Date Climbed: 7/9- 7/10/2019
20 miles, 6000 feet of elevation gain, and one of the snowiest 14ers you'll find in Colorado. Snowmass Mountain is a picturesque peak set in the remote Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness found in the Elk Range. This peak is known for its long approach, but even more so known for its famous "snowmass" bowl which holds snow year round on good years.
A very late start (around 3:45 PM) got me into camp just as the sky turned an inky-blue. The approach had taken longer than I had expected and the log jam had been wiped out with the strong current created by this year's snowpack, forcing me to wade through a thigh deep stream. Nonetheless, I felt energized and ready to conclude my journey through the 14ers. If this went well, only nine remained, four of which could be done in a single day. The plan was to tackle this peak in 2 very long days and be ready for another fight with Maroon Peak the following day (if only I knew how much 12 miles and 6000 feet of travel on snow would tear up my feet!).
A hastily made camp, dinner, and pre-packing, allowed me to crawl into my sleeping bag around 9:30 PM. A 4 AM start would hopefully give me the time I needed to complete this whole outing in a single day. Sleep came uneasily, as very few had summited this year due to snow. I had not even seen the peak yet and just had to hope conditions were manageable. Early the next morning, I ate Clif bar for breakfast, geared up, and began the summit attempt at around 5.
With my most recent 14er experiences, 4 AM was a late start as most peaks during winter have required a 2 or 3 AM start to save as much daylight as possible. I felt energized and ready to take on the day having slept in so much! Once at Snowmass Lake, the route was before me. Unfortunately, the snow was not continuous enough to travel on easily, but intermittent enough that it would require taking the crampons on and off a dozen times throughout the day.
As I began the hike around the lake, the going was slow. Avalanche path after avalanche path blocked the way, making the route tedious and slow. An hour or so of hiking late finally got me around the lake, but with very little elevation gain.
Rising above me was the first crux of the climb: the terribly loose gulley to the snowmass. I figured once I was in the snowmass, travel would be straightforward; it was getting there that would be the problem. As I moved up the gradually steepening snow, my newly purchased glacier crampons (designed to work with any boot or shoe) blew off, requiring a sketchy move over to the rocks on my left. Again and again, my poorly designed crampons came off, making what should have been easy terrain a dangerous ascent (this would be my biggest source of frustration throughout the day).
After 45 minutes of moving between snow and rock, I finally made the snowmass. If you've ever wondered what a glacier is like, this is probably one of the closest things we have to it in Colorado. The ancient glacier that had once existed here, creating the famous snowmass and moraine I had just ascended must have been a sight to see!
Far below, I could see four little dots moving slowly across the snow, moving along my footprints. Another group! At least I wouldn't be alone on this intimidating peak. The route ahead was obvious, but slower than I expected. The suncups that had been burned into the snow were now as deep as my knees, making progress slow, but steady.
Just under an hour of travel later, I was at the second and final crux of the climb: the snow slope leading to the south ridge. Going up should not be a problem (assuming the crampons didn't come off again), but coming down would be. A slip on the upper part of the slope would send me over a cliff. Having just seen a friend slip and fracture a couple of ribs on similar terrain, I had a few nerves moving up. However, once I had stowed my trekking poles and pulled out the ice axes, my fear seemed to go away. The axes were one piece of gear I knew I could count on with my life. Suddenly, the slope didn't appear so steep and intimidating, and I was on the ridge before I knew it was over.
Climbing is a mental game. I know I can do just about any of the climbing, even the hard stuff, but emotionally I'm scared much of the time. Accidents are always possible, and being alone on big peaks miles from help just ups the ante. With this, I have two things I fall back on when I'm most nervous. First are my ice axes. They're solid, tangible, and they've got me through some of the most dangerous terrain imaginable. It's important to have that one piece of gear you know won't let you down, which gives you a sense of comfort. Second, is prayer. Once I feel my anxiety increase, I just begin talking to God, asking him over and over again for protection and energy to move through the dangerous stuff quickly. Without Him to fall back on, I'm not sure I'd have the mental strength to do a lot of what I'm privileged to do.
Ahead lay a jagged, steep, but ultimately dry ridge. Unlike Maroon Peak a few weeks before, there were no unmanageable snow gulleys to cross. It might require a little creativity, but the rock was solid, and the exposure was limited. The going was a little slow, but pretty straightforward. Thankful to have the crampons off, my feet felt much better and solid moving on the rock. It took about half an hour of solid scrambling before the summit was mine, with the most exciting and fun moves made right before the top!
The emotions came on strong. It was a hard fought summit in the most difficult range (in my opinion) in Colorado. All the hours of training and prep had paid off on an elusive summit. In every direction I could see 14ers, four of the five most difficult ones just a couple miles away. Capitol to the north, the Maroon Bells to the south (sadly, my day of triumph would later be overshadowed by a death on Maroon Peak later that day. May God bring peace for his family), and Pyramid Peak just beyond those.
After half an hour on the summit, I was able to make a call to my family letting them know I was safe and would be descending soon. Although I felt strong, my stomach did not, and I was not able to eat on the summit, which would come back to hurt me later in the day. Along the ridge I ran into the party of four that I had seen by the lake earlier that day. I was very happy to see they had not turned around (one was waiting for them to return down in the snowmass). I gave them a few quick tips about the remainder of the route and we moved on our separate ways.
As I had feared, the down climb of the snow slope was slow going and sketchy. The snow was much softer, making the crampons all but useless. By the time I reached the bottom of the slope, I was drenched in sweat from the exertion and extreme heat being reflected by the snow. Thankfully, the glissade down the snowmass was great fun! Once on the rock gulley leading to the lake, my progress slowed dramatically. I was tired, hungry, my feet hurt, and my crampons kept coming off. The rock on the way down was some of the worst I've seen. Everything was loose and steep, and I swore I'd never climb this peak again just because of that one section. An hour later, I finally made it to the lake. Another 45 minutes of frustration as I cut across the avalanche paths back around the lake to camp.
Finally I made it to the tent, tired, hungry, and gasping for water. That's it, day done, right? Nope, still another 8 miles and 3000 feet to get back to the car. After packing and discovering the damage the marmots had done to my cooking gear and sandals, I went off down the trail. Normally, I'd have a pretty lightweight pack, but the required bear canister made everything much heavier and slowed me down quite a bit. The hike down was uneventful, save for the now excruciating pain in my knee and feet. By 8 PM, I was back at the truck. I was satisfied with my summit, but disappointed that there was no chance I could do the remaining 14ers before my family made it to Telluride at the end of July. My body needed (and still needs) rest. So, back down to Denver I went, arriving home at 12:30 AM. So if there's one take-away from this hike, it's this: don't underestimate Snowmass Mountain!