Climbing in the Mount Sneffels Region, Colorado
Dwight G. Lavender and T. Melvin Griffiths
GOOD climbing possibilities are usually enough to lure most alpinists to a region, but new routes and perchance first ascents add further zest to the enterprise. We knew the history of Mount Sneffels (14,143 ft.) pretty well. Our abortive attempt on the north face in 1931 taught us that this hitherto unclimbed face, though very difficult, would be possible.1 It was to attempt this and certain adjacent peaks that we (Gordon Williams, Melvin Griffiths, and Dwight Lavender) drove early in July, 1932 to the sawmill on East Dallas Creek and in two trips back-packed our gear the four miles in to Blaine Basin. The weather remaining perfect, on the morning of July 3rd, we made an early start for the northwest aiguilles of the Sneffels massif. We will let the pages of Gordon’s Journal tell the story:
“For our first climb we chose the second highest of the needles To begin with, we christened our victim ‘The Hand,’ because it slightly resembles the palm of a hand, with the thumb to the south, and the tips of the fingers overhanging a little to the east.
“After a brief reconnaisance, Mel decided he could make the almost vertical northern extremity, i.e., the little finger. This turned out to be shingled with very loose rock, and the general structure decreased in stability higher up. Mel saw fit to retreat, after gaining about fifty feet, and descended on the doubled rope to the col at the north end.
“Our next attempt was on a ledge on the west side of the arête. This route proved successful, but the climbing was again slow because of the loose hand- and foot-holds and perched boulders. I did considerable grumbling about the non-technical climbing and the dangers of rotten rock. From the ledge the crest of the arête was gained and followed about two hundred feet to a small gendarme. Beyond this we could see no feasible route to the summit. Mel led over the gendarme and shouted back that the needle would go, but that there would be an exposed traverse. Dwight and I agreed, with the proper invectives, as we came in sight of the difficulty.
“The only possible route lay across the balls of the fingers, so to speak, just above the overhang and a sheer drop of about three hundred feet. The last fifteen or twenty feet were up a rotten little chimney which was practically as exposed as the traverse itself. We examined the traverse closely and noted that there were a few projections dotting the face of the smooth and now solid rock. All agreed that the traverse would be possible, but that the psychology born of the sheer drop below would present a handicap.
“We estimated sixty feet to the ‘crow’s nest’ which is practically the summit of the peak. I then untied so that Mel would have sufficient rope to pass the traverse, ascend the chimney, and reach the ‘crow’s nest.’ I belayed the rope over a projection of rock, and Mel cautiously stepped out over the abyss. It seemed an age before he reached a ledge which would accommodate both of his feet at once. This ledge was half way along the traverse, and the belay seemed puny enough at that distance. From his position the leader drove a piton into a crack at arm’s length above his head. To the piton he hung a karabiner, and in that the rope was snapped. With such additional assurance, the first part of the traverse was duplicated, except that the chimney was, if anything, a little more difficult than the face.
“Securely belayed from the summit above, I next and then Dwight reached the top. Once up, there was nothing to do but write out a record and dread the descent which we did aloud and unabashed. The record, à la paprika can, had to be wired to the scanty top, a nerve wracking procedure in itself. For Dwight and me, at least, the descent was not as bad as we had anticipated. Belayed as we were from above, we backed down from memory; the theory was good but our memories were bad, and as Dwight avowed, when we looked down between our legs for verification, it took us five minutes to see the bottom. Mel came down by two stages, en rappel from a rope ring at the nest to the piton, and from the piton by semi-climbing and rappeling to our notch. Before the last maneuver he pocketed the karabiner. We rappeled once from the north arête to the western col.”
The ascent of the aiguille had taken five hours, and though we had the rest of the day at our disposal, the other needles did not look too inviting. Nevertheless we could not afford to waste it, so we contoured to the upper end of Blaine Basin with the intention of reconnoitering Kismet.
The north face of the Aiguille Kismet proved unsatisfactory, and in order to get a view of the east ridge we ascended Dike Col. At the col we found the prospect still poor so we decided to climb Cirque Mountain because its summit would afford us a vantage point from which to scout the western face of Teakettle Mountain, a peak on our program, as well as Kismet’s east ridge. Cirque offered nothing more than a walk. A cairn was hastily thrown together and after making the necessary observations we hurried back to Dike Col after sunset. From here it was possible to descend the first eight hundred feet into the basin in one long glissade.
On July 4th we again gained the col, prepared to attempt Kismet. The route from the col worked to the right, keeping on the south side of the east ridge. By crossing a number of ribs which drop to the south we worked to the southeast base of the final pinnacle. So far, the climb had been easy and the broken rock made the last bit but little harder than the portion before.
The summit revealed no cairn, though we found a wooden stake some two hundred feet below the top. This summit (13,650 ft.) offered us one of the most delightful rests of the entire trip. The sun shone warmly and we lolled about admiring the view which is one of the finest in the region.
July 5th saw us using Dike Col for the last time. The early morning found the long snow slope frozen hard and it was necessary in a few places to cut steps, though for the most part our old tracks had remained open. Almost a thousand feet were lost by the time we contoured into the little cirque to the south of the Teakettle. A couloir running directly from the summit seemed to offer the best line of attack. With Gordon in the lead we began the climb, but had little more than started when we got into difficulties. Débris was falling and to escape we were forced on to the right bank of the couloir where the rock was of a most disagreeable type. We worked up as carefully as possible, and at the first shelf swung to the right out of the gulley. This placed us on the face of the mountain above the first band of cliffs. The second band of cliffs was negotiated by means of a narrow chimney which was literally loaded with rock fragments. The next band was not as difficult, and in good time we arrived on the crest of the east ridge.
The final pinnacle is cut by a sixty-foot chimney on the northeast face. Gordon worked into this and ascended rapidly for about half of its height. Here he experienced some difficulty from a ledge loaded with crazy rock fragments, but after knocking the bulk of them off he was able to pass on to the top.
Teakettle Mt. (13,725 ft.) has by far the finest summit of any of the San Juan peaks that we have visited; it is small, solid, and well isolated and one can pleasantly perch on its flat surface with a fine sense of segregation from the rest of the world. Too soon was it time to leave. Our line of descent lay along the southeast ridge for some distance, and then by way of couloirs and steep screes to the cirque of the morning. Again at Dike Col we halted for a last look at the now familiar skyline to the south; it will long remain a pleasant memory. Then tearing ourselves away, in one swoop of eight hundred feet we glissaded to the basin below.
Our three strenuous days could not help but affect our rising time on the morning of July 6th. On this of all mornings we ought to have made an early start, for it was our intention to assault again the north face of Mount Sneffels. By eight o’clock we finally got away. The original idea was to use the planned central-cliff route, but our late start forbade this, and suggested the right couloir as an easier alternative, though we could expect more danger from falling débris. The couloir proved to be a veritable hell of snow: hard snow, crusted snow, soft snow, and soggy snow. We were continually forced to relieve the leader, kicking steps was so arduous. Occasionally it was necessary to chop steps where the snow had hardened excessively or ice appeared.
Just below the turn in the couloir considerable difficulty was encountered in soft snow. The leader sank in to his hips at every step, and the going was so heavy that it took us an hour to cover one hundred feet. After a two hour additional grind we reached the little rock rib which descends directly from the summit cliff, forming the head of the couloir. Here we roped for the first time on the climb. Gordon, who was now in the lead, experienced some trouble in making lodgment on the rock ; it was covered with a thin sheet of ice. Once on the rock he worked to the right into the base of a chimney which ran up directly under the summit. Gordon again had some difficulty near the top but shortly his reassuring shout came down and Mel and Dwight followed him, emerging a moment later on the very summit.
The north face had at last been overcome. Two years of planning had come to fruit. Our jodels of rejoicing must have been heard for miles. We had been on the peak for seven hours without a stop, and now we settled back for the first meal on the climb. As the shadows grew long we reluctantly gathered up our lunch scraps, took a last look around and plunged down the familiar route on the southeast side to Scree Col, then on to camp. Two hours of daylight remained, so we hastily broke camp and back-packed out, arriving at the car shortly after dark. We reached Montrose about midnight completely exhausted.
Of the five summits climbed during the four days sojourn, one, The Hand, we are certain was a first ascent. Two others, though there is some room for doubt, were probably first ascents. These are Cirque Mountain and Kismet. The route up the north face of Sneffels was the first one to be completed on that side of the mountain, and in completing it we made the first traverse of the peak. Teakettle Mountain was a second ascent as far as can be determined.2
1 See Trail and Timberline for December, 1931.
2 Teakettle was climbed in August, 1929, the entire party of four getting to the base of the final pinnacle. At this point a jar containing several names was found. Two members of the quartet then ascended the final pinnacle; there was no cairn on top nor did the two (Alonzo Hartman and Charles Rolfe) build one.