Mount Sneffels is a 14,150-foot (4,313-meter) mountain located in the San Juan Range of southwest Colorado. After Uncompahgre Peak, it is the second-highest point in the entire San Juan highlands. It is instantly distinguishable from all sides as a massive pyramid composed of fearsomely jagged volcanic rock. It is often considered the most iconic mountain in the state of Colorado because of the tremendous symmetry born from its unique array of spires, pinnacles and sawtooth ridgelines.
Climbing possibilities are practically endless on Mount Sneffels, with plenty of trailheads serving routes of all difficulties. The north face presents the mountaineer with a comprehensive alpine examination, while a handful of quality scrambling routes can be found elsewhere on the great massif.
SUMMARY: I climbed Mount Sneffels with Giselle in early-September of the year 2015. Set on attempting the trad route on the north face, we approached via Blaine Basin on the north side of the mountain. We labored up the enormous glacial moraine and scampered desperately up the steep ice at the bottom of the north face, only to retreat off the first technical rock pitch when we realized the overwhelming danger of the route. With barely enough daylight remaining, we traversed across to the upper reaches of Lavender Basin and scrambled to the summit via the class-3 southeast ridge – a satisfying consolation prize for us. The exhausting twelve-hour saga came to a close with our late-night return to the trailhead.
6 SEPTEMBER 2015
Giselle and I awake in the vicinity of the East Dallas Creek trailhead after spending the night in our vehicle parked in a clearing in the conifer forest. We’re about 9 miles south of highway-62, the scenic byway connecting Ridgeway and Telluride through the San Juan Range. From this perspective, there are many fantastic mountains to be seen. The most compelling peak of all is undeniably Mount Sneffels. It towers 6,000 feet above the highway, an ominous pyramid flanked by an obscene number of spires and pinnacles that somehow results in brilliant symmetry. The mountain is both beautiful and terrifying, and we want to climb it.
We’ve been snoozing in the vehicle all morning while raindrops patter gently on the glass sunroof. It’s already 9:00am, so we should probably start moving if we want to get up and down the mountain before nightfall. Leaving our vehicle in the forest, the two of us pack our rucksacks full of technical climbing gear and set off from the East Dallas Creek trailhead (9,400′).
Immediately we branch off the main trail to join the Blaine Basin trail, which climbs for a steady four or five miles up to the base of the north face of Mount Sneffels. The going is a bit tedious thanks to a plethora of dicey creek crossings. With the recent rainfall in this area, logs take on the consistency of soggy carrots – difficult to balance on, and always threatening to snap.
Our first viewpoint comes one hour after leaving the trailhead: a tall slender waterfall at 10,200′ elevation. The two of us deduce that Blaine Basin must be the hanging valley at the top of the falls.
During the ascent parallel to the waterfall, occasional gaps in the forest canopy provide visuals of soaring volcanic peaks like Teakettle Mountain.
When at last we come face-to-face with the north face of Mount Sneffels, the top half of the peak is veiled by wispy clouds, which we interpret as the early gatherings of a certain afternoon shower. Still, they come and go, materializing around the fearsome towers and buttresses.
Some more trudging through the forest brings us to 10,800′ elevation at the bottom of Blaine Basin. As if on cue, the last of the wispy clouds lift from the mountain and finally we see it in full form.
The two of us filter a liter of fresh snowmelt and make the broad crossing through the idyllic meadows of Blaine Basin.
The most direct route to the base of the north face is to follow the creek drainage as it weaves through meadows and around piles of glacial rubble.
At the head of Blaine Basin we begin tromping up a steep grassy ramp, still bee-lining for the permanent snowpatch tucked into the bottom of the north face.
Alpine meadows gradually give way to bare scree – the remnants of a great body of ice that once filled this uppermost basin. As any mountaineer knows, climbing several hundred vertical feet of loose talus can be brutally taxing on the body. Quelling one’s frustration is critical when most steps result in a slight backwards slip and subsequent loss of balance.
Throughout the entire approach, Giselle and I have given hardly any thought to the benign-looking snowfield at the base of the north face. Now that we are at the bottom, we learn four important things about this snowfield: it is unavoidable, it is dirty, it is icy and it is steep, nearing 60-degree incline.
It takes a great deal of psychological concentration and physical balance to climb the snowfield. The risk of a sudden death-slide is ever-present – a risk that augmenting with each desperate kick-step higher on the rather unattractive slope.
Our trouble is not yet over once we reach the top of the snow pitch. The tame-looking ledges above the snowfield prove to be surprisingly challenging due to loose rock and uncomfortable maneuvers. A handful of the ledges require burly class-4 moves to surmount them, with the rock crumbling away on contact. Every so often we come across an old piton hammered into the rock, making us wonder where we are actually intended to rope up.
The definitive rope-up spot is at the base of the main vertical cliff-face. Giselle belays from a dirty, sloped ledge while I lead the first pitch. The first 30 vertical feet of the pitch meander through a dizzying collection of corners and dihedrals with moves that seem true to the 5.6 grade.
A major issue presents itself when I come to a sizeable bulge sticking out of the rock. The broken dihedrals appear to continue to the right of the bulge; to the left, there is a fixed rope trailing down a blank vertical slab. Giselle and I take the presence of the fixed rope to indicate the correct route. Hence I step left around the bulge, delicately smearing onto the bottom of the slab while grasping the fixed rope for balance. My hands search frantically across the polished rock face for a hold, but they find nothing. The only option for ascending this 15-foot blank section is to climb the fixed rope itself.
So, with debilitating rope drag pulling me from below (thanks to my intricate zigzag network of cams and nuts below me), I grab the rope with both hands and begin hauling myself up the face. This entire section is not protectable, so I make a mad dash for the next ledge and hope that my arms don’t give out. When I reach the ledge, I realize I should have been less worried about my arms giving out, and more worried about the fixed rope itself giving out. I nearly stumble back off the ledge in horror when I see that the fixed rope is anchored only by a single nut wedged between a chockstone and the main wall.
No need to mention this to Giselle at this point, for it would only result in her unnecessarily worrying about me. She’s barely still within sight, some 45 feet below me, concentrating on keeping balanced on her precarious belay ledge.
I clip my own rope into the fixed rope’s anchor and try to calm my nerves on the miniature ledge. With horror I see that above me rises another 15-foot vertical slab, not to mention one that appears equally blank as the first. Only difference is: there’s no fixed rope here on this slab like there was below. I do, however, notice a nut wedged about five feet up in the dihedral on the right side – with my inexperience, I interpret this as additional evidence for this being the true route.
I make four distinct attempts at climbing this slab, which is only a meter wide – bound by a dirty dihedral on its right and an outward-leaning arête on its left. I grab the arête with my left hand, the dihedral with my right, and try to shimmy upwards like a monkey climbing a refrigerator. Each time, I find myself several moves up onto the slab with no options for continuation. The wild exposure overcomes me, and I make a panicked downclimb to the safety of the miniature ledge.
Yet my stubbornness (mainly remembering the torturous approach that it took to get to this point) keeps me from simply retreating off the wall. I shake my head, thinking that I have grossly underestimated the difficulty of a 5.6 alpine climb. “It must be my fault,” I think. “This section must be far easier than I am making it out to be.”
Eventually it dawns on me that this route is outside of my ability. There’s no telling what lies further ahead on the upcoming 8 to 9 pitches. With both the fixed rope and rogue nut wedged here above the ledge, this is undoubtedly my best opportunity to escape without having to leave my own hard-earned gear. With heavy disappointment weighing on me, I instruct Giselle to lower me off the two nuts.
And so it was that we retreated off the north face of Mount Sneffels. It would not be until several hours later when we would learn my mistake in route-finding – turns out I made the common mistake of sticking too far left, which appears to be the route (due to the left-behind gear) but is in fact a sort of death trap. But more on that later in this article…
Heads hung low, Giselle and I start heading back down the mountain. Descending the snowfield is even more perilous than we had been dreading. A careless slip while descending the final steps of the snowfield results in myself taking a nasty slide down the last ten feet to the junction of ice and rock. When at last I regain my balance and crawl to the safety of the moraine, I assess the damage. The skin on my thumb knuckle is sliced nearly to the bone, and besides that I’m absolutely covered in wet, heavy mud. Truly a low moment in my mountaineering career.
Bleeding and muddy, I follow Giselle down the enormous scree slope in the direction of Blaine Basin.
It’s 4:00pm when Giselle and I rejoin the Blaine Basin trail. We are feeling discouraged at our failed attempt, and come to the conclusion that the only way to break out of such a funk is to settle for a consolation prize. At this point in the day, we figure we might just barely have enough time to reach the summit of Mount Sneffels by a different route: via Lavender Col, a scenic class-2 scree slog followed by a short section of exposed class-3 scrambling. Choosing this route so late in the day means that we are sure to be descending in the dark, but this seems like the best way for us to gain back our confidence as a climbing duo. After a good deal of debating and considering options, we decide to give it a go.
First order of business is to locate the proper route to Lavender Col. We lack beta information, but assume the col to be tucked behind the summit pinnacle on the south side – in the nape of the neck, if you will. Therefore we contour the base of the massive north buttress until a couloir permits us to once again make upward progress.
This couloir terminates in a grand amphitheater below the eastern ramparts of Mount Sneffels. We now must cross the glacial moraine to reach the far ed of the valley.
Once we make it to the back of the valley, we turn west and look up the mountain. From this perspective, and due to the angle of the sunlight, Lavender Col could not be more obvious. It’s a swoopy U-shaped saddle directly between Kismet Peak and Mount Sneffels.
Now comes the time to scramble more than a thousand feet directly up the class-2 scree slope on the east side of Lavender Col. Ordinarily such an enormous scree slope would give us cause to sputter and lose energy, but our failed north face attempt earlier is plenty of motivation to earn our way back into mountaineering glory. We tackle the great slope with vigor, making very short work of it.
Soon we gain Lavender Col, which must be somewhere just shy of 14,000′ elevation. Looking south from the col, the sharp teeth of Kismet Peak separate a grand panorama of the San Juan Mountains.
Looking north from the col, the final segment of route to the summit is impossible to mistake. A wide gully of loose boulders leads straight to a high notch, and we assume the summit to be either the left or right peak astride of the gully.
So we climb the gully, and its a simple class-2 scramble much like any other in the mountains. The difference here is that our backdrop is a huge colorful painting of raw Colorado landscape.
The top of the gully is reached, and we are unsure which way is the summit. Exactly at this moment we bump into the climbing pair who was above us on the north face route.
They look like they’ve just done battle with a hoard of sinister vampires, pale-faced and shaking their heads, chuckling and saying, “Never again will we do a route like that.” They explain their hardships on the first pitch: the lead climber gives a detailed monologue about following a fixed rope off-route to a scary and exposed arête… a story that sounds precisely like my own experience! The difference is, the leader of their duo had the wherewithal to lower off the fixed rope, pendulum across to easier terrain, and continue up the true 5.6 line.
The trouble did not end there, however: he shakily describes pitch after pitch of sketchy 5.4 climbing on chockstones held together by nothing but mud. No protection, confusing route-finding, and dangerously loose rock. Combined with the steep pitch of ice at the base of the wall (for which they did not bring ice gear either) he expresses his surprise at the staunchly alpine nature of the route. It took them ten hours to complete… while they had been expecting a maximum of five.
As we continue talking, I learn that this man is an experienced big-wall climber in the Andes of South America. I think to myself, “If he had trouble with the route, then Giselle and I might have been at risk of putting ourselves in a dire situation, had we continued our original mission.” With relief I realize that it is not my fault, but perhaps the fault of the route itself for being such a surprise challenge. If anything, I should be more attentive in choosing my first major trad leads. Stick to the classics, I figure.
Anyhow, this other climbing duo directs us to climb the shallow face on the left side of the gully in order to reach the true summit. A short pitch of exposed class-3 climbing brings us to an airy ledge system on the south face of the mountain complex.
To navigate the ledge system, we must make a long and unnerving traverse across the south face of the mountain. The rock here is no better than on the north face, but compared to the terrifying north face, this section feels like a cinch.
We traverse the ledge system far enough until we are able to scramble directly to the 14,150-foot summit. Overflowing with joy, we race up the final pitch and jump wildly atop the summit block, coming quickly to the realization that this was not a failed mission, but rather a giant success and (more importantly) a vital learning process.
As expected, we are duly rewarded for our perseverance. There is nothing interrupting our 360-degree panorama of the wild San Juan Mountains. A sea of colourful and shapely peaks extends in all directions, terminating in a hazy horizon of further highlands. The only area of relatively flat relief is the plateau to the north, a pastoral picture of forests and farmland lying more than 6,000 vertical feet below our 14,150-foot perch.
Daylight is fading, so we don’t stay long on the cold, wind-blasted summit. We descend to Lavender Col the same way that we came, now facing the evil fortress of Kismet Peak head-on.
From the col, we get to enjoy a thousand-foot scree run back down to the lower basins. We send yodels of pure joy to the cliffs and cirques surrounding our measly humanoid bodies.
By the time we get to the base of the scree slope, the setting sun is casting its select final rays on the highest pinnacles.
Nightfall brings incredible darkness to the lower forest. As if by routine (a routine generated through a full summer of mountaineering), Giselle and I continue down the mountain until we can’t see the hand in front of our face, then we don headlamps and stomp gleefully (and exhaustedly) down the remainder of the valley to the trailhead. Our 9:00pm arrival at the vehicle marks the close of an unforgettable 12-hour rollercoaster day on Mount Sneffels.