I* There's a lot of back story that comes before this that explains some of what is contained therein. But due to length, I won't include the prior 86 pages. I know this is a few years old (climbing date) but it's meaningful & significant...at least to me. This reads as a report, an article and loose montage of nostalgic sentantious musings. Hope ya enjoy!
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."
Snowmass Mountain was my last Colorado Fourteener. I had visited the notion every once in a while in finishing on a particular mountain or peak but eventually gave up on that idea. The process of finishing this journey was one of almost randomness. I would accompany friends on their trips where sometimes, the peaks in question were ones I needed to complete ‘my list’ and sometimes, the goals were summits I had already graced. So in my quest to finish, I had already stacked up a decent amount of repeat summits on various mountains. Even from my naïve beginnings, I’ve always looked at the mountains not as something ‘to do’, to ‘bide my time’ as it were, but a place that I needed to explore because of the discovery and adventure that waited. Lists of course, will rise up eventually and provide some kind of focus, and they’re great in terms of attaining direction but for me, it’s always been about the experience; which is why repeating various summits or even going for a simple walk in the mountains is tantamount to why I go through the trouble at all. But as it turned out, Snowmass Mountain was a choice I considered to finish on.
What I did not consider was when. But as my list became smaller and smaller, the days shortening and the trees shedding their beautiful emerald coats, it occurred to me that I might be finishing this journey come winter which, just so happened to be my favorite season.
As natural as it seems today, that is having four distinct seasons, it wasn’t always thus. Originally, there was a lot of uncertainty and even ambivalence towards autumn/fall. The progression of years, of time has usually been marked by the passage of winter.
According to “Folk Taxonomies in Early English” (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003) by Earl R. Anderson, the importance of winter in marking the passage of time can be evidenced by its consistency over time and multitudes of references by various cultures/languages. Winter probably derives from a root word meaning ‘wet’, a derivative that traces its origins back to more than 5,000 years.
Fifteen hundred years ago, the Anglo-Saxons marked the passage of time by only one season…winter. It was a tradition that was considered equivalent to hardship or adversity that literally and metaphorically represented the end of a year. For example, in the old English poem, ‘Beowulf’, the title character rescues a kingdom that has been terrorized by a monster (Grendel) for ‘12 winters.’ So in hindsight, I suppose it’s rather fitting that I finish this journey in the ‘dead season’, in a season that represents conclusion and finality but ultimately, renewal and promise.
I finished with the very welcome company of Steve Gladbach. I met Steve through a website called, 14ers.com. In terms of all things over 14,000ft in Colorado, it is without doubt, the essential source for information. The routes, pictures, GPS coordinates, reports, etc. on this site is nothing less than staggering. The site also has a tenacious if not eclectic online community of friends and acquaintances ardent in sharing experiences, trips, memories and advice. It was through these public forums that Steve and I met. By the time we crossed paths, I was already ¾ the way finished with my Fourteener quest. I had done most of them solo but figured for some of the harder ones; it might be a good idea to have company. I’ve done so many peaks by myself at this point; I no longer see why the issue of solo ascents is such a big deal.
Since I met Steve, he has become the closest thing to a best friend I’ve had since my early days back in university. Steve is typically ebullient, good-humored and quite willing to share his vast knowledge of all things Colorado. I was happy and grateful to be standing on the summit with Steve that blistery March morning. But considering I had invited roughly eight other ‘friends’, all of whom had managed to dig up excuses to not come, my jubilation was tainted with disappointment. So it was a good thing Steve and I had a blizzard and changing conditions to deal with. It took my mind off my internal battles. Having done so many peaks solo up to now, I’m grateful for the confidence I built on my own. As I’ve already said, confidence may be initiated through the company of others, but it ultimately comes from within. Snowmass Mountain was a tough peak and because of conditions, the weather turned my finisher into the hardest ascent of all 56 peaks.
I started this Fourteener endeavor on Longs Peak back in 1991 strong in the Lutheran faith with my buddies Randy, Kevin and Kevin’s little brother. I’ve since, more or less, been on my own trying to complete these peaks. My eyes were unbiased, naïve and full of expectant adventure. Now, at the end looking back on the past 18 years, I am suspicious, experienced, tainted but the wiser. My innocence which served me so well in the beginning has been devoured by pragmatism and disappointment. Randy, Kevin and I sadly, have taken different paths in life. I now prefer to hike/climb solo, distaining the company of others. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a journey that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, to be sure. I’ve grown secularly and spiritually but interestingly enough, I’ve withered religiously. The bumps, dings and scratches we endure in life may drive some to strengthen their bonds to God and faith but personally, life has had the opposite effect. The Fourteener’s have taken me places I never imagined I would ever see, let alone know about. I’ve met a few people along the way I’m proud to call friends, I’ve lost friends in the mountains due to climbing accidents and I’ve met a handful of others that I’m ashamed to ever having met.
I enjoy getting above treeline whether there’s an established trail or not but I’ve grown to appreciate the lower altitude stuff too. Some of the lower peaks and points are actually harder than the peaks that rise into the tundra simply because of no trails, poor information and more hazards to mitigate like deadfall, forest, private property, animals and the need in knowing how to read the terrain. The Fourteener’s have opened and expanded my life in ways initially hidden from me. And this is why I will always view and treat the wilderness in a capacity more than a ‘pleasant escape’. If the wilderness were ever taken away from me, I simply don’t know what I would do.
The wilds have stripped so much from me, hardened and aged the rest that without the indifferent landscape in which I throw myself into, what kind of person would I be? If I only knew that when I took that first, single step on this mountainous journey of a thousand miles that I would also be stepping away from pedantic innocence, would I have continued? That’s a question I have no answer for, at least for the time being. Where’s H.G. Wells when you need him?
IISnowmass Mountain is Colorado’s 32nd highest coming in at 14,092ft. It is the third highest in the Elk Range and probably the second easiest to scale. Not an actual climb per se, but more of a difficult scramble due primarily to its isolation and generous amounts of loose rock…a common feature of Elk Range peaks. It is located within the confines of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area.
The Elk Range in general was first explored and named as early as 1853 during the little known Gunnison Survey led by Lieutenant E.G. Beckwith. He named the range because of the “numerous elk horns scattered whitening on the hills.” Beckwith however, did not ascend any of the Fourteener’s located in the range.
Originally referred to as ‘Cold Woman’, the Utes named it thus because of the frequency the summit is obscured in clouds. It was thought to be the source of bad weather. The Utes used the surrounding lower valleys including Brush Creek as summer hunting grounds until they were run off in the late 1880’s. Shortly after, at the onset of the next decade, settlers and ranchers started to fill in the empty spaces. Mining never really took a foothold on the higher Elk Peaks due to the nature of the rock and propensity for rockslides and avalanches. Percy Hagerman described the Elk Range thus…
reasons. They have big streams and fine, large lakes; they are rugged
steep, and forbidding in appearance; some of them are richly
colored. The upper stretches have not been scarred with mining claims.”
Snowmass Mountain was first sighted in 1869 by William H. Brewer while sitting atop Grays Peak with two other large ‘climbing’ parties. He was part of the Whitney Expedition. As he scanned the distant horizon, Brewer described Snowmass as the ‘Great Snow Peak’ some 75 miles away next to a sharp peak…perhaps the highest in Colorado (He was referring to Capitol Peak).
It was climbed by some of the men during the Hayden Survey of 1873. On August 7th, some of the men including William N. Byers scaled the loose ramparts and finally succeeded in reaching the top whereby Byers would later on describe the arduous climb as, “The most difficult and dangerous climb I’ve ever made.” Byers, who owned the Rocky Mountain News would later pen an account of the climb about ten days later and publish it in the news. Even though that climbing party scaled the mountain from the south, the snowfield located on the eastern side was described to be about ‘five square miles.’ As we know now, one square mile is more palpable. Of that survey, the topographic crew would end up making three trips to the summit to conduct measurements and run tests. The first day alone saw the team on the summit for over seven hours!
‘Snow Mass’ was named because of the abundant, year-round snow between its’ twin summits. Locals at some point, started to refer to it as ‘White House Peak.’ I’m guessing probably in tandem with nearby Capitol Peak which was named for a building in Washington DC. That name however, never stuck.
Other than the local mining towns of Marble and Crystal, there was only one other town located closer...Snowmass City. It was also sometimes known as Silver Center. It only existed because of the mines (Gray Copper, Grand Republic & Elk Mountain Bonanza) located in Lead King Basin. It was located about 1.5 miles north of Crystal. Founded in 1880, it sprung up quickly enough that two years later, it received its first official Post Office which, closed the next year. Due to harsh winters, isolation and the ore not being as rich as thought, Snowmass City closed its doors and was abandoned by 1886…a hardscrabble phoenix of moderate intensity that didn’t even live long enough to see a decade. Nothing exists of the town now.
Steve has been up Snowmass Mountain before, many times. In his quest to climb all the Fourteeners per calendar winter (which he has since finished), Steve needed Snowmass. This was my first time to the mountain. So when the route wasn’t obvious, I relayed on Steve’s experience and knowledge. We ended up sleeping at the trailhead that night. Not wanting to unpack and then repack my gear in the morning, I elected to sleep in my Himalayan suit (Mountain Hardwear) in a back-up tent I brought specifically for that first night. It worked fairly well and made the next morning’s dealings quick and easy. Steve and I left around 6:00am with heavy packs with him pulling a polk for extra gear. I’ve since taken up the task of pulling a sled myself for smaller winter excursions and have found it to be a welcome addition in as much as it is also an inconvenient but sometimes, necessary utility.
Snowmass Mountain & N. Snowmass from Capitol's East Butt.
The winter road closure for Snowmass Mountain fortunately, isn’t that far from the summer trailhead. Steve and I had perhaps a mile to walk before we reached the parking lot and Snowmass Ranch. We were able to distain the regular trail and take the valley floor straight across the ranch until we arrived at the junction with Snowmass Creek Trail. Steve and I would end up seeing absolutely no one for the next three days. As opposed to other ranges in Colorado, this is the standard for the Elk Mountain Range. I sometimes wonder if it’s the solitude that makes certain situations more beautiful and intense. We coursed our way up Snowmass Creek due south through the skeleton Aspen and bloated Evergreens. The path wasn’t particularly difficult but side-hilling across untrammeled snow slopes isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do. I remember passing the turnoff for West Snowmass Creek and Bear Creek which access Moon Lake and Pierre Lakes Basin respectively.
I’ve always been fascinated with the Pierre Lakes mostly because of the pictures I’ve seen of it but partly because this basin receives so few visitors. While Steve and I were making steady but slow progress, I think the one topic that kept resurfacing, as it should have, was the storm that was predicted for tomorrow. In hindsight, this was probably why everyone else I invited backed out. However, considering this was my last Fourteener, I would have thought that would have counted for something. I don’t remember what the storm prediction entailed but while Steve and I were up at Snowmass Lake and the higher ridges, it turned out to be a monster.
I caught up to Steve at the base of the forested slope we needed to ascend. The thick forest would definitely be welcomed. At least there was no avalanche danger and there was plenty to grab and hold onto for balance issues. While I was watching Steve break trail on his turn to lead, guiltily, I started to laugh quietly and smile. Watching him dredge uphill with that polk was painful (sorry, Steve!) Ascending that slope with that stiff thing attached to the back of his pack/hip could not have been easy. I had to tilt my head and acknowledge Steve’s rapport and modesty for not letting the obscenities fly. Under the same circumstances, I doubt I would have had the same modicum of composure. In my opinion, there are two things in the backcountry that need no apology: farting and cussing. Sometimes a camping trip simply isn’t, well, a camping trip without some colorful language or ‘air pollution’ at your hiking buddies expense!
The weather thus far was cooperating with us. The winds weren’t really all that bad and even though the skies were mostly cloudy, I for one was grateful for the cloud cover. Trekking across snow, basically one giant fractured mirror while it’s sunny is absolutely miserable work. I was thinking the bulk of the storm would probably hit the next day, our planned climbing day. Even though we did have a back-up climbing day, I didn’t put much faith in it simply because we didn’t know how much new snow this storm was going to produce. Over the years while venturing into the backcountry more and more during the winter, if there’s anything I’ve learned is that decisions have to be made on a day by day, situational basis.
Steve and I finally broke free from the trappings of the slope and started to make better time.
The forest was still thick hence hindering skyward observations. Gray light was being filtered through the trees, pewter forebodings of something worse yet to come. When we reached Snowmass Lake, we didn’t waste any time for pictures. Only two things mattered: fluids and shelter. And actually, to this day, it is a mantra I still abide by; fluids and shelter first. In terms of winter camping, getting shelter and snow walls built is something I typically don’t dawdle around with. I plopped down in the middle of a small copse of trees, Steve only a few feet away from me and I started to dig violently and quickly. Roughly 15 minutes later, I heard Steve laughing. I turned around to see what was so funny. In the time since we had chosen our camping spot, Steve had managed to unpack and layout his tent. I on the other hand, had managed to dig a two foot deep pit, level it and put up snow walls almost four feet high. I likewise started to laugh. I must have looked like a snowy badger. The night did get cold but thanks to the cloud cover, it was tolerable. After a hot dinner and fortifications completed, Steve and I called it a day. Tomorrow, my intuition was telling me was going to be a bear.
IVSteve and I crawled out of our tents to a metal sky. Fresh snow coated the ground like white ash. It was a dry snow, not much moisture. This was a small mercy because at least we wouldn’t have the tension of new weight on an old [snow] base. But chances are it was going to be cold up on the ridge due to the lack of moisture. There was enough light to watch the tendrils of clouds scour Hagerman Peak and Snowmass Peak (a lower, unranked point) and wisp among the higher crags like cracks of dragons’ tails. Steve and I didn’t talk much while getting ready. In fact, Steve took off first across Snowmass Lake while I finished with my morning preparations. The mood between us seemed a perfect complement to the ‘lead casket’ we were encased in. The question being, concerning the philosophical attributes of lead, would the day reward us with fortune or discard us with death?
I caught up with Steve at the far end of the lake. We discussed whether or not the storm would worsen, to continue sans snowshoes, our food/water supply, clothes etc. Then we did an improbably stupid thing…we did continue on but without snowshoes. We figured, wrongly, that the snow in the upper basin would be mostly packed, that not near enough snow had fallen as yet to seriously impede our travels. I brought four orange wands to mark the route as we traversed higher but ended up using all four just on the initial slope before we even reached the upper plateau. The snow turned out to be all powder. Steve and I had to take turns on point (breaking trail) every 100-200 steps. The snow, which was literally bone-dry, came up almost waist high. The post-holing across the plateau and up to the ridge, which was some distance, was grueling work. Half the time, we weren’t even sure of our course towards the ridge because slope and sky melded so perfectly. This was an ascent made strictly by feel.
My quads burned vermilion red and my calf’s howled like two moon-driven wolves. Steve couldn’t have been faring much better. However, despite the physical difficulties, I was rather successful in not committing to an all-out sweat-fest. As I’ve said, profuse sweating in cold temperatures is akin to offering hypothermia the passenger seat…eventually, it’s going to run the show. Steve and I kept plugging away putting in a deep trench and eventually, we were rewarded with the ridge.
We crested the spine of the icy redoubt, swept away the snow from the rocks and enjoyed a well-deserved rest among the laminar gusts. We ‘battened down the hatches’, so to speak, since from here on out, the physical difficulties would cease but the technical difficulties would increase. Climbing along the ridge would also slow our progress and leave us exposed to the worst of the storm. This is where determination and persistence overrule musculature.
I’ve always believed people now-a-days have a tendency of giving up too easily. Take for instance the clothes we buy for conditions just as what Steve and I were climbing in. If one added up the costs of the clothes I was wearing, which included the Scarpa Mt. Blanc boots I was wearing up to my Mont Bell fleece hat, I had roughly $1,200 worth of clothing on my body…and keep in mind, that’s MY cost, not full retail. Since I worked in a climbing store, I was able to get most of my gear at substantial discount. If we as climbers aren’t willing to endure such conditions, whether intentional or not, then what’s the point in spending a mortgage payment in mid and outer layering? And I haven’t even touched the hardware/technical gear. So in terms of whether or not Steve and I could climb through the storm and not allow our doubt or incertitude to defeat ourselves, of this, I had no worry. It comes down to strictly experience and skill at some point. And I think this is where, in terms of having a positive mindset when faced with blizzard-conditions, Steve and I shared the same path. And so on we climbed through mixed terrain on dragons’ tails.
Steve at some point elected to traverse lower across the west side of the ridge keeping out of the wind gusts. I was feeling confident on the ridge crest so I choose to keep climbing along the crest. Steve kept traversing upwards and at one point along the ridge, the apogee dipped and Steve and I met back up. We climbed together through exposed rock, ice, drift snow and chunks of névé until we gained the summit of Snowmass Mountain, the tell-tale small pinnacle of white granite announcing our arrival. Our celebration upon the summit, Steve notching one of the more difficult Fourteener’s per calendar winter and I, finishing the Fourteener’s was short-lived.
I stood for the obligatory summit photo, cleaned out the ice from inside my goggles and we made haste back down the mountain.
The descent off the summit, at least personally, came as a bit of an achievement. While Steve and I were resting earlier on the ridge, I intentionally cleared away snow from more rocks than what was probably necessary. I studied the features of the ridge as we progressed up its broken and crenelated parapets paying special note of features that seemed, ‘different’.
While we were descending, which brought us down off the ridge onto the west face which, suffice to say, entailed new features, the climbing became in my opinion, harder and more challenging. We had to deal with rime ice, veriglass and larger sections of hollowed snow. We punched through many times and yet avoided spraining or twisting our ankles. The only benefit of not descending the ridge was that we were at least out of the worst of the cross-currents with the winds. It came to a point while we were descending that a certain spot higher up on the ridge looked somewhat familiar. I mentioned that we should probably head straight up. Steve elected to keep traversing while I decided to climb the 80-100ft back to the crest.
My careful noting of the terrain rewarded me with the exact spot where we had previously rested! In the heart of this frozen maelstrom, I was surprised with myself that I could still manage to navigate back to this spot. I sat down and cleared the ice from my goggles for the third time. I could see glimpses of Steve down below slowly wading through the snow, traversing to a huge block of granite we had stopped at earlier. I geared back up and proceeded to climb back down then promptly stopped…where were the rocks?
In fact, where the hell was the slope? I literally could not see eight feet in either front or below me. The winds were pushing the snows so hard that a white-out had ensued. I knew the rocks we had climbed up earlier were there but with the plastering of new snow to the rocks, the slope directly in front of me melded perfectly with that of far away and indeed, the skyline itself. At least I could still see parts of Snowmass Peak.
I looked down into the whiteness, gripped my axe tight and began to smile which, in turn morphed into laughing. “Ok, here we go” I said out loud. “This is so cool!” I whispered, smiling, losing the words to the wind. I stepped blindly down. I ended up stepping down/falling about four feet and immediately leaned back against the crag. “What. That’s it?” I was still smiling. I expected to fall about ten feet or so into a pillow of fluff. But due to all the powder, I wasn’t expecting to slide much if at all. Steve had almost reached the boulder, probably similar in size to a Dodge Econoline van. I plowed through the snow to the same rock feature to meet up with Steve.
What I noted almost immediately as I was wading (it felt that way) through the powder, was that our trench from earlier was completely filled in! That trench had to have been easily four feet deep. Now, there was no sign of it. I was impressed and amazed. Steve and I dug out a snow-well and took refuge from the winds though we were still being chased by spindrift. Steve and I were tired, physically spent and beat. Thus far, it had been a tough day. Often, it’s not the physicality of a climb that wears one down it’s the mental strength that one needs to resist the grindstone. We reached the slope and first of my orange wands which stood out like an airport runway light. We followed them easily back to the frozen lake and our abandoned snowshoe stash. We arrived back at the small copse of Evergreen’s that was sheltering our campsite. Steve and I collapsed like a pair of felled trees. We cooked no dinner, boiled no water and talked very little. I felt like I had been strapped to the front of a semi as it rolled through Maine on a January morning. I could feel the cold in my bones. It made me tired and sluggish. It was dusk when we arrived and it wasn’t long before night fell like an axe. Once I was snug and warm in my sleeping bag, I cut the chain to the anchor I was clinging to that was still tying me to that inimical and frozen day. I fell quickly and silently into the black abyss of sleep.
Steve and I woke eerily close to the same time. There wasn’t any hesitation in abandoning my sleeping bag. It was one of those rare moments where I woke instantly. I slipped into my snow pants, extracted my boots from the -20° orange chrysalis that held me and rolled out of the tent into a painfully bright morning. The ‘Langoliers’ (think Stephen King) had devoured every last scrap of the storm. Snowmass Lake, at least as far as I could pick out through the trees was heart-wrenchingly beautiful. I plodded and occasionally post-holed down to the lake’s edge on the path Steve and I had put in the day before. I was rewarded with scenery of a frozen lake, Hagerman Peak and Snowmass worthy of inclusion to Alpinist Magazine. I just stood there on the ice, staring in awe. Even my toenails were smiling at that moment. I bent down, re-chopped the hole in the ice we used to access water and filled the water bottles I brought. No need for a filter this time of year, up here. I drank gingerly wanting to avoid the so called, ‘brain-freeze’. Fact, I’ve been steadily shying away from filters and UV Pens lately. I’ve drank ‘au natural’ more times than I can remember and I’ve never had a problem with cryptosporidium or giardia. I walked back to camp thoroughly refreshed (in more ways than one) and discussed with Steve our next plan of attack…going home.
We packed slowly. It was still a good 7-8 miles or so back to the trailhead. So we packed our belongings in proper order. I’m a firm believer in the mantra, ‘a few extra minutes now saves hours later.’ The trek out was beautiful, dominated by a synesthesia of blue and white. There were some fresh slide paths coming off the cliffs east of the massive log jam. It was a good trip out. I sung an Enigma song out loud and quietly to myself, “Following the Sun.” I could actually feel my spirits lift higher and higher with every stanza. Like I said, even my toenails were smiling. I left the invisible Rubicon behind. I was done. I was finally done. I relished the cold phoenix in my heart, fiercely embracing it as no moment is really made to last. I was done. Steve and I dissolved into the white glare of a brand new day and I thought gladly, all good things…