Mt. Sneffels (14,150') via Lavender Col
Truck: 8,750' - Thistledown (Weehawken Pack Trail)
Snowmobile: 10,600' - Sneffels Townsite (Revenue Mine)
Route: 4 miles up, - 7.5 miles down, 11.5 miles Total
Vertical Rise: 3,600' +
Time: 7:30am. - 6:30 pm.
Sunday morning, I set out to meet my friend Jason at Orvis, South of Ridgway at 6:am. I was running about 15 minutes late, as I rolled through town. As I passed Ridgways only stop light, I glanced at my phone to check for messages. I was surprised and saddened to see that there was one, as it could only be bad news at this time of this particular day. Sure enough, it was Jason, feeling unwell, having not slept well, with a bad cough most of the night. Bummer, I had waited an extra day just to travel as a pair for safety reasons... I burned past Orvis considering my options. I prefer not to go on a big climb prior to a work day because my work is very strenuous, but had made a special exception for Jason's sake. Time seemed of the essence, I really wanted to see the summit of Mt. Sneffels this weekend. Ten days of Calendar Winter had passed by, and except for a recent snowfall of approximately 6 inches, we had enjoyed about three weeks of sunshine, consolidating the snow pack, and I imagined the mountain would be in near perfect, as well as relatively safe winter condition. There was a winter weather advisory posted for 6:pm that evening, and my window seemed to be narrowing. 6:30am. came with gale force winds as I rolled through Ouray, my hopes diminishing with every mile. I headed past the ice park, only one car in the lot. I knew that within two hours, it would probably have more than a hundred, ice climbers would be crawling everywhere, as they had been all weekend. I crept up the icy road to Thistledown (8,750'), and arrived at about 6:45am. Only a small breeze remained up in Canyon Creek, so I began making ready my sled. I pulled my Split board out of the back of the truck, already in ski mode with the skins on, and strapped them to a small toboggan. I then pulled my snowmobile off of the trailer and tied the toboggan about ten feet behind it. Somebody was camping in the snow next to the trailhead, and had parked a Jeep Liberty very near to the snow ramp I had left for myself two days earlier. As I picked up the RPM's and headed up the road, their car alarm sounded, and the poor ice climber had to get up and turn it off. ( I'm sorry mister!)
At 7:am I departed, by sled, up the road for 3.5 miles to the townsite of Sneffels. I traveled slowly with the skis in tow behind me, adjusting them and their straps a couple of times, so as not to lose them. When I arrived, I pulled a lock and chain out of the rear compartment, and locked the sled to the gated bridge at the Revenue mine (10,600'). It was 7:am, as I jumped on my skis, and headed up the road into Yankee Boy Basin. It was only my second trip out on the skis, but things went very smoothly given the practice I'd received on my former adventure. Daylight was abundant now, and it was shaping up to be a surprisingly beautiful day. After half of a mile, I rounded a corner, and Mt. Sneffels came into view for the first time. It was mostly obscured from view by Kismet, which stands in front of it from this vantage, but the early sun-hit gave it away as the higher summit. It looked impossibly far away, and I still wondered if I had the strength to pull it off.. I skied along in the perfect silence of Yankee Boy basin, amazed by its uninhabited state. This is one of the most hoppin' places on the Western Slope in the height of the summer tourist season, but yet not a track lay in front of me in the virgin snow. I passed under the South slopes of Potosi, Coffeepot, Teakettle, Cirque, and the unnamed 13,500', all of which I had climbed on the other end of the calendar. This is one of my favorite places, yet it seemed like a strange new world. Stony Mtn. passed by on my left, and I wondered if I should climb it as consolation, still thinking my goal might be to lofty. Wright's hill loomed ahead, and avalanche debris could be seen, where snow had spilled down to the road from just this side of Wright's Lake. I took this as a sign that it was time to leave the road, and head for a faint ridge that heads up the center of Wright's hill.
I left the road at 11,600', and headed up the first slopes that I considered would be a blast to ride down on my board later in the day. The grade increased to about 20 degrees, and I thought it too low angled to be suspect for avalanche terrain. Whoooooooooooomphe, not just a whoomphe, but a resounding whooooooooooomphe that must have emanated at least a hundred yards. I headed quickly for the faint ridge. The ridgeline saw me safely up into Wright's lake basin, and the summer 4/4 trailhead at 12,400'. Oddly enough, the next 100 yards past the trailhead was the crux of the skiing portion of my journey. The slope was wind packed and icy here, and I could barely hold an edge. I had forgotten the split board crampons, but this was really the only place I would have used them anyway. There is a leftern fall-line here, and it really wanted to take me with it. I persevered into easier terrain up toward Blue Lakes Pass, where gusts of wind pummeled me for the first time all day. There, I found some major avalanche debris below the Birthday Chutes, but they were still left of my projected path up to the Lavender Col. The Lavender gully itself had minimal snow in it, but the upper Birthday Chutes did look threatening. I stuck to the right side, and worked my way up to a snowy shelf at 13,200', about half way up the gully. Here, I took off my skis, reverted them into snowboard form, and peeled off the skins to ready the board for descent. I was already standing as high as I ever had in Calendar Winter, and feeling optimistic of a summit bid for the first time that day. I had given myself a 2:00pm turnaround time, but had failed to look at my clock until this moment. I had 1,000' to go and it was now 12:00pm.
The snow was still firm enough to kick step, so I didn't bother yet with my strap on crampons. I struck a line high up the right side of the gully, just below Kismet's cliff bands, and above the majority of the snowfields. This seemed like slow motion to me after skiing all morning, but eventually I did reach the Lavender Col at 13,500' and this is where the wind finally found me, and boy did it. On came all of the layers. The Helly Hansen (Thanks Cody), the balaclava, wooly, hood, and over mits. The 600' couloir looked ominous above me, so on went the crampons. Wind scoured boot prints were evident in the gully, as a tell tale sign of ascent prior to the last storm. This aided my decision to press on, but man was it cold. I can only wonder what the wind chill factor must have been. As I neared the top of the gully, a sad, and not so distant story of this place ran circles through my mind. Last year, my CMC Chairman told me of a father and son team that was here in Spring several years ago. The 13 year old (I think) son led this pitch to it's top, and not knowing of the "exit left" ten feet before the top, crested the cornice which broke beneath him, sending him 200' down the North Face to his demise. The poor father retrieved his son's remains, and carried him back down the climbed route. I can not honestly think of a sadder climbing story, and it kept me scanning the lefter wall, to be sure to find the proper exit.
This "Exit Left" was certainly the crux of the climb, and I have no memory of it being as difficult as it seemed this day, when I had climbed it 4-1/2 years earlier in June. It's about a ten to twelve foot pitch (felt like fourth class) with mild stemming maneuvers, minimal holds covered with ice, and an 18" cornice overhanging the top. The left side, of which you must press to stem upwards, seems to be a precariously perched, television sized boulder, that will surely dislodge if you exert to much pressure. Add strong winds, and I had some serious adrenaline pumping. Once over this, only fifty feet remained. The remainder of the ridge is seriously corniced, hiding the North Face from view. The South Face is an exposed boulder pile, above the snow-filled Birthday Chutes, and the wind was threatening to send me North. I basically crawled onto the summit block, and kneeled there, too petrified to stand. I pulled out my phone to check the time, 2:15pm. Hmm! "Emergency calls only". I tried to get a line out. It didn't work. Hmm! What if this was an emergency! I pulled out the camera and snapped some color slides. I was so preoccupied with the thought of down climbing the crux pitch, that I had a hard time enjoying the moment. I tried to settle down, but my exposed hand had begun to numb. Even if it was only five minutes, it was probably the most exhillerating five minutes of my life... "I'm outta here" I carefully retraced my steps down to the crux move, warming my hand on my belly. When I reached the lip, I tossed my ski poles down to the snow below, and put my over mitt back on. I turned around for the descent, and made the blind effort to find a foothold below me. I was so covered in layers that it was too difficult for me, so I peeled my glacier glasses from my head, and took a glance. Once I had a better concept of my position, I made further progress. Still feeling awkward and somewhat rattled, I found the blessed purchase I needed to continue, and soon found myself at the foot of this nasty spot. I grabbed up my poles, and descended quickly down the couloir toward the Lavender Col. Once below the Col, I didn't bother removing the crampons. I just made my way down toward my snowboard, arriving only fifty minutes after leaving the summit. It was really nice to be out of the wind ,and I was really looking forward to some turns on the snowboard. I haven't had too many this year. At 3:20pm, I took off. The snow had softened in the afternoon sun, and I got a few good turns in the lower gully. I ride "goofy footed", so it was a long frontside traverse back to 12,400' at the 4/4 trailhead. I found that though I had liked my new Scarpa boots for skinning up and climbing, they were way too rigid for frontside traverses, and it was actually quite painful for my shins. I crossed the expanse of Wright's hill, following my ascent tracks, looking forward to the softer snow below treeline. There is a nice soft bowl just "Boarders Left" of the faint ridge I had skied up earlier, and the powder was epic. I crossed the faint ridge, and followed my tracks down to the flatbottom at 11,500'. That was it for riding, it was time to skin up again for the long ski out to the sled. The sun was gone behind Gilpin Pk., and evening shadows were growing, My third crux maneuver, and worst of the day, ensued. I could barely pull my skins apart. It took all of my efforts, and literally 25 minutes to peel them apart. I thought of the irony of possibly freezing to death while trying to peel skins apart for a swifter descent. ANY HINTS (what's the trick?) 3 feet to go, 2 feet to go, 1 foot to go, 6 inches left... At last, freedom! I slapped them on the board, now skis, and got moving. My energy was waning along with the daylight, and I pushed to keep moving toward my sled. The late sunhit on Potosi and other neighboring summits was one of the most sublime settings I've ever encountered, with darkness and cold filling the valley surrounding me. I eventually saw the old mining shacks of the "Revenue", and knew that my sled was near. Like a mad man I arrived, shouting with glee to see her. " I missed you baby, I'm so glad to see you waited for me". It was now sunset, as I took off the skis and reached into my pocket for the keys to unlock the chain binding her fast to the bridge gate. What I pulled out of my pocket was the wrong set of keys.... Oh no! I dug frantically through my pockets, but knew that the key I needed was resting safely in the center console of the truck, 3.5 miles, and 1,900' below. I had brought the wrong key ring. The fourth crux!
I grabbed out my headlamp, packed away my jacket , and quickly prepared for the work ahead. I mustered what little energy I could find, jumped back on to my skis, and whispered goodbye to her. Pre-dusk turned to dusk, and dusk to darkness, and my lamp came on. Each breath would temporarily obscure my view, as I made my way down passed the rock shelf, and on to the ice climber alley, where the rogues, not interested in the crowded ice park below, find their game. A lump appeared in the road ahead, wait, it's moving... Two rogues, figiting through their rucksacks in the darkness. Anxious and appreciative of my light. They asked me to cast light toward the foot of their route, looking for any remaining gear that they may not have seen while packing up in the dark. They must have been late off of the ice, but satisfied that they had everything, we parted company. The snowy road soon turned to ice, and the ice to rock and dirt. I could no longer ski. I had to carry my split board now, and it seemed extremely heavy. I blundered wearily the last half a mile down to the truck, and finally found a comfy seat, and soon had heat blowing on my cold sore bones. It was now 6:30pm, and I was almost surprised not to see mountain rescue snooping around for clues of my disappearance. I had left E mails with several friends regarding my whereabouts that day, and promised them "safe return E's later in the day. I was much later than expected, but fortunately no one was there, that could be expensive. A Ouray Sherrif did follow me all of the way to the Subway in Ridgway, but showed no interest. Back in cellular service area, I called everyone to diminish their concern, then had a nice sandwich, they now offer them toasted, which was quite warming. I dreaded the thought of work the next day, and wondered how I would retrieve my sled from the Revenue mine, and hopefully before someone else discovered it.
I thought I would sleep like a rock that night, but my upstairs neighbor came home loudly, keeping me awake from 2:am. to 4:am. before my wake time at 5:am. I deliriously stumbled into work Monday morning, and made several phone calls trying to find someone with a sled to shuttle me up there asap. Nobody I knew locally could help me, and I thought I would have to take the afternoon off and ski back up there. Frankly, at this point, I would rather just work. The storm that had been expected Sunday evening was finally beginning to brew, and I began to imagine that the sled could be buried in three feet of snow up there, and marooned until Spring. I grew more frantic... Like providence, my friend Jason showed up to check in on me, and assure himself of my safe return. His phone was out of service, so he had not received a call the night before. He freely offered to ski up the hill, and retrieve it for me. He suggested that he take his own vehicle, and just leave the sled at the trailhead for me. I figured it safer where it was than at the trailhead, and suggested he take my truck and trailer, and just return it to me at work. He complied. It was tough for me to watch my Toyota Tundra leave the yard (without me in it), but I put my fears aside, and put my head back into my work. At 3:00pm. Jason, the truck, the trailer, and sled returned, and I felt a relief I'm sure you can imagine. Jason walked up, white as a ghost, telling me I needed to come survey the truck, which he had damaged badly. My heart sank. Evidently, he had driven up to the higher trailhead, which I had asked him not to do (due to the ice). He had done so to avoid skiing the dry section of road I mentioned earlier. On his way down, he had put the tuck into 4-Lo, on steep ice. I thought everybody knew to use only 4-Hi on snow and ice, apparently not... He then spun two 360's jack-knifing the trailer into the right rear quarter panel, gouging two holes, and crushing it into the leaf spring. This was extremely frustrating for me, as I have driven this truck, the newest vehicle I have ever owned, for a year and a half, without so much as a dent. After work, I took it to a local Body Shop (owned by some good friends) for an estimate. It booked at $1,470.00, but they said they would do it for $1,300.00. All in all, I guess it turned into a very expensive favor. What can you do?
Summiting Mt. Sneffels in Winter has been one of the most defining moments of my life, among a short list of others. I feel priveledged and proud to have achieved this. Read the snow, and climb safely! More than a foot of snow has fallen in Telluride since I was out three days ago...Please be careful! :)
Happy New Year! Sincerely, Aaron Ihinger