Monday, June 6, 2011

Snowmass Mountain's S Ridge

Snowmass Mountain (14,092') S Ridge attempt from Crystal Trailhead (9,000')
11.0 miles, 4,600', ~10h RT
Climbers:  Sean, Christoph

School just got out, and I've been itching to get outdoors.  My last trip to the mountains was 5 weeks ago.  Knowing I'd already be in Vail for the Teva Mountain Games on Saturday, I figured Sunday would be a great time to get away.  I was able to find a partner when my buddy Christoph caught wind of my plan and asked to join.  With a partner and a date, I now had to select an objective - to check out the west side of Snowmass Mountain and maybe take a shot at the aesthetic S Ridge if the conditions were right.

6/5/2011 Snowmass Mountain(14,092') S-Ridge
attempt from Crystal Trailhead (9,000')
10.6 miles, 4,600', 10h RT
Christoph and I left Vail in the mid-afternoon.  I wasn't totally trashed from the morning's half, but my excitement for the task ahead had definitely already abated a bit.  We knew that Lead King Basin was still inaccessible by vehicle due to snow.  This meant a hike in from the Crystal Trailhead, provided we could get a vehicle up the four-mile stretch of very narrow, rough 4WD road.

Just before the "town" of Crystal.  I swear I've
put together a puzzle of this backdrop before.

The drive didn't disappoint - my internal organs got a good workout from all the back-and-forthing.  We drove through Crystal, parked in a field, and hit the trail by 5:30.  It was still quite warm at 9,000', with temperatures still in the low 70's.

I recently ordered an Osprey Argon 110.  It's kind of voluminous, to say the least.  Just for kicks, I loaded it up with about 50 pounds of crap in an effort to see what it could do.  Well, it carried all my stuff, but combined with the race in the morning, the pack took a toll on me!  I was not my usual self, and simply trudged behind Christoph in utter discomfort for the entire evening.  

Snowmass Mountain and Hagerman Peak come into view
just before entering Lead King Basin.  The S ridge is
 the upsweep on the far left of the photo.
 We saw signs indicating we had reached lead King Basin around 7:00.  The runoff from Crystal Creek's North Fork was impressive, and it hasn't even reached it's peak yet.  There was still a lot of snow up here.  Conditions were such that we could still boot over it, minimal postholing but just enough softness on top to give a little traction.

North Fork Crystal Creek.  The only time we crossed was
at a bridge near the summer TH.

A closer view of Snowmass Mountain's
S ridge and west face.
When we set off, we hoped to make it to Geneva Lake before settling down for the night.  We knew we'd encounter snow, but I don't think either of us expected me to be dragging quite as much as I was.  With daylight fading and route-finding decisions up a headwall to make, we stopped at a ledge overlooking Lead King Basin.  We spent a half hour buiding a level shelf, porch, and small windbreak for the tent.  

As I went to sleep, I already guessed that a summit wasn't in the cards.  We weren't getting up early enough - the alarm was set for 4:30, but that wouldn't give us enough time on all that snow before it began to soften up.  We could tell that there had been some wet slide activity in the area recently, possibly two to three days ago based on the shade of the newly released snow.  I felt terrible after hauling the kitchen sink up, and didn't know how I'd feel in the morning.

Kind of neat to see the Bells from this angle.
A 4:30 alarm meant a 5:30 departure.  I was surprised to feel the hardness of the snow around us - forecasts had suggested a low of 36.  I began to wonder if the going may be a little easier than it had been the day before.  Sure enough, I was a new man with a lighter pack and a night's sleep and we made some decent time.  

A meander.

Geneva Lake.  S Ridge in the left background.

Wet slides.

Looking up at the different entrance options.  Roach suggests
either of the two couloirs on the right.  We chose the crooked
chute on the far left.
I wore Inov-8 RocLite 390 boots for the trip.  My Scarpa Charmoz fit me very well, but they're not very good for rocks, and the ridge itself looked somewhat free of snow.  The RocLites aren't nearly as stiff so are far from optimal for front-stepping with crampons, but they can still get the job done.

As we progressed above treeline, Christoph began to lose ground.  When we hit couloir, I could tell something was not quite right with him.  He just wasn't feelin' it as we approached the technical portion of the day.  At that moment, it was an easy decision - let's turn around.  The snow was still hard pack, but once sunhit came, it was going to be a different story.  Any decision now to head back was a good one.

We made quick work of the descent, enjoying a couple of long glissades.  We got back to the tent at 9:30 and got to packing up within a half hour.  The temperature was already quite warm, and I wasn't sure if postholing all day with my big pack would be much fun.
Lodging for a night.  That waterfall in the background
made it hard to sleep!

Mine caretaker's cabin.

As we passed the Lead King Basin TH, we ran into a cagey guy.  He saw us and at first didn't know what on Earth to do.  After a few minutes, he joined up and the three of us hiked out together.  His name was Paul - a 64-year-old mountain man.  He's been living in the caretaker's cabin year-round for the past 34 years.  We were the first people he's seen up there since late last fall, which is what surprised him.  Needless to say, the addition of Paul to our party made the hike out an interesting one.  We gave him a ride into the town of Marble, where we all grabbed some BBQ and beer at Slow Groovin' BBQ.  

Slow Groovin' BBQ in Marble
Paul the mountain man
not Paul the mountain man
There was no pouting over not getting the summit; it was a beautiful day and we had the opportunity to do something that few others would want to do and love every moment of it.  Furthermore, I am now familiar with the west side of Snowmass and will return soon.


  1. I can not believe how much snow is still up there. Amazing photos. Sounds like a great trip.

  2. I don't think that house will resist if the river grow a little bit. It will go with the stream.