Snowmass Mountain, 2019

  • Date: September 21, 2019
  • Partner: none
  • Height: 14,092 feet
  • Range: Elk
  • Route: East Slopes (Class 3)
  • Overall Distance: 22.00 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 5,800 feet (TH to summit)
  • 14ers climbed: 36 separate climbs
  • 14ers remaining: 17
  • Road Condition to Trailhead: This is any easy drive from either Aspen or Glenwood Springs.  It’s paved roads and then an easy 4 miles on dirt; a 2WD vehicle can easily make this.   

I don’t know what it was about this mountain that made me feel nervous before embarking on this climb.  Perhaps it was the stories I had heard about people getting lost.  Or maybe it was the distance involved and doing the climb solo.  Regardless, I set off from Denver on a beautiful fall Friday afternoon and arrived at the trailhead in the afternoon.  There were few cars in the parking lot.

I set off for a 9-mile journey due south in some of the most gorgeous country in the Elk Mountains.  All the aspen trees were fully golden in color.  It was turning chilly and a bit overcast as the trail meandered alongside Snowmass Creek for a few miles.  I momentarily got turned around at a confusing intersection of trails but was able to figure things out; be careful here.  After a couple of hours, I was treated to a stunning view of Snowmass Mountain off in the distance from an impressive overlook (see the first picture in my album below).

It was approaching evening as I made a crossing of Snowmass Creek via a huge logjam.  I turned on the afterburners because I was loosing light and still had a few miles to go.  You will gain about 2,600′ of elevation just on this approach hike, so do not underestimate it 🙂  Once again, you will come across a confusing intersection of trails just before Snowmass Lake; be careful here and head straight ahead.  Once I arrived at the lake, it was pitch black.  I found a spot to pitch my tarptent by headlamp, jumped in, got underneath my quilt shivering and tired, and could barely finish a sandwich before falling fast asleep. 

I slept straight through until about an hour before dawn.  I cached all unnecessary gear, trimmed down to my alpine kit, and set off to make my way around the lake.  Regrettably, I never found any trail.  After crashing through dwarf willow thickets and muddy bog for an hour in the dark on the south side of the lake, I finally arrived to where the real climbing began.  

There was a very steep ascent coming up from the lake, with poorly defined trail, over fine powder and loose, small scree.  My mistake was that I stayed too far to the left, when I should have stayed to the right and hiked up an obvious creek bed with more structure for footing.  It got so steep that with the poor footing, there was a point where I started to feel the first waves of panic.  My fall last year on Maroon Peak definitely has made me more conservative in my approach to mountain climbing and it also reminded me of the fact that I am human.  I had to calm myself down for a few minutes and was able to gingerly make my way laterally into the creek drainage and continue the ascent.

Once at the top of the first rise, there was a vast, gently ascending, grassy plateau heading into a large boulder field with snow drifts.  I could plainly see the summit ridge and, in the absence of any trail, decided to gain it to the left (to the south).  Taking my time, it took the better part of an hour to get to base of the summit ridge.  Thank goodness I had my Kahtoola microspikes with me.  This was a recurring theme in all my trips this year as there literally was snow in the mountains all summer long.         

At the base of a rocky knob, now the climbing became Class 3.  I made my way to a notch on the spine and was greeted with a stout, cold wind.  Looking to the northwest, there was a long, moderate ascent to the summit with plenty of exposure and steep places to take a fall.  There were no other climbers around.  In fact, I had not seen anyone since yesterday afternoon.  Very carefully, testing every ledge, foothold, and handhold, I crawled along the west side of the spine of the summit ridge and took all the time in the world.  There were cairns here and there and places where you could see a trail that frustratingly vanished into a dozen braids.  It was slow going.  The summit block itself was an interesting problem and took me a few tries to find a route.  I summited just around noon and hunkered down in the boulders up top to rest for a few minutes, eating some chocolate and drinking my usual celebratory Mountain Dew for energy.

You can well-imagine how much time it took me to get back to my camp site.  I pumped a few more bottles of water, packed up the rest of my gear, put in my ear buds for some music and podcasts, and headed off at a quick pace down the trail.  It was nice and sunny and pleasantly warm.  I arrived at my car early evening and prepared myself for the long drive back to Denver.

To be honest, I am really glad this climb is behind me.  It is a long, serious commitment best done over two full days if you are in shape.  I am going to give this a solid 7-to-8 on my Colorado 14er scale of difficulty.  If you are going try this, especially as a solo endeavor, then you need to take it seriously.  The good news is that it is exquisitely beautiful and you will be able to say you truly accomplished something.