It’s a particularly beautiful time right now here in southwest Colorado, with the snowy peaks towering above brilliant green meadows and freshly budded aspen groves.
What better way to cap off a memorable winter season in the San Juans than a spring descent of Mt. Sneffels, the monarch of the Sneffels Range.
My partner for the day was Karl, our new friend from Germany who we randomly met and skied with the previous day. We left the truck at sunrise in order to get up and down the mountain before the hot May sun nuked the snow.
What a glorious day to be up high in the San Juans! There’s no denying by now that Mt. Sneffels has to be one of my favorite peaks in the world.
And there’s no better way to enjoy a favorite peak than to ski/snowboard down it!
On Wednesday Claudia and I skied along snow-covered County Road 7 to the Blue Lakes Hut, one of five huts in the San Juan Huts system here in southwest Colorado. These small but cozy huts provide great winter base camps for exploring the remote northern side of the Sneffels Range.
The Blue Lakes Hut is situated in small meadow a short distance from the summer Blue Lakes trailhead. From the hut you have a foreshortened view of the summit of Mt. Sneffels (14,150 ft). There are south facing windows that let a good amount of light in, and a wood stove that cranks so hot that we had to open the windows at night!
We had hoped for some decent tree skiing on the slopes above the hut, but unfortunately all we found was impenetrable forest and flat meadows. After two hours of breaking trail through the powder on switchbacking old forest roads with no skiable terrain in sight, we pulled the plug and basically skied back down our skin track with the occasional bushwhack mixed in. A bit frustrating, but once we were back in the hut a hot cup of gluhwein made everything ok! I think there are some worthy ski descents in the area up in the higher peaks, but they are far from the hut and would require a full day tour and stable avalanche conditions.
On Friday Claudia and I went backpacking to a lesser-known basin in the Sneffels Range.
Summer is in full swing in the mountains! Except for a few lingering patches, most of the snow is gone and the tundra has come alive with its vibrant green grasses and early summer wildflowers like these Spreading Globeflowers (I think that’s what they are called).
We woke up at 3:30am to hike up to a high saddle from where I shot the sunrise light on Potosi Peak, one of the giants of the range. (For reference on how little snow we have this year, check out the photos from skiing/snowboarding down Potosi’s north couloir in June a couple years ago).
On Saturday we ventured into the Sneffels Range for a quick overnighter backpack trip. Summer is in gear, and the aspens have their freshly sprung brilliant green color. We were surprised at how much snow has already melted away up high, and how green the tundra has already become! Though we brought crampons and gaiters with us, we never even needed to use them.
Taking advantage of a clear weather forecast, we camped all the way up at 12,900 feet on a high sub-peak of Sneffels. It’s a rare treat in Colorado to be able to camp up high like this without fear of thunderstorms! We brought the winter tent in case it was windy, and hauled up extra water in a dromedary bag.
Of course, the main reason I wanted to camp up so high was for the killer view of Mt. Sneffels! I’ve shot sunset from this high point once before, five years back, but I was excited to come back and actually spend a night up here.
On Sunday, Claudia and I hiked up a mountain here in the San Juans to get a view of the solar eclipse! This eclipse was particularly exciting for us photographers in the western US because it occurred right around sunset time. After some research with Stephen Trainor’s indispensable sunrise/sunset tool, The Photographer’s Ephemeris, I decided to hike up Hayden Mountain near Ouray in order to hopefully get a shot of the eclipse over Mt. Sneffels and Potosi Peak, two of the biggest and most rugged mountains in the San Juans. 3600 feet and several hours later, we were atop Hayden North at 13,139 feet just in time to eat our sandwich and wait a few minutes for the eclipse to begin.
While I was shooting the eclipse with my 70-200mm lens, I was surprised and thrilled to see that the eclipse was clearly visible as colored refractions in the lens flare! Normally I go to great pains to minimize or eliminate all lens flare, but this time I quickly experimented with different focal lengths, angles, apertures, and shutter speeds in order to fully maximize the lens flare and the eclipse refractions.
I’m stoked to have lucked out with clear weather to witness this rare astrological event in my favorite mountains!
I’ve been itching for an adventure lately, so early this morning I hiked up Mt. Sneffels in the moonlight again! I left Ouray at 1:30am (ouch!) and started hiking into Yankee Boy Basin at 2:30am. The “supermoon” – aka, the full moon at its closest orbit to Earth – was incredibly bright, and I had no troubles finding my way without headlamp. I arrived at the summit at about 5:15am, just as the first orange and blue light of dawn illuminated the eastern horizon.