RT Mileage: 22 miles
Elevation Gain: 5800’
It‘d been a long week at work, so I needed a quick nap before heading to the trailhead. I got all my gear together and packed it into my backpacking pack and loaded it into my truck so I’d just need to get up and go.
My backpacking pack looked excessive for a day hike, but I was darned tired of carrying those snowshoes in my hands all the way up the trail again. They don’t strap to my day pack, and they’re a bugger to carry, but they fit nicely into my backpacking pack. So today that’s where they went. At least the pack was light.
My plan was to get to the trailhead at 1am and make it to the lake around 3:30am. That meant I needed to leave at 9:30pm. That gave me 2.5 hours to rest if I fell asleep right now. I jumped into bed, checked my alarm one more time to make sure it was set for 9pm, pulled the covers over my head and fell asleep. Two seconds later I turned over and looked at my phone because I felt way too rested. AGH!!! 10:33pm! My alarm hadn’t gone off! Drat! I did the mental calculations: Was it to late to start? This is really a hike that needs to be started very early in the morning. Very early. Did I just miss my shot? I knew I could make up some of the time driving, and I was all packed, so…
I jumped out of bed, re-heated the morning’s coffee, and was out the door in 5 minutes.
Surprisingly there was no one on the road at 11pm on a Thursday night. I drove most of the way not seeing another vehicle. I couldn’t speed however, because there were a lot of animals out. Just after Buena Vista I saw about 20 deer trying to cross the road in front of me. I had to slow down very quickly to avoid hitting them. I’ll admit I was pretty close, but was able to stop in time. I’m guessing we had 3 inches to spare.
Just as my truck came to a full stop, Wham! I heard a big thump on the back passenger side of the vehicle. I’d just been hit by a deer! I thought that kind of thing only happened in Gilmore Girls? I didn’t want to get out of my truck because there were a bunch of deer around, so I slowly crept the vehicle forward and looked in my rear-view mirror to see if the deer was ok. It was. It had just gotten scared and done the prey thing where they try to zig and zag to confuse their predator into going the other way. She’d zigged when she should have zagged, but all the deer were up and walking around behind me, so I continued on. I’d look at the damage to my truck when I got to the trailhead.
My GPS stated I was making good time. I’d already cut off 30 minutes of drive time, making me only a little over an hour behind schedule. That was promising. Until I made it to the trailhead. Or, what I thought was the trailhead. Those of you familiar with the Maroon-Bells and Snowmass area might think this was a stupid mistake, but my GPS directions and the directions from the .com were pretty parallel, and after following them I ended up at the Maroon Bells Trailhead instead of the Snowmass Trailhead. Both are referred to as the Maroon-Snowmass trailhead (side note: there’s a sign at the park entrance saying the $10 fee to enter Maroon Bells starts June 10).
I was starting at the Maroon-Snowmass Trailhead, but apparently there are two of those?!?! Luckily I’d started the GPX file for the hike before leaving the house (something I learned to do dozens of 14ers ago for situations just like this) and saw where I needed to go to fix this problem.
It took me an hour, and just an FYI, when using the .com directions there is no Snowmass Creek Road: It’s now called Brush Creek, with no mention of Snowmass anywhere, even when it becomes a dirt road.
I made it to the correct trailhead (also named Maroon-Snowmass BTW) at 3am. I’d wanted to almost be at the lake by this point. Now I was mad at myself. The alarm thing was my fault (I’d accidentally set it for Friday at 9pm instead of Thursday at 9pm), and even though I’d found several different directions to the trailhead I messed that up too. So all the time I’d “made up” driving was lost, and then some.
I jumped out of my truck, threw on my pack, and was on my way. I had serious time to make up. Side note: there was a huge tent set up in the parking area with a generator running? That seemed a bit excessive. There were 2 other cars in the lot, one I assumed belonged to the tent people and the other to another hiker(s). The road in was a 2WD dirt road for some of the way. Here’s a picture from later in the day.
About a quarter mile in I realized I forgot to eat my bagel, and I wasn’t 100% sure I remembered to pack my gloves. I knew they’d made it to the truck, but I wasn’t sure they made it into my pack. I was only a little ways in, but I wasn’t turning back. I had food with me, and if my hands got cold I had an extra jacket. I’d improvise.
I passed several closed gates and great signs indicating the correct trail.
It was dark but I was hiking by the light of the moon. I could hear but not see the river, and was glad the path was so easy to follow.
The trail was very well maintained
There were several downed trees directly on the trail, but they were (mostly) easily avoided).
There was also evidence of avalanche activity in the area.
It stayed dark until 5:30am, just as I reached the log jam. (Note, there’s a video of my crossing the log jam later towards the end of this post for those interested in experiencing it with me). The log jam was much easier to cross than I’d anticipated! The only tricky part was all of the logs were floating on the top of the water, making them springy and not secure. The lake was about 8 feet deep in the middle, so I didn’t want to accidentally fall and be a swimmer. I just made sure I checked for stability with each step, and where possible used my trekking pole for balance.
Snowshoes were needed about ¼ mile from the lake. I pulled them out to put them on and woot! I had my gloves! Things were looking up!
I kept the snowshoes on to cross this short log bridge, which actually ended up being a great idea: they gave me extra stability.
I’d made it to Snowmass Lake. It was beautiful in the morning light!
I made it the 8 miles to the lake at 6:45am, when my original intention was to be there at 3:30am. I was over 3 hours later than I’d wanted to be at this point. I did a mental sigh, knowing it was unlikely I’d summit today because the sun would melt the snow to a point that made climbing impossible. Even knowing this I continued on, telling myself there were probably more unknowns ahead and I’d want to be more prepared next time I attempted Snowmass. I’d just keep trekking on and see how far I could get and how much I could learn about the route for next time.
There was no evidence anyone had camped at the lake, so I assumed the extra vehicle belonged to day hikers.
There was evidence of recent avalanche activity at the lake. It looked quite recent, and was coming from the east side. The left banks of the lake were covered in snow I was sure should have melted out by now, and attributed it to an avalanche. There were broken pieces of trees everywhere. I kept my snowshoes on to cross the banks, which was extremely helpful. It looked like others had postholed. There was still ice on some of the lake.
Even after I made it past the lake I kept my snowshoes on as I headed towards the scree slope gully. This was 600’ in elevation gain of pure torture. I don’t like gullies. As far as I’m concerned a gully should either be full of climbable snow or not on the route. It took me forever to climb this thing! It was full of scree and large, loose rocks and boulders. Nothing was stable. It was like a bad Paula Abdul song: two steps forward and two steps back. I actually kept on the snowshoes until I was about halfway up the gully because they gave me added stability (don’t try this at home!!!). I only took them off when the scree and rocks transitioned to boulders. It was apparent they were now doing more harm than good and I didn’t want to risk a broken ankle.
I made it to the top of that very instable gully at 8:30am. I put back on my snowshoes and helmet, thinking to myself it probably would have been a good idea to put my helmet on before the gully.
I looked at the rest of the route before me. Snowmass is best done with snow in the mass, and boy did it have snow!
I started forward and noticed a guy glissading down towards me. This really ticked me off. I was so mad at myself! I should have been where he was right now, on my descent, but instead I still had 3 miles of difficult terrain ahead of me. He made his way towards me and started some small talk about the climb, how many 14ers we’d done, and the generator at the trailhead. He hadn’t seen anyone else all day, and was pretty cheerful. I tried to make small talk, but it was hard for me to remain upbeat. The sun was shining, the snow was melting, and I was behind schedule. I’m sure I came across as rude, and while I regret that I couldn’t help it. If you’re reading this, I apologize for my bad manners!
He told me he’d started at 1am, and was just going lightweight today (he noted, looking at my excessive pack). He didn’t have snowshoes, so he’d postholed around the lake, having a miserable time of it. The snow up towards the top of the mountain was still pretty stable, so I shouldn’t have trouble summiting. I sat down and switched my snowshoes for crampons. This putting on and taking off my snowshoes/crampons was getting exhausting!
We said goodbye, and I looked at the route before me and the way I’d traveled thus far (with the hiker to the right).
I steeled myself: If the snow was indeed still stable as the glissader said there was a small chance I could summit today, and I was going to do my best to make it happen if it was safe to do so. It looked like a long trudge, but doable if I could get there before the snow melted out too much.
Because the trail is covered in snow (if there even is a trail underneath?) you just need to aim for the ridge and make your own route. This mountain is much bigger than it looks, and those rocks and cliffs you see are at least 20 feet in width, some much larger. I aimed for boulders in front of me and just kept going, making my way towards the ridge.
All was going pretty well and I was quite pleased with my progress. It looked like I was actually going to do this! The snow was getting noticeably softer, but I was so close! When I hit about 20 feet from the ridge I hit a big problem: the snow became extremely soft. Stepping on it was like what happens when grab a piece of cotton candy between your fingers and squash it, but slushy. This was not good. I tried to follow tracks made by others, but that ended up making things worse. I was now going parallel to the ridge, trying to find a safe way to summit. It just wasn’t happening, and I was making a mess of the mountain. I hadn’t realized it while I was doing it, but I’d chosen a path that got the most sun earliest in the day. Ugh! I wish I’d have angled toward the right more! Then I wouldn’t have been in this situation. Oh well, I’m a problem solver, so I kept at it until I found a stable route. OK, I actually just tramped down the 5 feet or so of snow until I hit rock and made my way up that way. I apologize to those following in my steps! If you want to avoid this just gain the ridge more to the right…
At 10:30am, despite everything I had going against me, I gained the ridge! I was elated, but I knew one thing: I did NOT want to go back down the way I’d come up. Not only had I pretty much ruined that line it just wasn’t safe. This meant I needed to look for a safer route down and I needed to summit asap because that wonderful sun wasn’t on my side. I sat down to take off my crampons and took a look at the way I’d come and the ridge before me:
It took me about half an hour to travel those .2 miles. Not because the terrain was difficult but because the wind was insane! It was much faster than the predicted 30mph, and COLD!!! I was a popsicle, and could barely move. I summited at 11am. Snowmass is a small summit, and I was frozen and in a hurry to beat the sun, so no great summit photo. Surprisingly, I wasn’t thrilled with this summit like I usually am when I make it to the top. I did get (one) selfie that would have to do and booked it back to the ridge.
The snow came all the way up to the ridge in most areas, so finding a different route down wasn’t too challenging. What was challenging was the angle of the down climb!
This was much steeper than the way I’d taken on the way up. I was surprised at how much firmer the snow was in this area. The descent was easier than I’d anticipated (snow conditions wise) but it still took what seemed like forever! Here’s a photo of the route I took: I went to the left on the way up, and the right on the way down.
I finally made it back to a semi level area and sat down to glissade. Drat! I couldn’t! Because I was wearing my big pack! Oh well, I’d just hike out and enjoy the view while I did so.
The top of the gully had a great view.
The trek down the gully wasn’t any better than the way up. What little snow there was was too soft to traverse. The rocks were all unsable and it was impossible to get traction on the scree, so I had to carefully watch every step I took to avoid falling and creating a rockslide. It was very slow-going and I couldn’t get down fast enough. Have I mentioned I’m not a fan of gullies?
When I made it back down I got a quick video of the avalanche evidence. It looks pretty recent to me, with a lot of debris rolling on top of the snow in the wind.
OK, here I was back at the lake.
To make up for my bad attitude I decided to follow the post-holes the glissader made on his way back and trench them with my snowshoes to create a nice path for the next hikers to follow. This was slow going, and took me over an hour. I was making a nice, solid trail though!
I was half way across the lake when it happened. The section I was trenching calved while I was crossing it, right into the lake.
You’re probably thinking: Wasn’t the lake icy cold? Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. It all occurred in slow motion, and luckily I realized what was happening while it was happening so I had some time to plan and prepare before hitting the water.
As the snow and ice disintegrated below me I took a deep breath, filled my lungs with air and steeled myself for the shock of landing in the ice water. I hit the water ready to spring up and stable myself. I was still wearing my snowshoes, and had on my helmet and pack. I stood up, made it as quickly as I could to the shore, climbed up the snow bank, threw off my pack, and rolled in the snow to dry off. I was making snow angels and checking to make sure I hadn’t hurt any part of my body.
After a few good rolls I took off my outer layers of clothing and stripped down to my moisture wicking under-layers. I rolled in the snow again. When I felt I’d absorbed as much water as possible I got up and did jumping jacks for 2 minutes, warming up my body. While doing the calisthenics I considered my options. The next course of action should have been to start a fire and dry out my socks/shoes, but I was pretty sure there was a fire ban, and besides, it would take longer to dry out my stuff than it would take to hike the 8 miles out. I needed to stay as warm as possible, and sitting in front of a fire would just take time and provide the opportunity for me to go into shock. The best way to prevent shock (for me) is to keep moving. My altruism was done for the day. No more trenching: I threw my wet clothes into my pack and began the long slog back to my truck in soaking wet socks and boots. My new priority was making it back to my truck and the dry socks I had sitting on my passenger seat.
I made it to the log jam and decided to take a video of the crossing
In case you’re wondering, these ponds have fish in them. I saw dozens of trout near the shore.
It was a very long 8 miles back to my truck. Those 8 miles out were not as pleasant as I’m sure they were intended to be.
Around mile 18 is when I really got tired. My feet were rubbing against my wet socks and drenched shoes, creating terrible blisters. They squished with every step, and at one point I felt my pinky toenail come off. That stung. My pack, now full of wet clothes, was heavy and eating into my shoulders. Every quarter of a mile or so I had to stop and bend over to release some of the tension and weight from my shoulders.
I was following the creek back, and as I was relieving the pressure from my shoulders I heard it: singing. I righted myself and looked around to see if anyone was there, but the forest was empty. Yet I could distinctly hear singing. I couldn’t make out the words, but it was a woman, singing softly and humming. It almost sounded like it was coming from a radio, faint in the distance. I’ve often heard what sounds like music from a creek/flowing body of water, but that’s not what this was.
I shook it off and kept going, but every time I came close to the creek I heard it again. At one point it sounded like it was coming from a jukebox or an old staticky radio. I looked over at the raging creek. Water was a good conductor, maybe that’s where it was coming from? I shook my head. Ugh, not a conductor of sound Laura.
I knew what was happening: I’d only gotten 3 hours of sleep last night, and while I had food I hadn’t eaten all day because I didn’t feel like stopping to take it out of my pack (I don’t get hungry when I hike, so I have to force myself to eat). I was in shock and suffering from low blood sugar, causing auditory hallucinations. Not eating combined with lots of physical exercise and the distress of falling into the lake was causing me to go into shock. That didn’t stop me from taking a video while I heard the singing to assess later (in case you’re wondering, no, you can’t hear the ‘singing’ in the video).
On the positive side, there were a lot of beautiful flowers.
I made it back to my truck at 6:30pm and assessed the deer damage: none!
It had been quite a day: 22 miles, 5800’ feet of elevation gain, and an unexpected dunk in Snowmass Lake in 15 hours. It was 26 hours door to door, and I was exhausted!
The Snowmass Mountain Summit Sticker can be bought here