Mt Snellels -The Trail Angel
The normal up/down route is the scree slope on right. We chose to go up the rarely climbed southwest ridge and return down the scree.
Difficulty Rating System for Hiking and Climbing
(My mountain/trekking experiences by comparison in parentheses)
Class 1 – Easy hiking – usually on a good trail.
(Mount Fuji, Mount Everest Base Camp Trek and Grand Canyon - Rim to Rim)
Class 2 – More difficult hiking that may be off trail. You may have to put your hand
down to keep your balance.
(Mount Kilimanjaro via the Western Breach)
Class 3 – Scrambling or un-roped climbing. You must use your hands most of the time to
hold the terrain or find the route. Some Class 3 routes are done with a rope.
Class 4 – Climbing. Rope is often used on Class 4 routes because a fall could be fatal.
(Mount Adams Mountaineering School)
Class 5 – Technical climbing involves using ropes and belaying. Falls are mostly fatal.
The Trail Angel
Mount Sneffels is named after Snaefell, one of the Stratovolcanoes in Iceland. For all you classic science fiction buffs, the same Snaefellsjokull Professor Lidenbrock descends in the Jules Verne book, Journey to the Center of the Earth. Mount Sneffels may have a namesake, but it is not a volcano. Our friend Dale, my son Chris and I were there to ascend the Class 3 southwest ridge.
As the pack straps were cinched, morning stars winked behind my favorite sliver moon, the waning crescent. There were just enough pre-dawn glows to abandon our headlamps. For me, it was inventory time: How’s your breathing? How are your legs? Should we take the scree line, which would mean hiking up loose gravel, or the ridgeline that meant finding our own way?
At the trail intersection, we viewed the silhouettes of longhorn sheep. Majestic animals that own the terrain we were about to attempt. It was a sign. They were either saying, come this way, or a sarcastic, good luck Cheeseheads. The day was perfect and I felt good. I commit myself to the ridge knowing Dale and Chris have already put their mind to it.
Once on the col where the sheep had been, we stood in sunlight and readjusted our layers for the warmer temperatures. Our first obstacles were a saw-tooth collection of impassible rock towers. We would skirt these on the left, but the walking trail ended. For the remainder of the day we would scramble up over tumbles and tumbles of steep, jagged talus; sharp stone that is broken off by the freeze cycle and piled at the foot of a steep wall.
Telltale smudges on the rock surfaces and a gut feel for the correct path lead us upward. The beauty in this type of experience comes from the freedom to choose your own way: common sense, flexibility, anticipation, strength, confidence and risk level all come into play. You move where it looks manageable while the third eye of your psyche will steal glances at what waits below. Your focus is in the moment but the process is always the subsequent move. A meditation of breathing and motion.
The morning progressed and we had started to wonder when and how we would cross over to the right side of the ridge. We knew it was necessary but we didn’t know exactly where.
Our perception of the route forced us down through a steep couloir; a V-shaped gash cut into the mountain. Sit on your butt and lean into the mountain steep. We lamented the twenty feet out loud because any downward motion it will have to be regained.
This maneuver fed us into the next couloir. We surveyed the situation; the route we’d chosen was not appetizing, at least for father and son. There was an impossible wall twenty-five feet above us.
Dale went up first and I followed. Chris only moved far enough to find some shade. Chris didn’t looked spooked and said, “I’m not going any farther, I can’t climb that. I want to go back.”
I turned to Dale and said, “Are we sure this is the right way?”.
“It has to be. There’s no other place to go,” said Dale.
I said, “I covered lesser ground than this at mountaineering school and we were roped up.”
Chris had climbed Class 1 Mt. Fuji with our family. He had been roped to a guide on Class 4 Mt Rainier in a sixty mile per hour wind, but we had never scrambled like this or found our own routes.
Dale remained forever positive, but the core issue was we didn’t know the way. It seemed like we were following the route description but the next moves looked Class 4 not Class 2 or 3. If we managed to get up this pitch and it was wrong, we could be stuck.
Incomplete route research, overconfidence or lack of experience, none of it mattered. I didn’t want to even consider going down and going up looked impassable.
And then, human chatter drifted up from below us.
This was not the first time I’d been blessed in the mountains and now I felt it again. My veil of doubt disappeared with the echo from their voices. I knew we had someone to show us the way.
The first gentleman appeared at our level. He had not down climbed the couloir and re-ascended as we had done. He traversed the rock wall straight across. The man knew what he was doing.
Dale did some introductions and explained the situation. His name was Kevin and when he sat down next to Chris, I could see the Red Cross on his Colorado Mountain Rescue patch. We didn’t need rescue and we were not asking for it. We only needed some knowledge and a few kind words. Kevin sensed this immediately. He knew exactly what to say and delivered it with suave confidence; his voice was as calm as a windless lake,
“Is this your first time scrambling Chris?”
“Yea, pretty much.”
“When you’re covering ground like this, the stress and fear will accumulate. Sometimes it can all bubble over.” Kevin turned and looked up, “I've climbed this way five times. This is the correct route. The pitch above us is the most difficult move on this route, but it can be free-climbed and I will show you how to do it.” He added, “You could go down, but it is easier to move above, the rest of the route is easy.”
Our new friend had delivered the missing puzzle piece. I could see the resolve return to Chris’s face and Kevin’s words, of course, were what I wanted to hear.
Kevin had been climbing with another man and his wife, Nathan and Cassie; she wasn’t just unsure, she was truly frightened. This ground was new to her too. Her fear was greater than ours and we found ourselves becoming caregivers.
Kevin went up with alacrity and skill, Nathan, also a fine climber, followed. Nathan positioned himself at the top of the wall so he could extend an arm to assist us. Chris, then Cassie, then I and finally Dale all clambered past this physical as well as mental obstacle. I’ll never know if I could have managed the maneuver without Nathan’s extra hand, but we were all through.
We worked our way up another thirty minutes before we stood in view of the entire airy summit ridge. Kevin said, “Stay just to the right of the ridgeline. If you go too far to the right, the exposure increases.”
From that point on, for the last hour and a half, it was a classic Class 3 scramble. A high unprotected traverse that now seemed pedestrian. Exposed yes, buy we had plenty of handholds and places to maneuver. No different than being up on an eighteen-foot ladder; you won’t fall if you hold on correctly. Except here, ravens were soaring below us.
I was the last to reach the summit. I arrived to hugs, a few tears and the look in Chris’s eyes I had hoped to see. He had acquired something today he will use for the rest of his life. It cannot be learned in school and the realization can only come with risk. Fear and doubt can be overcome; there is something on the other side, and it can be accomplished in ways you cannot possibly imagine.
I sat down with my chest heaving to an enormous rumble of thunder. Kevin stood and described the best way down. Bugger, I would have to catch my breath on the descent. It looked like the storm would be upon us in moments. I yanked my rain gear from my pack and struggled into it as fast as I could. Kevin descended hoping from stone to stone; like ninty-nine persent of the mortal people in the world, we scurried down between them.
To date all my altitude adventures had been completed in perfect weather conditions and my mountain luck would remain true. The downpour and lighting would turn to the north and miss us like a thundering train suddenly taking the spur. We would clamber down on dry rocks and sandy scree.
As we worked our way down, Dale said, “Ed, your mountain karma is incredible. The weather held and the help we needed appeared right out of thin air just at the perfect time.” And I’m thinking, who knows whose karma does what to whom? There were many forces at play today, but I knew something beautiful had taken place.
We joined Kevin as he relaxed on the soft green tundra at the bottom of our descent. The longhorn sheep were grinning; the Cheeseheads were safe. Chris, Dale and I all had a chance to rest, remove our boots and thank him for his assistance. Kevin said, “The route description in your book was written by a very good climber. I believe parts of the route are more difficult than his Class 3 rating.”
I have been around angels. None of them have had wings. Mostly they are people, people who have no idea or any intention of doing angelic business. Most of us have probably been one here or there. Angels show up when you really need them and they are a very personal enterprise. And at that moment; Dale, Chris and I were sitting next to one.