A Guides Summer in Durango

Guide Carl Schnitker’s Summer in Durango.

I had a fantastic summer, living in Durango and experiencing everything that this awesome town has to offer. I was also fortunate enough to spend much of my time doing the greatest job on earth: guiding guests into spectacular wild places in Southwest Colorado and beyond.

This will be a recap of my guiding highlights from the summer, with a quick trip report from each of the cool places that I was privileged enough to work.

. . .

In May and June, I split my time between guiding rock climbing for KMG and guiding rafting on Durango’s Lower Animas River with Mountain Waters Rafting. I took climbers to some of our most popular destinations: X Rock and East Animas. The sandstone climbing in Durango is awesome because of how close it is to town; X Rock is actually directly adjacent to a city park! This allows us to run a super cool package trip in which guests go climbing in the morning and rafting in the afternoon. The climbers on these trips are typically novices, and we focus on facing fears, learning some basic skills, and just having fun on the cliff.

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Climbing at X Rock

I also got lucky enough to guide both the climbing and the boating portion of a few Rock n’ Raft packages; this is super fun because I get to establish a deeper relationship with my clients, and show them my two favorite outdoor activities.

I am super grateful to work at the two best guiding outfits in town. Although KMG and MWR work in different mediums, they both share a commitment to quality and guide training. I spent almost ten days during the beginning of my summer on guide training on the rock and on the river, and I think this training directly translated to the quality of the experiences I was able to provide for guests.

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Training trip on the Upper Animas with Mountain Waters Rafting

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Rock rescue practice with the KMG crew

I also took a few more experienced climbers to East Animas, which is the best crag around Durango for intermediate to advanced climbers. I love East Animas, or “East A” as the locals call it, because of the stellar climbing but also because of the views down towards town. What’s more, I can leave my house and be climbing a multipitch trad climb in less than an hour. Needless to say, it is a very fun place to guide.


A very excited father and son duo at East Animas

. . .

In July, I continued to guide day trips at X Rock and East Animas, but I also had a few bigger objectives on my guiding schedule.

My month started with guiding a five-day Desolation Canyon trip, in eastern Utah. “Deso” was as beautiful as ever, and I met some really awesome folks. I feel that river guiding and climbing guiding are super complimentary: both require a high level of systems knowledge, technical skill, risk management, and client care. But river trips demand an increased focus on logistics and guide teamwork, while climbing trips require a greater focus on technical skill and one-on-one client care. I certainly feel that my work as a river guide has made me a better climbing guide, and vice versa.

Next, I guided a client on Maiden Voyage, a Grade III 5.9 in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Maiden Voyage is an awesome climb: all six pitches contain great climbing, with the middle four being stellar from top to bottom. There is very little of the loose rock that the Black is infamous for, but the adventure factor still remains because of the committing nature of climbing out of the canyon, and the local route development ethic that discourages the use of bolts.

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Descending into the canyon

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High on the Checkerboard Wall, with the Gunnison River almost 1000 feet below

The Black Canyon is a truly spectacular place. Although it is not as deep or wide as the Grand Canyon, and not as steep as some of Utah’s sandstone slots, the Black is the most impressive canyon that I have experienced. The steep walls, massive vertical relief, and striking bands of light-colored pegmatite cutting through the dark rock combine to create a canyon that is utterly breathtaking. And those very same cliffs also provide world-class rock climbing.

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On top of Maiden Voyage

A week later, after some more guiding in town, it was off to the Weminuche Wilderness to climb Jagged Mountain, Colorado’s most remote 13,000 foot peak. With a crew of three other guides, we hiked out to Jagged Basin to meet our clients. The next day we guided 6 individuals to the summit, and returned to our base camp. Then, on day three, we guided another 6 people to the summit. Our entire group of 12 summited over two days, and everybody was extremely happy to have climbed a bucket-list peak.

Although the regular route on Jagged is rated 5.2 (making it one of the most difficult 13’ers), the majority of the climbing is 3rd and 4th class scrambling. This means that guiding the peak involves a significant amount of short roping and short pitching. On the first day we climbed, I led the charge up the mountain; I really appreciated looking back and seeing our other three rope teams all keeping pace, moving safely but efficiently to get everybody on the summit. I spend a lot of time working by myself, with one or two clients. On remote alpine peaks like Jagged you are often the only people for miles and miles. It made for a fun atmosphere to be on the mountain with a stellar crew of guides! 16 people on the summit in a 2-day period is pretty special.

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The crew on the summit of Jagged

And for the icing on the cake: On our second day, while resting after an alpine start and climb, a mountain goat wandered right into our camp! It was jaw-dropping to be so close to such a majestic animal.

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Sharing the sunset with our friend Brick, the mountain goat

August was a more mellow month for me. I kicked off the month with a week in California, visiting some family and feeling like a tourist in San Francisco. It was nice to spend some time in the city, but I was glad to return to Durango and escape back into the mountains.

I went on a few longer backpacking trips in the Weminuche Wilderness, and guided a few day trips at X Rock and East Animas. I also did some informal guide training with a few colleagues. Mostly, though, I took some time to climb, hike, raft, and kayak with friends. As Stephen Covey notes in his classic Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, it is critically important to “sharpen the saw”: to take the time to hone one’s skills and stay at the top of your game. While I strive to always be improving as a climber, an outdoorsman, and a guide, it is nice to be able to dedicate a few weeks to personal growth.

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Five pitches up on a Silverton classic

. . .

To finish off the summer, I guided an ambitious five-day itinerary in the Weminuche. With two clients, I hiked a twenty-six(ish) mile point-to-point route through Colorado’s most rugged and remote mountains. We climbed Jagged Mountain and Vestal Peak, both by 5th class routes, and enjoyed some spectacular alpine camping. In between the camps and the climbs, we tackled some long, challenging, but rewarding days of hiking.

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Day 3, overlooking Balsam Lake

I really enjoyed this trip for a few reasons. First and foremost, the Weminuche Wilderness is one of my favorite places on Earth. Deep gorges cut through steep volcanic mountains that rise like daggers thrust into the sky. In the canyons, the misty forests feel magical in the early morning light, with woodpeckers, deer, beaver, moose, and squirrels all familiar sights. Above treeline, endless fields of strewn boulders are filled with the marmots and pika who feast on the alpine grasses and wildflowers that sprout from the scree and talus. High-altitude lakes shimmer like jewels embedded in the rock: deep, mysterious, and cerulean blue. And higher still, presiding over it all, mountains rising into the clouds, their steep slopes carved into complex and fascinating geologic sculptures. To travel through this terrain is challenging, but the beauty and serenity, a powerful force that seems to emanate from the landscape itself, is more than worth it.

On top of traversing one of the most incredible parts of Colorado, we also experienced the exhilaration of overlooking it all from the sides of two iconic mountains, and the challenge of ascending fifth-class routes to our their summits.

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On the ultra-classic Wham Ridge (5.4 III) on Vestal Peak

Finally, we had plenty of opportunities during our five days for deep conversation, allowing my two guests, old friends who had not seen each other for a while, to reconnect while sharing with me some of their most fascinating life experiences. Witnessing the bond between two friends strengthen is a truly special thing, and the deep relationships that are forged in wilderness are life-long. I feel grateful to witness and facilitate these relationships, and count myself lucky to have made new friends in the places where it truly means something.

Despite the challenging itinerary, the trip was a great success. My guests rose to the challenge, digging deep when the hiking got hard and embodying the adventurer’s spirit of mental and physical toughness. We summitted both Jagged and Vestal, made camp in incredible locations, and were graced with five days of completely dry weather, a rarity in late summer in Southwest Colorado. Another trip for the books!

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Enjoying the fall colors on the hike out

. . .

Now, the colors are starting to change, and a thin blanket of white is settling over the peaks. It’s time to sharpen the ice tools, wax the skis, and dig deep in the closet for those extra-puffy down layers. Another season of adventure lies ahead. Winter is almost here!

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Looking forward to winter! Molas Pass, February 2018

Written and photographed by Carl Schnitker – AMGA Certified SPI


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