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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Standing on The Corner of Happenstance and Serendipity

Wanting a long hike, I bailed out of Petroleus Rex near timberline in lower Yankee Boy Basin; 10,800 feet. The air was fresh and cool. Wildflowers blossomed in all shades beautiful, animated by the breeze as if waving a welcome. My disposition was nothing short of excited-bordering-on-ecstatic. A day on top of the world.

A couple of steep miles had me wading Marsh Marigolds along the shore of Wrights Lake. It had an iceberg centerpiece, adrift in glacial green water. From the lake, I barely made out the saddle of Blue Lakes Pass, my destination de jour after scrubbing Mount Hayden's snowy north face.

You can see the "pass" in the lead photo, where rust-colored ridge line meets dark formidable spires. Directly behind the needled ridge, a faint trail leads to a heady alternate route to the summit of 14,150 foot summit of Mount Sneffels. Bobbie and I attempted to find it a couple of years ago and got cliff-ed out on an airy ledge.

A closer look at Blue Lakes Pass and Mount Sneffels from the upper basin.

 With no real threat of thunderstorms, I had the entire day to roam as I pleased. I tossed around the possibilities, things like going over the pass and down to the uppermost of three Blue Lakes. Should have brought the fly rod! Or maybe I could find the "heady" route to Sneffels summit this time. Hmmm, better not. I've heard it has some class 3 shit and I'm flying "solo" today. I followed my undecided nose to the pass. 

Blue Lakes Pass never disappoints. I wandered about like a kid, playing on its rocky ridge, shooting photos, day dreaming. 13,000 feet. Wow. Such a breathtaking see-forever vantage point... 360 degrees of orgasmic visual bliss. 

"Sky Pilot," how high can you fly... 

Looking up at Sneffels summit from Blue Lakes Pass. Note the inviting "alternate" trail to the top... That's the one that petered out and left us lost in a maze of spires and ledges. 

A couple of hikers coming up the trail from the Blue Lakes side. Telluride is tucked behind the mountain in the background.

A crowd gathers on the pass... everyone wants to summit Sneffels, but which route? I'm certainly not the guy to ask so I head back down, leaving them to their crisis of indecision.  
 My big DSLR quit working. I looked at the screen, "Battery exhausted." Time to go.  I made my way down Blue Lakes slippery switchbacks; noted the time. The day was still young and I had reserves of energy; what to do? 

At the bottom of the switchbacks two trails intersect: Straight ahead takes me back the way I came, a left loops me long-way-around, past the popular approach to Mount Sneffels, then on down a Jeep road where it rejoins my route up. That would add some miles. Go left :)

I found considerable amounts of snow in the upper basin, more than at this time in previous years. As the trail swung toward the mountain, I was teased by the idea of adventuring up the tumble of scree that is the traditional approach to Sneffels. There would be far too much snow in the couloir to safely summit, at least without an ice ax and crampons. But I could climb up to the saddle... maybe have a look at the couloir just to be sure.    

Do I really want to pick my way up through that jumble of teetering rock to the saddle? Why yes... yes I do!
I felt a little tug on the heartstrings. How long had it been since my last summit on Sneffels? Six, maybe seven years? After 20 some years of bagging 14'ers, Bobbie and I decided to call it "good" at 50... a nice round number. Peak bagging 14'ers was becoming too popular; there was often a line going up the mountain and a crowd on top. So we switched to 13'ers where we could be alone on top, and never looked back. 

Still... Sniffels is right there, and only four or five people struggling up that I could see, plus a few coming down. Next thing I know I'm climbing... just to the saddle, though...  you know, just to have a look around.

Somewhere on the other side of that needled ridge is the "alternate" route.

Thirty minutes later and about half way up the "active" slide of rocky scree (active meaning rockfall triggered by careless climbers above) I paused to catch my breath and look around. It appeared that I was already above Blue Lakes Pass.

Ants below... 

Looking down I saw more climbers, just starting up the scree. They looked like ants. Looking up I saw climbers reaching the saddle. They also looked like ants. 

Ants above...  Note the guy just to the right of the slit of snow in the middle of the photo.

All second guessing went out the window as soon as I reached the saddle. It took nearly an hour of continuous struggle, but mission accomplished. Climbing over and around boulders the size of VW's, I made my way up the steep couloir to have a look at both the view and remaining snow. Down-climbers had warned me that it was "too dangerous." Some had turned back, but most said they were able to summit by climbing up out of the couloir to the left on the ridge, some "class 3 shit in places, but doable without ropes." Ok...

Looking east from the saddle at the Kismets. Maybe I should just go over there and call it good, instead of tiptoeing up this ladder of boulders... 

Millions of boulders mark the route to the couloir full of snow
Progress is slow,  gravity is the enemy. Go gently on rocks that want to roll... 

I ran into Wayne, a fellow climber retreating from the couloir approach in search of a "safer" route. Wayne hails from Portland, Oregon, and was visiting Colorado on a peak-bagging "vacation," nine 14'ers in seven days, to be exact. He was living out of the back of his 4X4 Tundra pickup.  

We found the "couloir bypass" route pretty much straight up, somewhat exposed, and a tad airy. It was no place to be fumbling with a fucking camera so I have no photos. Beyond that it got better, with a couple of exceptions. 

Once I had to leave Wayne, a younger, more experience climber, in order to down climb from what I thought was turning into a "sketchy" route. A fall there could land one on a near vertical stretch of snow that would rocket them off the uncaring mountain in short order. A lovely way to go, all disease considered, but not today, thank you.

Ahhh, this looks better... NOT!
Finally, with all the "class 3" shit behind us, we made quick work of the last 300 yard push to the summit... a little sure-footed bouldering to avoid snow, interspersed with loose footed scree scrambles.

Nearing the "top of the world."Oh My God... 

ON TOP!!!! Just Wayne and me... all to ourselves.

The wind was so ferocious. I had to keep a hand on my ball cap.... also had to retrieve it several times... at great risk of bodily harm (i.e.: shitting my pants) only to lose it on the way down anyway; it's probably being trampled in some feed lot in Kansas by now.

It was hard to get comfortable on top, no place to hide from the wind. I called Bobbie at work to let her know where I ended up and that I was about to start down. She was surprised, wondering, no doubt, what the hell I was doing up there when the note I left on the counter said I would either be climbing Hayden or hiking Blue Lakes Pass. "How was it?" she asked. 
"Well, let's just say I feel extremely alive at the moment. It doesn't get better than this. I only wish you were here."

Wayne started down. I took a few minutes to savor the rare experience of having a 14'er summit all to myself. In the end, Wayne and I took separate routes off the top, but met up again running the ridge down to the saddle. It's always more difficult going down... reaching with "blind" feet in search of purchase, especially with no one to hold the other end of my rope.

In the end? Yeah, what a marvelous day... so spontaneous and free. I felt like an "accidental tourist," who stood on the corner of Happenstance and Serendipity and caught the bus to nowhere-in-particular. That's one "bus" that never disappoints. 

Taking stock, I had made a kindred-spirited friendship with Wayne, a genuine good guy in a world fast filling up with jerks and assholes. It's like he said on the way down, "You meet the nicest people on mountains."

Indeed, pal. Godspeed on the rest of your summits. May they all be as fair as today's. 

Peace out,
Time to find another mountain to climb.
mark and bobbie


  1. I would like to climb mountain sneffels as well!

  2. I loved that hike up to Blue Lakes Pass last year, but remember how cold and windy it was. Can't imagine what it must have been like another 1,000' higher, but it sure looks incredibly gorgeous up there. Was Bobbie jealous that you summited without her?

  3. Breath-taking!!

  4. What an absolutely fabulous hike and gorgeous photographs!

  5. Great climb! Glad you arrived up and down safely:) Amazing photos!

  6. After 31 years of gazing upon the most beautiful mountain in America ,following your ascent up Sniffles today was the best ever. Your narrative made us feel like we were right there with you. What a view.

  7. You are flying high....on mountain tops. Mt."Sneffels" is a name I wonder about. Was it named by a German, Swiss or Austrian? It sounds like SCHNEEFELS which would mean "Snowy Rock". Have you thought of that? Just wondering.

  8. That a good question P and B, had to go to Wiki to find out:

    "Mount Sneffels was named after the volcano Snæfell, which is located on the tip of the Snæfellsnes peninsula in Iceland. That mountain and its glacier, Snæfellsjökull, which caps the crater like a convex lens, were featured in the Jules Verne novel A Journey to the Center of the Earth. An area on the western flank of Mount Sneffels gives the appearance of volcanic crater."

    Your suggestion sounds just a plausible, though, as a lot of miners came to work here from those countries :)

    1. I shoulda thought of the Scandinavians. They ventured everywhere. And "mountain" is "fjell" in Norwegian. "Snæfell" does mean Snowy Mountain. Makes sense.

  9. Did you have to make it look so damned easy?

  10. I joke about dying by falling off a mountain all the time. My mother and my daughter do not find it amusing. Like you I think it would be a marvelous way to go, all diseases considered. Even if you didn't die right away you'd only suffer a few days compared to months or years. And you'd go out doing what you loved...morbid but true.

  11. Thank you so much for the pictures and the great well written article, I enjoyed it very much. Wayne is my son, a great man whom I love very much.

    1. Jerry, You did a fine job of raising Wayne. I'd trust him in a fox hole... or on a mountain.
      Thanks for your comment,

  12. Yup! That's my son-in-law. He's a great all-around guy who feeds off of challenges. So many challenges. I'm more of a lowland hiker but truly appreciate the summiting experience, no matter the height. Good treks, good people. Stay safe up there!

    1. Somehow it doesn't surprise me that Wayne's "family" seems to be close... :)


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