Peak(s):  Snowmass Mountain  -  14,105 feet
"North Snowmass" - 14,024 feet
Date Posted:  10/12/2020
Date Climbed:   10/09/2020
Author:  daway8
Additional Members:   HikesInGeologicTime
 Snowmass: Up S-Ridge, down West Slopes + N. Snowmass   

This was another fun class 3+ route but, unlike some of the recent ones I've done, I didn't have to go out of my way to get some good, serious scrambling in. This one has engaging terrain whether you want it or not.

I'll give credit to FCSquid for putting up a good trip report on this route: "S" is for Stress from which I grabbed and occasionally used the GPX file (this report is a supplement of sorts to that one). I also teamed up once again with HikesInGeologicTime for this trek (I'll use Geo for short), who again helped provide scale to some of the photos of the more interesting terrain.

Route: Lead King Basin Trailhead (via upper FR315, not through Crystal) - S-Ridge ascent to Snowmass - tag North Snowmass - West Slope descent

Stats: Total mileage = 9.7mi; total elevation gain = ~5,417ft (~2,500ft of this is w/in the last 1 mile!); total time: 15 hours, 18 min**

**My partner HikesInGeologicTime, who has never set an FKT on a good day, was having some additional health challenges but was determined to summit Snowmass this weekend. However, it should be noted that FCSquid posted times that were only perhaps a couple hours faster (a fact that I overlooked until writing this report - otherwise I likely would have tried to start the hike earlier than we did).

So BEWARE - this route can take a long time! The mileage may be much shorter than the standard 22 miles for the East Slopes route but there's a price to pay for that...

We had one guy blow past us never to be seen again (two guys on the summit confirmed he came up and then descended the West Slope) and FCSquid also reported being out paced, so it can be done much faster than this but don't expect this to be a quick, easy stroll just because it's so much shorter than the standard route up Snowmass.

Included in this report (under appropriate section headers for easy access) will be:

  • 4WD road from Marble to Lead King Basin (via the upper FR 315 aka Lost Trail Road, not the lower route through Crystal)
  • Getting to the S-Ridge (which is often overlooked in the write-ups I've seen)
  • The S-Ridge and it's crux wall
  • The famous Snowmass summit block
  • North Snowmass (and its deceptive stats)
  • Descending Snowmass West Slope (in the dark...)
  • Our times
From Geneva Lake you can see why the S-Ridge gets its name. The sun is lighting up the right side of the S (left side of photo).
Overview of going up the S-Ridge and down the West Slope.

4WD Road to Lead King Basin

So this road has gained a bit of a reputation and deservedly so. While I didn't have any serious trouble doing it in my Jeep Renegade (8.7" clearance), it was enough of a legitimate 4WD road to make me quite tense for good sections of it (and this coming from the guy who made it to 10,200ft on the infamous Lake Como road with this same Renegade).

I did much of it in the dark on the way there and all of it in the dark on the way back, so given that and the seriousness of the road I didn't really get many photos except this one of the avy debris that has received a lot of attention. Thankfully it's been cleaned up to the point of almost no longer being an issue, though it doesn't look that way when you first approach, especially if it's dark.

Coming up on the avy debris.

As you approach the avy debris you can tell that someone has chopped apart the major logs that had been blocking the road but then it curves and goes uphill in such a way that, in the dark, it's not immediately clear if they cut a path all the way through or maybe gave up part way.

But as soon as you venture forward it becomes obvious that it is indeed clear except for one chunk of roots just as it starts going uphill. I was in 4LO at this point and only had a momentary slippage of a tire or two but this is a spot where clearance might be an issue for some folks.

Besides the debris there are some very tight switchbacks, some of which are scooped out on the inside in such a way that you could get seriously off camber if you didn't pick the right line on your way back to Marble (going to Lead King Basin the worst switchbacks were uphill so I just put it in 4LO and gunned it while wrenching the wheel around. Had to take them much more slow and carefully on the return trip going down them).

There are also some pretty epic ruts in places which I lined my wheels up in such as way as not to drop into.

Plus large portions of this road are VERY narrow, including some rough uphill sections where you really, really hope you don't meet someone going the other direction.

When you do it in the dark there are all sorts of little bumps that cast huge shadows that leave you wondering if there is an enormous pit on the far side. Most of the time there wasn't, but there were one or two sizeable potholes so you have to treat every shadow with caution.

Note: I expect that this trail could get VERY, VERY ugly when wet (as the incredibly deep ruts in some locations testify).

I've read that the lower road through Crystal is much worse than this upper one along FR315 (Lost Trail Road).

Trail to Little Gem Lake

From the Lead King Basin trailhead there is an excellent and easy trail, though not without some decent elevation gain. We almost missed it walking down the road from where we parked but once on it there was little trouble following it except for one little section just before Gem Lake where we somehow briefly lost it on the way up but easily followed it on the way down.

Upper left is someone else's truck at the trailhead, running down the center is the trail.
Very soon after starting the trail this sign lets you know you're on the right path.
Just before Little Gem Lake is an oddly curved cliff band with trees on top. You'll pass by this and go behind to get to the S-Ridge.
Little Gem Lake.

Getting to the S-Ridge

So one detail that was glazed over in the otherwise fairly thorough report that FCSquid wrote is how exactly you get over to the S-Ridge. The terrain between Little Gem Lake and the very obvious gullies at the bottom of the S-Ridge was more interesting than I expected - lots of little cliff bands, hills and valleys.

The route we took weaved back and forth across the GPX tracks posted by FCSquid but it was what seemed to make the most sense to us at the time (I consulted the GPX tracks for the initial turn off point but then mostly made the route up on the fly and compared tracks afterwards).

From just past Little Gem Lake we dropped down into the drainage and then cut up in front of some cliffs.

There was nothing like an established trail or even an obvious place to go, though from above we did see one hint of an actual trail in this region, although it didn't seem to lead to the S-Ridge.

Looking down a dirt gully above the drainage.
After dropping down into the drainage we cut over and up in front of some cliffs.

There were lots of little obstacles along the way but nothing serious.

Some more obstacles along the way.
Looking back down at the route. Just to the right of the sharp curve is the dirt gully ringed by trees from a few photos up.

Climbing the S-Ridge

Here's where the action begins and it doesn't let up much until you're on the summit (well actually it even notches up a level there with that delightfully dangerous summit block!). People often debate about whether a route is class 3 or 4 or whatever but one thing is for certain - this is absolutely not a class 2 route from here on nor is it something that only just barely hits class 3 for a few scattered moves.

This is serious, sustained class 3 with class 4 terrain sprinkled around. The exact rating for this route will depend on how good your route finding skills are but I'd say at a minimum the class 3+ rating that Gerry Roach gives it is fitting. This is not a weeny version of class 3 that has to be spiced up by going out of your way to make it hard (see for example Ruby to Grays Traverse: Gratuitous Class 4 on a Class 3 Ridge which I also did with Geo) this is the real deal.

If you're new to class 3 ridges I recommend you start with something like that Ruby-Grays traverse or the Buckskin-Democrat traverse (Buckskin to Decalibron traverse plus South Bross) before you tackle something like this S-Ridge (and you might want to get some regular class 3 peaks done before trying those). In fact, it's probably best to just assume you're going to have to deal with class 4 on this route because you might find yourself somewhat hard pressed to avoid it and/or realize that life is easier by doing some class 4 along the way.

The exposure can actually be kept relatively moderate (for a ridgeline) for much of the ridge but there were a few places where we ended up doing some class 3 and 4 moves over some pretty significant exposure.

We started going up the allegedly class2 gully on the left but quickly decided it was neither class 2 nor appealing so cut up onto the rocks at right.
Geo starting up just to the right of the left gully.

The gullies start very gentle but towards the back part they looked very steep and loose (the end of the gullies did NOT look like class 2 terrain to me). The rock between the gullies was generally very solid.

In fact, I'd say about 95% of the rock going up the S-Ridge is generally fairly solid - but you have to watch out for that 5%... (that was my same conclusion as for West Dyer - Dyer).

The scrambling starts out steep but eases up a bit as you near the ridge top.
Once on the ridge we largely stuck to it so as to avoid the loose looking slopes to the left. Note the fin-shaped rock about 2/3 of the way up.

Once on the ridge you'll have the option of staying more to the left and dealing with steep, potentially loose gullies, or more to the right along the ridgetop where you'll have at times some decent exposure just off the ridge. This first portion of the ridge is pretty straightforward but even "easy" scrambling on steep terrain at altitude can be tiring.

Some of the initial "easy" scrambling on the ridge top.

While I intentionally avoided, for the most part, going out of my way to spice things up, there were a couple small features here and there that I just couldn't resist such as the exposed, cracked-open rock face below.

Fun cracked-open rock face over serious exposure.
Looking down at the exposure - didn't need camera tricks - this one is a legit no-fall zone.
Sweet looking view of Hagerman.
The fin-shaped rock seen from just above.

The Crux Wall

So up to this point the ridge has been a good workout with nice scrambling that keeps you on your toes and a couple fun little features.

But this crux wall, as Geo put it, is very cruxy. And the shorter you are the cruxier it will be...

There were, as I saw it, basically 4 main options for this crux wall:

Option A) At far left, go through the notch and drop into the steep, loose gully that you can slip and slide about on - no thanks (we ended up on a tiny portion of the top of the gully and hated it).

Option B) Go up the steep rocks next to the notch where there were multiple rocks several times larger than a microwave which appeared to be just barely secured to the side of the mountain. Uh, no thanks.

Option C) Go up the really sweet looking slab to the right of that. I was immediately drawn to that and it started great but then the holds got few and far between such that I would have had to really reach to make it up and my shorter partner would have been in a real bind. Thus...

Option D) The last main option is to go up the easy - almost boringly easy looking rock to the right. I reluctantly opted to give up on the fun slab and go to the right for the sake of my partner - but oh boy, that right side is a deceptive lure! Don't think I really helped Geo with this "easy" bypass. Just around the corner we hit some seriously exposed class 3/4 moves.

Crux wall as seen from below.
The 4 primary options for dealing with the crux wall

Perhaps some day I might eventually come back for a rematch on the slab - it certainly looked doable but you either need really good reach or need to be comfortable with small holds on a somewhat steep, exposed slab (but it's not actually as exposed as the pictures below make it seem - the base is actually somewhat flat).

Looking up option C - the fun slab.
Looking down across part of the slab - the camera exaggerates the exposure below but still you don't want to fall from the top of the slab.

As Geo and I started to swing out around the right side (Option D) we quickly realized this wasn't going to be as trivial as it looked. Before long we were doing class 3 or 4 moves (closer to 3 for me but more like 4 for Geo) over the most exposed terrain of the day.

Geo coming up towards the top of the crux wall.
Geo finding that it can be troublesome to follow a tall person...
Usually the camera exaggerates exposure - this time it failed to fully capture it - this was a no-fall zone for sure.
Geo working on catching up in the fun terrain around the right side of the crux wall.
Finally popping up on the far side of the crux wall. This distinctive rock marks the spot.
After coming around we briefly entered the top of the gully but regretted it.

Beyond the Crux

So after coming around the far side of the crux wall there was the option to continue up along the ridge proper or drop into the top of the gully and cut across the rock face. Since many of the moves along the ridge were a bit reachy, I didn't want to give Geo too much of a workout so decided to instead drop into the top of the gully.

It only took a couple of steps in that gully to decide I was very, very glad we didn't use the Option A bypass - what a wretched steep mess. I quickly stepped back to the side on the rocks until getting up to where we could cut over on solid rock.

Another view of where we came out around the crux wall. Looks like this is somewhat spicy from about any direction.
Just past the crux wall at the top of the gully. Easy route to the left, harder path to the right.

Once past that point the major obstacles are done but there's still plenty of non-trivial scrambling left to get up to the summit.

As I said before, about 95% of the rock going up the S-Ridge is generally fairly solid - but watch out for that 5% - it tends to show up when you least expect it. Geo seemed especially skilled at finding the 5% that day, lol...

Still a lot of scrambling after the crux.
The rock looks bad here but it was actually surprisingly stable - except for that 5%...

The Snowmass Summit Block

This is one of the 14er greats and honestly played a part in me be willing to go back and do this summit again (along with the need to get North Snowmass, the appeal of the fun S-Ridge and the challenge of an interesting 4WD road...).

This summit block is much smaller than the more infamous Sunlight summit block and, unlike the epic exposure on Sunlight, this one is on the large flat summit of Snowmass, though it's not too far behind me in the photo below that there is some significant exposure.

The classic Snowmass summit block.
Me demonstrating a true and proper summit of Snowmass.

Getting up onto the summit block isn't trivial and being tall helps. Behind the block (as pictured above) is a rock that goes may 1/3 of the way up which you can stand on. The backside of the top is sloped the opposite direction of what's seen here. So basically you stand on that rock, get your arms on top and hoist yourself up to where you can get a foot on the slope on the backside. Then slowly and carefully rise up for the photo finish (and hope the wind doesn't gust too strongly at that moment!).

I can confirm my climbing partner, Geo, did indeed put both feet on top of the summit block (pictures omitted to avoid controversy, lol...).

North Snowmass

So in my admittedly minimal research for this sub-summit I had expected a quick easy stroll over to North Snowmass (I wasn't even really aware of sub-summits the first time I did Snowmass so I had no real recollection of what was nearby).

I had looked on this site and seen that North Snowmass was a measly 0.17mi from Snowmass and when you take a quick glance at the topo map it looks like a virtually flat stroll over to a small hump.

I really have to stop taking those quick glances...

When I got to the summit I was shocked and dismayed to see a VERY non-flat, non-stroll awaiting me in order to get this sub-summit.

Upon a more careful inspection of the map after returning home I quickly identified my error. I've been so numbed to the sight of seeing lots and lots of topo lines squeezed close together on the routes I do that the sight of just a few lines seems negligible.

But then I recalled that every line on the topo map represents 40ft of gain. 40 feet is roughly the height of a 4-story building. So when you see 3 topo lines between the summit and the saddle you can think of that as being like three 4-story buildings stacked on top of each other! And even a measly single topo line still equates to a 4-story building!

That made it fit better with the reality I saw. Not that I'm trying to make this little sub-summit into some grand drama - it is indeed trivial compared to what was just climbed - it's just that a quick glance at the topo map left me with a wrong impression of what to expect. It still seems like that lack of topo lines in the middle doesn't match reality but I guess there's only so much detail they can show...

What the section over to North Snowmass looks like on paper and in reality.

A cool shot Geo took of me on North Snowmass from Snowmass.
Looking over at Capitol with the sharp point of Daly sticking up in the middle.
Looking back over at Snowmass.
In the trip report linked above I had thought this image was going to North Snowmass but it's actually going back to Snowmass.

Descending Snowmass West Slope (in the dark...)

So we at least started it before the sun went down but this took so stinking long to get down (3.5hrs!) that it was dark by the time we got to the cliff bands near the base of the ridge (more on that in a little bit...).

I've heard lots of terrible things about how awful and loose this gully is. Actually neither Geo nor I felt it was particularly all that loose, but then again we've both been exposed to some pretty retched gullies, and we were going insanely slow.

Now it was certainly tedious in the extreme and you could knock stuff down if not careful, but compared to other gullies out there it wasn't nearly as loose as we had feared.

These two guys and their dogs at the top of the West Slope - they went down as I went over to North Snowmass.
By the time we started down they were well down the gully (we intentionally made sure to give them a good head start.

The very top section is the only place with some class 3 moves (except possibly the cliff bands at the bottom). The rest of the gully is trivial but very annoying class 2.

Geo at the base of the class 3 section just below the summit.
Another distant glimpse of the two guys and their dogs. We figured they were far enough ahead to be safe.
We were pokey enough coming down that the rocks took on an orange hue...
20795_48 the sun set.

Now the side of a mountain can be a beautiful place to be as the sun is setting but this particular side of this particular mountain is not the best place to be as it gets dark...

Sunset over the far ridge.

I didn't get any good photos of this section other than the very first two pictures in this trip report where you can get at least some idea of the cliff bands that are somewhere around 12,600 - 12,800ft. I had a couple different GPX tracks downloaded into my GAIA app but they took significantly different paths in this critical area and, though I forget where exactly I grabbed the purple track from, I suspect it may have been a track from a ski descent, given how straight the line is and how totally no-go that route seemed in the dark near 12,600ft (you can see a significant squiggle in our orange track below as we wandered back and forth above the cliff looking for a way down.

That started to get nerve wracking for a bit but eventually we went over to where there was a trickle of a waterfall and found a workable class 3 descent onto rocks... and more rocks... and more rocks... and more rocks. Oh man we really got sick of all those stinking rocks, and especially that 5% that kept trying to catch us off guard.

The S-Ridge and West Slope portion of the trek long with North Snowmass and key features marked. Picnic Rock was a nice big flat rock with a great view.

We finally got back down to flat land a mind-numbing 3.5hrs after leaving the summit - still not sure why that section took so long. I guess we were just very cautious and rather tired. Then we floundered around a bit to find the trail but once we finally connected it was an easy but very long stroll back to the trailhead followed by a repeat of the 4WD road but this time 100% pitch black the whole way and driving it at the end of a 15hr+ hike!

The shocking thing is that coming out from Lead King Basin a little after 11pm on Friday night we actually encountered another vehicle coming our way! Talk about late arrivals! I edged my Renegade over to the left where I was hugging a drop off so as to let the intruder, uh I mean other party, pass on the protected side. Wasn't honestly sure there was room enough but thankfully they made it past.

Our Times

7:39am start from Lead King Basin Trailhead

Traihead to Gullies = ~3.5hrs

Gullies to ridge top = ~1.5hrs

Ridge to Snowmass summit = ~3hrs

My round trip to North Snowmass and back = ~1 hour (includes falling on my tailbone, setting up a new summit register, resting said tailbone and eating "dinner")

Down the West Slopes in the dark = ~3.5hrs!!! (you've got to be kidding me!?! That's exactly what we said over and over again. BTW, I would HIGHLY recommend doing this in the daylight)

Back to trailhead = ~2.5hrs

10:58pm at the Lead King Basin Trailhead at last!

Total time = 15hrs 18 minutes trailhead to trailhead. Ouch. Yes, part of that slowness was the trademark of HikesInGeologicTime combined with sometimes sloppy route finding on my part but this also is a pretty serious route that takes longer than you might expect based upon mileage and elevation. Again there is ~2,500ft gain in just the last mile to the summit!

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

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52

Comments or Questions
Summit block
10/12/2020 23:03
For the record, I got both arms and my chin on its high point, too!...

...just not at the same time as the feet, and even the feet weren‘t on top simultaneously. Ah, well. Perhaps I can pack a pogo stick when I inevitably decide that this would be a fun one to revisit during snowflake season.

10/13/2020 11:32
Very nice report (much better than mine). Such a great route. Short and sweet!

10/13/2020 14:19
Looks like a pretty demanding day. Some of that rock looks teetering in place.

Nice one!!
10/13/2020 21:42
Thanks for posting this!! Great info and pics!! I have been contemplating this one and have read a bunch of reports including the one you referenced. Yours is definitely a great addition!! Really appreciate the sobering reality of what it will take to give this adventure a go!!

03/16/2021 23:55
I was up there a week later! Your report was helpful, thank you. Took a different approach to the S-Ridge (more direct from Geneva Lake, followed the lake inlet north, then cut northeast straight towards the S-ridge, almost no elevation loss) but otherwise pretty well the same loop minus N Snowmass and no night time travel. I really enjoyed the S-ridge, and also got into some class 4 at times. 95/5 is about right on rock stability. Can confirm, the Lost Lake Road is rugged, wouldn't recommend unless you have skids & tough tires, and/or have lots of experience off road. My old pickup & FWC made it relatively easy but far from stock, went on to drive to Paradise Divide that night via Devil's Punchbowl, then on to Crested Butte.

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