Peak(s):  Snowmass Mountain  -  14,092 feet
Date Posted:  08/07/2020
Modified:  08/11/2020
Date Climbed:   08/04/2020
Author:  Paul M
 West face is no joke!   

Having climbed two relatively easy 14ers on my trip in Uncomphagre and Culebra (although adding Red to Culebra made that one fairly tiring), this was my challenge for the trip. Snowmass has no easy routes, and the "easiest" one is 22 miles round trip. So instead of taking that route, I gave the West Face a shot. According to the Roach book, it is slightly harder but much shorter - only a little over 8 miles roundtrip. However, you also gain about 4500 feet of elevation. Don't let the length of this climb fool you: it is the real deal and a long, long day. (At least it was for me, because I'm slow.)

For this hike, you'll need a 4WD vehicle (or you'll need to hike 6-7 miles up the road just to reach the trailhead). The road from Marble to the Geneva Lake trailhead is currently only open the long way through Crystal, avalanche debris rendering the other direction impassible. (Apparently, a rough path has been cut through, so it may be possible either direction.) From Marble to Crystal, you'll need a 4WD vehicle. The road is narrow and rough, but not horrible. On the 2 miles from Crystal to the Geneva Lake trailhead, the road is significantly worse - even worse than the road to the Nellie Creek TH on Uncompahgre - and you'll need a 4WD vehicle with high clearance, a 4LO setting, and a very slow pace. The ~6 miles from Marble to the trailhead took me about an hour and a half. My rental Jeep Wrangler made it fine: no scrapes. But anything lower to the ground would be a bad, bad idea. Don't even try it, because you'll get stuck and/or have to reverse back down, which would really be miserable.

I arrived at the trailhead at about 4:15am. It took me a moment to find the trail in the dark. Coming up from Crystal, you'll park right before the switchbacks start, and a trail leads out of the corner of that small parking area. You can also start the trail from a few feet down the road where Google Maps marks it.

Lead King Basin under full moon

I left the trailhead with headlamp on, but in some of the more open areas, the moon was so bright that I didn't need it. The trail to Geneva Lake is easy to follow, but does go through some overgrown areas. The trail heads steadily uphill, past a tall series of cascading waterfalls. It was just starting to get light and I could just barely see them:

Waterfall in the predawn light

As the sun came up, it revealed wildflowers of all different colors. Lead King Basin is a really lovely place.

Tons of wildflowers

The trail switchbacks uphill to go behind and above the waterfalls and follows a pretty creek.

A creek leading out of Geneva Lake

The trail soon heads by Geneva Lake, which seems to be a popular spot to camp. There are various social trails around the lake: stay to the left to get where you want to go. You should pass by campsite #3, and you'll know you're on the right track.

Geneva Lake

From the lake, you'll get you first view of the imposing, towering bulk of Snowmass with the famous S ridge coming straight at you.

At this point, the editor is refusing to save any more photos here in the text, and I've been trying for several days, so I give up. Just see the photos at the bottom. There's a great photo of Snowmass looming taken from near Geneva Lake.

This is important, because it isn't marked at all and you just have to know it. When you see the sign to campsite #4, head towards campsite #4. See the photo: You'll take the left fork here.

Soon, you'll see another sign informing you that campsite #4 is off to the right, but the path continues forward as well. Continue on the path.

The path is thinner here and continues uphill, but continues to be easy to follow. You'll continue to a smaller lake called Little Gem Lake. (See photo of Little Gem Lake.)

From Little Gem Lake, the trail continues but is rather faint in places. Be sure to pay careful attention to where it's taking you because you'd hate to lose track of it on the way down when you're tired. Note that if you want to climb the S ridge, head across the creek - off trail - at the far end of Little Gem Lake and head for the twin gullies. I considered going up the S ridge and down the west face, but I was alone and preferred to go up and down the same way to minimize the chance of getting off track on the descent route.

Shortly after Little Gem Lake, the trail will turn right and head down to the creek, and you'll find yourself staring up the imposing west face of Snowmass. See photos for a look straight up the west face from near the creek.

Looking up the west face, you can see the entire route to the summit. You'll climb all the way up a gully and emerge just a few yards from the summit. However, the face is higher and farther than it looks. You've got roughly a mile to go, and about 2700 feet of elevation gain over steep slopes, class 3 climbing, and lots of very loose rocks.

It's a good idea here to download the photos from the app. With those pictures, you'll have no trouble following the route. (Note that there's a slightly different path at the very top that, in my opinion, is actually easier than what the app suggests.)

The general route at the start: Aim for the white stripe through the green grass. Once above that, aim a little left towards the green patch to the left of the waterfall.

You'll climb up and out of that green patch and land in the gully that leads all the way to the summit. As you climb up, continue looking back down at the route. Make sure you recognize where you're going for the descent. Though there are bits and pieces of climbers' trails on the face, for the most part, you're on your own finding your path.

After coming out the top of the green patch, there are cairns for a while taking you up the slope. Be sure to find these on the way back down.

Climbing up the gully is tiring and slow going. There's loads of loose rocks. Assume everything is loose, even bigger rocks that look solid. Be very, very alert to people above and below you. I was lucky in that there was only a single other person on the slope that day. But any rock you dislodge could bounce and fly a long way down the slope and seriously injure somebody.

The gully is much higher and longer than it first appears. But as you do at last approach the top you'll see the headwall where the app's route sends you up on the left side. A climber coming down - the only person I saw on the entire ascent - pointed me towards the right side of that headwall where there were faint paths up to the ridge. This strikes me as a better route, because once you reach the ridge, you're just a few yards below the summit. Scramble up on blessedly solid rocks and you'll be on the summit in no time. There is no easy way to reach Snowmass' summit, but the views are incredible. I took a few photos in different directions: You can see the Maroon Bells, Capitol, Hagerman, and the false summit called North Snowmass. You can head over to North Snowmass, it isn't very far, but I was tired enough and had taken so long ascending that I just headed back down.

The trek back down the west face is almost as difficult as going up. Everything slides out from under your feet, and you'll have to use your hands and feet and move slowly. I spent a fair amount of time sliding down in a crouched position. Keep your focus and make sure to descend the same way you came up. You should be able to see the trail leading back even from way up high on the mountain: make sure to aim for it as you get lower, and simply follow it back the way you came. The path between the base of the face and Little Gem Lake, though only a short distance, is not always easy to see. This is why I suggested you learn exactly where it goes when you came up it. Once you hit Little Gem Lake, the path all the way back to the trailhead should be pretty straightforward.

This is the toughest 14er climb I'd done yet, even more so than Longs' Keyhole Route. It's a long, difficult scramble and an awful lot of steep elevation gain over horribly loose rocks. It's not a good choice for someone new to the 14ers. It's also a route with insane views in a magnificently secluded area that not that many people venture into. It is incredibly satisfying to gain the summit after so much difficulty. If you're going to try this route, good luck, wear a helmet, get yourself a good 4WD vehicle, and set aside plenty of time!

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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