Fourteener Finisher on Snowmass Mountain's East Slopes

Snowmass Mountain (14092)

08/02/2008 to 08/03/2008

Distance: ~21 miles
Vertical Gain: ~5700 feet
Climbed With: Brian Murray, Ryan Gregg, John Murray, Logan

At the beginning of each of the last four summers I've set Snowmass as a plan for the year, but never got around to it. Brian, Ryan, and I had actually attempted it from the west side at the tail end of a long and rainy San Juans trip last August, but we got to Little Gem Lake, examined the chossy routes up the west slopes, and decided that our hearts just weren't in it. Shortly thereafter Brian and I decided that Snowmass via the East Slopes would make a stellar final fourteener when we got to that point.

Well, after a big push in the month of July in order to make a run at finishing the fourteeners before Brian's wedding in mid-August we were finally ready to try for our final fourteener, almost exactly one year after our first attempt. The tight schedule meant that this would also double as a bachelor party, leading to a bit larger group than normal.

Logan, Ryan, and Brian cross the log jam along Snowmass Creek.
We set out from Denver around 8am and after a stop in Leadville for some food and the traffic in Leadville for the Boomdays Celebration we were able to set out from the trailhead at around 12:30pm. The first few miles of trail were gloriously flat and made for good time. Considering the record heat back in Denver we were fortunate that there was cloud cover to make the journey quite pleasant. We passed a fair number of people on their way back to the trailhead, giving us hope about our chances of securing a good campsite. We reached the logjam at 3:30 and made quick work of it. While I can see how it would be a problem in higher water, we had no trouble with it. And from there we reached Snowmass Lake relatively quickly.

The sunset over Snowmass was beautiful.
Our first view of the lake was amazing and we quickly started searching for a campsite. After searching far and wide and not finding too much that was a reasonable distance from other sites we stumbled upon a great site just off the trail that would be a tight fit for three tents but which worked pretty well. We set up camp and enjoyed the views while fighting off the plentiful mosquitoes. I got out my rain shell and battened down the hatches in an attempt to keep them away. Logan had no plans to climb and was there purely for Brian's bachelor party, so he'd brought fishing gear and we spent part of the evening doing a bit of fishing. We went to bed around dusk.

I slept quite well and had gotten quite a bit of sleep by the time the alarm went off at 4am for a beautiful cloudless and moonless morning. We got ready quickly and Ryan, John, Brian, and I set off from camp by 4:20 and made our way around Snowmass lake through the tedious willows. The trail was easy to follow but the constant tug of the willows on our clothes and arms was tiresome and made us glad that it hadn't rained the night before to make the experience a wet one too. After a surprisingly long 25 minutes we were finally through the willows, around the lake, and on our way up the slopes.

Some virga in the vicinity of the Maroon Bells as the sun starts lighting our route up Snowmass Mountain.
The trail is well cairned and even in the dark we didn't have much trouble following the trail is it started first up the rocks at the center of the slope and then crossed the stream and headed to the nice grassy slopes. We lost the trail a few times on the grassy slopes but it was clear where we were going. By this point we noticed a few clouds to the east as the world around us started getting light. We stopped for a brief break at a cairn and windbreak we found where the slope eased a bit once we reached the upper basin on Snowmass's east slopes.

Pyramid Peak and the Maroon Bells in thebackground with the sunlit flanks of Snowmass Peak and Hagerman Peak in the foreground.
We continued in the increasing light and opted to stop to watch the sunset shortly before we started climbing on snow. It was a nice sunrise and provided a great way to spend a fifteen minute break on a summer morning. We had aimed for a small tongue of snow that descended through a small gully and it provided snow that was well consolidated but soft enough that crampons weren't necessary. From the top of this tongue the angle relented but the snow hardened up and we found some rocks that provided us with a solid place to put on our crampons.

Brian climbs towards the ridgeline on Snomwass Mountain with Snowmass Lake in the background far below. John and Ryan are behind him.
From that point Brian and I started to pull away from the other two as John had crampon issues and Ryan's knee injury was bothering him. I was quite pleased with the way my own injured knee was doing to that point and it felt pretty good. As we got closer to the Snowmass-Hagerman ridge we started to look for a good place to intersect the ridge and found it in a small notch not far from the summit of Snowmass. This was the only remaining place where the snow reached the ridge directly. As we headed up the steepening snow toward the ridge I had to stop on two occasions due to sharp pains in my knee as I tweaked it. In both cases I rested it and it felt better and I was able to continue.

Brian climbs the snow towards the summit of Snowmass Mountain we were aiming for the point just to the left of the center of the photo where the snow meets the ridge.
I wasn't looking forward to descending this particular portion as the snow wasn't in great shape for glissading due to its consistency and the large amount of rock intermixed with the snow. As we approached the ridge itself the snow turned very steep as we crested a bit of a cornice. I'm terrible at estimating slope angles, but I honestly believe that for those 10 feet or so the angle was 65 degrees or more. We crested the cornice and found ourselves with a fantastic view of Lead King Basin and a final fourteener summit that was tantalizingly close.

Brian kicks steps into the very steep snow right before we gained the ridge.

Brian is excited to reach the summit of his final fourteener, which sits just behind him only 25 vertical feet away.
We had discussed waiting on the ridge so that the others could possibly film our final steps, but we were too gripped with excitement and they were 15 minutes behind us at this point. We continued along the blocky rocks on the backside of the ridge, finding the climbing to be easy just as we'd expected. Before long we reached a point just below the summit where we put on our celebratory party hats for the final push to the ridge. A hop, a skip, a jump, and a scramble and we were on top of our final fourteener just after 8am. An amazing feeling.

Using party accessories on the summit of Snowmass Mountain to celebrate our final fourteener.
We relaxed and took pictures for a while and then did some timed shots once the other two arrived at the summit. We ended up spending more than an hour at the summit before heading down just as another group arrived from the west slopes. We opted to descend towards a point between Snowmass and North Snowmass where snow reached nearly to the ridge and the glissading looked much more inviting. The scrambling here was much more difficult than on the other side of the ridge but still not very hard.

Brian took this shot of me glissading down the very sun-cupped snow on Snowmass Mountain with the peak lit up in the background. Notice my pants fashionably tucked into my socks.
The glissade we got was rough but lengthy and it was great to save the wear and tear on the knees. We slowly traversed over to where we had come up and before long we were at the tongue of snow we had first ascended several hours ago. As we descended from this point we increased the urgency of our descent as storm clouds started building behind Snowmass. No lightning, but still not friendly looking weather. We saw one other group at this point still heading up into the storm, apparently unprepared. As we reached the windbreak where the slope levels out on the way up we paused to put on rain shells as the rain (and a bit of hail) started up.

During the descent of Snowmass Mountain the clouds came up rather quickly from the west.
We again lost the trail in the grass, but this time it was a problem because we crossed the stream too early and found ourselves at the top of the scree slope that Roach describes as "steep and unpleasant." Unpleasant doesn't even begin to describe it. Ball bearing rocks on top of hard dirt. You try to grab for some of the larger rocks that protrude from the dirt but find that they're the only part of the dirt that isn't solid. The rain stopped by this point but it was still tedious as we crossed the scree for the relative solidity of the boulders beyond. That just led to some tedious boulder hopping.

The view of Snowmass Mountain from our campsite near Snowmass Lake.
But we made it back down to the trail, albeit after the group that had continued into the storm--they probably ended up 800 feet higher than us and they still made it down faster because they stayed on the proper trail. We made our way back through the willows, and just as we'd figured as we went through them in the morning, they were miserable when wet. But just as we arrived at camp the clouds finally cleared completely and we were left with clear blue skies as we took a short rest and then packed up camp.

The trip out started out with a sprinkle of rain but was generally clear. As we got lower we were hoping for more rain as the warmer sun and lower elevation made for some rather uncomfortable temperatures. While the journey was generally uneventful it sure was LONG and my knee really started to feel the effects of the past day's mileage--and the mileage of the other serious peaks I'd climbed in the past week. The flat portion of the trail seemed to go on forever but we finally arrived back at the car around 5:30 for a great accomplishment. The drive home was unfortunately long due to some serious I-70 traffic even that late on a Sunday; I would later learn that this was the 3rd busiest weekend ever in terms of traffic through the Eisenhower Tunnel.

So that's it for me on the fourteeners and it feels good to finish. Snowmass was a fantastic peak to finish up on. It feels to me like one of the more significant goals that I've accomplished, particularly given the long-term nature. I'm not sure what's next for me in terms of mountains, but this certainly won't be the end of my climbing career. There are still so many more places in Colorado that I want to see and so many more peaks I want to climb. It seems like every time I go out to the mountains I see another mountain that appeals to me aesthetically and calls me to climb it. And it will be nice to climb some less crowded peaks, I think.

A map of our route on Snowmass Mountain. The red was the ascent, the blue was the descent. We would have been much better off had we stuck to the red route at the point where they intersect, but we lost the trail a bit..

The complete picture gallery from this climb can be found here.