| Sneffels Climb, Snowy in June
All night long we listened to the white noise of the river, and the occasional patter of rain on the tent fly. Well, not exactly all night. I fell asleep at midnight, and woke up at 3:44 a.m. to the sound of Terry stuffing his sleeping bag into its sack. We had to get to the Sneffels trailhead by 5:00 p.m., and we still had a ways to go.
I had wanted to climb a 14er for a very long time. At least two years. I live in Texas, but my wife's family recently moved to Ridgway, Colorado, smack dab in the middle of the San Juans. If you know anything about Ridgway, you know it has some of the absolute best views of Mount Sneffels. Mount Sneffels towers high above all the other peaks in its range, at 14,150 feet. A drive from Montrose to Ridgway will make this fact evident. The following are pictures I took of Sneffels during my two week stay.
Sunset on lake with Sneffels in background. Taken from county road 7.
I just graduated college at the University of North Texas, and my wife and I were going to visit her family in Ridgway. I planned on climbing Mount Sneffels with my brother-in-law. Once we arrived, I found out he had taken on a second job, and that he probably wouldn't have any time to climb mountains. I was really bummed out. But I thought there might be a small chance that some mountaineer somewhere might also like to go up Sneffels on the weekend of June 12. But where could I find such a mountaineer?
I posted a quick message on the climbing connection forum on 14ers.com, not really thinking anyone would reply. To my surprise, TerryLiv said that he would like to go. He was planning on driving in from Loveland to climb Sneffels. We sent a few emails back and forth and decided to meet at Thistledown Campground, on Camp Bird Road, 5 miles from the Sneffels trailhead. Luckily I had brought my 3-person tent to Colorado, which would comfortably house Terry, me, and our gear.
We woke up Saturday morning at 3:45, and in no time we were off in his white '97 Toyota Avalon. Now I don't know if you've ever driven to the lower trailhead of Mt. Sneffels, but let's just say it's not exactly '97-Toyota-Avalon-country. There are many foes of oil pans on Camp Bird road, not to mention a few streams to cross, and of course treacherous cliffs at each turn. Luckily Terry was experienced. He had climbed 43 14ers, and wasn't going to let a little rock, water, or steep grade stop him from climbing his 44th. I don't know how we made it but we reached an area to park about 400 yards short of the lower trailhead. The following is a picture of a Toyota Avalon.
The mighty Toyota Avalon. This is a '98 model. The '97 model, Terry's model, is the mountain version.
It was still dark outside when we started hiking. It was 5:00. We could barely see the beginnings of sunrise above the mountains. Light shown enough for us to see that there were some fierce clouds rolling in above us. We heard occasional thunder, and saw some lightning, but hoped that it would not reach us. After we had hiked about 15 minutes, it was becoming evident that the storm was on top of us. Hail/snow started to come down hard, and thunder roared. We took cover under some pine trees to wait it out. It wasn't looking like a great morning to be climbing up to 14,150 feet.
After about 20 minutes the thunderclaps became less frequent, and the birds started chirping. Sure enough, at 6:00, just as the forecast predicted, the weather cleared up and it was only overcast. The hail/snow left a nice, fresh white layer over the mountains, and the sunrise shown brilliant in the east.
Looking to east at beginning of hike.
Looking to west at beginning of hike.
Nice sunrise at beginning of hike.
We made it to the upper trailhead and signed in, and then we were off down the trail. There was a lot of snow on the ground. We noticed some boot tracks going ahead of us, in the same direction. Two people got a little bit of an earlier start than us.
Blue Lakes Pass straight ahead. Pinnacles are southwest ridge to Sneffels Summit.
Terry. My fearless leader.
Looking up at Lavender col.
Looking back at trailhead.
Southwest ridge is just above Terry's head. We didn't take that route, but I hear it's great.
Closer view of southwest ridge.
As we climbed higher the wind began to blow harder. We were now at about 12,800 feet. Since I am not an experienced mountaineer, I did not consider gloves a necessity for our short day hike. I was definitely wrong. My fingers began to get very cold. Luckily, Terry had packed a couple extra pairs of gloves in his pack, and allowed me to borrow some.
As we climbed up the standard route, there was mostly snow, but some icy rock exposed as well. We were post holing a lot in the snow, so we mostly stuck to the rock. Occasionally I would look back down on Yankee Boy Basin. Dark clouds were still hovering close overhead, but were not very threatening. The views over the basin were absolutely amazing . Sometimes clouds would part and scatter light over Blue Lakes Pass and Gilpin Peak. Every time I turned around our view would be better, I would consider the light more dramatic than the last picture I took, and I would promptly remove my lens cap, take another picture, and continue climbing.
Backed out a little bit. Lavender col there on right.
Sticking to the rocks.
Sunlight at Lavender col.
Looking south from Lavender col.
Looking northeast from Lavender col.
Looking down at Yankee Boy Basin.
Finally we reached the top of Lavender Col and could clearly see the view of the last gully. It was even steeper, so we put on our crampons. My crampons were only 4-point instep crampons that strapped onto the arch of the boot. Terry on the other hand had some great, full size crampons with I think 10 points or so. They looked really mean compared to my little sissy instep crampons. We continued up the steeper gully to the "V notch" noted in the route description.
The pictures on 14ers.com and my pictures as well do not do this gully justice. It was very steep. Locals of Ridgway told me it was about 45 degrees or so. This might not sound like a whole lot, but if the snow was hard (which it was), and you started sliding, you might find yourself pretty beat up at the Lavender Col, or even further on down.
Descending upper gulley.
Like I said, the snow was hard. I had rented mountaineering boots in Ridgway, and they allowed me to kick steps in the snow. Each kick only sunk in about 1 inch or so, in some places, so I was extremely thankful to have my ice axe with me. Not only did the ice axe help me climb up the steep slope, but it also made me feel more comfortable. If I fell, I could self-arrest and not go toppling down the gully from which I came. I was actually becoming thankful for the morning's storm that brought fresh snow because occasionally this snow gave us much better footing.
At the top of the gully we finally met the two people whose tracks we had been following for hours. One was from Ridgway, and one was from Montrose. They said we were about 10 minutes from the top. We rested for a couple minutes at the V notch, and then climbed up and through it. Sure enough, a few minutes later we found ourselves on top of Mount Sneffels. The view to the North was completely obscured by a dark gray cloud that seemed to form and billow up and away from the mountain itself. It fogged up Terry's glasses. To the South we could see Yankee Boy Basin, and Blue Lakes Pass. Just over Blue Lakes Pass, to the West, the basin was filled up with dark clouds like a bowl full of smoke.
As I looked south I saw a huge wall of gray cloud emerge from behind Gilpin Peak, envelop Gilpin Peak, fill up Yankee Boy Basin from the very bottom to over our heads at 14,150 feet, and continue to blow our way. Terry was still looking north, making a couple calls to his wife and his son on his cell phone. In no time we were completely swallowed up by this cloud, which greatly reduced our visibility to about 100 yards. I was getting a little nervous.
We began our descent. My descent down the uppermost gully felt a bit precarious. My little sissy crampons did not bite into the snow well. I found it easiest to walk sideways down the mountain, using my ice axe as needed for support, and ready for self-arrest. Going down is a little more nerve-wracking because you see your exposure so well. Nonetheless, we made it down the col without incident. Then I did some glissading down the last gully. It did not even cross my mind that I was sliding on my butt, and my wallet was in my back pocket, unprotected, unsecured. Only later, back at the house would I consider that to have been a bad idea.
On our way back, after we passed the upper trailhead I saw my first marmot. Well, more accurately, I saw my first marmot butt. It scampered away from me, and over some rocks, out of sight. I chased it but it ran down into a hole. They are a lot bigger than I thought! It was about the size of a raccoon.
The rain started coming down again as we finally made it back to Terry's car at 12:03 p.m. We got back to camp, said our goodbyes, and I packed up my tent and went back to Ridgway.
If any of you have the chance to climb with TerryLiv, you should definitely go with him. He is very experienced (has climbed 44 14ers now) and is very willing to bring along a newbie and teach him or her a few things. My climb up Sneffels would have been much more miserable if he had not graciously loaned me some hiking poles and two pairs of gloves.
I had a really great time climbing my first 14er. Thank you Terry, and great big thank you to 14ers.com for inspiring adventure, and for making this trip possible.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):