Kim Fenske climbs a classic Colorado fourteener
Story and photos by Kim Fenske
The drive to Ouray over Monarch pass and through Gunnison took me eight hours. Like a trip with Robert Frost, it was the road less traveled and more lined with the yellow shades of turning aspen.
From the switchbacks immediately south of Ouray, I turned west on County Road 361 and drove seven miles up a gravel road, beneath the overhanging cliff beside the gorge, and up to the high-clearance vehicle warning sign. I hoisted my backpack and hiked three miles up to the base of Mount Sneffels, named from the Norwegian word meaning snow. I set-up base camp at 12,400 feet near Wrights Lake at the base of Gilpin Peak.
Next morning, I followed the trail across a gentle talus field and turned north up a steep chute of boulders within sight of the rounded Mount Sneffels summit. On the west side of the chute, nearly to the ridge, a wedge with handholds allows a scramble another hundred vertical feet to the summit.
Looking east from the summit, the red cliffs of Ouray are visible, with open plains north of the mountains. South of Sneffels, the snow-dusted north slope of Gilpin Peak forms a dramatic backdrop to Yankee Boy Basin. After basking in the views and watching clouds enclose the summit, I headed down in a light swirl of popcorn snowfall.
Near the trailhead, a man got out of a high-clearance vehicle and asked me how far the trail went. I pointed to the summit of Mount Sneffels and told him that it takes about three hours to the top of the peak. The man responded that he had not asked that. Seeing no daypack, I guessed that he was what I call a dog walker, the typical hiker who goes no farther than thirty minutes up a trail and carries no essential backcountry gear.
I pointed to the trail that went over the western ridge overlooking Blue Lakes and informed the man that he could reach the ridge in a little more than an hour. The man fell silent. Perhaps, I should have told him that the trail goes until your feet stop moving or your water bottle is not empty or the lightning is not striking on the mountain where you are climbing or your heart stops beating.
I dropped off the trail to my base camp and shook the snow off my tent before beginning to stuff my backpack. As I rolled up my tent, I watched the man take a couple hundred steps up the trail, turn around, and drive away in his high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle. For him, the wilderness experience lasted five minutes. He probably did not observe the pika harvesting tundra flowers to add to their rock-lined haystacks for winter.
He may have not been able to name any of the tundra plants beside the trail. He likely never took the time to rest among a herd of elk, mountain goats, or bighorn sheep calmly grazing almost within arm’s reach. He certainly missed the perspective of looking down at hundreds of snow-covered peaks and expansive tundra from 14,000 feet.
On this afternoon, he did not feel the deep rushing flow of thin air as he scrambled up a steep boulder field to the summit of Mount Sneffels. From my perspective, he missed something of great value.
I still had a couple of hours to backpack down the canyon from Yankee Basin, away from a setting sun and through the town of Ouray.
Kim Fenske is a former wilderness ranger, firefighter who has hiked thousands of miles in the Colorado mountains. He has served on the board of directors of Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.
Fenske has authored several hiking books filled with hundreds of photographs of Colorado wildlife, wildflowers, and scenery. His books are enjoyed by thousands of outdoor enthusiasts. His current electronic book titles are published on Amazon for Kindle, as well as Barnes and Noble for Nook. Search for these titles: “Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado,” “Holy Cross Wilderness Area,” and “Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.”
More stories by Kim Fenske:
- A Colorado classic: Longs Peak
- Explore Whitney Peak in the Holy Cross Wilderness
- Colorado: Climb San Luis Peak with Kim Fenske
- Morning photo: The Deer Creek trail, a Summit crossroads
- Travel: Explore Colorado’s spectacular Gore Creek trail
- Colorado: Explore Pikes Peak with Kim Fenske
- A hike to Windom Peak, Sunlight Peak, and Mount Eolus
- Colorado: A fall hike on Castle Peak