Mount Sneffels, 2020

  • Date: October 2, 2020
  • Partner: none
  • Height: 14,150 feet
  • Range: San Juan
  • Route: South Slopes (Easy Class 3)
  • Overall Distance: 7 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 3,000 feet (car to summit)
  • 14ers climbed: 40 separate climbs
  • 14ers remaining: 13
  • Road Condition to Trailhead: A 2WD car can make it about 6.5 miles up a reasonable dirt road from Ouray. Beyond that, a stock 4WD can make it an additional mile to the “lower” Yankee Boy Basin Trailhead.

My third and final 2020 trip back West occurred last weekend. I decided to mix things up and tackle a mountain in the San Juan Mountains, my favorite range in Colorado. Hence, I left Charlotte, NC early Thursday morning and, after a brief Dallas, TX layover, arrived in Albuquerque, NM around noon. Getting a rental car was a snap and I settled in for the 3.5-hour drive up to Durango, CO. In my opinion, getting into the San Juans is logistically much easier doing it this way, then coming in from Denver.

After picking up some food supplies in Durango, I then had another 2.5-hour drive to Ouray. While it’s only ~75 miles as the crow flies, you’ll have lots of twists and turns along the beautiful Million Dollar Highway to slow you down.

I finally arrived in the vicinity of the lower trailhead around 7 PM and I parked alongside the road at roughly 11,100′ to make sure I was abiding by “the 3,000 foot rule”. By the time I rummaged through my things to get packed for the next day, it was already dark. I decided to just sleep in the rental car; I’m glad I did because it got down into the mid-20s F that night.

After tossing and turning for several hours of light sleep, I decided to get after the climb. There was a beautiful harvest moon out, so bright that I didn’t even need to use my headlamp. The first mile consisted of simply trudging along an old mining road that ended at the upper Yankee Boy Basin Trailhead (~12,500′).

Since I was short on time this trip, and was therefore once again adopting “run-and-stun” mountaineering, my strategy for this climb consisted of several layers. First, after a recent MRI, I had been informed by my orthopedic doctor that the reason why I had been experiencing pain in my left knee was because I’ve had a torn meniscus and a strained lateral collateral ligament the last couple of months. Hence, I was determined to take it slow. Second, to fight off the nausea from the 24-hour sea level-to-14,000′ ascent, I would not eat solid food. My diet would consist of candied ginger and regular Gatorade. Third, I had taken Diamox the past few days. I’m happy to say this strategy appears to have dialed me in 😂

I made my way into Yankee Boy Basin and onto true trail whereupon I took one of the best pictures I’ve ever taken in all my years out in the mountains (see above). As I reached the base of the South Slopes, the first rays of the sun finally began to appear in the east. This trail goes straight up the slope at about a 40 (?) degree angle. The middle of the slope is scoured and sandy, perfect for a slip-and-fall. My advice would be to stay to climber’s left and try to gain what purchase you can in the loose rocks.

At the top of the South Slopes was a saddle. At this point, I had probably walked about 3 miles and was at about 13,500′. To my left was a notch known as the Lavender Col. By eyeball, it appeared to be steeper yet, maybe 50, 60 degrees, and filled with larger rocks and boulders. Interestingly, even though this was tougher Class 3 terrain, I’d say it was easier to climb because of more stable and sure footing. After a few hundred yards of this, I saw the crux of the climb.

The crux of the climb is a V notch formed by two slabs of rock raised at over waist level. One of my favorite mountaineering websites (14ers.com) has this rated as an “easy Class 3” move. I cannot agree with this assessment (also, see here) and I personally found this move to be sketchy. There is no easy way to get into the notch. You will have a very small toehold to plant your foot midway up the entrance wall and a couple of smaller rocks wedged between the slabs to grab onto (smaller people could have trouble with this move). To your immediate left is exposure where a fall would be almost certainly serious. In one motion, I was able to get my right knee up and into the notch to secure myself before pulling myself through. On the way back down from the summit, it is best to slowly downclimb this notch backwards; you will not be able to see where to put your feet if you do not have a spotter. Word to the wise: if you are inexperienced in the mountains or uncomfortable with exposure, do not trivialize this crux move.

After I was through this, it was about 100 yards of Class 2+ scrambling up to the summit. Luckily, I met a very nice couple (Amy and Kevin) up there and we decided we’d join forces to get back down through the V notch together. Thanks for the spot, Kevin. And happy 47th birthday, Amy. I took my time to get back to the car, not only to watch my knee, but because it was so much fun to be out in the great Colorado outdoors.

I was originally going to give this short, steep hike a 3 out of 10 on a scale of difficulty, but the crux move causes me to move up to a 4. This might be one of the best 14ers for summit viewing I’ve been lucky enough to stand on to date. This was made even more spectacular by the 360 views of all the aspen changing color and the blue lakes off in the distance. Go get this one as soon as you can before winter comes …