| NW/Snake Couloir
Mt. Sneffels – 14,150
NW / Snake Couloir
From: East Dallas Creek TH
Approx. 11.2 mi, 5000 ft
The day before the long holiday weekend I still didn't have any specific plans. The one thing that was certain was that we'd be spending it in the San Juans. I had investigated many possible 13ers in the Ouray / Telluride area and gathered any beta I could. With so many possibilities, I figured we'd just plan as we went. Sometime Thursday afternoon while I was perusing 13er information I somehow was drawn to the Snake Couloir on Mt. Sneffels. I don't know how I became so fixated on it. It sounded very interesting but I wasn't sure if we would be comfortable attempting it. At first it was a pipe dream but after thinking about it more and more I could no longer resist the temptation to give it a try. It was calling my name. Dominic had never climbed Mt. Sneffels and was eager to try the somewhat technical route. We agreed that we'd take it a step at a time and turn back if necessary. Of highest concern was the last pitch to the summit. Although Roach describes a meandering 3rd class traverse to connect with the standard route to the summit from the top of the Snake, most reports I could find described climbing the direct low 5th class finish straight to the summit and there was some indication that the supposed 3rd class finish was not very safe or easy. If Dominic decided he wasn't comfortable leading the 5th class pitch and the 3rd class option wasn't viable we'd have to turn around. We were totally prepared for that.
After Saturday's hike I was relieved to see that someone indicated in the trail register that they had successfully skied the Snake that day. That evening we met two nice guys, Josh and Adam, who were planning on attempting the same climb. We all admitted to being a little relieved that we wouldn't be the only party up there. It was hard getting to sleep because I was excited and a little apprehensive about what was to come.
We were all a little concerned about the recent heavy snowfall and didn't want to be climbing on it after it started to warm up. I had heard that the approach took longer than it looked on paper (many people do this climb as a backpack) so we set a painfully early 2:30 wakeup time. We were hiking by 3:00 and Josh and Adam weren't far behind.
The first part of the Blain Basin Trail was relatively easy to follow and had less snow on it at the lower elevations than the Blue Lakes Trail. The first creek crossing was pretty tricky but we managed to get across without getting wet. Immediately after the crossing we missed a sign hidden by the darkness indicating a turn for the Blain Basin Trail. Instead we followed the well defined ATV trail north for almost half a mile until we realized we were heading in the wrong direction. Consultation with the map quickly revealed our mistake and we backtracked to the creek. Josh and Adam were crossing it upon our return and Josh fell in and got pretty wet. Creek crossing number two was also a bit tricky. Number three was easier. Sick of postholing in the soft snow on the trail, we finally resorted to snowshoes and kept them on until we were well into Blain Basin (around treeline).
Because we were already carrying the extra weight of climbing gear we really didn't want to haul our snowshoes up the couloir too. However, if we made it to the summit we'd be doing a loop hike since we didn't plan on descending our ascent route. If we were forced to do the technical finish, the 30 meter rope we brought wouldn't be long enough for us to rappel this 100 ft section.
We decided to plant our snowshoes in the snow in the middle of Blain Basin at about 11,400 ft hoping that we could make it back to them before the snow softened up too much. This seemed like a good stash spot given our planned descent route down the east side of the mountain but since we weren't familiar with it we didn't know for sure how it would work out. I figured that if we actually made it up the Snake, I would be ecstatic and not perturbed by any wallowing that ensued once we were safely back down into Blain Basin.
We continued up into the basin below Sneffels' north face and began looking for the entrance to the couloir. It wasn't as easy as we'd imagined. Roach says that it is the westernmost of three couloirs on the north face. I saw what I thought might be it but it was not at all tracked and Josh and Adam, now a bit ahead of us, had continued on past it. I figured I must be wrong, especially since there were no ski tracks in it from the person who had skied the Snake the day before. We rounded Sneffels' north buttress and saw a couloir on the other side of it. Josh and Adam were gearing up at the base of it and we could see ski tracks down it.
We caught up with Josh and Adam just before they were ready to begin climbing. Originally they had planned on using the east couloir as a descent route like us, but they were a little concerned by the snow conditions and somehow decided it would be better to downclimb the Snake. They left their snowshoes at the base of the couloir, something they would later severely regret. They set off as we geared up and were about 15 minutes ahead of us for the rest of the climb. Because I didn't know how I'd feel on a 45-50 degree slope Dominic and I both put our harnesses on from the start and had the rope out for easy access. That way if either of us felt like we'd like a belay it would be quick and easy to set up.
The climb up the first section of the couloir went very smoothly. The snow was fairly consolidated but there was definitely a thick layer (maybe 8 inches) of newer snow on top that made the climbing a bit easier. There was no ice to deal with, but in a few spots an ice axe self belay wasn't possible because the snow was too hard. It didn't take much climbing up the steep slope to get our calves burning and we took a lot of short little breathers so we wouldn't get exhausted.
I began to wonder why I didn't see the infamous cornice above us marking the bend in the couloir that so many people had described. Soon we found ourselves standing ON TOP of this cornice instead of passing underneath it. Now things were staring to make sense – we had taken the other leg of the couloir from the start. No big deal, both legs looked very similar and our route had worked out very well.
The traverse around the side of the cornice was a little spicy, but very manageable. At least it had been tracked by the skier and Josh and Adam. The sketchiest part was having to hug the rock at a bulging section to avoid slipping down into the abyss. After this, we continued up the steep Snake Couloir. I was happy to find that I was perfectly comfortable on the steep slope all the way up. Even though I don't have a lot of couloir climbs under my belt, all of that scrambling around on snowy ridges I did this winter has really helped my confidence on snow. I used to be a bit of a chicken.
As we neared the top we could see Josh and Adam at the base of the summit pitch, gearing up for the climb. It was steep and very snowy but looked like very low 5th class. I have no idea what it would be like without the new snow. The supposed 3rd class option was definitely a no go. It would have involved traversing onto a totally scary looking cornice. The two other parties that did the climb that day totally agreed. At this time of the year I'd say it is not a viable option by any means. Josh led the summit pitch, using one stopper at the belay station and two others along the route. While Dominic and I were awaiting our turn Adam offered to leave their pro in for us and we gladly accepted. This would mean that Dominic would only have to do a sport-like lead. After Adam was most of the way up, Dominic climbed up with our rope, clipping into the existing pro and adding an additional cam in a slightly run out section. Because of the amount of snow, we absolutely had to climb the pitch with crampons on, something I've never done. I was the last one up and cleaned the route. It was kind of awkward and I wasn't quite sure how much to trust my crampons on the rock. With a good belay it was a blast though and it was very cool to top out directly on the summit! Since it was completely buried in snow, the belay from the top was anchored by an ice axe. I topped out around 10.
We were all thrilled to be up there. I had expected to see more tracks coming up from the Yankee Boy side, but there was only one lone set. It looked like the skier had climbed up that way and then went down the Snake. We didn't stay long because clouds were really building and we didn't want the snow to soften up any more than it had. Josh and Adam decided that there was no way they were going back down the Snake as planned so we offered to let them use our snowshoes to retrieve theirs if the postholing got too bad in the basin.
Although we didn't think it was absolutely necessary we roped up with Josh and Adam for the short descent into the southeast couloir and took turns belaying each other. In no time we were in the couloir and put away our climbing gear (except helmets and ice axes). Although we probably could have glissaded down to Lavender Col, we just kept our crampons on and plunge stepped. From there we removed our crampons and did a series of glissades down Sneffels' gentle east couloir back down into Blain Basin. It was a quick descent back to our snowshoes. They had multiplied while we were away - now there were 4 sets instead of 2. The snow wasn't too bad yet so Adam and Josh set off to fetch theirs while we headed down.
It seemed like a rather short trip back to the TH. We found log bridges across the creek near the two tricky crossings, but they would be very hard to locate in the dark. Since it was still so early and we were planning on sticking around for another day we took our time and enjoyed some leisurely breaks. We finished a little before 2:00 and took a nice nap. Josh and Adam returned about 1.5 hours later. Then around 6:00 or so another party of two emerged that had also climbed the Snake. Apparently they left several hours after us and said that the snow was getting pretty sloppy in the couloir. They were on cloud nine. In the register they reported that it had been a very long day, but that "the glory would live on forever". What an excellent day! I never thought I'd be saying this, but I think I'm going to actually miss the snow when its gone.
pictures & map: