Snowmass Mountain is a part of the Elk Mountains cluster. These particular mountains have brought me the toughest physical challenges thus far in my journey with Capitol Peak and the duo of Castle and Conundrum Peaks. It also includes some even tougher peaks that I have yet to face: Maroon Bell Traverse and Pyramid Peak. Taking on Snowmass was a difficult physical feat and an even tougher mental feat.
It is rare that I acknowledge in this forum the wear and tear that climbing these peaks (in addition to my other fitness commitments) has on my body. While I have plans to detail the difficulty, my preparation steps, and my recovery techniques in a future off-season blog, I will state here that tackling the first half of the 14’er list has evidenced how difficult this challenge is.
As I drove along I-70 under the stars, I attempted to brace myself for what was to come. I ran through the checklists of emergency gear in my pack and reran the timing I needed in order to safely complete the peak. Just as the sun started to rise, Snowmass Mountain came into view. Skirted with morning cloud cover, the peak beckoned me toward itself. I veered off the main road and wound my way though dirt roads and rocky terrain until I made it to the less popular trailhead.
One of the loveliest sights is the turning Aspen leaves as they brilliantly expose themselves among the aspens. Their fallen leaves covered the road, presenting a bit more challenge to finding and navigating the trail. Without a sign or distinguishing landmarks, I guessed my way along the hillside and straight up towards the saddle of the ridge. As I continued to climb, the cloud cover thickened. The coverage made me nervous, but the weather forecast predicted only a 10% chance of rain in the area. I continued to hike trusting the forecast a little too much. As I approached the tree line, I turned to see some of the last views of the sun for the day.
Since my chosen trail was the shorter 9 mile round, shortly in to my hike I hit the slopes of the mountain and encountered quite a bit of fog rolling in. I continued to follow the cairned path as the trail sights changed from trees to bushes to grass and then to only gravel. I looked back down the mountain once more before the clouds swallowed me whole. Quickly the climb became technical and soon after that, light snow flurries began to dance down, covering the ground. I layered with a down jacket, a rain jacket, and gloves before pressing on to the summit. I missed a couple of cairns in the thick fog and I took a few breaks to shelter myself from the precipitation, but I finally made it to the summit. I checked my GPS just to make sure. To no one’s surprise, I could not see more that about 20 feet in front of me. This made for a quick stay at the top before I began my descent.
The descent was a pleasant rush as the snow came down harder and harder. Pretty soon, I was walking on pure snow. Each step packed down 2-3 inches. Fortunately, I had my new hiking poles that helped stabilize me and relieve pressure on my knees. As I wound my way down each switchback, I had to remember where the trail was when I ascended. The occasional tall cairn reassured me that I was on the correct path. As I arrived back to my car, the snow wrapped my car half way up the wheels. After a short defrost and a breather, I drove down the rocky dirt road and back to civilization. It did not take long for the wickedness of the mountains to fall behind me and the sun reemerge. The beautiful color change on the mountains with the tail end of the storm right over the ridge in my rear view mirror represented the perfect conclusion to 14’er season (until Spring that is!).