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Type Two Tales: Trapped at 12,000 ft

The decisions that led to 18 hours in a storm at 12,000 ft above sea-level.

Blue lakes sneffels campsite hiking trail 14er mountain
Our campsite at Upper Blue Lake

It was 2:30am and we still had not slept although our bodies desperately craved it. Wild bouts of shivers caused my body to convulse and my teeth to chatter audibly. I glanced aside at Meg who, like me, had her arms outstretched in a feeble attempt to hold our tent up from the inside. Every few seconds savage winds threatened to fold our tent - the only shelter we had from the howling storm outside. I could feel every raindrop through the thin material of the tent as it pressed flush with my body from the bitter winds. Our bags were packed with the essentials and our rain gear was set aside; ready for the inevitability of sudden tent collapse. As I began to nod off, another bolt of lightning struck a peak above us with a flash was so bright I had to blink rapidly before I could see again. I held my breath, waiting for the accompanying thunder. I did not have to wait long. A groan escaped my lips, barely audible over the vicious crash of thunder that reverberated off the nearby peaks. Meg looked at me with a wild gaze. What are our options? she asked. I met her eyes: we don’t have any.


Only one day earlier, we had decided that the easiest path to the summit was not the one we wanted to take. We had options for how we would attempt to summit Mt Sneffels - a mountain we had long anticipated climbing, but not had the opportunity to attempt for various reasons. This 14,157ft peak was the prominent feature on the drive through the San Juans to Telluride along Highway 62. It had long held allure for us on our travels through the area; if not for its beauty then for its odd name. There were two main trailheads for this hike: one was ~1mi and 2,000 vertical feet from the summit and the other added an additional 11-12mi and 3,500 vertical feet. However, these additional miles wound through the magical Blue Lakes of Uncompahgre National Forest (another great name) - an area we had wanted to explore for some time. Besides, we wanted to feel like we earned the summit, so we decided that the longer route was the one for us.

colorado blue lakes sneffels mountain 14er hiking trail beautiful kike
Above Lower Lake

Although the route did not necessitate an overnight, we weren't in a rush and wanted an early summit bid, so we decided to pack for two nights. We would hike into Blue Lakes in the early evening after the heat of the day had dissipated, summit early the next morning and then spend one more evening hanging out by the lakes before hiking out the next morning. I brought my fly rod to try my luck in the glacial waters of the Blue Lakes. Summer afternoons in the Rockies are heavily associated with storms and, although the skies were overcast, there would be no rain or thunder on this day. We began the steep 3mi through the aspen forest to Lower Blue Lake, breathing heavily as we gained nearly 2,000 ft with heavy loads on our backs.

As we approached the first lake, the trail took a sudden left turn away from the lake and over a river swollen from recent rains. It was too wide to jump across and too fast moving to wade, so we picked our route across a handful of large boulders and carefully made our way across the slick, wet rock to the other side. On this side of the river the trail took a noticeable decline in quality and we turned to the map more than once to confirm this was indeed the trail. We were scrambling up wet, muddy embankments and over exposed rock formations. In a few spots, erosion and small mud slides left us puzzled on the best way to proceed. Although we only climbed ~900 ft from the lower lake, the trail quality and steepness, as well as our heavy packs, made for slow progress.

colorado blue lakes sneffels mountain 14er hiking trail beautiful kike

As we arrived at the middle lake, we reached the 11,500 ft elevation mark and the trees slowly disappeared. We briefly discussed making camp near the middle lake closer to treeline, but decided it would be advantageous to hike another half mile up the trail to the upper lake and camp near the base of the switchbacks that would take us to the top of Blue Lakes Pass. The evening was calm and clear and we enjoyed the amazing views of the valley below as we set-up camp and made dinner at 12,000 ft. There were a handful of tents from other Sneffel-hopefuls. As we assembled the tent, a piece broke off that held the two poles together. “This tent is falling apart!” we jokingly remarked.

The valley we were in formed a bowl with high walls on three sides somewhat resembling a volcanic crater. We later discovered it was the reason Mt. Sneffles acquired its odd name (after the Icelandic volcano Snæfell). In each direction we looked (except the one we came from), rocky spires rose thousands of feet above our heads. Their jagged tops formed a semi-circle sawtooth wall around our camp and the upper lake. Whether we felt protected or claustrophobic, I cannot say.

Sneffels blue lakes pass mountain hiking trail
5:30am on Blue Lakes Pass

We went to bed early and rose the next morning at 4:30am to begin our ascent of Sneffels. We shuffled up the many switchbacks of Blue Lakes Pass by the light of our headlamps, accompanied by the twinkling stars. The sun began to rise as we crested 13,000 ft and we found ourselves standing at the summit of Sneffels by 8am after a relatively straightforward scramble to the top. We were socked in by clouds and only briefly afforded any sort of view from the top, but it was early and we were not overly concerned with storms (which typically don’t pop up until after 11am). Even so, we found ourselves back at camp by 10:30am, tired but proud of finally summiting the mountain that had long been on our minds. Although we expected the clouds to clear with the heat of the sun, the clouds continued to roll in and soon a light rain began, accompanied by a soft, rolling thunder. Looking for excuses after such an early morning anyway, we crawled into our sleeping bags at 11:30am for a quick nap.

Thus began our 18 hour ordeal trapped in an exposed, broken tent at 12,000 ft.

Blue Lakes view on hiking trail in San Juan Mountains Colorado
View of Upper and Middle Blue Lakes (our tent is barely visible between them)

It began innocently enough. For the first two hours we slept soundly, snoring away in our sleeping bags through the rain and light thunder. We woke when it stopped and shuffled out of the tent to stretch and snack. The break in the storm was brief and we found ourselves back in the tent 30 min later when another storm rolled in. Once more, we tried to leave the tent when it stopped, but had to return shortly after when it resumed for a third time. This wave was significantly worse than the first two; for the first time we considered the integrity of our tent and the piece that had broken off while setting up camp the night before. We survived this two hour spat and our anxiety melted away when we saw the clear blue sky that awaited us. In Colorado, it was not uncommon for very nice weather to appear after a storm had gotten its aggression out, so we were relieved to finally have some peace.

Most of the other tents had packed up this morning after their summit attempt, but our closest neighbor remained. She, a solo hiker from Texas, was also out of her tent and we chatted casually about the storm. Meg began to prepare dinner and I even managed to catch a rainbow trout with my fly rod from the nearby lake as we waited for the water to boil. However, as I flashed the fish at Meg, I caught a glimpse at the sky and saw the familiar black clouds rolling in once more. I cached my graphite rod (highly conductive) away from the tent and we quickly finished preparing dinner before the latest storm landed. As the lightning began, we ate our food in the tent in silence.

colorado blue lakes sneffels mountain 14er hiking trail beautiful kike san juans
Storm rolling in

Up until this point, we could have retreated back to our truck although it would have involved breaking down camp in the rain and hiking down the muddy hill we had climbed up yesterday. Now, after nearly 6 hours of rain, the hill would be much more treacherous to down climb and our river crossing more hazardous. What are our options at this point? Meg asked. We don’t have any, I replied. It was now 7pm and the storm would continually rage with only brief respites for the next 11 hours. This would be the worst storm I have ever had the unfortunate circumstances of camping through. We were in a partially broken tent, hundreds of feet above a muddy, steep descent to treeline in an exposed valley at 12,000 ft in the middle of a massive storm.

The rain was as cold and constant as the wind which threatened to fold our tent. Sudden gusts of 80MPH would occasionally invert our tent poles, striking fear of tent collapse in our minds. The wind seemingly blew from every direction at once, as all four walls of our tent were pressed inward, reducing the space in our two-person backpacking tent to claustrophobic levels. Meg and I each held up two walls of the tent with our outstretched arms to mitigate the risk of our tent poles suddenly snapping. The thin material of the tent meant we felt every cold drop of rain that fell, so we occasionally bundled in our sleeping bags to warm ourselves and stop from shivering. Lightning strikes were frequent and so bright they made us jump. Even with closed eyes during occasional fits of delirious sleep, the blasts would shock us awake like flashbangs. The lightning struck the peaks 2,000ft above our heads causing rockslides to careen down into the valley. The thunder that followed snarled at us like a dragon, reverberating through the valley for what felt like minutes, shaking the ground as it passed. During one of the rare respites, we left the tent to look around and go to the bathroom. The sky was still black with clouds, but it was still and calm. Still, there was a charge to the air and we noticed our hair begin to stand on end from the static electricity in the air - a telltale sign of imminent lightning strikes. We hurried back to our tent and the storm resumed where it had left off.

colorado blue lakes sneffels mountain 14er hiking trail beautiful hike san juan
18 hours in this tent

Sleep would not come easily that night and the lines of reality began to blur. Shivering and delirious with exhaustion, we would occasionally pass out sitting upright while trying to hold the tent from collapsing. We knew it likely wasn’t doing much, but it felt like the only thing within our control. We occasionally groaned in disbelief: why hadn’t we left when we had a chance? All of our gear was set aside and ready to go. In the event of a tent collapse, we would salvage what we could and race down the hill towards treeline. Our truck was only 4mi away, but the terrain was difficult and the storm was at its peak. It’s anger felt personal and I began to plead with the mountain itself to watch over us. Or perhaps it was the ire of the mountain itself we now felt. We drifted in and out of sleep, when - BAM - a nearby lightning flash would suddenly shock us awake. I stopped checking the time when the minutes began to pass by the hour.

We woke the next morning at 7am elated and in disbelief to a clear, blue sky. The night before felt like a dream - there was no evidence around us to suggest otherwise other than the damp grass. Our neighbor’s tent was gone - presumably she had left while we slept in. I can’t imagine going through a night like that by oneself. We packed up and headed down to the middle lake for instant coffee and oatmeal by the shore. I caught two cutthroat trout from the lake as we sipped the coffee. We didn’t say much.

colorado blue lakes sneffels mountain 14er hiking trail beautiful kike san juans
Catching cutthroat trout at Middle Lake the next morning

Later in the day, the clouds would roll back in and another sudden San Juan storm would roll through, but we would be well below treeline by then. What had we learned? I certainly would not be trying to camp above treeline anytime soon, especially in a spot as exposed as ours had been. We certainly could have retreated early on, but we had been excited to hang by the lake and optimistic regarding how long the storm would last. We had checked the weather but, in Colorado, a storm was predicted nearly every afternoon of the summer months. A 40-60% chance of storm from 2-8pm could mean a light rain for 30min or 6 hours of intense lightning and thunder. The day before had a similar forecast and it hadn’t rained at all. I am not certain what we learned, but I know I never wanted to camp through another storm like that in my life.

colorado blue lakes sneffels mountain 14er hiking trail beautiful kike san juans

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1 Comment

Captivating tale, glad everyone was okay!

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