Mt. Sneffels - 14,150 feet
Mt. Sneffels - 14,150 feet
|A Connecticut Yankee in Yankee Boy Basin|
Like so many New Englanders, I caught the hiking/climbing bug a few years back and made my way out here. I recently moved to Durango and needed some climbing partners. So, I did one of the only things your typical millennial knows how to do: I ran to social media. I had been looking at the Southwest Ridge of Sneffels for a while, but I don't like doing class 3 climbs by myself. I received responses on facebook from 3 folks, and (after putting the climb off by a week bc of a bad forecast), we set off. A day or two before, my friend Julian (dr_j), with whom I have climbed several harder peaks, let me know that he was finally allowed to leave NM to climb. His job had restricted his travel due to COVID, but this weekend he was finally able to come up. One thing to note about Julian -- he climbs barefoot 90% of the time. He did the entire uphill route barefoot, and only put shoes on when in Lavender Couloir on the way down. He, along with Kevin, Travis, Stephanie, and me, comprised our fantastic, fearless group of five. Most of us had never met before, so it was very uncertain how the next day would go.
Still, we had our group. It would be Kevin's first class 3 climb, and Travis and Stephanie's second, and we all agreed that an early start would be best. Julian and I met up and Durango and set off for the trailhead the night before. On the way, we were lucky enough to see some alpenglow on the mountains to our east:
After bemoaning the lack of masks from nearly everyone in Ouray, we went to sleep ready to start bright (well, dark) and early. We met up at the junction for Governor Basin around 5AM. Stephanie's pickup got us to the outhouse, and off we went. I was very pleased to use the back of a pickup as a means for socially-distant carpooling -- catching COVID-19 would have been a poor way to remember the day by.
Another way, of course, was by my poor navigational skills. I had downloaded a GPX file, brought a book (Cooper's "Colorado Scrambles" aka the best thing ever), and studied the route. That didn't stop me from leading the 5 of us astray, however. Shortly into the hike, we found ourselves at Wrights Lake (aka wrongs lake). Taken from the descent, you can see our initial start. Here's the path we came up:
Still, I pride myself on being almost as good at getting un-lost as I am at getting lost. As planned, we were on Blue Lakes Pass by sunrise. We donned our helmets, ate some food, and got the hell out of the wind tunnel that is Blue Lakes Pass.
The wind tunnel wasn't all bad though. Our early start allowed us to experience a spectacular sunrise. Moments like these are why I love it out here:
Still, it was time to focus. My routefinding skill would have to improve. Julian and I were the most experienced of the bunch, so we took turns -- one of us would lead, and the other would bring up the rear. So began a section I now refer to as "gullies and notches". That was the deal here. Travis and Kevin had pictures of the route as well, and we relied on them for keeping us on track.
One gully in particular was vicious, however. After a bit of downclimbing, we had to do some exposed moves to get into our next gully, whereupon we found the climbing to be on the high end of class 3. I decided to go for more solid rock by a wall, and took a line I believe to be more like class 4. Still, we just kept up the theme -- up a gully, to a notch, rinse/repeat.
Past this section, we started to finally feel like we were on a ridge. The views down had been great all day, and they continued to be so. Julian led from here, barefoot as always. He caught us deep in our deliberations on how best to tackle the upper ridge.
Here, we decided to split up a bit. Kevin and I went high on the ridge, staying close to the crest. Stephanie and Travis, always within earshot, took a lower line. The crest was more exposed, but the rock was much more solid. I'm a fan of exposure, and I also wanted to spice things up a bit, so I stayed on or within 5 feet of the ridge pretty much the whole way.
While others were more intense:
We were mindful of rockfall, however, with Travis/Stephanie below us. We let them get ahead of us so that they were far away from our fall line. Here they are climbing up a lower line on the upper ridge. You can see them poking out a little lower down.
As we approached the summit, we had a near-miss. I was climbing up a pitch when I heard the sound of rockfall a little bit ahead of and below me. I turned just in time to see Travis hanging onto a rock, and a few mircowave-sized boulders careening down into the basin. He had pulled one loose, and had cut his wrist up a bit. I called out to check on him, and he said that it had barely nicked his wrist and that he was fine. A near-miss, to be sure. I had seen a few rocks come inches from his head, and we could easily have found ourselves activating Stephanie's InReach had he been a few inches over.
But, with everyone healthy, we got back to climbing. One solo guy had been following my ridge direct line, and the pics I got of him capture the exposure a bit. It really is 2-sided in places, and there is one small section that I had to butt-scoot in order to stay comfortable. Still, I felt so unbelievably alive in this section. Kevin had taken a slightly lower line by the summit, and I had the section to myself. No time to think about anything but the move in front of me -- this is what I live for. Eventually, 4 of us summited around 9:15AM. Julian had been waiting for about 15-20 minutes, as he could watch the group from above while getting the climb done more efficiently.
Side note: I don't love summit signs when they get left at a summit because they violate LNT. The one we found was too big to pack out though, so unfortunately I had to leave it where we found it. Here's hoping someone else brings it down.
We headed down after about half an hour. It was a crowded summit, and there must have been over a dozen people who summited just in the time that we were up there. The descent was surprisingly interesting -- I had read about blind moves in the V-notch over exposure, but I didn't realize how tricky they were. I'm only 5'9", and I found the positioning to be doable, but unlike with most class 3 moves, in this case I was faced in and angling myself very slowly/carefully. It honestly felt harder than class 3.
This may be poor climbing form though. Kevin is my height and had an easier time. Same story with Julian. Then, of course, there's Travis. This picture is what I call the "sometimes it's good to be 6'4"" shot.
The rest of the descent to the upper TH was as advertised. Loose, long, and a little dangerous. Rockfall wasn't horrible, but we dislodged a few between the 5 of us. On the lower slope, I was glad to be short. Less distance to the ground when the scree puts me on my back.
Poor Julian was way ahead by now and waited for us at the base of the slope. I'm a decent scree-surfer as well, but I wanted to keep an eye on the group just in case they were having trouble. We eventually all made it down safe, and soon arrived at the upper TH. Notice how I didn't say "BACK at the upper TH" -- this is because thanks to my routefinding (or lack thereof) we hadn't been there to begin with. We all marveled at one car there -- how the hell did this Lexus from Texas (no, that didn't go over my head) get there? I peeked under the car and there appeared to be no leaks. Stunned, and even more floored as we passed a jeep with a flat lower down, we put our heads down and made the march back to Stephanie's car.
Overall, this was a great hike and a cool way to meet new people. I felt alive in a way I hadn't in about a year. Sustained scrambling and routefinding is what I live for, and I wish it were mid-August right now instead of mid-September. Thanks Travis, Julian, Stephanie, and Kevin for coming along! I'm looking forward to what comes next.
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