…a miner’s shack in Colorado. During my Colorado fourteeners skiing project, Mount Sneffels basecamp.
1987– I’d been losing sleep over Mount Sneffels. When you view Sneffels from any angle and a 1980s perspective, the entire mountain appears 10/10 rated in terms of skiing difficulty. A north side ski route was known as the “Snake Couloir,” yet little information circled in these pre social-media times. I knew of no other descent lines*, and wondered if the Snake was more legend than reality.
Prolific southern Colorado mountaineer Sandy East claimed to have The Snake wired. He kept a rope cached at the top for the rappel or downclimb required to access the route. Perfect. Guesswork eliminated. Or I was being set up for a monumental sandbagging —You told me it goes…
Under the auspices of his guide service, Sandy had dried-in and firewood stocked a ramshackle mining cabin in Yankee Boy Basin, below the Sneffels south face. He’d named the place “Club Codfish” after a dive in Lima, Peru.
Codfish was what I’d always visioned as a Colorado mountaineering shelter. About twelve by twenty feet, sheathed with corrugated sheet steel roofing. Wood burning stove and a loft. Comfortable. Not a lodge. Hut with capital H. Above timberline — disturbingly so — at about 12,000 feet. That’s high enough to kill you with altitude sickness if you come from lowlands, and perfectly situated for climbing to 14,000 feet without slogging a lengthy approach.
Tonight, a man’s camp. Crampons and ice axes strewn about like tools on a construction site, guys touring above the hut for sunset turns, bearded Telluride hippy skiers smoking pot and sipping beer. The sound of a sharpening stone rasping over ski edges punctuates talk about avalanche conditions. A faint whiff of spruce smoke mixes with weed, and someone’s tobacco. Smoking allowed. I step out the door. Clouds lift, leaving new snow that blankets the contours like the rumpled blanket on a winter bed you’d shared with a lover. There is a purity to the alpine. I can never get enough: sanity, logic of the nature in contrast to chaos below. “Share this with the world, it seems to need it…,” from my journal that evening.
We rise around 3:00, a “sub alpine” start intended to mitigate avalanche risk (and junk skiing) due to thawing afternoon snow. I stumble over a guy sleeping on the floor. He’s rolled out his bag in the exact spot you stand to make coffee.
The climbing route takes a steep line of tightly frozen snow. Our crampons sing, spiking each step with perfection. We tag the summit in just over an hour. Custard thick clouds and spitting snow block the descent. We sit, wait, sip from our water bottles, chat about other ski routes and the guiding business. Clouds lift. Sandy digs out his stashed rope, does a perfect toss that drapes the cord into The Snake like, yeah, a snake. The short rappel is easy, boots pressing against steep rocks, brake hand on the rope, lean back and slide into the fun zone. Swinging our ice axes like woodsmen, we chip out a launch pad in dense snow. I safety with a sling attached to my planted ax. It’s easy to fumble as you clip your ski bindings on. A fall from here would be bad, terminal.
The Snake begins at about 45 degrees steep, typical for a Colorado fourteener couloir. Making small controlled turns in breakable crust, skittering over rain glaze (“damn hairy” according to my journal), I enter the Snake’s namesake dogleg turn. The angle pitches up to near 50 degrees for a short section. I’m capable, but this is serious steep. I tiptoe through, initiating hop turns with a delicate stem and push off my downhill ski. We get it done, hooting our way through swooping turns as the couloir opens to Blaine Basin.
Smooth corn snow rolls below us like a glassy waterski lake. Avalanche danger is rapidly increasing as the day warms. Gravity is temptation, she wants our skis, a few more arcs. We abstain. We need time to traverse and climb over a ridge that’ll return us to Yankee Boy — a painful slog in the hot sun. We slather another layer of sunscreen and bend to our work, making Lavender Col in a half hour, then a few turns down to frosty beers we’d buried in the snow next to Codfish. No sandbagging here. At least not today.
(*Note: As the 1990s ensued, other excellent ski lines would be established on Sneffels. For example, The Trilogy, beginning in the Snake but taking a tempting couloir that can be seen when you’re driving roads to the northwest of the peak. A few years after doing The Snake with Sandy, I had a good day on The Trilogy with photographer Glenn Randall and the late Jeff Lowe. In the 1990s, Sandy and other Telluride area skiers popularized a group of excellent southside lines on Sneffels they dubbed the Birthday Chutes. I’d return and ski the Birthday Chutes several times, once with my son when he was beginning his own life as a ski alpinist. In all, with the excellent access provided by Yankee Boy Basin, fun place. Though it’s tragic a hut was never built to replace Club Codfish.)
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.