Posted by: joshrduncan | August 11, 2012

2011-08-18 Mount Sneffels

“Somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit is the answer to the mystery why we climb.”  Greg Child

  • SUMMIT ELEVATION(s): 14,150 feet
  • TRAILHEAD: Mt. Sneffels
  • ROUTE: Yankee Boy Basin
  • ELEVATION GAIN: 2,900 feet
  • ROUND-TRIP LENGTH: 6.0 miles
  • ROUND-TRIP TIME:  5.75 hours
  • CLIMBING PARTNER(S):  Alyssa

I am just going to start off by saying Mount Sneffels has a weird name.  Let’s just get that out of the way and off the table.  Because of its peculiar name and for the sake of my climbing partner, I completed some research to discover that Mount Sneffels was named after the volcano Snæfell, which is located on the tip of the Snæfellsnes peninsula in Iceland (thanks wikipedia).  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 EarthFrom my research, I understand that Mt. Sneffels west flank is similar in form. So there you go, a little naming history of Mt. Snefflels.

Not only is Mount Sneffels unique in its name, it is very distinctive in so many other aspects.  Mount Sneffels is remote and stands alone.  It rises to an elevation of 14,150 feet and is the 27th highest 14er in Colorado.  The summit of Mount Sneffels is the highest point in Ouray County.  Mount Sneffels is notable for its great vertical relief, as it rises 7,200 feet above the town of Ridgway, Colorado 6 miles to the northeast.  In addition, it is located near the town of Ouray and is known as the “Switzerland of America” as it is basically surrounded by tall, steep mountains on almost all sides.  Ouray is a beautiful place and in my opinion one of the most beautiful towns in Colorado.

Mt. Sneffels is a special mountain for me because of my climbing partner, my younger 17 year-old sister Alyssa.  She came to Colorado from Vancouver, British Columbia to spend a week with my wife (fiancée at the time) and I.  I took the full week off from work in order to spend the entire time with her.  I have not had too many opportunities to spend some quality one-on-one time with her, so I was excited to just spend the week “chillin” with her and to experience some fun sides of Colorado just with my sister.   Besides coming to spend a week with her awesome brother, she was also here to visit the colleges she was considering for her education beyond high school.  The latter was the true purpose of her visit but I like to think it was truly the former.   I feel even more strongly about that because we actually didn’t visit any colleges during her visit (sorry Mom and Dad).  It seemed she had already decided upon the exceptional nursing program at the University of Colorado in Greeley.  So we decided to have fun instead!

Prior to her visit, she stated she wanted to climb a 14er with me.  She specifically requested that we climb a mountain that I had not climbed.  She stated “I want to be a part of the blog”.  That meant, we had to climb a 14er that was remaining on my list.  Of the ones remaining, Mt. Sneffels was technically the easiest.  This wasn’t my ideal choice in selection because my sister had never climbed a 14er.   Rarely have I heard of Mt. Sneffels being someone’s first 14er.  Nonetheless, we didn’t have a lot of easy choices remaining.  So, I sent her a link about the mountain with pictures and a description to see how she felt about it and she felt it would be difficult but “doable”.  She is in very good shape and physically fit so I knew she was physically capable of climbing it; I was just concerned about her being mentally prepared for what was to come.  As I stated, she had never climbed a 14er and as I have tried to communicate, climbing a 14er demands physical, mental, and spiritually preparation.  Nonetheless, we were both excited to climb together and so we planned a little road trip and adventure for her visit to Colorado.

Our planned adventure consisted of leaving the Front Range and driving up to Mount Sneffels on Wednesday.  We would investigate camping at the trailhead although I had read may not be a possibility; but, we figured we would see for ourselves.  Our contingency plan was that if we couldn’t camp we just find a place to stay in Ouray.  We would then hike Mount Sneffels on Thursday morning.  Our plan was to take the standard route up Yankee Boy Basin.  Reaching the summit would require approximately 2,900 vertical feet of elevation gain in our 6-mile roundtrip hike over Difficult Class II terrain.

So, after a little delay and some last minute running around in preparation for our climb, we left Denver at around 11:00 am on Wednesday and began the drive to Ouray.  The 300 mile drive to Ouray is long  but a beautiful one.   We arrived in Ouray around 5:00 pm and decided to venture up to the trailhead to see if we could camp.  The 4WD road up to Yankee Boy Basin was interesting and beautiful.  About three miles up the road we came to the notorious “C” section, which is where the road had been into the mountain side (a cliff) in the shape of a “C”.  This was a narrow corridor adjacent to a steep drop-off down to a creek.  It was really cool and I have never driven on a road like this before.

From the “C” section, the road was not horrible up Yankee Boy Basin.  In fact, I don’t think I paid attention to the road because I was mesmerized by the beauty of Yankee Boy Basin.  The wildflowers. The waterfalls. The all-encompassing mountains.  This place was breathtaking.

We arrived at the lower trailhead around 6:30 pm and investigated.  We did see a “No Camping” sign at the trailhead.  We contemplated whether that just meant at the trailhead or if we would be able to camp a little bit further up the basin.  It really wasn’t clear and I didn’t know.  So, we decided to drive back to Ouray and stay the night there.  I figured we should follow the rules.  I had to be a good example to my sister, right?

Once we arrived back in Ouray, we found one of the last remaining hotels with a room available.  Ouray is a popular place!  We ate our camping dinner in our room, watched some TV and prepared for our early start the next day.  I missed the serenity of camping and being away from civilization but at the same time it was really comfortable and pleasant to be staying in a quaint hotel.

Alyssa and I awoke at 4:00 am to begin the drive back up to the lower trailhead in the dark.  It was another early start for another climb. The weather forecast was very favorable for the day but we wanted to be safe.  We arrived at the trailhead alone.  Perfect!  Alyssa and I were hopeful to have the mountain to ourselves.  I knew this was unlikely for the entire day but I was hopeful that it was going to be at least quiet.  This was important to me because of two gullies we would be hiking up.  They both had the potential for rockfall so I preferred to be alone on the mountain.  Thus, we began our hike 5:20 am.

The beginning of the hike starts at 11,350 feet and continues along the remainder of the 4WD trail to the upper trailhead at 12,460 feet.  The first segment is about 1.75 miles long and actually makes up the majority of the hike.  From the start, Alyssa struggled to get acclimated.  She was having a hard time (she is going to be mad that I wrote this but what is a big brother for).  I tried to encourage her. I let her know that we weren’t in a rush and to find her own pace.  I reassured her that she could do this!  Although she was struggling with the altitude, she was still all smiles for the camera.  Ah, my beautiful photogenic sister!

In my mind I was humbled by the thought that just a week before I was in Alyssa’s shoes.  I struggled with altitude sickness during my climb of Longs Peak.  I was humbled because I relied on my friends for support and encouragement.  On Mount Sneffels, I was in the opposite role.  Maybe my struggle coming down Longs Peak was to reinforce patience and the importance of support and encouragement.  My weakness a week earlier became a strength for someone else less than a week later.

It was a slow and steady pace as we continued up to the upper trailhead.  Alyssa was visibly struggling.  She admitted to me that she at a Payday candy bar prior to starting the hike.  I think the food and altitude were affecting her.  I continued to try to encourage her.  We would take breaks often and rest regularly.  At one point she admitted to me that she wasn’t sure she was going to make it.  She felt bad and didn’t want to keep me from the summit; especially since we had traveled so far.  I appreciated her honesty! When she expressed her doubts and feelings, I changed my encouragement tactics.  I told her that the summit was not important at all.  It truly really wasn’t!  I was just happy to be out there with her.  That was more important to me than the mountain.  I was cherishing the entire trip with my sister.  I told her the summit was always there.  I told her to not even focus on the summit, which we couldn’t even see at that point.  I said, let’s just hike.  Let’s decide that the summit is not the priority.  I encouraged that we just hike to go and see the mountain, whether that was from the base or the top.  Let’s just go see it.

We continued slowly and methodically to the upper trailhead.  When we arrived at the upper trailhead at 6:25 am, Alyssa was starting to feel better.  She was getting acclimated and overcoming the doubts.  She was now invigorated.  I kept encouraging her that we just segment the mountain.  Let’s get to the base.  Let’s get to the ridge and saddle.  Let’s get up the gully. Let’s get to the summit! I felt segmenting the mountain would take the overwhelming presence and nature of a mountain and make it into something a little more manageable with smaller, yet valuable successes.  At that point, I reflected…that reminds me of the complicated times in life.

Times in life can be complicated, engulfing and overpowering.  It is often thrown around that “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”  I know I have said that very thing as encouragement to friends and family going through difficult situations.  However, I am not sure that is a true statement.  In fact, I know we can be given more than we can handle.  I have. I believe the truth is God will not allow us to be tempted beyond our ability to do what is right; He will almost always give us more than we can handle on our own.  The Bible has numerous examples and stories of this.  Stories of men and women who are given far more than they can handle and manage. In 2 Corinthians 11:30, Paul states “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”  In the next chapter he then states “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).  Throughout the Bible, God is making it clear that we are not self-sufficient. We cannot just stand strong and power through every situation.  We need Him.

Ok, back to the climb!

Alyssa, rejuvenated and now ready to conquer the mountain, set forth leading us up from the Upper Trailhead.  We had approximately 1.25 miles remaining but majority of vertical elevation to overcome.  After about a quarter of a mile, we quickly found ourselves at the base of the mountain at approximately 12,600 feet.  This is where the true hiking and climbing began and it was time for Alyssa to put on the climbing helmet for protection.

Let’s get to the ridge and saddle!  We began the ascent from the base to the saddle.  This portion was along a broad gully southeast of the summit.  A nice trail at the start quickly dissipated into loose rock and severely eroded trail up the center of the gully.  There were numerous trails up the middle of the gully.  We soon decided it was easier to hike up the left side of the gully on some of the loose, bigger talus instead of the finely graded, loose steep material up the center of the gully.  We continued up this to the saddle.  We arrived at the ridge, also referred to as the Lavender Col, and an elevation of approximately 13,560 feet at 7:40 am.   We still had approximately 600 feet remaining.

Let’s get up the gully!  From the Lavender Col, the climb proceeds up a much steeper gully.    This steep gully often contains snow year round and there were still remnants of snow during our hike.  As we started up this portion, I explained to Alyssa that we have now entered into a very dangerous area where rockfall increases dramatically.  Although there was no one above or below us, I explained to her the importance of calling out a rock when it is dislodged.  Our first priority was to minimize dislodging a rock to the greatest extent possible. However, if a rock started to move and gain momentum, we would yell “rock!” regardless if we were the only ones on the mountain.  To practice and to emphasize the importance of this, we would yell “rock!” even when a rock would move only a couple feet.

We made our way up the steep gully carefully.  The gully didn’t really have a defined path so we split up on both sides of the gully when possible.  This was an additional precaution we took in case a rock was dislodged.   At this point, I really saw my sister growing.  Her confidence was increasing.  I saw her amazed in herself and what she was accomplishing!  It was exciting for me to see how much growth she had from the beginning of this hike; she transitioned from doubt to belief.  She was having fun on a fairly difficult 14er.  We made it up the gully to the ‘V’ notch, which lies at approximately 14,050 feet, at 8:15 am.

The small ‘V’ notch is the most difficult climbing move en route to the summit of Mount Sneffels.  It has a bit of exposure with a small Class III move.  To be honest, I was more worried about this move for my sister than she was.  She handled it like a champ and overcame it without hesitation!

Let’s get up to the summit!  Once through the ‘V’ notch, the climbing became a lot easier and we were close to the summit.  The remaining scramble to the summit was on stable rock and went quickly.  We arrived at 8:25 am to a beautiful view on this clear, sunny day!  This summit is spectacular!

Ah…Fat Tire on Mount Sneffels.

I was so proud of my sister!  She persevered and made it!  I was blessed to share in this moment with her. We did it.  You did it sis!

We had the summit of Mount Sneffels to ourselves.  Alyssa and I prayed together on this peak.  We took in the beauty God had surrounded us with.  His creation is truly magnificent.  This was a special summit.

I now saw some hikers making their way up the board gully. We weren’t completely alone.  I wanted us to be out of the steep gully before they began moving up it so we decided to leave the summit at 8:40 am.  Alyssa and I enjoyed the summit together for about 15 minutes.

The ‘V’ notch quickly reappeared.  Coming down was definitely more difficult than going up because you now are looking down at the exposure.  Your weight and momentum is also going with gravity.  However, face in and it was easily manageable.  Once again, I found myself more concerned with Alyssa but she showed no hesitation.

Once we were back in the steep gully we discovered a lone hiker heading up.  We stopped to talk to him for a little bit.  He stated this was his second to last 14er.  Alyssa proceeded to look at me with a “what the heck” face.  She told him that this was her 1st 14er.  He then proceeded to look at me with a “what the heck” face.   What the heck to both of you!  This was a tough 1st 14er but Alyssa was managing it and doing great.  She was confident in herself and was overcoming it.  He congratulated her on her achievement and I congratulated him on his journey and being close to the end.

Slowly and steadily we made it down the mountain.  The decent went by quickly but we stopped to have a little fun by taking pictures.  We just enjoyed the mountain together.  The wildflowers were incredible and Yankee Boy Basin is truly spectacular.

We arrived back at the car at 11:05 am.  It was perfect timing because a small rain storm was just starting.  Alyssa and I, both now relieved to be down for different reasons, began the remainder of our trip back home.  Alyssa comfortably slept the majority of the drive back to Denver.

More lessons learned along this journey:

  • Roles can change and a moment of weakness can become one’s strength.  A specific moment or circumstance could be training for another moment.  My moment of weakness a week before became a blessing a week later. So I learned not take for granted times when I am weak.  God can do amazing things in that moment of vulnerability.  For in a moment of weakness, God reveals I am not self-sufficient and need Him.  I am grateful for that.
  • My sister rocks!  I am so fortunate for this opportunity.  Alyssa, thanks for your willingness and desire to enjoy in something that I hold sacred.  Thank you for the laughs, persevering through struggles, overcoming obstacles both physically and mentally, and the memories.  I am blessed to have had this adventure with you and will cherish it forever.  I am so proud of you and I love you!

I love the quote that I placed at the beginning of this blog write-up: “Somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit is the answer to the mystery why we climb.”  The summit provides significance but is truly small in the full journey.  The summit reveals the importance of everything in-between.  Now I am not saying that I don’t find the summit significant and I would be willing to turn away 50 feet away; it does play a critical role in the journey. The summit provides the climax, the point of highest tension or drama or when the action starts in which the solution is given.   In my mind, reaching summit exposes the valuable lessons learned and discovered along the way.  I do not climb for the summits; I climb to the summit because with every climb, something new is revealed along the way.  The summit is the destination, it is what happens in-between that is the true journey.  And I truly love this journey…

One last thing…Alyssa, you made the blog!

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