Peak(s):  Mt. Sneffels  -  14,150 feet
Date Posted:  07/09/2009
Date Climbed:   07/02/2009
Author:  KeithK
 The Litmus Test  

Mount Sneffels (14,150')
July 2, 2009
Standard Route from Yankee Boy Basin
Elevation Gain: 2,900'
Round Trip: 6 miles

With a nice view of the cliffs above the town of Ouray, I was in no hurry to finish my cheeseburger with mushrooms and sauted onions. The Guinness was tasting especially delightful. An incredible morning of triumph was replaced by an afternoon of white-knuckled consternation, as I mistakenly assumed the shortest distance between two points would be the logical best route to follow. The drive from Lake City to Ouray would best be served by staying on the pavement, and making the long (but safer and less time-consuming) loop back through Montrose. I, however, chose Engineer Pass, which was not bad, although exposed and a bit airy. The road itself was in good shape, and not really a challenge. The Engineer Mtn. Road (CR878 ), on the other hand, was one of the worst experiences I've ever had. Steep, rough, rocky, rugged... it is riddled with shelves and benches, and going downhill in 4WD Low for over an hour was not the most relaxing way to unwind after a great climb of Wetterhorn Peak. With no visible damage to my truck, just to my psyche, I hit pavement and was soon treated to my first visit of Ouray, Colorado.

No ten dollar bill is better spent than at the Ouray Hot Springs after two and a half days in the truck and on the trail. A relaxing soak followed by an invigorating shower had me primed and ready for my destination, the famous Yankee Boy Basin. The road is well maintained for the first few miles, even up to the oft-photographed "C" shelf section. After that, it becomes a bit rougher, but certainly navigable for most vehicles all the way to the restroom at 11,350'. This is where I parked, all alone, and enjoyed a restful night. Other than the noise I heard outside my truck, which immediately had me thinking hose-hungry marmots or drive-train seeking porcupines. As I settled back down, I realized that all I heard was the ice settling in my cooler. Ah, the sounds of camping.

Cliffs everywhere you look...

Obligatory shot of the "C" shelf road...

Somewhere around 5:30 I began the walk up the road; a spitting and sporadic light rain had me unsure as to what the day was going to bring. Though certainly passable with a high clearance four wheel drive, I felt the route was far too short to drive any higher, and wanted to get as close to 3,000' of vertical as possible. A couple of vehicles passed me on my way up, but I leap-frogged them as they geared up at their respective parking spots. Seeing no one in front of me, I meandered along the road, taking in the awesome views of Potosi Peak, Teakettle Mtn., Cirque Mtn., Gilpin Peak, and Stony Mtn. The crazy east ridge of Mt. Sneffels made it difficult to ascertain just exactly where the actual summit was. In actuality, it's not visible during the hike, but for maybe a brief moment or two through a gap in the south ridge. Three plain Forest Service sign boards sit starkly naked, as there are no signs attached. It was curious for sure, especially on such a popular trail. Since there was nothing to look at, it also did not occur to me that the sign pointing to the trail was telling me that it was the correct route. The less than remarkable trailhead confused me, and I mistakenly thought I needed to continue to the right up the remainder of "road". As I began to talus hop, cairns kept urging me ahead. Another interesting observation; the trail was down below, but there are cairns in the talus? I guess I'm not the only one that took the adventurous route. And the young couple behind me. Apparently I fooled them into thinking I knew what I was doing.

Mt. Sneffels draws the eye early on...

Potosi Peak guards the rising sun...

Yankee Boy Basin is soon to explode into summer!

Approaching the trailhead...

Dropping back onto the proper trail, the hiking became much easier, and I made quick time up and over the shoulder of the ridge that separates the approach from the climb. The good talus trail gradually eroded into an alpine slip-n-slide, as the steepness of the slope was matched by the absolute lack of anything resembling solid ground. This area would tire me out.

Looking back at the Lavender Col. The lower gully was so unworthy that I had no usable photos of it!

At least it was a nice, cool day. Only an occasional rain drop found its way to remind me that there was still a possibility of less than ideal weather. The young couple, without poles or axes, passed me, and I happily let them lead the way to the snow covered Lavender Col, the broad but surprisingly narrow saddle above the gully appropriately named the Scree Couloir. I expected snow on the route, and here it was. I spied the ridge to the south of the steep upper couloir, but could not see a route there, even though I had read a report from just the day before stating that there is a good class three line up there. I booted the snow instead.

Climbing loose rocks before continuous snow all the way to the V-notch...

I had been hoping to get in something resembling a snow climb on my vacation, but for some reason the particular slope had me wary. The snow was greasy, and the couloir steeper than I had anticipated. My axe and crampons remained in my pack, though, and I followed the steps of the equipment-free couple ahead of me, hoping I could catch up. If they can walk up it without poles or axes, I will certainly be just fine with only trekking poles, right? Step, breathe, step... I just wasn't moving very fast, and I watched as my pace cars made the turn and disappeared out of sight. Oh well.

I actually felt relieved as I reached the V-notch, and I knew the summit was not far. The breeze had picked up, and there was certainly a swirling feeling in the air of impending moisture. The notch was much higher and harder than I had pictured; several rocks have obviously been jammed into the crack below, forming some usable steps. The exposure to the left is tangible; a solid, smooth slab at about a 35 degree angle. A slip here would send you down about fifty feet of rock, straight into the couloir, and it would be a ride that you likely would not be around to remember. No thanks. I stuck my poles in the soft dirt, hoping that they would not be needed again. Carefully choosing solid hand-holds, I lifted myself into the crack, effectively stepping from one rock to the next as if I were on a ladder. I wedged into the notch, and was less than thrilled with what I saw. More snow. Actually, more steep snow, with that summer ice around the edges, the kind that waits maliciously for an unsuspecting boot to slide mercilessly out from under its wearer. The couple was returning from the summit, and I was disappointed that I didn't catch up to them. I'm just going to have to go it alone.

The summit pitch...

A careful traverse of only thirty feet or so felt like fifty, and I was relieved to reach the dry summit pitch. Surprisingly, I saw few cairns, and just worked up the easiest terrain. The fifty or sixty feet to the summit reminded me of Wetterhorn's lower gullies; benches and ledges with a bit of exposure below. I stepped onto the tiny summit, excited but somewhat subdued, as it began to rain just a bit harder, as if on cue. The rain did not diminish the views, though, as even for the clouds, much of the San Juan Range could be seen. The view to the north of Mt. Sneffels over the Uncompahgre Plateau is simply breathtaking. My next intended destination, the Wilson Group, was clearly being rained on by the most severe looking weather in the area. Great, I thought, those mountains are scary enough as it is. I quickly snapped a few pictures, had a snack and drink, and headed down.

An airy summit photo...

The Wilson Group under siege...

Looking south over Telluride...

Teakettle and Potosi Peaks...

The expansive Uncompahgre Plateau; the picture cannot do justice to the incredible prominence as the north side of Mt. Sneffels just falls away...

I was confused as I departed the summit, and I found myself below the exit back into the brief gully leading down to the notch. Winding up and back around, I found the right path, and considered the snow. The run out did not look at all appealing, and I decided that my axe would be very useful, even for such a short distance. In the back of my mind, the notch was tearing at my confidence. Would I be able to down climb it? I'm alone, with no one to spot me, and a slip could result in the very worst of consequences. Gingerly and deliberately, I lowered myself into the notch, able to place my right foot in a secure spot, allowing me to spin around and face in as I lowered my left foot to the next step. Two more very slow moves have me safely standing next to my trekking poles, and I sighed with marginal relief. There was still a healthy down climb on steep, slippery snow ahead.

Looking down the slab from the bottom of the notch...

A close look at the notch; step onto the rock , lower center, and then find good holds to hoist yourself up...

Stowing my poles, I secured my axe and started plunge-stepping, trying to use the steps of the two before me. I found it remarkable that they could down climb this without any gear, I was about as tense as I've ever been on a snow descent. In reality it was probably no more difficult than the Cristo Couloir on Quandary Peak, yet I still found myself fighting gravity, not at all feeling secure with each step. It felt like it was never going to end, and I gasped again with relief as I found the rocky area near the bottom of the gully. A large group were considering the rest of their climb from here, and another young couple were about to test their fate on the snow, again without any tools for the journey. I tried not to play trail mommy, but I wasn't about to tell them to go for it without a little bit of warning. "It's steep and slick, so be careful. It's all about your comfort level on steep snow; without my axe, I wouldn't have done it." I wonder how many continued after I gave such a warning. I know the lead couple turned around and weren't far behind me a few minutes later. As I began to once again down climb snow to the saddle, a guy informed me that someone had fallen off the mountain just minutes earlier. Apparently climbing the east facing couloir that splits the south ridge, a man had fallen all the way down the couloir, sustaining some damage, but able to walk out on his own. Yikes, I had eye-balled that couloir on the way up, but would not have attempted it by myself. I was glad to hear that the guy was okay, and took to heart the stark reminder that any fourteener is a dangerous mountain.

A much clearer look at the Wilson Group from Lavender Col...

An incredible view, but I'm not sure of what? A little help, anyone? ;)

With another twenty minutes of unpleasant scree ahead, I continued in earnest, weaving, twisting and switching-back across the ridiculously loose slope. Sometimes it was easier to get over on the west side of the gully and walk on rocks, and other times cutting across the dirt in the center worked well. Nearing better trail lower down, I stopped at a very cool rock I had seen on the way up. This particular rock must have been made by Delta or Price Pfister, as a perfect fountain of water flowed right out of it. Mmm, pure Rocky Mountain Spring Water!

Ice cold and refreshing...

The hike quickly improved over the better trail through the talus, and I began to settle in to the enjoyment of being out in the backcountry, stress free and thinking about lunch. Chatting with the few people I met on the way down, I ran into a Bob from Missouri, who had taken the injured hiker down to town for treatment. It was great to talk with you, Bob, and I hope you'll let me know when you're back in Colorado for your next adventure.

Evidence that those skiers just cannot put away their sticks, even in July...

Rugged and impressive, Teakettle and Potosi are worthy residents of this area...

Looking down the valley from Yankee Boy Basin...

Walking down the steep road, I considered the last few days. An incredibly fun and fulfilling Class Reunion, amazing hikes on Redcloud, Sunshine and Wetterhorn Peaks, the gorgeous town of Ouray... all leading me here today, to a climb that tested me a bit more than I thought it would. Maybe it was the fact that I was solo, or the weather. Maybe the nasty scree in the lower gully set the tone. Perhaps the snow climb was steeper than I cared for. Whatever it was, I felt like I had passed a test of sorts. There was never a thought of turning around, no talking to myself about what better things I could be doing. I knew I would climb to the summit, and descend safely; there was never a doubt. That is not how I used to think when hiking alone. Back at the truck at 12:45, with another spectacular San Juan summit experience, I couldn't wait to get back to Ouray for a burrito and beverage. 1554 sounds like a good number...

A hazy day over the Ouray County Courthouse...

 Comments or Questions

From these reports..
07/10/2009 01:43
it looks like you are getting much more comfortable with class 3 climbing. You ready for the 19th??? Great report as always.



07/10/2009 02:03
Way to knock it out solo


Man on a mission!
07/10/2009 02:17
You are getting it done this summer.
Are you trying to finish something before the next bonfire?

Chicago Transplant

07/10/2009 14:45
We saw your name in the register when we were up on the 4th

The ”Incredible View” is looking south/southeast over Mendota towards the Three Needles near Black Bear Pass. I believe the one in the middle with the snow gully splitting the summit is the Three Needles. T10 to the left and T11 to the right. I may be wrong though, I am more familiar with those peaks from Red Mtn Pass.


Nice report
07/10/2009 18:34
I can see how you would feel used up after that climb.


Keep it Up!
07/11/2009 04:32
It‘s obvious you are enjoying not just the summits but the experiences and the learning as well. Way cool, my friend.


A Sneffels Adventure
04/17/2010 13:24
I want to hike Sneffels next year, if possible. I am trying to get more info on the dreaded V-notch and your account of it is the best, most detailed one I‘ve read yet. I‘m sure I‘ll refer back to it again several times. I don‘t think I‘ll hike Sneffels alone though. Thanks much for your input!

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