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A winter attempt on Snowmass Mountain

Aron Ralston breaks trail out into the middle of Snowmass Lake with
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Following a successful winter ascent of Mt. Princeton with Chris Davenport earlier this season, I got all jazzed about skiing fourteeners and convinced two friends to make a go at one.Since Aron Ralston has summited all of Colorado’s fourteeners in the winter, I asked him along for some technical expertise and good storytelling. And another friend, Will Roush, is about as grizzly and mountain-mannish as it gets, so I figured he’d like to join as well.Ralston decided Snowmass Mountain (14,092) would be a good mid-range mountain to give a shot, and I, having little to no knowledge about the fourteeners, agreed. Snowmass, situated in the middle of the Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness is one of the more remote fourteeners no matter how it’s approached, and the actual mountain is not a winter ascent to be taken lightly. That said, my eyebrow definitely raised when Ralston asked if Roush and I had crampons or ice axes. I looked skyward thoughtfully, pretending I had considered the idea. No matter, Ralston loaned us the gear and we provided the vittles. On Wednesday morning last week, we loaded our gear into Ralston’s truck and headed out to Snowmass Creek with the intent of skinning to Snowmass Lake to spend the night and then going for the ascent Thursday. On the way, Roush introduced us to the joy of cake donuts before a climb. I gobbled a few in eager anticipation of a serious day ahead. To the lakeIt has often been said that Snowmass Lake is one of the most beautiful in the Rockies. It has not often been said that getting there in the winter is one of the longest slogs in the Rockies. It is.

We left the trailhead of Snowmass Creek, near the Campground lift at Snowmass Ski Area, with a few off-hand comments about a powder day. The recent storm had brought a foot of fresh that made everything beautiful and every step a wall sit. Of course, none of that kicked in for the first six to eight miles. And truly, the ski going up Snowmass Creek in the winter is stunning. For us, the rapidly changing weather seemed to signify a dozen different days in one.While at first Ralston and Roush gave me crap for believing the hole of blue sky over our starting point was a “sucker hole,” they were soon stripping down to t-shirts as the sun warmed the trail and lit the surrounding cliffs. As soon as we finished lunch, however, the clouds rolled in and snowflakes started falling. The flurries started and stopped, with the sun breaking through at times and visibility going down to only a hundred feet at other times. It made for a constantly re-revealed landscape that shifted and changed with the high winds and storm clouds. About eight miles into it, we reached a series of small lakes that we crossed amidst a steady shower of snow, then hiked up a sharp ridge into a forest trail leading toward Snowmass Lake. That last two miles held another 1,000 vertical, significantly increasing the rate of climb since the first eight miles had only 2,000 vertical. Roush, a ski patrolman by day, stepped in for some heroic trail breaking as Ralston and I flagged slightly. By the time we started passing swirling pools of ice as Snowmass Creek edged from Snowmass Lake, I was ready to lie down and sleep. Soon enough, we were at the lake, truly a spectacular sight with Snowmass Peak (not to be confused with the mountain) rising steeply above the clean white sheet laid out below. The TentOnce we found a suitable campsite, it was time to put up the tent. This was truly the story of the trip for our tent was no normal winter camping setup.

Roush had recently purchased a Vertex 8, made by the Utah company “Titanium Goat.” It’s a relatively unknown company not to be laughed at. The Vertex 8 is sized to fit “four people, moderate gear and a stove,” the Goat’s website says. The stove in question is a wood-burning titanium backpacking stove that comes with the tent, complete with a stovepipe and kevlar lining. It’s a tad weighty, the tent is six pounds and the stove is just under three, but well worth the shoulder burn. Once we had spent an hour clearing an area, setting up the tent, putting together the stove and collecting some wood, we had a shelter worthy of Aspen mining days and the next four or five hours were the most enjoyable I have spent winter camping.We dug a trough for leg room, sat upright on cushy pads, boiled water on the stove for endless hot chocolate and generally had a laugh-fest. At times, the tent got a little smoky but was otherwise highly effective. My suggestion of an indoor bathroom was not taken favorably by my roommates, so I braved the cold and filed the idea away for another day. We cranked up the gas stove to increase hot chocolate making capacity and to make enough water to get up and go in the morning. I fell asleep to the gas stove as Roush once again pulled the hero shift boiling water.The AscentI awoke not-so-early to find that we had run out of gas and that uncooked (though instant) oats were to be the morning fare. Somehow I downed the oats and we packed our bags to head for the summit.



We had used ice axes and ski poles as tent poles so we disassembled the tent in order to get ready. By 9 a.m. we were skinning across Snowmass Lake. Having never skied across a frozen, snow-covered lake, I felt awash with wonder and awe. It was difficult to decipher distance and the broad mountains all around summoned that tiny feeling in a large, inspiring place.In front was Snowmass Peak with the snow mass, from which the name comes, to the right. Though it was hard to tell in the winter, it’s actually the largest permanent snowfield in Colorado. On the steep slope facing the lake, the lower portion of the snow mass, was a large, recent avalanche that ran down toward us with a crown down to the rock layer.We hiked up the right side of the slide area then crossed some heavily windblown snow and a rocky ridge to get up into the heart of the snow mass. Once there, we quickly were bogged down with some difficult trail-breaking, though Snowmass Mountain was now visible at the height of the snowfield. The fresh snow had a two or three inch wind crust that had developed from storm winds. So each step required breaking through. And though we came up with a few strategies for moving more quickly and with less energy, it rapidly became a strain to do more than 100 yards in front. Visibility remained somewhat good until we stopped at a rock roughly 500 vertical feet below the summit for lunch around 2 p.m. There, the weather did an about-face; the wind picked up speed significantly and snowfall increased. When we began hiking again, the terrain became steeper and with less visibility it was hard to determine what kind of slope we were on. I rapidly lost confidence that we could safely keep going and after a few hundred more yards we decided to call it.From 13,500 to the truck

We turned around and began to follow our skin track through the pea soup. The turns at the top were tough. The snow had become quite windblown, and the crust forced us to survival ski in a chair-sit position. The lower we got, the nicer the snow became, and toward the midway point on the snowfield visibility improved and we got some powder. The steep avalanche slope was mostly hard pack with an inch or two of loose snow on top.In about half an hour we were back on the lake, looking up at where we had been. Of course, after we had descended 2,500 vertical and were back in the protected loveliness of Snowmass Lake, it was difficult not to second guess the decision to turn around. Still, I was glad to not break out the ice ax or crampons and the climb had been exceptional. Without regrets, we returned to camp, packed up and started down. Much of the first few miles was a toboggan run in the receding grayness. I couldn’t help grinning on some of the quick little turns, ducking branches and maintaining speed. Still, a good deal of it was flat and after a few hours all three of us were just grinding it out. Roush tried to hang without a headlamp until one faster section when he thought better of it. And Ralston lost some of his love for nature when a snow-covered tree across the trail snagged his skis. Toward the end of the hike, I ran out of gorp and foolishly let my Camelbak freeze. With the mind wandering as it will, I began to think lovingly of the remaining cake donuts in the truck.The first bite, with little but snacks and 12 miles in between that and my last meal, was one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. My eyes glazed, Ralston started the truck at and we drove back to Aspen at 9 p.m., the day after we left. Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is jstonington@aspentimes.com


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