| Snowmass West Slopes from Lead King Basin
Date: 7 July, 2007 (7-7-7!)
Participants: cftbq, trishapajean
TH: Lead King Basin 4WD, ~9,700 ft.
RT: about 9 mi.
Vertical: ~4,500 ft.
The slow start
It was supposed to go down relatively fast. Only nine miles RT seemed much better than the 14 or 15 we'd put in on the last trip, plus only one peak to reach. But, we know how to make it harder!
We started by deciding, through some demented early morning logic, that it would be faster to get to Carbondale by going through Glenwood Springs instead of through Aspen. Wrong. This turned out to be a six-hour drive from Colorado Springs. Thus, any hope of a pre-sunrise start was dashed. We drove up some of the roughest sections of the access road east of Marble with the low morning sun shining right in our faces! It's a good thing that the road gets much better after a few miles. We finally arrived at the TH in time for a (drum roll, please…) 8:30 am (MDT) start. Ugh. Photo # shows the view from the 4WD road, just short of the TH.
Still, all should not have been lost. Remember, only nine miles! The morning was gorgeous and the sky clear, and within 20 minutes we were hiking in shorts and no sleeves.
The trail is beautiful. The abundant snow melt has fed, and continues to feed, a riotous proliferation of plant life, the most notable of which is the wild flowers. Even though the trail is well-worn, and perfectly clear close up, there are precious few places where it can be seen from any substantial distance, owing to its being totally hidden in knee-high grasses, bushes, and flowers.
It took scarcely an hour to get to Geneva Lake (10,940 ft.), which lived up to its reputation for beauty. Still expecting a fairly short day, we discussed the possibility of a dip in it on the way back. Boy, were we ever wrong… Photo # shows Geneva Lake from the trail.
Continuing north and up over the series of lips which comprise Lead King Basin, we soon passed Little Gem Lake (11,7-something). About this time, Siberia Peak (13,039 ft.) came into view. It looks like a worthy target for a future visit.
The west slopes
Now it was time for the real fun to begin. Or, should I say, the real work?
We dropped a bit from the shelf holding Little Gem (which accounts for the extra guess of elevation in my estimate above), to cross the valley holding the stream flowing out of Siberia Lake (which we still couldn't see), and contemplated the various gullies we might ascend. We quickly agreed that the leftmost (northernmost) one looked like it offered the easiest way to the summit ridge. Photo # looks up our chosen route. All the others sported either more severe cliffs at the base, flowing water, slabs of smooth-looking rock tilted the wrong way, or some combination of these. We figured we'd hit the summit ridge just north of the true summit this way.
It proved to be a long slog. We donned helmets and got out our ice axes (which this day saw service almost exclusively as rock axes), but decided that there was no need for crampons. We were right about this. All but the last bits of snow have melted off, and what is left is soft and not very deep. Near the bottom, the rocks are mostly stable and not too hard to clamber over safely. As we climbed, however, we found that both the size and the instability of the rocks tended to increase slowly. As a result, we had to make increasingly frequent route decisions as the terrain varied to include scree, dirt, talus of all sizes, and fairly large boulders. It was always possible to proceed, but we never really found an "easy" line. We slogged on
Noon came and we still hadn't topped out. The first spit of light rain and grapple fell. Looking up at the pinnacles which guard the top of the gully, we finally decided that we should move off to our left (north) and try to gain the ridge crest someplace other than at the actual top of the gully. This may have been a big mistake.
We finally found ourselves climbing steep boulders on the north side of the mountain (with a clear and fantastic view of Capitol Peak and the connecting ridge!), but still looking for the elusive ridge crest. The steps were big, and the exposure in some places was seriously exceeding my initial expectations. Of course, we plodded on anyway, having invested way too much energy in getting this far even to consider giving up. I believe we finally climbed either over or around three distinct ridge points before we finally were presented with a clear view of the true summit. They all slowed us down, and the summit itself also was guarded by one rather exposed move that gave us both pause.
Still, we finally made it, and found the register canister nestled on the north side of the pillar which is the actual highest point. (As the wind had come up, we decided we did not have to try scaling this to claim the summit.) Photo # shows the Bells and Pyramid from the summit, with a slice of the precipitous east side. Five of the six people we had encountered on the way up were the only other ones to sign in that day, which surprised me. Why had no one come up from the supposedly easier eastern side?
We were tired; it was getting cold and dark. And it was almost 4:30. The mountain gods must have something in for us this year.
The view is breathtaking, in no small part because the summit is tiny and very exposed on both the east and west sides. A visual inspection of the eponymous snow field (somewhat reduced in size from its classic appearance) yielded no clue whatsoever as to where the supposedly easier "standard" route to that summit might be. I saw no obvious way down on that side, any more than there was one on the west side. Thus, after only minimal picture-taking, we headed down, this time heading for the southernmost of the gullies. We didn't want to try downclimbing the moves which we had been forced to go through to get up the other way.
Last ones on the mountain
We certainly made better time descending the first 2,000 feet off the summit than we had climbing that same altitude, but we still didn't set any speed records. As on the way up, the rock is loose in many places, and the steps required are large wherever it isn't. Worse, spates of rain, and even hail, were beginning to fall, and we heard occasional peals of thunder.
Somehow, we got through it. When we finally got to the point where the gully cliffed out (which I expected, having seen it clearly on the way up), we contoured right over into the next gully, where we found a considerably easier way through the steep section. After finding a place where we could step across the open flowing water in that gully, we finally descended some vegetated ledges that led into the more level talus field at its base. There, we could discern the trail leading across to the slope below Little Gem Lake on the other side.
The rest of the trip was unremarkable. We actually made fairly good time, since three climbing trips in the last month had hardened us somewhat, and we had been fairly well rested to begin with. It was obvious, however, that we were the last people to come down off that mountain that day. The trail was quite wet from the afternoon sprinkles, and we still had to be a little careful.
When I packed for the trip, I had, almost as an afterthought, packed my headlamp against the slight chance that we might arrive at the trailhead early enough to use it on the first stage of the hike. I was not too surprised when we got there too late to need it, but I was a little surprised that, in fact, we got there so late that we needed it at the other end of the day! We did, and arrived back at the car well after sunset and in basically full darkness.
Conclusion: Snowmass is, or at least can be, a significantly harder mountain than many reports make it out to be. Supposedly, it's Class 3, but I quite sure that, the way we did it, it involved some Class 4 climbing. It took a lot out of us, but we both felt good about the accomplishment. I'd even go back and try to do a more efficient job of it—although I'm not sure trishapajean would. Fourteener #27 for her, #30 for me.
Pictures are at:
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):