Our planning started roughly six months before the trip. My best friend Conner approached me with the idea of a climbing trip to conquer several fourteen-thousand foot peaks in Colorado during early June. Excitedly agreeing without yet knowing what snow conditions were in June, the trip was set. We decided upon the Elk mountain range for it’s sheer mountain beauty. After a long overdue reunion, we reviewed equipment and maps and I finished packing my bag. At 1am on June third we departed in my Subaru, eager to leave the Phoenix oven for Aspen’s cool seventy degrees. Hitting the road felt so rewarding, quite a bit of preparation had gone into this trip on all parts.
Conner and I spent countless hours over phone and email discussing logistics. I soon found myself buying unfamiliar gear; ice axes, crampons, gaiters, snowshoes. As an Arizona native I have never done extensive hiking with any of the above, Conner had, yet we were both confident in our abilities. Conner climbs in Seattle while I have been riding strenuous mountain bike trails preparing for this trip. Along the way in planning we picked up another trip mate and good friend Alex. Whom we had traveled to Washington with a year prior. Although it was primarily a climbing trip, Alex joined for photography aspects. Conner and I had our goals set on a couple summits, and capturing the experience was my intent.
Over 700 miles later of non stop driving, we arrived at the Snowmass Creek trailhead. Happy as can be from the warm spring sun, the surrounding foliage was dense and all encompassing. Branches pulsing in the cool mountain air, crumbly snowcapped mountains loom in the distance. While desperately trying to focus on finalizing my bag, I was distracted by this cool guy and his dog. We talked about how he has been living out of vans for years exploring, his current ride a Mercedes Sprinter. He’s living the dream as far as I was concerned, I shared my Vanagon travel dreams with him, he said they just break. Laughing and parting ways, our party started the long approach to Snowmass Mountain.
Succumbing to Snowmass:
Our intentions were to quickly hike the claimed eight miles to the campsite areas at Snowmass Lake. Early on our hiking speed was strained due to the large amount of snowmelt. The trail had become a stream, adding an extra element of fun and finesse to the experience. Climbing in altitude through forest and meadows, rugged red mountains above commanded my attention. Peppered with pockets of trees, clinging to the fragmenting mountainside, nature’s delicate beautiful balance. I had to stop and take a few moments to watch the final rays grace the the mountain with warm light, the large scale rocks inspire me. Eventually making our way around a network of ponds by headlamp, we finally reached the notorious ‘log jam’. A fellow climber at the trailhead had informed us on how to negotiate this game of floaters and sinkers. “Step only upon the oldest logs, they are the sturdiest”. Looking for these specifics in the dark while exhausted proved to be challenging enough, even with a trekking pole as aid. Our team was beat through and through by the time we crossed over. We quickly decided to find flat ground up the hill away from the ponds for a place to set our tents.
Spirits were high the following morning, all feeling well rested and better acclimated. Until this point we had yet to hit any major snow being at a mere 10,500ft. Upon climbing up some switchbacks, periodic snow patches would engulf the trail for short lengths, all roughly 4 feet deep. This was the beginning of the postholing, even with snowshoes I fell through often. Hours of character building trailblazing later, Conner and I reached a landmark sign below Snowmass Lake. We discussed the snow situation for sleeping till our 2am summit push, deciding to camp in the last patch of dirt we saw. It was a go at your own pace day, by this time it had been hours since we had seen Alex. After filtering river water, Conner started heading down the trail to find him while I started setting camp. Thankfully Alex wasn’t far behind and turned up around the first bend of trees. Feeling high and dry from another gruelling day at altitude, it was easy resting up till our 1:30am alarm time.
Strapping on crampons and grabbing our lightweight packs, we started our ascent for Snowmass. Due to the snow conditions we had already experienced, we discussed safety concerns while departing from camp. Leaving at 2am from just below 11,000ft our footsteps still sunk into the snow, if it was this soft above we would have no chance at the summit. Stepping out of the treeline into the moonlight alongside the lake, we stopped in awe. Finally understanding the authenticity of this peak’s name, gazing from the frozen lake up to the mountainscape, Snowmass was magnificent. I wish more than anything that I had extra time and energy to photograph that moonlit scene with my tripod, a shot for another trip. I had to quickly shift my focus to the task at hand. Traversing around the frozen lake safely through slushy snow was going to be a challenge.
We could see a defined profile around the lake of thin ice, a handy outline to our destination. I was concerned about our proximity to the waterline, presuming that the steep snowbanks eclipsed the real transition of water to soil. Immediately we were using our ice axes for stability, thankfully the snow conditions had improved slightly. We trekked upward over the treeline in a few areas, something that turned out to be unnecessary. It was difficult to see the best overall line in the dark while already navigating avalanche paths and trees. An hour and thirty-five minutes from our camp we reached the far side of the ice sheet. We took a quick break being mindful of our wasted time around the lake. During which I put my camera in my bag’s outside pocket, ready for the first rays of light.
I found my mountain bike training had come to pay off well ascending the slope. We found a nice steep line of bootpack to follow up. Feeling confident in the snow’s rigidity above the lake, I began speeding up. While climbing all I could see ahead was endless bootpack, looking below I would see Conner’s headlamp moving up and occasionally looking about. Almost an hour later we stopped to enjoy the imminent sunrise at 12,350ft. In the pre dawn glow we talked about our climbing options. The snow ahead looked epic and we both felt that we could push to the summit without problem. However if we did take the time to summit, the lake traverse upon descending would be risky. We both knew the right decision was to turn back, not that either of us wanted to in the least.
The following thirty minutes spent photographing and downclimbing the slope are one of my favorite outdoor memories. The moment couldn’t have been better, monumental mountainscape revealed by pink and purple light. All the work that went into being in that landscape for that moment was so entirely worth it. Sharing it all with my best friend made everything that much better. Meanwhile, grey clouds began to censor the sun’s arrival, preventing me from having nice light to photograph. Our decision to turn around was positively reinforced the moment we began hiking back around Snowmass Lake. Conner fell through the snow to his waist at one point, forcing us to backtrack and climb up the steep slope further away from the water and trees. Taking one obstacle at a time, we methodically hiked our way around the remaining water relatively simply. Reluctantly we retraced our footsteps into the trees, leaving one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.
The postholing nightmare continued from the lakeside all the way to camp. We ate some food and shared our experience with Alex briefly before getting our tents packed away. Donning my snowshoes and backpack I eagerly hit the trail. The weather looked unfavorable and it was every man for himself until the singletrack reappeared. Most the way through the snow, we regrouped at a recognizable stream crossing to fill our water bladders with snowmelt. From there we all kept a consistent pace until the log jam, at which point the weather kicked in. It had been sprinkling for the previous twenty minutes around the ponds, rather refreshing for backpacking at first. A few minutes later I found myself precariously balancing in the middle of the log jam. Being pelted by sideways rain, I was unable to move forward balancing against the wind, at this point I was mentally done with the rain. Varying degrees of water fell on us the entire eight plus remaining miles to the trailhead, everything from sprinkling to pouring. Those miles were gruelling to say the least, and the sight of the Subaru was a joyous moment for all. Snowmass Mountain proved to be an epic adventure, one that we will surely return to for another summit push in the future.