Date: 18 Aug 2003
Route: Ascent: East Slopes From Snowmass Lake; Snowmass Creek Approach To Snowmass Lake; Descent: Same
Difficulty: Class 1 on Approach; Class 3 from Snowmass Lake to the SE ridge; Class 3 and Class 4 from ridge to Summit
Elevation: Base: 8,400 (est) at Snowmass Creek Trailhead; Camp @ Snowmass Lake was at 10,980; Summit: 14,092; Elevation Gain: 5,800 (from trailhead)
Distance: Camp on Snowmass Creek Trail to Snowmass Lake: 6 miles; Snowmass Lake to Summit and return: 5 miles (est); Snowmass Lake to Snowmass Creek Trailhead: 8 Miles; Total Distance: 19 miles in two days (est)
Route: This was the second leg of a two-leg trip over four days that would allow us to summit both Capitol Peak and Snowmass Mountain. From our field expedient campsite along the Snowmass Creek trail about 2.5 miles south of the trailhead, we began the 6 mile trip to Snowmass Lake at about 1000 hours, Sunday. The trail is rather unremarkable, with good views to right of both the Copper Creek and Bear Creek drainages. There are several delightful beaver ponds and small lakes along the way that beckoned us to take a break and rest in warm morning sun. At the largest of the lakes, the trail moves to the west side of Snowmass Creek prior to beginning some significant elevation gain. There is a sign near some willows that points to the fact that the trail goes to the west side of the creek, and there is a ford site. However, approximately 100 feet south of the ford site, there is a large log jam that is easily crossed at this time of year. It is a large obstacle that requires a couple of jumps from log to log, but it is safe and precludes wading through the creek.
After crossing to the west, the trail begins gaining elevation and enters a mixed spruce fir forest. The trail leaves the creek but will join it again right before Snowmass Lake. Once at the lake, many campsites awaited us and we established camp, rested, and pondered the fact that a climber had died on Snowmass Mountain the day before. Many of the search and rescue personnel we encountered told us of the mishap and encouraged us to be careful during our climb the next day.
We could see the scree field immediately west of the lake, and it appeared that the climber met his fate literally 200 feet from the lake's edge. A real shame. Just a Class 2 trail through scree. We had a great meal, plenty of whiskey, and then settled down for the night. Tremendous thunder and lightning occurred intermittently throughout the night and after awaking at 0430, we had serious misgivings regarding our climb. After breakfast, we geared up and set out to summit Snowmass Mountain before 1000 hours. The trail along the south side of the lake requires mild bushwhacking through willows, and with the previous night's rain still on the vegetation, we were soaked to the skin by the time we arrived at the base of the scree field. We had been told to stay to the right of the scree field, and stick to the vegetation near the creek that flows over the headwall and feeds Snowmass Lake, and that was good advice. As we initially climbed the scree field, we passed by a space blanket that covered the body of the climber who had perished the day before. We were happy to get off of the scree and into the vegetation. It was bad mojo to stay in the scree.
Once we gained the high ground past the initial headwall, the trail fades and the route is generally marked by cairns. There are many cairns, and one can take any of several approaches, but our experience was to just head due west using the most direct route. We could not orient on the summit of Snowmass Mountain as there was a low cloud ceiling. There is a lot of yellow-colored rock that is smooth rock, with mild exfoliation, that is preferred over the talus of the white granite. This portion of the route is gentle and somewhat undulating, and is a bit of a respite after the steep headwall. We stopped for a bit in this area when a helicopter arrived below us and started an aerial recon of the area around the climber's body. It was clear that the helicopter was going to do a recovery operation, and with the wind gusting, I thought the pilot came on strong. The whole operation took quite a while, and we watched with curiosity while the helicopter dropped off several SAR personnel above the headwall. Apparently, they would descend to the scree field on do a long rope hoist operation. After a couple of moments, we turned west, looked up at the mountain veiled in clouds, and returned to the task at hand gaining the ridge just to the southeast of Snowmass Mountain.
At about 12,800, the pitch becomes steeper, the yellow rock fades, and the climb involves a simple Class 3 climb over large granite blocks. Roach suggests taking a line towards the saddle (low point) between Hagerman Peak and Snowmass Mountain, but we chose to remain on a route that was almost due west. This line is marked with cairns, and is relatively safe. Very little shifting of blocks occurred during our climb. The route leads right up to the base of the cliffs and spires that typify the ridge between Hagerman Peak and Snowmass Mountain. We climbed this last bit in heavy clouds, that precluded any view of the ridge or the summit. Visibility was less than 100 feet. It was eerie but exciting. About 200 feet below the base of the cliffs, the talus gives way to a short scree slope that leads to a very nice notch in the ridge. This notch involves mild Class 4 moves right before the top, but is very safe with little exposure. Once we got to the base of the cliffs, we got our first glimpse of blue skies; we could tell that we were about to climb over the ridge and out of the clouds. We were stoked.
Once on top of the ridge, one can see the advantage of this approach. This puts climbers more than .25 miles closer to the summit than from the saddle, and the route is marked with cairns from that point to the summit. The route from the notch is Class 3/4 climbing on solid rock on the western face of the ridge. Snowmass Mountain's summit is small, exciting, and very breezy. The view to the northwest to Capitol Peak was spectacular, in the truest sense of the word. Very cold wind greeted us on the summit. The clouds forming on the eastern side of the ridge, covering the east bowl seemed like a death shroud over the body of the climber. It was a surreal experience.
We spent less than 10 minutes on the summit, took some photos, and then began our descent using the same route that we ascended with. We ate lunch on some large exfoliation domes on the gentle portion of the bowl below Snowmass Mountain, and then returned to the campsite at the lake. After decamping, we began our hike out at 1500. We arrived at the trailhead at 1800.
Conditions: Weather windy, clear, and cold in the morning; intermittent rain in the afternoon for the hike out from Snowmass Lake. Heavy rain for the last two miles to the trailhead.
Climbing Companions: Mitchell Ackermann