Easy Enough at firstWe were hiking towards Mt. Sneffels from the Yankee Boy Basin area at 6:30 am on Sunday May 29th. The plan was to climb Sneffels via the South Ridge route. We'd parked near the outhouse in the stand of trees after a thrilling ride from the campground up the road through the various streams in the Suburu. The invigorating ride helped wake me up since I kind of forgot my coffee back at camp.
We signed into the trip register at 7 am sharp. The hike was easy enough to start, we followed the trail mostly across the basin towards Blue Lakes Pass. There was some snow here and there, pretty hard and crunchy, with post-holing the exception, not the norm. Sky was overcast and the wind was kind of gusty and bracing sometimes. Overall the going was easy and pleasant. Temperature was quite warm when we were out of the wind.
We hiked up the switchbacks to Blue Lake Pass. Had a nice deer sighting near the pass, who ran down into the basin amazingly quickly and gracefully, you know, the part of the hike we just spent 20 minutes doing. It did in oh, one minute. Damn deer.
We sat down at the pass and had a snack overlooking the Blue Lakes to prepare for the final part of the climb. We headed up the south ridge, and pretty soon we encountered a long snow field lined with pinnacles along the eastern edge of the ridge. We decided it looked easiest to climb up the snow in our crampons versus edging our way along the pinnacles. We did not see any fresh footprints in the snow, there may or may not have been old ones.
Fork in the RoadIt looked like there was a "trail", or rather, scree with freshly loosened dirt at the top of the snow field. After we climbed up there, we sat down there and took off our crampons. We then took to the rock, scrambling, Class 3 level climbing. We headed mostly up, and somewhat to the west (left) whenever there was some obstacle straight ahead of us. People had been climbing there in the recent past - we could see footprints occasionally. Eventually we came to a fork in the road. Right in front of us was a big gendarme. To the west of the gendarme was more steep rock and a steep dropoff, and to the east there was more of the same, with a steep couloir thirty feet away or so, thrown in for good measure. There were cairns marking both. It looked like we were at a narrow point on the ridge with our choices being to go around the gendarme either direction.
We were pretty high up at this point, still not level with the top of Lavender Col, but most of the way up it. We could see it from the opening to the east, either that, or I saw it not long before we reached that point. The way to the east was an opening between pinnacles. Through this notch we could pretty much only see steep rock pinnacles, which seemed to jut slightly outward making for some tough climbing that I am not skilled for. And a long fall if you mess up, as well. It looked like maybe we could climb down to another gendarme and then cross across a couloir. But doing this seemed dangerous. There didn't look to be anywhere to go that was anywhere near Class 3. To go out and down would have been lots of rock clinging, and the exposure was serious. It was a long way down. Then there was option 2, an opening to the northwest. Looking this way there was also lots of steep rock. We decided to turn back instead. So we sat and rested for a minute.
[img:197369:alignleft:medium:Our guess as to the path we took. Click on pic for further description.]
What to Do?That's when we heard people coming from the west. We missed seeing where they came from exactly, but it was from Door Number 2, the northwest route. They were wearing their climbing helmets and were carrying their ice axes. We asked about the route they took. They took Lavender Col up and were taking the ridge down. They said they crossed a little patch of snow and before that, had come down a gully. Perhaps past a gendarme. Mostly Class 3, perhaps Class 4 as well. Then the rest of the ridge where it was pretty easy.
We decided to give it another go. We saw their footprints across the seven-foot wide snow patch that basically ran down the mountain at a very steep angle. We had put on our climbing helmets and pulled out the ice axes. We used the ice ax to help cross the patch of snow. Then we were on this small rock ledge. Down from us was a couloir and some rock - it looked like if you slipped you might just slide on down that couloir for a very long time until you fly off the mountain. Across from us, at the same level, was this gendarme that we were perched on. It didn't look passable by going across and we couldn't tell what was that way. Up was rock that looked climbable.
We couldn't see any more footprints in the snow in the couloir below the gendarme. Nothing really looked like a gully but I think I imagined that the rock above us was a gully, somehow. I stared up at the rock and thought it looked climbable - it was about 30 feet high or so, looked like easy handholds. I climbed the first section (15-20 feet) with my pack on, and it was kind of hard. I had to very carefully pick all of my hand holds. A lot of the rock was loose so you had to really test out the rocks and search around. It was kind of hard, but i didn't really do any special moves, and I'm a basically a beginner at rock climbing. I got up to a ledge, settled in, took my pack off and i pulled John's pack up via rope. Then he climbed up and joined me. I started climbing the rest of the rock but got kind of scared. I think I climbed maybe 20 feet tops, maybe half way up the rest of the wall. Maybe not, it was hard to tell. I just read John's post and he thought the wall was much higher than I do. It was definitely easy climbing, Class 4, easier then the first section, but I was more and more exposed the higher I went. Looking down was steadily scaring me a bit more and more each time and I didn't have the comfort of being roped in. And I worried about climbing down, and I couldn't imagine both of us climbing it with our packs on. So I went down, and told John I thought we should turn around. He noticed I was shivering, which I hadn't, till he mentioned it.
Turn backJohn started down climbing, but I got nervous watching him. I told him I would rather go first. I was worried that he was going to panic some on the rock and move all his hands and feet at once and then fall and meet his doom, and b) there was some of that same feeling I get when he's driving and I'm riding on the cliff-side of the road feeling helpless. I'm sure he would have been fine - but I knew I felt ok going down it, and then could help him find footholds. So he came back up to the ledge and I climbed down very slowly and deliberately, looking carefully for each foothold along the way and not moving unless I felt very stable. I probably looked like I was in slo-mo. And then some bridging action towards the bottom. Oh yeah. Then he lowered the packs to me, and he climbed down quite quickly and smoothly with my expert assistance, of course. :-)
We sat down again and took a break - I really needed some sugar at that point after all that excitement. And put my huge poofy jacket on to warm up. And gloves. I thought or maybe said that the climb seemed more Class 5, and that a rope would have been nice. And I was thinking, but probably never did tell John, that his initial call to turn around was ultimately the right one. We could have gotten hurt or killed climbing on that rock and I was the one who pushed for it.
Post-Game AnalysisAfter reading and re-reading Roach (in Fourteeners), I've decided that the notch we were supposed to go through was somewhere along that long snowfield we climbed up. I think we got way off to the west side of the ridge onto some local pinnacle, and that it looked like we had to go one way or the other around it, but I think it was misleading. In fact, I doubt the ridge could be that narrow until farther up near the top. I think it looked like where we were was the only way up the mountain, but I think we probably were too high up at that point, and it was so steep I don't think we could see or tell what the normal route was. Even if we could see it, from that angle it might have looked undoable.
So I think what was wrong was the hike up the snow field. I think we went to far and missed the "prominent 13,500 foot notch." I think it was off to the right just part way up the snow field.
When I look at that photo in Roach of the route (picture of the south face of Sneffels) I mentally add in the snow to the scree field. And it looks to me like we would have gone past the notch by sticking to the snow. That is also the time that we weren't really looking around at all - we saw a spot up above the snow field that looked good, and focused on that. Also, we didn't have the route description with us, the one from Roach that mentions finding the prominent notch just north of the first pinnacles.
Overall, we learned some valuable lessons up on the mountain. Sometimes you need to turn around. Sometimes you need to learn to recognize a bad call and turn around again. I'm looking forward to trying Sneffels again and doing the full Class 3 ridge route. We also thought it would be cool to actually do a technical climb with our expert climbing friends and do it safely.