January 9-11, 2010
Climbers: Dominic and Sarah T. Meiser
Wetterhorn and Uncompaghre are special mountains to me. Over four years ago they were the first stop of a multi-day day hiking trip on a long 4th of July weekend; the first with my wife. I still very much enjoy looking at the pictures from that trip and sometimes I try to remember the details of the climbs and the emotions I felt.
For last weekend the weather forecast looked absolutely stellar. Unseasonally mild temperatures and little wind. Sarah and I had had tentative plans to go ice climbing with several of our friends, but with such an opportunity we decided to bail on the
shortest notice possible and to try to climb Wetterhorn and Uncompaghre on a three day trip. I snuck out of work at 3:30pm, Sarah picked me up five minutes later, we rushed from store to store for over an hour scrambling to get everything we needed for a two nighter, packed our stuff in a hurry, and were on our way South. You get the
idea, we were kind of late and were trying to reach the trailhead in time to get sufficient sleep. As a bye-product Gunnison County became the first county where both Sarah and I have a warning against us. The police officer must have instinctively noticed that we were in a hurry and worked extremely efficient: He had us back on the road in five minutes.
We made it to the winter closure on the Henson Creek road before midnight and were sound asleep shortly afterwards.
Day 1: Hike-in and explorations
With only the moderate goal of reaching a camp spot near 11000' we could afford to sleep in. After the old pop-tart and energy drink feast for breakfast we got our packs ready and were on the trail at 8:00am.
The first stretch of the way took us for just over four miles from the winter closure to Capitol City. The road was massively tracked and we didn't need snowshoes. At the turn-off we finally stopped to put them on, but the somewhat thinned out snow-mobile tracks still made for pretty efficient travel. Past the final turn-off to the Matterhorn creek trail we finally had to work for every step. The consistency of
the snow was somewhere between powder and sugar and we sank in about 8 inches with every step.
After about 3.5 hours we reached the summer trailhead. I remembered the camp spots just before it very well from our July 4th trip. It looked quite different now with all the snow. The last entry in the trailhead register dated back to November 9th.
By this time I was starting to feel tired from the pack and trailbreaking. But we decided that we should continue on to make the following days a bit easier. Our goal was to reach a camp near 11200'. After a little over an hour we reached a clearing in the trees that our friend Ken had mentioned as a potentially spooky spot avalanche-wise. The trailbreaking was real work now and we decided that this would be enough for the day and started to set up the Hilleberg smack in the middle of the trail.
Sarah managed to dig a hole in the snow to uncover running water in the Matterhorn creek. That would save us fuel and time. With the interior design of the tent perfected by Sarah, a nap was now in order. We rested for about an hour, had some soup and a whole bunch of snacks. Around 3:00pm we rolled out of our sleeping bags to explore the snow conditions in upper Matterhorn creek basin and to put in a track.
Man, this was hard work. I was just glad that we didn't have to haul our big packs all the way up here. As I mentioned already, just above camp there was an opening in the trees with slopes that had the potential to be spooky. However that day there really wasn't a big problem. At around 4 we finally broke out of the trees and before us lay the absolutely gorgeous snow covered valley. We continued for half
an hour. Sun set and it was getting cold quickly. There was nothing useful we could do but refuel and recover for the next day. We had to hurry since there were only about fourteen hours left in that night. Boy, you've got to love winter backpacking.
Sarah cooked one of her very own creations: Spam sandwiches. Delicious! And it's so easy, too. Heat three pouches of spam in boiling water, distribute over four slices of bread, done. Serves two. Have I mentioned it's so tasty?
Day 2: Wetterhorn
The alarm went off at six. Oat meal, hot chocolate, and Starbuck's instant coffee. After 40 minutes we reached the end of the tracks of the previous afternoon. In winter it is often recommended to gain the South ridge earlier than the summer trail does. Indeed we found a rib leading up to the ridge that was for the most part bare. Just near the top there seemed to be a sliver of snow that we would have to cross. Looked like that was our ticket.
Of course once we reached the final snow patch that separated us from the ridge proper it had turned into some 50 ft of scarily steep snow. We were both pretty nervous and I'm not sure if continuing was the right thing to do. The snow was probably just over knee deep powder with no discernable layering or slabs and the steepness of the slope may have touched on 30 degrees at the steepest spot. We
proceeded very carefully and fortunately everything worked out.
From here the way to the summit was clear. But first we had a break to refuel and absorb the views of the forks of the Cimmaron to the north. The snow covered hoodoos and bizarre rock formations looked unearthly. We stashed our snow shoes and soon after that our trekking poles. The rest of the way was fun scrambling supported by ice
axe. Solid rock intermingled with snow.
The rock formations and climbing sections become increasingly more dramatic as you approach the final stretch to the summit. Finally we were standing at the base of the crux of the climb, a series of ledges that lead about a hundred feet up to the final summit plateau. The ledge system was mostly dry and the rope, rock rack, and harnesses
that we had hauled all our way just for this section were not needed. Minutes late we reached the extremely aesthetic summit. The satisfaction to be back in this place, just by ourselves exactly like the first time, was enormous.
Sarah and me on summit of Wetterhorn - then and now
We took many photos, some of which look surprisingly similar to the ones we had taken over four years ago in the same spots. The absence of wind and the presence of heaps of sun allowed us to stay for half an hour.
From the upper reaches of the South ridge we spotted a mostly dry descend route all the way to the talus field at the base of Wetterhorn (pretty much the standard summer route). There was still plenty of daylight left so we decided to check out the next day's objective, Uncompaghre. The Western slopes were largely wind blown and it
shouldn't be a problem to find a safe way to the obvious notch at about 13500ft. On the way back to camp we deluxed our track so we would have an easier time the next morning.
We were back at camp shortly after 4:00pm. Plenty of time for dinner and a long night's sleep. This time it was Raman noodles with chicken. Not bad either. The next day was going to be packed: climb Uncompaghre, pack out, long drive home.
Day 3: Uncompaghre
We slept in until 4:20am. Nine hours of sleep: that's why they call it the weekend. Chicken-noodle-soup-flavored coffee and oatmeal, that get's your engine going. We're on our way at five. Clear black sky above with a very light wind that nonetheless makes for a pretty cold face. As soon as we're out of the trees the headlamps find nothing but a patch of snow through which yesterday's track cuts. Whenever we
don't move there is no sound at all.
Our packs are considerably lighter today since there is no need for a rope. We reach the saddle between Matterhorn and Broken Hill at 6:40am. So far so good. The predawn light reflected off the higher atmosphere is blue and cold. El Punto becomes visible to the North-East. Wetterhorn and Matterhorn glow red as the first direct
sun-light hits them.
At 7:30am we reach the base of the boulder strewn gully leading up to the prominent notch. We stash our snow shoes and mentally prepare for the scree and loose rock fest ahead of us. Tiny patches of snow glue the rocks to the slope and aide immensely in our progress. I guess you could say it wasn't as bad as we expected and soon we reached the ridge.
Recent boot and snow shoe prints are in the snow with pronation so extreme that you're joints explode just from looking at them. Our friend Ken must have made it up here the day before. That makes us feel happy.
The way to the summit from here is straightforward: Follow the ridge for a while, drop slightly to the left at the big cliff band blocking the way to the summit plateau, scramble on mostly good rock through the obvious weekness, and follow the trail over the slightly slanted plateau to the summit proper. These parts still seemed really familiar to me. The first time I was up here I was feeling slightly
apprehensive, intimidated - straight up scared. The hugeness of the mountain coupled with feeling week and tired from slight altitude sickness must have been a bit too much. Yeah, those tough class 2 climbs in the midst of summer with 20 other people on the mountain can really put a ding in your confidence. And once your confidence isn't
top notch any more you're falling off the deep end pretty quick. Mama! Fortunately had my nerves better in check this time around.
We reach the summit at 9:20am. Uncompaghre's summit on a clear day must offer one of the most beautiful panaromas in all of Colorado, especially in winter. The Cimmarrons with their bizzarre rock shapes to the North, the Sneffel Range, the Needles, the Wilson group, Weminuche. Extremely happy to be here together with my wife and soak in this views.
It is still a long day ahead of us. Gotta get back to business. The tracks enable us to return to camp by noon. The hard work over the previous two days is taking its toll: we are constantly hungry and need to eat. Soup, many hands full of peanuts, trail mix, and almond joy. It is really hot. I'm in T-shirt and whenever possible I try to stay in the shade. We seem to be getting better at breaking down camp
efficiently and at 1:00pm we start packing out.
The first section back past the summer trailhead to the Matterhorn creek road hasn't received our deluxe treatment yet and is pretty uneven. Lot's of angle and knee twisters. Nonetheless it's easy going all downhill. At the Henson Creek road junction we're out of fuel again and need to eat. At this point our appreciation for the winter
scenery around us is saturated and we just want to get out of here. Walking as fast as we can we finish the 4.25 miles to the car in an hour. It's 3:40pm, just six hours ago we had stood on Uncompaghre's summit. Finally cotton and sneakers. To round off a weekend of plenties we stop at Mario's pizza in Gunnison and finish all but the last two slices of a sixteen inch pizza. Like I said: Constantly hungry at this point.