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Mount Sneffels Loop Tour

July 25, 2009

Mount Sneffels: 14,156 feet
Round-trip distance: 7.4 miles
Elevation gain: 3,450 feet

Coming back to Colorado is like returning to visit an old friend. I have not been here in two years, and it is almost new to me again despite its vague familiarity. As the sun set on my camping spot in Yankee Boy Basin, I soaked in the scenery and marveled at the billions of stars visible in this western sky before eventually drifting into a comfortable sleep.

Mount Sneffels

Mount Sneffels, San Juan Scenery (from Wright's Lake)

San Juan Scenery

Memories returned briskly with my alarm clock: get out of sleeping bag, get dressed quickly, and start walking to warm up. This is always the worst part of the day for me, but it is usually quickly forgotten as the sun begins to rise. When I could see clearly, I was immediately distracted by slopes full of colorful wild-flowers, an occasional waterfall, and the crumbling cliffs of the San Juan mountains rising above everything. Yankee Boy Basin had my attention.

Gilpin Peak

Gilpin Peak, Mount Sneffels

Mount Sneffels

To get a little more of a loop in, and to get off the road that was already crowding with trucks and jeeps moving their way up to the four-wheel-drive trailhead, I followed the Wright’s Lake Spur Trail toward Blue Lakes Pass. I was glad I did. Immediately I was away from the crowds and immersed in San Juan scenery: more waterfalls, wild-flowers and mountains, all now being illuminated by the soft morning alpenglow. The mountain reflections in Wright’s Lake were also worth this detour.

Mount Sneffels

Southwest Ridge spires, "Kissing Camels" rock formations

Kissing Camels

I met a couple hikers at the pass who had ascended from the Blue Lakes Trail, but other than that I was alone the rest of my scramble to the summit. I found most of the southwest ridge requires simply hiking up a well-cairned trail of scree weaving its way between huge rock spires. To avoid the scree as much as possible, I did some 3rd and 4th class scrambling along the walls on either side of the trail to gain altitude, although I found loose rock for hand and foot-holds to be equally hazardous. There were a few places where scrambling was required, and near the summit the rock changed dramatically to knobby, solid stuff. This was the enjoyable part of the route for me.

Blue Lakes

Blue Lakes, from summit

Of course being a Saturday in the end of July, I was not expecting the summit to myself. Ten or so others were already there when I arrived at 9:30, and more showed up as we sat there conversing, including a father-son duo who were both climbing their first fourteener! The weather was holding despite clouds now moving in, so I took my time and enjoyed the summit view (and a Chipotle burrito!) for about an hour.

The Notch

Descending through "The Notch"

Then I began the descent of the col, the standard route for Mount Sneffels. The crux move at the notch was clogged with a line of people coming up and going down, since there is really only room for one person at a time there. After I made it through that obstacle I was for some reason surprised to see the couloir still full of snow. During what seemed like rush hour in the couloir, I watched as on two separate occasions hikers lost their footing and went sliding down the treacherous snow field. Fortunately in both cases they were able to right themselves before losing control. Had I thought ahead, an ice axe would have made quick work of that section.


Tedious descent

There was no simple cure for the next part of the descent: nasty, ugly, slippery scree and dirt. Just one step at a time and an occasional slide, with constant attention to my footing. Higher up, the main concern was not knocking rocks loose as this area was full of people, but eventually the trail evened out for easier, nonhazardous walking.


I enjoyed my trek through Yankee Boy Basin once again as the sun now fully lit the tightly-tucked valley. By the time I began the drive to Ouray, however, clouds were becoming more ominous, and within an hour the range was hidden by storm clouds. Yep, this is Colorado all right!


More wild-flowers of Yankee Boy Basin