When I was in high school my sister, Carrie, was living in Pecos, New Mexico. I had a chance to visit her one summer for a week and she took me into southern Colorado to see the San Juan range around Pagosa Springs. I sat in the back of a pickup truck in the middle of July winding around steep mountain roads marveling at the lush green snow capped peaks. Keep in mind that I was a Buckeye city boy from the east side of Cleveland who had never seen a mountain before. I sat and stared in awe. Little did I know that I would much later in life settle in southern Colorado with my wife and 4 children. The San Juans would draw me back to them.
Last summer was the first opportunity that I had to hike in the San Juans and it was love at first climb. There is a captivating deep green beauty of the San Juans that grabs a hold of me and I hope it never lets go. I climbed Redcloud and Sunshine Peaks in the late spring snow of 2007 with one of my good friends and climbing partners, Robert. It was then that I first gazed upon Uncompahgre Peak. It is more of a butte and has a very unique shape when it comes to Colorado 14ers. It majestically rises out of the Uncompahgre Wilderness with its close 14er neighbor Wetterhorn Peak. As I climbed higher on the north ridge of Redcloud , Uncompahgre came into view and I knew that I wanted to climb the 6th highest peak in Colorado as soon as possible. Unfortunately, I had to wait until this summer before I would be able to return to the San Juans.
As I researched Uncompaghre I knew that it would be well within the abilities of my soon to be 15 year old son, Jonathan. I love having him along on climbs and he is starting to build his list of 14ers that he has summited. If we went to Uncompahgre I wanted to do something special with him on the summit. Over a month ago I made plans with, Alan and Robert, to go to the San Juans with JP for a weekend in July. Alan planned on heading out ahead of us to bag some peaks and ended up summiting Redcloud, Sunshine and Handies in a day. Though very straight forward 14ers, this is no small feat to do in a day. Robert, JP and I pulled into the Nellie Creek Trailhead on Friday night to find Alan fast asleep in his tent. Knowing that we could not let him sleep without saying hello I shined the lights of my 4Runner on his tent to rouse him. The four of us agreed on a 6 a.m. start and hit the hay.
We started up the Nellie Creek trail in the early morning light and the green of the San Juans started to come out of the gloaming. I remembered how taken I was last year with the range while I was on Redcloud and Sunshine and I was glad I was back. As we started to go above treeline, Uncompahgre came into our sights for the first time. We were still in the shadows, but the sun was hitting the south face of the peak. Jonathan and I found ourselves a little behind Robert and Alan and we started to talk about how beautiful the basin was. He told me that he wished his mom could see it. I found it funny how I have noticed him say this on our hikes and climbs in beautiful areas. He always wants to share it with Shannon, my wife and his mother. I have noticed this summer how he has started to come into a deeper awareness of the beauty around him. Perhaps the reason he wants to share it with his mom is that he sees the beauty in both and feels in his heart that they should grace each other with their presence.
OK, enough of the sap, though very sincere. We made our way up the Nellie Creek basin to the summit ridge on Uncompahgre. It was here that the fun scrambling started. We crossed over to the west face of the summit block and made our way onto the rocks. It seemed that the trail went two directions, but still led to the top. At first we tried to go up a series of shoots with rocks stacked up on each other like pancakes, but thought better of it. We went instead to the path a little farther to the north and let Jonathan lead. This part of the climb kicked his butt a little, but he kept pressing to the top over loose San Juan rock. After making our way out of the rocks Jonathan found himself leading on a soft trail along the summit plateau to the top of the 6th highest peak in Colorado. He was winded, but shortly reached the summit of Uncompahgre. Though annoying to him, I videotaped him reaching the top.
The summit of Uncompahgre is a slanted plateau that is easily the size of a football field. However, it was not football that we would play at the top of this peak. I have watched my two oldest children rekindle their love this summer for America’s pastime. Catherine avidly watches our beloved Cleveland Indians suffer through a rough season each night on the satellite and Jonathan has tried out and made his high school baseball team.
After catching our breath and eating a little, I prodded Jonathan to pull his mitt out of his pack and play catch with me. How many 14ers have the space where you could do this easily? In fact, has it ever been done before on a Colorado 14er? For now allow me to believe that my son and I were the first. We kept the distance apart from each other short and enjoyed a game of catch on one of the more beautiful peaks in the Rockies and then began our descent. Ironically, as we made our way down the rocks of the summit block we came across another climber with a golf driver sticking out of his pack. His plan was to hit balls off the summit. Perhaps it was a day of firsts for Uncompahgre.
Making your way down a San Juan peak is so much more satisfying than some of the other 14er descents I have done. Rather than sliding down Sawatch scree or fighting crowds on the Front Range, you get to take in the lush green all over again. Sore feet seem to be less painful in the San Juans.
There are 14ers in Colorado that I have climbed that I honestly don’t know if I will go back to after I have hopefully climbed them all. I know I’m spoiled, but I have little desire to go back to the likes of Tabegauche or Yale, unless, of course, my children want to bag them and need a guide. The San Juans, however, will keep drawing me back. They touched me as young man in the back of a pickup truck, just as they touched my son hiking up Uncompahgre. Their beauty strikes me to the core of my heart and I hope it never lets go.