| Rugged 13ers west of Sneffels
"S 6" – 13,441
Mears Peak – 13,496
"S 7" – 13,220
Ruffner Mountain – 13,003 (unranked)
From: Deep Creek TH
Approx. 13.4 mi, 6150 ft
These rather rugged peaks lie on a ridge several miles west of Mt. Sneffels. "S 6" and Mears Peak first commanded my attention last summer from the north face of Dallas Peak, but I had no idea which peaks they were at the time. I got a much closer look at them in May while climbing neighboring "T 0" and "S 4". In a recent thread where I had asked about interesting traverses, Teresa had recommended attempting the ridge between "S 6" and Mears. This past weekend seemed like as good a time as any to give it a try.
The Deep Creek TH is located a few miles west of Telluride on Last Dollar Road. We car camped there Thursday night and started hiking up the trail at 5:04 the next morning. We followed the trail for about a mile and then took a left when we came to a tee. After two tenths of a mile, we made a right at another intersection and followed some kind of ditch trail for about a mile, crossing to the north side of the creek along the way. When the trail started to switchback away from the creek, we left it and followed a weak, patchy trail along the north side of the creek. The map showed some sort of unmaintained trail in the area, but we never found it until our return trip. Nevertheless, the going was pretty easy – we just followed the creek. Soon impressive water falls started coming into view. Getting past them wasn't difficult – we climbed up away from the creek on its left side to avoid the cliffs.
We passed by the steep south slopes of Ruffner Mountain, "S 7", and Mears Peak as we ascended east up the drainage. Reasonable ascent/descent routes looked sparse, but we'd worry about that later. For now we concerned ourselves with reaching the summit of "S 6" near the head of the basin. There is a shallow couloir system on its southwest face near the center/righthand side that we made use of to reach the summit. The couloirs were made up of mostly talus, somewhat loose, but generally not too bad. At times we scrambled on more solid rock next to the shallow couloirs. Route finding wasn't difficult and there appeared to be many variations that would have worked. The climbing was easily kept 3rd class. As we climbed, my attention was repeatedly drawn to the attractive orange slopes of Mears Peak and I was looking forward to climbing it next. We popped out on the ridge slightly west of the summit of "S 6" and from here only a short, straightforward scramble remained. We topped out at 9:53, soaked in the views of the Sneffels/Dallas area and enjoyed a 20 minute break before moving on.
We set off to traverse to Mears Peak, but our progress came to an abrupt halt before too long when we encountered a large notch in the ridge. I spent a considerable amount of time searching for some weakness that would allow us to climb down into the notch, but wasn't successful. The rock was dangerously loose, and the easiest route I spotted involved an extended stretch of at least 5.0-5.2 climbing – something neither of us was willing to attempt given the quality of the rock. I climbed back up and we descended south in search of a spot where we could climb into the notch. The rock was so loose in a lot of places that 4th class climbing didn't seem safe. At around 13,000 ft we finally found a short, reasonable downclimb. It was at least 4th class, but the rock was uncharacteristically solid.
We made our way west across some nasty scree and started to climb back up to the ridge crest. A took a nasty little fall at the top of a scree gully as I prepared to scramble up a short rock section. My arms (which had been resting on the rock in front of me for balance) hyper extended as I slipped. Even though there was no danger of falling and dying, it was still a little scary and painful. In getting back up to the ridge we kept the climbing 3rd class, but the rock was horribly rotten and dangerous. Once when I set my hand on the rock for balance (almost no weight), I felt that it was loose. I then watched a piece of rock the size of coffee table fall away as I stood on a ledge next to it. Dwight had just climbed over that section seconds before. I was shaking so badly that I had to stand there for a minute. After that I was so paranoid that I didn't want to move. Once we were back on the ridge crest and the difficulties were mostly behind us we were thankful to have made it out in fairly good shape. A suitable name for the west ridge of "S 6" would be "Death Wish Ridge". I won't be visiting it again, and wouldn't recommend it to anyone.
For a while after that we enjoyed a rather easy traverse over the colorful orange and red ridge bumps. As we neared Mears Peak, however, the ridge became more difficult again (but not nearly as it had been near "S 6"). There was a rotten knife edge section for which I had to employ the cowardly straddle and scoot technique. Dwight was sure to take a picture of me in this embarrassing stance. We later were forced to drop off the right hand side of the ridge on steep, ridiculously loose talus. This section was quite treacherous and slow. We climbed back up to the more solid ridge crest as soon as possible and followed it to the summit, arriving at 12:20.
It had been quite an exciting day already and the skies were starting to cloud up. We debated whether to continue on to "S 7" or to call it a day. We didn't know anything about the ridge between Mears and "S 7", but it looked like there was at least a good chance it would go. The fact that it was made out of grey rock instead of the horrible red/orange rock we'd been climbing on was encouraging – we were hopeful it would be of better quality. We decided to give it a try and turn back if it ended up being too difficult or time consuming.
The ridge ended up being quite enjoyable. The varying rock colors and textures were interesting. The exposure on the north side was incredible. We stayed on the ridge crest for the majority of the time and bypassed some minor difficulties by dropping down on the south side. As we neared "S 7" we kept our eyes out for possible descent routes. Nothing looked particularly inviting, but there were one or two options that we'd try if we had to.
We reached "S 7" 1.5 hours after leaving Mears. The ridge had gone as smoothly as we could have hoped. The weather was continuing to hold nicely. It was a perfect day. Even though Dwight didn't realize it at the time, this was his 200th 13er! As we took a break we discussed our plan of attack for getting back down into the basin. We knew that the steep slopes below us were plagued with serious cliffs and guessed that the descent wasn't going to be pleasant. We weren't in search of a "nice" descent route, but simply a "possible" descent route. Dwight suggested continuing west along the ridge since we hadn't passed by any great options yet. This would mean we'd pass over unranked Ruffner Mountain, our bonus peak for the day.
The ridge between "S 7" and Ruffner Mountain was a piece of cake and the traverse only took 10-15 minutes. Strangely, the only summit register we found all day was on unranked Ruffner Mountain. I think it was the largest register I've ever seen – a huge plastic cashew jar!
The main ridge past Ruffner Mountain looked like it was going to get pretty hairy so we left it and followed a small, very minor talus ridge south. It was steep, loose, and made for very tedious going. When it wouldn't easily go anymore we dropped off its left side onto steep grassy slopes. I was continually worried that we were going to cliff out, but we always managed to find a way through the difficulties. The descent was fairly miserable and seemed to last forever.
Finally, near the floor of the valley we found what looked like an old road – it was the unmaintained trail shown on the map that we couldn't locate on the way up. We followed it and realized that our ascent path ran parallel to this trail and was less than a tenth of a mile away from it. We blindly followed the nice trail, not paying too much attention to where we were going. After a while I realized we were going pretty far out of our way so we left the trail and bushwhacked across the creek and back to the trail we'd come up earlier. In no time we were back at the TH. It had been a 13 hour day and we'd only gotten a few hours of sleep the night before. We were pretty tired, but it had been a magnificent day.