Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Snowmass Mountain

Snowmass Mountain became #50 on our list of the 54 Fourteeners to climb in Colorado and so it was time to get acquainted.  We had heard and read of the loose rock and the challenge that all the Elk Range peaks offer and so this led us to some cautious anticipation.  We also know the fun and varying experience that snow offers and so the thought of hiking in the snowmass on Snowmass was a bit exciting as well.

Day 1: Tuesday, July 15

Route Name: Snowmass Creek Trail (Maroon-Snowmass Trail)
Trailhead Elevation: 8,400 ft.
Camp Elevation: 10,800 ft.
Distance: 7.87 mi.
Elevation Gain: 2,891 ft.
Start Time: 2:54pm
End Time: 7:33pm

Once more, my father, brother and I gathered together to continue on our family's quest to hike all of the 14ers.  Our journey starts in Leadville.  My father and I had just hiked out from Missouri Gulch having completed a 3-day backpacking and Mt. Belford-summiting quest with my 3 young boys. You can read about it here.  From Leadville we made the drive to Twin Lakes and then along CO-82 up and over Independence Pass into Aspen.  Using Google Maps we exited the highway into Snowmass Village and found the shortest route to gain the trailhead.

The trailhead is at the end of a dirt road into a decent-sized parking lot where we found almost a dozen cars.  We ended up spending 30+ minutes there repacking our gear since my father and I hadn't had a chance to do this from our previous hike.  We tried to keep it light knowing we had 22 miles to hike over the next 18 hours. My brother brought along some military MREs for us to eat for supper which meant cooking gear could be left behind.  On the other hand, knowing we had snow conditions to come meant we had to bring ice ax and crampons as extra.

From the parking lot there are several great sign boards which get you started with everything you need to know.  We met several dayhikers who were on their way out.  One of them mentioned having gone about 2 miles up trail and seen lots of smoke and the whole valley smelled like it.  We were curious but decided to proceed on.  It would turn out they pretty much didn't know what they were talking about.

A few minutes into the hike we met a nice woman who had a CFI shirt on and indeed worked for them.  She asked us if we knew of CFI and of course we said a resounding yes.  I showed her my sticker on my helmet (thanks CFI!) and we shared our support of CFI and our love for their great work.

As the trail along Snowmass Creek begins to gain distance there are a couple of early landmarks that one can look for to pass the time.  There are three different gates that the trail passes through, which must be closed upon passing, that remind you that some of the early hike is in private property.  Then, about 1.4 miles in, you meet the junction with the West Snowmass Trail.  One blessing of the early hiking is it is nearly flat.  When carrying a 40 pound pack this is wonderful on both the hike in and on the more tiring hike out.

A wonderful (long) trail
Though it is long, the trail sure is beautiful.  It gradually winds its way south following Snowmass Creek almost the entire way.  Just over 3.5 miles in the trail increases in steepness to begin to gain the necessary 2800 feet.  The trail gets slightly more rocky and gains elevation at a slightly steeper pace, but still reasonable with big packs.  Just over another half mile, at about 4 miles in you get an amazing view that you would think was Snowmass Mt.  What you are actually seeing is North Snowmass Peak and the snow field on its northeast slope.

North Snowmass Peak with storm clouds threatening

Photosphere of the Snowmass Creek approach

After that wonderful viewpoint the trail continues along Snowmass Creek and now enters into the drainage that will ultimately contain Snowmass Lake in its western end and becomes Fravert Basin under the Maroon Bells in its southern end.  At about 5.25 miles in the views start to open up and the trail continues along the western end of what becomes a marshy area along Snowmass Creek.  One of the highlights of this route comes about 6.15 miles in with the famous log jam.  Below it the creek is fairly narrow and potentially crossable if the right fallen tree were found.  Above the log jam the creek has become a pond which appears to be 4+ feet deep.  The trail brings you right up to the log jam and a route through the logs is easy to be found.  We found the logs to be pretty stable but were very aware of the fact that a fall off would find one in waist deep water.  

Crossing the log jam
After the log jam the trail continues on nearly level terrain along the creek for another half mile to the beginning of a long switchback.  At this "corner" on the trail there were some people camping in what appeared to be a wonderful campsite, except, for its proximity to all the standing water and the mosquitos.  We began to think at this point that we may perhaps just desire to find a campsite below Snowmass Lake as well.  It is often a debate, shorten the distance with the heavy packs to increase the summit-day distance with a light pack, or vice versa. The folks we talked to there had been up to the Lake already and said they had seen a few sites along the way.  Given the time was also 7pm we were starting to get hungry and opted to start hunting for a site.

Past the logjam, beginning to near the climbing switchback
We worked our way up the long switchback which at its upper southern end entered into the thick forest once again.  We began looking intently for a campsite but found nothing through the woods.  Finally at just over 7.8 miles in, at the southwest end of a clearing, we saw a very obvious and well used campsite on the climber's left of the trail.  We dropped packs here and didn't even debate looking for a better site ahead.  This turned out to be a good choice as rain was headed our way in about 15 minutes.  We quickly got the tent setup and found some trees to put our packs under and sure enough a light shower had found us.

Fortunately it didn't last too long and we were able to find a window to fire up the MRE heaters and to put down some well deserved food into our empty tummies.  I was excited about having a good night's sleep on level ground as the tent pad we had found in Missouri Gulch for the last 2 nights was heavily sloped.  We didn't bother with a campfire tonight and spent time getting our daypacks ready for the next morning.

Day 2: Wednesday, July 16

Route Name: Snowmass Mountain Trail
Camp Elevation: 10,800 ft.
Summit Elevation: 14,092 ft.
Distance: 5.9 mi.
Elevation Gain: 3,489 ft.
Start Time: 5:46am
Summit Time: 11:25am
End Time: 3:20pm

A great day for hiking Snowmass
We sought out a reasonably early start for summit day and so it was up just after 5am and hitting the trail about quarter to 6.  We found that our camp was about 200 feet from the trail junction sign below the lake.  The remaining trail up to Snowmass Lake was easy and even passed a rather large waterfall just below the outlet of the Lake.  The trail does actually cross a few logs to hop over the lake outlet and then heads into an area with numerous campsites.  As we first passed through this was very confusing to us as we saw a number of different trail segments and several tents all scattered about.  Our first thought was: we were glad to have camped the 2/10 of a mile below the lake as we had an excellent and more private site.  Highly recommended!

We ended up picking the trail segment that heads directly into the willows near the lake and this would in the end prove to be the correct choice.  The willows were thick and also wet at this time in the morning which had us happy to have our pant leggings on.  We were surprised how near to the lake the trail went and at one point the trail hopped a few rocks on edge of the lake itself.  About halfway around the lake we ran into a very soggy, wet, open section where water was trickling down the hill above us in several locations.  Going forward meant getting our shoes stuck in deep mud and most paths up the hill meant the same.  We tried to guess if we had missed the trail and we couldn't recall any place we did.  We were figuring a better trail must be above us somewhere and so we found the least wet path possible to shoot uphill. We did, and eventually found what was likely the "real" trail.  

I've illustrated on the satellite maps here where this route challenge faced us.  The left picture shows you the general location where we were around Snowmass Lake, the right picture shows you a closer look at the muddy opening where we realized we were off track.  It also shows you where we missed the turn in the trail.  The proper route is the one higher up on the hill.  The incorrect route, possibly a fisherman's trail, is the one on the lake's edge.  On our return trip we saw this "junction" and realized how easily we missed it.  This would definitely be something to look for next time.  The second photo below the satellite shots shows what this junction looks like.  You should be following the trail to the left when you meet it.

Its easy to miss, but you want to go LEFT here on your way around the lake.
Still working the willows, the boulder field and steep
scree slope are approaching
As we regained the regular trail we encountered more thick willows and some wet trail before finally reaching the boulder field.  As we entered the boulders we noted a very long and large rock which seems to stand out right at the point where we exited the willows.  We found this to be a good marker to look for on the descent to help with picking up the otherwise well hidden trail in the willows.

The large rock we used as a "marker" can be seen just to the
right of my brother's head (with the blue hat)
There were a decent amount of cairns through the boulders that we had no issues following a basic route.  In this area you continue to head to the northwest and more and more uphill.  The cairns will continue and the terrain will continue to get steeper and steeper.  This was less fun the further we climbed up.  We continued to look for a location to exit what was becoming very steep scree.  A waterfall was above us in the gully to the climber's right of the scree and it appeared that above the falls we may find the terrain to cross.  It turned out, we saw a large cairn in the gully at 11,680 and some trail in the grass and bushes on the other side.  We crossed at this point with little trouble and found that the trail continued to climb the hill.  We decided to go for it.  In my KML file below and on the embedded map I have marked this spot as "Gully crossover"

The trail was steep but it was based in what was firm dirt and between willow bushes. It proved to be much more tolerable than the loose scree.  The steepness and the difficulty of the terrain eased up when we hit 12,000 ft.  It was in here we began to see the whole of the terrain of the snowmass.  We were surprised how much snow had melted out.  Knowing that Colorado had such a large spring snow and having seen more snow than usual on other peaks we were actually disappointed to find so little snow here on Snowmass.

As we proceeded there were decent trail segments that we followed.  Ahead of us we could see two obvious snow slopes that led to the upper part of the snowmass with tracks on them.  We debated which to take and settled on the southernmost of the two as it provided the most direct route to gaining the ridge.  The trail segments and occasional cairn led us close to the base of this snow climb.  There we strapped on crampons and pulled out the ice axes.  The angle of the climb and the relative firmness of the snow at this point made us feel most comfortable exercising the most safety.  By estimate, the average angle in there approached 45 degrees.
Looking up the steep snow climb. It was steeper than it looks

Photosphere of the snowmass from 13,000 ft.

At just over 13,100 we gained a relative flat area of snow.  We rested and grabbed a few photos here.  We climbed another 200 feet of snow at an easier angle and began to hit rocks at just over 13,300.  We took off the crampons and stowed the ice axes thinking we may be done with the snow.  Around 13,450 we did encounter one last line of snow but it was low enough angle that we only pulled the ice axe out and crossed with just our trail-runners. 

Showing off with the ice axe on the flat area of snow

We began scrambling on the rocks just ahead
Above that it was clear rocks the rest of the way to the ridge.  It was here the scrambling began.  The rocks were certainly loose but the scrambling wasn't too steep just yet. You could call it basic class 3 at first. We found gaining the ridge to not be of great difficulty and if it weren't for the loose rock, almost enjoyable.
View from where we began the ridge.  The tall rocks standing
side-by-side in center are what I used as markers to let us know
we were close to the exit

Upon gaining the ridge we noted a cairn there as well as a funny rock formation hoping these would serve as helpful markers on the return trip to retrace our steps.  One thing was for sure, it was pretty easy to get off track and lose your location all along Snowmass' ridge.  The greatest challenge in the scrambling along the ridge was the loose rock.  We were checking every rock used as a hand hold and even the rocks we'd step across to ensure nothing was going to go sliding.  We didn't want to ridge a microwave-sized rock down the entirety of the slope. We also encountered two large snow patches along the ridge.  Both were steep and firm and not something we wanted to risk stepping across.  The first had enough rocks sticking out in a narrow section that we crossed on them.  The second snowfield we climbed higher towards the ridge crest to go up and over.  The difficulty never exceeded class 3 but we found this terrain to be some of the most challenging and needing of careful route-finding.  After crossing above this 2nd snow field we were near the ridge crest and not far from the summit.  The final scramble up to the summit was just enjoyable enough, and by comparison, we found it much easier than the final scramble on Wilson Peak which we had done just last year.  We summited after roughly 5 hours 45 minutes of climbing.

On the summit we enjoyed the company of another climber who had passed us on the way.  The views of Capitol and the other Elks were also quite astounding.  The summit area had room amongst the rocks for a number of people.  The true summit is arguably a set of tall blocks which one could touch by standing or crawl up upon if so desired.

Summit view to the north towards Capitol Peak
Summit view to the west
Summit view to the southeast along the ridge
Summit view to the east back down to Snowmass Lake
We didn't spend too much time on top as we wanted to retrace our steps down the ridge while it was still fresh in our heads.  A good way of describing the way down is simply picking from the best of the cairns and faint trail segments to decide when to stay high or when to start going low, but not too low.  For the most part we figure we took about the same path both ways.  The exit from the ridge to begin the scramble back down to the snow wasn't hard to find.

Upon regaining the snow below the ridge we began a series of enjoyable glissades.  We scooted north to bypass some of the initial rocks we had climbed on the way up and glissaded snow all the way down to the flat area we rested upon on the ascent.  There we decided that glissading the initial snow climb may be too steep so we hiked northwest to aim for the other snow slope we had seen.  We probably went too far north but we found a series of slopes perfect for glissading to head down.  They kept gradually angling off to our left as we slid so we started and stopped a few times on the glissade to continue to gain slidable snow.  

A video look at our initial glissade

Based on the map it appears our glissading brought us down to about 12,800.  We took off our remaining snow gear at that point and hoped for our pants to start drying and it was all trail-runners and drier trail for the rest of the way.  We angled our way southeast to regain the familiar terrain we had ascended and eventually regained the trails that led us up into the snowmass.  Once more below 12,000 we descended the grassy, bushy terrain on the north side of the gully along the scree slope and this brought us to the familiar crossover.  
Amazing views in the Elk Range. The Bells and Pyramid are on the far right
We had a surprise in store for us.

The water flow had increased throughout the day in the gully.  We had originally hit this at 7:30am and there was a modest flow of water going through.  Now it was 2:15pm.  The water flow in the gully was much stronger and so we had to take extra care in crossing.  We ended up dropping down about 30 feet to find a safe enough place to cross the gully and regain the steep scree slope.
It is definitely a beautiful lake

Descending then the remaining scree went without incident and we were soon back to the boulderfield.  Here our father stopped to work on cleaning up his feet a bit.  My brother David and I decided to head back down to camp to start packing up for the hike out.  As we regained the trail back around Snowmass Lake it was here we had discovered the missed trail turn that I described above.  We followed the correct trail back to the northeastern end of Snowmass Lake and said hello to a number of campers and fishers there.  We were back to camp at 3:20pm after a 3 hour 35 minute descent.

Exit Trail Time   

Route Name: Snowmass Creek Trail (Maroon-Snowmass Trail)
Camp Elevation: 10,800 ft.
Trailhead Elevation: 8,400 ft.
Distance: 7.88 mi.
Elevation Drop: -2,891 ft.
Start Time: 4:11pm
End Time: 8:30pm

 We spent about 50 minutes packing up camp.  Our father, whom we had left behind in the boulder field, caught up with us only 15 minutes after we had regained camp.  It was 4:11pm when we hit the long trail out.  We carried as little water as possible hoping to keep the packs light and knowing that we could always filter more as necessary.

We learned during these long 8-mile hikes that it was also important to be fueling and hydrating along the way.  I spaced out snacks every 2 miles or so to keep putting something in the tank and this always had me feeling pretty good.

Crossing the log jam a second time was fun once more and we were surprised to see a group of backpacker's with a dog who also did well on the logs.  We spotted a few areas to camp along the way which it seems evident many backpacker's take advantage of.  
Just can't beat the views in here
As the miles added up, it was a grueling march just to be out.  Each of us were dealing with minor foot issues and blisters wanting to take over.  The thought of finally dropping these heavy packs was ever so enticing.  We were also working on worries that it would be too late and we would possibly be too tired to continue with our plans of hiking Wetterhorn in the morning.

This humongous boulder sits aside the trail on the way out
It was finally 8:30pm when we returned to the car and we were thankful to have made it before it was dark.  We didn't take long just getting our packs and shoes off and hopping in to sit down.  In all, we were most pleased to have safely summitted Snowmass and despite the long, long hike it was a beautiful and enjoyable experience.


I have a few tracks and waypoints from the hike all contained in a KML file that you are welcome to download and use (at your own risk): .

My Track

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