Peak(s):  Snowmass Mountain  -  14,092 feet
Date Posted:  07/19/2020
Modified:  07/23/2020
Date Climbed:   07/23/2019
Author:  jvirene
 Solitude on Snowmass   

Solitude on Snowmass


I went to the mountains seeking time to reflect and enjoy peace, but they offered much more. -Josh

Preface: After having so much fun backpacking out to Capitol Creek, going out and doing a solo backpacking trip became an annual adventure. I loved hiking in the Elk mountains a lot, so I figured that I would go back again this year. I wanted to tag another fourteener as well, so Snowmass Mountain looked like a very good option. It has a solid 8 mile approach, and is a fun class three peak, so I decided I would camp out at Snowmass lake and tag the peak the next day.

Preparation: I always prepare a lot more for the longer routes that are farther away from home. Furthermore, since this was a solo trip, I knew that I had only myself to depend upon, which made me meticulous in my efforts to ensure the success of this trip by all means. The first step in preparing for this trip was checking the Snowmass regulations and restrictions. Pretty standard- get a backcountry permit, no campfires—easy enough. The next step in my preparation was to check the peak conditions. I knew going into this that Snowmass Mountain has snow on it year-round, so having snow gear is advisable. I did not plan on bringing any gear, so I wanted to ensure that I could safely make it up the mountain without it. I checked peak condition reports, looked at the route, and any other beta that I could find. The conclusion that I arrived at was that this route is possible without gear, I’d just have to be careful and assess the risk with my own eyes on the mountain- leaving turning around to be able to summit another time as an option. I got all of my backpacking and climbing gear, again it included a bear canister and bear mace just in case!

The drive: This drive is essentially the same as the drive out to the Capitol trailhead, since these two are within a couple miles of each other. It took about three hours out to Glenwood Springs, and from there, less than an hour to the Snowmass trailhead. Once at the trailhead, I filled out my backcountry permit, got all my gear together, and was ready for the hike. There were a few other cars at the trailhead, nothing too crowded, but I knew that I would definitely run into some other hikers on the way.

Backpack to the Lake: I reached the trailhead and began hiking at around 1:30 PM. Unsure of what sort of backpacking shape I would be in since it had been over a year since my last trip, I gave myself plenty of time to hike out to the lake. This hike is incredibly beautiful, it goes through forest pretty much the whole way, and there are some awesome views of the surrounding mountains. In terms of the difficulty, this approach is super easy. Even though it is eight miles long, the elevation gain is pretty consistent and there is only one steep section throughout the hike, and it comes after the log jam, so most of your mileage is already done. One thing that I noticed about ½ a mile into this hike was the amount of avalanche debris that was all over the gullies in these mountains. Some of it went right through the trails, there were logs, branches and other things strewn about along sections of the trail.


Debris- a consequence of a pretty large slide


Some nice shots I took along the approach

It was pretty hot and sunny throughout the hike, but the higher elevation I was, the cooler it got. I reached the log jam, and saw another group pondering how they would cross. The river was pretty high, which made the logs seem a lot more dangerous, so this group decided they’d take their boots off and cross below, where it was shallow. I decided that I didn’t want to waste time with that, so I proceeded across the log jam. I stepped on a loose log and ended up sinking about chest deep into the water, but luckily, I took my phone out of my pocket! Though the water was cold, it felt nice due to how hot I was from all the hiking and how sunny it was. Soaking wet, I continued hiking up to the lake. The steep portion comes a little way after the log jam, and I worked my way up this portion and reached the lake soon after. By this point, thankfully, I was pretty dry, so it worked out pretty well.

Snowmass Lake:

Once at the lake, I was a bit tired from the hiking, so I set up camp and was ready to relax. I was amazed at the beauty that I was surrounded by. In my opinion, the views from Snowmass Lake are way more scenic and dramatic than those of Capitol, but both are top tier!


One of my favorite pictures, taken from my hammock spot.


Different lighting


Dope shot of Snowmass Peak, Snowmass Mountain and the clouds above


I have some intuition that there is cliff jumping off this cliff into the lake, maybe one day i'll find out!

I setup my camp and then went to hammock on some trees on the shore of the lake. There were a few other groups out here, way more than I’ve seen at Capitol lake, but it wasn’t excessively crowded, it surprised me a little because I did not see many cars at the trailhead. There are also a lot of bugs in this area around mid-July, so keep that in mind while you’re planning your trip out here. They aren’t too bad, but I figured I’d put it out there. After relaxing in the hammock for a few hours, I went back to camp for some dinner. I then relaxed some more and eventually, it got dark, so I figured I’d try and get some sleep before the big day ahead.

I have a lot of difficulty getting to sleep the day before a hike- I’m always too stoked, so I ended up only getting around 2-3 hours of sleep. I didn’t even have to wake up to my alarm. 3AM came around and I just started hiking.

The Hike: I had a quick breakfast consisting of an apple and some energy bars, and soon after at around 3:30AM, I began hiking, guided by the light of my headlamp. I could see one group ahead of me, working their way around the lake. The trail is very easy to follow, but there is one fork that goes to hiker’s left up a mountain pass. Continue hiking around the lake, it’s pretty obvious but I figured I’d point it out anyways. I reached the scree slope at around 4:00, this portion of the hike was my least favorite. The slope is steep, loose and I was hiking it in the dark. I could hardly keep track of the route, and although I didn’t send any rocks down, there were some loose ones that could have been dangerous if there were groups below and I sent anything down. About halfway up, I passed the other group and from there, I only had my own route-finding to continue up the mountain. I reached the portion where the slope eases at around 4:45 and hiked up the grass trail which was much easier to follow. By 5:15, the sun was rising, and I had reached the snowmass. Hiking across the snow was a lot easier because the pitch wasn’t as steep, and the snow was solid since it was cold out.


Sunrise once I reached the snowmass

The Snowmass: Hiking up this portion went by very slowly, I kept looking at the lake and felt like I wasn’t gaining any distance or elevation. The sun continued to rise and offered a very beautiful view of the surrounding mountains. I also began to eye the final pitch of snow before the trail gains the ridge and felt a bit of unease since I did not have any snow gear. The last pitch looked very steep, and I began pondering how I would get up. I continued heading towards the “notch” where the trail steepens and finally reached it.

The pitch: Standing at the base, I considered my options. The pitch looked very steep, and a fall here would be heavily consequential. Without any sort of snow gear, I knew that climbing up the snow on this portion would be a risky maneuver. I looked at lines up the cliff to the right and decided that this would be safer. I am much more confident in my technical climbing ability than snow travel without the right equipment, so I began working my way up the cliff. I didn’t make it more than 5’ up before I felt how loose and unstable the rock was, so I down-climbed and reassessed my options. The snow was safer. Neither option was ideal, but I had climbed in snow before, so I slowly kicked in my steps and made my way up the pitch to the ridge. I cannot emphasize how carefully I went up this portion, I grew more confident and made it up. By this point, it was around 7:30 and the beautiful morning in the alpine was in full swing.


A view of Snowmass in the early morning. My route went up to the left of the cliffs on the left side of the frame.

The ridge: Once on the ridge, I knew that I had a fun and easy scramble ahead of me. I quickly climbed up the mostly solid rock and reached the summit by 8:00AM. I enjoyed a brief few minutes of solitude and enjoyed the gorgeous views of the mountains around me. I had some snacks, then decided I should get going, since I did not want to be post-holing through the snow, and still had the down-climb off the steep pitch to get over.


Summit views


A great view of Satan's ridge, stay tuned.

Down-climb: I was ready to get off the mountain, and opted to take the direct route, which essentially goes right off the summit. This part is just as steep, so I began slowly and carefully descending. A few steps down, I slipped and ended up sliding about 10-15’ before I was able to stop myself. I was a bit sketched out, but my clumsy (slightly dangerous) descent off the pitch had worked. I would not repeat this and admit that an ice axe would have been helpful. I was just glad I was safe and continued to hike down the snowmass back towards the trail. The hike across the snowmass went off without a hitch, and I soon reached the steep scree slope. Descending this was hard on the knees and went slowly because I did not want to slip. I was very relieved and stoked when I made it back to the lake.


You can sort of see where I slid down, not quite as graceful as a glissade!


Taken on the descent

Return: I rested at camp for a few hours, planning on staying another night at the lake, but I ended up just getting antsy, so I figured I had time to make the return to the car and head home afterwards. I started hiking back at around 3:00 and reached my car by 6:00 PM. From here, although I was exhausted, I started the four hour drive home. I stopped in Glenwood Springs for pizza, and safely made it home.

Review: Snowmass mountain is a very beautiful peak and I highly recommend it. If you pack out to the lake, you can make it a beautiful two- or three-day adventure. There is amazing scenery throughout the entire approach and despite it being moderately trafficked, the campsites will have solitude, as will the summit if you’re up early enough. The climb itself is not too difficult, there is a good amount of elevation gain and the scree gully is not very fun, but the rest of the hike is awesome. Gorgeous views on class 2 up to the last pitch and from there, it is a fun and short class three scramble to the summit. If you have any doubt as to the snow conditions, I’d recommend bringing an ice axe for the ascent and the descent. Some people might frown upon my lack of preparation for the snow and that’s alright with me. All I can say is that I knew about the steep pitch going into this and made my own decision, which led to me learning a valuable lesson without any consequence. I had fun, I wouldn’t change a thing about that hike and would certainly do it again. Thanks for the read.

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