| Good Conditions for a Climb and Descent
Round trip mileage: ~10
Elevation gain: ~3,600 feet
Participants: stevevets689, James
The spring snowpack in Colorado this year has been very strange. We received huge amounts of snow in April and May, and suddenly when June hit the temperatures jumped. From a couple trips into the Lake City area already I knew there were some massive cornices, loose wet avalanches everywhere, and even some wet slabs. Not only that, but the overnight lows were only hitting freezing intermittently. With all this going on, I decided to make a conservative route choice for my climb last weekend, choosing Uncompahgre for its relatively low slope angles. I figured that even if we didn't have very firm snow to travel on, we should have a decent chance of summitting safely.
James and I left Gunnison at 3:00pm on Saturday and headed up to Lake City and the Nellie Creek Road. I had been concerned about snow drifts and the first major creek crossing but decided to just see how things went as we got there. Turns out that the creek crossing is wide but NOT deep at all. My Jeep Cherokee handled the crossing easily, with water barely higher than the width of the tires, and this was in the afternoon when the creek is at its highest. Reports I had read said the road was blocked shortly after the first crossing, but we were able to continue up several switchbacks, maybe a half mile further up the road, before getting stopped by a significant drift at around 10,700 feet. There was a perfect place to park on the road just before the snow started.
Vehicle stopping drift at about 10,700 feet. Photo by James
Lesson one from this trip: it doesn't matter how far you expect to be able to skin, bring another pair of footwear besides the ski boots! We started from the car and I skinned for perhaps 100 feet before hitting the second creek crossing. With a heavy backpack, skis, and ski boots on, crossing on the single narrow log was not something I was willing to try. Instead, I waded across in the shallowest water I could find. Water seeped into my left boot, leaving the toes through the ankle wet for the rest of the trip. Awesome. Thank goodness for wool socks...
Second creek crossing
From the crossing, we hiked on the largely dry and bare road for about a mile (yep, in ski boots) before significant amounts of snow reappeared in the trees beyond a very large clearing. From there I was able to keep my skis on up to the summer trailhead, were we decided to camp. We pitched the tent on the driest and flattest spot we could find, which was still a little muddy but not too bad. I pumped some water and hung our food, put a couple adhesive body warmers in my ski boots with the hope that they wouldn't be frozen in the morning, and crawled into my sleeping bag at around 8:00pm.
Road above 11,000 feet
Base Camp Uncompahgre
Our watches went off at 2:45am after a pretty decent rest, and I got up and checked the boots, which were still a little warm! I put dry socks on and then put my boots on, and knew they would work out. Already feeling accomplished at 3 in the morning, I walked around to check out the snow. It was frozen solid! Good news indeed! We were ready to move at 3:30 and started up through the trees.
Skinning over and around drifts by the light of my headlamp proved interesting but it didn't take long to break treeline and start up the vast snowfields in the upper Nellie Creek basin. We elected to stay left of the creek instead of attempting to climb the very steep wall of snow on the other side. Eventually we hit some steep ground and I rigged my skis to my pack and booted it from there. With no moon, we could barely see the outline of Uncompahgre in the dim starlight.
Hiking in the dark. Photo by James
Looking over the basin at first light
We continued to navigate towards the south ridge following the path of least resistance up the basin. We stopped at a flat area around 13,300 feet, just before the steep section of snow before the route's “crux” to enjoy the red, smokey sunrise and apply crampons. The snow had been firm the whole time so far and it stayed that way as we continued up the steep slope. Perfect conditions for some spring snow climbing!
The steep slope up to 13,800 feet at sunrise
Snowclimbing on great snow
Heading up on solid snow. Despite all the tracks, we were the only people on the mountain that day
Looking back from around 13,700 feet
Steepness near 13,700 feet
At the top of the slope around 13,800 feet, I decided to leave my skis behind. In my philosophy, skis are a tool to get down a mountain in a faster, more fun manner. Banging them up on rocks trying to ski little patches of snow up high just to say you skied as much as possible isn't worth the time and effort required, let alone the damage to your skis. We continued up, climbing a little snow leading to the rocky area, which was definitely spicy wearing ski boots but I managed. Above the rocks, there were probably three small bits of snow with rock in between that had been skied but didn't look to be particularly interesting to get turns on. I was glad I left my skis where I did.
The class 2+ route through the cliff band
Looking over at Wetterhorn on the way up. You can see a lot of wet avalanche activity on Wetterhorn's east face
At around 14,100 feet
Looking back from around 14,200 feet. Some skiable snow, not worth bringing them up there in my opinion
We gained the summit around 7:45am. The views were still awesome despite the haze, though the Needles were out of view. We could still see Sneffels, Rio Grande Pyramid, and possibly one of the Grenadiers though it was hard to say. We left the summit a little at about 8:15, returning to my skis around 8:30. James glissaded down the slope while I prepped for my descent.
Haze from the summit
My attempt at the Davenport shot
Me skiing the upper slopes. Photo by James
The snow started off still pretty frozen and crusty but I was quickly met with perfect corn after a few turns. I winded my way around a few uncovered rocks and met up with James briefly before continuing down the basin. Truly a fun descent on awesome snow! It took about 12 minutes to descend from 13,800 feet to treeline, and another 10 minutes to navigate through the trees back to camp, only taking my skis off for a 10 foot bare stretch. I arrived at the tent just after 9:00am.
Good snow for skiing at 8:45am
Looking back at Uncompahgre from near treeline. Photo by James
I packed up my stuff, and James showed up about an hour after I did. The road back to the car was managed with less struggle than on the way up since we knew what was coming, and I no longer cared about getting my boots wet through the creek since the car was only a few hundred feet further. We were back at the car just after 11:00am.
All in all, surprisingly good conditions considering the forecasted overnight low of 36 degrees at 12k elevation. I was very glad we decided to camp, extremely glad we started when we did, and thrilled with my ski descent which was easily worth the trouble of hiking in wet ski boots and carrying more weight. A good day out!
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