Peak(s):  Mt. Sneffels  -  14,155 feet
Date Posted:  02/21/2013
Modified:  02/27/2013
Date Climbed:   02/16/2013
Author:  SnowAlien
 $999 Savings or Mt. Sneffels winter attempt on skis   

Route: Standard from Yankee Boy Basin
Distance: ~14 miles (from the winter road closure @9,200 feet)
Elevation gain: ~4,500 feet
Time: ~ 9.5 hours (6.5 hours up, 3 hours down)
Mode of transportation: ski
Party: solo

Not willing to squander a perfectly hikable bluebird day on sitting in an ice box of Ouray Ice park (in pink font specifically for SurfnTurf), I decided to take a stroll in the direction of Mt. Sneffels on Saturday. Coming on the heels of two days of backcountry touring in the vicinity of Red Mountain pass, and solidly hooked on skiing by now, the decision was to ditch snowshoes and try to get as far as I can on skis. Lacking partners, and not anticipating to make the summit, I took an ice ax and whippet as an afterthought (I am not getting on any steep terrain today, am I?) and started from the winter road closure at 7.30am (yup, late). Another major reason for the late start was to see the avalanche conditions in broad daylight (although, admittedly, I expected to hike the road in the first couple of miles and would not need daylight for that). The earlier start would have been better for no other reason but to escape the questions of mine workers and ice climbers, such as: "How far are you going with those skis?".

Off I go

Hiking the road with skis

In the next couple of miles I am beginning to question my wisdom for choosing such a long approach before a skinnable terrain. About a couple of miles in, the snow on the road finally materializes, and I take the earliest opportunity to start skinning the shoulder.

Passing the mine at mile marker 3. The road becomes legitimately skinnable.

Dancesatmoonrise would do well here on his bike

Soon, the showshoe track miraculously appears (made a couple of days prior by Mad Mike and Dani), which I work to turn into a skin track

The first sign of instability, albeit it looks pretty mellow.

The peace and quiet in the basin is suddenly disrupted by a helicopter. First, I hear several loud blasts on the western side of the basin, fully expecting to see an avalanche come crashing down shortly thereafter. I am guessing that the Telluride ski patrol is doing their avy work (although I am a bit puzzled why they are doing it on the other side of the ridge - but what would I know). The helicopter keeps circling around and at some point goes directly over my head, very likely noticing my presence in the basin. "Maybe they are trying to warn me of dangers of the solo travel?", I think, but at this point, I am not doing anything particularly dangerous, just skinning up the road and minding my own business.

The helicopter keeps circling around, while I continue.

Finally the terrain starts opening up.

My observations continue and I notice a small avy slide on the western aspect, likely caused by warm temperatures.

Lo and behold, I am making pretty good time and find the summer TH within the striking distance just around 10am or so. The thought of the possibility of a summit bid creeps into my head for the first time that day. I press on.

Up to this point, I am following the snowshoe track, which is starting to veer off to the right of the summer route, but I agree with its general direction, so I proceed.

The helicopter's loud noise, however, continues, and looking across the basin at Mt. Emma, I notice the peculiar thing:

The close-up:

The next group is getting ready to launch:

The landing zone:

What I thought was the Telluride ski resort avy control operation, turns out to be the heli-skiing operation. For a second, I got jealous, until I remembered the cost - $999 per person per day (Silverton Mtn prices, which possibly could be higher at Telluride). Wait a minute, I am pretty much doing the same thing - hiking and skiing in the adjacent basin, only for free. The discovery lifts up my spirits, as it turns out I am not the only crazy person who decided to ski in this beautiful basin on a gorgeous blue bird day. Oh, and if anybody recognizes themselves in the photos and would like a full-resolution one, I will gladly accept a donation, which hopefully would cover a portion of my own heli trip.

Skin track

Right around 12K feet, the terrain starts to get more complicated, but still, most of the avy slopes are avoidable. Forget the summit, I anticipate some great skiing later in the day, as the snow coverage looks great.



Slowly but surely, I reach the upper summer TH

and am greeted by another sign of instability - an avy debris on the Blue Lakes pass - which dashes my hopes of climbing up and skiing the pass, since it would be the same aspect.

Another look at the same slide from up higher.

Skinning is starting to take its toll and my pace slows down (the prior snowshoe track is long gone, fully obliterated by the wind).

Not ready to ditch the skis yet, I decide to take the standard summer route. The slope meter shows the 20-25 degree angle, which I am comfortable with, but I concede that the slope is likely to get steeper up higher. I am concerned that taking the SW ridge route would be time consuming as I anticipate some route finding issues.

I ate some "gu" and start making my way up. The snow looks stable and supportive so far.

Kickturns are starting to pile up

I counted about 26 of them

The views are unfolding (Gilpin Peak)

Lizard Head, Wilsons group, Dallas

Nearing the saddle at 13,600 feet

Up to this point, the snow felt very supportive, but the last kickturn unexpectedly resulted in some (minor) cracks and exposed some layers. I stopped to evaluate the situation. The slope was approaching 35 degrees, it was getting late in the day, the last 600 feet took 3X longer than expected, and the Lavender couloir and the summit ridge were still ahead. I was roughly at 13,560 feet, and although the summit did not seem to be that far, I estimated that at my current pace, I might get there by 4pm, which would most likely mean skiing out of the basin in the dark and on crusty snow. Suddenly, the summit fever was gone. I checked my phone - there was a text from Surf that they are done ice climbing (already!?!) and will be heading out for beers soon. The idea of soaking in Ouray hot springs and having dinner with friends started to sound like a much better alternative than fighting tooth and nail for another winter summit so late in the day and in questionable snow conditions. The decision to turn around came easy. Besides, I was getting excited about skiing. I quickly made a transition to a ski mode and picked the line that looked reasonable.

Making a transition to a ski mode while dangling off a rock.

The skiing actually turned out to be quite good.
(The camera battery died, so the rest of the photos are taken by the phone camera).

Happy to be down safely

Soon came another decision point - do I ski/hike to the register and sign out or do I folow a nice skiable line?

The skier in me easily won over hiker.

Closely sticking to the summer route on the way out.

Next, I decided to check on my heli skiing "neighbors" as the helicopter noises in the basin had subsided some time ago, and spotted another peculiar view.

Apparently, they decided to ski the slope immediately next to what seems to be the crown of an old avy. I guess the guides felt pretty confident about the conditions there.

Another look at the terrain they skied (Stony Mountain)

Skiing out of the basin

Reaching the end of the skiable terrain. Just over a mile of road hiking remains.

The winter closure gate that was locked in the morning was open...

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Comments or Questions
02/21/2013 18:24
That basin is breathtaking in the summer, but in the Let me know when you want to go back for the summit. I'll be ready within 20 minutes. Nice solo effort!

02/21/2013 22:35
I hadnt ever seen the basin the the winter! Good work and I hope you enjoyed every minute of it!

Dave B
Quite fortuitous!
02/21/2013 22:57
Excellent report, way to make the winter ski happen.

You could smell...
02/21/2013 23:30 thoughts.

Yes, I hope to ride that road before March 20. Looks like 3 miles to the mine, and then maybe another mile might be rideable after that?

The decision for sticks vs. wheels is tough, given the easily skiable terrain above, but hauling the skis over dirt tips the scales, especially if it's more than 3 miles of rideable terrain.

Thanks for the photos; they are a nice addition to Mike's report.

You and Surf are welcome to join me if you'd like to go back and wear that Sneffels snowflake patch on your front forks.

Nice effort
02/22/2013 02:45
and awesome turns!!! Summit or not, looks like an amazing ski day. I'm a little surprised at the route selection of the Telluride heli guys...seems like some pretty risky terrain they were on given the current state of the snowpack...although it probably looks steeper than it actually is. In the 5th to last photo you can see where one of the guides threw a bomb before they skied it...though in my opinion they should've thrown at least 2-3 more in that general area. Maybe they ski these lines with their clients frequently after every storm, in which case it would've been more skier compacted and therefore more stable? Just my guess. I like your ski-for-free approach much better as well!

Yankee Boy
02/22/2013 14:12
Is lookin' good! Nice work getting as far as you did. Thanks for the TR.

Mystery solved..
02/22/2013 17:05
That same day Steve and I were 25 miles south enjoying a mis-guided adventure in NW basin below Vermillion Peak (a few miles west of Lizard Head Pass). There were ski and board tracks everywhere, but no people and certainly no one would have skinned up that slope 10 times in a day. I speculated heli-skiing, but we saw no heli...I guess they were there the day before.

Congrats on a great day, in a great basin!

Great effort
02/25/2013 01:02
And great report. Great weather!

02/25/2013 23:08
Great work and thanks for posting such a great TR.

Craig Cook
02/27/2013 07:17
Absolutely stunning report and photos! Thanks for sharing - I can't wait to this this area in August!

02/27/2013 14:10

Antonio Banderass
03/14/2013 01:59
Great TR! The whole heli skiing operation nearby was a nice sidestory.

04/02/2015 19:45
@Jeff - to go back for Sneffels? Yankee Boy Basin? Anytime, really. It is really amazing out there.

@Jim - only about 0.1 or 0.2 miles of the road is rideable after the mine. The decision about wheels vs. sticks is not that tough, really. Sticks provide the most elegant entry into/exit from the basin, but generally yield no summits on long(ish) routes (at least for me ) as even the lightest sticks are damn heavy. The trade-off is worth to me though as skiing is so much fun. Those ugly bear traps (or whatever you call them showshoes) actually do the summit job, but provide no style points and no enjoyment of the way down. We need to do what Mike and Dani did - get as close to the summer TH as possible. Maybe we'll have to charm some mining workers - whatever it takes to get a winter snowflake, right?

@Sarah - thanks a lot. Those turns mean a lot to me, since I haven't been much of a skier until moving to Colorado some 3 years ago. I had never understood the concept of ”enjoying the hike without the summit”, well, not until I started skiing Now it is like ”to hell with the summit as long as I got my turns in”. It was a spectacular day to get some touring in the backcountry. No regrets whatsoever.

I checked the Mt. Emma runs on my slope meter and it looks like they were around 20-25 degrees. Pretty sure Stony Mountain runs were in the same ballpark. I do agree though, I was pretty surprised to see the avy crown in the immediate vicinity of their runs. At least they threw the bomb in first - I did not recognize it until you pointed that out. Fun stuff.

@Shawn - mystery solved on my end too. I saw Steve the night before at a Subway, but didn't get a chance to talk to him. I was wondering where he was climbing that weekend

P.S. Thank you everybody for comments and ”thumbs up” and to Bill M for making the TR writing user-friendly

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