The more time I spend in the San Juan range in southwest Colorado, the more my eyes are opened to the lifetimes worth of backcountry touring and ski mountaineering potential. The San Juans have a volcanic history and are a much younger range relative to other parts of the Rockies. What does this mean for us as skiers? Loose, chossy summits, and couloir skiing in every direction from just about any vantage point.
As a relatively recent and temporary (for now) transplant to the San Juans, everyday is an opportunity to explore a new basin, and drool over new terrain. There are countless classic couloirs to ski, and ten times that many that fit into the more “obscure” category. Regardless, this winter I have found myself adding line after line to an ever-growing list that could easily satisfy decades of mountain exploits. It has been fun to attempt to get on several classics in the area, and continue to explore places where others have already been.
One of these classics is undoubtedly the Snake Couloir off of Mt. Sneffels. A google search of the Snake will provide you with numerous trip reports, route information, and photos. The Snake Couloir is an uber classic and it gets skied plenty of times throughout the winter, and even more in the spring corn season. Access issues until May 1st keep it a little less traveled, as it is an arduous approach relative to other seasons.
Early in March, friend Zach Lovell and I decided to deal with the gate closure low down on the Camp Bird Road (Co Rd 361) and go for the Snake Couloir. There are several ways to deal with the logistics of skiing Mt. Sneffels in terms of car shuttles and approaches. We opted to do a car shuttle and leave one vehicle as far up the Dallas Creek Road as snow would allow on the north side of the peak. The following morning we drove my vehicle to the gate at the Skylight area on Camp Bird Road. This would give us options to either come back the way we approached if we didn’t like conditions, or give us the option of going up and over, and thus more adventure!
With avalanche conditions on the low end of the spectrum, and the shady aspects holding great snow on previous days’ tours, we were optimistic that the Snake would be stable and ski really well. This is an anomaly in the winter in the San Juans, and we were stoked to take advantage of it. We started from the car at 4:30 am beneath cold clear skies and frozen dirt road under our feet. We “enjoyed” a three or four mile road march in the dark trying, but failing, to piece together snow patches to get skis off of our backs. Once we hit consistent snow just past the Camp Bird Mine, our morale lifted. We weaved our way up higher into Yankee Boy Basin, somewhat following the summer 4×4 road. The travel was relatively mellow, and the scenery was spectacular, especially since it was my first time in this area. I was adding more and more lines to the list.
About an hour and half after sunrise, we heard the distant sound of a helicopter coming over the ridge from Telluride. Initially we were surprised to see Telluride Helitrax coming into Yankee Boy this early, but we didn’t anticipate it to affect us. The helicopter made a pass, and effortlessly buzzed up onto a high bench, landed, and then took off back to Telluride. It was a reminder to me that the access in the San Juans is such that keeps you from feeling too remote. Another example of this was passing the summertime trailhead that sits a mere 1 mile and 1,200 ft from the summit of Sneffels, a place that had taken us over four hours of human powered travel to reach.
Once we passed the trailhead sign, we worked our way up to Lavender Col on a crispy solar aspect. About 100 feet below the col, we were surprised to see four other people standing there. I was dumbfounded and curious how these people got here, and upon reaching the saddle began a sort of interrogation process. Of course in my slightly exhausted stupor, I failed to make the connection of the Helitrax landing an hour before. The party of four had gotten a heli drop in from Telluride, and made five minutes out of an approach that took us five hours. Demoralizing? Slightly. Fortunately, one of the guys almost immediately offered up, “You guys going for the Snake? You can absolutely drop in first”, despite the fact that we still had several hundred feet of climbing to do. I was a little taken back, but I almost instantaneously replied, “Okay, I’ll take you up on that!”
We continued up the Lavender Couloir to another high col almost as a party of six.
At this point the crux sections of the route present themselves, and there was an exciting 4th class step to gain the summit ridge. Throughout the morning, clouds were building and interestingly enough Sneffels was almost repelling the weather. By the time we reached the summit we were more or less engulfed in the clouds and it was lightly snowing, which added to the alpine feel of the whole venture. Some folks set up the rappel, which literally goes directly off the summit block, practically slinging the summit register.
As promised, Todd gestured to me to head down the rappel first. I was continually impressed by the genuineness of these folks who could have easily “snaked” our line (yes, pun intended).
The rappel in is exciting and a full 30 meters from the summit (there is a shorter option if you wanted to bring a shorter rope). As expected the shady aspect of the north side of the mountain was holding deep, cold snow. We were concerned about a potential wind slab problem up high in the couloir, and as soon as I touched down at the top I was stomping around while still on rappel. There was a shallow and soft wind slab a few inches thick over a consistent and well-bonded snowpack in the uppermost portion of the couloir. As the rest of the people trickled in on the rope, Zach made one ski cut near the top, and I followed with another one slightly lower. With things appearing pretty locked up, I enjoyed steep and deep turns to the dogleg portion of the Snake. As the others came down one at a time, we were all ecstatic to be scoring such great conditions on such a classic line. At the dogleg, Zach and I continued down through the choke of the Snake Couloir proper. The other party went up and over and skied another line known as the Trilogy.
After making our way through the choke and down the apron, we continued to ride the adrenaline high and work our way down through Blaine Basin and ultimately down the flat Dallas Creek Road. We met the other folks on the road and shared beers and laughter back at the car.
I want to give a huge shout out to Todd and friends from Helitrax who demonstrated what it means to be grade-A gentlemen up there. Also want to thank Zach for awesome photos and for a quality adventure!
Jonathan Cooper (“Coop”) grew up in the Pacific Northwest and has been playing in the mountains since he was a teen. This was about the same time he made the fateful decision to strap a snowboard to his feet, which has led to a lifelong pursuit of powdery turns. Professionally speaking, he has been working as a ski guide, avalanche educator, and in emergency medicine for over a decade. During the winter months he can be found chasing snow, and passing on his passion for education and the backcountry through teaching avalanche courses for numerous providers in southwest Colorado, and the Pacific Northwest. Similarly, his passion for wilderness medicine has led him to teach for Desert Mountain Medicine all over the West. If you’re interested, you can find a course through Mountain Trip and Mountain West Rescue. In the end, all of this experience has merely been training for his contributions to the almighty WildSnow.com.