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Colorado: Snowmass Mountain, and our Lady of the Lake

Kim Fenske explores one of Colorado’s most spectacular peaks

The comb of Snowmass Peak viewed from about halfway along the Snowmass Creek trail.

Story and photos by Kim Fenske

As I kneeled at the side of Snowmass Creek and filtered water into my bottle, a tall, slender woman, hair flowing like golden sunlight over her shoulders and reflecting in the blue pools of her glacial eyes, rose up from the water. She was the personification of Snowmass Lake, sparkling glacial water at the base of two miles of mountain that rise above to the spiked comb that forms the summit of Snowmass Mountain.

Snowmass Mountain reflected in Snowmass Lake.

The Snowmass Creek Trailhead is 120 miles from Copper Mountain, south of Glenwood Springs.  The trailhead is at the end of Snowmass Creek Road, west of Colorado Highway 82, on the backside of Snowmass Ski Resort.  Ten miles from the highway at an elevation of 8,000 feet, the clearing is located up the right branch of the Forest Service road, immediately past the bridge crossing Snowmass Creek on the edge of Snowmass Falls Ranch.

The dry slopes of Snowmass Mountain reveal handholds in the notch to the left of the summit.

Snowmass Creek Trail winds beside the rushing water of Snowmass Creek on a steady, moderate grade through stands of aspen and lodgepole pine.  Four miles and two hours up the trail, a rock outcropping provides a beautiful first glimpse of the eastern face of Snowmass Mountain.  Two hours later, beyond a few small beaver ponds, the trail crosses Snowmass Creek.  Carrying a full backpack, the stream crossing requires hikers to carefully choose each step on a scattered pile of fallen logs.

After the crossing, the trail ascends on switchbacks up to Snowmass Lake at 10,990 feet, eight miles from the trailhead.  Campsites are dispersed in the forest on a plateau that forms the eastern shoreline of the lake, with the brilliant white boulder field of the Snowmass Mountain dropping down to the distant edge of the lake.

Imposing Snowmass Peak.

I began climbing from my base camp in early morning, reaching the far side of Snowmass Lake a half-hour later, through a tangle of willow thicket. In the boulders beyond the lakeshore, the trail vanishes.  The steep scree field straight up the slope is unstable. However, I ascended firm rock in the gulch and crossed the trickling water at 11,600 feet, marked by a small cairn that leads to a path that wanders up through the tundra and stunted willows on the right side of the gulch.

After three hours of climbing, I rested on a rock in the upper boulder field two miles up the mountain at 12,800 feet.  During my snack break, I heard the rumble of falling rocks from the ridges surrounding me — rocks that sometimes kill climbers on this brittle mountain. Across the valley, I enjoyed views of white stripes amid the red sedimentary rock forming the Maroon Bells.

The red rock of Maroon Bells is a stark contrast against the white cliffs of Snowmass Mountain.

The Maroon Bells form a beautiful backdrop to the spired ridge of Snowmass Mountain.

From this point, my pace slowed to crawl on the steep scramble among boulders normally covered by a permanent snowfield. I climbed to a notch left of the rooster comb summit of Snowmass Mountain to find footing up to the final ridge. Nearly six hours after beginning my ascent, I reached the final handhold to pull myself onto the jagged ridge of cathedral spires at 13,830 feet.

Crossing over to the rugged western face, I spent another two hours finding firm rocks to grip over the steep trough that invited me to death below.  Pulling myself up to the spired ridge, I held to the straight line as much as possible to reach the knob of rock at the summit at 14,092 feet, eleven hours after departing my base camp beside the blue gem of Snowmass Lake.

The base camp area near the shore of Snowmass Lake is visible below the bowl of boulders and talus on the eastern slope of Snowmass Mountain.

Maroon Bells, from Snowmass Mountain.

Crumbling spires line the ridge of Snowmass Mountain.

White stripes slice across the layers of red rock on Maroon Bells.

Aspen groves glow on the slopes above Snowmass Creek beside the switchbacks that ascend to Snowmass Lake.

The log jam crossing leads to Snowmass Creek Trailhead.

The summit comb of Snowmass Peak overlooks an enormous boulder field that is normally covered in glacial snow.

Alpine scene at Snowmass Mountain.

The slopes of Snowmass Mountain normally are covered in a glacier, the basis for the name of the peak.

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.”

Alaska:

Spring excursions:

Kim’s winter 14er series:

Autumn hikes:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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