| East Snowmass Creek Grand Traverse
or Things To Do in Aspen When the Weather Holds
Peaks (in order climbed)
Willoughby (13,142') - 532nd highest
PT 13020 (13,020') - 627th highest
PT 13336 (13,336') - 365th highest
PT 13244 (13,244') - 444th highest
Baldy Mtn (13,155') - NR
Ditch Trail (Snowmass Village) - appx 8980'
From CO82, turn onto the Brush Creek Road (access to Snowmass Village). At the signed split where the Brush Creek Road goes left to the main village mall and parking, turn right on Divide Road (signed for Dogsledding) to the top of the hill where a small sign for the Ditch Trail marks a hiking trail. For parking, take a left then a quick right onto Pinon and another quick right into the paved parking lot before entering the private residences. You will likely hear a lot of dogs barking from the dogsled operation (Krabloonik) nearby.
(Dead GPS, estimated from maps and TOPO! Software)
The Elks. For some reason this wonderful range often gets overlooked when I am making climbing plans, but I have been making an effort to correct that the last two climbing seasons. I am not sure what it is that keeps me away, it’s a strange range for me to access. Its almost too far for a daytrip, but too close for a weekend. Half the range is accessed from Crested Butte, and it seems by the time I get to Gunnison, I just keep going to Lake City and the San Juans instead. The Aspen side seems strangely unfriendly with limited options for free camping, or even free parking for that matter, but at the same time too far to drive in the morning. It’s a strange predicament, but I am trying hard to get to the Elks more, and after a trip like this, its easy to see why so many people rank it as their favorite range. Just a heads up, this trip report is a bit wordy, and also from 2 weeks ago, but the adventure into a bit of the unknown in a less traveled corner of the Elks hopefully makes it interesting enough to hold you attention, enjoy.
PT 13336 Summit View
West Side of East Snowmass Creek: Gentle Rolling Ridge
I drove out in the morning, seeing as the trailhead is surrounded by private property and not available for my usually preferred car camping start, and reached the trailhead around 6am. The directions helped, otherwise I would have blown by the turn as it looks like you are going into a neighborhood. I started off down the relatively flat and wide Ditch Trail as it wraps below parts of Snowmass Ski Area heading for East Snowmass Creek. This saves a lot of elevation from starting at the lower trailhead (same as the Snowmass Creek trailhead used to get to that 14er).
The ditch trail ends at East Snowmass Creek and you have to ford the creek and bushwhack about 100 feet to reach the actual East Snowmass Creek Trail. If you are not doing this loop, pay very close attention to where you need to bushwhack back to the creek or you might end up way below it on your way home later in the day! The trail is in good shape, and well maintained. There wasn’t even any deadfall on the trail. After a while, the views start to open up and you can finally see Willoughby Mountain ahead. There is a valley to the north of a steep tree covered ridge, but as I got closer, the ridge started to look like the better route - less willows. The ridge was fairly steep, but the open trees made for easy travel and I was soon at treeline. (Ridge is on left of pic)
From treeline the route to the ridge is all on steep grassy slopes, again making me feel like I took the right route choice, so far easy bushwhacking and no steep scree slogs. Can’t complain about either of those! Reaching the ridge at around 12,700', the remaining route was over talus and then a nice climber/game trail that goes almost directly to the summit.
The views are stunning, and I would have been more than satisfied to call it a day here and return to the car. In fact, that was the original plan, but with the “if the weather holds” caveat of trying to run the ridge south towards hopefully at least PT 13020 and PT 13336 while I was back here. Taking in the summit views under beautiful blue skies was fantastic, but the weather was holding and I decided to keep going.
Ridge South of Willoughby
The climber/game trail continues on the ridge and helps bypass a couple of early false summits. Gave me a good preview of the ridge between PT 13336 and PT 13244 as well, looks a little "toothy", hopefully those towers won't be too bad.
PT 13336 Ridge Preview
Nice views of Buckskin Benchmark from this ridge as well! That is a great hike from Maroon Lake, highly recommended!
By now PT 13020 was coming into view nicely as well, looks out of place with all that white rock in a sea of red rock and green grass!
PT 13020 Ridge Ascent
As I got closer to the low point connecting to PT 13020, I noticed a large elk herd below the ridge in upper East Snowmass Creek. They saw me too, and despite being on the ridge and not all that close to them, their flight reflex kicked in and they ran off.
Elk Herd Takes Off
I kept going over the last false summit and started up the ridge on PT 13020. The ridge had some class 3, but the route finding was straightforward and the rock pretty reasonable.
Final Ridge to PT 13020
Surprisingly, in this sea red peaks, PT 13020 is white and looks more like the rock on Snowmass than the Bells. The views are equally fantastic from this low summit, the lowest 13er in the Elks, but I kept the visit short. The weather was still good, and I wanted to make sure I at least got up PT 13336 while I was so deep in this drainage so as not to “orphan” it. Not that having to come back would have been a bad thing!
East Side of East Snowmass Creek: Things Get Interesting Here
I retraced my steps partway, and then started the steep loose descent to the pass between East Snowmass Creek and Willow Lake. It wasn’t too bad, but care was needed as many of the rocks were not stable.
PT 13020 Descent Ridge
The rock abruptly changed back to red at the pass and the usual looseness that is associated with it came too. There were several cliff bands that had to be negotiated here, but I could find a way through that never exceeded class 3.
PT 13336 Ascent Ridge
After this initial steep push, the ridge mellowed slightly, before becoming a third class white rock ridge that reminded me of the southwest ridge of Hagerman (probably similar to Snowmass’ S-ridge as well). This ridge was quite enjoyable actually, and the most fun scrambling of the whole day.
Final Push up PT 13336
The summit views are wonderful, especially off towards Pyramid and Maroon Bells across the flat high Willow Lakes plateau (See lead picture on the report). This is a classic summit, and worth the trip for anyone - pursuing the 13ers or not. You can access from Maroon Lake as well via Willow Pass, which is the standard access.
The weather was still looking good, it seemed everything was east of me in the Sawatch, but the Elks were looking good, and more importantly, the weather to the west/southwest (where the winds were coming from) was clear and it looked like things were going to stay that way for me today. The ridge to PT 13244 was certainly tempting, but it looked really intimidating. I even signed the summit register that I wanted to check it out but wasn’t sure if it would go and that I might find myself turning around!
Ridge to PT 13244 Looking Intimidating
The ridge was an unknown, I had not seen any trip reports that had traversed it, and wasn’t sure what to expect. Earlier from across the valley, that image of the many "teeth" on the ridge combined with the view of the east side of it from the summit, had me wondering if the towers could be bypassed or not. I honestly thought I was going to be turning around, and early on the ridge it seemed like that was going to be the case.
Initially the route finding was going well, I tried to stay as close as I could to the crest and was able to with a few class 3 moves, despite some difficult looking spires. A really funky mushroom like tower seemed like it could be a problem, but the left side of it went pretty straightforward to a class 3 slab with a nice cracked ramp feature across.
Early Tower on Traverse
So far so g- wait a minute...
Showstopper Notch from Above
Hmm, well that notch is going to be a problem, maybe if I drop a little to the left? Nope, what about a little higher and off the right? Yuck, very loose looking 4th class. Well I could jump it, what are you nuts? It might “only” be 5 or 6 feet across, but that 10 foot drop is not something you want to come up short on! Besides, you know loose the Elks are, how do you know the other side is even stable? Nope, it was as nice idea, but looks like you are heading down. PT 13244 will be there some other time...
I backtrack to avoid some steep steps below me, then traverse back to where I am following the edge of the gash that creates the notch. Trying to satisfy my curiosity, I keep peeking down every crack and gully seeing if something might go, and lo and behold, I found one! A nice short class 3 chimney, and I am back in business.
This Way Works
Yeah, glad I didn't try and go through the notch at the top of the ridge crest!
Showstopper Notch from Below
I am now discovering that there are class 2 slopes that I can take to get to the next “ridglet” below the next tower.
Bypassing on Ledges
This pattern along the west side of the ridge, about 50 feet or so below the ridge continues, and actually works quite well! Each ridglet has some reasonable class 3, then another class 2 sidehill. The sidehilling can be loose, but so far wide and not too sketchy and this is working well! Maybe this will work out after all?
...and Some More
I come to a ridglet that I can’t descend the other side of, but climbing up it looks like some nice class 3 and I follow it back to the ridge crest and things are looking pretty good.
Back to the Crest
The scrambling is not that sustained, I was surprised that it was mostly class 2 and that the class 3 wasn’t too bad, I was getting a false sense of security that it was going to stay this was and I was going to easily find myself clearing the “toothy” part of the ridge, but wasn’t quite there yet. Some of the towers looked pretty sketchy, but the rock was better than I expected most of the time, and I was able to keep going so far.
Unfortunately I found a tower I couldn’t clear, this notch wasn’t going to go either. Now the west side of the ridge looked too daunting to continue using it as a bypass. The east side of the ridge is steep, but there is a narrow ledge below me that I can get to with some careful sketch class 3 down climbing.
Can't Get There From Here
I may have pushed my luck, and this is the part where perhaps this traverse is not such a good idea after all. The moves are calculated, the holds tested and retested, but I am now on the narrow ledge. Not out of the woods yet, as more steep down climbing is necessary to get to the notch that stopped me from the ridge crest. The holds seem to barely be attached to the mountain, but with proper leverage I can keep them in place, roll the foot too much to the outside, and they are gone. I need to use my hands to lower myself the last bit, but those holds aren’t too great either and need to be pushed into the mountain as I lower my weight. Phew, that was intense, but I am clear.
Sketchiest Bypass of the Day
I can nearly see the entire ridge from here to the low point at the end of this section. That is a great relief. I am back on the ridge crest now, and the route has eased a lot, class 2+ now and nearing the final step before the col. A few stretchy class 3 moves on a short cliff band and I touch down on easier terrain. Curiosity satisfied, ridge traversed survived. That was fun, let’s never do that again...
Phew, Glad That's Over With!
While the ridge mellowed, there is still one last steep “hump” in the way, similar to the earlier climbing out of the saddle with PT 13020 and PT 13336, the ridge was steep and a little loose with some easy class 3 to bypass a few short cliff bands. The back side went smooth as well, just a few of those class 3 cliff bands in the way before the difficulties cease and the gentle grassy ridge run I enjoyed several hours ago on Willoughby, repeated itself and PT 13244 was happily reached. This peak makes it onto Lists of John’s 50 Least Climbed 13ers list, despite being relatively easy to climb from Snowmass Village. A lot easier than from the south!
Off to PT 13244
PT 13244 Finish
There were still a good 5 miles to go to get back to the car, and an unranked 13er in the way. I make short work of Baldy, then traverse a rougher section of ridge before reaching the top of Snowmass Ski Area. Not having ever skied there before, I wasn’t sure how to get back, but I saw the top of some lifts and headed that way hoping for a trail map. Across a sea of willows and to the top of the Sheer Bliss lift, somehow that seems an appropriate name to go with the beautiful views from this long ridge tour.
Sheer Bliss, Couldn't Have Said it Better
To my relief, there is a trail map, which I take photo of for reference on my descent, and map out an exit strategy that starts by following Sneaky’s to the top of the next set of lifts. Having crossed below the Campground Lift earlier, I head down the Campground Run to the top of that lift and manage to pick up the Connector hiking trail that leads back to the Ditch and my car. Along the way I get a few last looks at Snowmass and Capitol, and the first threatening clouds of the day off to the west of Capitol. I am now well below treeline and on my way to the car though. A day that started off as potentially a single peak climb of Willoughby Mtn, somehow turned into a grand adventure and a grand tour of East Snowmass Creek from above. I was glad the weather held, and glad I decided to give the Elks another go. I have never had a disappointing trip here, maybe my limited trips helps keep this a special area, but whatever the case is, this range deserves the accolades and attention. I brought stuff to camp overnight, and headed to Aspen for dinner and a quick walk around town then drive over to Castle Creek to set up camp for the night and a trip up Pearl and “Oyster” on Sunday. I don’t want to waste a trip to the Elks, might as well make it a two-fer. To bad I dropped my camera on the Pearl Pass Road because the views of Castle were stunning. Oh well, another excuse to come back...
Thanks for reading, keep exploring and never be afraid to see if the ridge goes even when it looks intimidating. You might just surprise yourself... I know I did.
Mt Daly and Campground Chair on Exit
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):