| Snowmass & N. Snowmass -- sans snow!
After last year's attempt on Snowmass (called on account of way too much fresh snow), I figured I'd try again a bit earlier in the year and see if I had better luck. This year, snow would definitely not be a problem. In fact, the mountain was high and dry, making for a long day of route-finding, scrambling and boulder-hopping.
Rather than do this as an overnighter (like sane people do!), I decided to try a long, single-day attempt. After a successful 12-hour round trip on Pikes Peak (26 miles all together) the month prior, I figured this would be a piece of cake (HA!). After a partial night's sleep at the Stonebridge Inn in Snowmass, I struck out for the trailhead at about 2:30am, heading down CO 82 to Snowmass Creek Road and then on to the trailhead about 11 miles later. Not surprisingly, the roads were clear of traffic at this absurd hour of the day. The trailhead parking lot, though, was pretty full…17 other vehicles, but all of them dark and quiet. I guessed I'd be having company higher up after I reached Snowmass Lake. Shouldering my daypack and adjusting my headlamp, I hit the trail at 3:15.
The hike to Snowmass Lake was quiet in the pre-dawn darkness. There was no wind and no clouds, which served to show off a spectacular, starry sky. The trail winds through private property (Snowmass Falls Ranch), and has a trio of gates that you need to pass through in the first two miles, all with signs asking hikers to please keep them closed as they pass through. Around mile 3 the trail angle southwards and climbs up and away from Snowmass Creek for a couple miles before dropping just a bit and circumnavigating a series of beaver ponds between miles 5 and 6. At mile 6 comes the bridge-less creek crossing. You can opt to either shed your boots and wade across, just below a series of beaver dams, or try your hand at crossing on the dams themselves. The last time I was up here, I opted for the wading option, but this time went for the dam-crossing option (6am is too early for wading in the cold water!). The beaver dams are surprisingly sturdy and sure-footed, so long as you pick dry logs to walk on.
After crossing the creek, the trail switchbacks moderately up the slope and through the trees until you abruptly come out of the forest at Snowmass Lake. The lake is an absolutely breathtaking spot, and there's lots of camping available on both sides. At the far end of the lake, the bulk of Snowmass Peak (not Snowmass Mountain) looms just left of center. The 14er itself lies beyond the Peak and to the right, the prominent bump on the jagged ridgeline. The high point at the far right-side of the ridge is North Snowmass, a 14,000'+ sub-peak of Snowmass Mountain. The peaks glowed brightly in the morning sunshine under a perfectly deep-blue clear sky. The trademark snowfields were nowhere to be found (as I'd expected from other climbers' beta on the route).
Snowmass Peak, Hagerman, Snowmass Mountain, N. Snowmass from Snowmass Lake
The willows were wet and cold along the trail around the lake (clockwise), and I was glad to break out of them on the far side. At the far end of the lake the trail fades away into a boulder field, and a series of cairns takes you up and to the right, eventually intersecting a climbers' trail next to a prominent runoff gully on the north side of boulder field. As the trail steepens and the gully narrows, the trail crosses over the gully onto a grassy slope which climbs steeply into the basin at 12,000'.
From here, it was ~2000' of route-finding, boulder-hopping and scrambling to get to Snowmass. May and June climbers have the benefit of snow here, but us late-summer climbers have the fun of rock-dodging! The common route from here is to aim for a prominent bump on the ridge just to the climber's left of Snowmass, and from there crossing the ridge and following a cairned, class 3 route to the summit.
Even though the route is cairned, it was hard to see the small piles of rocks amongst the jumble of boulders, and the hike from this point was a bit slow and tiring. As I climbed, my eyes kept wandering to the right, toward the small saddle on the other side of Snowmass between the main summit and the North Snowmass sub-peak. I was hoping to make it to both summits if the weather held (which it was, beautifully), so I decided to explore that option instead. I began to angle leftwards at about 12,800'.
From the south side of Snowmass Lake...the 'standard' route and the 'saddle' variation I climbed...
The rocky terrain above 12,000'
The terrain remained pretty consistent, which is to say, stable boulders and slabby rock, until about 100' below the saddle point. At this point the boulders shrunk to talus and scree and became a bit less stable. Almost directly above me, I could easily see a growing crowd on Snowmass's narrow summit. After a few minutes of scrambling and sliding in the scree, I hit the saddle point and was rewarded with stunning views of the green valleys west of Snowmass and Lead King Basin.
The summit of North Snowmass was about 120 yards to the right, and was an easy Class 2+ scramble from the saddle, taking no more than another 15 minutes to reach. From North Snowmass the most impressive view is to the north, where Capitol Peak looms in the near distance. The long ridge connecting Snowmass and Capitol drops away abruptly, leaving the expansive view. Climbers on Capitol's Knife Edge and summit were clearly visible. In the other direction, the nearby main summit of Snowmass was also populated with other climbers. Not another soul to be seen on North Snowmass though!
Looking towards Snowmass from North Snowmass
After a few minutes of picture taking and snacking, I picked my way back down to the saddle point and then continued upwards to the main summit. The climb from here was definitely Class III, but the rock is surprisingly solid. The best route trends just to the west (climber's right) of the ridgeline itself. Again, it was a mere 10-15 minutes of scrambling to reach the top. I encountered a couple groups headed down the west side as I neared the summit itself, and one of them actually recognized me from my website! I was quite flattered, to say the least.
Approaching Snowmass on the Class III ridge after summitting North Snowmass
mtnmike on the main summit. The Bells are just over my right shoulder.
I had the true summit of Snowmass to myself for 10-15 minutes, which was a pleasant surprise. The summit is really just the high point on the narrow, rocky ridge. The views in all directions are phenomenal, but especially looking back to the east, with Snowmass Lake below and the back side of the Maroon Bells, Pyramid and Castle peaks all further to the east and south. I took another few minutes to rest, eat, snap pictures, and sign the register.
Snowmass Lake from atop Snowmass Mountain
Rather than retrace my route to the saddle, I decided to descend via the more common route, south from the summit and over the ridge. From the summit I was able to make out a couple other climbing parties also on the descent, and from them I was able to make out the faint cairns marking the route, which stays relatively high on the ridgeline as it traverses to the crossover point. Descending along the faintly cairned route, I was strongly reminded of the standard route on South Maroon, from it's south ridge to the summit.
Looking down the south ridge of Snowmass the second 'bump' marks the transition point for descent into the basin
The next couple hours consisted of picking my way through the boulders back down to Snowmass Lake. A bit tedious and tiring, but not too difficult. From the lake it was another three hours of trail-hiking back to the trailhead, and by the time I reached the parking lot, I was pretty well spent.
In a nutshell:
I thought that the 26-mile marathon of Pikes Peak was a long, tough day, but this was harder (the Barr trail is a lot tamer than the alpine scrambling on Snowmass, after all!). I'd have to say that this hike, done in a single day and without the benefit of snowcover up high, is quite possibly the toughest single day 14er climb out there (by 'toughest', I mean endurance-wise, not technically). But all in all, it was an immensely satisfying day, and I highly recommend hitting the North Snowmass sub-peak (whether by this route or the 'standard')!
Snowmass Lake:......10,980' .........7:30am
N. Snowmass:.........14,020' ........10:45am
Total time: 15 hrs
Total distance: 21.0 mi.
Total elevation gain: approx 5,800'
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):