Trip Report: Snowmass Mountain July 03 2014

>>> This post is from late May, but got lost somewhere along the way - so here it is now!

Trip Report: Snowmass Mountain

On the agenda for a number of years now has been an ascent/descent of Snowmass (14,092feet) This is an easy peak to skip over because its hard to access- roughly 9 miles up Snowmass creek. Having already climbed all the remaining Elks 14ers, Snowmass has always remained out of reach for the standard day trip. 

But, alas- the proposal was put forward by photographer Blake Gordon after suggesting I was due for a ‘good long slog’

At roughly 20miles round trip and 9000feet of climbing this would be a ‘light and fast’ slog- no room for UpSkis- or anything other extras. Knocking out the vertical to reach the summit before it get dangerously warm and soft would be the main challenge, the second challenge would be getting home.

We leave the parking lot at 2:30am heading up the familiar Maroon Lakes trail. We wear sneakers for the first 1-2miles before the snow gets serious enough to switch to ski boots and eventually skinning. In theory its only 3000’ of climbing to reach the first check point: Buckskin Pass –but, things can get confusing at 3am when its pitch dark out… and you are surrounded by avalanche debris.  We get a little carried away climbing the avalanche path where skinning turns to steep booting. Soon we discover that we’ve gotten too high off route and will have to descend to reach the pass.  We arrive at Buckskin pass a couple hours later than planned, with the sun already trying to rise.

Skiing to the west from the top of Buckskin we find my favorite conditions crisp unbreakable frozen surface that ski fast and responsively- like edging turns on a freshly groomed frozen slope. The snow is rock solid - every turn grabs predictably and it is extremely loud.  A thousand feet lower and we find less desirable conditions as we negotiate unconsolidated conditions, cliff bands, and small waterfalls in pursuit of the valley floor. Upper snowmass creek is beautiful & remote. While many tracks abound in Buckskin basin within a few miles of the trailhead, dropping off the back side of the pass it immediately feels like we are truly entering wild country. We find an occasional set of tracks that blend into the snow surface- but nothing recent. 

With daylight upon us, we make up time traversing the 1.5miles to reach Snowmass lake. The lake is frozen except for water collection occurring around the edges.  We venture out into the middle where the ice looks convincingly thick and head to the base of the mountain- still another 3,300’ of climbing to go!

The eastern bowl of Snowmass is the perhaps the largest and longest lasting snowfield in the state, and easily recognizable from far away peaks as it holds lots of snow late into the summer. 

Fatigue starts to set in above 13,000feet as we’re now more than 6 hours into the journey, but heavy breathing beats out the thin air in route to the summit ridge.  For the final few hundred feet to the summit we follow the traditional summer route along the ridge.

At 14,000 feet, we hesitantly we enjoy the summit. We’re a little behind schedule and snow is softening. We consider exiting to the west to ski the NW face thus avoiding the sun effected slopes which would actually shorten our overall day and make for an Elks Range Traverse (and subsequent car shuttle), but after some consideration decide to re-enter the Eastern Bowl and descend our approach.  A short distance to the south of the summit we cut a steep entry into the East bowl between overhanging cornice blocks and drop in without looking back. The snow holds and after a few hundred feet the pitch eases back from STEEP to ~25degrees as we make our way back to the lake.

Now mid-day, we must re-climb another 2000’ back up Buckskin pass in rapidly deteriorating snow conditions. With thunder storms moving in and 10+ hours of skiing wearing us down, we make slow headway back up the pass under ominous clouds and occasional light rain/snow.  Good fortune finds us and the clouds break as we ascend the final 500’ above treeline.  Another 3000’ of ski descent and a few miles of walking round out the journey for a total of 16hours on the move – Job well done!!