Thursday, July 30, 2009

Mount Sneffels - 14,150

Mount Sneffels from the north (Dallas Divide)

Two years after Blanca I was out of college and living in Durango. Circumstances brought me into contact with one Ken Trout, who had been a friend of many of my climbing partners in Albuquerque. With this connection established he proposed doing the Dogleg Couloir on the North Face of Mount Sneffels.

Sneffels I certainly knew about - it had always carried a kind of mythic ring for me, even before knowing the reference to Jules Verne. But the route was unfamiliar so Ken filled me in as we drove his VW van one late September evening over a Red Mountain Pass freshly dusted with snow. He was convinced that we could do it in and out in a day, and after a night spent at the Blue Lakes trailhead we set out in the predawn up into Blaine Basin.

The sun peeked over Cirque Mountain just as we arrived in the basin, where a lone tent was pitched. Beyond there was a fine view of the fan of snow spilling out of the couloir in the middle of the North Face, up which a pair of specks could be seen crawling. The couloir itself was mostly hidden, and somewhere up above Ken assured me it made a sudden jog left, hence the name dogleg.

Another hour and we were trading hiking for mountaineering boots before stepping onto the snowfield. The pair above were out of sight but we caught up to them where they had stopped to rope the chute of glare ice just below the dogleg. Ken knew one of these two climbers as it happened, and while they chatted I clambered up the right side of the chute until a large snow bank marked the col of the couloir that descended to the Blue Lakes Basin. I didn't know it at the time but this was to be our descent route. Meanwhile Ken and I met up and now as a team of four we covered the last portion of the route to where the final headwall lay between us and the summit.

This is one of the most amazing finishes to a fourteener that I have ever encountered. One last mantelshelf literally brings you to the summit. I would do this same route again solo in May of 2002, when the late spring snow was soft and bucket-stepped all the way to the summit block. Then I would have the summit all to myself, though even this time it was surprisingly bare of people considering Sneffels has one of the shortest approaches in all Colorado via Yankee Boy Basin, from which a pair of scramblers had nevertheless come and now occupied the summit, eyeing us suspiciously in their shorts and t-shirts: we four lethally armed, bundled climbers from the shadowy north.

Back at the junction we left Ken's friends to rap down the chute and back to their camp in Blaine while we dove off into that other basin. This worked out fairly well considering the thousands of feet of scree to be skated before we hit the meadows below the Blue Lakes. The sun was down and twilight in the air when we arrived back at Ken's van. That left only a late night drive back over the two passes followed by a lazy Sunday in Durango.

Note: I summited Sneffels yet a third time, this in July of 2002 with an approach via Yankee Boy followed by a climb of the SW Ridge. The photo below shows the sawtooth gendarmes that appear to guard the lower half of this route.

Yet the entire array can be easily bypassed by a trail on the other side. There is some low 5th class scrambling over sketchy rock to be navigated at midpoint on the ridge. But after that the ridge is solid and nicely exposed. Descend via Lavender Col.

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