Peak(s):  Snowmass Mountain  -  14,105 feet
Date Posted:  08/24/2010
Date Climbed:   08/15/2010
Author:  KeithK
 Confronting Expectation   

Snowmass Mountain (14,092')
August 15, 2010
S-Ridge from Geneva Lake TH
Round Trip: ~9 miles
Elevation Gain: ~4,500'
Salivating Scrambler: Scott (edlins)
Scared Scrambler: Me

Snowmass Mountain provides a logistical challenge; the easiest route requires twenty-two miles of round-trip hiking, which for most people means a two or even three day backpacking trip. Two routes on the west side of the mountain demand a four-wheel drive vehicle, and are more technically challenging. No matter which route is taken, the rock is notoriously loose and unpredictable, and the remote mountain should be treated with a great deal of respect. I had made up my mind to climb the S-Ridge long ago, as it just seemed like the right thing to do. I had been told how solid it was, and how much fun the climbing would be. The limited reports and pictures available made it seem reasonable enough, and the intrigue was enough to convince me that I had to see the thing for myself.

North Maroon Peak had left me tired, hungry and a bit on the grouchy side. Fourteen hour days on the trail can tend to do that to a person. I met Scott in Carbondale shortly after 6 p.m., and we enjoyed a much needed hearty dinner at a good Mexican restaurant on Main Street. After a few preparations, we were on the highway and headed for adventure, passing through the quaint village of Marble and transitioning onto the rough dirt Lead King Basin road. For the most part, it is easy four-wheel drive, with a few rough sections that will stir up the internal organs ever so slightly. Already nearing 9:00, the tight switchbacks along the narrow shelf road had my heart racing, as the headlights were often pointing up into the sky or against a mountainside, rather than on anything in front of the tires. Descending to the very informal trailhead, we claimed the perfect campsite just downhill from the main parking, next to a small creek. Scott chose to drink beer, while I chose to crawl into my truck to attempt a few hours of replenishment. I wondered if my ambition was greater than my resolve.

The morning started with wading through waist high meadows and burrowing through much taller willow tunnels, the cover of darkness keeping the landscape secret. The Geneva Lake trail is great, mostly consistent and easy to follow. The lush vegetation provided an intrigue to the experience, and when we came across fresh animal droppings, we weren't quite sure what they might have belonged to, but it appeared to be a large animal. Initially we thought elk, but I would later surmise that to be an absurd guess. I think it was velociraptor. I led the way, constantly thinking that we'd be seeing Geneva Lake at any time, but the trail just kept climbing, and climbing. I did not expect it to take so long to get to the lake, but without light to provide point of reference; we could not see the headwall that we'd climbed from the basin below. Passing the lake, we crossed more meadows, before a discouraging downhill stretch led across a gully and back up the other side. As the day began to ignite, we could finally see where we were aiming, at another headwall which I was sure would be holding up Little Gem Lake and mark the turn for our chosen route.

Snowmass Mountain appears above Geneva Lake...

Scott channels his inner photographer at Little Gem Lake...

Spectacular peaks and ridges were springing up all around us as we finally began our informal trek across the basin toward the obvious entrance gullies that allow access to the S-Ridge. Another loss of elevation in necessary after leaving the trail, dropping down and crossing the creek before aiming for an obvious grass and scree ramp that leads the way below a shallow cliff band. Once above the slabs, the route becomes clear, involving annoying talus, and even more annoying scree beyond that. We stopped for a break and to put on protective headwear, as a couple we had met the night before caught up and passed us. Kirby and Leslie were making it look easy, and I was happy to let them show us the way.

After leaving the trail, look for this ramp on the other side of the creek...

Talus followed by scree; two hikers ahead add scale to the place...

The route is straight forward, literally, from the creek crossing. Aim for the gullies; pick your poison, and start climbing, clawing, crawling, or sliding, depending on the line you chose. Kirby and Leslie opted for the solid class four rocks to the right of the bigger gully, and so did Scott. Figuring that I'd be alone in the gully, I started up it. It looked better than it was; from a distance there appeared to be nice steps and ledges to follow, but upon closer inspection, everything was steeper, looser and dirtier than would have been ideal. I still made good time, by my standards, and emerged onto the talus slope leading up to the ridge. Scott was headed for the ridge line, and I eventually caught up to him as he waited for me, knowing that the real deal was about to begin.

Staring head on at the choices...

Entering the gully; it didn't seem all that bad at first...

I survived the gully, as Scott wipes the drool from his chin after arriving on the ridge...

With Scott leading the way, it took all of about three minutes before I was getting very nervous on the ridge. Sheer cliffs make up much of the south face, while the north side is blocky and loose in places, with steep slabs in others. The most logical route is along the ridge crest, where there is mostly solid rock, but also a few moves that require some real tolerance for exposure. I felt the intensity immediately, as one of the very first obstacles required a bit of a smearing crawl type of thing, with nothing but air to the right. It's hard to not look down when you're crawling over rocks on your stomach. I can understand why so many people have told me how much fun this route is, but for me, it was a bit above my comfort zone in many places. Scott allowed me to blame my apprehension on being tired, though, after spending the entire day before on the trail. He doesn't need to know that I am simply not an adrenaline junkie.

Scott begins climbing the fun stuff...

I deliberate along the ridge...

I'm not going to die.

The ridge separates itself into natural sections, with obvious tower features forming perfect checkpoints. Crossing the first tower was actually some of the more exposed climbing, with the second section relenting just ever so slightly. By and large, the boulders are solid and the holds are always plentiful. For me, finding the right combination of holds could be time consuming, with my limited experience on technical rock. Scott, on the other hand, is very comfortable on class five routes, and was having a blast, trying to stay as true to the ridge as he possibly could. Much of the time, I tried to find an easier option to the left, and in some places this worked well. In others, it really didn't accomplish much, and the crest was the best option. For all of my trepidation, it seemed like we made reasonable time to the crux, a steep wall of slab that invites the scrambling aficionado, while discouraging the less courageous. This was a fastball right down the middle for Scott, while I chose to explore the third class by pass to the left, involving more loose rock in a dirty gully, the theme of Snowmass Mountain's western slopes.

The ridge all the way to the summit, from just beyond the first tower...

Scott negotiates one of the spicier towers ...

Here, let me lead for the next fifteen feet or so...

The crux appears...

I watched Scott masterfully smear his way up the slabs, as I contemplated my fate. The route around the crux did not look appealing, but I didn't feel like I would be comfortable climbing high up on the slabs, so I resigned myself to exploring to the left. At first glance, it appears that you need to drop significantly into the gully and then simply climb up to the ridge. After about ten feet of loss, though, third class ramps and ledges became appealing, so I tried to stay as high as I felt comfortable. You could make this as difficult as you'd like, by maintaining a high line. I was happy with my choice, though, as I worked into the middle of the gully, then traversed left to right and left again, trying to find the most solid options, of which there were few. Rock fall potential is high here, and I was glad to see Scott still up on the ridge proper as I figured out which rock would not abandon the mountain if I stepped on it. The tedious effort finally brought me to a series of slabs below the ridge line, where Scott maintained a higher line and I followed only a few feet below. We were both glad to get back onto the ridge proper.

Looking back at my route on the class three alternative crux...

Beginning the climb back up to the ridge...

Scott looks for his next fun move...

Looking back at the class 4 crux, where it exits above the slabs on the other side...

I chose to climb that garbage chute...

The unrelenting ridge continued, as one class three block after another got in my way, keeping me from getting to the only place I wanted to be by now, the summit. I was becoming physically fatigued, and emotionally exhausted, and we still have considerable climbing ahead of us. As well as a down climb of some sort. I considered the west slopes gully, wondering if it could really be as bad as it had been described by many. As we could begin to see it from the ridge, though, the decision became easy. A group of four climbers were working along the buttress to the left of the gully, trying to find solid climbing, when they sent dozens of large rocks careening down into the gully below. Cries of "rock" rang out, and we could only hope that no one was on the route below. The west slopes down climb was just eliminated from possibility; we would descend the S-Ridge. Scrambling more than walking, we made our way towards the next tower, just as Kirby and Leslie met us on their way down. Leslie assured me that there was "one hard move" ahead, but then we would be close to the summit. I was skeptical.

Climbing beyond the crux...

That IS the summit up there...

I think this was just beyond the "one last hard move"...

Sure enough, there was a very exposed, tricky move lying in wait, a large exposed block with an inch wide ledge providing the only thing resembling a place for feet. We threw our hands over the block, which, fortunately, provided solid holds, and shimmied along the ledge before making a lunging step across a gap onto the next available rock. By now I was becoming numb to the exposure, and only concentrating on the next step ahead. With a few more third class obstacles, we finally mellowed onto the summit block, where loose talus provided a less than sturdy stair case to the summit. I was happy to have survived this endeavor to this point, not expecting it to be nearly as difficult as I had found it to be.

Easier terrain appears below the summit...

Scott scopes out the Hagerman traverse, which he will be doing later, with someone else...

I think he found the summit...

A chilly wind greeted us on the summit, but I was too tired to care. We settled into the usual summit rituals of picture taking and eating, and marveled at the perfect August day that had allowed us to tackle this route without fear of poor weather. Only a few high clouds floated over distant parts of Colorado, without any threat of the torrential monsoons that had prevailed only a week or two earlier. The views of the Elk Range were splendid; equally impressive were the views to the west and south, where Uncompahgre Peak and Wetterhorn Peak stood as distant silhouettes. And of course, Capitol Peak, with its all too familiar profile, dominated the immediate view. Snowmass Lake shimmered below us, reinforcing its reputation as a premier backpacking destination in the area. And the highlight for me was looking to the northwest, where the Roan Plateau and Bookcliffs stretched along the Colorado River valley, sixty plus miles of incredible geological history. I was happy to be here.

The S-Ridge points at Geneva Lake...

Great summit pano by Scott...

Ehh, doesn't look like much...

I still love western Colorado...

Nearing noon, we decided it might be a good idea to try to go back down, considering the daunting task ahead. I expected the down climb to be tedious and nerve wracking, but in actuality it was only tedious in the beginning. This route is demanding, both up and down, and as we reversed our moves from earlier, it was imperative that we maintain focus. Only a few minutes onto the ridge proper, I had a microwave-sized slab turn on its side and attempt to pin my foot to the rock in front of it, followed by another seemingly immovable hold coming right off of its resting place, this one resembling more of a miniature Washington Monument. The risk was underlined, and I was back on my guard for the next three hours, not trusting anything no matter how solid it appeared. Deliberate, patient down-climbing was the name of the game, and I fought fatigue with fading resolve as we finally reached our exit point, dropping from the ridge. Staying to the left of the main gully, slabs and ledges provided for an easy class three descent, as I was able to simply lower my feet to the next available resting point, before sitting down, pushing up with my arms and sliding to the next stop. I find the "crab walk" technique to be efficient, effective, and most importantly, safe, at least for me. I noticed Scott would choose to face in much of the time, while I felt much more comfortable seeing my feet in front of me. It was obvious who the rock climber was, and who was the ordinary hiker guy.

From block to slab to block...

Surely this thing will come to an end at some point...

Meadow Mountain, on the other side of the basin...

Finally reaching the scree and loose talus below the gully, all that remained was to stay upright and avoid sprained ankles. This portion of the descent was certifiably miserable, but we both agreed that it was still a million times better than the prospect of the west slopes route. After an excruciating effort, I finally caught up to Scott, who apparently likes crappy scree and talus better than I do, and we geared down for the march back to the trail, and what would hopefully be an easy cruise back to the truck. Of course, nothing on a Fourteener is truly easy, and the descent was long, tiring and endless. We both ran out of water, and resorted to iodine tablets to sustain us for just a while longer. As with most descents, though, it was fun to see things that had been hiding during the morning darkness. It's fascinating to see just how different reality is from perception, as the trail seemed much steeper and more rugged in spots than I had remembered from the early morning hours. We could hear the water pouring down from Geneva Lake, but I had no idea how spectacular the cascading falls would be during the day. I wish we would have had better light, but it was already after 6:00 p.m. Jurassic Park remained the same, though, as the waist and even higher meadows framed a pleasant hike, crossing the willow tunnels a couple of times before pointing in the only direction I wanted it to, directly back to the trailhead.

A parting shot of an intense, fulfilling day...

Scott and I both thought this mountain looked really cool...

Just a snippet of the magnificent waterfalls...

A great look up Fravert Basin at the Bells...

After an exhausting, sometimes intense but thoroughly satisfying day, we arrived back at the truck, where the cold creek and even colder beverages beckoned. This was perhaps my hardest day in the Colorado Mountains; if not the hardest, ranking right next to the El Diente to Mt. Wilson traverse. Both are fraught with loose rock, serious exposure and plenty of technical scrambling. The S-Ridge, however, provides a more solid experience, and is one of the most aesthetic routes on any Fourteener. Amazing views of the pristine area make it hard to beat. Although a bit much for my tolerance, this route is clearly a must-do for anyone that loves third class scrambling.

The drive back out was much better with daylight, and the views of Snowmass Mountain from the road were astounding. This is one of the best Fourteener viewing drives I've seen, providing an absolute eye-full of the S-Ridge in all of its glory. It made for a very dramatic end to the Snowmass saga. The biggest challenge remaining would be to stay awake all the way back to Denver. Not an easy task.

POW!!! S-Ridge!

Comments or Questions
and then...
08/25/2010 03:27
there were 2! Good job!

Kevin Baker
08/25/2010 13:28
N. Maroon and the S-Ridge back to back is a tough weekend! I too thought the S Ridge was tougher than I expected in my early days of scrambling. Nice work!

Impressive !
08/25/2010 14:59
Very impressive to do North Maroon and Snowmass back to back. Your drive impresses me. As always, such an honest and informative trip report. Best of luck on the final 2 !

Mel McKinney
Way to go Keith!
08/25/2010 15:31
Congrats on another well-earned summit! I love the photo to the N.W. of the Parachute/Rifle area. You always have great photos!

08/25/2010 15:50
Way to knock out that ridge! You're almost there buddy, well done!

08/25/2010 16:29
An Enjoyable an Informative TR as always. Looks like you and Britt Jones both have Evans remaining. Is that going to be your finisher as well?

08/25/2010 16:38
Great report and pics, Keith! You can barely see the giant rip in my pant seat, and you can't see my hangover at all. The S-Ridge has got to be one of the best class 3 scrambles in the state, and descending back down it is the way to go. Anyone with a sled want to try this in January?

Chicago Transplant
Getting close!
08/25/2010 17:13
Getting close Keith, its been a lot of fun following your journey through your great and insightful trip reports! Looking forward to reading about the final two!

Entertaining ...
08/25/2010 17:19
Your sarcasm is appreciated. It is interesting that you found this more difficult than North Maroon ... I need to get up and try this route on Snowmass ... looks like fun. Happy trails!

Nice TR...
08/25/2010 19:04
This route was one of the hardest I've done as well, the exposure beat out Capitol in my opinion although there were easier less exposed lines to take if you wanted. Good report and good luck on the last 2...

Excellent report!
08/26/2010 01:34
Excellent report! Great shots! And you have an intriguing way of describing your trip! Thanks!

08/26/2010 14:28
I would imagine following Scott up this route would be...interesting He has a way of finding the most ”fun” way to do things.
Well done buddy! Gettin close now.

An awesome climb & trip report...
08/28/2010 16:40
Well done on this challenging route! An entertaining and informative narrative, with excellent accompanying photos. A gutsy and bold adventure, especially on the heels of North Maroon. You're a mountain monster, dude! Keep the faith, and keep on climbin'...

Fun reading!
11/12/2015 07:53
I’m almost certain that velociraptor was still in the basin when I was there this year!

   Not registered?

Caution: The information contained in this report may not be accurate and should not be the only resource used in preparation for your climb. Failure to have the necessary experience, physical conditioning, supplies or equipment can result in injury or death. and the author(s) of this report provide no warranties, either express or implied, that the information provided is accurate or reliable. By using the information provided, you agree to indemnify and hold harmless and the report author(s) with respect to any claims and demands against them, including any attorney fees and expenses. Please read the Safety and Disclaimer pages for more information.

Please respect private property: supports the rights of private landowners to determine how and by whom their land will be used. In Colorado, it is your responsibility to determine if land is private and to obtain the appropriate permission before entering the property.

© 2022®, 14ers Inc.