A Reflection from Sneffels
In a wild dream state caused by some unknown affliction, I stood at the top of some unknown couloir on the southeastern side of Mount Sneffels, gazing out over Yankee Boy Basin with complete glee. This was my first taste of “steep” snow climbing and I ate it up like lukewarm chicken noodle. The sky seemed to exhale again as it opened up with cerulean vastness without even a smidgen of cloud in sight. The earth kindly blessed us with perfect weather for a foray in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.
The first tumultuous ten-week block of medical just ended, which was the most difficult part of my academic career to date. The end of a two-year relationship with my girlfriend compounded the trials and adjustments required to adapt to the heavy workload. Without a plane ticket home, we had to live together for a post-break-up period of two weeks! Anyways, I had five days to decompress from that trying period and prepare myself for the next block of genetics and neoplasia.
I left later than desired, but made it to Molas Pass around 2:30 pm. I had planned to take a quick jaunt to Jura Knob, but the pass and surrounding peaks were incased in clouds dropping sleet and snow. I could have done the trek, but I feared the drive into Silverton would prove nightmarish in my two-door civic—I had to press on into the valley.
I paid a visit to Silverton and walked around. How they manage to maintain their small mining town atmosphere is wonderful. All the stores and restaurants in the town are locally owned so strip malls and Wal-Marts don’t violate the mountainous terrain. I proceeded several miles north of Silverton toward South Mineral Creek and set up camp a mile or so off the main road. I ate some pasta, drank peppermint tea, and gazed south to a cloud-shrouded Kendall Mountain as coyotes called to each other across the valley in the fading light.
A flake of frost from the tent ceiling kindly woke me a half-hour after my alarm should have gone off. I snapped to, made a ham sandwich with plain cream cheese in a blueberry bagel. Not the tastiest of breakfasts but it sufficed. I quickly dressed and headed out. Having not found the dirt road the day before, I decided to park at the rail station and attempt a ford of the river and continue straight up the mountainside to meet the road that traversed it. At that moment, the air vibrated violently as a helicopter flew low overhead and landed 200 feet away where a couple large SUVs and a fuel truck waited. Too focused on the mountain and the task at hand, I continued on. Disappointingly, the river flowed a little too deep for a dry crossing, which forced me to double back. Yet, luck would strike for a local observing the copter was congenial enough to direct me to the bridge further upstream. In my civic coupe, I finessed my way up the road slowly. I cringed whenever I came across a large embedded rock in the road. Unscathed, the car and I cut off a couple hundred feet from the hike and got me back on schedule.
The official start time was 8:30. I gazed back after a hundred feet of walking and the mountains blessed my eyes with a wonderful blend of color, angles, and scale. Those are the moments I hope for whenever I set off for the mountains—an instantaneous period in time that seems to last an age, etched in the mind forever.
I meandered onward and upward as the sun illuminated the freshly snow-covered peaks across the valley. I came to realize how recent snows accent the striking features of these peaks, bestowing on them an even greater aura than what they possess during the summer.
The basin opened before me as I skirted the last tree alongside the road. The sense of freedom gained at that moment seemed to lift the baggage that had accrued on my back over the last ten weeks, allowing me to breathe unhindered once again. The physical manifestations of mental stress that had built up in the muscles of my upper back and ribcage finally released—I felt a lot better.
Increasing snow depth impelled the dawning of gaiters and slowed my progress. Along the road, the snow had an average depth of half a foot but the snowdrifts reached two feet. The slow going spent my patience so I veered right, directly up the steeper grade to the ridge. The slope gave way and I stood basked in a sturdy wind between Kendall Mountain (the peak directly above Silverton) and another peak about the same distance away towards Kendall Peak.
A quick survey of the atmosphere showed an increasing presence of dark clouds coming from the west. Lenticular clouds tumbled above and the Sneffels Range had become engulfed by ominous clouds. I decided to tag Kendall Mountain and head down to avoid trouble. I navigated little cornices along the ridge until I happened upon the road again. I weighed my two options for a couple minutes. I balked at having to trudge through even deeper snow along the road that curved left around to the summit. The ridge proper called to me. It appeared like 4th class in places but mostly 3rd class—fairly manageable. Some loose rock made me cringe at points as a fall would plant me at least 100 feet down on to the road below. The ridge eventually let up except for one last man-sized snowdrift that required a couple full-body thrusts before a path gave way. The summit came soon after and despite the stabbing winds, I basked in sunlight and watched the clouds march closer from the west. I stood there for several minutes until a chill ran up my neck signaling me to continue on.
Without thinking, I climbed down a large part of the ridge I came up. Before I realized it, I had gotten myself in a precarious position strung out over rock outcroppings in search of snow into which I could plant my feet. Slow deliberate movements over an extended period brought me a snow tract I could follow straight down slightly off the ridge. I returned to the buried road and struggled through virgin snow for 15 minutes before I rejoined the steps I made on the way up. I had to take another quick break in the cirque to ease my grandma’s worries with a phone call. Beyond that, I sped back to my car with thoughts of a hearty dinner in Silverton ricocheting in my skull.
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