This is going to be a very short report on a long day.
Why was it a long day, you ask? I think the main answer is that this is a harder mountain than many reports and descriptions make it out to be.
We drove for a bit over six hours from Colorado Springs to the 4WD trailhead in Lead King Basin. Unsure what to expect on the access road, I was rather pleased to find that the Forester handled it with no real problem. We were already behind, however, and had to negotiate some of the roughest sections with the rising sun shining right in the windshield. It’s a good thing there were two of us, so I could get out and provide directions to Trisha behind the wheel.
But we made it, and without taking any wrong turns (see “Road to Nowhere”). The bad news was that by the time we got out of the car and hit the trail, it was 8:30 am MDT. Not the best alpine start ever. Oh, well…
The first half of the climb, and the first two-thirds or so of the distance, went just fine. A no-sweat hike on a steep but perfectly clear trail, past Geneva Lake and on to Little Gem Lake. The views, not only of Snowmass and its neighbor, Hagerman Peak, but also of Siberia Peak as it came into view, were superb. After surveying the west face from just above Little Gem Lake, we dropped into and across the valley of the creek that runs out of Siberia Lake (Lost Trail Creek?), an upper tributary of the Crystal River.
We decided to climb the northernmost (leftmost) gully, mainly because the entrance to it did not seem to involve any steep cliffs or copious running water. The same could not be said for any of the alternatives. So up we went.
Going up, the slope slowly but surely increases, and so does the average size of the boulders encountered. We tried first one side and then the other, trying to find the easiest line, but my judgment after the fact is that it hardly made any difference. It’s slow, involving big steps and/or loose rocks and scree, no matter what one does.
Up near the top, at perhaps 13,000 ft., we had lost sight of the summit and, indeed, of the crest of the summit ridge. We finally decided that the rock towers we saw directly above us could and should be avoided, and that it would be easier to gain the ridge by moving off to our left (north), and coming up to the ridge crest a little farther from the summit than we had originally intended. We were probably wrong.
By the time we finally did hit the ridge crest, the rocks were just as big as the ones we had been trying to avoid, and we found that we had to climb, or maneuver around, at least two significant ridge points to reach the summit. We were going really slowly by this time. What’s more, the morning’s clear sunshine had been replaced by threatening clouds, and the wind was picking up.
The last few moves to the summit were exposed and definitely above Class 3. But we finally made it, almost eight hours after leaving the trailhead. The summit is tiny and exposed. We could see no trace of an obvious way to or from it, not only on the west side up which we had come, but not on the east side, where the “standard” route is located, either. We were pleased, however to find a register. We signed it, noted only four other entries for the day, took just a few pictures to document our arrival, and contemplated how to descend.
Not wanting to downclimb the moves we had endured to reach the summit from the north, we elected to head down to the south, and descend one of the gullies we had rejected as an ascent route. We knew there was a cliffy section at the bottom, but, by now, that seemed like a small matter. We needed to get away from the summit before the weather got nasty.
We got a few spates of rain, often mixed with grapple, on the way down, and the rock was loose in most places, so this part was slow, too. Not as slow as our ascent, mind you, but slow enough to be good and annoying. Even though there was no ice, and only a little snow, we used our ice axes quite a lot that day.
Two hours later, we finally found a way off the west face by contouring right into the second gully, where the stream flowing down the middle was narrow enough to step across, and the terminal cliffs negotiable, thanks to extensive vegetation and convenient ledges. After that, it was just a short trek back to an identifiable trail, and a relatively swift descent back by the lakes and on to the trailhead.
Fortunately, I had taken my headlamp. I had thought (hoped) that there might be a chance we would arrive at the trailhead early enough to use it starting out. I was not surprised that we arrived there too late to need it. But I was a little surprised that we got there so very late that we did, indeed, need it—at the other end of the day!
As I said: Snowmass is a harder mountain than one might be led to think. We enjoyed our accomplishment, but we worked much harder for it than we thought we would have to. Roach says that "judicious route finding" is needed to keep the difficulty to Class 3. Apparently, we were not judicious enough. Pictures are at: