Snowmass Mtn. West Ridge

7-13 Jul 2007 - by Patrick Lilly

With only one day to climb (and a second day, Sunday, to recover...), we knew we couldn't do Snowmass by the "standard" east slopes route up Snowmass Creek. 21 miles? No way! So we took Roach's advice that the west slopes route was the "most expeditious" way to climb this peak--along with his notion that it could be held to Class 3. More on that later.

Having not been in that part of the state much for a long time, we foolishly decided that going through Glenwood Springs would be a shortcut. The result was that we hit the trail at 8:30 am MDT, more than two hours later than we had hoped for. But we set off anyway; after all, it is only a nine-mile round trip.

After a spring of abundant rain, wildflowers and all other vegetation was running amok in Led King Basin. With the warm morning sun, it was incredibly beautiful. We made reasonably good time to Little Gem Lake. To our surprise, we encountered only two other parties of people, one on their way out.

Arriving at the west face, we had to pick a path up out of the valley. What I had read suggested that the easiest gully was the right-most one (there are three or four), but we both thought it looked too steep, too wet, and too devoid of ledges. We decided to go with the left-most one.

It wasn't too bad, but the going immediately got slower. The west face is not only steep, but unrelentingly loose. Care must be taken. As we climbed, our sunny morning gradually changed to a breezy and cloudy afternoon. This worried us a little.

Also as we climbed, the average size of the rocks increased, and we could not see the summit. It was at this point that we began to use our ice axes for additional stability, and we continued to use them until we were back down off the face. We had no choice but to try to find the line of least resistance at each spot, and keep going up, hoping to come out on the summit ridge eventually. We expected to hit the ridge somewhere north of the summit. But the route we ended up putting together to get through the rocks in fact brought us up well north of the summit.

I have no clear idea how close we were to the minor summit, "North Snowmass," which I had started out hoping to climb, but we found that we would have to negotiate over, or around, several ridge points in order to reach the summit. The amount of distance this unnecessarily added to our route was probably negligible, but the amount of difficulty it added was not. Seriously exposed Class 4 moves were required on most of those ridge points. It's a good thing the rocks here were basically solid, because some of that exposure got scary.

Finally, however, we did find the tiny summit. It was nearly 4 o'clock. Worse, the wind was still with us, and the sky was nearly 100% overcast. We only stayed a few minutes on the summit--just enough time for a very few pictures--before headind down.

With a decent view of the west face below us, we decided not to try reversing our steps, principally because that would have entailed downclimbing those moves which had been so daunting on the way up. Instead, we went down the gully the literature had encouraged us to take on the way up. It was basically indistinguishable from our ascent route--steep and loose, with the size of rocks diminishing with the elevation--until we got to within a couple of hundred feet of the bottom. There we discovered that we had been right in our initial assessment. Well, half right. It was indeed cliffy at the bottom, and there was water flowing in what would have otherwise been the obvious best route down. We did, however, find useable ledges which got us through this section, although it took some work, and we continued to move rather slowly. If I had it to do over again, I think I'd just take the S-ridge up: It's more exposed, but more solid.

It was so slow, in fact, that evening was drawing near when we finally got back on a real trail, and began the last leg of the trip. By the time we reached the trailhead, darkness had actually fallen, and we were obliged to travel the last half-mile or so by headlamp. (It's a good thing I'd brought it: I thought it might be needed in the morning!)

Long day! Only 9 miles and about 4,500 feet vertical, but over 12 hours.Fourteener number 30 for me, 27 for Trisha. More difficult than we had expected, but very satisfying.

My pictures are at

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