Intro/StatsMt Sneffels (14150')
12.8 miles RT, 5000' gain
From Senator Gulch winter closure (9142')
March 14, 2011
Participants: Dwight, Dominic, Sarah, Matt, & Kevin
Winter is drawing to a close and it has been a good one in terms of getting some long weather windows. The weekend was looking like a beauty, so a trip to the San Juans was in order. After a successful climb of San Luis on Saturday, we checked the forecast for Sneffels and it looked like we had a reasonable shot at it. We dinked around on 3 low peaks on the way from Creede to Ouray and they turned out to be a bit more strenuous than we hoped complete with steep mud and a nasty gully descent. I hoped it wouldn't come back to bite me, as it was going to be a long march up Sneffels.
After a nice dinner in Ouray at Buen Tiempo, we car camped at the winter closure at Senator Gulch. This is right before the big switchback that puts you on the shelf. I found a suitable flat spot to setup my tent, which turned into a mud bog when I got down. The start from here adds 8 miles round trip to the day from the lower summer trailhead.
We decided on a 4am start since Lavender Col is a south facing aspect and gets plenty of sun early. The night was very warm, 30 degrees as we set out, probably my warmest winter camp. Matt would join our team as he was with us on San Luis and was interested in a ski descent of the Birthday Chutes conditions permitting. Matt now has 38 14er ski descents under his belt including Capitol. We seemed to be moving pretty slow early on as we plodded up the road. It was a bit spooky hearing water dripping as we passed underneath the shelf overhang. Wonder what it will be like when we come down!
The slog to the lower trailhead seemed to take forever, but it was only 2.5 hours. We donned snowshoes about halfway up, but there was almost no trailbreaking to this point. I was anticipating an exciting sunrise in Yankee Boy and it did not disappoint. Just like last spring when we climbed T5, the views over to Teakettle and Potosi were exquisite.
The sunrise brought us renewed vigor, and hopes were high that we would find stable snow up high. The trailbreaking effort continued to be minimal and we cruised on up to the base of Lavender Col. I must say that Gilpin is one of my favorite mountains to look at in Colorado. It's cloak of virgin snow was captivating. It is quite a formidable fortress in winter, as are many of the peaks around here.
The steep slog up to the top of the col went pretty quick as we kept our snowshoes on for traction on the hard snow while Matt took his skins off and booted up.
We ended up on the left side of the slope and got on some moderately steep snow. I ditched my snowshoes and got the axe out for the last steep bit up to the base of the upper couloir as the footing wasn't the greatest. I started leading us up the wrong gully as I was too far west, but a local from Montrose who was cruising corrected me and got us back on track.
The safest winter variation is to get out of the upper couloir early at a notch to the left and follow the ridge up. This avoids the 4th class crux at the top that was loaded with snow. It would have been a time consuming effort to get up that and would have required a rope. We exited stage left on some steep snow through a little 4th class notch that was fun.
The upper couloir:
Steep snow to the ridge:
Once on the ridge, the exposure is notable to the left, but the climbing is straightforward. We had one little tight spot of rock to squeeze around, but other than that, we just followed the bucket steps that were installed by the dude from Montrose.
Traverse to the summit:
I've been on Sneffels in May and June, and it seemed a bit spookier in March with more snow, but still very reasonable as the snow was supportive. We topped out at about 10:30 and were rewarded with my favorite view from a 14er. For some reason my summit pics didn't save to my card, so here's a video from the spectacular summit.
We didn't hang around for long as the day was warm and we needed to get down before the snow softened up. We bid Matt farewell as he prepped for his descent of the Birthday Chutes and met him at the base of Lavender Col. The initial descent off the summit is the most exposed part, so we took our time and faced in for a few spots until it laid back. We successfully navigated the two rock cruxes and were in the clear. We were rewarded with a nice glissade, then stripped down to base layers for the long hike out in now seemingly sauna like temps.
Downclimb from the ridge:
We passed by the spot where Dominic and Sarah were married in summer '09. The views of the Secret Cross couloir on T5 were inspiring from here as it was filled in quite well.
The slog down the road wasn't bad as the snow was consolidated enough to avoid postholing even though it was getting very soft. The remaining crux was sneaking by some very intimidating icicles at the overhang on the shelf road. Water was running down the cliffs and it was unnerving to walk right underneath potential rockfall, so further down I put on my helmet!
We made it down to the cars at around 2:20, while Matt was down around noon. Twas a glorious day on Sneffels!