Friday, July 18, 2008

Mt. Sniktau

Distance: 4 miles roundtrip
Elevation: 11, 990-13,234 ft
Elevation Gain: 1,675 ft (net) 2,147 ft (cumulative)

(Left: View from the summit) Mt. Sniktau as a great introductory peak for anyone wanting to train for higher endeavors. It is close the Front Range so you don’t have to get up in the middle of the night and the trail is relatively short so you can get acclimatized gradually. In fact, I met a couple from Montreal on the trail for this exact purpose. I chose this hike because I have passed the trailhead many times and have just been curious about getting “up there”. The trip was delightful despite some pressure from the weather and I would recommend it to anyone fit enough to roam above tree line.

The trail starts on the west side of Loveland Pass. There is a large parking area there that was empty when we arrived at 7:45am but that was packed when we returned. You could tell there were many lowlanders marveling at the pass and wandering about the knolls right next to it.

Guidebooks will tell you there are two false summits on the way to the summit of Mt. Sniktau and this is technically true. When you look on a topographic map there are two obvious summits, one at 12,915 ft, one at 13,152 ft and the final one at 13,234 ft. On the ground, however there are many more knolls, bumps, and talus piles that make it difficult to determine how many “summits” one has traversed. The main thing to remember is that the final summit is not visible until you are on the second of the “official” false summits and that it is a large triangular hunk of rock. All the other knolls and summits are very rounded. You also have to descend 100 ft or so from the second “official” false summit before you can ascend the final summit. All the other milestones are generally upwards.

Looking up at the first summit from the beginning of the trail. The second summit is off to the left.

The first part of the trail ascends up a very steep ridge to the first summit at 12,942 ft. This ascent takes 0.94 miles so you are ascending 1,000 ft in less than one mile, which is good for separating out the mountain goats from the domestic goats. None of the day-trippers that infested the parking lot ever made it up that high. It is a lung and calf buster. Descending this pitch is much easier with poles because the ground is loose, slippery, and filled with small rocks.

Farther up the initial pitch

Every step upwards improved the view as the Continental Divide becomes more distinct. The tundra was green and filled with wildflowers. A few large snow banks remained but certainly nothing worth skiing. When we reached the trailhead we passed a skier starting out with a skis and heavy boots. I suspect he was going to be disappointed. All the snow banks were off the trail and did not impede the journey.

(Right: Finally, on the ridgeline). From the first summit at 12,942 ft the trail is a very easy stroll across a wide ridge. You can see the second summit off to the northeast. A trail also goes off to the southeast towards Cupid Grizzly peaks. That looks like a nice trip as well. One of those large talus piles exists about half way across ridge towards Sniktau. We skirted its edge on the way up and went straight over it on the way back. It is easy enough to navigate. Talus always has the potential to twist an ankle so don’t be complacent even when the piles are small.

The second official summit is deceiving. There is a large wind shelter there, a USGS stake in the ground, and a rock pinnacle. Without the ability to judge distance, we thought were on Sniktau and were looking at another 13er off to the left. This is wrong. While the second summit is above 13,000 ft it seems to be unnamed. We were also confused by the obvious deep decent from the second to the final summit. I know that for a 14,000 ft peak to be its own named peak there has to be at least 300 vertical feet between them. I do not know if the same rule applies to 13ers. I need to calibrate my sense of the vertical because I was thinking the decent to the ridge between these summits was greater than 300 feet when in reality is was closer to 110 ft.

Talus pile on ridge to the second summit

At this point we were torn because the sky was completely covered in dark cumulus clouds. They were not building very much but the clouds right over the summit were the darkest in our immediate area. We wasted way too much time vacillating over continuing on when we should just have been hiking. Finally, we decided to go on and it was a short 20-minute journey to the official summit. Another clue. You can see Eisenhower Tunnel from the official summit and not from the second summit. The other major view is looking south. There is small lake between Sniktau and Torreys, which is quite picturesque.

Trail above the skree to the second summit

Alas, we did a high-five, took a few shots and left the summit quickly. Sometimes I hate Colorado’s weather. After all that work it is nice to hang out for a while and being chased off a summit by the weather is a real downer. After leaving the summit, the clouds did begin to break up a bit. This enabled us to slow down and enjoy the scenery. It was not until we had reached that 12,942 ft summit that things started to get really dark. It was here that we met the couple from Montreal. They were heading up and we pointed out the dark clouds and indicated it was tricky to continue. They chose to go on even and we were scurrying downwards. This is always risky. Storms in Colorado can build very quickly. They may or may not produce lightening but 1.5 hours up a treeless trail is a dangerous place to be. As it was we saw them on the summit long after we had returned to the car. The storms had been building and dissipating so hopefully they survived. I would not have started up with that level of darkness to the clouds. If I had been leading a group of people I would have also turned around at the second summit rather than take a chance. Risking your own life is one thing, risking others is quite another.

View from the second summit

I really enjoyed Sniktau. Purists might think it is too short to be worthwhile. I for one want to do every trail and can find an occasion for every type of trail no matter the distance or elevation gain. Sniktau has great views and is really fun, which in itself makes it worthwhile. Had the weather been better, I would have taken that second trail that leads off towards the southeast from the first summit. That trail leads to another unnamed 13er. From peak there is a narrow ridge to Grizzly Peak.

Mt. Sniktau from the second summit

Wildflowers and views looking northwest


Steve said...

Great virtual hike! For someone who can't get up the trail any more, this is a beautiful "climb!"

Good advice too about the cloud building. My father and I gambled once on Mt Princeton and ended up under an outcropping praying for our lives. Better to bail out and live than to risk being a statistic. Summit when you can bask in the glow of your achievement!

Unknown said...

We did this hike, yesterday, June 21, 2009. We made it to the 12,900 foot area. The second summit was covered in snow, and we could see a storm moving towars us, so we did not continue. You can go to the following site to view our photos:
Thank you for your photos and your story.

sylvia murphy said...

HI Kathleen,

I did the hike on Thurs June 18th, 2009. I went all the way to the false summit. The winds were blowing hurricane force, so I turned around. I will be taking a group up there tomorrow. The route to the summit was clear.