San Juans: Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre (July 10, 2015)

Having run out of 14ers that were of the shorter driving distance from Denver, it was time to start journeying to the San Juans in the southwest corner of Colorado.

The drive out was a bit longer than planned due to construction on US 50 between Poncha Springs and Gunnison.  Added a solid hour onto our trip.  Fortunately, we had left earlier than anticipated which gave us plenty of daylight to get to camp.

The majority of the drive to the Matterhorn Creek Trailhead is pretty easy from Lake City.  The last half mile or so has a few challenging sections though.  With the rain and my unwillingness to risk too much damage to my car, we parked just above the 4WD turnoff after spinning my tires on a rocky section.  Not worth it for a half mile.
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The 3 AM wake-up call came quick and we were on the trail by 4 AM heading towards Wetterhorn.  We made fast work of the early trail in the dark, hitting treeline in 45 minutes.  It was still dark, but we were starting to see the peaks in the early morning shadows.

Wetterhorn in the early morning light

Wetterhorn in the early morning light.

The peak’s rise from the valley is stunning and truly a sight to behold.  It almost seems as if a strong wind out of the south could topple the peak.  The terrain here is an interesting mix of rock, grass, and trail.  Not quite scree, not quite smooth trail.  There is still quite a bit of snow left in the basin, but the trail is largely clear.  Only one snow crossing around 13,000 got the blood pumping a bit.

Crossing snow just below 13,000 feet.

Crossing snow just below 13,000 feet.

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Rock hopping and finding Columbines.

We were on the ridge about 1:45 after we started.  The sun was beginning to illuminate our remaining route.  A dusting of snow had fallen overnight,  but nothing that created any problems.  There were clouds to our south and west but they seemed to be relatively stationary and did not look threatening.

The wind had however picked up and the temperatures were still cool (in the 30s?) so we put on our shells to break the wind and our helmets to be prepared for the upcoming class 3 section.

Sunrise in the mountains...never beaten.

Sunrise in the mountains…never beaten.

We started our way towards the summit.  We only had 1,000 feet left to gain and the prospect of summiting before 7 was exciting considering we still had to trek across the basin and climb Uncompahgre.

The ridge is a mix of hiking and class 2 terrain until you get to the last couple hundred feet.      As you approach The Prow, the fun begins.  We were able to pick our route pretty easily.  The rock is solid and the snow added a little spice to it, but was negligible over all.  We didn’t need any traction etc.

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The Prow in the foreground. Summit in the back.

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As we worked our way through the sections, we were having so much fun that we lost track of how close to the summit we were.  All of the sudden, Kris took a step and he was on top of the peak.  It was 6:30 AM, the sun was filling in the basin, clouds clung to the basin to our northwest and the views of the surrounding peaks were incredible.  Wisps of clouds floated in all direction, but lacked intent. Uncompahgre was creating its own cloud, but it seemed peaceful as well.

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We took a minute to call our wives, grabbed some food and headed down.  It was going to be a full day and with the clouds, we didn’t want to lose too much time.  Down climbing the class 3 terrain was pretty straight forward.  A lot of “butt-scootin” what the snow, but nothing too sketchy.

Marmots playing tag!

Marmots playing tag!

Once we hit the 13,000 foot ridge, we picked up the pace knowing that we had rolling terrain for the next 4 miles.  We picked up a faint trail that took a tangent to connect with the stock trail to take us to the base on Uncompahgre.  The views in the basin are sweeping  and impressive.  Rolling meadows filled with flowers gives way to the steep walls of Uncompahgre and a canyon to the north.

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We reached the point where our stock trail joins the standard trail on Uncompahgre a little less than 2 hours after leaving the 13,000 foot ridge on Wetterhorn.  Happy with our speed, we began climbing towards the 14,309 foot summit.  Despite being a class 2 climb, the summit of Uncompahgre is guarded by steep rock faces.  The route to the peak initially meanders a bit to position the trail for one of the access gullies to the summit.

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The trail is excellent as we approach the summit.  Just below 14,000 feet, it starts to fade into rock and class 2 terrain.  However, it is still relatively easy to follow.  This is the 6th highest summit in Colorado and 9th highest in the lower 48.  I was bonking pretty hard as we approached the summit.  Reaching the summit here was much more challenging than Wetterhorn or most of the other 14ers I had done.  Talking with another hiker and he had experienced similar difficulties as well.  Was it the elevation?  Mileage?

We summited at 10:30 AM.  6.5 hours and 10.75 miles into our day.  The summit had cleared, but now it was Wetterhorn’s turn to be in a cloud.  The sky still did not look threatening, but clouds were definitely starting to fill in.

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Looking back at Wetterhorn.

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View to the northwest.

We spent a little bit of time relaxing on the summit.  The legs definitely felt the day’s effort and we still had 8 more miles to go.  Throw in about 500 feet of climbing and we were about to enter the hurt box.

Clouds started to move in with moisture as we dropped below 14,000 feet so we took a faint trail around 13,300 that cut off 0.75 miles.  As we got back down to the basin, it started to rain lightly and the sky filled in with gray.

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Rain coming, but no lightning!

Once in the basin, we got our rain coats on just in case the deluge came, but it never did.  We worked our way back to the high point of the pack trail around 15 miles.  Along the way we picked up another hiker who was meandering along the trail and wanted to hike faster. By the time we finished, we were very thankful that we had.  He told us stories of his climbs and how he wanted to finish before he was 60.  Can’t remember how many he had, but he’s close!  Somewhere in the high 40s/low 50s.

The last little bit down to the trailhead is a slog.  It had gotten warm after the rain and with the high mileage of the day, our bodies were breaking down.  Our pace stayed steady around 3 mph though and we got back to the car 9.5 hours after leaving it.

We grabbed our Snickers and Gatorade and collapsed to the ground.  Our legs were toast. We were toast.

Wetterhorn/Uncompahgre Stats
Elevation Gain: 6,407 feet
Mileage: 18.5 Miles
Total Time: 9:30
Average Speed: 1.9 mph

The GPX file for this trip is attached to the 14ers.com Trip Report: http://14ers.com/php14ers/tripreport.php?trip=16173

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2 Responses to San Juans: Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre (July 10, 2015)

  1. Matt Anderson says:

    Great trip and congrats on making both peaks. I plan on trying Wetterhorn last week of this month.

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