Peak(s):  Snowmass Mountain  -  14,105 feet
Date Posted:  02/25/2016
Modified:  05/05/2016
Date Climbed:   02/21/2016
Author:  Kevin Baker
Additional Members:   Mickeys Grenade, wooderson, robco, Papillon
 Snowmass Winter Ascent: Pain Cave 101   

Snowmass Mountain (14092')
Feb 20-21, 2015
Via Lead King Basin/West Face
23.3 miles, 6900' gain

Climbing 14ers in winter is a highly rewarding goal, but with it comes a multitude of challenges and test of sheer will. Over the years that I have worked on them, they have become "easier" to some extent because of the proliferation of information over the internet. We now have access to fairly accurate point forecasts for a specific mountain area, avalanche forecasts, snow depth information, trip reports, and available trenches to poach! What was a daunting task 10 years ago is much "easier" now, but "easier" is a relative term. No matter what conditions you face, climbing Snowmass in winter is brutal! It doesn't get climbed much in winter, and for good reason. It's a lot of time in the pain cave!

It's been a frustrating winter for folks pursuing Elk 14ers, and I was beginning to think I wouldn't get a new one. A few weeks ago, we were hoping to go for Snowmass as a plan B, but the forecast leaked and we had to bail. Back in March 2010, I attempted Snowmass with Dwight and the Meisers, but we turned around at 13K due to uncertain weather and questionable snow on the upper face. There are generally few good conditions windows to climb Snowmass safely in winter, so one must be patient. A long dry spell and a successful, impressive dayhike by Dad Mike's crew the previous weekend encouraged us to give it a shot. We form a tag team of Greg, Kevin, Sarah, Jeff, Rob, and myself. Jeff and Rob leave a bit later and we hike independently most of the trip.
Road split to Lead King Basin

Pack In to Lead King-7.3 miles, 1800' gain

I-70 was closed due to a rockslide in Glenwood Canyon, so Kevin, Sarah, and I spent the night in Gunnison to break up the long journey to the "trailhead." The winter route on Snowmass is via Lead King Basin from the south, but the road to Crystal is typically not plowed beyond the Snowshoe Ranch just east of Marble at 8100'. How demoralizing! We set out at 10am with hopes of getting to the summer trailhead or beyond. It's quite warm and we make good time up the shelf without snowshoes for awhile. The views distract us from the task at hand, and it feels more like spring! This road is prone to avalanches, and we cross a couple of old, wet slide debris. An impressive chunk of ice that broke off a formation above litters the road, over 10 feet high!

Huge ice block on the road!

The annoying aspect of the trek to Crystal is you gain only about 800' while losing some elevation on a couple big hills. Those hills are going to bite on the slog out. We make good time to the Crystal Mill enjoying the nice trench and take a lunch break there. It's a treat to see the mill in winter!

Crystal Mill

Rejuvenated from lunch, we press on for the steeper grunt to Lead King Basin. The road climbs the east side of a steep drainage, and one must be confident with the snow conditions to press on as there are a couple suspect avy slopes to cross. The avy rating today is green and we don't see or hear any signs of instability. We get our first views of Snowmass, and they are inspiring to say the least! The scenery is stunningly Alps-like.

Road to Lead King Basin

We press on to the summer trailhead and after some scouting around, we decide to camp below the TH closer to the creek at 9600', arriving at around 2:30. I set up my tent, refuel, and wait for the snow to firm up a bit to see if I can bust a trench up the headwall to Geneva Lake.

Camp at 9600'

My friend Dwight is ahead of us scouting Maroon in Fravert Basin, so I improve his track. I leave his track at the base of the headwall and it's very slow going up soft snow. I get to 10.4K (right side of the waterfall) after an hour and call it good. The snow will be very firm in the morning, so no need wasting energy wallowing any farther now.

Headwall to Geneva Lake

I get back to camp and Greg already has water ready for me. The Summit Lounger is such a nice guy! I find out that Jeff and Rob are planning on a 1am start time as they have to be back to work on Monday. I think they ended up starting at 2. Ouch! The rest of us shoot for a more "leisurely" 4:30 start time with hopes of packing out that same day if we're not too slow. We retire early and the night is warm, so I sleep well.

Summit Day and Pack Out - 16 miles, 5100' gain

As is often the case in winter, we all set off at different times as we take off when ready with heading out first. I leave around 4:45. The snow is firm and we make good time with the track in place. It's mentally demoralizing going up that steep headwall in the dark, but I know what to expect. The snow is very firm and the heel elevators on my MSR's save me a lot of effort. We enjoy the nice track set by Jeff and Rob as light starts to hit mighty Snowmass above. Upper Lead King Basin is a magical place in winter, and it's great to be back!

The winter route on Snowmass is generally via a rib to the south of the summer west face route. In 2010, we brought a rope and climbed a low 5th class section of mixed snow and rock. The snow is in better condition this time, so we stay on snow to split the cliff band and then traverse right to the rib.

Apron to the west face

We end up going at our own paces to maximize efficiency on the route since we want to get down as soon as possible before the snow heats up too much. Greg and Jeff kick in some nice bucket steps ahead of us, and I feel like I am cheating!

Steep snow splitting initial cliff band

The going slows down a lot though as we gain the rib as we now deal with mixed snow and rock in crampons. There's enough trap door snow that it's more efficient to stick to the rock, but conditions are far better than I expected. In hindsight, it would have been quicker to just take off the crampons above the initial steep snow section.

The rib goes on and on as we make slow but steady progress. Some of us go with crampons and some without. The summit comes into view and it looks a long way away, but it's only a matter of time before we get up this beast with only a bit of a breeze and blue skies. The rib goes at 4th class if you stay on it, with easier lines to the left. We finally hit the ridge and traverse over to the summit block, which I don't remember much about from my first and only visit way back in 2005 via the S Ridge. I try to stay on the ridge proper, but I don't commit to the final move as it would be very awkward in crampons with major air over the east face! I take off my crampons and do the less exposed ledge traverse to climbers right, which is totally dry. Greg has been waiting for awhile, while the rest of us summit pretty close together. I feel like I was in a time warp, because it's already 11:45! We couldn't have asked for better weather or conditions, but we keep our stay fairly short as we don't want to be descending steep snow too late.

Lower rib

Rob scrambling on rib

Summit in view

Rob scrambling near summit

Summit ridge

Summit shot 1 because I couldn't figure out my timer

Summit shot 2

The downclimb of the crux is a bit trickier than I thought it would be, so we give each other spots.

Kevin P on crux downclimb

Rob on crux downclimb

The descent of the rib is more annoying going down than up as it is more difficult to stick to the rocks, so you have to take extra care not to twist an ankle in the trap door snow.

Looking south to Geneva Lake

Kevin P and Sarah on initial descent

We plunge step some snow when we can and get to the steepest snow at the bottom of the face above the initial cliff bands. Sometimes it would be prudent to rappel over the cliff band with suspect snow later in the day, but we feel confident with the conditions and follow the bucket steps down. The snow is soft, but we don't feel like it is going anywhere. I am pumped to be done with the hard stuff, but we haven't even hit the real pain cave, yet!

Elk glory

Initially I was planning on packing out Monday morning, but none of us feel too hammered, so we decide to pack out. The descent of the headwall is a bobsled run with the softening snow. It is a test of balance to stay on your feet! I am back to camp at 4:40 and I pack up slowly dreading the death march out. It feels great to take in the world class scenery on the way down with the tough part of the climb over.

Heck of a moat!

Near Little Gem Lake

Snowmass and Hagerman from Geneva Lake

I survived Truck Peak!

It takes me an hour to pack up and the descent is cruiser until we come to the Crystal Mill. Some deranged soul thought it would be a good idea to day hike to the mill in the dead of winter with no snowshoes! They have totally obliterated the trench, and it feels like we're going slower downhill than uphill trying to avoid all the postholes! I wipe out and do a faceplant, tent poles flying out of my pack. Some of you know I'm not a cussing man, but a frickin jack$%# bomb ensues. Good thing Greg is not around to hear it! The moonlight and the sound of the stream below passes the time, but there are two killer back to back hills that drop some hurt on me! I'm about to go delirious before finally seeing the road split where the snowmobile track starts. Kevin, Sarah, and I finally arrive at the car at 9pm. Snowmass is an epic trip in winter regardless of what good fortune you encounter!


Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
Very nice, Kevin!
02/25/2016 13:28
And you shoulda had your Captain America outfit on when you summited Truck Peak... Fantastic pictures and great narrative.

Brian Thomas
very cool
02/25/2016 08:48
Looking north from Crested Butte on Sunday sure looked like a lot of snow on the high Elks. Nice work and thanks for posting!

I thought the start time was 5 AM...
02/25/2016 11:13
That is why I didn't stir until 4:25 and had to play catch up all day. Thanks to all for laying a cruiser trench though. It was great to hang with "The Mick" up there. I hope he's not Irish and takes that the wrong way...

There were three slides paths on the road to the Crystal Mill along with that widow maker chunk of ice. Then you've got the long traversing slope above Crystal and two headwalls before you get to the mountain. Not exactly window shopping terrain.

I have never been around that much inaccessible water with all the snow bridges and whatnot. I did obtain water under the bridge at the entrance to lead king but it was habanero to say the least and not recommended.

Mr. Bluebird delivered this weekend. Thanks for the writeup, Kevin. I wholeheartedly approve of this TR...

Very cool!
02/25/2016 12:22
Nicely done!

Great job! Congrats!
02/25/2016 19:21
Awesome achievement. Well done.

Mickeys Grenade
Thanks for the invite
02/25/2016 20:51
It was truly amazing climbing Snowmass with you guys. I really enjoyed the experience except for the drive home after! Excellent job on the trip report Kevin.

Congrats to the crew!
02/25/2016 21:47
Nicely done. Looks like prime conditions in the Elks. I wish my knee was more cooperative for longer trips like this. Good luck with your next goals!

Congrats on the tough summit
02/25/2016 23:33
Getting to Snowmass in the winter is a remarkable accomplishment. The Elk Range is very inspiring and challenging in its own unique way. This is a great descript write-up of the route and adventure. Love the photos as well. Quite impressive, be extremely proud of the endeavor! Thanks a lot for posting. Stay ambitious and driving towards the big goals

yet another epic...
02/26/2016 10:27
Can't we just do a nice easy hike sometime, Kevin B.?
But seriously, while this trip certainly had many moments of suffering, it was worth the time spent in the pain cave. We got so lucky with conditions and weather, not to mention the broken trail courtesy of Dad Mike & Co.
Jeff & Rob, very nice to finally get to meet/hike with you guys. Us winter 14er crazies need to stick together, right?
Thanks for the write-up, Mr. Bluebird! And thanks to Summitlounger for (once again) chilling on the summit while the rest of us mere mortals made our way slowly up.

02/26/2016 13:55
Great report!

Congratulations on getting that beast in winter.

02/27/2016 20:34
on a summit well earned. Looks like another beautiful winter day in the mountains.

02/29/2016 09:06
Looks like an ideal window and an ideal crew. Nice work guys! Kevin, a destroyed trench/skin track after a day like that would draw unsavory words out of just about anyone. Don't sweat it

Chicago Transplant
Nice Work
03/01/2016 15:58
Great job taking advantage of that Elk window! Glad to see you all getting back there despite the canyon closure, that is a long route through Gunny!

04/10/2016 09:26
just catching up on some winter trek reading, good job, quite the crew

Great job everyone!
03/13/2018 08:52
Nothing wrong with poaching good trenches and buckets as long as you give credit and buy the first couple rounds until they forget why you are paying! What an amazing looking weekend for the snow climb! Congratulations all!

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