Following the failed attempted of Wetterhorn, I spent much more time preparing for Snowmass Mountain and the more information I dug up on the route, the more uneasy I was about going.
Last year a 14ers.com member passed away when a rock slide occurred on the very same route. It was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but none the less the dangers of rock slides are real, especially during heavy rainfall, or snowmelt.
Snowmass Mtn gets its name from the bowl of snow that accumulates on its east face. It is the 31st highest mountain in Colorado at 14,092 ft, and the 4th highest in the Elk range. The whole Elk Range was inhabited by the Ute Indians and they called the mountain Cold Women since it was believed that the mountain brought on bad weather. The Utes now primary live in Utah and Colorado. Intresting enough, my high school mascot was called a Utes, however I'm sure it has Irish origins instead of Ute Indians.
Last year, the mass of snow on the bowl was still melting well into August. This year, the snow melted by late June, but the monsoon season has brought heavy rainfall to the area.
With that in mind, I read many warnings about boulder sized rocks that were just loose and ready to go if you nudged it the right way. Every thought about summiting Snowmass kept me very reserved about going. Of course, danger is always part of the game, otherwise it wouldn’t be as fun.
I planned to drive out of Grand Junction at 6pm, Friday night and camp out at the trail head for a 3am start.
Unfortunately, work called in and I had to perform a soil nail test in Telluride, about 3 hours the opposite direction of where we were heading. My day started at 4am, out to Telluride and back into Grand Junction at 4pm where I took a short nap and off we were to camp out at Snowmass Mtn.
It was a pretty easy drive out to Carbondale, but the 13.8 mile 4x4 trail beginning in the middle of the night at 930 was a whole other story and adventure on its own.
The 4x4 trail sign reads 4x4 access only, but neglects to mention that the trail runs up the side of sharp hills with very narrow roads and very….VERY sudden drops.That means long wheel base need not apply. (you can click the photos for the full size 3+MB ones)
You mean long wheel base like my Ford F-350 Turbo Diesel?... That is almost 2’ wider and 3’ longer than most pickups? The drop offs were a real problem. It was too dark to take pictures, but I was driving on the uphill side and the right of the car was facing downhill. With the left wheel up on the hill and no longer on a flat road, the right wheel was a foot from the edge. And with a long wheel base truck, the front wheel will be safe but since the rear wheel doesn’t steer, you have to either be brave enough to floor the truck and get the rear wheel to spin and swing back in, or back up several times with a spotter. Since I wasn’t a 4x4 expert, Wade spotted for me. Later on the way out, it turns out Wade grew up 4 wheeling (go figure, hes from Kentucky!) so on the way out he was tearing it up going down hill with the truck pitched almost 45 degrees which was pretty awesome.
Wade offered to snap a pic of some of the drop offs, I didn’t want to look just because I was already sweating bullets about driving this big ass truck up this narrow hill that was slick from the rain fall earlier in the day.
Unfortunately its quite blurry, you can however, make out the wheel tracks and how close they are to the edge. Pictures don’t always tell the whole picture because there’s also a negative 20 degree slope built into the road itself. If you’re thinking I’m exaggerating one bit, then go drive a big ass F350 there yourself and bring some toilet paper to see for yourself.
It wasn’t long before even more trouble started. Rain slowly passed over us and turn the road into a pile of mud. Brakes were useless here. The car just slide backwards on a slope if I wasn’t on the gas, or down the slope. Just stay in first gear and let the engine slow down the wheels and slowly work the brakes. Sketchy 4 wheeling that was half fun and half terrifying. Adventure is 99% of the trip, but is caused by the 1% of bad planning! I swear!
After taking 1:30 to drive 14 miles, we made it the trail head parking area, where a guy decided to park his truck right in front of the entrance! We backed out and found some random spot underneath a giant pine tree with good coverage from the rain and pitched our tent. It wasn’t a legit campground, but hey, as long as its flat and clear of any rocks, I’m a happy camper!
The tent was short, but it fit 2 guys pretty well. Not too snug, cant complain about a 5lb tent of this quality. Especially for how much of a steal I got at REI's used and abused sale.
We set the alarm for 3am, but the alarm never went off. I woke up at 3am naturally despite the severe lack of sleep I’ve had , but I fell back asleep later waking up at 4am. Not too bad considering that’s my normal jump off time. ( I slept 2 hours Thursday night, woke up at 4am to drive out to Telluride and a 1.5 hour nap on Friday, and it was Saturday at 3am now! In total including the trip out, I drove well over 600miles in 2 days)
The night hovered around 45 degrees on this end of July Saturday so we had to get out of the tent and warm up fast. The pine tree kept the drizzling rain off of us, but the clouds overhead kept away the milky way band I so desperately wanted to see again. With our gear packed from the night before, we left the tent up and headed off to the trail head.
Forestry has been trying to really figure out how many people use the parks so they are mandating that we carry permit tags, there is no penalty for not having one, yet. Either way you just fill out the tag at the trail head and leave the tear off in a box. It was a nice little memento.
It wasn’t long before we realize that the thunder storms have been ripping away at trees, and the added moisture ate away at dead tree trunks and was dropping dead wood all over the Aspen Range.
Our first goal was to head to Geneva Lake to have breakfast. The trail there was about 2-3 miles. Not too bad going up hill, but steep enough that down hill is going to be nothing but pain for the knees, especially without trekking poles.
We perched at the highest rock we could right before the lake and broke out some packs of Tuna and Cliff Bars for breakfast.
The lake was a rich deep green with plenty of fish swimming about. One of my favorite things about Colorado is how much respect there is for nature. There wasn’t a single piece of garbage in sight. Everyone just cares about leaving as little of a footprint as possible here. Not to mention its the only place i felt safe enough to leave my tent pitched.
As we approached the beginning of Snowmass ,it became more and more daunting. I couldn't believe how much of an elevation gain it really was.
We stayed away from each other so we didn’t cause any rocks to come down and killing either of us. We’re both different heights and have different tastes in what’s easy and what’s not. He was moving insanely fast though, almost 10 minutes ahead of me at all times.
I had my GoPro mounted to my helmet set at pictures every 30 seconds, for future reference I would set it at 15 seconds next time. You almost have to climb with gloves on because of how fast the rock can zap the heat from your hands. I like to have my wrist covered with good insulation as I hate cold hands and wrist. They get a sharp dull pain if i was wearing anything lighter.
These are the small flower bunches nested on the side of the mountain. They were few and far apart and its amazing to just see any sort of life on this mountain (and fat little groundhogs). Anywhere there was enough soil bundled up, there was some type of life.
I caught up to wade enjoying the view. It was his first 14er and I was pretty sure he was mesmorized by the sights. Its always nice to get enough motivation to go do something and see something that you otherwise wouldn't of done without someone there with you. I wouldn't of been able to do this alone and my co-worker who did the other 2 climbs with me was too busy.
Wade again, atop snaping a pic of me as I try to figure out how I can get up this flat face.
We were just a short distance from the top. Wade made it up there first and I catch picture of him sitting in disappointment. I was wondering why he wasnt excited, and when I did make it to the top, I quickly realized why. You can see, the real summit is higher behind him. We went the wrong way!!!!
I suggested that we climb the side of it across the face instead of atop of the ridge to the next spline and walk up the and see if that’s the top. There was no way I was going to stop at 13,900 feet when the top was literally 150’ higher and just another 30 minutes away.
This is a better picture of that spline. You can see it running straight up to the top. We just had to walk across the face and up that spline. I was pretty sure that was the summit. No guarantees. All I know is that it was higher than where we were and that’s all the motivation I needed.
That boulder that my right hand is resting on, is the actual summit of Snowmass Mtn. Just that little sucker sticking out.
To the right of the photo was 1 flat top rock and then a 90 degree drop off to the bowl.
Now time to just take in the sights. Behind me is another mountain called Capitol Peak. It’s the next one I want to attempt, but I cant find anyone to go with me yet. It’s a two day trip and the only way up is to walk the ridge up to the knife edge and to the summit. It’s much harder than Snowmass Mtn and has the ass cheek pucker factor dialed up to 11. Its also a 2 day minimum, 22 mile trip. Day 1 walk in 10miles and camp. Day 2 Climb and Walk out 10 miles.
We couldn’t stay more than 20 minutes atop, the clouds were rolling in, and if storms were on the way, I did not want to play human lightening rod with the sky.
Decent was fast, but painful on the knees because of the slope. I tore a hole in the butt of my pants from sliding on my butt the whole way down.
Since it was physically easier on the way down, we rested at the half way point. It took almost 3 hours to go up, and just an hour to get down.
We ended up seeing a bear off in the distance. If you click for the full size image, you can see the black of the bears nose and two cubs. The trail lead pretty close to the bear and we went way off trail and away from the bear. We eventually got back on track. It was a pretty scary sight to see a bear in the wild, especially with two cubs. I don’t know much about bears, but I do know enough to stay away.
The march from the base of Snowmass back to the truck was nothing sort of brutal. My legs didnt want to move, and not being used to boots, my toes were screaming in pain. I'm defintely going to bring my Vibrams for the trail part next time. My body was sore all over. I was still going on less than 5 hours of sleep in 48 hours, and all I could think about was sitting down and taking a nap. But I had to press on, it was only 3 more miles from this point to the truck. And 3 miles never seemed so long in my life. I was completely disoriented at this point so walking straight was difficult for me. I also didn't have any water left in my pack, but the thought of water back at the truck was just enough to keep my legs moving.
This was the best climb I've ever done. I was glad Wade was there, otherwise this might of not happened. The 4x4 trip was an adventure on its own. The camping under the Pine tree and a filling dinner was another trip on its own too. Hopefully there will be one more climb before I leave this beautiful state. But with that said, I still cant believe I climbed up Snowmass. Every step up, I couldnt think about anything but making it to the summit. Forget about gravity and its ludicrousness laws. There was only one goal!
And just like how we walked in, we left without a trace...
Thanks for reading!