| Snowmass Falls Ranch/Snowmass Creek Trailhead
Snowmass Lake (5 miles) via Snowmass Falls Ranch Trailhead or the Snowmass Creek Trailhead (Grade II, Class 3, 21 miles, 5,700 feet elevation gain)
8:30 am Depart Snowmass Falls Ranch Trailhead or the Snowmass Creek Trailhead
12:30 pm Arrive at Lake Snowmass
5:30 am Depart camp to climb Mount Snowmass
9:30 am Summit Mount Snowmass
12:00 pm Arrive back at camp
1 pm Depart camp to go to trailhead
5:00 pm Arrive at trailhead
I departed the Snowmass Falls Ranch Trailhead parking lot (8,400 feet) and started up the Maroon-Snowmass trail. After passing a noisy, metal gate, indicating that I was on private property, I began ascending a steep section which levels off after about ten minutes. The next milestone is the the 2nd gate which is a ranchers gate, then at 1.2 miles I came to the well marked West Snowmass Trail intersect. This is the turn off to access Capitol Peak from the West Snowmass creek approach. At mile 1.75 I passed the second ranchers gate. At mile 3.7 I came across an amazing view of Mount Snowmass and West Snowmass above a lush valley full of waterfalls. Take a picture!
This narrow valley is the Pierre Lakes and Bear Creek drainage and not the Snowmass Creek drainage where I am headed. The back wall is actually the connecting ridge to Capitol Peak (14,130 feet) which could not be seen. From this point on the trail steepened a bit until I reached mile 6 where I entered an open valley full of beaver formed ponds (10,100 feet). The trail eventually takes you to the crux of the hike called the "log jam." The log jam is easy to cross if you are comfortable with your balance. Trekking poles are very handy but if unavailable, there are a bunch of walking sticks abandoned on each of the shores. These are useful to catch your fall and also test a logs stability. If the log jam is floating you may have some difficulties as the logs will sink when you step on them. There are lots of places to cross Snowmass Creek below the log jam but you will end up a bit cold and wet. When there is a lot of run off you should cross the log jam as early in the day as possible, when the water level is lowest, as I noticed that in the afternoons the water was higher and the log jam was floating. You can still cross when the log jam is floating but the logs are unstable and will move and roll on you.
From the log jam I continued my march up the valley but now on the west side. Soon I made a switchback which marked the beginning of the 2 mile final ascent to Lake Snowmass. Just below the lake I met Snowmass Creek again. This is also where the turn off is to the Buckskin Pass route. I followed the trail up the creek for a short, but steep, finale.
When I arrived at Snowmass Lake (10,980 feet) I was witness to a breathtaking view of the Snowmass Massif containing Snowmass Peak, Hagerman Peak, Snowmass Mountain, North Snowmass and finally Heckert Pass connected by the "S" ridge (as viewed from left to right). Snowmass Lake was much larger than I imagined, especially for a high alpine lake. There are a lot of campsites near the lake runoff or the beginning of the Snowmass Creek. Most campsites are near this area however, you cannot camp within 100 feet from the waters edge. This makes the campsites pretty confined and privacy is at a minimum. Lake Snowmass has great fly and pole fishing, and people were catching brookies and rainbow trout. Camping on the south side of the creek offered easier access to the hikers trail as you would not have to cross Snowmass Creek - which was raging when I was there. Unfortunately, there are less sites there than on the north side of the creek. There is an overflow of potential campsites on the north side and away from the lake.
Climbing the drainage
Once at the drainage I took the "route" on the right which is a shorter way to the friendlier snow field. I followed a faint dirt path up the mixed vegetation/talus/scree until I cleared a waterfall on my right. The waterfall cannot be seen from the lake but it is about 1/2 the way up the scree-field drainage. The stream has cut a deep cliff which is not visible from the lake and so if you climb out of the drainage and toward the right too soon, your route will eventually cliff out. Once passed the waterfall you can then angle toward the right to more stable and friendly terrain. Other routes suggest staying to the left up the drainage but I found that to be a more time consuming route in a dangerous section.
Crossing the basin
Once in the basin I crossed a series of rolling hills of packed snow and angled toward the high point in the ridge which is to the left of the summit. As I understand it, this is accessible in snow but when there is no snow, the route is to the left of this high point. I met some climbers who said that only two weeks earlier they abandoned a summit bid due to avalanche danger on the summit ridge. Timing is critical and having the right tools for the snow is mandatory. I always take my ice axe when theres a hint of snow and I would not have attempted this peak without my ice axe. I would have used my crampons if I would have brought them. Luckily there was a lot of footholes to assist me. Right before the ridge it gets really steep. The risk of fall here is real, but a fall would most likely mean a long slide to the basin below if you were unable to self arrest. At minimum some soggy britches and a good story for the pub afterwards.
Ridge and summit
Once on the ridge I zigzaged across the top and would sometimes drop below the backside on class 3 rock. There are some cairns and a faint trail. There is also some exposure in places and the rock is typical of the Elk Range: loose. Once I neared the summit the ridge became dangerous to climb any further and so I traversed to the left or backside of the peak, and then up. Once on the summit I climbed the summit block which was a strange slab of rock about four feet tall and three feet wide.
One of the best parts about descending snow is that, if safe, you have the option of glissading. Glissading is defined by Dictionary.com as "a controlled slide, in either a standing or sitting position, used in descending a steep icy or snowy incline. " My ice axe came in handy as I tried both the standing and then the sitting variations many times and in that order. Hilda and I had a blast on the descent of the great snowfield. I descended the same way I came up the drainage and along the lake back to camp.
Me and Hilda
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):