Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Sneffels Trip: Part One

So let's start this post off by stating a very important fact: I'm not a mountain climber. I've never been a mountain climber, and I've never wanted to be a mountain climber. I'm a hiker. I love walking.

That said, I've spent a fair bit of time this summer walking around in the Sneffels Wilderness in the San Juan mountains, staring at that big, beautiful, brutal mountain and wondering what it would be like to stand on top of it.

So I decided to find out. 

My husband and I planned a three day trip to the Ouray area that would include camping at the Upper Blue Lake and climbing Mount Sneffels. It's fair to say this trip was somewhat spontaneous - we had a vague idea of what we planned to do and how we planned to do it, but much of it was "we'll see when we get there."

We drove to Ouray and then further on into Yankee Boy basin.

This was our second time driving this road to get to what is arguably the prettiest spot in all of Colorado. I didn't enjoy the drive much the first time, and I didn't care for it much this time, either. Single-lane shelf road, sometimes with an overhang. But getting to the most beautiful places on earth is never easy.

We drove as far as was reasonable without a Jeep, to a sign that said "Four wheel drive, high clearance, short wheel base vehicles only." This put us about a mile from the trail head. We donned our packs (mine weighed 34 lbs, his weighed 50) and started off. Instead of heading toward toward the Mt. Sneffels trailhead, we took the Blue Lakes Pass trail uphill, above treeline, and right into the center of the basin. 

It's one of those places that takes your breath away. (Or that could have been the fact that we were walking up hill above 12,000 feet.) Either way, it's gorgeous. Mount Emma to our left with Gilpin Peak behind it, and to our right, towering above us were Teakettle and Coffeepot peaks. There was a creek with cascading waterfalls along the trail falling into an incredibly deep canyon, and we passed Wright's Lake, a small glacial lake. And just past that, up a bit more of the hill, and we could see Sneffels in all its glory, towering menacingly above. No picture that has ever been taken could do this basin justice. You stand there, surrounded by these huge, jagged, foreboding peaks, and you feel so small and insignificant. Above treeline, the flora is minimal - short grasses, a few flowers that have survived into fall. And rocks. So, so many rocks - piles of them here and there, undoubtedly from rockslides in years past - these mountains are crumbling a little bit every day.

The Blue Lakes Pass summit was only about two and a half miles from the truck. Our plan was to cross the summit and continue down the other side to the Upper Blue Lake and set up camp for the night. We summited. It was a view I'd been waiting to see for months.

 Incredible and perfect and beautiful.

And then we started down.

It wasn't long before we realized it was stupid. The trail wasn't much more than a foot wide, traveling steeply downhill and not ever actually flat. And looking down was about 900 feet of elevation loss in very short time. A steep, nasty, dangerous rocky mountain. One slip and, with packs, we could find ourselves at the bottom, and likely severely injured. Why we kept going, I'll never know. But we did keep going, about halfway down the trail. It was a well packed trail with little bits of gravel scattered all over it - perfect for slipping on. I slipped several times, my heart jumping into my throat each time I steadied myself. At some point I asked why we were doing this. Plans can change, right? So we - very carefully - turned around and started heading back up. I was terrified. I actually made him hold my hand for the steepest parts. One foot in front of the other, tiny steps at a time, and we summitted the pass again. One more look down at those gorgeous, turquoise-blue lakes, and we started looking for any flat spot to pitch a tent.

We found it not far away, right at the foot of Sneffels.

We laid there in the grass, relishing the feeling of solid ground beneath us, and rested while we watched the last of the day's hikers come back down the scree slope of Sneffels. One guy fell hard - completely laid out, on his back. He slid down on his butt after that. Smart move, dude. We watched for awhile as a couple of older gals came down, slower than slow. I will never judge them for their pace. They didn't get hurt, therefore they won. Then we headed down to a mountain spring for water, about 1/4 mile down the trail. 

So while we weren't camped where we'd intended, we ended up sleeping in what is hands down the prettiest place I've ever slept in my life, in absolute solitude. We dined on freeze-dried beef stroganoff and white wine in our enamel camp cups. It was a fantastic dinner. Then we set up the tent and were asleep by 8:30, exhausted. 

Morning came quickly, and we broke down camp. It was frigid - cold enough that ice had formed inside our Nalgene bottles. We heated water for tea, ate cold bagels with cream cheese, and enjoyed our breakfast while watching the sun light up the mountains surrounding us. It was COLD. I couldn't feel my fingers, and the feeling in my toes was going fast. And in less than two hours, we'd be climbing the massive mountain we were looking at. 

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