| Three Musketeers on Sneffels‘ southwest ridge
As we approached Mt. Sneffels on a beautiful August morning, I felt the most eager anticipation I had ever experienced in my brief time of climbing 14ers. Sneffels would be our third 14er on our weeklong trip to the San Juans, and our fourth overall. Its rugged beauty and history made it a must-climb. But it would be the first mountain that we would climb by a route other than the easiest "standard" route. We had decided to go for the southwest ridge route, described by Gerry Roach as a "sporting alternative" to the class 2 standard route.
So up we drove on the stunning shelf road toward the Yankee Boy Basin trailhead. We felt no compulsion whatsoever to follow a 3,000-foot rule. If Sneffels had been our only destination this trip, I suppose we may have felt differently. But we were climbing several other mountains this week which required long trail hikes, and were more than willing to pass on that part of the experience this time. We would drive as high as the road would let us, and enjoy the fun stuff at the top. The upper reaches of the road were brutal, as advertised beforehand, but really not much worse than much of the road below that stretch.
(Nature's deconstruction of this building had a beautiful symmetry.)
The entire route from Blue Lakes Pass is essentially visible as you approach the mountain from the east. In the long months leading up to our trip, I devoured every trip report I could find on the southwest ridge route. I pored over photos and described the route to anyone who would listen. When no audience was to be found, I described it to myself: "behind those stunning pinnacles … up almost to, but not through, a prominent notch … an exit to the right, into a short downclimb … up a series of chutes and gullies .. you pop out on the ridge, and run it right up to the summit."
(Can't help but get excited on this approach.)
The trail leading up to Blue Lakes Pass was a simple hike, but the views helped really get the blood pumping: Sneffels directly in front of us, several magnificent 13ers around us, and beautiful lakes far below us to our west when we reached the pass. As we worked our way up the Class 2 trail running west of the rugged spires of the lower ridge, we saw another lone climber coming up behind us, moving faster than us. Soon he caught up with us and we became acquainted with Jim Wiegman, a.k.a. CrazyDiamond80 on 14ers.com, climbing his thirty-something 14er in less than a year and a half in Colorado. He climbed with us for a while and we shared photo-taking favors. Because Jim doesn't post trip reports on this website, I borrowed heavily from his excellent photos, with permission of course. His entire album for Sneffels is at .
(The fun is just beginning.)
We headed up toward a prominent notch between the two tallest towers visible in this stretch. We knew somewhere shortly below that notch, we should turn to the right and negotiate a brief downclimb along the east side of the ridge. I spotted cairns leading to the right when we were still quite a ways below the notch, but was easily convinced by Jim and the rest of our party that we should not pursue that path. I think it may have reduced the amount of downclimbing, but the price may have been negotiating a difficult, cliffy traverse. We continued toward the notch.
The right turn shortly below the notch seemed very obvious to us when we reached it. First, a short traverse on the east side of the ridge ...
This led into a little more downclimbing, and we soon found ourselves looking up a steep, loose gully. Here we encountered what I found to be the most difficult climbing of the day. There was enough exposure to be dangerous, and the route I followed (and my daughter with me) was a tough, nerve-wracking climb. Our pace slowed considerably. Mark took a higher route to our left which seemed much better in hindsight. Advice for others: don't downclimb too far coming out of that traverse. Stay high, working to your left.
(I think both the photo above and the one below are of that loose gully. That's Jim
in the top photo. It looks like he found it to be easier than I did.)
Soon we were past the tough spot and nearing the top of that initial gully. Several more fun chutes and gullies followed, in a sequence I don't exactly remember. One turn could easily have been missed had we not learned from pre-trip research to look for a narrow chimney to our right as we neared the top of a gully which otherwise led to nowhere. Before long, the chutes and gullies were done, and we were looking at the sweetest section of a very sweet route.
(Jim Wiegman photos)
Jim had moved far ahead of us by now, and I ended up in the lead of our family threesome as we headed onto this new terrain. Here we again knew from advance research that there are at least two choices. One choice parallels the ridge about 10-20 feet below it; the other follows the ridge proper. We had long since agreed we wanted to follow the true ridge. But as I moved out, I suffered a momentary lack of gusto and started following the lower route, which appeared easier.
Fortunately, my brother is never shy about ordering me around. "Whaddyadoing?" he snarled from below. "Go to the ridge!"
(I could practically hear the ridge calling my name ... oh, wait, that was my brother ordering me around.)
Big Brother's advice is not always perfect, but it was dead-on this time. We charged ahead into the most wonderful stretch of climbing I have ever experienced in my brief time on the mountains. Solid rock with excellent holds made the class 3 scrambling easy and fun. The views were magnificent and the exposure exciting but manageable.
(Mark looked around enough to find the kissing camels after Maryjane and I blew right past them.)
(Gotta allow Dad one indulgent photo of his daughter. Maryjane reprises her Longs Peak pose from last year)
I don't think words can describe how I felt on that ridge. Exhilarated doesn't begin to do it justice. My heart soared with joy and thankfulness. I felt fresh from the short approach, now acclimated to the altitude in our fifth day in the San Juans, and getting more comfortable with the exposure on every climb. I loved the way my 50-year-old limbs responded to the challenge.
(Jim's view looking back at us.) (Jim Wiegman photo)
I knew we were setting no speed records. The fact that Jim had moved far above us toward the summit underscored the reality that more experienced climbers could move much faster than us. But by our standards, we were moving quickly and easily up the ridge.
(Pausing, of course, for quite a few photos.)
(There was a little exposure.)
I felt so dialed in it seemed like I could literally have run along that ridge had I wished. There are some sections with pretty extreme exposure. I remember coming to perhaps the narrowest point, a short saddle with harrowing dropoffs on both sides, thinking, "that should scare me but it doesn't." I passed lightly over it without a pause.
Maryjane, about 20 feet behind me, had a more appropriate reaction when she reached that point. "Whoaaa," she said aloud, stopping in her tracks.
I laughed and offered some essentially meaningless fatherly encouragement. I was so pumped I felt none of my typical consternation over dear daughter's safety. If I had been a little closer to her, I may have been more concerned, because I would have heard her whispering "oh, my God" to herself repeatedly as she calmed her racing heart. But she handled the move with no problem, once she took the time to survey the terrain and muster her confidence – as did Mark shortly afterward.
(Pardon the second "shoe shot," but it tells the story of that narrow saddle.)
Maryjane and Mark were proceeding at a pace more appropriate to our experience level, which I realized was a good thing. I was so geeked I was at risk of doing something really reckless. I should have paid more attention to that little warning in my head about over-confidence. We would finish Sneffels without incident, but that hubris would lead to serious trouble a few days later on El Diente.
(Beautiful views in every direction on this route.) (Jim Wiegman photo)
The incline of the ridge eased too soon to a class 2 walk-up near the top. The three of us re-grouped shortly below the peak and walked arm-in-arm together to the summit. Jim awaited us there, and we shared congratulations and photography services. With apologies to Jim, the three of us also shared our now-traditional Three Musketeers bar.
(Lavender Col from at or near the summit. Garrett is visible next to the small snow field.)(Jim Wiegman photo)
(Three Musketeers on the summit.) (Jim Wiegman photo)
We loved the small summit of Sneffels with its spectacular views of the San Juans. Below us to the east, we saw a familiar face - Priscilla, who had rented us our condo in Ouray. An avid hiker in the area, she was summitting her first 14er with an experienced friend.
We started down and met Priscilla's party a short distance below the summit. Her guide-friend explained an alternate route down to Lavender Col. Instead of the steep, loose, partially snow-filled gully that most people take, we worked our way down the south face until we neared the bottom of that gully, then veered into the lower section of the gully down to the saddle. We would later find the upward version of this alternate route described in Dawson's book.
(Fuzzy photo, but it shows the east face route that Priscilla and her friend took up, and we took down.
The two gals are visible just left of center.)
Jim accompanied us down to the saddle. He said he made a point of moving slowly on the way down, noting that many, perhaps most, serious climbing accidents occur on the downclimb. Still over-charged from the ridge, I skipped on ahead, walking a short exposed ridge section and leaping off of it onto a flat rock below, much to the horror of my brother and daughter behind me, who couldn't see the wide flat landing pad below.
(What would you think if the guy in the orange helmet lept out of sight?)
(Coming out of the upper gully onto the col.)
(Blue Lakes Pass and the adjacent peaks as seen from Lavender Col.)
My airy confidence came to an end when we started down from the saddle in the huge couloir that is the standard route. I struggled mightily with the loose rubble in that gully. I tried walking upright, using my hands, zigzagging short switchbacks every 10 feet or so -- nothing worked. I stumbled, rolled on rocks, kicked debris loose, and generally made a mess of the downclimb. Because I was having the hardest time, I ended up going down the slowest, which put everyone else below me, and therefore in the line of fire from the debris I knocked loose.
Most of what I kicked up stopped moving after a few feet, but one baseball-sized rock picked up velocity as it headed down. My cry of "rock!" had more urgency than usual, and Jim, about 100 feet below me, turned around. He snapped his head back as that projectile skipped off a boulder and flew by a couple feet from his head.
I apologized from above. Jim just laughed. "I've had closer calls," he said.
I appreciated his gracious nature. A response more like "watch what the #$@(%* you're doing!!" would have been just as appropriate.
But I noticed a few minutes later that Jim had quickly put a lot more distance between himself and me -- like 300 feet or more. Apparently he decided that in this case a quick descent away from the firing zone was safer than his standard slow-moving downclimbing. We wouldn't catch up with him until later that afternoon, at a pub in downtown Ouray where we reminisced about the experience over marguerites.
Eventually I would find better footing on slightly larger rock to the right of the main trail. Our hike back to the trailhead was mercifully short, and we all endorsed in hindsight our judgment to blow off the 3,000-foot rule.
(The beautiful shelf road.)
So ended our fourth 14er hike, but no account of this trip would be complete without telling of our visit the following day to the Orvis Hot Springs.
Maryjane and Garrett had learned of the place a couple nights before when they visited a Lake City watering hole while Mark and I rested our weary bones after climbing Wetterhorn. They were clearly the only out-of-towners when they walked in the small-town pub, and they imagined themselves as being viewed somewhat suspiciously until they ordered shots and beer. That must have been an approved choice of refreshment, they said, because they were immediately thereafter welcomed by the other patrons like long-lost friends.
When they told the Lake City locals of our plans to spend a few days in Ouray, they were advised to skip the downtown Ouray hot springs, described as having more resemblance to a crowded community swimming pool than the type of exotic hideaway that one would envision. No, said the friendly natives, go to the Orvis Hot Springs, a few miles north near Ridgeway. It's much more natural.
Natural, indeed. "Clothing optional," Garrett read from a brochure, as he and Maryjane were telling us about it back at our cabin.
I looked at our group: my brother, my daughter, my daughter's boyfriend and me. "Not for us," I declared. "We will opt to remain clothed." Nobody argued.
And so, the following afternoon, we entered the spring area, with what we considered to be conventional attire for a dip in the pool. We soon concluded that the term "optional" in the brochure was code for "don't bother", as we were the only ones of the 15 to 20 people in the pool area with anything on. Most of the clientele, with a few notable exceptions, consisted of heavily tanned sixtyish guys with pot bellies and more white hair on their bodies than their heads. I believe my daughter when she said she did her best to look the other way, but there were enough of them that at times there was no other way to look.
At any rate, we enjoyed the soak, and the terrain was indeed more natural than that of the downtown Ouray pool. After three summits, something like 20 miles of hiking and 8,000 vertical feet, a relaxing dip was just the thing.
I didn't realize what a faux pas our swimwear was until we started to leave. Wrapped in towels, we passed yet another round oldtimer coming in. "Is that yours?" he asked me, pointing to a key sitting on the stone patio we had just left.
"Oh, my gosh, it is," I said, thanking him for pointing it out. "It must have fallen out of my pocket."
The old guy chuckled. "You don't have any pockets," he said.
For reasons I cannot explain, I felt compelled to tell him I did, and opened my towel to display my swimming trunks. I was taken aback by how offensive he found this. He stared at me for a moment with an expression that approached shock. Then he shook his head in obvious disgust, turned and walked away without a word, bidding me a cheeky farewell to the Orvis Hot Springs.
(Okay, this isn't really a picture from Orvis
Hot Springs -- no cameras allowed, for obvious
reasons -- but it gives you the general idea.)
Thus chastised, we moved on to a more conventional tourist undertaking, the True Grit Saloon in Ridgeway, where we reminisced about our experiences to date and talked about our fourth and final goal: El Diente and the ridge traverse to Mt. Wilson.
(We really hated to say goodbye to Sneffels and Yankee Boy Basin.)
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):