The Classic Line- The Snake Couloir
Photos By Grady James
At 14,157 feet, the summit of Mt. Sneffels stands sentinel, dwarfing the surrounding peaks of the North San Juan Mountains of Colorado, which span between Ouray and Telluride. There are multiple ski routes on the north side of Mt. Sneffels but the most famous line is the aptly named Snake Couloir, which slithers steeply through towering walls of stone. For serious backcountry skiers in SW Colorado the Snake is a bucket list line.
After 25 years of living and skiing most of the classics in the range, I had never skied the Snake and that needed to change. In late April the heavy spring snows subsided long enough to provide a window of opportunity to attempt the line. I rallied backcountry ski partners Josh Kling and Grady James for the project and plans were made for a big day during the next stretch of stable weather.
Ninety minutes after our 3am Durango departure, we descend the final switchback of Highway 550 into Ouray, The lights of town twinkle as we take a hard left onto the dirt road which heads toward Camp Bird Mine and eventually Imogene Pass. As the road pitches upward, night fades as the sky relinquishes its darkness and bows gracefully to the illumination of a high alpine dawn. The truck crawls toward the mouth of Yankee Boy Basin where we eventually reach a point at which the plowing has stopped and the road disappears beneath a thick mantle of white. We spill slowly from the truck enjoying the last bit of warmth flowing from the heat vents and take our last pull of lukewarm coffee from our mugs. We take a quick inventory of gear, skin up and begin the long approach toward the base of Mt. Sneffels.
Methodically, we make our way through the low angle basin as sunrise catapults a fiery orange hue on the peaks surrounding us that jut toward the crystal clear, cobalt blue sky like inverted incisors. The rocks and snow absorb the morning light bringing the amphitheater of Yankee Boy Basin to life. To our left, Gilpin Peak and the perfect Central Couloir command our attention and beckon us to change plans, however, we hear the siren call of the Snake and turn our back to Gilpin knowing we will come back again soon to claim that prize.
As we reach the terminus of the basin the climbing gets steeper and the skintrack makes a dozen switchbacks to eventually gain the Lavender Col. We refuel, stow skis on packs and begin to make our final ascent toward the summit, now in bootpacking mode. At nearly 14,000’ the air is thin and the effort needed to climb in the unconsolidated snow is taxing.
With every few steps, the already tremendous view is enhanced even further. The ramp to the summit becomes an elevator to the heavens as the view becomes a 360-degree panorama with Telluride ski area and the Wilsons to the south, the La Sal Mountains near Moab to the west, Grand Mesa to the north and the rugged San Juan mountains spilling below our feet.
The last 100 feet to the summit is a semi-technical chimney section in the summer months, but in spring it proves spicy with blue ice covering polished rock faces. Once through the crux of the chimney, all that separates us from the summit is a small cornice. One at a time we swing our legs over the hanging snow and take the final steps to the summit.
Our plan is to rappel from the summit, down the rocky north face, until reaching the top of the Snake Couloir. Our goal is to ski the entirety of the Snake Couloir and the massive apron and then skin back to the Lavender Col and ski Yankee Boy Basin back to the car. Instead of our chosen route back, It is also possible to continue skiing all the way to the bottom via Blaine Basin which eliminates a couple thousand feet of skinning back out, but also requires the deposit of another vehicle the day before and a shuttle back to the original parking area to complete the loop.
After the obligatory panoramic photos, we tie off to a well-placed snow picket and rappel down the jagged face to a hanging snow ramp. Ropes are returned to packs and we gingerly step into our skis. The couloir drops away to the northwest at better than 45 degrees before eventually making 90-degree dogleg into the tightest and steepest part of the entire line. Even though it snowed just two days before our visit the first section of the line is rock hard and it quickly becomes apparent that the new snow didn’t bond well and has simply sluffed away during the storm cycle. Skiing in challenging conditions like these is not pretty, but rather slow, tedious and best described as survival skiing. At the bottom of the first pitch, we pull high left onto a small ramp. From this point, we are going to drop to our right, but you could also continue left and ski the West Couloir which eventually dumps back into the same basin.
We are now standing above the most critical section of the line which is an 8-foot wide choke and appearing quite blue in the mid-morning sun. A fall here would have serious consequences and we ski this section with the respect it deserves. I ski first and make sure that my edges are in near constant contact with the firm snow. The choke comes and goes and I pull into the first safe zone beneath the crux of the line. I collect my breath, and hear Grady’s turns long before I see him as the sounds of edges rattling on ice echo off the sheer walls, making me glad I have finished skiing that portion.
We all regroup and identify a rocky outcrop, a few thousand feet below, where we will finish skiing and skin back up to regain Lavender Col. Clear of danger Grady and Josh drop in and are quickly linking huge arcs on the apron in perfect hot powder. As they fade to mere specs on a white canvas I spend a few minutes alone to soak up the scene and appreciate my good fortune to have not only realized our objective but also done it safely and in the company of a couple good friends. I ponder taking out my camera to capture the moment but instead opt to truly be in the moment and simply take a visual snapshot of my surroundings before dropping into an enjoyable dance with the lower mountain.
I finally pull up next to Grady and Josh who are shedding layers and applying copious amounts of sunscreen. Over the next hour plus we climb, at a snail’s pace, in what at times feels like a sweat lodge eventually regaining the ridgeline as the sweltering spring sun gives way to thunderclouds complete with a few furious snow squalls. From the Col, we spy our final destination some 2,500 vertical feet below our perch. What should be a glorious early afternoon run of corn has refrozen under the cloud cover. Graupel pelts our faces as we dive deeper into Yankee Boy Basin. The skiing back to the car is an ugly combination of challenging snow conditions in conjunction with legs of jelly due to the day’s efforts.
We finally exit Yankee Boy Basin and ski right back to the truck where the day began nearly seven hours before. We all enjoy one of spring skiing’s greatest pleasures – pulling off our ski boots and depositing tired, sore feet into comfy, airy flip flops.
We are spent but satisfied. As we bounce down the road toward a much-deserved lunch and barley pop in Ouray, we are all quiet reflecting in our own ways on a stellar day. I look around the truck and see Josh and Grady sporting content grins and I join in with a smile. Life is good as we have charmed the Snake.