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Mt. Sneffels

Lavender Col - May 6, 2011 - Spring Snow


Ed and I have a tradition of climbing in the first week or so of May with the hope that he will score on of his remaining 14'ers, I will score a Centennial, and we both will get some good eats and snow climbing in the process. This year, we were targeting Mt. Sneffels and given that the San Juans had received 150% of the average snowfall, we figured we'd score a challenging and very beautiful summit. So close and yet so far away was the cliche that best fit our efforts.

We planned a three and a half day weekend that would give time for the drive to and fro and two days of climbing. If we were motivated, we might even score three days of climbing. With this in mind, we were out of Denver by 2 p.m. and headed for Ouray. We scored a string of bluebird days and we were set to climb Mt. Sneffels the next day. We went most of the way through a book on tape and arrived in Ouray after dark. We found the Comfort Inn and set the alarm all too early, but that was OK, there was rumor that the road might be plowed to the Camp Bird Mine. Now as a mining engineer, I am familiar with the Camp Bird and I know it is long closed but . . . surely there was some mine effluent that needed monitoring , i.e. a possibility of a plowed road. We'll I'm dated for sure and the road was surely, or perhaps sorely, not plowed.

We arrived at the of the open road at 5 a.m. or so and knew from the guidebook that we were looking at a 3.5 mile hike to get to the 4WD trail head. Our real goal was to climb Sneffels on the first day, overnight in the Megamid at the 4 WD trail head and then do Teakettle the next day. Well . . . plans are made to be broken and I started the process by deciding not to haul the weight of the rope and an abbreviated rack of rock gear. After driving from Cheyenne, to Ouray and getting all of 5 hours of sleep, I hefted that rope, the rack and shook my head . . . no . . . I just wasn't going to haul the weight. So the rope went back in the truck cab and we decided to chance the upper climb of Teakettle as an over rated Class 4 pitch.

The road from our parking spot is a classic Colorado shelf road, cut into the side of a cliff in this case, including a short section where the road is cut into the cliff. The drops off the side is precipitous for sure and for a bit of the first mile or so, we tramped up and over ice covered piles of rubble, the winter's slough from the heights above, before passing through a stretch of road of much more mellow terrain. Ed had not been up to Sneffels during the summer, hence he did not know of the short sections that is literally cut into the cliff. We came around the corner and looked at this fascinating stretch, now festooned with large icicles. We trekked through the cut out section and then the magnitude of the snowfall remaining the in Yankee Boy basin became more clear. We did not miss out on any snow for the rest of the approach because of a little bit of snow, but because even now in May, there was the better part of four to six feet of snow to be traversed.

As we trudged on to the Camp Bird Mine and around the curve to the summer two wheel drive parking lot, the snow depth just increased and no bare ground will be seen for a few more weeks at best. However, the route was easily discernable so up the hill we trekked, heading for the 4WD parking area about another mile or so up the valley. Our plan was to camp at the flat 4WD parking area and climb Sneffels this morning and then take on Teakettle the next day. I, for one, was glad when we arrived at the flat spot marked by the latrine to the side and nice set of pines to break the wind to the other. We dropped all of the overnight gear and with packs much lighter set off for Sneffels.

I'd not been on this 14'er for ten years and for some reason, perhaps just wishful thinking, thought that the Dyke Col was the Lavender Col. Hence, we cut north and traversed the slopes to take on the closer couloir. We'd gone perhaps about a quarter of the way up the Dyke when reality set in and a map check reminded me that the Lavender Col was another mile up the valley. A definite tyro mistake made possible by a bit too much pack weight from the start, a long drive the day before, and not enough rest. I led as we traversed up the flank of valley on now softening snow but snow still hard enough to preclude getting cast in the concrete matrix of a wet slough from the cliffy flanks of Kismet.

We traversed up valley to the base of the Lavender col and were now faced with some pretty soft snow. I wasn't worried about the Col sliding on us but I knew the steps were going to be more work than I wanted to experience this morning. Ed and I took alternate leads and practiced the subtle art of "kicking" or more properly stated, gently placing steps in softer snow so that each would support our weight for the next step. The altitude came in grudging increments that eventually left me about half beat but standing at the base of the upper Col that cuts to the left and leads to the final rock work that protects the summit. By this point the snow had really gone to $#!). Ed took the lead and bless his heart he waded a good chute through the upper col that I followed with just a bit less effort.

We arrived at the terminus of the col and it was time to take on the rock slopes that protect the summit proper. I took a look and kicked my way up about 15 feet sans pro and thought better of the route. I backed down and took a shot at an alternate line and backed off. My third selection was to be the charm and I ended up backing away from it as well. The gig was that there was simply no snow to gain even a shoddy axe belay to arrest a fall that would not incur a slide out of the Col but would provide the chance to get beat up, rolled around and deposited in the fluffy snow below.

We were functionally at the summit but we weren't going to get to the summit proper this morning. We conferred and made the call to retreat before one of us got over ambitious and took the fall that waited the less judicious climber. We retreated down the upper col, cut right and plunge stepped on to the bottom of the col, still not too worried of a slough but it was definitely time to observe where the avi power curve lay and to make all efforts to stay on the proper side of that line. Once out of the Col we trekked the flatter valley flanks and made our way on back to the 4WD trail head to recover the overnight gear. We'd just gotten skunked on Sneffels and we now reassessed our plan to take on Teakettle the next day.

We discussed the plan for the next day and that the snow conditions on Sneffels portended the same near miss for Teakettle without a rope. I'd made the call to not lug the 70 meter rope along for a 20 foot pitch and as an adult, I knew it was time to pay the piper. We broke out a camp stove, cooked a quick pasta dish and made hot cytomax to warm the core. We opted to reload the overnight gear and make for an alternate climb the next day, with a lower camp near Ouray and a good dinner in town. We hefted the now heavier packs and took about two hours to hoof it back to the truck. The snow was now much softer but the snowshoes gave good flotation on the moist snow so the retreat did not become a post holing hell. But it was still a long walk out that placed us back at the truck in the fading light, concluding an almost 14 hour day over 14 miles and a good 5000 feet of vertical.



A summer climb of the same route or perhaps the Class 3/4 Southwest Ridge?