Ridgway, Colorado is a mountain region booming with activities for humans from all realms of life. Visit the annual Ouray Ice Climbing Festival every January or get lost in the hundreds of miles of backcountry in the San Jaun mountain range. For those who don’t fancy outdoor activities, walk down the mainstreet in the town of Ouray, also known as “Switzerland of Colorado”. This town will have you feeling as if you are across the world in a Swiss village, when in fact you are in the USA. German-speaking shops and yummy candy vendors crowd the street, making it a fun place to shop when the weather is nice.
This region of Colorado possesses some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, with crystal blue lakes reflecting the peaks of the mountain ranges on it’s icy water that inhabit a variety of wildlife. The trail that I recommend to every outdoors lover heading to the mountainous state of Colorado, is blue lakes pass. In July of 2015 I set out for a 2-day trip on the trail, which ended up being a life changing experience:
Emerging from the array of white, cumulous clouds covering the tree line, the rugged and rocky peak of Mount Sneffels glistened in the sun. Even in early July, a decent amount of snow was still visible atop the fourteen thousand foot summit in southwestern Colorado. The sight of this monster ascending towards the sky did not seem intimidating whatsoever from the window in the backseat of my grandfather’s Jeep. David, my closest friend and perpetual hiking companion, remained quiet to my right. Our backpacks were packed and loaded into the trunk, complete with a never-before-used tent, a new jar of peanut butter, and a collection of unused backpacking gear. We were determined.
Mount Sneffels is often referred to as the “Queen of the San Juans.” At fourteen thousand one hundred and fifty feet in elevation, it is the second highest and most visibly renowned peak of the San Juan Mountain Range in Southwestern Colorado.
Like all our other trips, we had only been planning this ascent for a few weeks. Spontaneity seems to be more our style, despite the importance of preparedness in backpacking and mountaineering. This is likely the reason that the two of us experience rain everywhere we go. We knew this mountain would be a challenge, but we weren’t prepared for how much it would test us. As we strapped on our packs, said goodbye to my dad and grandpa, and departed towards the Blue Lakes, where we would spend the night, we immediately felt the effects of the higher elevation. The Blue Lakes Trail began ascending towards Sneffels at nine thousand feet.
Though this is a mere fraction of the elevation of Mount Everest, it was already the highest that either of us had hiked, being both natives of the Southern Nevada desert.We struggled up the narrow trail through the densely wooded Uncompahgre National Forest, stopping frequently to catch our breaths while admiring the tall green pines and the abundance of Colorado aspens. A light breeze rustled through the leaves and needles of the trees under the early July sun.
By mid afternoon, we drug ourselves and our heavy packs across a small clearing at eleven thousand feet to Lower Blue Lake, a brilliant, turquoise body of water surrounded by lush, green vegetation and more tall pines.
At the other end of the lake, the green trees and shrubs give way to the steep, rocky face of Dallas Peak, Sneffels’ neighbour to the South. Sitting near the water, we ate our packed lunch and contemplated which side of the lake to set up camp for the night.
After a short time, we were greeted by a six hundred pound grizzly bear. The bear stood up on its massive hind legs and eyed us with its dark eyes. David and I were stunned and in awe as we watched the bear continue to fish in the stream that runs off the lake, only about a hundred yards away. However, when the bear got down on all fours and began sprinting in our direction, panic set in. We tried to quickly lift our packs, but exhaustion had already set in from the hike up. To our advantage, the bear quickly changed direction and dashed off into the trees, out of sight.
We set up camp for the night, just as a thunderstorm rolled in over the steep, rocky cliffs. Of course, a trip is not complete without rain. The day passed without our usual hiking conversation regarding Everest. It was only day one and the San Juan Mountains had pushed us to question our abilities.
The following morning, after sleeping for nearly thirteen hours, we set out to hopefully conquer Sneffel. As we rose above the tree line at about twelve thousand feet, still feeling the exhaustion from the previous day, we were faced with looming, dark clouds passing quickly over the towering summit of Sneffels. Trekking on with muddy boots and shaky legs, we passed by two more small lakes, the Upper Blue Lakes. Yellow wildflowers littered the surrounding treeless hills that provided little protection from the impending storm. We tried to remain positive as we approached a seeming dead end in the path.
After some deliberation, we realised that the near vertical wall of slate rock and gravel would be our path to take us the remaining one thousand feet over the ridge to Yankee Boy Basin, where my dad and grandpa would hopefully be waiting for us. By this point, we could no longer see the top of Sneffels, and we knew we would not be able to continue up the ridge to the summit. The dark, ominous clouds had socked in around the peak and our primary concern was to make it over before the storm advanced much further.
Rain fell lightly as we initiated our ascent. The switchbacks would only become steeper and the air thinner as we approached the thirteen thousand foot ridge. David continuously expressed his fears of exhaustion and lightning, his eyebrows creased and his expression both frightened and uncertain. Our breaks to catch our breath became increasingly frequent, as the top only seemed to grow farther from us. The more we climbed, the more worried I became. We reached the summit of the ridge after what was undoubtedly the most physically and mentally exhausting struggle of my life so far. From the top of the ridge, looking back, we could clearly see the three Blue Lakes amidst bright green hills and forest green trees. On the other side of the ridge, Yankee Boy Basin descended into a snow-covered plateau that quickly narrowed to a green, forested canyon, housing Sneffels Creek.
What we felt at the top was a combination of both accomplishment and vulnerability. After taking a few pictures and admiring the view for only a brief moment, we quickly began to descend the other side. We had worked so hard, yet we were so excited to be off this mountain and safe from the elements of nature.
Our first summit, though unsuccessful, demonstrated the unforgiving nature of high altitude mountain peaks. We were unable to reach the top, our ultimate goal. However, we did summit the ridge, only a thousand feet below the highest point. I had not expected the combined sense of accomplishment and vulnerability that I felt at the top. This mountain, still less than half the elevation of Everest, had tested my abilities and pushed me beyond my comfort zone. The top of the mountain, at thirteen thousand feet, provides very little protection from weather or rockslides or anything else that may occur beyond our control. We gained an immense respect for nature and the strength it has over us.