Facts About Mount Sneffels

Colorado’s 25th Highest Mountain

The North Face of Mount Sneffels offers great snow and rock climbing routes.
Mount Sneffels, towering above Dallas Divide, is one of Colorado's most photogenic Fourteeners. Photograph © Stewart M. Green

Elevation: 14,158 feet (4,315 meters). 25th highest mountain in Colorado.
Prominence: 3,030 feet (924 meters).
Location: Sneffels Range, San Juan Range, Colorado. Located in the Mount Sneffels Wilderness Area northwest of Ouray in southwest Colorado.
Coordinates: 38°00′14″ N / 107°47′32″ W
First Ascent: Unknown. The first recorded ascent was by members of the Hayden Survey on September 10, 1874.

Fast Facts:

  • Mount Sneffels is the twenty-fifth highest mountain in Colorado and is one of Colorado’s Fourteeners or 14,000-foot mountains.
  • Mount Sneffels, composed of intrusive rock intruded into weaker volcanic rocks, some 20 million years ago in the early Miocene. Sneffels’ harder rock erodes less slowly than the surrounding volcanic, so the mountain stands higher than its neighbors. The Sneffels Range itself, the long mountain crest from Ouray to Telluride, is the Sneffels Horst, an uplifted fault block.

    Mount Sneffels Name

  • Mount Sneffels was named for Snæfell, a stratovolcano in Iceland, by surveyors from the Hayden Survey in 1874. The Icelandic mountain and its glacier were featured in the then-popular novel A Journey to the Center of the Earth by early sci-fi writer Jules Verne. In the book, the impatient hero Professor Lidenbrock descends a volcanic tube with his nephew and a guide into the mountain Snæfellsjökull, literally “snow mountain glacier,” to explore mysterious underground worlds.

    Mount Sneffels Climbing History

  • The first recorded ascent of Mount Sneffels was by members of the Hayden Survey team on September 10, 1874, although the mountain was possibly climbed prior to that by miners and native Americans. The expedition was led by Dr. Ferdinand Vanderveer Hayden, a Civil War veteran and geologist who led several surveys in the Rocky Mountains between 1869 and 1878.
  • The North Face of Mount Sneffels, divided by steep couloirs and rocky ribs, was first climbed by members of the San Juan Mountaineers—Dwight Lavender, Mel Griffiths, Charles Kane, and Gordon Williams—in July, 1931. Dwight Lavender, brother of famed historical writer David Lavender, described the face: “The taunting north face of Mount Sneffels, untrodden by man, had beckoned to us for years. It was not until last summer that we finally felt capable of tackling its grim ice slopes cut with snarling rock-ribs and numerous pointed gendarmes.”
    In July, 1932, Lavender, Griffiths, and Williams returned and made a more direct route up the face, climbing steep snow and rock to the summit.
    In August, 1933, Lavender and Griffiths again returned and climbed the North Buttress route (III 5.6) with Lewis Giesecke, Henry L. McClintock, Mary McClintock, and Frank McClintock. The new route ascended directly up a steep rock rib above the central snowfield. Griffiths described the rib: “Black rock soared up almost vertically for some three or four hundred feet before it began to give back into the gentler and of the Face proper. Mercifully, as far as we could see, the rock was broken nicely by horizontal and vertical cracks.” The route up the black rib, today rated 5.6, took half the day. Above the climbed easier rock up a trough to a serrated ridge, then finished up a final gendarme and ridge to the summit where the crew saw “the long shadows probed across the face of the jumbled land.”
  • Mel Griffiths and Gordon Williams made the first winter ascent of Mount Sneffels in 1934. Another notable winter ascent was in 1983 by Lyle Dean and Kitty Calhoun up the northeast couloirs to a direct rock finish.

    Climbing Mount Sneffels

  • Mount Sneffels is usually climbed by the Lavender Couloir Route (Class 2+), named for pioneering climber Dwight Lavender. The route is accessed from Yankee Boy Basin to the west of Ouray. In late spring and early summer when snow fills the couloir, it is easily climbed using crampons and an ice axe. Later in the summer after the snow melts out the ascent is a long steep slog up scree and loose boulders. The seven-mile-long route, beginning at the Yankee Boy Basin Trailhead, climbs 3,450 feet to the summit.
  • The Southwest Ridge (Class 3) of Mount Sneffels is a classic scrambling route that offers fun and sustained climbing up a long exposed ridge with great views. The route, compared with the normal Lavender Couloir, is rarely climbed so it has a wilderness feel to it. The route, also beginning from the Yankee Boy Basin Trailhead, climbs talus slopes on the west side of a cirque on Sneffels’ south side to Blue Lakes Pass, then follows the rocky ridge, passing pinnacles and scrambling up gullies to a final airy ridge.
  • The North Buttress (III 5.6) is a classic rock climbing route up ribs and faces on the North Face of Mount Sneffels that is best climbed in July and August after most of the snow has melted off the rock. The approach does, however, require climbing snowfields below the face. The route ascends the face of the buttress (5.6) until it merges into a steep exposed ridge which is followed to a notch at the top of the Snake Couloir. Finish with a loose climbing pitch (5.6) to the summit. Bring a set of cams and Stoppers along with an ice axe and crampons for the snowfield. Watch for loose rock and wear a helmet.
  • The Snake Couloir, also called the Dogleg Couloir, is a great alpine snow and ice climb up a steep couloir or gully on the right side of the North Face. Strap on crampons and climb the 40-degree couloir for 1,000 feet, passing a crux section where it narrows and steepens. Above the couloir, climb up left (watch for loose rock) and finish up the North Buttress route or climb directly up rock bands to the summit. A rope is useful here as well as in the couloirs, depending on ice conditions. Bring crampons, ice tools, ice screws, a light rack, a rope, and helmet. Watch not only for loose rock but also for rock falling down the couloirs. An early start is advised to avoid rockfall.

Colorado Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs by Gerry Roach, Fulcum Publishing. Gerry Roach’s guide to climbing Colorado’s Fourteeners is an authoritative, accurate, and comprehensive guide to climbing Mount Sneffels as well as the rest of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks. The book includes over 250 routes, detailed topographic maps, and photographs.