I gently pull on a rock, half expecting it to give the minute I put any of my weight on it. It shifts with my tug, but not by much. I go ahead and put just enough of my weight on it to pull myself up another few feet. Slowly but surely, I’m inching my way towards the summit of Mount Sneffels. I slowly glance to either side, scared to tilt my body too far one way and pitch off the exposed ridge that I’m clinging to, with no actual holds for my hands to grip. I can feel that panic rising inside me, the kind of panic that you have to exert a tremendous amount of mental willpower over to keep quiet. I know from experience – the minute you let that panic loose is when you’re in trouble.
Earlier this year in the third week of August, my partner Chad and I had a chance to take a week-long road trip through southern Colorado. We had a lot of fun hiking, mountain biking, and ingesting craft beer along the way, but out of all the things that we did, my favorite adventure was hiking Mount Sneffels.
I’ve done some moderate hiking in my life, but I’ve never attempted a 14er or anything close to it. Not only that, after all the research we had done, Chad and I settled on a Class 3, which cautioned its climbers against rock fall and sketchy scrambling. But we thought we were up for the challenge and set our sights on it.
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Ouray was our second official stop on our southern Colorado trip, between Durango and Crested Butte. We got to Ouray with enough time to explore town before we drove to the Mount Sneffels trailhead. It gave us enough time to stretch our legs and enjoy a beer or two at some of the local craft breweries.
After we’d had a chance to relax, Chad and I loaded up in the car and drove out to the Mount Sneffels trailhead where hopefully we would get a good night’s sleep before heading up the mountain.
When we initially started planning our 14er, we debated a lot about which mountain would be best for us starting off, what time we should start our climb, and how long it would take us. We originally planned to start our hike at 2:00 AM so we could try and summit as the sun came up. But when our alarm went off in the morning, I was the first to say that a 2 AM departure time probably wasn’t the safest idea for a pair of newbies. We compromised for a 6 AM start. That would give us time to throw everything in our car and give us just enough light to make sure we had our bearings on the trail.
You can actually start your ascent of Mount Sneffels a lot higher up the mountain than we did, if your vehicle has enough clearance and save yourself several miles of hiking. We decided not to test our luck and opted to hack it on our legs. Plus, the extra miles of hiking helped me adapt to the elevation, which was an issue at the beginning of the trek that I hadn’t anticipated.
As we rose above the tree line, we encountered a gentleman named Bob who was just getting out of his SUV and preparing for his own ascent. We all got to talking, spent some time comparing routes, and ultimately decided that we’d climb Mount Sneffels together.
Running into Bob ended up being an incredibly happy and fortunate coincidence. Chad and I had never done a 14er before, and while I have tons of rock climbing experience and he’d done an obscene amount of research about climbing 14ers and navigating Mount Sneffels, there were just things neither of us were really prepared for or could learn ahead of time. Bob was an invaluable resource to us. He’s done tons of 14ers, having grown up in Colorado before moving to Washington state, and imparted an absolutely absurd amount of knowledge to us over the course of the climb (not to mention he’s just an all-around fantastic human being that we’re blessed to still be in contact with).
After talking with Bob and comparing notes by his car, the three of us decided between the two routes you can take – the South Slopes and the Southwest Ridge – we opted for the latter. Going up the Southwest Ridge was deemed a bit more approachable and would also give us a killer view of the Blue Lakes before we made our push toward the summit. With our game plan made, we set off.
There really aren’t enough words to describe how beautiful our hike was that day. I was used to Colorado mountains that were covered in snow, which is obviously gorgeous, but this was totally different. As the sun rose above our heads, the valley was awash with colors. Green grass, red rocks, piercing blue sky, with everything appearing sharper and more saturated just given how high up and exposed we were.
As we got higher and higher up Mount Sneffels, part of me wondered if we’d bitten off more than we could chew. Sure, the elevation initially had me gassed, but I adjusted and found myself enjoying the hike more and more. But our trek definitely took a turn as we said farewell to the Blue Lakes and set our eyes on the summit, which still appeared a long way off.
One of the difficulties I hadn’t really thought about was route finding. Chad had done lots of research about our route and even printed off directions that included photos of the terrain, but seeing a mountain side in a photo is a lot different when you’re actually standing on it and trying to find the safest, most efficient way up a rocky slope.
Another difficulty was the terrain itself. I’d done lots of hiking in the past, but never this high up and on rock this exposed. When we transitioned from grassy to rocky slopes that were pitched at an incredibly steep angle – and let’s not forget that the majority of this was loose rock – I started coming to terms with the risk factors at play.
I’m no stranger to juggling fear and managing risks. Rock climbing for 8 years has given me both a physical and mental edge that definitely helped me stay calm and navigate my way up the rock. But the techniques that Bob taught us on the way up and down Mount Sneffels also played a significant role in keeping us as safe as possible.
The last difficulty I hadn’t even thought about was weather. The day had started off cold, but as we hiked and the sun rose above our heads, we ditched layers off no problem. But I was naïve enough to think that the sunny, cloudless sky that sat above our heads was going to last all day. Bob kept saying that we needed to be off the summit by 1 PM, and boy was he right. But more on that later.
Our final push to the summit was such a unique experience for me. Compared to the boys, I was garbage at hiking. The altitude had gotten to me at the beginning and I felt like I had to take a rest every 2 minutes (God bless them, they were so patient with me). But in the last few hundred feet before the summit, our ascent felt a lot more like rock climbing than hiking. We found ourselves using four points of contact a lot more than two, and while the guys looked for routes that with the least steep approach, my rock climbing experience allowed me to take a more direct approach – i.e. straight up.
Compared to the rock in Northwest Arkansas, which is typically either sandstone or limestone depending on the area you’re climbing in, the rock that made up Mount Sneffels was this beautiful igneous rock with a texture that made me feel like I was climbing with Velcro gloves. Even if there were no holds or edges to grip or crimp on, I felt like I couldn’t fall off the stuff.
I won’t lie though, there were a few scary moments in that final push. At one point a rock came loose in my hand as I tried pulling myself up a steep section, and I rocked back hard enough to feel like I was going to fall right off the wall. There was an adjustment period where the holds disappeared near the top and gave way to smooth faces of rock with barely any ripples to it, and I had to learn to trust the rock’s texture and my ability to smear up it (slab climbing isn’t my favorite, but I’m thankful that I’m proficient enough that it came in handy that day).
The scariest part of our climb up Mount Sneffels came when Chad and I found ourselves on an exposed ridge. It felt like I was literally crawling up a spine, and I imagined I looked like Spider-Man because I had to keep my body so flat to the rock. Between the wind and the exposure, I felt like I could fall at any second. We got through it, foot by foot, but that moment is burned into my mind and probably my favorite part of the whole adventure. It’s one of those moments where you’re so hyperaware of the potential danger you’re in, but as long as you manage the risks and keep the panic in check, you’ll be fine.
Fast forward another 15 or 20 minutes of careful scrambling, and we reach the summit.
We actually had the peak to ourselves, a rare experience according to Bob, and we got to enjoy some snacks, IPAs and breathtaking views for an hour as we let our legs rest before we tackled the descent, which ended up being our most harrowing experience to date.
As we packed up our stuff to head down, Bob, Chad and I agreed we’d take the South Slopes route down the mountain. For one, this would allow us to take a different route and maybe enjoy some different views, and secondly, this route would take a lot less time than descending the Southwest Ridge. We weren’t necessarily in a hurry to get back to camp, but clouds had rolled in and bad weather was on the horizon.
Not 20 minutes into our descent, we felt raindrops hitting our skin and sprinkling the rocks around us. We wanted to hustle and avoid clambering down wet rock, but we didn’t want to move so fast that we started making mistakes. Plus, our group of three had grown to five, and we now had to take extra precautions, so nobody got injured by falling rocks or the like.
Turns out going down a 14er is more painful than going up. Halfway down the slope, traversing boulders and skating down scree, our knees, hips and ankles were starting to ache. By the time we reached flat ground (or something resembling it), I could have sworn a bone in my foot was broken or sprained. Bob also took a hard fall and ended up spraining his knee.
Slowly but surely though, we made our way down the South Slopes and onto flat ground. By that point Bob’s knee was in a lot of pain and my right foot was nearly impossible to walk on. The silver lining to all this is that by the time rain started falling on us with gusto, and the wind had picked up enough to drop the temperature about 20 degrees, we were walking on normal ground and picked up our pace big time. Our friends peeled off to their respectful vehicles as the trail allowed them to, but Chad and I still had several miles of walking in the rain and wind to do.
It’s hard to articulate how broken we were by the end of the experience. When we reached our little Subaru, we were soaking wet and sporting muscles and bones that were battered beyond belief. But there’s no doubt in my mind that I wanted to climb more 14ers.
The first thing we did upon getting back to the trailhead was to jump in the car, throw on some heat and jazz music, and put away a few IPAs while we waited the rain out. Despite how bad we physically felt, both of us had enjoyed ourselves immensely and couldn’t wait to go on another suffer-fest.
As the rain blew off and the sun came back out just in time to set behind the ridge, Chad and I reluctantly got out of our warm car and started setting up camp. Not long after, our trail angel Bob showed up! We helped him unload and all got settled in to enjoy a warm dinner and a few beers together. It was the perfect way to end our grueling day, and I’m sure we all slept absolutely amazing that night.
Looking back on the experience, there’s not a doubt in my mind that the only reason I was the first of our group to reach the summit is because of my rock climbing experience. But not only is my rock climbing experience that only edge I brought to that hike, it’s also the thing that helped me a.) keep pushing even when my body felt like complete sh*t, and b.) allow me to keep a grip on my panic when things got sketchy.
I fully intend on climbing more 14ers, and knowing now just how challenging it can be, not to mention scary at times, makes me excited to get back out there and find those physical and mental limits again.