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Mount Sneffels
Elevation: 14,150 feet
Climbed: Aug 30, 2004
Mountain Range: San Juan Range
Colorado Rank: 27th
Class Rating: 2+
Latitude: 38.003300
Longitude: -107.792000

Trip Report

Aug 30, 2004
My brother Randy and his neighbor Mike were coming from St. Louis for the second year in a row to do some mountain climbing in Colorado. As last year, Mike from St. Louis was called Wild Mike and I was called Mountain Mike, since I live in the mountainous state of Colorado. This helped avoid confusion when Randy would call out our names.

We chose Mount Sneffels as our first mountain of the week, with its class rating of 2+. Since none of us had ever climbed a mountain with a class rating higher than 2, we thought this was a way to introduce ourselves to a somewhat more challenging mountain, without committing ourselves to a full-fledged class 3 route.

Our virtual guide was Gerry Roach, author of "Colorado's Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs". I used Roach's maps in the book to plot our planned 2+ route onto my National Geographic Topo! software, from which we printed maps and downloaded GPS waypoints to our handheld GPS units.

Randy and Wild Mike arrived in Colorado Springs on Saturday. We made a last minute trip to REI to pick up a few things, including some freeze-dried food for a potential backpacking trip. A trip to King Soopers took care of our grocery needs. We staged our stuff in the garage, deciding to finish packing the vehicle the next morning. We went out to eat at Three Margaritas, a Mexican restaurant serving Colorado and Wyoming, with my daughter and granddaughter, Jenny and Mariah. After dinner, we were tired and decided to skip the Mountain Music Festival in Manitou Springs, a free, low-key blue grass and folk music gathering held each year just before Labor Day.

We woke up Sunday morning without benefit of any alarm clocks. We finished packing, printing maps, and loading GPS units, hitting the road before 10:00 AM. We headed to Ouray, CO, via highways 24, 285, 50, and 550, traveling through the towns of Buena Visa, Gunnison, and Montrose. We stopped for lunch in Gunnison and visited Gene Taylor's Sporting Goods. We left empty-handed, but saw a lot of nice equipment in their two-floor store.

Just south of Ouray, we took dirt road 361 to the right, which is the same road you take to Box Canyon Falls. However, we passed Box Canyon and proceeded 8 miles up the road, past Camp Bird to the Atlas campground. This is where Roach starts his route of Sneffels, but the four-wheel-drive road actually goes another two miles or so past Atlas campground, to a trailhead parking area.

We paid the $10 required fee and set up our camp in site number 40, across the road from Sneffels Creek. It was a large campsite, with plenty of room. We only pitched one two-person tent, since Randy planned on sleeping under the stars for the entire trip.

On the other side of the road, across the creek, was an abandoned mine. We scrambled up the side of the tailings to investigate the dilapidated buildings and structures on top. The footing was a bit treacherous coming down. After watching Randy and Wild Mike slip and slide their way down, I noticed a nice little switchbacked trail leading down from the mine, so I took that.

We sat around a fire while darkness fell over the mountains. Before too long, we turned in for the night, Wild Mike and I in the tent, and Randy on a tarp under the stars. It was very chilly during the night, but I still got a little warm. I was sitting up adjusting my bag, noticing that the full moon had risen over our campsite, when I heard a single, short, loud yell. I recognized Randy's voice, so I listened, not wanting to wake Wild Mike, wondering if Randy was yelling in his sleep or what? Wild Mike soon roused and asked "Was that Randy?" I called out to Randy, who was most certainly wide awake. Randy said he heard some rustling next to him, but had ignored it. Finally, he rolled over to see what was going on and found himself staring into the eyes of an elk, or possibly a large deer. The yell that emanated from Randy's lips was an involuntary sound, probably a variation on the "Fight or Flight" survival response, passed on from the days of "Ur", the caveman.

Needless to say, "the yell" caused the large ungulate to bolt into the forest, leaving Randy alone with his thumping heart. After pushing his heart back into his chest, Randy finally settled down enough to fall into a fitful slumber; however, he did opt to pitch his tent the next night.

Our watch alarms woke us at 5:00 AM. We got ready in the cold dark of the morning, making our last-minute gear checks and having a bite to eat. At 6:08 AM, we hiked out of camp, just as the gray, dim light of early morning let us turn off our headlamps and flashlights.

We hiked up the 4WD road in the cool morning air, wading across at least two areas where shallow water crossed the road. A vehicle passed us on its way to the trailhead parking area. We continued to hike on the road until the trail went straight at a point where the road switchbacked sharply to the right. The trail more or less followed the course of Sneffels Creek, visible below us to the left.

After a while, we came to an unnamed lake, shown on our maps at an elevation of 12,200 feet. Passing on the right side of the lake, we continued up the trail, keeping our eyes open for the faint trail that would lead to our class 2+ route. About the time we found ourselves climbing some steep switchbacks, Wild Mike announced that his GPS unit showed we were slightly off course. Consulting our maps, we learned we had just passed the faint trail we planned to take. Randy was already well above us on the switchbacks, so we continued up to Randy to discuss the matter.

Since we didn't want to descend and give back any elevation we had already gained, we decided to continue up the trail to another point which would allow access to the other trail. At that point, we would make our final decision on what we wanted to do.

Once we reached the point where we had to choose our route, we had a clear view of both the South Slope, leading to Scree (Lavender) Col, along the class 2+ route, and the Southwest Ridge, along the class 3 route. The South Slope looked steep and unpleasant, with slippery dirt alleys down the center and lots of scree along the sides. We could see other climbers, looking like mere specks, climbing through the scree on the South Slope. It did not look like a lot of fun, nor did it look easy. The Southwest Ridge was also visible, rising in front of us with its jagged ridge line and sharp, snaggy pinnacles. It did not look easy, either. In fact, it looked quite intimidating and challenging, but it also looked like a lot more fun than climbing through the scree. We discussed the pros and cons of each route, but in the end, we listened to our inner voices telling us to "do it." We chose the class 3 Southwest Ridge route for our ascent, and the class 2+ route for our descent.

We headed up the Blue Lake Trail to Blue Lake Pass. The views were fantastic from the pass, with the Blue Lakes visible almost 2,000 feet below us. Gilpin Peak rose 13,694 feet just to our south. The Southwest Ridge jutted into the sky to the northeast, waiting for us to climb onto its rock-strewn back and begin our climb toward Sneffels.

We started out climbing along the west side of the ridge, staying high on the talus and bypassing the pinnacles on the lower ridge. We continued to climb along the base of the obstacles on the ridge, at times clambering over some steep terrain covered with loose talus. Soon, we came to the first of several gullies we were to encounter.

Since we had not planned on taking this route, our GPS units were loaded with waypoints for the class 2+ route, but not for this route. Therefore, when we came to multiple route choices, we weren't always sure which route to take. The maps were not detailed enough to help, although we did rely on Roach's description of the route for guidance. He did describe some of the crucial decisions we had to make, though not all. Roach has no route description between leaving the lower pinnacles and reaching a prominent 13,500-foot notch on the ridge crest.

So when we came to two diverging gullies, we followed the eastern (right-hand) gully. Wild Mike went ahead, disappearing above us. Soon, Wild Mike called down, declaring the gully "difficult-to-impassable." Randy went down to see if the western (left-hand) gully was a better option. When Randy returned, he declared the lower section of the western gully too difficult to navigate. While Randy went above to help Wild Mike investigate, I traversed over the small ridge dividing the two gullies, gaining access to the western gully above the point Randy had found it impassable. Once in the western gully, I was able to scramble up to the top of this gully.

With difficulty, Randy and Wild Mike were able to get themselves back down the eastern gully to a point where they could traverse to the western gully. I saw Randy appear far below in the gully, but he could not see me up above. We were now in voice contact again, even as Randy soon disappeared from sight again. Before long, Randy and Wild Mike clambered up the gully, joining me at the top.

We continued gully-climbing until we reached a severe and radical series of ragged, vertical rock faces. This jumbled mountain of stone was obviously impassable, so we backtracked a very short distance to a notch into a descending gully that headed east. Here we sat and read Roach's route description, describing a "prominent, 13,500-foot notch on the ridge crest north of the pinnacles." Checking our GPS units, we discovered we were at about 13,500 feet. This description matched our exact location, although the described route now said to ascend a south-facing gully. It turns out that we had to descend this eastern-facing gully before the southern gully became visible. The descent was short, but loose, so we took turns descending to avoid creating a "bowling alley" effect of falling, bouncing rocks.

There are some definite class 3 moves required in this gully, mostly to get up and over some boulders that don't offer many hand or footholds. One spot in particular gave us a bit of trouble, an obstacle that Randy described as his most difficult maneuver of the trip. Once past this section, we got to the top of the gully, where it lead us onto the top reaches of the Southwest Ridge.

Though the final gully was more challenging from a technical point of view, the last section of the ridge was the most difficult for me, since it introduced significant and dramatic exposure to the last part of our climb. We became much more focused as we began climbing just east of the ridge line, climbing over solid rock, but without any margin for error. Randy lead the way, soon announcing that we should get on top of the ridge, since it was becoming much too steep to be anywhere else.

The next section of the ridge is the part that defines this climb for me more than anything else we did that day. The trepidation I sometimes feel when reading about exposed mountain routes made me uncertain as to how I would handle actual exposure. I didn't know if I would become frozen or awkward in my movements. I was about to find out. There was no turning back at this point, since the hole we were digging was getting deeper and deeper.

I moved onto the top of the ridge line, climbing to a section that seemed not much wider than my shoulders. Considerable exposure was visible on both sides, but especially on the ridge's west side. When my gaze would wander over the edge, a wave of sensations I can't really describe rushed over me. Blocking out my peripheral vision, I concentrated on the task at hand, which was crossing this very specific section of ridge line. Focusing only on placing my hands and feet onto secure rock, one in front of the other, I walked on all fours across this exposed ridge line.

The scramble to the summit was anticlimactic. It was a nice feeling to be able to walk on solid ground for the last few yards as we approached the summit of Mount Sneffels. Wild Mike got the honors, deserving to summit first after selflessly grinding out the last sections of the ridge in the tail position.

The weather was beautiful on top, so we leisurely took a few photos, ate lunches and/or snacks, and chatted with a few climbers coming up the other route. We got some information on the route we would descend, since everyone else we saw had come up that way. We talked with a couple from Ouray, taking their photograph with their own camera, and talked to a pair of climbers from Florida.

Leaving the summit, we climbed down for about 200 feet over broken ledges, heading for the exit crack leading to the couloir above Scree Col. The exit crack was a nice little 2+ move, where you had to hug one side of the wall to avoid the other side, which fell steeply away for 10-15 feet.

Descending the couloir took patience, stepping onto and over an assorted jumble of sharp-edged rocks. With several people in the couloir, we all took care not to dislodge any rocks and create runaway hazards for those below us. Wild Mike and Randy were faster descenders than I, especially when my right knee began its typical complaints. They were both at Scree Col, the saddle above the South Slope, as I finished my descent of the couloir.

Several people were taking a breather at the saddle. The man from Ouray thought he might try to "glissade" down the dirt alleys, but his wife said she would climb down the larger scree-covered sections. That was the approach I was definitely taking, since the dirt alleys were steep and slippery. The Ouray couple, the climbers from Florida, and I all started down the South Slope about the same time, although we were spread out across the slope, depending on our descent strategy. Randy and Wild Mike were slightly ahead.

As I worked my way down the west side of the South Slope, I noticed some climbers chose a route near me, while others chose to descend near the center of the slope. I continued to descend, until something caught my attention. Looking over, I saw someone sliding down the center of the slope, feet-first, with their arm flailing, trying to grab something to arrest their descent. They were finally able to grab a rock with their fingers and hang on, stopping on the side of the mountain.

Those closer to the fallen climber were able to reach him soon after he went down. Wild Mike was the first to arrive, helping to roll him onto more stable terrain, so he wouldn't continue sliding down the mountain. Randy was soon on the scene, as well. By the time I descended to the same elevation, several other climbers were also tending to the downed climber, so I stopped on the west side of the slope and watched and waited.

Initially, I thought the person that went down was the Ouray gentleman who wanted to glissade down the mountain. Soon, after talking with Randy and Wild Mike, I learned that it was one of the Florida climbers that fell. He stayed down for quite a while, as some of the cuts and abrasions on his head were treated. Eventually, he was helped to his feet, but could not walk.

A plan formed: the healthy Florida climber would stay with his partner, and Randy and Wild Mike, the fastest descenders, would take off with the keys to the Florida climber's Jeep, which was parked at the closest trailhead. From there, they would drive the Jeep down the mountain to Wild Mike's GMC Yukon, parked at our campsite. Wild Mike would drive to Ouray, if necessary, to contact Mountain Search and Rescue.

Making sure the injured climber had enough food, water, and warmth, including Randy's emergency space blanket, Randy and Wild Mike took off down the mountain. If I could keep up, I would ride out with them to contact help. If not, I'd hook up with them later.

We stayed close for a while, but eventually, Randy and Wild Mike disappeared from view. I would not see them again until I was hiking down the 4WD road.

At the bottom of the South Slope, a trail through the talus became evident. Hiking at this point was much more pleasant. Before long, I came out at the trailhead parking area, an area we never saw on our route up the mountain in the morning. At the parking area was a couple from Iowa who had driven up in their Jeep. They had talked to Randy and Wild Mike on their way down the mountain, when they asked if the couple had a satellite phone.

As I talked to the couple from Iowa, a man in a truck drove up, planning to backpack in and camp before he climbed Sneffels the next day. He agreed to take food and water that the Iowa couple provided up to the injured climber. However, the Ouray couple soon came off the mountain and we learned that the downed climber had all the food, water, and warmth necessary. There was nothing more to do until Search and Rescue showed up.

I hiked down the 4WD road for a mile or so, feeling pretty good, when Randy showed up in the Jeep to offer me a ride down the mountain. Even though the offer was tempting, I decided to hike down the rest of the way to camp. As I watched Randy drive back down the road, I wondered if I would regret my decision.

It seemed as if the road went on and on, but it was probably only two more miles down the road to the camp. It seemed like a lot more, especially when contending with the loose gravel on the road. A motorcycle and a couple of Search and Rescue vehicles passed me going up the road, but they didn't stop. They knew their mission. The late afternoon sun was getting lower as I traveled through Yankee Boy Basin, past the sharp switchback where the trail left the road, the same trail which we had followed early that morning. Wading through the low-water areas where the water crossed the road, I knew I was close. Around another bend and there was the Jeep, parked along the road by our campsite, with Randy and Wild Mike sitting next to it in portable camp chairs. After getting some water, snacks, and tennis shoes, I grabbed my own chair to sit by the road and hear the rest of the story.

As we sat and waited for Search and Rescue to appear, Wild Mike filled me in. Neither Randy nor I had seen the beginning of the fall. Wild Mike may have been the only one to see the Florida climber lose his footing and start to slide on the steep slope. As he picked up speed, his feet caught, pitching him forward head-over-heels at least twice, before sliding feet-first down the slope. Randy had gone back up the slope to retrieve the climber's belongings, and the slope was so slippery that Randy had a hard time just getting back to where the fall began. Wild Mike had driven all the way into Ouray for help, since an emergency phone just down the road wasn't working and no one appeared to be home at the few houses he passed.

While we waited by the road, a motorcycle came down the road, which turned out to be a "first responder" to the scene. Another emergency vehicle came down and let us know that the last vehicle, with the climbers aboard, would be down soon.

As we sat and waited, we recalled the climb of Sneffels and the Southwest Ridge that we had explored. We were in amazement and disbelief of all we had seen and felt during the climb. We were still feeling a lot of the sensations and excitement of our climb, and we were glad to be down in good, though tired, shape.

The last vehicle came down the mountain, with the injured climber sitting in the passenger seat and his partner in the back. He completed the story for us.

After we left, the downed climber began to shake, either from cold or shock. His partner decided to climb to the saddle above the South Slope to see if his cell phone would work. Even with Ridgeway, CO, visible in the distance, it would not, so he started back down to his injured partner. By now, with painkillers in him, the injured man regained some use of his legs. He starting climbing backwards down the slope, then decided to slide on his backside down the mountain. He wore out two pairs of pants on the way, but he got down the slope. From there, he hobbled his way to the trailhead parking lot, where Search and Rescue picked them up. It appeared that he would be very sore, but would recover just fine. That was good news to end a great and exciting day!

After the excitement and fullness of the day's climb of Mount Sneffels, we decided to choose something a little more mellow for our next adventure. We broke camp the next morning, heading for the La Garita Wilderness Area east of Lake City, CO. We would backpack in that night and climb San Luis Peak the next day.


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