Mount Sneffels from Upper Yankee Boy Basin
I was staying in Telluride for the 31st Annual Bluegrass Festival over the weekend, so I decided to take one morning to climb Mount Sneffels since I was so close to the mountain. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that the trailhead was near Ouray, so I still had over an hour's drive from where we were staying. It still beat the 5 hours it would have been from my house.
The alarm went off at 4am, and I grudgingly rolled out of bed after a long day of bluegrass music the day and night before. I forced myself into my clothes and headed out the door in a few minutes, long before I could reconsider my plans for the day. I was soon on the road and headed for Yankee Boy Basin.
The relatively quick highway drive soon gave way to the 4x4 road to Yankee Boy Basin. In my Ford Explorer, most of the road was no problem, even in the dark, as I approached the basin. The final bit to the outhouse at 11,200 feet was a little tricky in the early morning light, but I soon found myself at the outhouse. Although an easy 4x4 drive, the shelf road was pretty exhilarating in the early morning with quite a bit of exposure to the side.
There was one other party at the trailhead when I arrived. Since I was going solo, I was glad to have others in the area. I also noticed that they had skis, so that also reassured me. They departed as I was attaching my skins and prepping my gear. At 5:45, I was walking along the remainder of the road, hoping that snow would soon be consistent.
The rest of the road had torrents of water raging all over it, and some were actually tough to cross in my ski boots. After about 1/2 of a mile, I found continuous snow. Gladly, I clicked in my skis and began to skin the remainder of Yankee Boy Basin. As I skinned the basin, I counted endless ski lines all around me. What an amazing place.
After skirting the lake, I quickly caught my first view of Mount Sneffels and arrived at the slopes below Lavender Col. I continued to skin until the steepness of the slope made it impossible, and I took a break for some snacks and water while I attached skis to my back and got my axe and crampons on. Still in darkness, this slope was extremely frozen, and made for very easy cramponing. I actually underestimated sunhit here, and I realized that I might have to wait it out while this slope softened enough for skiing. I made a mental note to slow my pace a little.
Halfway up this slope to Lavender Col, strong winds begain to blast my back from Yankee Boy Basin. I could also hear it howling above. As I arrived at Lavender Col, I could see the other party I met at the trailhead descending to Lavender Col in high winds. When we met, they explained that they made it to the top of the upper couloir, but the high winds pushed them back. They planned to wait things out at Lavender Col until they could ski down.
Disheartened, I took a look at the upper couloir, and decided to go for it. With the cold wind, I'd rather be moving anyway. I continued to climb the upper couloir. Halfway up, the winds died. I stashed my skis in a little flat area, and tried not to get my hopes up in case the winds started rocking again.
Unencumbered by skis, the rest of the climb went quickly, and I soon found myself at the end of the couloir. Still no wind! Time to go for it. As I expected from recent reports, the "V notch" was blocked by snow. I quickly found the easiest way up, a short Class 3 pitch. Wearing ski boots with crampons, this pitch seemed pretty difficult. I took my time and soon topped out below the summit pitch. Looking up at the summit, I noticed that something didn't look quite right. There were boot tracks going straight up to the top, but it seemed to me like they might be over a cornice. Instead of following the other climber's tracks, I worked to the left and ascended steep snow to the summit. Once on the summit, I found out that the other climber had been walking on a cornice with thousands of feet of air below his boots. Wow, he was lucky!
The summit was absolutely one of the best I have ever seen. The views were breathtaking, and I enjoyed the wind-free summit for almost 45 minutes in perfect solitude. Taking several photos of the surroundings, I saw the other party of two skiers still waiting at the col for the snow to soften up, so I continued to relax on the summit. Another party of about 5 climbers was just starting the climb up to lavender col.
The Summit Pitch on Mount Sneffels
Reluctantly, I left the summit and began to descend. Downclimbing the Class 3 pitch was more difficult than going up with my ski boots on. I met another solo cimber who watched me coming down. I exchanged a little info with him, and warned him about the big cornice near the summit. As soon as I was back in the couloir, he began to ascend the Class 3 pitch, and remarked that it was even tough in climbing boots, and looked easier than it really was from afar.
I quickly descended the couloir to my skis. The snow was getting soft in the upper couloir, and balling a little in my crampons. A rap with my axe every few steps took care of the balling. Back to my skis, I skied the remainder of the couloir down to Lavender Col. I met the other party who had been waiting there for hours, and also met the large party of 5 who had just topped out in the col. I gave the party of 5 a little info, and they continued up into the couloir.
The skiers who were waiting at the saddle were still concerned about the slopes below Lavender Col. The winds had kept the slopes firm, and the late sunhit didn't help either. Near the saddle, the snow was icy hard. They decided to descend anyway, since it was already 11:00am, and I let them go first to see how the snow went for them. The guy in the party skied first, and his wife chose to carry skis because of a bad fall she had taken on similar snow last year. The guy skied down slowly, and didn't seem to have much trouble.
I decided to ski. There was no way I was carrying skis down! I clicked in and took a few traversing turns on the frozen snow. It slowly gave way to slightly softer stuff, and I could turn with ease. I was soon at the bottom of the slopes where the snow had corned up nicely. I enjoyed a few good turns and then pointed down Yankee Boy Basin for a quick blast back to the end of the snow along the road.
10 minutes later, I was looking at dirt again. I strapped my skis on my back and shed several layers as the temps were high in the lower Basin. One half mile later, I could see the parking area. There were a few hikers around and a Hummer Tour parked at the trailhead. As I approached, the tour guide for the Hummer Tour pointed at me and I could hear him say, "And this is a backcountry skier!" I thought this was a little strange, but when I got to the parking area, the guide explained to me that his party was from Florida and had never seen snow before! I spoke to the family from Florida for a little while as they marveled at Yankee Boy Basin. It was a cool end to the climb. I felt lucky to live here.
After the short drive back to Telluride, I met my wife and several other friends in Telluride Town Park for a full day and night of bluegrass music, including one of my favorite bands, The Yonder Mountain String Band. Sitting in town park hours later in the hot sun, gazing at the mountains around Telluride, I realized that life just doesn't get much better than this!
On the Summit