08 September 2014

Stardate 2014.688

Fresh snow, Mount Sneffels (left) and the Blue Lakes Basin in early fall.


Mount Sneffels is my favorite 14,000 foot mountain – 14er if you will. It pierces the sky at 14,150 feet, calling home the northern edge of the sprawling San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado. It is a monarch over a subgroup of the San Juan Mountains often referred to as the Sneffels Range. Except for the Needles – Grenadiers, a stone's throw to the south, the Sneffels Range has the largest concentration of high rugged peaks in the San Juan Mountains. Mount Sneffels is the 27th highest peak in Colorado.

The north and northwest faces of Mount Sneffels in fall.

If you've ever traveled in the vicinity of Montrose, Ridgway (no e in Ridgway), Ouray or Telluride, you've most likely seen it. If you've travelled State Route 62 over Dallas Divide, it towered over you a good portion of the route.

Mount Sneffels southwest face from high above lower Blue Lake.

The first recorded ascent of Sneffels was September 10, 1874, by members of the Hayden Survey. Frederick Chapin, author of "Mountaineering in Colorado," wrote the following in "Appalachia," December 1890. It is an account from Franklin Rhoda of the Hayden Survey of 1874.

Lower Blue Lake and the Blue Lake Basin from the western flanks of Mount Sneffels.

"Dr. Endlich was standing in the abyss (to the north of Sneffels) with one companion, who compared it to the great hole described by Jules Verne in 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth.' Endlich agreed with him, and pointing to the great peak above, exclaimed, 'There's Snaefell!' Thus the peak got its name, though it is pronounced by the people as Sneffels and is so written on the maps, and in the tables of the Coast Survey. So it will be the effort of this paper to put on record the true designation, named after the Icelandic mountain, 'Snaefell,' lest erelong the grand summit be called Sniffles."

The southwest face of Mount Sneffels.

Climbing literature is about gaining the summit and what it took to get there – the-me-myself-and-I conquering mentality. Yes, I'm guilty of this. On the other hand, I like to visualize what writers saw while on their climb. What did the landscape look like? Did they encounter any critters? Some writers are good about this and some are not. It appears Franklin Rhoda had a thing for grizzly bears. Since grizzlies no longer exist in Colorado, it's fun to read about when they did.

Looking west from the western flank of Mount Sneffels.

John L. Jerome Hart's "Fourteen Thousand Feet," 1931, quotes Franklin Rhoda after Rhoda's ascent of Mount Sneffels. "The claw marks on the rocks on either side of the summit, showed that the grizzly had been before us. We gave up all hope of ever beating the bear climbing mountains. Several time before, when, after terribly difficult and dangerous climbs, we had secretly chuckled over our having outwitted Bruin at last, some of the tribe had suddenly jumped up not far from us and taken to their heels over the loosed rocks. Mountain sheep we had beaten in fair competition, but the bear was 'one too many for us.'" Rhoda also mentions stumbling upon grizzly bears well above treeline on Uncompahgre Peak, Mount Oso (Spanish for bear) and Trinchera Peak.

Dallas Peak (right) from Mount Sneffels Lavender Col in May.  The Wilson group is in the background.

I just got back from Yellowstone, so I guess I have bear on the brain too.

The above shot is from Lavender Col along Sneffels' southeast couloir. Dallas Peak (13,809 ft, rank 100) is to the right, the Wilson Group rises in the background and Lizard Head (13,113 ft, rank 556) can be seen in the extreme left far background. Lizard Head is more of a rotting tower and is considered by many the hardest high peak in the state to climb. The lower pic is from the summit of Sneffels looking south/southeast, across a portion of the San Juan Range.

Looking south across the San Juan Mountain Range from the 14,150 foot summit of Mount Sneffels in May.

The first recorded ascent of a peak in the Sneffels Range other than Sneffels was in August 1929 when Charles Rolfe and Alonzo Hartman climbed Teakettle. Yes, Teakettle looked like a teakettle, until the winter of 1998-'99 when the spout succumbed to gravity and possibly snow. I've summited Teakettle and have pictures prior the peak losing its spout. Sounds like a future blog post to me.

Looking at the east face of Kismet and Mount Sneffels.  Lavender Col can be seen in center right of photo.

Climbing routes can be found on the southeast couloir (standard route), the southwest ridge, the north face (several technical rock, snow and mixed routes) and northwest ridge (technical). So far, I've summited Sneffels via the southeast couloir and the deeply inset snake couloir of the north face. The above pic of Sneffel's southerly face is from Cirque Mountain (13,686 ft, rank 155). If you follow the top of the Col to the right, continuing up the snow, you will enter the southeast couloir, which can't be discerned from this pic very well.

Mount Sneffels north face from Blaine Basin in May.

Somewhat isolated and only visited after a stiff hike, usually with climbing gear, Blaine Basin is the staging area for many of the routes on the north face. A short description of the snake couloir follows.

Climbing partner Todd

The snake couloir can be a classic day on spring snow. My climbing partner Todd and I had almost perfect conditions.

Upper Snake Couloir of Mount Sneffels.

The catch is you need to summit early because the snow on the upper end of the couloir starts getting soft with first light, rendering crampons worthless. The above photo shows the upper portion of the snake couloir beginning to pick up sun. The summit block is already getting sun hit. Can you spot two climbers just below the summit block? They're right on the sun/shade line.

Looking down at the turn in the Snake Couloir of Mount Sneffels.

We began at roughly 3:30 a.m., climbing easy snow under spectacular star light, entering the lower portion of the couloir just prior to the sky lightening. It gets steep from here on. About half-way up, the snake couloir makes a sharp left turn. The above pic is looking down at the turn in the couloir right after turning and heading up the upper portion. Once at the top of the couloir, it's a short climb up loose rock and boulder to the small summit. We descended the southeast couloir route to Lavender Col. From the Col, we dropped north down snow and easy to navigate scree fields to Blaine Basin.

The lower segment of the Snake Couloir as seen from Blain Basin. The couloir makes a sharp left about half-way up.

Our Tour de Snaefell.



  1. What a beautiful mountain! Can we go there this weekend?!? :)

    1. Go ahead, twist my arm. Ya, there might even be some early leaves this year.


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