Mighty Snowmass has intrigued me since I got into climbing the 14ers and I thought I would have to wait until next year to climb it as the snow is coming. With a perfect Indian summer day in the forecast for the first day of October, I could not pass up this opportunity. James Just was looking for a partner for Friday, but he got an approval from his wife to climb Saturday with me instead. We also made plans with Brian Kooienga and Mark Brown to join us on the climb, so the stage was set for an assault of the seldom climbed S-Ridge. The ridge received the name from its’s distinctive s shape.
Early Friday evening I picked up James and Brian at James place in Highlands Ranch and we made the long drive to Snowmass. Our intent was to meet Mark at the higher 10800’ unmarked trailhead on FR 315 (Lost Creek Rd) mentioned in Roach’s 13er guidebook. This would save us around 1000’ in vertical, but this plan came back to bite us. From the descriptions of the road, it sounded like my low clearance stock Hyundai Santa Fe would have no problems. As we climbed, the road continually worsened to the point where I started scraping the undercarriage beyond my comfort level. We decided to car camp along the road at an elevation of 10000’, while James graciously volunteered to hike up the road in the dark to find Mark. My GPS said we were only 1 ¼ miles as the bird flies from the trailhead, so surely it couldn’t be far!
At around 5:15am, Brian and I awoke with plans to hike up the road to meet James and Mark. As we begin clearing the cobwebs from the short night, a voice from the wood says “Hi guys.” It was James who reports that the road dead-ended to nowhere and that he hiked back and bivied here for the night! We thought for sure we had come up the correct road, but the roughness of it did not match the description. Instead of admitting our mistake and heading back down, we thought for certain that James had somehow missed Mark’s truck along the road. We foolishly decided to try and drive the road again as James thought it improved above. The mud and ruts continued, so we backed off that plan and started hiking up the road. For awhile, I could not check our progress on the GPS as I couldn’t get a signal, but I finally got one and it showed that we were farther away from the trailhead. As dawn broke, I saw some high mountains to the north and lo and behold they were Snowmass and Hagerman! We were on the wrong road. Dejected and frustrated, we headed back down the car after a 700’ vertical warmup hike to nowhere.
We circumnavigated the nasty road down again and came to a sign that was blocked by bushes pointing to Lead King Basin. We took the wrong fork. We arrived at the proper trailhead with no sign of Mark and set out at 8:06am. With little threat of precip, we felt we still had all day to get up Snowmass. The trail follows Silver Creek north and then begins trending n.w. After a few minutes of hiking, I had a funny feeling we screwed up again! We were supposed to contour around a ridge that was to our right at the start, but I was too lazy to pay attention to the route description. We had to go over the ridge and back down to intersect the correct trail we needed. This cost us another 400’ vertical and a good half hour or so. At this point, the day had already had too many mental ups and downs, so we knew our work was cut out for us. As we crested the ridge and dropped back down, Brian found a traversing trail that was going the right way, so we headed for Geneva Lake. A few minutes late, I razed Mark on the radio who said he was already way up on the west face of Snowmass. He understandably didn’t wait around for us ill-prepared hikers, so we kept in contact via radio as we would likely descend the west face.
The views on this hike in the prime of aspen season are simply amazing as the valley below was filled with color with the impressive Maroon Bells and Pyramid cloaked under a fresh dusting of early season snow. As we got our first view of Snowmass, the S-Ridge looked to be fairly clean of significant snow, so it looked like our lofty goal was still attainable. We arrived at Geneva Lake and found our trail heading to Little Gem Lake at an elevation of 11660’. At this point, we were already feeling the effects of our mistakes, so we took a long break and tried to figure out our access gully to S-Ridge. The four gullies we could see looked to be riddled with cliff bands, but the deeply inset gully to the far right appeared to be the best option. James led the way and we picked our way up a steep boulderfield to the base of the gully. Luckily for us, the overnight frost held much of the dirt in place, but I still managed to knock quite a few rocks down. It was apparent that there was no way we would descend this shooting gallery! At around 11:45, we made it to the top of the gully, happy to finally progressed somewhere and attain the ridge. As we were taking our break, Mark called me saying the he would soon be heading down the west face from the summit. He needed to head over to Buena Vista for a climb the next day. Sorry we missed you, Mark!
From the few trip reports I have read about this ridge, the class 3 climbing is challenging on mostly solid rock with some occasional shifting boulders to watch out for. The ridge gains 1300’ in about .6 miles and was very intimidating for me from below. It would not disappoint. James and Brian led the way as I lagged behind since I am not much of a rock climber yet. For the most part, we stayed on the crest of the ridge to avoid the snow on the left side. When I did not like the exposure, I usually traversed below the ridge. I found my fear of heights was tested quite a bit on this ridge, as there were many times where I hesitated with the next move. The crux of the route was a class 4 headwall about 3/4 of the way up. Brian and James went right along the ridgecrest while I tried looking for some ledges to climb to the left. I found nothing but cliffs to the left, so I carefully downclimbed to my starting point and picked a crack to ascend just to the left of the ridge crest. I froze up on a move near the top, so James conveniently gave me his foot to grab for an extra hold!
The class 3 climbing on this ridge did not relent, so it started to take its toll on me as my pace continued to slow. James and Brian were nice enough to hang with me and offer advice on the more difficult moves. The summit finally came into view and at 2:47 we finally made it to the top! The ridge took us nearly 3 hours to climb, but the bluebird day gave us plenty of time to enjoy it. I found this ridge to be very challenging and mentally taxing, but with any climbing background the ridge is a blast with bomber holds. We soaked up the views from Snowmass as impressive neighbors Capitol, the Bells, and Pyramid shined in the distance. The temps were probably in the upper 40’s on the summit under crystal clear skies, which is a rarity in the unsettled weather of October. We were fortunate to enjoy such a beautiful day with little snow along the route. Earlier in the week, we had tossed around the lofty idea of adding Hagerman, N. Snowmass, and Snowmass Peak to the agenda, but our wasted state quickly axed that heinous agenda. Brian is now down to 3 14ers left I believe. Congrats Brian!
Mark warned us that the descent of the west face would be tedious, so we left the summit at 3:20 in anticipation of a long trip down. We dropped off the summit via the exposed north ridge, which of course had a little more snow than the south side. I struggled again with a couple moves, including a butt slide down a snowy slab with a lot of air to the right. We then followed a rib down the west face. I was getting tired of the scrambling, so I elected to descend lower on the face. The steep, loose rock did not relent for entire 2000’ down to the basin. This is probably the most annoying descent route I have done on a 14er. The west face is a rotten, loose mess. James and Brian were waiting for me at the creek, so we refilled our water bottles and caught our trail. The traversing trail back was more tiring than I anticipated, as the switchbacks and minor ups and downs took their toll on us. About a half mile from the car, we lost the faint trail despite our headlamps so we bushwacked the rest of the way, arriving at around 7:30. The S-Ridge on Snowmass is indeed a classic climb. The difficulty reaching it is what makes it not as well known. This was a rewarding climb capped off with astounding views throughout the day. The road to nowhere turned out to be a great day with a little persistence!