| Winter in the San Juans
Winter in the San Juans
Uncompahgre: 15 miles 4999' 7.5 hours up 12.5 hours roundtrip 12/22/07
San Luis: 17.5 miles 5500' 7.0 hours up 12.0 hours roundtrip 12/29/07
Mt. Sneffels: 13 miles 4400' 8.5 hours up 12.5 hours roundtrip 12/30/07
I know this is pretty pathetic compared to the wonderful trip reports with photos that many members post, but I hope someone finds something of use here. Besides, I want to feed my ego.
On Friday night 12/21/07, I met Maverick_Manley in Salida for a car caravan to Lake City. Prakash told me that there had been blizzard conditions on Kenosha Pass and the conditions over Monarch Pass then on to Gunnison were white-out (15-30mph winds with blowing snow). Upon arrival in Gunnison a friend trying to join us from Grand Junction phoned and told us there were 10 inches of snow in Montrose and the roads were too bad to cross Cerro Summit to join us. We too were leery about our plans, but proceeded to Lake City where the skies had much thinner clouds and even a star or two poked through. The temperature was -5. There was very little fresh snow. We checked in to the Town Square Motel, one of three open in the winter. The $75+ tax three-bed cabin was cold and sparse. I'd recommend checking out one of the other choices in town.
We woke at 4:45 AM; ate, dressed, and drove five miles on a well plowed road to the 2WD trailhead at the junction of Henson Creek and Nellie Creek. At 6:00AM, we donned snowshoes and began the 4.2 miles of 6"- 8" trailbreaking needed to reach the wilderness boundary at the 4WD summer trailhead. The route is not popular with snowmobiles and had not been packed recently, if at all. The only place to keep a watch out for is a fork in the road at about 2.5 miles up at 10,500'. Just as you cross Nellie Creek, the road appears to continue to the right (North), up-stream on the left side of the creek. This is actually a secondary road; the main road switches back sharply over your left shoulder (West) for a 150 yards, then back to the right. No other major forks occur before your arrival at the locked bathroom in the trailhead parking lot. This would make an excellent campsite for a two-day winter ascent. We arrived about 9:30, dressed in wind gear, ate, drank, and started off at 10:00 AM to finish the last ¾ mile of trailbreaking before leaving the trees behind.
As soon as we broke timberline, the snow changed to a more pleasant sastrugi with occasional 100 yard stretches of difficult crust breaking. Temperatures rose to a balmy 5 degrees or so. The wind, though not severe, occasionally blew up 5-minute mini blizzards of blowing snow. This was most unpleasant for my dog, Cooper, who was making his first winter 14er ascent.
Viewing the summit from this perspective, it is clear that anyone traveling with care could avoid avalanche zones. This should be true in almost all conditions; the route is particularly attractive from that point of view. A two-mile long 2000' inclined plateau slowly rose to reach the mountain's south ridge, just under a cliff band. About 1000' below the summit, before reaching the cliff band, I stashed my snowshoes. I followed some frozen scree and rock to the base of the cliffs 500' or so below the summit.
At this point, the summer trail traverses left around the cliffs to scree-filled gullies on the west face. Ken Nolan told me these gullies can present a problem in the winter so I carried a short rope and crampons just in case. As it turned out, the first gully was dry and even the dog scrambled right up. It was a quick walk from here to the summit which presented beautiful afternoon views at 2:00. The last person to sign the register was 11/20/07. After soaking in the views for 15 minutes, a quick and smooth trek downhill ended at the bathroom at 4:00. After a half-hour break to remove wind gear and get out the headlamp, I started down the road. We arrived back at the car just before 7:00 PM as the temperature dropped back below zero.
Uncompahgre is an excellent choice for a San Juan winter ascent! The straightforward and avalanche safe route makes for a very long day one-day ascent or a more leisurely two-day winter campout. The summit ski descent is not ready now; I'd recommend late winter or early spring
I came home and spent several days enjoying Christmas with my kids. When I had a chance to go out again, I contacted Firsttracks about an overnight trip to San Luis via the standard Equity Mine route. The CAIC weather reports called for high winds, -35 temps, and 2-4 inched of snow each day for the 27th-30th. VERY unappealing! Snotel, though, showed no new snow at Slumgullion pass and Weather Underground showed mostly clear skies and 5-10 mph winds in Creede (though the high temp for the day was -2!). Firsttracks decided to brave the drive on the 27th, to see the conditions for himself. Blowing snow and extreme temps dissuaded him at Monte Vista and he headed back to Los Alamos. Late morning of the 28th, I was feeling cooped up and decided to see the conditions for myself. All reports remained the same. When I went through the Monte Vista area, a blizzard was raging, but upon arrival in Creede, things looked more promising!
I had contacted the Sheriff who told me the closest approach to the Equity mine would be via the Bachelor mine road (504) on the south end of town. As it turned out, I was able to drive a well plowed, but steep road to Allen's crossing, the significant switchback where the road turns back down West Willow creek to head back to Creede. The plowed parking areas here is 2 ¼ miles below the Equity mine at elevation 10,600'.
The sky was clear but cold and the wind calm. I snowshoed ½ mile up the trail to verify that although not recently broken by snowmobile, the base was firm with 4" of snow to break. I returned to the car and called Firsttracks to try to talk him into tackling it as a daytrip to avoid a -35 degree campout, but his family commitments wouldn't let him go at this time.
I decided to get a motel room instead of braving the night in the car and checked into the Snowshoe Motel in Creede at $39 for a single. A nice room with friendly proprietors, I cranked the heat to 75 and went to sleep at 6:00PM. Waking at 3:30, I bundled for the cold, ate breakfast and drove 20 minutes to the trailhead. The temp in Creede was -42, but the trailhead was a more modest -40. At 4:30AM, I donned snowshoes and headed off for the mine. The travel was easy, occasionally breaking 8" in drifted areas, but mostly only needing a 4" trench.
Above the mine, I ignored the road bed and stayed on the right side of the creek headed to San Luis Pass. At 11,800, I started a climbing traverse through the trees heading to the 12,300' saddle ½ mile SE of San Luis pass proper. To this point, avalanche terrain was minimal and easily avoided (with the exception of two paths crossing the road between the car and the mine, which would be safe in most conditions).
To traverse the next two bowls, however, care must be taken. Instead of traversing inside the north-facing bowl below Pt 13,320, it is necessary to descend 600' following a minor ridge through the trees to the valley floor at 11,700'. Then you can climb east toward Pt 12,600' on a minor ridge and traverse to the saddle at 12,450'. In case of problems, you may have to hike north and east around Pt 12,600' to avoid danger. Today, things were pretty stable.
Two Views of my route and the "High Danger" alternative. Also, here is a Spring TR that used the campsite.
***Had to edit out a photo here. I mis-labeled UN 13,155' as San Luis. It was caught by Barry Raven and gb. The maps here show my correct winter route. The fixed photo was corrected by gb on this thread:
The route shown in the photo by gb (in the thread) is for stable spring snow or summer (the Colorado Trail is through that bowl.) For winter or avy prone conditions, I'd still recommend the route I marked in red on the topo or the "High Danger" alternative.
The traverse inside the next bowl is much safer. There appears to rarely be much danger here if you are willing to skip the traverse and drop down a minor ridge to 12,100' before climbing to San Luis's major south ridge at 12,600'. Mostly dry ribs could be found. At the 12,600' saddle of the south ridge, I dropped my pack and snowshoes; I put on a down coat and stashed food and water in my jacket. The 1400'mostly dry walk to the top had the most wind of the day (15-25mph), but the skies were clear ant the temp near 0. In less than an hour, I was on top; at 11:30. Thermometer read -10. No one had signed in for more than a month.
The trek down to the pack and into the bottom of the first bowl took no time at all. The 300' climb back to 12,450' saddle was starting to take its toll. Next, drop back down to 11,700' on the valley floor. The killer, though, was the next 600' climb back through the trees to the 12,300' saddle that takes you back into West Willow Creek. After conquering the 15' minor cornice that brought me onto the saddle, I flopped down for a much needed rest. The trek down to the mine went well and just before arriving there, I was glad to see snowmobilers had been into the basin and laid a nice track all the way back to the car. The total descent took 4 hours and I arrived at the car at 4:30 PM.
San Luis is a long, but reasonable day trip for experienced winter mountaineers. Partners to break trail would be preferable, and some ability to evaluate avalanche terrain is needed. A campout is not a bad idea. Don't be afraid to add 1000' or more, each way, to avoid slide terrain. The northern-most of the Yawner gullies is ready for a descent right now; the two directly from the summit need a little more snow (though they could be skied with a 150' downclimb in the middle).
With more cold and snow predicted, I again opted to camp in a motel room. America's Best Value Motel, on the east end of Montrose, near the Red Barn Restaurant, has clean rooms for $40. Mis-communication failed to produce my anticipated 14ers.com partner. With the mediocre weather forecast, many would not have been interested anyway. Dawson's guidebook, which recommended the two previous climbs as overnighters, said that Sneffels is often done as a day trip in the winter, usually in 8 hours. Sounds like an easier day, I thought. A 6:30 start will let me sleep till 4:30AM, eat, dress and drive the 1.5 hours to the trailhead dressed warm and cozy. Boy, did I mis-judge the difficulty of the Day! Conditions are EVERTHING!
Mt. Sneffels turned out to be the most physically challenging of the winter peaks that I've sumitted to date. That includes the Crestone Needle-Peak traverse and Little Bear. The conditions I faced on all my Sangre de Christo winter ascents were nearly ideal; the conditions on Sneffels 12/30/07 were quite poor. Right now, there is very little consolidation in Yankee boy basin; even the basin floor above timberline is fluffy powder rather than the expected sastrugi.
I drove up the well-plowed road to a wide parking area near Camp Bird Mine. Exactly where you should stop driving and start walking is unclear. The mine owner up at Governor Basin has plowed the road another three miles, but his plow is narrower and he is using a snowmobile to get in and out on a daily basis. At first, I drove another ¾ mile past Camp Bird, but there were several places where I had to plow through drifts. Finally, under the second of the areas where the road uses a shelf to cut under a major cliff, I was stopped by waterfall ice making the road a little too narrow for comfort. I had to back down the road ¼ mi to find a place big enough to do a ten-point turn to maneuver around and then drove the ½ mile back to the camp Bird Mine to find a place wide enough to park. I should have stopped here in the first place. It is an easy three-mile walk on the narrowly plowed road to reach the Ruby Mine area at Governor Basin.
I left the car at 6:30AM, 0 degree temps, light snow and 15mph wind. After hiking three miles, 200 yards before you reach the mine at the end of the plowed road, a signed fork to the right leads into Yankee Boy Basin. One sign indicates that you are entering the Ruby Mine area; a more important, but buried, sign indicates that you should take the right fork. I had to dig out the sign to read it. Now the really hard work started. I put on my snowshoes, climbed over the snowbank, and began breaking 18" powder snow that had faint evidence of having been used by a skier sometime earlier this season.
The next ¾ mile of road leads to the bathroom beneath the traditional Teakettle and Potosi trailhead. It took an hour to break and crossed 6 avalanche zones. Though below timberline and unassuming looking, three of these zones slid previously this season. It is more than a little eerie to climb across the packed snow of these slide zones that look so innocuous. They remind me of the photos of the slide that took the life of a skier last month in spite of the fact that his partners extracted him in quickly. The photos I saw just didn't look all that concerning.
Another ½ mile up the road, I broke timberline and hoped the snow would change to a more wind-packed condition. Unfortunately, I continued to have to break 18" of snow and the blowing snow made the ground visibility poor. The good news was that the entire 360 degrees of the basin showed no evidence of slide activity. The steep slopes of Gilpin, Blue Lakes Pass, and the most concerning, Kismet, appeared to be stable. As I reached the 4WD trailhead sign which indicates 1.2 miles to the summit, I thought if I could just get to the base of the Lavender Col the change in aspect might improve wind and snow conditions.
No such luck. I dug a pit at 12,700' at the base of the lower col and could find no sheer zones in the 36' of snow. But the wind was simultaneously blowing from Blue Lakes Pass, Mt Gilpin and the col above. I was getting blown in circles and my goggles were starting to frost over. At 10:40 AM I began the ascent to the Kismet-Sneffels saddle on the rock rib on the left side of the gully. About ½ way up, the rib disappeared in the snow and I continued along a route where I knew the rib to be. As I climbed above here, the snow breaking went from 18" to knee-deep to mid-calf. Finally, I removed my snowshoes so I could plow my way through more easily. Eventually, I just wanted to get out of the snow, so, rather than continue to the saddle, I cut left to the first rock I could find. I climbed a rib until I was above the saddle, then donned crampons and exchanged ski poles for an ice axe. My cold hands and precarious stance made it a tedious process. It took almost ½ hour to get ready to go again. A steep traverse, waist deep, brought me into the second, steeper, upper Lavender Col about 300' above the saddle. In retrospect, I should have traversed right in the lower col when the going got tough and followed the right (Kismet) side of the gully reaching the saddle at the lower 13,500' point. It was 12:15.
I believed the new, easterly aspect of the upper col would give me different snow and wind conditions. It did. The wind was better, the snow worse. Another pit still revealed no sheer zones, but the trench I broke for the next 500' was waist to mid chest in depth. On top, there was a hard 1" crust. There was no way to stay on top of the snow. It was getting late, but I was making progress of 5'-10' or so each minute. I still hoped to make it. Finally at 14010', I reached the class 2+ crux move to put me on the summit plateau. I had a former Colorado Trail client who lost her life right here. Though not difficult, it is very exposed and, today, filled with hard ice. I had gone to get my short rope in the car that morning only to discover I had left it on the floor of the motel. Now I wished I had it. I could have anchored it at my feet, tied in 10' higher and made the move w/o pro, I would have been susceptible to a 20' leader fall, but it would have worked. Instead, I spent a ½ hour, building a platform to stand on, chopping steps and steeling my nerves foe the swing out to the committing part of the move. Twice I started and backed off. Finally, I pulled off my mittens, grabbed knobs with my wooden fingers, kicked in my toes, and committed to the move. I flopped on my belly 10' higher on perfectly safe ground.
During the 5 minute walk to the summit, I kept looking back at my tracks above the crux fixated on how I would get back down. At 3:00PM I reached the summit, 8 ½ hours after leaving the car. The 1350' from the base of the lower col had taken me 5 ½ hours to climb. The shortest ascent of the trip took the longest to complete. I signed in (first since mid-November), turned 360 degrees for the amazing view (I climbed above the clouds and wind about 300' below!) and headed down to face the crux that still was causing a pit in my stomach.
Then I had the first really positive response to anticipation that I'd had all day. I pulled off my mittens again, faced forward and easily lowered myself into the steps I'd cut previously. I landed perfectly on the little platform I'd built and traversed 5' over to my pack. I threw it on my back and the crust that wouldn't hold my weight on the way up gave me a 2 minute, 500' glissade back to the Kismet saddle!
That was as long as the good news lasted. At the saddle, it was snowing hard and the 40-70 mph winds blowing up the col covered my goggles inn rime ice in about one minute. The snow would not support a glissade, my track was gone, and I was breaking through waist deep again. I switched crampons for snowshoes and made my way blind down the next 1000' periodically lifting my goggles to make certain I was headed the right direction and starting off again. Every 15 seconds or so I was knocked over by a wind gust; alternately coming from every direction. At he bottom of the col, I turned east and things improved as the wind came consistently from my back. The snow was increasing.
The only body parts that were really cold were my hands. I threw chemical warmers in my wet mittens and put one pole on my pack so I could alternate a free hand to swing about. This seemed preferable to digging in my pack for dry mittens until I could get down out of the wind. Except for the poor visibility, the next 2 miles of trailbreaking to the bathroom went smoothly. I arrived there at 5:00PM, ducked inside and took a nice break. I had some hot chocolate, used the restroom, put on a down jacket and got out dry mittens. In 10 minutes I was fully recouped. I grabbed my headlamp and set out to break the last mile of trail to the plowed road. I crossed the same three slide paths as in the morning; nothing new today. At the Ruby Mine area, I put away my snowshoes and walked the last three miles to the car. The descent was 4 hours; it was rough, but quick. This one was a lot of grunt work.
Though Sneffels is done often as a winter day trip, snow conditions can make it a hard day. Ken Nolan assures me that it is easy to beat the 5 ½ hours it took me to climb the last 1350'; he says his winter ascent of this portion went quite smoothly. The route into the upper basin crosses avalanche slopes and the final 1350' must be assessed carefully for stability. A short rope and belay partner would be nice for the crux move. The direct ski descent is in good shape right now.
I spent the night in the same Montrose motel intending to take a day off before a campout on Wetterhorn. My partner begged off due to the cold and family obligations, so I called off the last part of the trip and went home. After the apprehension over the 10' crux on Sneffels, I was not willing to climb 10 miles to the last 100' of Wetterhorn only to find out that I couldn't finish w/o a belay. I'd still like to get this peak with a partner some warmer weekend this winter.
Again, I'm sorry for the lack of photos. But then, TGC never posts photos either.
The route he labeled would be for stable spring snow or summer It is the Colorado Trail). for a winter route or avy prone conditions, stick to the maps above.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):