Uncompahgre Peak, 14,309 feet
Class 2 with some snow
Distance (round-trip): 9.8 miles
Elevation Gain: abt 3,700 feet
Plans had changed numerous times for this Memorial Day weekend, but one thing was for sure: I wanted to go to the San Juans. In three years living in Colorado, my only trip to the region had been to the shy and remote San Luis Peak, which did not exactly give me a taste for what the range really has to offer. I was planning on climbing Wetterhorn Peak with Lance and his wife L. J., who were already camped in the Matterhorn Basin. However, as I was driving south, Lance called to cancel because they were exhausted from a snow-filled ascent of Uncompahgre Peak the day before. Then I heard the radio predicting 60 m.p.h. wind gusts for the mountains, and my plans for Wetterhorn quickly began to disintegrate.
I met Lance and L. J. in Gunnison, where they graciously treated me to dinner, and we discussed their backpacking adventure of the Matterhorn Basin and Uncompahgre Peak. They described numerous wet slides in the area, and a vicious slog through the sun-softened snow during their long descent back to the trailhead. As we talked, I began to take interest in Uncompahgre’s east side, which is its standard route. They described that side of the mountain as being mostly bare of snow, though they told me there was a tricky place on the ridge requiring a steep snow climb or alternate loose rock climbing route.
Not looking forward to 60 m.p.h. winds, but eager to see the San Juans, I headed to Lake City, and from there to the Nellie Creek Trailhead. The dirt road to the trailhead is very well maintained, and the four wheel drive road to the creek crossing is not bad either. From the creek crossing, the road became rougher and steeper. Eventually, it became muddy and had some small drifts of snow as well. I decided to park at a switchback 1.1 mile from the four wheel drive trailhead (according to the mileages of Gerry Roach), just to be safe. I had a beautiful view of the star-filled sky as I lay back in my jeep and drifted off to sleep.
At 3:30 AM, I began my hike up the remainder of the road. I had to cross the creek again almost right away, and further on I found a huge boulder blocking the road from anything but foot traffic or four wheelers. This was a little under a mile from the trailhead.
I reached the four wheel drive Nellie Creek Trailhead at 4:15, then continued up the easy-walking trail in the valley. I encountered some snow drifts along the way, but most of them had footprints already broken through. It was still dark as I broke timberline, where I was greeted by a chilly wind which would persist throughout the day. I was surprised to see a lot of snow in this basin, but for now it was all firm under the chilly night-time temperatures. Before long I ran into a steep, corniced snow slope where there are normally switchbacks of the trail. I climbed around this and followed a steep bank of gravel to make it onto the large flat above Nellie Creek. There I met the trail again, and had a full view of Uncompahgre Peak ahead of me.
The trail repeatedly disappeared under large areas of snow, which I would walk on top of until I could see the next section of trail ahead. Meanwhile, the sun began to rise, bathing the cliffs of Uncompahgre Peak with brilliant orange alpenglow. I stopped several times in awe of the scene of which I was participating.
The trail is a good one, and I made quick and easy progress to the rising bulk of Uncompahgre’s eastern slopes. Here, I followed a grassy bank upward between two snow-filled bowls. This led me directly to a large notch in the ridge, where I could see west beyond Uncompahgre Peak for the first time. Even though I knew what to expect, my first view of the scenery made me gasp and exclaim “Wow!” out loud. Majestic Wetterhorn Peak and a sea of other mountains were just getting hit by the light of the sun–one of those scenes for which a photograph could never do justice. This awesome view did not come without a price, however. I was smacked with fierce winds which were funneling through the notch, and I would continue to deal with strong winds the rest of the way to the summit.
Uncompahgre from Nellie Creek Basin
Just beneath the notch, I found the trail, which crossed immediately onto a moderate slope of solid snow. I broke out my ice axe, but didn’t bother with my crampons. L. J. and Lance had left some footsteps in softer snow two days earlier, which made my life easier now. Above this slope, the trail made its way up to some looming cliffs via a series of ice-covered switchbacks.
After crossing another snow slope at the top of the ridge just below the cliffs, I peered around the corner to the west to see the continuation of the trail. Again, I had a spectacular view, but the brisk winds kept me moving. I think I somehow avoided the crux Lance had described to me. Instead, I followed the trail to a class 2+ gully, which maybe required a couple third class moves. There was a lot of loose rock, but much of it had been knocked away to reveal some solid steps and holds. From what I saw, this gully was actually more solid and fun than the steepest section of the standard trail. At the top I met the trail again, and followed it above the remainder of the cliffs to the long summit plateau. Here I felt like I was entering a moon-scape.
I arrived at the summit of Uncompahgre Peak at 7:30. I had fun gazing down the incredibly exposed cliffs of the north face, and taking pictures of the surrounding scenery. There was no snow on the summit. I found the USGS marker, but I searched all around the summit boulders and was unable to located the summit register. I stayed for half an hour in complete solitude, then began my descent.
Left to Right: Coxcomb Peak, Redcliff, Point 13,241 and Precipice Peak (Thanks to csmcgranahan)
Following the trail back down to the snow slope just before the notch, I realized conditions were prime for a glissade. Though painfully solid, the snow was great for a quick altitude loss. When the slope became too shallow in the base of the bowl, I walked atop the snow to the next slope, where I had another fun glissade. I repeated this process a few times, and before I knew it I was back on the trail at the plateau above Nellie Creek.
Down low, the snow had softened enough already to cause some post-holing. However, the wind was now almost nonexistent in the basin, and I was happy with the trade-off. I hiked the rest of the way back to my jeep, where I arrived at 10:15. Taking off my shoes, I discovered a painful memento of this trip: a huge blister on my heel. No wonder my right foot had been bothering me so much! Oh well, such is life.
On the drive out the dirt road, I nearly hit a curious doe who wandered right out in front of me. Then, I settled back into my seat for an otherwise uneventful drive home.
So, I had a great trip to the San Juans after all, reaching the summit of Colorado’s sixth highest mountain, in complete solitude on Memorial Day weekend, via a pleasant hike with awesome scenery. The wind was not quite as bad as predicted, snow conditions were great, and I was very pleased with this “re-introduction” to the San Juans. I will be back...