Mount Sopris Backcountry Skiing - Chapter 4

Route 4.1.1 Thomas Lakes from West Sopris Creek
Climb rating: Harder skins
Ski rating: Intermediate
Recommended seasons: All with snowcover
Starting elevation: 8,100 feet
Summit elevation: 10,200
Elevation gain: 2,100 feet
Round trip distance: 8 miles
Day trip? Yes

The best staging point (and most popular route) for a ski on Mount Sopris is the Thomas Lakes area (10,200 feet), which is located about 2 miles northeast of the main summits. The ski to the lakes from the West Sopris Creek Trailhead follows a wide, snow covered trailcut (an old, closed road). Most of the navigation is easy, though several open areas with multiple snowmobile and ski tracks can be confusing.

Thomas Lakes Bowl approach.

Drive, ski or snowmobile (depending on snowcover) to Prince Creek Divide (8,100 feet), then follow the Dinkle Lake Road S then E to Dinkle Lake Divide (this is the late spring and summer trailhead for nearly all routes on the easterly side of Mount Sopris).

At the Dinkle Lake Divide, look for the Forest Service trailhead signs a few hundred feet south of the road; your trail starts up an obvious cut behind these signs and is usually packed by snowmobiles and skiers. It's common for mountaineers to snowmobile from parking to Dinkle Lake Divide or higher. Indeed, snowmobilers often drive to Thomas Lakes and the nearby wilderness boundary.

Follow the old roadcut as it makes a long climbing traverse W, then switchbacks and climbs E to pass around a shoulder at 9,200 feet. Stick with the obvious roadcut for a few hundred yards. When the roadcut swings E (left), leave the road and climb 1/8 mile directly up the shoulder to the right of a small but dangerous avalanche bowl at the head of an open area. This little detour avoids taking the road-cut around a long and inefficient traverse to the east.

Once you've arrived at the shelf (9,580 feet) above the avalanche slope, you must locate the trailcut up through the aspen forest. This trail is heavily used, but fresh snow may obscure it. Take your time. (If you're headed for Thomas Lakes, be sure you don't accidentally drop east and end up on the Hays Park trail, an obvious road cut.)

Once you find the Thomas Lakes trail, follow its obvious cut through aspen and conifer to another open area at 10,000 feet. Things get confusing here, since you won't see an obvious trailcut. Two routes work for the remainder of the trip. One continues SW up a small gulch to the vicinity of lower (northern) Thomas Lake (10,200 feet). The other option is to simply swing S and climb through timber to upper (southern) Thomas Lake (10,260 feet). Both routes are equally as good, and are usually chosen according to which trail is packed.

Be careful of camping at Thomas Lakes in areas exposed to avalanche or weather. Be sure to read your map well, as the roads and trails in this area are not well-marked. Be aware that false trails may be set by wandering snowmobilers, skiers, and snowshoe walkers. A properly set up GPS can be handy for both newcomers and old hands.

Route 4.1.2 Mount Sopris Summit via Northeast Ridge
Climb rating: Harder skins, moderate boots
Ski rating: Advanced, S3+
Recommended seasons: All with snowcover
Starting elevation: 8,110 feet
Summit elevation: 12,953 feet
Elevation gain: 4,853 feet
Round trip distance: 16 miles Day trip? Long day or overnight

From Thomas Lakes (see route above), you're in perfect position to climb any of Mount Sopris' three summits. To the southeast of the lakes, a prominent wide ridge rises to the east subsidiary summit of the mountain. The crest of this ridge is safe from avalanches, and much of it is skiable. While this route is often done in one day from parking, many people prefer camping at Thomas Lakes.

Reach Thomas Lakes via route 4.1.1. From the upper (southern) lake, double back NE and take a climbing traverse onto the Northeast Ridge, gaining the broad ridgetop at about 10,400 feet. Avoid climbing too soon from the lake, as this places you on steeper, more avalanche-prone terrain.


View from trail.

Once on the ridge, climb through sparse timber to a broad saddle (10,800 feet) near timberline. Above here the terrain steepens. To avoid avalanche danger, stay left and stick to the scrub-covered ridge crest which leads to a lower-angled area at 11,400 feet. Continue up the low-angled terrain to a narrow, corniced section of the ridge (most people leave skis below here). Beware of the cornice, and walk the right (NW) side of the ridge to another headwall, which is usually snowcovered. To avoid avalanche danger, take the rocky ridge to the left of the headwall (may require crampons and ax), and stick with the ridge to the east summit. Ridge walk from the subsidiary east summit W to the main summit. If one main summit is not enough, follow the long ridge west to the twin western summit. Descend your ascent route, or if the avalanche danger is low, descend Thomas Lakes Bowl (route 4.1.3).

Carry an ice ax and crampons for the hard snow you may encounter on the upper ridge. With any hint of avalanche danger, take painstaking care to stick to wind-scoured ridge crests.

Route 4.1.3 Mount Sopris-Thomas Lakes Bowl
Climb rating: Harder skins
Ski rating: Advanced
Spring snow season
Starting elevation: 8,110 feet
Summit elevation: 12,953 feet
Elevation gain: 4,853 feet
Round trip distance: 16 miles
Day trip? Long day or overnight

GPS Track GPX file, spring snow route from Thomas Lakes Trailhead to Sopris East Summit. Field acquired 2015, Datum WGS-84.

Beautiful Thomas Lakes bowl lures mountaineers from everywhere. Start from the Thomas Lakes Trailhead (see chapter introduction), and walk or ski to Thomas Lakes. From the southwestern lake, head up the center left (S) side of the obvious bowl. At 11,100 feet, trend to the right (N) and climb a final pitch to a major saddle (12,300 feet) that separates the lower east subsidiary summit from the East Main Summit. Take the wide ridge ½ mile NW to the East Main Summit. Descend your ascent route or drop into the bowl from a point a few hundred yards down the ridge from the summit.


Mount Sopris from northwest, features and ski routes.


Route 4.1.4 Mount Sopris-Nettle Creek Cirque& West Summit
Climb rating: Harder skins
Ski rating: Advanced
Recommended seasons: Late winter or early spring
Starting elevation: 8,110 feet
Summit elevation: 12,953 feet
Elevation gain: 5,000 feet
Round trip distance: 17 miles
Day trip? Long day or overnight high camp

This is the less crowded way to enjoy Mount Sopris. It's a more interesting route, with varied ski terrain and a bit of extra climbing.

A common way to enjoy the West Summit is to first attain the East Summit using the Thomas Lakes route described above. Simply ski down and across the joining saddle and boot to the West Summit. From there enjoy various routes described below and pictured in the photos here.

Another route for enjoying Nettle Creek is to ski into the lower cirque from Thomas Lakes. To do so, ski or hike the standard route to the lower (western) lake (10,200 feet). The standard snow trail to Thomas Bowl follows the east side of the lake. Instead, from the northerly side of the lake, leave the standard trail and climb west and southwest up varied terrain to a lower-angled area (about 11,300 feet) below the East Summit's cliffy north face (where you'll notice the famed Laundry Chutes, named after pioneer extreme skier Chris Landry, who was nicknamed "Laundry Chute" during his ski racing days with Colorado Rocky Mountain School).

To be clear, you are climbing the _next_ cirque to the west of Thomas Lakes Bowl. Check the map, you'll see there are three main cirques: Thomas Lakes Bowl, "Laundry Cirque" you are climbing, and Nettle Creek Cirque next to the west.

Once in the upper portion of the "Laundry Cirque" Swing to Nettle Pass, which allows you to switch drainages. Descend about 200 vertical feet down the east side of the pass. You are now in the Nettle Creek drainage.

(Photo below, before there were "wide" skis, before there were guidebooks, long-time Roaring Fork resident Jim Cardamone was skiing Nettle Creek Cirque on his Rossi slalom skis, circa 1994.)

Old-school skiing in Nettle Creek Cirque.

Once you are in Nettle Creek Cirque above timberline, climb an elegant and obvious wide couloir into the upper bowl-cirque nested between the Sopris east and west summits. Continue S to the summit saddle (12,660 feet), then take the ridge W on easy ground, up the "Cone" to the West Summit. Descend your ascent route, or The Cone Line, or the Alaska Face (see maps and photos). Remember that all of Mount Sopris is known for high winds, but the west summit is the most exposed.

Nettle Pass GPS coords (datum WGS 84, UTM grid)
13 S 313631 4348799
for Google Earth: 39°16'6.65"N -- 107° 9'37.29"W

Photo below is taken from Nettle Pass looking at Sopris West Summit. Elbow Chute and The Cone are classic lines, Alaska Face is difficult to find in condition.

Sopris West Summit viewed from Nettle Pass.






Daniel Boone Route
There is an alternate route for reaching Nettle Creek Cirque, but it involves dancing around private property. If you feel inclined to research the private land in the area, and ask permission to cross if need be, here is a brief description of what's known as the "Daniel Boone Route": Start on the Dinkle Lake Road at the first major hairpin about 1 mile from the Prince Creek Divide (see section introduction). Leave the road here, and head S through an open area for about ¼ mile. Gradually curve to the right, climb a bit, then do a long series of climbing traverses for about a mile W to 9,100 feet. Swing left (S), and continue up easy ground to a saddle (9,600 feet) on the south side of the Nettle Creek drainage. Once in the drain, follow obvious openings to timberline. There are many hunting trails, game trails, clearings and other routes in the timbered areas on this route, and astute navigators can link these up into a semblance of a civilized journey, but getting that wired may take a few tries. Depending on your mood, doing so can be fun --or worse than a bad day of Aspen construction traffic jams.


Route 4.1.5 Mount Sopris-Crystal Chute
Climb rating: Harder skins and Advanced snow climbing
Ski rating: Advanced
Recommended seasons: Spring snow season
Starting elevation: 8,110 feet
Summit elevation: 12,953 feet
Elevation gain: 5,000 to 6,000 feet depending on trailhead
Distance: 14 miles
Day trip? Long day
Map: See chapter introduction

One of Colorado's most inviting mountain faces, this spectacular chute on the west side of Mount Sopris is sought after by many, but attained by few. At 45 degrees maximum angle, it's a reasonable snow climb and "entry level" "steep" ski. Nonetheless, at least one would-be extremist has fallen down the Crystal Chute. Later, the victim shared that he was wearing shorts and left streaks of skin and blood for 3,000 vertical feet. He survived-barely-and is now using Grecian Formula to darken what hair he has left.

Falling aside, the big problem with the Crystal Chute is that the best access is via a private gated road on the west side of the peak. Private land also blocks easy egress. Avoiding these fiefdoms (trespass at your peril, at least one landowner has cameras everywhere) adds a huge amount of toil to what would otherwise be a straightforward "Colorado vertical explosion" up and then down what is really a somewhat average couloir when compared to hundreds of others in the state.


Crystal Chute

Here is one strategy. Plan a very early start. Park at the West Sopris Creek Trailhead. Ski or hike to Thomas Lakes, and climb Thomas Lakes Bowl to the East Summit. Run the ridge ¾ mile W to the West Summit. From the West Summit, walk the north summit ridge down about ¼ mile to a steep step. Descend the step, then continue on the ridge for a few hundred yards to the top of the Crystal Chute. Be certain you are at the top of the Crystal Chute rather than the steeper couloirs dropping westerly from the summit ridge into Skyler Cirque. (See map to clarify all this.)

Bear in mind that Crystal Chute does NOT begin at the summit, and remember that the Crystal Chute faces northwest, somewhat towards the town of Carbondale.

Entry into the Chute is a wide area which is sometimes devoid of snow. The Chute soon narrows to an hourglass crux that's about 45 degrees steep, then drops elegantly to an obvious low-angled moraine at 9,000 feet.

You've skied the radical, now comes the hard part.

To avoid a tempting and straightforward descent through private land, descend N from the moraine through an obvious open area (you can see this when you scope the route from roads in the valley). Stop your descent at 8,700 feet. Get out your map, compass and altimeter. Contour the base of Mount Sopris N and E about ¾ mile, then do a climbing bushwhack NE to 9,200 feet. Contour at 9,200 feet NE to Nettle Creek. Cross Nettle Creek, then continue your contour E to another drainage containing an intermittent stream. Descend this drainage (rough bushwhack with a few open areas) to a fence at about 8,400 feet. Follow the fence E for 1 ½ miles (rough bushwhack) to the Dinkle Lake road, and take the road back to your car. Property boundaries in this area are vague. If you decide to try this option, don't cross posted fences and stay out of posted land. This is a long, arduous route. Plan on climbing the Thomas Lakes Bowl in the dark. Ski and climb this terrain on compacted spring snow.

A sometimes better alternative to dropping to Dinkle Lake Road is to cross Nettle Creek cirque. Cross over the easterly ridge of the cirque by climbing Nettle Pass (see photos and maps) above timberline. Continue easterly to Thomas lakes by moving through a series of terrain features. Use the Thomas Lakes trail to return to your parking.

Bob Perlmutter Crystal Chute 1976.


Route 4.1.6 Elk Mountains Ridge Traverse

Please see our separate section for info on the Elks Ridge (Hell Roaring) traverse. This classic line connects Mount Sopris to Capitol Peak, or beyond, for a high traverse of the Elk Mountains.

4.1.7 Laundry Chutes
Ski Rating: Extreme (other stats, see above)

Laundry Chutes Mount Sopris.


As mentioned above, Laundry Chutes are named after pioneer extreme skier Chris Landry's nickname when he ski raced for Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale (CRMS). He was probably the first person to ski any of these couloirs on the small northerly face of Mount Sopris east summit.

Follow routes above to Sopris East Main Summit (see photos and maps). The main Laundry Chutes drop directly from the summit. At least one person has died attempting to ski these couloirs (Lathrop Strang, 2008). Standard procedure it so rappel in, though during some years the main Laundry Chutes can be entered via breaks in the gigantic cornices that normally form. Be prepared to rappel sections of rock in the lower third of the couloirs.

A more common descent of the Laundry Chutes take a more moderate couloir to looker's left of the main couloirs. This is reached via a tricky descent from the summit and down a northerly ridge for a few hundred feet, where a "secret" notch leads you to the throat of the "Purex" couloir. Know that during low snow years the Purex will begin and end with sections of rock, and is not recommended. A pair of binoculars and a drive to various locations in the Roaring Fork Valley will yield the beta.

Safety note: Most of these lines are threatened by cornice fall from above. Thus, it's a dilemma whether to climb them before skiing, or drop in from above after taking normal route to summit. To reduce hazard from cornice fall, do not climb or ski these couloirs during or immediately after wind/snow events, nor when sun or a warming event destabilized the cornices. Also, be advised that during sparser snow years these lines are generally not in condition due to rock bands and the like.

Below, sunrise on the Thomas Lakes Trail.

Sunrise on Thomas Lakes Trail.