Snow Massive

Out of the blue, Brian wanted to do a full weekend trip to collect something hard and fun; apparently, his girlfriend went out of town on short notice.  Now this is a good thing, but caught off guard, I couldn’t think of anything besides Longs Peak.  Brian says, “How about Snowmass?”

Of course, I known for a while that Brian is always interested in a few extra ski turns and my brain locked onto the obvious ski connection; “The ski resort?” I blurted out while thinking that June is way too late for that.  Brian says, “No, but close.” And that is how our “Snow Massive” adventure got started.

I had done a few 14ers that year and had a exertion-level in my mind that I thought roughly fit the requirements of a 14er.  And it was an investment that I was willing to make without any thought.  I agreed quickly while also registering with great excitement that Snowmass Mountain was a 14er I hadn’t done yet; I’m always up for checking another off that long list.

When I got off the phone, I pulled out my Dawson guidebook to check it out.  Boy, was I in for a shock!

14ers done already in 1999

  • Huron Peak on 4/24 (10 miles, 11.5 hours)
  • Mt Yale on 5/1 (10 miles, 13 hours)
  • Mt Evans on 5/30 (3 miles, 6 hours)

….compared to…

  • Snowmass Mountain (23 miles, 2 days)

Yikes!  An eight mile approach with gear for a snow climb & a cold weather bivy and then a 7 mile round trip to the summit plus an eight mile retreat to the trailhead.  Well, it sure sounded like an adventure.

I couldn’t imagine hauling an entire campsite 8 miles up 2600 feet; I’m just not in to backpacking.  I told Brian I was bringing a bivy sack and lightweight sleeping bag; I’d just have to sleep in my clothes to stay warm.  And I’d gamble on the rain.  I also decided to live on cold food to avoid bringing a stove and fuel. Even still I had to bring a ton of stuff, e.g., snowshoes, poles, crampons, ice axe, food, extra base layer, fleece, gore-tex upper and lower, water bottles, small rock rack (Brian had rope) and helmet.  Let’s just say I had to bring my big pack.

On June 19, 1999, we started the long drive up to Aspen in the early morning to allow plenty of time to reach the bivy site.  We followed Dawson’s directions to the trailhead on Snowmass Falls Ranch, and then began our very long hike to Snowmass Lake.

Snowmassive route map

Around 1/2 way up the trail, we came to a creek crossing.  I mean the trail led up to the creek and another trail started on the other side of the creek, so the evidence pointed to us needing to cross.  But there was no kind of footbridge or any sort of solid structure for us to use to cross the 90-foot wide & up to several foot deep creek; the only thing to use was a pile of dead logs that had accumulated in that spot.

Some of the logs where piled high enough to be non-floating, but they were still unstable as they tended to move and roll.  Many others were simply floating on the creek but trapped by the other stuck logs.

….and with a heavy pack on my back?  No way!.

But it was true, we had to balance our way across without a fall or lose the entire trip, or worse.  I did have my snowshoe poles with me, so I used them to help balance my pack as my feet shifted around with the unstable footing.

A failed adventure due to a creek crossing would be all the harder to live with because it wouldn’t just be a failure, it would be a stupid failure.  But we made it.

Joe posing in front of Hagerman Peak....I thought it was Snowmass at the time.

Continuing on we eventually started to get close enough to see the nearby peaks.  We posed with Hagerman’s Peak in the background thinking it was Snowmass Mountain, only to find Snowmass was still around the corner.  And then we were there; it was one of the nicest bivy spots I’ve ever seen.

Snowmass Lake is very large for its 11,000′ elevation and ringed by cliffs on one side with the peaks in the background.  It looked like a nice place to spend a couple weeks, as long as the cold temps kept away the bugs.

The first thing we did was scout the entire area to find the best spot for a tentless bivy; we didn’t want to wake up in a puddle if the rain came.  Nothing was quite perfect, but we each settled on our own “best” spot and then took care of some chores, such as getting water & hanging our food.

Sunset was around 8:30pm, which accelerated the cooling trend for the day.  I put on all my clothes and crawled into my sack to warm up.  It luxurious until the snowy rain started.  But the precipitation didn’t last long and I drifted off.

With only a 3.5 mile hike remaining, we didn’t feel the need for a pre-light start.  Plus, there was another log crossing at the start of the day, and I wanted to be able to see it. So, at rather late-ish 4:30am the alarm went off and we scurried to be ready for a 5am start.

Summit day route map

The first thing we had to do was cross that one last log bridge.  I was relieved to see it was much shorter and we started across.  About midway, I tried to plant my pole in the creek bed, but found it was too deep.  In the process, I lost my balance and had to put my foot down blindly to catch my self before toppling into the creek.  Once I caught my balance, I looked down to see that my left boot was submerged.  With my boots water proofed and my gaiters on, I wondered if I would get away with that mistake.  And in that same instant, my foot felt the flood of freezing water.

Our view of Snowmass from the bivy site.

Oh, great.

Once on the other side, it was the dreaded, yet familiar,  squish, squish, squish sound and sensation as I walked.  After 100 yards, I told Brian I needed to sort out a problem and sat down for some work.  I got the boot off and poured out a 1/2 liter of water and then wrung another pint out of my sock.  I hoped a fresh sock would do the trick but the inside of the boot soaked up too much water for that.  Twenty socks might have done the trick.

With no choice but to continue, it was squish, squish, squish all day as my softened skin eroded away.  At least the temperature was moderate, so I wouldn’t have to worry about frostbite.

Me on the summit....enjoying a well earned rest. And wondering why I didn't get a haircut.

We traversed around the lake to the terminal moraine of the Snowmass snowfield which we scrambled up to reach the giant, low-angle snowfield that must have been the source of the peak name, “snowmass”.  There wasn’t any trail, it was a loose, muddy mess.  But it went.

Once we reached the peak, we broke out the harnesses and climbing gear for the climb up the side of the ridge.  It was a steep snow climb that ended with a few mixed climbing moves to reach the summit ridge.  Brian was right to insist on the gear.

After a brief rest, we then scrambled up the long rocky ridge to stand on a spectacular summit.  It had only taken 3.5 hours; but with the sun burning down on the snow, we didn’t want to get caught in a giant puddle of soft and melting snow.  We quickly went back down the way we came up, ending with a rappel off the ridge.

Brian had carried his skis a long way for these turns.  I had my mind set on the longest glissade of my life. My record glissade to-date was almost 2/3rds of the Cristo couloir on Quandary in a single run (a 1600′ descent over 0.8 miles), only missing the top 750-1000 feet of rocky & overly steep terrain at the top. The Snowmass Big Bowl promised to be even better.

I started off slowly, to get the feel of the snow.  The snow was softening quickly and grabbing at me so I let my speed pickup to get me over any soft spots; it worked.  I was hauling ass down the snowfield, shifting my weight to steer between the rocks, and hollering all the way.  I made it almost to the terminal moraine before I lost my nerve and slowed down.  The soft snow then ended my fast paced adventure.  When Brian finally arrived sometime later, he said, “You were going very fast; that was pretty dangerous.”  It was true, but it was fun.

Brian showing off his Snowmass pride

And for the 10 years since, I have been proclaiming Snowmass Mountain as my longest glissade. But my calculations done in writing this report tell me that the glissade was a similar 1600′ over 0.8 miles…not a new record.  But I’ll still say it was the most exhilarating due to the speed I used to make it so far over soft, lower angled snow.  And, yes, I promise not to do that again.

The hike back to camp went quickly on painless adrenaline. Even the short log crossing offered little resistance.  It wasn’t until after sitting in camp for a rest while trying to dry my socks in the sun that my body started to stiffen.  The pain of pulling on that big pack and the cold, wet sock foreshadowed the agony of that hike out.

Another death march.  It went on and on.  I was so bored that I even enjoyed the 90-foot log crossing on the way back.

And then it was done.  23 miles and 5800′ over 2 days, and another 14er done.  It was a great weekend.

And only 36 more to go; I wouldn’t finish for another 8 years.

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