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Peak(s):  Uncompahgre Peak  -  14,309 feet
Post Date:  04/05/2012
Date Climbed:   04/04/2012
Posted By:  sstratta

 Uncompahgre Peak - A Tale of 4 Summit Attempts   

This is my first trip report so bare with me. A few people were looking for a conditions report from my trip yesterday, but I figured I would just write a full trip report and include some pictures of my previous summit attempts, since it's pretty amazing to see the difference in the snowpack is right now compared to last May (when I first attempted Uncompahgre). If you're looking for current conditions (as of yesterday), they're under my final attempt (4/4).
So, where to begin. I guess I'll start with the fact that I have a higher summit success rate on all of the other mountains I've climbed than I do on Uncompahgre. It took me 4 attempts, but I finally got to the summit yesterday (4/4/12). I guess some mountains are just like that...even though Uncompahgre is considered one of the "easier" 14ers, factors like weather and avalanche conditions (the reasons I wasn't able to summit the first 3 times) can make even an easy mountain difficult to climb.

First attempt - 5/30/11

My first attempt at Uncompahgre was from the Matterhorn Creek TH via the SW/E slopes route. I figured I would go this way instead of starting from Nellie Creek since I knew this route better from my summer climb of Wetterhorn, and it was shorter by a mile or two since my car did not have 4WD (although I doubt the Nellie Creek road was drivable at the time anyway). This trip would've been a great opportunity for a ski descent, however, I had had ACL surgery two months prior and wasn't yet cleared for skiing. So, I made do with snowshoes, crampons, and an ice axe (the last two being needed once I got higher on the SE ridge with bulletproof snow). I made it to about 13,200' before I was forced to turn around due to wind and zero visibility. It was the first time I was forced to turn around on a Colorado 14er without summiting, but in hindsight it was a good call.
Started from car at 2:30am, turned around at 7:15am, back to car at 11am.
Uncompahgre at dawn
Wetterhorn & Matterhorn
The last time I saw the mountain
Coyote sighting in between Uncomp. and Matterhorn
Matthorn Creek basin

Second attempt - 2/11/12

The second time around it would be avalanche conditions, not weather, that would prevent my summit success. This time I joined up with 8 other people...quite a large group compared to what I'm normally used to, but all in all it was an awesome group and we had a great time despite not summiting. The goal for this trip was to ski directly from the summit (a few in the group were trying to ski all of the 14ers), but the potential for an avalanche on the upper SE face forced us to turn around there, since there was no way to safely cross or avoid the loaded face. The ski down was enjoyable at least (I guess there are very few times skiing is NOT enjoyable), and we were all able to make a few good turns despite some areas that had thin cover. The highlight of this trip (for me) was definitely the amazing sunrise we saw!
Started from the Nellie Creek 2WD TH at 2:15am, turned around at 13,400' at 9:15am, got back to our cars at 11am.
Uncompahgre and the moon at dawn
Sunrise on Uncompahgre
Amazing sunrise
The slope that caused us so much concern

Third attempt - 4/3/12

Yes, you are reading that right...I tried to climb Uncompahgre two days in a row. Due to the rapidly diminishing snowpack, I was recently forced into a month of unemployment until my summer job starts in May. However, that provided a good excuse to make another trip down south and try my luck again on Uncompahgre. Despite the bad weather forecast for Tuesday (4/3), I headed down to Lake City Monday night (4/2) hoping that by some miracle it would be wrong. Clouds and snow flurries were predicted for Tuesday, but it wasn't looking too windy, which was what I was most worried about. Regardless, I slept at the Nellie Creek 2WD TH again and started off at 4:15am. It had snowed anywhere from 1-4 inches within the past 24 hours, so everything had a nice layer of white over it. It almost looked like winter again! Unfortunately I couldn't see any stars, which meant it would be cloudy.
Based on the recent warm weather, and after reading Bean's trip report from 3/17, I decided not to take my skis this time. Usually I'm willing to put up with some walking/carrying/wallowing/rock-skiing in order to get a few good turns in higher up on the mountain, but this looked like it might be pushing that limit. Plus, the goal of this trip was to get to the summit, not necessarily ski down. So, I succumbed to bringing the snowshoes. The first two miles of the road were dry underneath the couple inches of fresh, and even higher up I was able to walk on top of the firm snow without sinking through and having to put on the snowshoes. I reached the upper 4WD TH (4 miles later) at 6:45am, just as it was getting light. Here I put on my snowshoes and set off to get above treeline, excited to get my first views of Uncompahgre.
But they never came. Once I got above treeline I saw that the summit was socked in clouds. So, I sat down and took an extra long food break, hoping that as I was eating the clouds would magically disappear and I would be good to go. But they never did. In fact they got worse, and then it started to lightly snow again. In conditions like this I may have continued on to the summit had I been with someone else, and/or knew what the route was like above 13,400'. But the thought of trying to navigate up there with low visibility didn't sound appealing, plus I wanted to see views from the summit! The San Juans are by far one of my favorite areas of Colorado (the Gores and parts of the Elks might rank up there too) and I wanted to see the view from the 6th highest peak in Colorado.
So, I turned around, promising myself that I would give it another shot tomorrow. The forecast for Wednesday (4/4) looked substantially better - sunny and a little breezy, plus it's not like I had to rush back up north for work or anything. I turned around at 7:30am, arriving back to my car at 10am. The rest of the day was spent napping, reading, and hanging around Lake City. It was pretty cloudy with periodic snow showers all day, so I was glad that I at least didn't turn around too early before the weather magically improved. Lake City is, unfortunately, is a pretty dull town though when it's not peak season. Most stores and restaurants were closed, but I did have dinner at the Restless Spirits Saloon, which I highly recommend!
No-go for attempt #3

Fourth AND FINAL attempt - 4/4/12

I started up the road at 4:40am (major sleeping in here compared to previous attempts) to a star-filled sky - good sign #1. The snow from a few days ago had pretty much melted down low, so the first two miles of the road were completely dry. I reached the 4WD TH at 645am (again), put on snowshoes, and continued up above treeline. BAM, there was Uncompahgre in all her glory, bright orange, surrounded by a clear blue sky. This was going to be a good day. While I could just barely make out random old ski tracks here and there (most likely from Bean's group a few weeks ago), I made my own trail up towards the mountain. While there were a few wind-loaded slopes down low, they were easy to avoid, and nothing up higher had enough snow left to be dangerous like it was back in February.
I snowshoed directly up the upper SE face, despite some thin areas with lots of rocks. I had ski poles with me, which proved to be very useful the entire day for balance. Once around the corner on the west face, I ascended one of the first "gullies" I saw, instead of continuing around further to reach the correct "crux" that the summer route follows. The gully I went up was much narrower and snow-filled, but still probably only class 2+. Once I got above that I saw that I had taken the wrong way up...oh well.
I reached the summit at 11am, happy to have amazing views and great weather. I hung around for at least 45 minutes taking pictures, eating, and just enjoying the awesomeness of it all. I saw the narrow patch of snow that previous parties had used to officially "ski" off the summit, however, I'm guessing right now you could only get 3 turns in before you are forced to sidestep or take off your skis and walk. Seeing this, I was happy that I didn't lug my skis up there!
- A note on skiing this peak right now: The entire summit plateau was covered in a few inches of fresh snow from the recent storm, but underneath it all was ROCK, and lots of it. There were VERY few places where the snow would've been deep enough to ski on. So, bottom line is you could still hypothetically "ski" from the summit, but it would be VERY short-lived. You would most likely have to carry your skis down most of the summit plateau, down the "crux" (which is entirely bare by the way), and then you could hypothetically put on your skis there, ski around to the SE face, and make a descent from there. You wouldn't want to ski directly down the face either with all the exposed rocks higher up, you would want to head skiers' left (closer to the cliffs) and ski around the face back down to the flat area. That's the only option right now for a continuous descent down the face. After that, it's just a matter of trying to avoid the rocks and grass on the way down. When I was up there everything was covered by the recent snow, which makes it look deceivingly in good condition. But in most areas, you'd be hitting rock/grass without even turning. Plus, with the sunny warm weather today and tomorrow, I bet a lot of snow (new and old) will melt by this weekend. If it was me, I would wait until next year to ski this peak...unless you've got a pair of skis you really don't care about (and I mean REALLY don't).
I descended down the correct "crux", then put on my snowshoes again for the descent. I followed my same route down more or less after that, happily glissading down a few of the steeper sections. Strangely enough I didn't posthole at all going down, however, I picked up a lot of "glop" near and below treeline that made my legs feel like they weighed 1000 pounds each. I should also mention that there is a cool waterfall a mile or so up the advantage to going up the road on foot instead of a mechanized vehicle! I got back to my car at 3pm, very happy to finally get to the summit after FOUR tries! Hopefully my remaining five 14ers won't be nearly as time-consuming...

Note on the Nellie Creek Road: It's dry at least for the first two miles, and will probably melt out even more in the next day or two. There are two places where the creek runs over the road, but if you step on the right rocks you shouldn't get your feet too wet. There are also a few downed trees across the road right below the 4WD TH, as well as a few sections where erosion is an issue along with big boulders in the road that have fallen down off the hillside. Until these get cleared, I doubt anyone can drive up the road once the snow melts.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

  • Comments or Questions

Wetterhorn     2012-04-05 14:26:52
Thanks for posting and congratulations!! Did the east face of Wetterhorn look any better for a ski descent?


Wetterhorn     2012-04-05 14:29:18
I'll post a picture of it, I'm working on getting the images from yesterday posted...


Congrats     2012-04-05 14:33:40
Way to persevere! Since it only took me 3 attempts (1 with you and the 3rd in March) and it took you 4, I guess we know who was responsible for the snow conditions we encountered in February.

Great write-up and here's to you never having to climb Uncompahgre again!


Wetterhorn     2012-04-05 14:45:41
Alright, all of the pictures are up! Wetterhorn did look skiable as of yesterday, although it's really hard to tell from a distance what snow on that face is from the recent storm (and will likely melt soon, like today or tomorrow) and what is leftover from this season.


Nicely done!     2012-04-05 15:38:15
Excellent pictures and story documenting your journey. Way to get it done!


Congratulations!     2015-04-02 13:45:58
and thank you so much for the TR and conditions update. Would you recommend Matterhorn Creek for the approach right now? Do you know what conditions Matterhorn Creek TH might be vs. Nellie Creek TH? Thanks.


Way to persevere...     2012-04-05 16:46:18
Congrats on your nemesis peak, especially with the back to back attempts. That's gritty.

Nice dining choice as well. It's the only place I'll eat at in LC.

Good luck on your remaining 14ers.


The coyote     2012-04-05 20:35:28
I haven't been forced to turn back on a 14er yet. But I know my time is coming. Way to go back and get it done. Enjoyed reading your story.

Restless Spirits Saloon - sounds like the kind of place to get a beer and relax for a while.


Thanks everyone!     2012-04-05 20:38:22
Nkan02 - I can't say exactly what the Matterhorn Creek TH would be like right now since I didn't drive further up the road past the Nellie Creek TH, but I'd imagine the TH itself is dry. You'd probably hit snow sooner on that approach than on the Nellie Creek road since that TH starts at a higher elevation. Having done both approaches now though I'd say the Matterhorn approach is more scenic overall since you're not on a road and you get above treeline sooner. But, I think more people have been using the Nellie Creek approach recently, so if you want some tracks to follow I'd use that one. Navigating on the Matterhorn approach is also more difficult with snow, and if you get in a whiteout or something it'd be way easier to get lost.


Nice     2012-04-05 20:44:45
Glad you finally got this one, Sarah. Great job on your 1st report and really nice pics too. Congrats!


Thanks for the pictures!     2012-04-07 17:05:08
I love hiking that mountain. Is Nellie Creek Road closed in the winter? Gate?

Your update has me plotting a trip...


Nellie Creek Road     2012-04-07 18:15:47
Nope it's not gated anywhere, it's just considered ”closed” in the winter since cars can't drive up it with all the snow. Plus, like I mentioned there's some rockfall over the road and downed trees in a few places so even when the snow melts that'll prevent cars from getting up to the 2WD TH. I suppose right now you could theoretically drive up it a mile or so since it's dry, but no guarantees there would be a place to turn around!

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