptures and huge blocks of the stuff are everywhere in the little village. Mark and Maryjane decided the one in the front yard of the barbecue place needed to be climbed.
We headed out for the basin the next morning. There are two roads from Marble to Lead King Basin. The southerly route offers a chance to visit the historic Crystal Mill, but we’d read that the remaining couple of miles from there to Lead King Basin were extremely rough. Locals confirmed our intention to take the northerly route. We found the Lost Trail Road to indeed be pretty tame by Colorado 4wd standards. It has a few gnarly spots – one of the worst coming pretty early, I think no more than a mile in – but if you can creep through those, long stretches of naturally occurring sand make for smooth sailing along much of the trip.
Before too long we were over the crest of a pass and descending into a beautiful Lead King Basin, where we paused to take in the views.
I get to use photos like this 'cuz it's my trip report.
Not far from there we turned a corner to see the Main Attraction come into view. One of the added attractions of this road is the opportunity to see unforgettable views of the Snowmass-Hagerman massif, with the S Ridge coming right at you. From the road and later, Lake Geneva, there’s ample opportunity to study the classic lines of the ridge, even individual features visible from a long distance. I think each of us felt the same reaction every time we paused to take it in: excitement, elation, anticipation, and the sobering realization that man, that looks like a really hard climb.
You've probably seen this photo before, but it never gets old, right? Lake Geneva lies just past the pine trees in the center of the photo.
We hoisted on our camp packs and headed out from the trailhead shortly after noon. The trail passes through a scenic aspen stand and starts to climb a headwall toward a waterfall. When we crested the headwall at the top of the waterfall we found, no shocker, another headwall. It was all good. It’s a pretty mellow trail, gaining elevation gradually, with scenic views of the basin and the Maroon Bells to the east.
We saw Geneva Lake in a little less than two hours. We followed the trail around the south side of the lake and selected campsite number 2 on a small bluff overlooking the lake. We would conclude later that this was by far the best site of the four we saw. Campsite 4 sits higher and a bit closer to our destination, but further from the lake. More importantly, it had an overabundance of animal manure in the vicinity. In fact the quantity, and smell, of horse/donkey/whatever manure in the area was the only detriment to the entire Geneva Lake experience. We’re supposed to pack out our pooh, but pack animals can dump so much dung on the trail that you can hardly find a safe place to step in spots. Who decided on that rule anyway?
After a typically poor night’s attempt at sleeping, we arose at 4:30 a.m. We were equipped with printed versions of two awesome trip reports on the route – one by PKR in 2007, and another by FCSquid in 2011. Both members obviously spent a lot of time composing their TRs to provide useful beta for interested future climbers, and your efforts are greatly appreciated by our group! (If anyone is interested, I spent a few hours saving and formatting both TRs into printer-friendly Word documents, which I would be glad to share.)
Our departure schedule was intended to put us atop the Little Gem Lake headwall around daybreak. We expected to depart from the main trail shortly after surmounting that headwall, and figured some natural light would be helpful in finding our way off-trail. Turned out we could have left maybe 20-30 minutes earlier and still had light at that point, but our timing was perfect in another regard. At the top of the headwall the trail passes through a willow thicket. Mark, in the lead, emerged from the thicket to find himself a few feet away from two bull elk with spectacular racks. They looked as surprised to see him as he was to see them, and they were close enough that Mark prepared for the possibility of beating a hasty retreat back into the willows should they get aggressive.
Not surprisingly, the elk decided they would instead retreat, but not before all of us emerged from the willows to enjoy the event. They moved up a nearby hill to what they obviously believed was safer ground and we watched each other for a while. It was 6:30 a.m. and the light was still awful dim for photos, but the elk can be seen at the top of the hill. One is just right of the left-hand stand of trees and shrubs – turned away from us so his rack isn’t visible. The other is still looking back and more prominent.
Soon the elk moved on and so did we. Shortly after the willow thicket, the trail meets the creek coming from Little Gem Lake, and starts running parallel to it. We left the trail at this point to cross the creek and head roughly east, cross-country toward the south end of the S ridge. It started with a descent down a sloping meadow to a larger creek from Siberia Lake. That descent provided a good opportunity to study the rocky terrain on the east side of the creek. Much of it is steep scree; climbing up it looked to be anything from unpleasant to downright dangerous. But we could see what looked like a gentle ramp sloping northward through the initial elevation gain.
Coming out of the creek bed area. Our route down to the creek is upper center of this photo, to the right of Maryjane.
We surmounted some initial talus and found that ramp to indeed be a welcome path to essentially exit the vicinity of the creek bed. At the top of it lay the unavoidable sea of rubble that seems to surround Snowmass on every side.
The sloping green at the upper center of this pic reveals the ramp to exit the creek bed area.
Starting up the ramp.
It would take us almost an hour to trudge up through the talus and scree to reach the ridge. As we ascended that debris we had a clear view of the entire west slope of Snowmass. It was a parade of alternating ribs and gullies, all looking very similar: long funnels of steep, nasty-looking debris, curving toward the summit at the top; and at the bottoms of almost every one, steep cliffs. At the extreme left of our view of the mountain from this vantage point, the gullies which comprise the “standard” west slopes route were visible. The terrain at the bottom of these was also cliffy, but not as bad as on the other gullies others closer to us, and we of course knew a reasonable route wound through those lower difficulties.
But we had no plans to go that way. We headed straight east toward the south end of the S ridge. The far southern terminus of the ridge consists of steep cliffs, but just up from those cliffs, two unmistakable west-facing gullies cut deeply into the mountain and defined our route to the ridge.
Beginning a long talus slog. Our route up the ridge is directly above me in this photo, starting at the mouth of the leftmost of the two deep gullies.
Both gullies are viable options for gaining the ridge, but we had concluded from research that the best option was to ascend the rib between the two gullies, on solid boulders. This route starts at essentially the mouth of the northerly “second” gully, and angles up to climber’s right, a line clearly visible from quite some distance. I’d like to think we would have found it even if PKR and FCSquid hadn’t drawn no-brainer lines on their photos.
The mouth of that second gully, at an elevation of about 12,200 feet, offered a perfect spot to rest, don helmets, appreciate whence we’d come, and prepare mentally for the challenges ahead. We started up at 8 a.m. We immediately found fun, adrenaline-inducing climbing on solid boulders with no discernible threat of rockfall. It was indeed mostly class 3, with some long reaches and sporty short dihedral moves crossing that nebulous line that defines class 4. I would say a better rating would be Class Blast, because it surely was.
Mark heads up the rib between the two gullies.
Mark's view down as Maryjane, Dennis and I ascend the rib.
Long stretch ....
OK got it ....
None of us are technical climbers, and the between age and acclimation challenges, our overall speed (or lack thereof) is sometimes problematic. But I think we all move pretty comfortably on this type of rock in short spurts. I’m probably the most conservative of our foursome, and there was nothing on this initial ascent which gave me pause. I would recommend it for anyone comfortable with class 3 routes like Crestone Needle, Wetterhorn, Kelso Ridge etc. That is, don’t let some talk of it being class 4 spook you – the rock is solid and grippy, and the exposure is minimal on this initial stretch.
Nearing the crest of the ridge.
A half-hour later we were standing at the crest of the S Ridge. To our south, cliffs dropped away into the talus far below. Looking over the ridge to the east revealed a massive debris field that is the Snowmass-Hagerman basin. And to our left, northward, wound the classic “S” line that gives the ridge its name. It was an absolutely awesome sight.
This photo and the next give a sense of the exposure on the ridge.
The break here was short. The intensity of the challenge before us was palpable. The ridge seemed to consist almost entirely of massive slabs, piled haphazardly at all sorts of angles. Many of them are oriented vertically, often large enough to scramble directly over, with plenty of air all around. Drops to the right (east) were precipitous. To the left the angle of the terrain wasn’t as intimidating, yet many of the ribs we climbed jutted far above the debris slopes on the west side of the ridge, so there was some real exposure that direction as well at times. We would occasionally drop down to the left to bypass some of the worst difficulties, but we went right up and over many of them, and were never far from the crest of the ridge.
You could miminize exposure by climbing a line about where the shadow ends in this pic. But why would you do that on a ridge route?
I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the difficulty of this route. It doesn’t seem like any one section, or even any individual moves, were all that hard. Nowhere did I feel the need to take a long pause to gather myself or study the challenge – and I’ve certainly had to do that on occasion, sometimes to the annoyance of my big brother. And the exposure, while often exhilarating, generally wasn’t the type where you think, a slip here would be your last.
But the cumulative effect of all the scrambling was substantial. It was by far the most sustained class 3 climbing we had experienced. I suppose the closest comparison would be Crestone Needle’s upper reaches, but the gully climbing on the Needle, with conveniently-sized knobby rock often providing staircase-type stepping, was much easier than the scrambling over the fins and slabs on this ridge. And while the Needle offers a lot of class 3 climbing, I think it had a lot more breaks of class 2 type terrain than what we encountered on this ridge.
That fact was driven home when we came to the one substantial break in the climbing on the S Ridge – a short, relatively flat section in the middle of the “S” where the slabs had decided to lay flat for some reason. The ease of walking this section provided a stark contrast to all that preceded it, and, as it turned out, followed. I realized there that, from the time we started up the rib between the two entrance gullies, we had been engaged in almost non-stop intense hand-over-foot climbing. And when that flat section ended and the climbing resumed, the scrambling again continued essentially uninterrupted all the way to just below the summit – almost 2,000 feet total.
The blade-shaped rock in the upper right is something of an icon on this route, about a third of the way up the ridge.
Beautiful ridge with a beautiful backdrop. That's Geneva Lake in the upper left, visible in many of these shots looking back down the ridge.
The vast majority of the rock was solid. But the crazy angles of the slabs made it a constant scramble and maintained that withering intensity level. Even huge slabs that seemed to test solid still took a mental toll as you constantly maintained awareness of the potentially catastrophic consequences should one of them move beneath you.
Maryjane and I had that point driven home in a heart-pounding manner. I passed by a picnic-table sized slab which jutted out a good three or four feet from the pedestal-type rock it was perched on. Another boulder sat atop the slab on the back side, securing it in place, or so I thought. My feet were a narrow ledge below this pile, but I grasped the slab to steady myself as I passed by. The next move was upward, which I negotiated without touching the big slab.
A minute or so later, I watched from not far above as Maryjane passed the same slab. Perhaps lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that she weighs 60-70 pounds less than me, she put some weight on that slab as she started her upward move. The slab unexpectedly rocked downward, pivoting on the fulcrum of the supporting rock beneath it. The back side rose up a good six inches, lifting the boulder atop it. We both gasped in horror and she jerked her weight off the slab, allowing it and the boulder on top of it to slam back into their original positions with a thud.
The slow-motion teeter-totter of that slab revealed how close it was to its tipping point. If it had rocked down much further, at some point both the slab and the back side boulder atop it would have pitched toward Maryjane with God only knows how much momentum. I don’t even want to think about how close she came to that tipping point. All I know is, Maryjane backed off and went a different way around this obstacle, then sat down as I joined her for us both to count our blessings and breath out the panic that that encounter had inspired.
As far as I recall, that was the only rock on that entire ridge that moved on any of us like that. But one such incident could potentially be all that was necessary to turn a marvelous adventure into a tragedy. When we were ready to move again, it was with renewed intensity to test everything more carefully.
That's the easy section, right there. The only easy section.
As you can see from far below, the center section of the “S” is relatively flat compared to the beginning and end. But aside from those few short walks over easy horizontal slabs, even that section has challenges in the form of vertically-oriented slabs and short stacks of boulders in various shapes and orientation. In this section you also get a great view of the rest of the route almost to the summit.
The crux of the S Ridge route, a tower of rock topping out at around 13,500 feet, essentially marks the transition from the relatively flat center section to the steep upper third. There are two distinct options around this rock tower – a relatively direct climb up some class 4 slabs, leading to an exposed bypass around the east side of the tower’s upper reaches; or a detour through a notch to climber’s left, leading to a gully beyond the tower, which can then be climbed to regain the ridge. We managed to not get any photos of this section, but they are plentiful on other TRs.
I favored the “easier” route to the left, under the premise that the entire ridge route offered plenty of challenge to us and there was no need to opt for the added difficulty and exposure of the higher alternate. Mark, up ahead, couldn’t resist climbing the slabs to investigate the higher route. He ascended most of the slabs with no visible difficulty, but eventually agreed to descend back to take the “easier” option.
KeithK’s input played into this decision for us as well. Beyond the notch to the left lies an obvious descent path into the gully. That descent would then require climbing back up a fairly long gully, which is also nasty loose at that point. But Keith related finding a reasonable traverse route from the notch straight across to the upper section of the gully. We followed this idea and found it to work nicely. There was some exposure as you traversed the steep slope above the gully, but there were good holds in solid rock. It avoided both the elevation loss and the loosest portion of that gully.
Ascending the gully after the "KeithK Traverse."
Looking down the gully.
Even so, there was some climbing up the gully to get back to the ridge. The upper gully was steep, but offered solid holds as long as you were judicious in your choices. Soon we were all back at the crest of the ridge, crossing still more massive vertically-oriented slabs.
MJ on the ridge just beyond the gully. The crux tower is behind her, in the upper right of this photo.
It was around this point some discouragement began to set in. The clock was approaching 11 a.m., fatigue was setting in from the nonstop intensity, and the view ahead showed we still had a long way to go to the summit. Clearly it would take a while yet to summit, and then there was a difficult downclimb to consider. The weather remained excellent, but knowing we couldn’t move very fast on the ridge, we wondered if we were really pushing our luck. We knew it had rained consistently here in the Elks by mid-day almost every day for weeks. Weathering a storm on this ridge – this mountain in general – could be a nightmare.
Lots of steep terrain beyond the crux.
There was a brief discussion of turning around, but it didn’t last long. I couldn’t stomach the thought of turning back based on a generic chance of rain, when at this point there was no visible sign of impending bad weather. Just as significantly, we weren’t sure if turning around would get us down any quicker than summiting. Our plan had been to descend the ridge, due to the horror stories we’d read about how nasty the west slopes descent was. But it was clear by now that descending the ridge was not a good option for us. It was just too doggone hard and slow. We all agreed we would just have to deal with descending the west slopes.
And the route to the west slopes descent led over the summit. The only alternative would have been to bail from the ridge somewhere below the summit make a long traverse northward across loose, steep, dangerous terrain, without benefit of a trail or any known predecessors cleaning a route for us, until we found the one viable descent gully. That might be the least bad option in an emergency, but we weren’t in that predicament. We would push for the summit.
Fabulous view to the west from high on the ridge.
There was still some fun scrambling above the crux, to the extent we could enjoy it. A false summit with distinctive reddish cliffs marks the end of the real ridge scramble. I had seen that feature from all the way back at Geneva Lake, easy to pick out due to its color, a marked contrast to the white/grey rock that comprises the rest of the mountain.
As we neared that section I saw movement far to my right and heard a voice call out a cairn. We had our first, and only, company on the mountain this Thursday after Labor Day – a threesome approaching from the Snowmass Lake route.
We knew from our research to expect the slope to relent near the summit, and it did indeed for the final couple hundred feet. But the tradeoff is that you ascend a messy pile of loose rubble, basically the same type of terrain that comprises the rest of the west slopes of this mountain. I suppose we should have known to expect that, but I was mentally unprepared for that difficulty. Much of that final slope looked to me like a rockslide waiting to happen. We were all pretty well exhausted and strung out in an ill-advised vertical line at that point. I probably fretted about our safety as much on that final 200 feet as I had on the entire airy ridge climb up to it.
Nearing the summit.
We summited around 11:30 a.m. The group from Snowmass Lake came up just a few minutes after us. They were as surprised to see us as we had been to see them, as both groups thought we had the mountain to ourselves. The first one of that group to arrive was a young guy on his first 14er summit. He was pretty geeked, and rightfully so – it’s quite an impressive mountain to make your first 14er.
Emotions were more mixed for our group. There was a definite sense of triumph over ascending that classic ridge, as well as some relief to be at the summit. But it was tempered concern over the lateness of the hour, and the difficult downclimb that awaited us.
Mark at the summit, S Ridge behind him.
We didn’t stay long on the summit. West Snowmass wasn’t even a consideration. After a 15 minute food/rest/photo/sightseeing break, we headed north along the ridge, looking for the best way to drop into the huge gully that comprises most of the west slope descent. Identifying the descent route was easy, but the instability of the rock was indeed disconcerting. Memories of the account of Sean Wylam’s tragedy were prominent in my mind as we picked our way down through precarious piles of massive boulders.
As we descended, both the angle of incline and the size of the boulders let up, providing what seemed to me to be a much safer environment. The weather continued to cooperate, and it became a tedious slog down a still-loose gully.
Looking back up the gully we descended.
We had not printed the route description of the west slopes route, an oversight we regretted when we approached the bottom of the gully. There, bogus cairns led us off the standard route and into some cliffy territory, but we found a viable alternate way down to the talus below.
From that point there was a lot of hiking left, but we were able to relax and enjoy what we had experienced. Our hike back to camp was punctuated by many pauses to look back and enjoy the classic lines and think “yeah, we climbed that awesome mountain.”
Fond look back at Snowmass, the S Ridge profiled on the horizon, with Hagerman overlooking it to the right.
Arrival at camp brought a welcome, but necessarily brief rest. And then it was time to pack up and head back to the trailhead. It’s not a very long route overall – about five miles round-trip from our campsite, plus the two miles back to the trailhead. By the time we drove back up over the pass and started descending toward Marble, we had a spectacular sunset to cap off a most memorable day.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):