Snowmass Mountain - 14,092 feet
Snowmass Mountain - 14,092 feet
|A Snowmass Saga for the Superstitious|
Once again, I successfully navigated a route with a partner who provided far more practical beta than I did. If you're looking for a detailed description of how to navigate the S Ridge-West Slopes loop, partially in the dark, check out daway8's report. If you're looking for rumination on suffering and sass so excessive (seriously, the grand total wordage here is right around 5000...) that it needed to be broken up into chapters, read on!
Chapter 1: Soakings, Soreness, Stilettos, and Suckage
I've never been a big believer that forces beyond human comprehension have some kind of personal interest in our well-being. I do not share my one neighbor's fascination with astrology, and I generally find the Chinese phrases concealed within fortune cookies more interesting than the fortunes themselves. And while I respect others' beliefs as long as they inflict no harm on anyone else, I myself am an atheist.
And yet I couldn't shake the sense of overwhelming dread as I parked poor Booger, my long-suffering Subaru Outback, at the end of Snowmass Creek Road the last week of June 2020. Sure, there *was* a slight chance of storms forecast for the next afternoon, but it was only 20%, and I planned to start early so I could hopefully be back at Snowmass Lake by the time anything rolled in. Sure, I'd never used crampons for such an extended period of time as the East Slopes would demand before, but from the looks of the topo maps, Snowmass' snowmass would make ideal learning terrain. Sure, I planned to forego the usual night-before camp at Snowmass Lake in favor of tackling all 22 miles in one go, but I'd also climbed Whitney's 21.5 miles and Barr Trail's 26 as single-day outings. I told my anxiety to give it a rest for a few hours as I reclined my seat in the late-afternoon light and forced my eyes closed.
But as anybody who's suffered anxiety knows, telling it to pipe down rarely has the desired effect. Every time I closed my eyes, I imagined myself taking a Handies-esque slip on the remaining snow and gaining so much speed that I'd shoot over the lip of the scree slope above the lake and land in the middle of that 33-degrees-at-best body of water, where the weight of my crampons and my pack would sink me as inexorably as that iceberg did the Titanic.
I used the fading rays of sunset to grab a notepad out of my center console and begin writing farewell letters to select individuals, and then, when I finished, I bookmarked each one and set the pad out on my dashboard. Pleased with my unusual-even-for-a-writer burst of melodrama, I resettled in the driver's seat as the sun slunk away for the night so I could catch a fitful hour or two of shuteye.
An hour or two was far less time than I'd allotted when I set my alarm, but when my eyes refused to hold themselves shut until that intrusion forced them open against their will, I decided that taking some form of action might soothe my unsettled nerves. I had my tarp stashed in a pouch of my pack that may have been explicitly designed for that purpose; if my early start got me up to Snowmass Lake while it was still dark, I could burrito myself in it for a nap until sunshine and birdsong roused me from honest rest.
Getting to Snowmass Lake at all proved to be more of a challenge than the route description had led me to believe, however. When I encountered my first trail sign a good 1.5 miles or so in, I took one of the forks, wondered in growing consternation for the trip back why there was so much downhill on the ascending portion of the route...and was dumbfounded to reach, 1.5 miles or so after taking that fork, a parking lot full of cars. Including a car that was identical to mine in make, model, color, dents and dings, and license plate.
I was sorely tempted to take my quicker-than-anticipated return to my car, either in this universe or a parallel one, as a sign that I should at least check to see if my prime-or-parallel universe sleeping bag was tucked away in the front seat, waiting to envelop me in its warmth. But I had driven four hours and change on I-70 to be here, and it was now officially a brand new day, so...
My iPod Touch clock's promise of a blank slate did, at least, get me past the sign that had maybe marked my turn into some different dimension. It did not, however, drive my feet toward the less-intuitive-but-correct path across the logjam, so they - along with everything else below my knees - wound up getting an adrenaline jolt in the form of a none-too-quick dip in the 33-degrees-at-best waters. I did have better luck when I sloshed back onshore, retraced my steps, and found the cairn that (I later learned) had been placed a few days before by CaptCO in hopes of helping other hikers avoid my fate, but the newfound squishiness in my boots - the left one of which had already been sniping at my ankle in a way that had me pausing every half-mile or thereabouts to try and fail to properly adjust it - wasn't doing much to keep the foreboding I'd hoped to outrun from seeping sneakily yet steadily back in.
Maybe I should've taken that nap at Snowmass Lake. I did have a good hour before first light when I arrived, after all, and I'd finally shaken the water out of my lower limbs. But stopping for so much as a torso-and-eyelids-up break would, I decided, necessitate finding the exact right seat in a perfect position to let me start treading past the lake once I was rested and rehydrated above the knees, so I plugged on past the campsites and was soon rewarded with a vision of waning starlight shining off water that lapped against the shore. Pity that, according to the route description and pictures I had downloaded on my iPod Touch, it was the opposite shore of the one I needed to hug on my traverse.
Now there really was no rest for the weary. By the time I prodded myself back through the hodgepodge of campsites to the trace of trail that seemed like it would lead me where I needed to go, the sun's foreboding feeler rays were prodding the air behind me. Even the gentle waves, such as they were, seemed to dart menacingly at my feet like a gang of rabid purse dogs. I dodged their attacks, but was less successful with the ongoing cesspool of oozing down to meet them; my first unanticipated dive left me splattered only up to my knees like before, but the second plunge soaked me up to my waist, front to back and both sides.
The sun itself had announced its presence in the sky by the time I cursed and clawed my way up slightly-more-packed-down mud, branches, brambles, and roots to reach the higher trail I'd desperately hoped existed and followed that to the boulderfield littering the base of a scree slope that, while looking like it had nothing on various Sangre chossfests I'd encountered, was doing nothing to counter my dread with a badly-needed dose of excitement. It was additionally not helping that Apollo's ol' buddy Aeolus had elected to send some of his own messengers out to play, and each wind gust slammed my mud-drenched pants that much harder against my already gooseflesh-pricked legs.
I can't recall any one singular incident that served as the catalyst. There was no individual gust even more punishing than the rest, no boulder that - in infamous Elk fashion - tipped or rolled in a particularly aggressive manner as I trudged across the graveyard of them, no singularly egregious stab of pain as the hiking boot that had served me so well on the likes of Little Bear escalated the war. Nevertheless, as I neared the transition zone where the boulders grew smaller and the slope steeper, I distinctly heard the voice of one of the ladies who worked the drag brunch near my home in pre-COVID times announce: Honey, this mountain does NOT want you on it today.
I have had hallucinations before. This was not one of them. At any rate, I was at least 99.9999...% certain that no matter how hard I looked, I was not going to find a perfectly-put-together queen, her curls and skirt rippling elegantly in the breeze, her lethally long fingernails tapping irritably against tightly crossed arms as she pursed her lips in a perfect pout and glared at me through eyelashes almost as long as the heels digging stubbornly into the rock beneath her. And yet, I couldn't resist defending my honor: digging my own perhaps-no-more-comfortable feet into the top of my own boulder, I swept my arms out as theatrically as I could so that one trekking pole pointed to the mess of mud and tangle of trees behind me and the other at the slippy-looking scree before me and countered, "I don't think this mountain wants me on it ANY day!"
Satisfied that I'd made my point, I trudged on, soon finding a passable sitting rock where I could chug some water and don my helmet. But no sooner had I fastened its straps under my chin than I found myself dealing with yet more water where it didn't belong...this time, streaming out of my eyes and down to my chin.
For all my jokes about depression and its stereotypical side effects, I'm actually not much of a crier. The last time I'd cried had been at my grandmother's funeral (which, in all fairness, was only last year). But here I was, with the novel, exciting part of this mountain still ahead of me, and every fiber of my being begging me as literally as it was able not to continue.
I took the helmet off and reattached it to my backpack. I started limping back down the boulders I'd just scrambled up.
My guardian drag queen did seem to be right about the mountain's intentions, however, for the mountain soon rewarded my retreat: I was able to stay high and dry the whole way back to the campsites, I stumbled across the logjam with no further impromptu baths, I got to admire wildlife from an appropriate distance, and I avoided any forks from the trail that would have taken me through further parallel universes the rest of the way back to the car.
And as I burrowed back into my sleeping bag to make up for lost dreamtime, I consoled myself with the thought that one of my goodbye letters had contained the phrase "fine young piece of tail," and while that particular string of words had explicitly not been a description of the letter's recipient, the harsh light of day led me to rue the thoughts likely to take flight in his head over my literal dead body.
Chapter 1a - Two days later
Suffice to say that if one is inspired by the bluebird forecast to go buy an ankle brace and make a practically immediate second attempt of the peak which inspired purchase of the ankle brace, one would be best served to make sure there is some combination of brace with or without the removable hard plastic portion and hiking boot that will allow the wearer to walk in comfort...and to conduct said test sometime before the aforementioned four+-hours-via-I-70 drive to the trailhead, because there might not be such a workable combination.
On the upside, I would luck out and find a pair of hiking shoes in my size on consignment once I returned to Denver, and they would prove good up to at least low Class 5 shortly thereafter.
Chapter 1b - Early August
Snowmass and my turnaround short of its summit apparently set a precedent: in July, I turned around at 13,000' on Maroon Peak when it became apparent that my college-/just-above-half-my-age'd partner would be able to make the summit (as well as the Traverse to N. Maroon's!) and return to the parking lot by the time his parking permit expired at 4:30, but I would not. At the end of that month, another friend and I would attempt Capitol, only to get so exhausted and exasperated on our attempt to navigate that mountain's face that we saw no choice but to call it for that day and vow to study every trip report available prior to our next go at it.
Though we were both in agreement that we wanted to tackle Capitol at the earliest opportunity, schedules and timing in early August seemed to favor a rematch with Snowmass first. I-70 was closed in Glenwood Canyon due to the Grizzly Creek fire; Independence Pass, however, had no closure notifications posted when I left Denver on a promising-looking Wednesday.
It wasn't until I got to Leadville that I learned of the road's change in status. Google Maps eagerly redirected me to Hagerman Pass, but I only made it a few miles before a Jeep driver on his way down the pass warned me that he was lucky to have made the drive with only a few new scrapes and scratches. CDOT's proposed alternate route - back to 24 and all the way down to 50 before working back north from there - would put me at the trailhead with minutes at best to rest my eyes. "I don't think this mountain wants me on it this YEAR!" I wailed (as much as one can wail by text) to friends who knew the details of my earlier predicament. I steered Booger back toward Denver and crossed my fingers for a last burst of monsoons.
Chapter 2, the Prologue - September
What precipitation did fall in the rest of August was insufficient to put out the fires on its own, but conditions had improved by September nonetheless. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't perversely pleased that, in spite of filling out the rest of my fourteener checklist in a fairly typical fashion by starting with the easiest and gradually leveling up in difficulty, I wound up with the strange honor of marking Capitol Peak as my first fourteener summited in the Elk Range.
That still left two peaks in that same range with which I had loose ends to tie. We'd had a stellar view of Snowmass from its next-door neighbor's summit. My partner pointed just how dry and therefore unpleasant that behemoth's East Slopes appeared.
But I was no stranger to sun-baked talus by that time. Though an early snowstorm seemed like it might have refilled the 'mass, summer soon reasserted its dominance for the last two weeks it would lay claim to the calendar. It wasn't too long before I ventured up Snowmass Creek Road for the fifth time that summer, once again veering left at the split like I had my first two visits. I saw no need to remove my notepad of dramatic goodbye letters on this occasion, and I may even have had enough "real" sleep in the parking lot to have required my alarm's interference!
As with my boulderfield breakdown in June, there was no singular incident that lashed out at me on my dark o'clock approach. My ankle was as happy as it could be with the shoe, and I managed to avoid the first sign's tempting fork. Still, the creepy critter eyes boring down on me as my headlamp and I passed them by, my blood sugar revolting only two or three miles in, the fact that it wasn't exactly cold and yet I could see my breath, and each foot's magnetic attraction to what felt like every root and rock embedded in the trail were negatively affecting my mojo.
I flopped onto a rock perhaps four miles from the parking lot for a hard assessment. I was already in a bad mood, and that wasn't likely to improve when I started scrambling up scree. And that scree wouldn't end until I was near the summit! Meanwhile, my sleeping bag lay waiting in the front seat...
I had a great nap when I returned to that sleeping bag. I then had a pretty good breakfast when I drove back to Glenwood Springs, ostensibly to get gas while I rearranged my plans. I decided to head back over Indy Pass to Silverthorne, where I could grab a shower and sleep in a real bed. And maybe, just maybe, those rearranged plans didn't have to be so rearranged - I'd recently spiced up Grays Peak with daway8 by taking the Class 3 ridge (which we deliberately made gratuitously harder by finding as many Class 4 options as possible!) from the south, and he'd indicated an interest in finding more opportunities for testing his limits. I sent him a text: "Wanna do Snowmass' S Ridge?"
Chapter 2: S-Ridge Success
He did indeed want to do Snowmass' S-Ridge, just not that weekend. By the time we both had a free weekend a couple weeks later, he'd done a reassuring amount of research on both the route as well as the road to Lead King Basin...and I was still recovering from a sudden surge in my asthma that had turned me back from Pigeon and Turret a week prior. I'd struggled up to 12,000 feet, stopping every few stops so I could bend as far over as my poles would allow and gasp for air, and no matter how slowly I raised myself after each hard-fought full breath, I'd see blotchy, purple starbursts erupt in my peripheral vision.
I'd bailed on a planned trip to Pyramid three days before daway and I were scheduled for Snowmass in fear of a repeat desire for bottle oxygen at less than half Everest's elevation, but my nearly 3000 words worth of troubles of Snowmass made me reluctant to put that one off, no matter how much sense it made for me to do so. I took a test "hike" by walking my bike up to Evans' 12,836-foot Summit Lake via the closed road and didn't die, though being able to glide down instead of using my feet certainly helped. I then drove up to Kite Lake the next day to see if my lungs could prove themselves 1000' higher. I also made it to both of Buckskin's summits without needing a lung transplant. Clearly, I was good to go tackle a Class 3+ ridge that topped off 5000+ feet of elevation gain in a relatively short stretch.
I warned my partner that I'd be moving at even more glacial clip than usual. He didn't seem deterred. He wasn't even deterred by the bouncy nature of the infamous road to Lead King Basin, which we both agreed that his Jeep and experience driving it on the likes of Lake Como were more qualified to handle. He might have been a little dismayed, however, by the "kind of aggressive pace" that I apparently set on our way up to Geneva Lake, which I sheepishly tried to explain away as a) part of my strategy to compensate for what I knew would be a far more timid pace higher up, and b) my apparent need to prove to my asthma that *I* was in charge here, dangnabbit!
Nevertheless, I was happy to tamp down a little bit. We both seemed pleased with how well we were doing, time-wise, as we figured out how to route ourselves from the trail up to the gullies threading a surprisingly sheer-looking series of cliffs banding the base of Snowmass' slopes. We groused on behalf of our future selves as we dropped down 150' or so to cross a stream separating the gentle rise out of Gem Lake from the mass of potential shiftiness leading to our destination.
I was a bit dismayed when we trudged most of the way up our chosen gully and took a break to debate our remaining approach to the ridge (staying with the gully vs. climbing the Class 3/4 wall to its and our right...we ultimately went for the latter) and learned that we had just barely broken 12,000'. I at least got to make a few epic-looking moves climbing the rock wall to distract me from the fact that we weren't that much closer to 13,000' when we finally hit the ridge what felt like hours later.
When I could get a full breath or two in, I found myself honestly enjoying the ridge. I'd felt somewhat underwhelmed by Capitol; the Knife Edge had been the most physically daunting part of it for me, but that was only because it had been over thirty years since I'd used crawling as a method for traveling distances longer than those between the front of my desk and whichever cable the cat had knocked loose from the computer tower in back. S-Ridge was everything I'd expected - perhaps even hoped for - from Capitol, with its generous helping of exposure on the side facing Hagerman, narrow choke points on top, and peppering of boulders that looked to be more solidly attached to the mountain than they actually were.
When we stopped at what my partner called Picnic Rock and other trip reports have termed accurately (if less cleverly) Point 13,200, he broke out his portable pulse oximeter out of curiosity and got O2 saturation readings in the 80s. "Huh, that doesn't seem accurate," he remarked, before asking me if I wanted to give it a shot. Having wished for such a device of my own back on Pigeon and Turret, I accepted, and soon got a reading of 90. "No way it's accurate!" I wheezed. "I'm way too lightheaded for that to be the case."
We continued on, with daway assuring me that any time I needed to take another break, he'd be fine doing so. I toiled on, suspecting with each test of a foothold and each stretch to the next boulder that I would have to chalk this day up to yet another mere attempt and sowing the seeds for what I couldn't help see as our inevitable turnaround by warning my partner that we would be handling at least some of our descent in the dark if we kept going. Each time I brought up that increasingly distinct possibility, he reacted with cheery nonchalance, and at last, sometime around 13,400 or 13,500 - wherever it was that we got our first good look at the crux wall - that cheery nonchalance became contagious. I wasn't going to be setting any FKTs for this ascent, but I was going to ascend.
This sudden determination came not a moment too soon. The crux wall that pictures had led me to pooh-pooh as surely being no harder than "K2" turned out to be everything I'd fretted about when I'd been frantically Googling videos of climbers descending that 13er to reach the Knife Edge - and more.
And yet, while it demanded a slow, methodical approach to reach the point where we could start working our way around its tower on climber's right to avoid the ugly gully we'd heard about on the other side, then even more deliberation as hand and footholds were few and far between above a precipitous drop into the basin Snowmass shares with Hagerman, then a truly awkward move as I treated the lip of a mostly smooth wall like I had the Knife Edge itself and crawled along it at an angle to avoid hitting my head and pack on the overhang less than two feet above it followed by yanking my whole body forward on the lip's ragged prominence with the same speed and motion as an inchworm until I was into a position to stretch my foot onto a sketchy-looking protruding rock that thankfully held...I was not as intimidated as I should have been. I was well aware how fatal a fall would be if I missed a move or if my foothold picked that day to make its break for freedom. However, I simply repeated, Better not fall, then, to myself as I picked my way back up to the ridge under my partner's watchful eye and vocalized encouragement.
Still, despite my guardian drag queen having apparently lent me her graceful steeliness for that sequence of maneuvers, daway and I agreed when we were on the correct side of that crux wall that dealing with it only once in a given day was more than enough for us, and while we'd both been keen to stick to the ridge both up and down to avoid the West Slopes' much maligned looseness, was it really a day in the Elks if we didn't do a little scree sailing?
My lungs were straining by the time we reached the last false summit, and I feel like I stopped every second or third step to heave for air up the last, comparatively gentle rise to the apex of Snowmass. But three and a half months after I first set out with visions of the summit's lauded views in my head, I was able to take them in myself.
I would have liked to have hoisted my entire body weight on top of that summit block like my long-legged and heartier partner. Alas, my short, stubby legs and overcooked noodle arms already overworked from the ridge's demands decreed that such a crowning moment of glory was not meant to be for me that day, and so I had to settle for the half-assed - or, taking it literally, no-assed! - summit of having my arms, chin, and each foot individually conquering this mountain's highest reach...which is still two or sometimes four times the extremities I used to tag the tippy-tops of Capitol, Mt. Wilson, El Diente, Mt. Harvard, probably a few others I'm forgetting, and definitely a few thirteeners with Stonehenge-like prominences rising out of their otherwise gently grassy crests. Ah, well - I might be a C- climber rather than an A+ one, but at least I'm internally consistent.
I was content to bask in my own minimalistic brand of glory while daway went over (and farther down than the maps had made it appear) to tag N. Snowmass. Once he returned, we were the first to add our names to one of the notebooks he kept as emergency summit registers for peaks lacking them, as Snowmass was, and then it was time to grapple with the West Slopes.
I was soon happy to find less grappling than I'd expected from my read-ups of this mountain's other official route. Sure, the few feet of traverse from the summit to where we started descending required just as much care as much of the S-Ridge, and the first 20-30' of that descent were solid Class 3 with some decent exposure (if nowhere near as much as the Hagerman side of our ascent route), but after that...well. It was loose, and it was tedious, and so it wasn't exactly a Class 1 jog, but aside from its length, my partner and I both thought that the gully was no worse than some of the standard-issue Class 2 choss we'd seen in the likes of the Sawatch and Mosquitos - in fact, daway declared that he'd had a worse time on the slopes of the DeCaLiBro's neighbor Loveland Mountain during his recent trip on that peak and the thirteeners with which it shared ridges!
But of course the descent couldn't be too straightforward. As I'd expected ever since I'd committed to the summit below the crux wall, the sun sank into the magnificent ridges to our west while we were still in the gully, and then the last of its light quit lingering to follow suit...just as we reached the top of the cliff bands that staunchly guarded the base of the slopes.
We went back and forth in several places to find the right path through this last obstacle course. At the indication of one of the GPX tracks daway had downloaded, we did one last, brief Class 3 hop down a waterfall, thus bookending my Snowmass trials and tribulations with damp brackets. I also got a nice dose of parallelism with the boulderfield at the base, about which I groused for nearly its entire - and, if I do say so myself, extraordinary - length.
But finally, finally!, we crossed a stream, angled a little up grass, and, after a brief moment's confusion when the trail we found sputtered out perhaps fifty feet after we started up it, located the trail that would lead us back to the Jeep. Like most approach trails, this was longer than we remembered it being on the way up (and was also beset by creepy critter eyes, though these glowed only for my partner), but just before 11 p.m. - the same day as we started AND summited, an occurrence which has become rather unusual for me! - we were back at the trailhead.
I had no choice but to keep daway conversational company as we jostled our way up and over FR 315 to Marble, but as soon as we hit pavement, my eyelids succumbed to the will of gravity. I woke up for all of ten minutes when we stopped at a convenience store so I could buy some food and eat it, and then I was out cold again for the remainder of the ride. My poor partner!
I don't know whether my astrology-loving neighbor could name the exact constellations that aligned for me to finally triumph on this peak, or if one of the "Learn Chinese" phrases from a fortune cookie in my last order translated to good luck at last. All I know is that the bed at my family's condo after a successful day sure felt better than a sleeping bag after one of defeat...and that Maroon Peak still awaits.
|Comments or Questions|
Caution: The information contained in this report may not be accurate and should not be the only resource used in preparation for your climb. Failure to have the necessary experience, physical conditioning, supplies or equipment can result in injury or death. 14ers.com and the author(s) of this report provide no warranties, either express or implied, that the information provided is accurate or reliable. By using the information provided, you agree to indemnify and hold harmless 14ers.com and the report author(s) with respect to any claims and demands against them, including any attorney fees and expenses. Please read the 14ers.com Safety and Disclaimer pages for more information.