Monday, August 10, 2009

Mt. Sneffels (14,155 ft.)

1 July, 2009: Our original plan had been to use three days off together to attempt the Wilson group, but fatigue, lack of prep time, and, worst of all, reports of awful snow conditions there pushed us to a less ambitious Plan B: nearby Mt. Sneffels. It's still a long drive, however, so on Tuesday (the 30th) we (Trisha, Cimarron, and I) set off for Ouray, and the road up into Yankee Boy Basin.
To save both time and gas, we took Trisha's Toyota instead of Kritter, as reports I had read made me confident that virtually any vehicle could get at least up to 11,000 feet (once the road is cleared of the winter's snow). That was as far as we wanted to drive, anyway, since starting any higher would be "cheating." (There is actually a trailhead for this rugged mountain at an astounding 12,400 feet, which can be reached by any decent 4WD vehicle!) Seven hours or so of driving got us to the turn-off for Governor Basin and, just as expected, and that's where we found the first road section that looked like too much for a low-clearance vehicle. So, that's where we found a place to pull off the road, and a level spot for the tent, cooked up a dinner on the camp stove, and settled in for the night.
This is fairly short route (a welcome change from the previous week), so we made no attempt at a super-early start. The sun was almost up by the time we extracted ourselves from our sleeping bags, and it was up before we got packed up and hit the trail.
Owing to the aforementioned very high trailhead, the trail is a 4WD road almost to the wilderness boundary. It's not super scenic, although there is plenty of super scenery all around. Yankee Boy Basin is a spectacularly rugged place and, at least in July, abundant with greenery and flowers. The route is pretty easy to follow, too, making enjoying that scenery all the easier!
Only a short section of trail, nearly level, beyond the wilderness boundary brought us to the base of the couloir where the real climbing begins--the scramble up to Lavender Col. It faces roughly south, so it was already completely melted out. It's fairly steep and loose, however, so the pace slowed considerably at this point. Except for Cimarron, that is. She does very well on rocks, and was constantly waiting for us to catch up, in between spates of running all around as if the rocks and scree offered no hindrance at all.
The scree climb is annoying, but not really technically difficult--no worse than 2+. It didn't really take too long. We arrived at the Lavender Col, at about 13,XXX ft. and encountered the first of the remaining snow, so that is were we geared up.
The couloir above the col was still almost entirely covered with snow, which was good. It covered the loose rock, and gave us a consistent surface virtually all the way up. It's steep (35 to 40 degrees), but we made fairly good time up to the top. The top is the crux of the route: a v-shaped notch at just above 14,000 ft., formed by two angled slabs, which offers the only sane way out onto the slope leading to the summit. The rock is solid, but it's highly angled, and almost devoid of cracks or ledges. A few sizeable stones have apparently been purposefully jammed into the bottom to form useable steps, but large steps are still necessary, as well as pressure against the sides. And then there's the psychological difficulty: huge exposure to climber's left right at the base of the notch, with nothing much to brace oneself on, or to stop you if you should start over the edge. Thus, you simply have to maintain traction, and controlled motion, in the notch.
We got our biggest disappointment of the day from this combination of difficulties. Cimarron couldn't get enough purchase on the notch's rock to enable her to launch herself up through it. We considered for a moment trying to do some combination of pushing and pulling her, but the exposure at the base quickly convinced us that this simply wouldn't be safe. This had another consequence: One of us had to stay with Cimarron, so we had to summit seperately. Fortunately, the summit is only a few minutes away once you climb through the notch, and it's mostly just a walk. As I was already up the notch, Trisha told me to go first.
Cramponless, I traversed one last snowfield and made it out onto the tiny summit area. I signed the register and took just a few pictures as quickly as I could, so as not to keep the others waiting any longer than necessary. As I headed back, I met two climbers who had just completed a climb of the daunting north face, and were going down via our route. Impressive!
Then it was Trisha's turn. She lucked out with more clear sunshine on the top than I had had. That, plus encountering yet another party on the summit, which meant someone to take pictures, allowed her to come back with more engaging summit pictures than I. Some of them are included in the Picasa gallery.
The descent of the couloir offered its own kind of adventure. The two guys who had come up the north face--who were obviously more experienced climbers than us--made no attempt to glissade down it. Instead, they went down backwards, facing in, using the front points of their crampons and ice axes. Glissading could have saved a lot of time, but that couloir is steep. Plus, the steepness continues virtually unabated, right down to where the snow ends, which is still just above the col. Thus, there's no safe run-out: One would have to stop oneself with one's ice axe. Fail to do so, and you hit the rocks!
Thus, we decided to front-point our way down, too. Well, two of us did. Cimarron had a ball running--yes, running!--both up and down, as she shuttled back and forth between the two of us as we descended. After a few steps, I found I could make pretty good time in this mode. The crampons bit nicely, and the steps which we had kicked in the snow on the way up provided solid platforms to support body weight on the way down. It was possible to take rather big, and quick, steps down, while using my ice axe as a secondary anchor, and I quickly fell into a nice rhythm. Trisha didn't get the hang of it quite as fast, but she got better as we went down.
We wanted to make the best time we could, at least up high, since clouds had rolled in, and the weather wasn't 100% trustworthy. In fact, it didn't storm, but we didn't want to take unnecessary chances. The rocks below the snow were just as loose and annoying on the way down as they had been on the way up, but we made slightly better time descending. Before long, we were back on a good trail, with most of the vertical out of the way. We encountered numerous parties of people on the road/trail, many of them in jeeps and other 4WD vehicles. Most of them weren't heading for the summit, just out to enjoy the scenery of Yankee Boy Basin.
We made it back to the car in less than ten hours round trip, a short day by the standards to which we've recently become accustomed! Twenty minutes or so of breaking camp, cleaning up, and adjusting wardrobe, and we were ready to head off for Rio Rancho. Pictures are at:

(Be sure to see the photo of Trisha's car on the "C-shelf" section of the road!)
Long life and many peaks!


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