The San Juans- wow! With the climb of these two mountains I have climbed at least one 14,000′ peak in each Colorado Range that has one. I had signed up with my climbing partner, Tom on this Colorado Mountain Club trip some weeks ago and when I learned Tom could not go, still decided to go along on the trip.
We met at Lake City on Friday afternoon with Ken, the CMC leader on this trip. As I walked into the restaurant I quickly noticed that I brought the average age of the group down considerably (and I am 36). Three of six members were in their 60’s, two in their 40’s, and two in their 30’s counting me. I will long remember this weekend for what I learned from these veteran mountaineers and how strong they are when climbing mountains! Ken had scouted a car camping area in a hidden meadow off of Matterhorn Creek so we headed out and set up camp, using the rest of the afternoon for a short hike, some fishing, and reading books. All afternoon however and into the night strong thunderstorm swept the area. I had pitched my tent in a grove of aspens and was quite content to listen to the rain splatter on my tent fly throughout the night.
We awoke on Saturday at 4:30am for a 5:30 departure to the trailhead and were hiking by 6:30. We ascended the beautiful basin to the base of Uncompahgre Peak just as sun was striking our backsides from the east. Uncompahgre Peak rises quite abruptly viewed from any angle and is quite impressive.
There is ONE great trail that you stay on and leave the meadows in pristine condition. We did this and gained the ridge where sweeping views of the Matterhorn and Wetterhorn open up all around you. A couple of the stronger members forged a bit ahead, first to scramble up a loose section of rock that gains the final summit plateau. As I topped out on the summit at 9:00am the full panorama of the San Juans was laid at my feet – fantastic! One by one, the other members of the group reached the top. All in all, I spent 75 minutes on top, the longest to date for me in perfectly clear skies and warm temperatures. At about 1015 we started down and were able to meet many interesting people on their way up, some a bit late as approaching clouds were warning of potential rain. Concluding the hike, we headed back to our campsite, which we still had to ourselves and spent the day doing the same as before – relaxing. I did take one very cold and very short dip in Matterhorn to creek to refresh – takes your breath away.
We awoke on Sunday again at 4:30 and were hiking this day at 6:10am. I tell you these basins are just incredibly beautiful and as we hiked up the switch backs we heard sheep in the distance and could see at least one sheep herder’s tent on the mountainside. The guidebook for the Wetterhorn climb describes leaving the main trial at 12,000 to head southeast to the base of the Wetterhorn. There were two parties ahead of us and it was obvious they both mistook the Matterhorn for the Wetterhorn and had gone too far north. We debated, and then finally crossed a large meadow to reach a small ridge that led to the southeast ridge proper of the Wetterhorn. The key is to find a small trail heading up a small gully that leads to a good trail just to the east (left) of the orange color rock on the ridge at 13,000. We did this and gained the ridge at about 8:45am.
One of our group, Jim was suffering just a bit (an incredible gentleman one week shy of his 65th birthday) so we waited for his to rejoin before starting up the ridge. In a word, the ridge is fun – class three scrambling in and out of rock formations, through a key hole, then back onto the east face. Here the footing and handholds were extremely loose with scree everywhere – not pleasant, but doable. Jim had decided to wait for us on the ridge, and Ken our leader sent me on ahead as the co-leader with the group to keep us moving. I asked Greg, a strong climber to lead and I brought up the rear. After the east face traverse around the sharks fin, we reached the base of the summit wall. The other folks wanted us to go first so Greg and I scrambled through the notch onto a friction slab to the base of the final pitch, a 150′ chimney to the summit. There are options here… ropes or no ropes. We had decided to climb sans rope, but Greg and I both had our emergency lengths of 8mm ropes in our packs. The consequences of a fall, a really good fall are about 600′. But the rock was dry and many handhold and footholds. Greg and I led up the chimney and topped out on a small grassy summit – wow again! The others followed and soon we had 5 on the summit. Ken had just reached the base of the final pitch after leaving Jim behind on the ridge and elected to wait until we descended.
We all signed the register and glanced at approaching rain clouds – and this was at 10:15am. One member of the group was starting to psych himself out about down climbing that last section without a rope. As we all know, going down is harder than going up! I thought it was prudent to get the guy going down the pitch before he really started to get psyched. I led down and the rest followed. Most of the time you could down climb facing out, a few places you had to face the rock and maneuver down. We all reached the notch, then Ken headed up by himself for the summit. We waved to him on top, then just as quickly, we was down and we were ready to get off the face traverse and ridge as the clouds were building. As I watched Ken on steep rock, he exhibited a graceful balance that only these veteran mountaineers can have gained from years of experience. The traverse and the ridge down climb were uneventful to where Jim was waiting for us. We all headed down at a quick pace, keeping our eyes on certain black clouds. There is a shorter way down the basin that can only be seen from above unless you have climbed the peak before and we headed down this route through all of the wildflower pockets where Mike, my carpool partner gave us all lessons in identifying the different wildflowers. We stopped just short of tree line for a quick lunch, and then headed down to the trailhead while the sky turned black all around us. I kid you not; as my last footstep fell crossing the boundary fence at the trailhead, a sharp crack of thunder sounded and it started to sprinkle – timing is everything!
Back to the campsite to break camp, and head back through Gunnison to Colorado Springs arriving back home at 7:30pm. A delightful trip and for the goal oriented folks, two summits successfully climbed. I have been on quite a few CMC trips and have never failed to meet interesting and great fellow hikers and climbers. This trip was no exception and the great leadership by Ken made the trip one to remember!
Uncompahgre Peak: Nellie Creek trailhead; 7.6 miles, 2,900 feet elevation gain
Wetterhorn Peak: Matterhorn Creek trailhead; 8 miles, 3600′ elevation gain; class 3