Descent Route: West Face Direct
April 1-2, 2006
Snowmass Mountain is one of my favorite fourteeners. The mountain is remote and hard to access, and hides from view from most surrounding valleys. It has steeps on all sides but one, and for those willing to brave the long approach, it rewards with incredible skiing. For many years I have studied photos of the long and sustained West Face, hoping someday to have the opportunity to give it a shot. Well, that opportunity came this weekend, and Mike Cuseo and I took full advantage for what is, up to this point, my favorite fourteener accomplishment.
Because Snowmass Mountain is so long on the approach, Mike and I left the day before, drove to Marble, and unloaded the snowmobiles for the six mile drive up past the ghost town of Crystal. We had hoped to make it to the Lead King Basin/ Geneva Lakes summer trailhead, but the road traverses a steep gorge and was avalanched over, so we had to park the sleds a mile above Crystal and spend the night there. The weather was foul that night, I fell asleep satiated with a Dos Gringos burrito and a cup of hot tea, listening to the sound of wet snow falling heavily on the tent fly. When we awoke in the morning, our tent was covered in four inches of fresh snow, and the skies were blue... we knew it was going to be a special day. We fired up the stoves for hot drinks, turned on our Tracker avalanche beacons, and put the skins on our skis. With daylight savings time we had an extra hour of darkness, so we hit the trail at 6:50 a.m.
It is a very long approach to the base of the West Face of Snowmass Mountain. Six hours after leaving the tent we stood at 12,000 ft. and the point where we would leave our skins behind and begin the real climb up the face. Both of us were quite tired already, and staring up the face was daunting. At this point there was easily ten inches of new snow under our boots, and the wind had blown hard the night before, loading some of the gullies above us. As we climbed, we chose our route carefully. We stayed on the rock ribs that split the gullies, and climbing these ribs was horrible. We were constantly breaking through the snow to our waists, next to the rocks, and it was extremely difficult to find any good footing. When we would tru and climb pure snow, we would wallow over our knees with each step. At one point I even pulled a two hundred pound boulder down on my leg, luckily saving certain injury by wearing my kneepads.
So up we went. After four hours of climbing (and several discussions about turning around) we neared the summit. I'm always amazed by the power of your brain to all of the sudden give you strength and stamina. Once we realized we were going to make the top, we both had boundless energy and our spirits soared. The summit of Snowmass Mountain is a narrow, rocky ridge that falls away steeply on all sides. To the north is the Big Bowl, and large, permanent snowfield from which the mountain gets its name. In fact, this is the largest permanent patch of snow in Colorado. To the northwest is the long, jagged ridge that connects with Capitol Peak. Capitol is without a doubt one of the toughest fourteeners in the state, and skiing it is even harder. I've got a great line in mind and am looking forward to giving that one a go. To the southeast is the Maroon Bells and Pyramid Peak, and in the distance further south is the ski area of Crested Butte.
The sun was drifting lower in the sky as we stepped into our skis at 5 p.m. Mike and I skied off the summit, down a short ridge, and into position at the top of the central couloir. The West Face is split by three big couoirs, and we chose the most direct one from the summit. There was easily a foot of new powder in this couloir, and I proceeded cautiously with the first couple of turns. I felt really good about the stability of the new snow and the layers below it. Gaining speed was effortless and we both made huge GS turns down the line, savoring every moment for all the hard work we had made to experience this bounty. Mike stopped along the way to film, and 2500 feet of pure pleasure later we were in the bottom of the basin. All I can say is that skiing for me doesn't get much better than this.
Now all the was left was a tiring six mile ski out to the camp. We made it there as the sun was setting, packed up the tent, bags, pads, and stoves, and loaded the sleds for the drive back to Marble. We were loaded in the car by 8:30 and were feasting at White House Pizza in Carbondale by 9:00. So a thirteen hour day in the mountains ended safely and successfuly. I'm pretty tired today. After I load this update into the website, I'm repacking my gear for a long drive south to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and more fun fourteener skiing adventures.
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