Tuesday, 12 July 2011 00:00

Backpacking to Snowmass Lake - A Photographic Gem

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Snowmass Peak Reflected in Snowmass Lake Snowmass Peak Reflected in Snowmass Lake

When Regina and I embarked from Colorado Springs, the plan was to backpack up to Snowmass Lake and climb Snowmass Mountain, putting me within 10 climbs of completing all of the 14ers in Colorado. Unfortunately, some unforeseen circumstances prevented us from reaching the summit of Snowmass Mountain, which I will go into detail about later on. Fortunately, there was ample opportunity for photography, and that opportunity was not passed on.

Snowmass Lake Route Map

For those that follow my trip reports, Regina is a friend of mine that I met through 14ers.com and our relationship could best be described as one of two siblings. My wife is 100% cool with me hiking with another woman, and if another person asks me about it, I may just roll my eyes. Now that we have that out of the way, let's move on with the report! Regina and I departed Colorado Springs on Friday June 24th and reached the Snowmass Lake trailhead at around 8 PM. We were both very psyched about our first backpacking trip of the year, and had prepared for the many possible scenarios we were anticipating, including deep snow, an ice/snow climb, and wet weather. With that being said, we both packed our snowshoes, crampons and ice axes. I was also very excited to finally test out my brand new Lowepro Toploader Zoom 50 AW camera bag, as pictured below. The idea behind the bag is that it is held to your chest by this harness and makes your DSLR easily accesible. Time would tell!

Matt Payne backpacking

The hike up the Snowmass Lake trail (I believe it is actually referred to as the Snowmass Creek trail). takes you right into the Maroon Bells - Snowmass Wilderness Area and did not disappoint in terms of aesthetic beauty.

Trees on the Horizon

One of the things that Regina and I were concerned about was the infamous logjam crossing, where you must cross a huge stream via randomly scattered logs. This was not something we were looking forward to, given the fact that the snowmelt was particularly high this year and because we were carrying a lot of weight on our backs. About a mile into the hike, our fears of Snowmass Creek having a lot of water in it were confirmed...

Snowmass Creek

Would we be able to safely cross the logjam in the dark? The idea was quickly losing favor among the two of us; however, we kept our quick pace, which was aided by the great views of the surrounding peaks and forest.

Snowmass Mountain Ridge

As we hiked up the trail in our heavy packs, the daylight faded quickly, and soon we were forced to employ the use of our headlamps to guide our hike.

Snowmass Creek at Dusk

The plan was to get as far as we could in the dark before setting up camp for the night and making a go out of Snowmass Mountain the following day. From the trailhead, the lake was a good 8 miles up, which meant a good portion of our hike would be in the dark. Shortly after the sunset and the trail became dark (but before we turned on our headlamps), a dark object walked across the trail in front of Regina, which frightened us both. I quickly turned on my headlamp and discovered that it was a porcupine. We let him pass on through and continued on up the trail in the dark. Periodically, our headlamps would catch the eyes of various wildlife in the dark shadows of the night. For the most part, we identified them as deer, but given we were in the wild and it was dark, our imaginations were going in a much different direction!

After a short while, Regina began to get sick and threw up all over the trail (sorry about that to the folks that came up the next morning). Surely this would not be a portent for things to come? Regina said she felt much better, so we kept on heading up the trail in the dark. As midnight approached, we decided to stop and see where we were at. I pulled out my GPS and discovered that we were about 1/8 of a mile from the logjam - a perfect stopping spot for the night. We decided to set-up camp in one of the better campsites I've seen on any backpacking trip, right next to Snowmass Creek. Since this was her first backpacking trip, I showed Regina how to hang our food bags by nylon rope and how to setup camp.

Snowmass Creek Campsite

Since it was so late and because Snowmass would require crampons on hard snow, we decided the best plan would be to get plenty of rest, pack the rest of the way up to Snowmass Lake the next day, take it easy, and go to bed early for a super-early ascent of Snowmass Mountain on Sunday. We woke up the next morning at around 9 AM, listening to a group that had just came down from Snowmass Mountain talk about the logjam. They were making jokes about how the logs would sink and that people were almost falling in, etc. Was the logjam really that bad?

Snowmass Campsite

We quickly packed up and headed towards the logjam. At first sight - the logjam confirmed our worst fears - it looked incredibly daunting.

Snowmass Logjam

The water was about 3 or 4 feet deep in spots, and was rushing quite quickly under the logs. If the views were not so incredible, the logjam would have been a real bummer!

Snowmass Creek Logjam

There was little to no consistency in the reliability of each log, and each log required a good test before we used it. Trekking poles were quite useful, but at times they gave me a false sense of security because I would put some of my weight on them when they were not secure on a log, causing me to get off balance. Care must be taken to successfully cross the logjam as it is a good 100 ft to the other side! I stopped halfway across to take a 180 degree panoramic photo to show the length of the crossing.

Snowmass Creek Logjam Halfway Across

After successfully crossing the logjam, we quickly made our way up the trail, which followed the now wide and pristine Snowmass Creek. The whole area was like a giant beaver pond, with lakes and creeks intertwining with the beauty of the Elk Mountains at the head of the valley. The trail quickly begins to work uphill again and soon views of the pristine valley below can be made.

Snowmass Creek Valley Lakes

The rock in the mountainside was quite red, a clear indication that the Maroon Bells were closeby.

Snowmass Creek Mountains

The trail quickly weaved into the trees towards Snowmass Lake above and to the east, and we were quickly reminded that there was a ton of snow in this area still. Would we finally get to use our snowshoes? Not so much - the snow as hard enough and sporadic enough that snowshoes were not required. Another trip where I packed my snowshoes for no reason! Oh well.

Snowmass Lake Trail Snow Levels June

This was the hardest section of the hike, with the snow banks rising and falling throughout the trail, making travel slow and laborious with heavy packs on. Nonetheless, we arrived at the trail junction for Snowmass Lake and headed on up, following Snowmass Creek, which was quite full of water.

Snowmass Lake Trail Junction Sign

Snowmass Creek in June

Soon, we reached a huge waterfall next to the trail, with a giant log in front of it. I decided to take a break, take my pack off, and cross onto the log to get some HDR shots of the waterfall from the middle of the log. Getting onto the log proved quite tricky, with the area around the creek full of snow and ice and dirt; however, I managed to make it onto the log without drowning or falling in. Yay for me.

Snowmass Creek Waterfall HDR

Snowmass Creek Waterfall

About 200 feet past this waterfall, we finally reached the head of Snowmass Creek and the first views of Snowmass Peak with Snowmass Lake in the foreground. How exciting!

Snowmass Peak First Views

The first order of affairs was to locate a suitable campsite. Most of the area was full of deep snow, so options were quite limited. Sticking to the "100 ft away from lakes" rule proved nearly impossible due to the snow and marshy conditions. Nevertheless, we found a great spot near the lake and creek and set up for the day. It was pretty great to finally get a glimpse of Snowmass Mountain as well, which was tucked away to the right of Snowmass Peak, the lower 13er at the head of Snowmass Lake. Even better, the moon was passing just above Snowmass Mountain, making for some fun photography.

Moon over Snowmass Mountain

Throughout the day, the lighting shifted and the winds died down, making for better or worse photography conditions, depending on the combination of the two. For the most part, the Golden Hour proved to be the best time to shoot, which did not surprise me in the least.

Snowmass Lake Black and White Panoramic

For the most part, Regina and I just kicked it at the lake for the day, watching the wildlife and the insane beauty of the lake. This also gave me the opportunity to play around with my camera and try to get some decent shots.

Regina Primavera

About an hour or two after we arrived at the lake, another group of gentlemen came to the lake, sporting a pistol and a Canon EOS Digital Rebel attached to a fully extended tripod. They were nice enough guys, hailing from Elizabeth, but I could not help but wonder how fun that tripod was to carry up to the lake and if they would be using the pistol for fun or for protection. I was hoping for the latter, based on my horrible experience at Huerfano Valley a couple of years ago. The two confirmed they were just hikers, not climbers, and were just there for the night.

Another hour later, two more guys came up the trail and were looking to camp nearby. One looked familiar, so I asked him if his name was Corey. He said it was - and sure enough, it was one of my Facebook friends! Corey was up at the lake with his friend Robbie as they were planning on climbing Snowmass on Sunday, the same as us. They were planning for a 4 AM start and we were planning for a 2 AM start. Regina and I talked for awhile off and on with both Corey and Robbie throughout the afternoon, getting to know each other. It is always remarkable to me how quickly people that climb 14ers can get to know each other and how, generally speaking, everyone is so friendly. It was a real pleasure sharing a campsite with them. Regina got to spend some quality time getting to know Corey:

Snowmass Lake Campsite

The lake was thawing out throughout the day, which was actually really fun to watch. Chunks of ice and snow would calve off of the icy glacier that was now Snowmass Lake and flow down into Snowmass Creek and out to sea. It was really fun to watch, and quite peaceful too. Soon, the sun began to get lower and lower on the horizon, which piqued my photographic instinct quickly. I was off to get as many quality shots as possible of the lake, hoping to get both HDR and standard photos. HDR has quickly become one of my more favorite photographic mediums. Its almost like opening a present at Christmas when you begin working with the files at home - you never quite know what you're going to get!

First up - the HDR version:

Snowmass Lake HDR Reflection

And the standard version, which won me my second Flickr Explore Award, which was quite exciting! Explore is Flickr’s Daily Artist Showcase. Every day Flickr admins choose 500 of the most interesting images determined by “interestingness”. I have placed that photo in my portfolio and for sale section if you are interested in purchasing a print.

Snowmass Lake Reflection

Snowmass Lake Black and WhiteThe views from the shores of the lake were outstanding. Quite possibly ranking in the top 10 views of all time for me personally. The impressive features of Snowmass Peak, paired with the crazy cliff walls below Snowmass Mountain made for quite a great spot to sit and soak it all in. To make things even more fun, close to dusk, a huge, feral, rugged looking porcupine decided he would come and hang out with us. This guy was seriously oblivious to our presence, and it was actually somewhat challenging getting him to go away without putting myself in a dangerous place.

Snowmass Lake Porcupine

With all of the excitement over the porcupine and the heavenly sunset, I decided it was time to hit the sack. We had set our alarms for 1:45 AM, anticipating a 2 AM start. It was sadistic, I know, but we felt it was necessary given the conditions. The alarm went off and I got up fast, because I wanted to take advantage of a quick photographic opportunity to capture the Milky Way, or at least attempt it. Additionally, I was hoping that I could get some photos of the stars reflected in the lake as well. Both concepts challenged my photographic mind, and away I went to try to get some good shots. The challenge with shooting in low light, as in pitch dark, is always figuring out the best combination of aperture, ISO and shutter speed. Of course, I guess this can be said about any other form of photography, but the concepts are of particular sensitivity in low light conditions. I opted to set the camera at a slightly higher ISO (400) to increase the sensitivity of my cameras sensor. Additionally, I went for a 20 second exposure instead of a 30 second exposure since I did not want the stars to blur / move across the frame at all. Lastly, I opted to set my camera at the lowest aperture the lens would handle (f/3.5) to allow the maximum amount of light into the lens. These combinations produced fairly good results.

Milky Way Galaxy over Snowmass Lake


Snowmass Lake Milky Way Black and WhiteUnfortunately for me, the photographic success would not lead into climbing success. This is quite an embarrasing story for me, since I pride myself on preparation. As Regina and I wrapped around the steep snow banks to the left of Snowmass Lake, heading for Snowmass Mountain, we quickly realized that crampons would be required. No problem right!? Wrong. Shortly after putting the crampons on and continuing, my crampons would come right off my boot, necessitating frequent and long stops to get them back on. Finally, Regina and I decided that there was something wrong with my crampons and that no matter how we tried to get them to stay on my boots, they just would not stay. We decided to abort the mission at about 3:45 AM and headed back to camp. I was quite furious with myself, since I had personally tested the crampons at home, putting my boots into them, strapping them down, and making sure they fit. Apparently that effort was not as good as it could have been. It turns out, after inspection at home, that my crampons were adjusted in such a way that they were too big for my boots. Most modern crampons self-adjust their size; however, the crampons I own are hand-me-downs from my dad. Surprisingly, the same model is still manufactured by Seattle Manufacturing Corporation. Anyways - lesson learned! USE your equipment before you trust it with your life. We went back to camp, slept for a bit longer, and then packed up and headed back down to the trailhead. I was not in a great mood because this was one of the only mountains I've ever been turned back from, and it was completely my own fault. If it were weather or altitude sickness or some other uncontrollable event, that would be one thing, but to have the mountain turn us back because I was too stupid to test my crampons - not cool. It was not a total loss though, the photos turned out great, and I was able to get some fun and creative shots of wildflowers on the way out. If any of you know the names of these flowers, please, by all means let me know!

Wildflowers in the Elk Mountains

Snowmass Creek Wildflowers

Indian Paint Brush Flower

Yellow Wildflower

White Wildflower



Creative Desaturation of Flowers


The most memorable part of the trip was yet to come though - and it certainly made up for the rest. On our way out, Regina took a nasty fall on the logjam! At first it was quite a scary experience. I was right behind her, and had to talk her through getting herself back up out of the water. She had managed to completely submerge one of her legs and was drenched. Fortunately, Regina is a good sport, and within a matter of minutes we were both laughing about it.

Lastly, we were able to get some great views of the backside of Snowmass that we did not get to see on the way up, which were quite stunning!

Snowmass Mountain from Snowmass Creek Trail

All-in-all, I would rate this hike quite highly on my list of hikes that I have done. The views from Snowmass Lake are worth it by themselves, and the logjam provides an excellent adventure.

And in case you were wondering - the new camera bag totally lived up to my expectations - I will end up writing a full-blown review of that product for sure!

Until next time Snowmass Mountain... I'll be back!

Snowmass Creek Crags

Additional Info

  • Trip Date: June 25, 2011
  • Yosemite Decimal Class: N/A
Read 14563 times Last modified on Thursday, 17 July 2014 02:52

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