The Snake and The Naked Lady

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Sneffels North Face Morning

The north face of Mt. Sneffels seen from a high ridge line to the north. The Snake Couloir can be seen cutting down the upper-face from east to west, then turning east and emptying out into upper-Blaine Basin. Photo courtesy of Jack Brauer at

On Thursday Brian, Rick, and I got a 4am start from the Camp Bird gate closure, intent on giving the Snake Couloir on Mt. Sneffels a go. Any hope of getting a reasonable amount of sleep was dashed when we tried to plow through a snow bank blocking access to Angel Creek Campground a few hours prior, resulting in a high centered vehicle and a ninety minute effort to free it. With a day like the Snake ahead of us we knew we could’t afford to push back our start time, so we did our best to suck it up and began the long zombie walk up the dry road on schedule.

The three miles to the Governor Basin split (and start of the skinnable snow) went quickly. We broke tree line in Yankee Boy Basin just as the sun was creeping up over the eastern peaks. Whether it’s your first time skinning into Yankee Boy at sunrise or you’ve made it into an annual pilgrimage of sorts, the experience doesn’t get old.

Stoney receiving first light as we make our way into the alpine. Click photos to enlarge.

Stoney receiving first light as we make our way into the alpine. Click photos to enlarge.

The three of us intended to ski this line last year, but a late start, a closed gate, and the realization that we may not have had a long enough rope for the rap off the summit of Sneffels was enough to shift our focus to other objectives in the area. Though still a fun trip, I think we were particularly excited to get back down there and give the Snake another try.

The YBB Cross Couloir, a line we still have yet to ski.

By the time we reached the Yankee Boy Basin/Mt. Sneffels sign the day was already getting noticeably hot. The high was forecast to be 50 degrees around 12,000 ft. Good thing we were heading for an inset, north-facing line!

Gilpin at the head of the basin keeping an eternal watch over Blue Lakes Pass. It’s a dedicated peak.

I’ve always thought these rock formations were cool.

At the base of the climb to the Lavender Col we traded skis for crampons and followed an existing boooter courtesy of another skier ahead of us (he wound up hitting Birthday Chutes and skied on by just as we started our ascent to the col). We stayed in the Lavender Couloir longer than we had on previous climbs, which meant the exit out onto the south face was a tad more interesting.

Nearing the top of the Lavender.

Nearing the top of the Lavender Couloir.

The sporty exit move. Photo by Rick.

We hit the wind-less summit and paused for a long break. There’s something really unique about Sneffels’ summit, especially during snow season. Again, I can see why people call it their favorite.

Group summit shot. Photo by Rick.

Eventually after an hour of entertaining banter we got ready for the 90 ft rappel into the top of the Snake.

Flaking out the rope at 14,150 ft.

Brian rapped first and reported he would have preferred a longer rope than the 60m we had brought. Upon further investigation it seemed we simply needed to lengthen the anchor a tad, which Rick and I were able to do and the rope then wound up being a perfect length for our rappels. I’ve heard of parties using a 50m as well, which if you’re ok with a short downclimb after getting off the rope, would also work.

On rappel.

After transitioning it was finally time to ski the line. And what a line it is…

Brian takes firsts into the belly of the beast.

Rick working with the chalk.

My turn.

My turn. Photo by Brian.

The Snake Couloir is well-known and highly regarded as one of the finest ski descents in the San Juans. The route is named so because of its snaking nature, bending from aspect to aspect as it winds its way down Sneffels’ great north face. First climbed in 1932 by Dwight Lavender and a San Juan Mountaineer’s group, the Snake became an instant classic and has no doubt played host to many adventurous days in the hills over the past 80 years. The day we were blessed enough to visit it was no different.

Brian flirting with the cornice as the couloir turns to the north.

…and heading on down one of the steeper sections of the route.

Rick into the next section of the line – a steep pitch funneling into a narrow choke. Roach claims the angle hits 50 degrees through here.

Overall we had good snow – not excellent, but good. It was soft and wintery for 80% of the turns but an occasional variable turn kept us a tad on our heels for the entire descent. The apron was the same, although we did hit a prolonged section of straight up powder skiing that was particularly noteworthy. Regardless, I can’t complain about the conditions we got and if Brian or Rick ever do, give them a smack over the head for me.

A nice shot Rick caught of me just below the choke.

…and heading down into upper-Blaine Basin. Photo by Rick.

Below the choke, the topography forces you to ski down to around 12,000 ft before being able to turn the corner around the base of the ridge between you and the sub-basin you need to be in.

Rick on the apron. We skied down around the lowest rock outcropping in this photo and then saved as much elevation as we could on the traverse towards the bottom of the Lavender.

Brian, Rick, and Cirque Mountain looming large. Blaine Basin sure is a cool place.

A long break in the afternoon heat and we re-skinned and began the 1,500 ft ascent back to the Lavender Col. We each took it at our own pace. With nowhere we needed to be and a plethora of spectacular terrain around to distract us, why rush it?

Heading around the corner with some awesome rock formations making us feel small.

Rick on one of what seemed like fifty switchbacks with Brian down below.

Once atop the Lavender we skied re-freezing corn snow out of Yankee Boy Basin, making it from the top of the col to the Governor split in roughly five minutes. Making wide GS turns out of the basin with all the peaks bathed in afternoon light was the best moment of the day for me.

Heading out Yankee Boy.

A mile or so down the road from the mine we caught a break from a generous miner who let us load up into his truck bed. At the tail end of a 6,800 ft day none of us were complaining about the bumpy ride. After that it was sandals -> La Cumbre and camp chairs -> the Ouray hot springs -> the Ouray Brewery -> the Timber Ridge lodge, in that order.

The next morning we headed over Red Mountain Pass intent on skiing another classic in the Naked Lady Couloir on Snowdon Peak. After picking up Rick’s buddy Mike from Silverton (who was in town with some friends for the Silverton Splitfest), we drove over Molas and arrived at the Andrew’s Lake pull off around 9am. With nothing but overcast skies forecast for the entire day, we could afford a late start and sleeping in was certainly nice.

Andrews Lake

Skinning along the Andrews Lake Road with Snowdon and the Naked Lady in the distance.

A zoom shot of the line, which is said to resemble a lady from certain vantage points (not sure why it’s just assumed that she is naked).

In stark contrast to North Twilight, Snowdon’s access is a breeze. After a long day skiing the Fourth of July Couloir last year we were happy to have a short, straightforward approach on this one. Within ninety minutes of leaving the car we were at the mouth of the couloir gearing up for the climb.

Mike and Rick utilizing a faint existing booter. It was clear the snow was not going to suck.

We hit a rock band around 3/4ths of the way up the couloir that probably fills over in bigger snow years. We knew getting around it on descent was going to be the crux of the ski.

Working through the crux rock band.

We hit the top of the couloir and stashed our skis where I’m guessing most parties not intent on summitting the peak elect to turn around. Being the summit enthusiasts we are, we decided to continue on up and tag the top.

After a few moves to gain Snowdon’s north ridge, we had this interesting pitch to negotiate. With a less-than-ideal runout down below we made sure to take our time.

With a storm coming in over the Weminuche we didn’t stay on the summit for long. After snapping a few photos we hurried on down back to our skis.

Snowdon summit looking east at the Pigeon group as a storm approaches.

North Twilight and the Fourth of July Couloir.

North Twilight and the Fourth of July Couloir, which we skied last year.

Thirty minutes later after grabbing a quick bite to eat, it was time to ski.

Rick skiing from the high point of the snow. The top section measured 52 degrees.

Mike below the rock choke. Photo by Rick.

Brian enjoying April powder turns near the bottom of the line.

…and myself finishing it off. Photo by Rick.

The 1,000 ft of skiing down Naked Lady was definitely the best and softest skiing of the trip. This is a great line – a near perfect pitch, aspect, and width and it’s visible and not hard to get to. I could definitely see skiing it again.

A gloomy Engineer mountain seen on the ski out.

After a brief skin through the meadows south of Andrews Lake, we skied the rest of the way down to 550 and capped off a solid two days in the San Juans.

Celebrating the end of a wild and rewarding “pre-weekend” involving somewhere around 10,000 ft of climbing and skiing.

Back in Silverton we feasted on pesto tortellini and said our goodbyes to Mike, then drove back to Denver, getting in around 2am. At least it was a Friday night.

Thanks for a fun couple days gentlemen. Looking forward to whatever’s next…

12 thoughts on “The Snake and The Naked Lady

  1. Brandon Chalk

    I can’t think of a better way to spend a gorgeous springtime Thursday & Friday, my good gents! Congrats on just a perfect 2 days in the Juans and way to Ride the Snake! Congratulations!
    Snow looks way better than when we climbed/skied it back in May 2009. It was a heavy dirt layer year and made things a bit ugly. Love Yankee Boy Basin! That ski out sure is nice. And, heck yeah take that offer to hitch a ride. You earned it. Naked Lady looks very cool as well. Love to check that out one day. You guys rock.

    1. Ben Post author

      Thanks B! Yeah we were chomping at the bit to get down there and with a less-than-ideal forecast for last weekend and a similar one for this weekend, we decided to pull the trigger on a mid-week thing. I guess we can’t complain about the new snow though.
      That’s a cool story about your ascent of the Snake. Such a sweet route. I’m guessing many parties have had a blast in there over the years, both climbing and skiing. Would be cool to check out the Trinity Couloir someday…

  2. Ryan Marsters

    Well, this is the coolest report I’ve seen all year. I can see why ol’ POMR has been bugging me to do it recently. Awesome outing. That Cross Couly across the way looks sweet. It’s been on the list awhile – I think Sarah and Dom climbed it a few years ago?

    1. Ben Post author

      Thanks Ryan, I don’t know though…I think your Jagged TR still takes the cake 😉
      Yeah it sounds like Steve really wants to check out the Snake. The climb to the summit from the top of it would be right up your guys’ alley. And yeah I think you’re right about Sarah and Dom hitting that Cross a few years back. Looks really cool. I wonder how straightforward it is to get to the summit of that rock from the top of the coulee…

  3. Zambo

    Way to hit these guys. This is like, the ultimate classic CO spring post. This area is about to get another 2-3 feet of snow, huh? Should keep everything filled in for some time. Congrats on an uber-classic outing.

    1. Ben Post author

      Thanks Zam! Yes, much more snow on the way for all mountain locations it looks like. I’m excited to see what it’ll mean for the rest of the spring season. I’m thinking it means May is gonna be awesome 🙂

  4. Brian

    Captures the weekend quite well Colonol. I’m really starting to get used to these annual Ouray/Couloir Hunting/Hot Springs/Modus/Kannah Creek/Tortolini outings we’ve been having over the last couple years. Here’s to a couple more….

    1. Ben Post author

      Agreed. Rather than pretend we’re going to explore the Elks more, or head back to the Tetons/PNW, we should just start being honest with ourselves and admit we’re really going to head to the San Juans every year. Nothing beats em IMHO.


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