Clouds part to show Upper Blue Lake through lichen painted towers.
Lucky 13th Climb to the Head of the Grand Valley
I am not a superstitious person, but when I faced climbing Mount Sneffels for the 13th time, I felt just a bit queasy. I promised to take Greg Reed, Sports Editor of the Free Press on an adventure this summer. I let him choose the direction. He decided to climb Mount Sneffels because it is one of the highest peaks in the state, it is at the head of the Grand Valley, and it is an easy but thrilling summit by many accounts.
The Mirky Climb of the South Ridge
Greg Reed negotiates the easier south slope ledges of upper South Ridge on Mount Sneffles.
We headed out early Saturday morning after the rainy Friday-night to avoid the threat of getting soaked or shocked by a nasty afternoon storm that frequent these high mountains. As we climbed into Upper Yankee Boy Basin we were delighted at the displays of thick morning mist concealing and revealing the mysterious landscape like Mother Nature’s lingerie.
Despite my nervousness, I decided that this display of weather deserved a climb of the rock-splintered Southwest Ridge. We rounded Blue Lakes Pass and were struck by the towers and mist reminiscent of Mordor in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. I had been on this ridge before but the conditions made this time rare and special as random windows in the vapor opened to frame the Blue Lakes below, the surrounding peaks, and the vast lowlands the west.
We passed the prominent notch on the ridge as the climb steadily increased in grade and difficulty, yet decreased in oxygen. Just as we entered the fog layer toward the summit, I quietly related to Greg that this would be my thirteenth time on this summit…if I make it (I would knock on wood, but there isn’t any wood that high!) Just then the smooth rocks seemed to tilt ever more and Greg got just a touch nervous. I convinced him to traverse to easier slopes on the right or south of the sharpening ridge but to zag back to finish the ridge crest onto the summit in style.
Once triumphantly on top we joined a small band of climbers from around the state for one last peep at the surroundings before the high clouds enveloped the summit in a white bath of cold steam. We high-fived, singed the register, and spent a half our on the classic shaped peak basking in summit elation and a cool misty sauna. I have been on many summits since I began my mountain climbing fascination nearly sixteen years ago, but Sneffels is still my favorite as well as my first. This trip was foreshadowed with unlucky numbers and unfavorable weather predictions yet it turned out to be my most scenic tour yet...I hope to have more in the years to come.
On the main route down, the clouds held to the ceiling but gave way to brilliant green tundra still speckled with wildflowers clinging to life in the high basins. Everything went smooth descending the standard route down the scree-covered wall beneath Lavender Col. We each slipped at least once trying to boot ski down the ball bearing rocks. The falls only resulted in wide smiles and belly laughs as our luck prevailed for the duration of the hike out and through the drive home back into the warmth of our homes in the valley!
Upper Yankee Boy from below Lavender Col on Mount Sneffels.
Everyone wants to say they did this one. It rates consistently as the favorite summit of those who climb all of the fourteen thousand foot high mountains in the state.
Road Directions- Drive South on Highway Fifty through Ouray. Turn right onto Campbird Mine Road. Follow this two-wheel drive road cut out of a cliff side to camping near the Weehawken Trailhead ($10 fee) or to the old Sneffels town site camping (free.) High clearance two-wheel drive cars can continue to the turnaround and pit toilets seven miles from highway 50. High clearance four-wheel drive vehicles can continue approximately two miles further (and higher) to the upper trailhead and a shorter hike.
Mist lines the walls of lower South Ridge of Mount Snffels.
Start early…Make your way into upper Yankee Boy Basin. Follow any variance of trail to beneath the headwall of Blue Lakes Pass. For the main route go right up the broad scree slope to Lavender Col above, then left up the five-hundred foot couloir to an obvious gap breaching the left hand wall allowing access to the summit. For the South West Ridge climb, go to the top of Blue Lakes Pass. Go right up the class three ridge making a slight drop and traverse to the right or south at the first small notch. Continue up the cleft in the ridge crest to the steeper upper summit ridge which can be easier on the right or south side slopes. This route is for competent scramblers and is not recommended for descent.
Mist lines the walls of lower South Ridge of Mount Snffels
For a summer climb of Sneffels or any Colorado fourteener, two to three liters of water, snacks, rain gear, light insulation, and a first aid kit are good ideas to bring for all things are possible on these high and committing peaks. Summit Canyon, REI, and LOKI Outerwear (clothing only) are great local sources for gear specifically for hikes of this nature.
Beyond the historical value of the classic Borneman and Lampert guidebook, I prefer Louis Dawson’s two-part guide to climbing Colorado’s Fourteeners. Gerry Roach also has a nice single guidebook for these peaks and has also written a guide to the highest 100 peaks for those who want to stretch their goals to lower but more numerous thirteen thousand foot peaks in the state. A great (and fun) on line resource to find alternative routes and recent descriptions for peak climbs in Colorado and the world is found at: www.summitpost.org
Gilpin through the mist from Mount Sneffels South Ridge. Healthy Pika of Mount Snffels South Ridge of Mount Snffels