| A Lesson in Contrasts
Climbers: David (Zambo) & Andrew (Awknox)
Conditions: Both peaks were incredibly dry for this time of year. On the upper slopes of each, we encountered almost no snow on the trail. There is a fair amount of snow still on the pass between the two peaks, but certainly not enough to warrant flotation. It was very firm in the morning, and softened somewhat in the afternoon. I put a bit more detailed conditions reports Here-Uncompahgre and Here- Wetterhorn.
Summary: We were able to climb both Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre from the Matterhorn Creek TH. Threatening early morning clouds gave way to sunny skies and the windy conditions which have covered so much of the state this weekend. Given the relative lack of snow, we were able to cover ground quickly. We were successful in getting both peaks in approx. 9 1/2 hours.
This climb was a study in contrasts for me. On Memorial Day Weekend 2011, we climbed Wetterhorn as a long, grueling, snow climb & ski descent. One year later to the day, almost all of the snow is gone, and the peaks are in early summer conditions. For most of this trip I found myself marveling at what a difference a year can make. It was a very poignant lesson in how much conditions play a role in our climbing pursuits.
The climb began as they all do: with the unpleasant beeping of my watch alarm at a very early hour. Andrew and I had driven straight to the TH from Denver the night before, and high winds during the night had made a 3 hour sleep even more uncomfortable than usual. Luckily we found bone dry 4wd conditions all the way to the TH, so we were encouraged by the high starting point. If the snow was clear in the upper basin (we were unsure) we knew we had an excellent shot at gaining both peaks.
As usual, Andrew led the way at a very fast pace. Long story, but he had a very unpleasant run-in with poison ivy a week prior and had been on steroids all week to help with the recovery. This was obviously great for our pacing, but I also found myself in a position of, quite literally, hiking with a partner on steroids. But as I said, this got us to tree line in a flash, where we knew we would have a much better view of what to expect for the day.
Already surprised by the lack of snow, when we finally got a chance to see the upper basin I was astonished. At this point last year, it was a winter wonderland. Beautiful white slopes surrounded us as we trudged through the lower basins, treading lightly amidst the ever-present danger of avalanches. This year, it could have very well been August. Still very, very beautiful in its own right, I was taken aback at how much the seasons can change things.
Matterhorn Peak - May 25, 2011
Matterhorn Peak - May 25, 2012
Although we were just past the trees, we immediately knew that the snowshoes on our packs were a waste. We stashed the shoes (Note to self: next time don't put them directly on top of a black berry bush...idiot.) and decided to head for Uncompahgre first to get the longer slog over with earlier in the day.
Moving higher, we continued to realize that most of the snow was long gone, or it had never really fallen in the first place. There were isolated patches here and there, but it was more or less dry the whole way. We gained the pass between the peaks at sunrise, which made for a spectacular setting.
Roach describes Uncompahgre as the "siren sentinel" of the Northern San Juans. Indeed.
Sunrise over the San Juans.
Looking back at Matterhorn and Wetterhorn after cresting the pass.
High alpine valleys are some of my favorite places to hike. The pass in between these two mountains is a sanctuary of alpine tundra. We encountered a healthy mix of lingering snowfields and dry trail. The snow was firm as we made the long traverse around the huge foundation of Uncompahgre. We had hoped to potentially shorten the trip by snow climbing the gullies, but all that awaited us were nasty scree-filled choss instead. We decided to simply walk the extra miles and work our way around to the standard route.
Rounding the South shoulder, looking back towards Nellie Creek.
Our path was dry and very windy along the ridge.
Dark morning clouds captured our attention as we neared 13,000 ft. This is looking back down the route.
The last 1,000ft was a relentless fight against the wind, but like all mountains, the heights of the peak eventually ran out. We topped out on the summit not quite four hours after leaving the truck.
Andrew modeling the striking Northern cliffs of Uncompahgre. I wonder, has anyone ever climbed this face?
A look back at the alpine pass from Matterhorn Creek to Uncompahgre.
Not quite sure which peak this is that was being lit up so brilliantly. Perhaps someone else knows?
Our shadow point to the next goal for the day. It looks a long way away from here….
The wind and dark clouds which had threatened on the ascent began to relent on the way down. A quick double-check of the forecast confirmed the low chance of precipitation for the day, so we felt confident that the clouds would burn off in the warming hours.
Re-tracing our steps back towards Matterhorn Creek, blue skies opened up above us.
The snow had softened coming back over the pass, but nothing too bad. We had to drop a few hundred feet to get back to the Wetterhorn trail, and found ourselves there some two hours after leaving Uncompahgre’s summit.
At the base of Matterhorn, the traverse was tempting. But it also looked like a loose nightmare, not made any easier or safer by the day’s high winds.
Again, the severity of the snowfall struck me as I came again into familiar territory. Last year I stood in awe at the sweeping East Face: majestic, imposing, and strong covered in its winter coat. Standing there this year, I couldn’t help but feel the mountain was just a bit smaller and a bit less intimidating than last year. It is just incredible how much things can change, and how dependent we are upon the right conditions.
The boulder hopping beneath the ridge has some snow, but nothing major. The trail to the saddle was clear apart from one firm field. We prepared ourselves for the high winds on the ridge which another party had warned us about.
May 25, 2011.
May 25, 2012. Whaddya think, is the East face in?
Upon gaining the saddle, we were met with fierce winds coming off the Northwest side of the peak. Several 50-60 MPH gust were all we needed to get us moving quickly onto the relative shelter of the trail below the ridgeline.
This final 600 feet on the Class 3 ridge was perhaps, the most tangible difference form a year ago. At that time, this was a veritable snow climb as we traversed each gully. When filled in, the steepness is sheer, challenging, and a committing snow climb up to Ship’s Prow. This go around, we enjoyed the scrambling across the gullies on semi-rotten rock. A completely different experience, but a fun one nonetheless.
The last obstacle was the climb to the summit block, which was totally dry and in complete summer-mode. The high winds added an extra challenge, but thankfully it was pushing us into face, which was better than the alternative.
Enjoying the views from beneath the final summit pitch.
I was pleasantly surprised at how much easier the climbing is when not covered in ice. Not climbing in double plastics also helps.
Andrew climbing to the top.
Nearly topping out.
All told, it was approx. 3 ½ hours from one summit to the next. Although, I imagine it could have gone quicker with less wind and a clearer trail the whole way.
This summit block does not disappoint. Beautiful views of the San Juans are highlighted by the sheer drops in almost every direction off the top. Being late in the day, we had not passed another party for hours, and we enjoyed the solitude on this proud peak.
The full weight of how much distance we had covered comes into view from the summit.
Pretty cold and windy up at the top.
Looking back down the summit pitch.
The descent back to the car was relatively uneventful. Unfortunately, there was only one spot which offered anything in the hope of a glissade near the trail. But no bother as we made it back to the snowshoes in just over an hour. Thankfully, the high trail head allowed us to get back to the truck soon thereafter. All told, we had gone car-to-car in just under 10 hours.
Overall, a great day on these two spectacular peaks, and a striking lesson about how the changing season can affect these climbs so much.
One last look up the creek.
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