14er Skiing: The West Face of Snowmass Mountain.
I have never been much for peak bagging. A day out in the mountains counts as great day, whether I am yoyo skiing long angle powder below tree line or standing on the top of the tallest mountain for miles. However, I have recently discovered that big objectives can be the incentive you need to keep the skis on your feet in the warm months when motivation starts wavering. When searching for big objectives in Colorado there is certainly nothing bigger than ticking off the 54 peaks towering above 14,000 feet. After skiing Quandary with Gary and Hugh a couple weeks earlier it reminded me how fun these mountains can be. When I my Grand Traverse partner Donny texted me that he would be on my side of the Elks during an incredible weather window, I knew the situation was prime to try something really long and stupid like Snowmass Mountain.
Snowmass Mountain is one the most remote 14ers in the state, and that is when approaching from Snowmass Creak to the East. After reading some post from Ted Mahon and Chris Davenport it seemed like the West Face was seldom skied. Both of them had done it on separate occasions approaching from Marble with motorized vehicles and camping a night before making a push to the summit the next day. As per usual we developed another ill conceived plan to make our lives as difficult as possible. We would start on bikes from the town of Marble, approach from the "low road" of the Lead King Basin, through the town of Crystal, up through Geneva Lakes and Directly up the West Face of Snowmass.
At 5:30 am we left the Van fully loaded on bikes and began to make our way up Daniel's Hill Road. We received some extremely bad beta from the Shop Rookie who had recently been up in the loop. He stated that there was a snow patch before Lizard Lake we would have to push through and then it would be smooth riding most of the way to the Town of Crystal. Although in the morning we were able to make it 4 of the 6 miles, coming out of in the afternoon. We pushed through snow patch after snow patch, rarely able to ride for more than a few hundred yards at a time, but it didn't matter, I love bike to ski missions more than anything and the Lead King Basin has always been one of my favorite parts in Colorado. While recovering from knee surgery I road this loop many times as a recovery and I think it is one of the most beautiful jeep roads in Colorado.
After Crystal we donned our ski boots and dry hiked up into the Basin until we could continuously skin the rest of the way. About a half a mile past the bridge over Silver Creek the trailhead sign for Geneva Lakes was practically buried in the snow and the trail was impossible to spot. We stayed left of the waterfall from the outlet of Geneva Lakes and skinned up into the basin at the base of the lakes. Keeping Geneva Lakes to our right we climbed a ridge that would give us the best look at the west face of Snowmass. This side of the mountain is riddled with massive couliors that run the entire face, but often times terminate in a cliff band at the 12,400 foot elevation. We wanted to get a good scouting report on which ones wouldn't cliff out.
We began on the left most couioir, crossing rock band after rock band to the right as we approached the summit. It was steep and hard snow climbing ranging from about 45 to 35 degrees with a few rolls approaching 50. It has some great exposure and the wind sucking elevation was in full effect. Nothing like a 14 mile approach to loosen up the lungs. The last 50 feet to the summit was a rocky scramble that made a heinous down climb. It would take a special year to ski this from the true summit on the west face, so down climbed back to the beginning of the middle and largest couloir.
From here we ripped skins at around 12:30 pm. The snow was just starting to soften up and ranged from bullet proof, to "edgable" to down right perfect corn. We skied trending right sneaking through several breaks in the rock band to find our way out the couloir we booted up. After skiing the face we had enjoyable "net downhill" egress back to the bikes. This was all mostly skiable and we only had to put skins back on once.
Once back in Crystal the true slog began and a bike ride that takes about 40 mins in good weather took us 3 hours to get out. Car to car at a relaxing pace took us just under 12 hours to cover the estimated 28 miles and close to 8000 vertical of gain and descent. The bikes in the end were probably not worth it for efficiency or wear and tare on gear, but on a 12 hour day it is worth anything to break up the adventure. I did some reading in the comments of articles this year that this would not count as a ski descent because of the 50 feet of down climbing from the summit. But I would take the bonus miles of human powered travel over 50 feet of core shots in my bases any day. Looking over the edge on the summit the east face looked incredible and a straightforward decent from the top so I guess I will have to go out for another amazing slog to the summit of Snowmass again soon!
- Doug Stenclik