It had been three months since my last foray into the San Juan Mountains and I was itching to get back. With so many awesome mountains amongst the range it can be pretty hard to decide which to climb, but high on the list of unclimbed peaks for me was Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre Peaks. Wetterhorn is in my opinion one of the most beautiful peaks in Colorado and climbing Uncompahgre in conjunction would set a new U.S. altitude record for me. As I understand it’s a long day even in the summer, but with the inevitable spring snow cover I knew I was in for it. So my proposal was to climb the Southeast Ridge of Wetterhorn, traverse to Matterhorn and climb that (if I felt like I had the time and strength), then head over to Uncompahgre and ascend one of the couloirs on the West Face. It was perhaps an ambitious plan, and certainly too ambitious to convince any of my friends to come along!
I departed Albuquerque around five and elected to take US 84 to Pagosa, where I arrived around nine. After grabbing a quick bite to eat I headed through Wolf Creek Pass and onto Lake City. My plan was to camp at the junction to the Matterhorn Creek Road, and this is what I did after checking out the 4x4 road up to the Trailhead. It was around 11:30 at this point and much to my surprise there was another party there just setting up camp! And I thought I’d have the mountains to myself…
My initial estimates were that I’d be able to climb everything in around 10 hours so to ensure maximum snow solidity an early start was in order. So, sufficient sleep be damned, I miraculously got up at 2:45 (without an alarm) right when I told myself to get up the night before! After a nice hot breakfast I headed out around 3:45. In the pack were snowshoes, trekking poles, crampons, ice axe, helmet, camera, food, clothes, and about four liters of water. I made it to the road closure quickly and signed in at the register, noting that nobody had signed it since 22 December! I was hoping the trail would be easy to follow, and it was for the most part, but I got pretty confused once when it crossed a creek and then I completely missed when the trail switch backed up the hill. Instead I merrily continued on up Matterhorn Creek, but rather than heading northeast into Matterhorn Basin when I came across the creek that comes from there, I crossed the creek and continued along Matterhorn Creek up into Wetterhorn Basin. After getting above tree line it was getting light enough that a comparison of the features above me to the Dawson’s Guide I was packing indicated I was in the wrong place. Wetterhorn’s Southeast Ridge was just to my right and there were numerous snowy couloirs ascending up to it, so I picked the most reasonable looking one and started switch backing up it. When I reached the top of the ridge any lingering doubt that I was wrong was immediately erased as the glorious sight of Uncompahgre, Matterhorn, and Wetterhorn greeted me.
I figured I was at about 13,000’ at this point and it was only around six, so I felt that I was making good time. Thinking the snow would be a little softer on the east side of the ridge I strapped on my snowshoes and started heading up the ridge. Reaching the first rocky section at around 13,500’ I ditched the shoes, but I couldn’t make out exactly where to go. Some cairns showed a route bypassing the rock ridge on the west side so I followed those. The cairns led me on a traverse across a snow slope that got a little sketchy right before passing through a narrow slot. On the other side of the slot was a snowy couloir that headed back up to the ridge. Cairns indicated this was the way to go so I strapped on my crampons and headed up. A quick rock scramble got me in sight of the Keyhole and it was an easy walk on snow from there.
All the descriptions I had heard said that the last pitch was a 3rd class rock scramble so this was what I was expecting. I was wrong. It was instead a snow and ice gully that bore little resemblance to the rock staircase it is in the summer. Looking from my present position revealed the way down as of the “serious injury/death” variety and I had a free ticket that I could cash in if I so desired – it would only take just one little slip. I figured that the next climbers would probably see the blood my tumbling body would produce though and mount a recovery operation, but then again, the next climbers might not come until summer! I don’t really ever dwell on danger or exposure though, so these were just passing thoughts. Relishing the challenge ahead I began kicking my way up the middle part of the gully but quickly found that I couldn’t stick my frontpoints into the thin ice and placing weight on the soft snow (possibly covering loose rock) was an operation that needed to be carried out with care. I ended up winding my way around, often preferring the rocky sides to proceeding directly up the snow/ice. It took quite a while since I was taking a lot of extra time to make sure every placement was secure, but before I knew it I emerged on the snow capped summit. The views are amazing from any summit in the San Juans, but I think this was just about the most spectacular I’ve seen. I think I could pick out almost every fourteener in the range! The views are great in the summer as many would attest to, but I think the mountains hold a special majesty when covered in snow and here I was, one of the few who actually gets to enjoy that close up. I think no picture could do justice to the panorama around me and certainly not capture the feeling.
Checking the watch it was 8:15, which put me on the summit after 4.5 hrs. Way behind my schedule, of course I hadn’t realized how long the upper parts of the mountain would take. Still, the early start allowed plenty of time so I began the descent still thinking all three summits were possible. It was about then that I realized that descending the final pitch was going to be difficult. That’s an understatement, let me try again. It was going to be absolutely treacherous and the crux of the whole climb. I started downclimbing until I got to an icy section that I couldn’t find a reasonable way around, so I climbed back up to the top and tried to search out a different way down. Everything else looked dangerously steep so I downclimbed again to the same spot but further over on some rock. From there I was able to just reach across to the rock on the other side and bypass the section of ice. It went on like this for some time, climbing down then up then down again, trying to find the safest way. It was an immense relief when I finally reached the keyhole. The ordeal took 45 minutes from the summit to the keyhole, but I was so focused on the task at hand that it took looking at my watch to know it!
From here I buzzed down the ridge until it looked like I could safely descend the east side. I decided to bypass Matterhorn for the time being since I knew it would take great effort to ascend Uncompahgre. I figured that if I was still fresh after that I could give it a try. Heading across Matterhorn Basin I got a good look at the East Face of Wetterhorn and the several wet slides across it, one of which looked very recent due to the debris at the bottom hardly being melted out. It certainly didn’t encourage me to want to ski down it!
The hike over to Uncompahgre felt long, but it was easy going, being downhill most of the way. I had been back in snowshoes since I left the ridge to give my feet a break, but the snow wasn’t so soft that they were required. I was feeling pretty tired, and it was about then that all those thoughts of turning back and that one peak was enough for the day started flooding my mind. The only counter-argument I could muster was, “…but you’ve come so far.” Not an effective defense, but it worked. I toiled my way up to the base of the couloir I had chosen, taking several rests along the way. I had picked out the southernmost couloir on the West Face since it looked the most direct and looked less slide-prone, but there were a couple rock bands that looked as if they might give some problems.
I kept with the snowshoes since the slope didn’t seem too steep and started switchbacking my way up the face. It was slow going, and I would stop regularly to catch my breath, but I kept urging myself on and steadily made progress. The snow quality varied widely and I was often forced to kick steps rather than use the snowshoes because it was too soft. The steepness increased consistently, and reached maximum right before the first rock band. I didn’t have too much confidence in the snowshoes nor my ability to self arrest without an axe at this point, but switching to crampons and ice axe seemed a little precarious and it seemed like a lot of trouble! So I continued on with the shoes, hustling through the toughest parts by going straight up and relying more and more on my poles to support my weight when the footing became questionable. Once above the rock bands there was another several-hundred-foot section of snow to negotiate before terminating in the upper rock cliffs. I know most people overestimate slope angle, but I’m pretty sure it was 45-50 degrees which was steeper than I had expected and probably too steep to use snowshoes on, but I had gotten that far on them and figured I could make it the rest of the way. Upon reaching the upper cliffs I discovered I still had quite a ways to go and a lot of options as well. I picked a reasonable looking slope and headed up that, but the grade increased and snow quality decreased such that it got pretty uncomfortable. I had a lot of trouble finding purchase with the points on my snowshoes so I did a lot of traversing in order to find easier snow. The last five feet were nearly vertical and almost impossible to make a foothold in, so I hastily scrambled my way kicking and thrashing until I could crawl my body over the lip. I was immensely relieved after two and a half hours of climbing, but the caveat was there was still a ways to go in order to reach the summit.
There wasn’t as much snow up there so it was easy to pick out the trail where it occasionally emerged. After taking a long and well deserved rest I got back on my feet and got going. I tackled the last snow slope head on and after overcoming this saw the summit which is fairly flat and spread out. I walked to about the middle of it and dropped my pack, then decided to walk around to see what I could see. It was 2:30 by now, so I had been on the go for 10.75 hours. Once again the views were spectacular, especially the Blue Creek drainage to the northeast, and looking back towards Matterhorn and Wetterhorn was simply amazing. I took some pictures, but once again felt that no matter how many I took none could do justice to the majesty surrounding me. I holed up in one of the walled enclosures as it was pretty windy by this time and took some time to eat, drink, and rest. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of descending the route I had come up. I figured that since I was so tired it would be easy to make a mistake a slide to an untimely doom. While it would add considerably to the distance, I felt it would be a lot safer to take the South Ridge down and then wind my way back to Matterhorn Basin.
So with this plan in mind I set off on the long road ahead. I made it down to where I had first reached the south ridge quickly, snapped a photo from here and continued along where I thought the trail went. I saw a snow slope below but my way to it was unfortunately terminated by a very vertical cliff. I traversed across the slope to the east seeking a better way, but nothing looked good. It was either a rock chute or cliffs. I really had no idea where to go so I wandered across the face often thinking of how far I would slide and/or drop if I fell from the many precarious positions I found myself in. I saw what looked like a possible descent path that traversed back west, but the rock was extremely loose, the snow not trustworthy, and there was no indication that I wouldn’t soon be at the top of another vertigo-inducing cliff. I had descended maybe 100 vertical feet and traversed back and forth for maybe the better part of an hour, putting myself in dangerous situation after dangerous situation when my lack of progress convinced me that going down the couloir that I ascended wouldn’t be such a bad idea. The odds of me finding the standard route were finally getting obvious, as in slim to none, so I kicked my way back up the slope and got back to where I should’ve started going down in the first place.
It was about 4:00 when I hesitantly commenced the descent using the steps I had stamped out on the way up. Much to my surprise it was super easy to stamp the heels of my boots down into the snow and create a good platform, although it shouldn’t have been. I still didn’t feel like testing out how easy a self arrest would be, although glissading down the slope would’ve been quite fun and a rapid way down. Once I saw how easy the descent was going to be I was practically running down the slope, ice axe at the ready though. I stopped only a couple times along the way and after making the last cliff band decided I had a safe enough run out to try glissading down the rest of the way. As I should’ve figured all along the slide was easily controllable and after a couple glissades was at the bottom. The whole descent took less than half an hour. I had to descend a bit before ascending back to the pass between Matterhorn Basin and Uncompahgre which took quite a while since I was more or less whipped by now, but once there it was all downhill!
I felt like I was moving fast, but the miles passed slowly. When I finally reached the trailhead I signed out on the register, noticing the party that had arrived the last night had signed in and planned to ski in the area for a couple of days. Throughout my whole day I never saw anyone nor their tracks, so in the end it was like having the mountains entirely to myself! I reached the car at 7:15 ending what had been the longest day I had ever spent in the mountains. If you do the math it comes out to 15.5 hours which overshoots my original estimate of ten hours by a little! I pretty much collapsed on the ground for a while until a couple of other fellows who were setting up camp down the road a bit came over. They were going for Wetterhorn the next day so I gave them some beta on the route…looks like my body would’ve been found sooner than I expected had I fell near the top! While I think I was pretty miserable for most of the day, the scenery was amazing, the challenge formidable, and all the effort worth while when I look back on it. I was resolving to never climb another mountain on the way down, but now I can’t wait until the next one!