San Juan Classics — Snake Couloir, Mt. Sneffels — Trip Report

Post by blogger | March 29, 2016      
Zach skiing towards the choke of the Snake Couloir.

Zach skiing towards the choke of the Snake Couloir.

The more time I spend in the San Juan range in southwest Colorado, the more my eyes are opened to the lifetimes worth of backcountry touring and ski mountaineering potential. The San Juans have a volcanic history and are a much younger range relative to other parts of the Rockies. What does this mean for us as skiers? Loose, chossy summits, and couloir skiing in every direction from just about any vantage point.

As a relatively recent and temporary (for now) transplant to the San Juans, everyday is an opportunity to explore a new basin, and drool over new terrain. There are countless classic couloirs to ski, and ten times that many that fit into the more “obscure” category. Regardless, this winter I have found myself adding line after line to an ever-growing list that could easily satisfy decades of mountain exploits. It has been fun to attempt to get on several classics in the area, and continue to explore places where others have already been.

High in Yankee Boy Basin -- the craggy, young characteristics of the San Juans are clearly evident.

High in Yankee Boy Basin — the craggy, young characteristics of the San Juans are clearly evident.

One of these classics is undoubtedly the Snake Couloir off of Mt. Sneffels. A google search of the Snake will provide you with numerous trip reports, route information, and photos. The Snake Couloir is an uber classic and it gets skied plenty of times throughout the winter, and even more in the spring corn season. Access issues until May 1st keep it a little less traveled, as it is an arduous approach relative to other seasons.

Early in March, friend Zach Lovell and I decided to deal with the gate closure low down on the Camp Bird Road (Co Rd 361) and go for the Snake Couloir. There are several ways to deal with the logistics of skiing Mt. Sneffels in terms of car shuttles and approaches. We opted to do a car shuttle and leave one vehicle as far up the Dallas Creek Road as snow would allow on the north side of the peak. The following morning we drove my vehicle to the gate at the Skylight area on Camp Bird Road. This would give us options to either come back the way we approached if we didn’t like conditions, or give us the option of going up and over, and thus more adventure!

Looking back down towards the Camp Bird Mine from Yankee Boy Basin.

Looking back down towards the Camp Bird Mine from Yankee Boy Basin.

With avalanche conditions on the low end of the spectrum, and the shady aspects holding great snow on previous days’ tours, we were optimistic that the Snake would be stable and ski really well. This is an anomaly in the winter in the San Juans, and we were stoked to take advantage of it. We started from the car at 4:30 am beneath cold clear skies and frozen dirt road under our feet. We “enjoyed” a three or four mile road march in the dark trying, but failing, to piece together snow patches to get skis off of our backs. Once we hit consistent snow just past the Camp Bird Mine, our morale lifted. We weaved our way up higher into Yankee Boy Basin, somewhat following the summer 4×4 road. The travel was relatively mellow, and the scenery was spectacular, especially since it was my first time in this area. I was adding more and more lines to the list.

Zach passing the summer trailhead.

Zach passing the summer trailhead.

About an hour and half after sunrise, we heard the distant sound of a helicopter coming over the ridge from Telluride. Initially we were surprised to see Telluride Helitrax coming into Yankee Boy this early, but we didn’t anticipate it to affect us. The helicopter made a pass, and effortlessly buzzed up onto a high bench, landed, and then took off back to Telluride. It was a reminder to me that the access in the San Juans is such that keeps you from feeling too remote. Another example of this was passing the summertime trailhead that sits a mere 1 mile and 1,200 ft from the summit of Sneffels, a place that had taken us over four hours of human powered travel to reach.

Once we passed the trailhead sign, we worked our way up to Lavender Col on a crispy solar aspect. About 100 feet below the col, we were surprised to see four other people standing there. I was dumbfounded and curious how these people got here, and upon reaching the saddle began a sort of interrogation process. Of course in my slightly exhausted stupor, I failed to make the connection of the Helitrax landing an hour before. The party of four had gotten a heli drop in from Telluride, and made five minutes out of an approach that took us five hours. Demoralizing? Slightly. Fortunately, one of the guys almost immediately offered up, “You guys going for the Snake? You can absolutely drop in first”, despite the fact that we still had several hundred feet of climbing to do. I was a little taken back, but I almost instantaneously replied, “Okay, I’ll take you up on that!”

Looking east from Lavender Col.

Looking east from Lavender Col.

Looking up at the Lavender Couloir towards the summit.

Looking up at the Lavender Couloir towards the summit.

Looking down towards the col from the 4th class crux.

Looking down towards the col from the 4th class crux.

The 4th class step to the summit ridge.

The 4th class step to the summit ridge.

We continued up the Lavender Couloir to another high col almost as a party of six.

At this point the crux sections of the route present themselves, and there was an exciting 4th class step to gain the summit ridge. Throughout the morning, clouds were building and interestingly enough Sneffels was almost repelling the weather. By the time we reached the summit we were more or less engulfed in the clouds and it was lightly snowing, which added to the alpine feel of the whole venture. Some folks set up the rappel, which literally goes directly off the summit block, practically slinging the summit register.

As promised, Todd gestured to me to head down the rappel first. I was continually impressed by the genuineness of these folks who could have easily “snaked” our line (yes, pun intended).

Looking up to the summit to a bunch of high quality folks!

Looking up to the summit to a bunch of high quality folks!

Zach making his way up the summit ridge.

Zach making his way up the summit ridge.

The rappel in is exciting and a full 30 meters from the summit (there is a shorter option if you wanted to bring a shorter rope). As expected the shady aspect of the north side of the mountain was holding deep, cold snow. We were concerned about a potential wind slab problem up high in the couloir, and as soon as I touched down at the top I was stomping around while still on rappel. There was a shallow and soft wind slab a few inches thick over a consistent and well-bonded snowpack in the uppermost portion of the couloir. As the rest of the people trickled in on the rope, Zach made one ski cut near the top, and I followed with another one slightly lower. With things appearing pretty locked up, I enjoyed steep and deep turns to the dogleg portion of the Snake. As the others came down one at a time, we were all ecstatic to be scoring such great conditions on such a classic line. At the dogleg, Zach and I continued down through the choke of the Snake Couloir proper. The other party went up and over and skied another line known as the Trilogy.

Rapping into the Snake.

Rapping into the Snake.

Standing at the bottom of the rappel.

Standing at the bottom of the rappel.

Todd coming down the upper part of the Snake.

Todd coming down the upper part of the Snake.

Looking back up the apron. You can see the lower choke of the Snake on the left.

Looking back up the apron. You can see the lower choke of the Snake on the left.

After making our way through the choke and down the apron, we continued to ride the adrenaline high and work our way down through Blaine Basin and ultimately down the flat Dallas Creek Road. We met the other folks on the road and shared beers and laughter back at the car.

Looking back towards Sneffels from the road ski out.

Looking back towards Sneffels from the road ski out.

This is more or less our route. Around 15 miles and about 6k up and 6k down, a great day!

This is more or less our route. Around 15 miles and about 6k up and 6k down, a great day!

I want to give a huge shout out to Todd and friends from Helitrax who demonstrated what it means to be grade-A gentlemen up there. Also want to thank Zach for awesome photos and for a quality adventure!


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30 Responses to “San Juan Classics — Snake Couloir, Mt. Sneffels — Trip Report”

  1. See March 29th, 2016 10:10 am

    Quality, indeed. Thanks.

  2. Kt Miller March 29th, 2016 4:33 pm

    Nice one Coop!

  3. Jim Milstein March 29th, 2016 8:44 pm

    The Helitrax skiers were indeed courteous to yield to unmotorized climbers. They accrued backcountry merit, and everyone had a good day.

  4. Michael March 30th, 2016 1:42 pm

    Good stuff. Nice work.

  5. Rudi March 31st, 2016 10:08 am

    Deep pow in the Snake cant think of anything better than that! Great work!

  6. b. fredlund April 1st, 2016 7:46 am

    ‘OK, I’ll take you up on that!’.

    I like how this turned into an ethics piece.

    Keep up the good work Coop.

  7. Lou Dawson 2 April 1st, 2016 8:21 am

    I’m actually pretty stunned that Telluride Helitrax has a heli ski guide permit with user days for Mt. Sneffels. To say I’m concerned is to put it mildly. Any of you Helitrax folks care to enlighten us? Or someone from the USFS in charge of the permits? They’re probably landing on private land, which gets around part of the permit issues… Lou

  8. Coop April 1st, 2016 9:45 am


    I’m not sure if they have any permits for Sneffels. The folks that got dropped off up there were in Yankee Boy, and I know they have permits for that area. They toured from the drop off point.

  9. Lou Dawson 2 April 1st, 2016 10:22 am

    Well, ask around, I’d imagine the USFS is going to be quite interested in an operation that’s dropping folks off next to 14ers, at least in the sense that they like to know what’s going on in terms of dispersed recreation. I’m not against helicopter access as a concept of “drop off” ski touring, but it has to be done with care for aesthetics, crowding, and so forth. Sounds like the guys you encountered were doing ok with it all. Main thing is the shattering of the winter peace by machinery, even if it’s legal, is it right? Open question…. I’ve been on both sides. Lou

  10. CrustyYoungBastard April 4th, 2016 6:28 pm

    Was just up there yesterday and as usual while in the Lavender Helitrax comes buzzing around completely ruining the wilderness experience, last year was the same big ghetto bird whomping around a pristine high alpine basin, it is pretty monumental to get to the Lavender saddle via human power especially from the winter road closure. I can’t believe guides for Helitrax find it ethical to drop people there and take them up to the summit and into some difficult and special lines. Im guessing they got a heli pick up after skiing the trilogy back to a cozy cabin/hotel…..takes away from the accomplishment. I have been watching helitrax guide people into some of the Telluride areas most beautiful areas and if people can’t get there themselves and get out on there own I see no reason for a person/company to profit off the terrain/customers inability to navigate the alpine. I don’t respect that operation.

  11. CrustyYoungBastard April 4th, 2016 6:40 pm

    On the other hand props to the poster of the report , beautiful photos and writeup , got an ultra classic in great conditions! The boot up the road makes you respect the size and remoteness of that peak imo.

  12. Coop April 4th, 2016 7:04 pm

    Thanks for the comments all. I want to make sure to clarify some of the Helitrax situation (to the best of my knowledge).

    As far as I know Helitrax has permits for Yankee Boy Basin to do guided heli skiing. The situation where we ran into people on Lavender Col, was not a guided situation. It was a unique situation where helitrax employees/friends were able to get an early heli-bump up into Yankee Boy Basin to then tour from there to Sneffels.

    They did not get picked up at the bottom, they skied out the road with us to a vehicle.

    I can agree about the buzz of the helicopter being somewhat of a nuisance while out touring in a remote basin, that is because it is not my style of skiing. The San Juans have amazing access, and for those people who are far less motivated to get out there under their own power, they can foot the bill for an expensive bird to get them to where they want to go, and guides to guide them.

    I don’t want this trip report to turn into a rant about Helitrax, as those guys we met were genuinely good people in my interactions with them.

  13. CrustyYoungBastard April 4th, 2016 7:15 pm

    I don’t doubt they have a permit , glad they skied to a car , but Lou asked whether we thought a heli assisted 14er ascent is right and I responded with my opinion. Still don’t think it is ethical even if they were employees and friends , climb the mountain proper.

  14. Lou 2 April 4th, 2016 7:23 pm

    Discussion is ok, just stick with facts, no personal attacks or temper tantrums, and we’ll be ok. I’ll watch it as moderator. Coop is right, this is a nice TR so let’s not get to the point of ranting. Ok so far. Lou

  15. Lou 2 April 4th, 2016 7:26 pm

    I’d add that I’ve skied Snake twice, Trilogy once, south chutes twice, and so on, and all those times it was beautiful and peaceful up there. If a heli had been swooping around I would not have liked it, but if it was legal I’d figure there was plenty of restricted Wilderness out there where the heli could not go, and that would have made me feel better. I’d also add that I never walked up the road, we always got to drive it. Less noise and cost but similar end result as a heli drop (grin),

  16. Crusty April 4th, 2016 7:32 pm

    Sorry for the rant , once again beautiful report , nice work, conditions look all time , in short I find the machinery in winter peace wrong.

  17. Tomahawker April 4th, 2016 7:37 pm

    Telluride Helitrax should watch where they step. Even if they are legally allowed to drop there (which is still in question), that does not mean it is right. I am confident many backcountry enthusiasts of the San Juans would love to have them banned from this amazing range. Heliskiing is simply a luxury for the rich and lazy. I understand it’s novelty in AK and remote Canada, where access is more than a few miles.

    Their business doesn’t bring anything but noise & air pollution, ugly ski tracks, and rich wanna be backcountry skiers to the area. It places customers who are not capable of reaching great wilderness skiing, right in the midst of it simply because of wallet size.

    It was kind that they allowed your group 1st into the Snake, but it is simply their way of trying to keep heat off their back. Seems like the guides have sold their souls AND coveted San Juan ski lines for some gold coins from Harrison McShredsnot and Chadwick ***theenvironmentimheretoski.

    PS great trip report and AWESOME job doing Sneffels the right way.


  18. Crusty April 4th, 2016 7:43 pm

    Agreed with the drive up the road as I have used that option on another ascent, how would you feel if you drove up to the bottom of the Lavender (grin)? In all seriousness I have struggled to find a place this winter where I haven’t seen evidence of Helitrax, Savage Basin , Yankee Boy Basin , Waterfall Canyon , Swamp Canyon, Bear Creek other areas as well. The only area I haven’t seen them in yet is Lizard Head Wilderness/Wilson group area to my knowledge , I looked at Helitrax Facebook just a minute ago and the most recent comment is asking why they were flying around the Wilson Group yesterday, might not be long.

  19. Crusty April 4th, 2016 8:58 pm

    My first comment should have read “that side of the operation” towards the end , I greatly appreciate the rescues and mitigation work of Telluride Helitrax.

  20. Lou Dawson 2 April 5th, 2016 6:27 am

    Hey Crusty, appreciate your comments but your user name is too long and it would be better if the B word wasn’t in there. Could you come up with something else? B word used to be a stop word in our filters but that seemed a little extreme, but having it repeat over and over again on our home page is something I’d like to mitigate. Once you come up with something different, I’ll change the name on your other comments. Thanks, Lou

  21. Lou Dawson 2 April 5th, 2016 6:43 am

    This is just me using logic, no insider knowledge, but I’d suspect that since skiing 14ers is one of Colorado backcountry ski culture’s prime motivators and cap feathers, any heli ski operation would be irresistibly attracted to getting involved in that in any way possible.

    Fact is, if the heli operation can get permission to land on private land, and they can find parcels of such land that allow close access to 14ers, they can do it that way totally legal as either a drop-off of unguided clients, or if they have USFS permit user days on that particular peak, they can guide it.

    I’d imagine that while the heli operators and guides are well versed in ethical issues, it’s not like they’re going to totally ignore 14ers if they have clients or even just “friends” who have money and will pay for access. It’s a business, after all.

    This issue has many sides, but the gorilla in the room is the USFS, they have immense power over operators who are involved with public land. I would remind myself, and any of you in the Telluride area who want to dig into this, your first stop would be getting in touch with the right people at the USFS and getting informed by them. After that, Helitrax probably has a person designated as a liaison with the public, and getting their “official” take would be good. I’m actually pretty surprised they’ve not contacted WildSnow or left a comment.

    Me, I’d like to know if they’re ramping things up in terms of heli skiing or heli-assisted 14er skiing. That would be a good issue to do a blog post about and have some WildSnow type civil discussion.

    One thing I’d remind everyone, including the heli operators, last time I looked at the regs for legal Wilderness, you had to fly 3,000 vertical feet over it. That means if your flight path involves passing over a 14er in legal Wilderness you need to be at 17,000 feet elevation. That’s of course impractical, expensive, and more. Another factor to pay attention to.

    (Edit: It appears I was wrong about the “3,000” feet and there is no legal flight ceiling over big W Wilderness, only a “Request” by FAA to stay 2,000 feet up. Which I believe would put you in the “oxygen required” zone if you were over high terrain, thus no small plane or helicopter pilot is going to bother with that?


  22. Crusty April 5th, 2016 10:34 am

    No problem, feel free to change.

  23. Lou Dawson 2 April 5th, 2016 10:48 am

    Thanks, appreciate it.

  24. Nick Nelson April 7th, 2016 10:48 pm

    Lou, just wanted to add something regarding the FAA regs you mentioned in your last post. The actual FAA regulations state “Pilots are requested to maintain a minimum altitude of 2,000 feet above the surface of the following: National Parks, Monuments, Seashores, Lakeshores, Recreation Areas and Scenic Riverways administered by the National Park Service, National Wildlife Refuges, Big Game Refuges, Game Ranges and Wildlife Ranges administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Wilderness and Primitive areas administered by the U.S. Forest Service.” (FAR/AIM 7-4-6 part b)

    The term “requested” means it is voluntary, though the vast majority of pilots follow the regulations as a formality though it is not an actual legal requirement to do so. Thought I would clarify, as it’s something I was just looking into recently!

  25. Lou Dawson 2 April 8th, 2016 8:26 am

    Thanks Nick, that’s pretty interesting! It basically means that if you don’t land your helicopter you can drop a skier off anywhere via just letting them jump out from a few feet above the ground.

    I’m wondering if the rule I saw was actually part of the USFS Wilderness rules, which are actual rules you get fined if you break, such as no bicycles and no snowmobiles.

    If you can virtually fly anywhere you want around a Wilderness area in a helicopter (or with your drone), but can’t touch anything with a snowmobile, bicycle or chainsaw, there is something flawed about this whole deal and it should be brought out in the open ASAP!


  26. Lou Dawson 2 April 8th, 2016 8:28 am says you can’t “drop off or pick up” but does it say anthing about height of fly-over?

  27. Lou Dawson 2 April 8th, 2016 8:33 am

    It looks like I’ve been totally wrong about a legally required flight ceiling over bit W Wilderness? I’m pretty sure we visited this issue years ago and there was a law somewhere on the books, but I can’t find it.

    If there is no legal flight ceiling, that’s ridiculous and hard to believe.


  28. Lou Dawson 2 April 8th, 2016 8:47 am

    I’m getting the feeling here that USFS has zero jurisdiction over air space, they only control what happens on the dirt. Which is why they really have virtually no strict rules about flying around and have to depend on FAA for controlling what happens above ground? Lawyers, please speak.

  29. Lou Dawson 2 April 8th, 2016 8:59 am

    I also know for a fact that if you own a parcel of private land in the Wilderness areas around here, you can land on it. That’s one reason why USFS and others have been quietly buying up inholdings for years. I’m neither pro nor con about this, BTW, as I think there are places here in Colorado where a guide service could utilize an inholding for helicopter access without bothering anyone, and actually take some pressure off more popular and easily “muscle power” accessed objectives. Lou

  30. Gregg Cronn April 11th, 2016 11:30 pm


    I was recently at the Red Rocks Rendezvous helping out as an instructor. One of my students was a deputy division chief for the BLM. I asked him about the annoying heli sight seeing tours over the canyon. His response was that the BLM has no say over the flights over Wilderness Areas. That is over seen by the FAA. He did feel that it would have to be addressed at some point in the future as the impact was unquestionable.

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