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Thursday, August 31, 2017

In Search of Thin Air: Chance and Challenge on High

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct (to Hell)."  Charles Dickens

We're so deep into August it's almost September. Snow has been vanquished by sun and warmth from all but the deepest, darkest north-face recesses of mountains. Kids are all but back at school, while parents slave over cluttered desks with one eye on the clock. Hell, you can even find a parking spot on Main Street, Ouray.

If you don't enjoy climbing a landslide of loose angular boulders, Mount Sneffels is not a summit for you.
The earth's axis yaws toward winter. Forests of Aspen wane from juicy summer green to anemic pre-fall celadon. Chlorophyl is sluggish, weary from the season of growth. Darkness lurks in shadows that lengthen by the day. Nights grow longer. Local bears are on a feeding frenzy. Who needs a calendar?     

It was sudden, as if sensing urgency, Bobbie, a veteran of fifty 14er summits, blurts off the cuff, I think I want to attempt Mount Sneffels...you know, just to see if I still do it. 

The ensuing discussion reveals that its been 20 years sense she last summited Sneffels—though 10 years ago she reached the upper couloir while guiding nephew Brent and niece Anita. Unfortunately, they were turned back deep snow and ice.  

So Monday rolled around bright and pretty as a new copper penny. Not a single excuse can be found; the forecast is good, snow's gone from the approach couloir, and we're not getting any younger. Yikes! Butterflies suddenly decide to go for a swim in my morning coffee. I take a couple Rolaids to settle the ruckus, and pull on my boots.

Headed up to that saddle, then take a left. A la Paul Simon, there must be 50 ways to break your ankle...

"Landslide of boulders" understates the verticality. Perhaps "waterfall" is more accurate...

Damn butterflies again...
The incline is an arc that steepens as you go...thus we are forced to use "four wheel drive."

Almost to the saddle, exertion begins to show. 
Once above the waterfall of boulders, poor traction on hard-pack/marbles makes for two steps up, one step back.  

But isn't the view pretty from the saddle...

Headed up the approach couloir: we are back into waterfalls of boulders...only now, they are extra, extra large.

Once above the boulders, there's this to deal with..."Foot Loose" on loose footing 

Thanks to gravity, the eroding effects of winter snow, plus wear and tear from a gazillion climbers every summer, most of the boulders in the upper couloir have moved downward. What's left is loose, traction-less footing in the steepest section. Erosion is worse than either of us remember. Then again, it's been 20 years. What would one expect...  

In early summer last year I solo-ed Sneffels. The approach couloir was still filled with hard-packed snow and ice. I popped out onto the south ridge, which had less snow, and was able to summit. Though a little "airy," it was easier than fighting the standard approach's erosion and poor footing.   

Once out of the sloppy couloir, climbing is easier... better footing and reliable handholds that actually "hold."

Still, Sneffels is not a climb for the faint of heart

A few last, arduous steps brings victory. Below, Bobbie holds ammo box containing the sign-in registers for proof of summit, and finally smiles.

I left a little "skin" on the mountain shimmying up through the "keyhole."  It had eroded away similar to the rest of the route, leaving a much bigger step, and, worse, a considerably smaller landing zone on the way back down. Could use a rope there, for old Geezers on Eliquis :)  Sorry, no photos...we both had our hands and legs full...

 Views from the top...

One would think we had it licked after summiting Sneffels. But, as often happens, going down steep, loose, scree/bouldered crap proves more problematic than going up. There were a few other hikers in the couloir by then, thus a danger of us being hit by, or hitting someone else with, rockfall triggered by careless foot placement. Fortunately, everyone was considerate, moved slowly and cautiously and tried to avoid the fall-lines of ascenders and descenders below.

Bobbie carefully threads her way through the boulder field above the saddle. You don't dare even tug on rocks this size once below them. Note the "ridge route behind Bobbie. Trust me...it's easier, and safer. 

Mission accomplished...safely down. You still "got it," my Love :). Not bad for a couple of Geezers :).

Dickens summed Sneffels better than I can. "It was the best of times and the worst of times," full of "hope and despair," maybe even "foolish." Kinda like "life."


  1. I would need a helicopter and an oxygen mask.

  2. There was no doubt Bobbie could still do it!
    I'm with Barney. IF I could make it to the summit, there is no way I would be able to get back down on my own.
    Sorry, Mark, if your ashes do get scattered there we will not be at the memorial :-)

  3. What a way to celebrate the end of a great summer!

    1. Agree!! Thanks for the great story/photos Mark and Bobbie, enjoyed it tremendously.

  4. What a marvelous climb to the top of Mt. Sneffels! The air does get a little thin above 12,000 feet. I could probably make it if there were some ropes to hold during the trails rough spots. Congratulations on making it to the top and getting down safely!

  5. More great pictures. Love that header and the perfect quote from A Tale of Two Cities. The view from the saddle is drop dead gorgeous but OMG that looks like so much work and you aren’t even at the top. Can’t believe that selfie. Shouldn’t you be using two hands? I was thinking after all that Bobbie would have a full face grin. But then she’s probably thinking about ‘sliding’ back down. Oh boy hope those scrapes don’t irritate too much. Simply spectacular views from the top. Thanks for saving me the climb even though I know pictures are zero compared to actually being there in the sublime. I’m sorry but after that accomplishment I don’t think you can qualify as geezers. That’s for those of us of a ‘certain age’ who didn’t do it and probably can’t.

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  7. Simply spectacular hike and views! Thanks for taking the time and effort to do & share it as you have. Don't see myself making that climb though I can see why you did. Fantastic!! Congratulations on a day well lived!

  8. We are sure going to miss these posts when you two are gone, oops I forgot, we will be gone first, it has been an amazingly beautiful journey though, glad we came along when we did.:)
    In another 24 days we will be admiring Mt. Sneffels everyday from many different vantage points and taking
    another 50 rolls of "velvia":) :)
    Oh, we would sure would like to have a nice white dusting on the range, in case you are in touch with any higher powers.
    Stay Thirsty my friends
    See ya soon.

    1. I'll see what I can do regarding snow :) Looking forward to seeing you two!
      As for who will die first? We're doing our best :).

  9. My knees are in pain just reading this! I'm with Gayle, though...I could get up, maybe, but I would never get down. I have this terrible fear for loose gravel and every muscle in my body tightens making for a painful descent. I'm not sure there is enough Advil in the world to get me down. That was crazy, but I so understand the need to see if you still have it and the feeling of accomplishment. You two are awesome!! Great job!

  10. Coming down that loose rock just looks awful. Congratulations on another death defying hike.

  11. Mark, if anyone can convey in words and pictures what it's like to climb a mountain, it's you. We're breathless here just reading about it.

    If they ever install an escalator on one of those peaks, let us know and we'll join you!

    Joe and Tracey (from Maryland)

  12. Saw you guys driving down, congratulations on another Sneffels ascent. Great photo's as usual!


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