Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn from Matterhorn Creek TH
Day 1 - Uncompahgre the "Hard Way"
Date: May 27, 2012
Mileage: 14.3 miles RT
Elevation: 5,856 ft
Group: Kara (kara), Jorge (gonzalj) and Natalie (nkan02)
We drove from Denver on Saturday afternoon, wondering if the thick smoke from New Mexico fires obstructing the views from Lake City to Buena Vista would be a problem for us on Sunday. With strong winds expected to last through the midnight, we were glad to be camping in the trees at about 10K. After only a 5-hour masterful drive by Jorge, we found a great camping spot by Matterhorn Creek 2WD TH (a large tree was blocking the 4WD road) and settled for the night. We woke up the next morning to the clear sunny skies – whew! – and manageable winds.
Kara and I were backbacking into the basin with the goal to hike Wetterhorn on the following day (Monday - Memorial Day), and Jorge, accompanied by his 2 dogs, was a day hiker.
We set off from the 2WD at about 6.15am and made a relatively quick progress towards the tree line ~11,800 feet, where Kara and I found a camping spot and unloaded our overnight packs. We were struck by how little snow was in the basin and glad we did not bother with snowshoes.
Jorge is hiking with the Wetterhorn-Matterhorn ridge backdrop
By 9 am we were inching towards the top of the Broken Hill pass (which required crossing a few snowfields on hard snow) and got our first good look of Uncompahgre. There were some lingering snow in the gullies, but none of them had a continuous line to the top.
Still, we were looking for some kind of the shortcut, as the route from Matterhorn Creek is longer than the standard route from Nellie Creek by about 4-5 miles and the idea on cutting down on mileage was appealing to all three of us. Occasionally, I am prone to hiking some obscure gullies without good beta (I am waiving at you, Mt. Lindsey and Crestone Peak), but I swear, this time it was not my idea. I just nodded approvingly as Kara and Jorge discussed the possibility of going up a grassy shoulder of Uncompahgre and then climbing up a relatively short rocky gully, which was expected to top out near 13,800 feet. What a grand idea! This way we all could avoid a boring Class 1 slog around the massive hulk of Uncompahgre. I also vaguely recalled a certain TR where people did just that.
So at 9.30 am and starting from about 12K, we set out to climb our first the steep section. I decided to bear more to the left and utilize a short strip of snow, while Kara and Jorge were ascending the rocky slope. At first, things were looking good. On snow, I was gaining elevation quickly.
Heading up on snow
Rock formations on the West face and SCREE
Then the snow ended and the steep scree started. It was so bad, I had to dig my ice ax into the dirt to get some leverage. With great difficulty, I was finally able to traverse to the flat spot where Kara was sitting. She did not like her ascent line either. Then we heard a yell from Jorge from down below that he is turning around. I went to see how far down he was, - and he was not, so I managed to convince him to cover the remaining 50-100 feet, so we can all descend together. After a quick break to catch breath, we went to look at the gully we were previously hoping to ascend. There was no way! It was still horrible looking scree, only this time loaded with microwave-sized blocks, ready to rumble down at the slightest disturbance. I am guessing I completely missed the route description in the Roach book where he says that the Western face is really a snow route, an even more so, climbing it without snow is “environmentally incorrect”! We were at 13,000 feet, but our only option was to descend. We were able to spot the grassy ramp that proved to be a much better option than the horrible rotten gullies, and took it down to the valley floor at 12,000 feet. Whew! By the time we got down to the basin, it was already 11.30am, and Jorge was feeling every one of the 3,500 feet of elevation gain that day and decided to head back to the trailhead.
Back in the valley. Defeated.
Kara and I still had some energy left, so we put on our best game faces and joined the standard route that goes around the south face of the mountain and eventually merges with the Nellie Creek approach.
Going around the SW slopes
Unfortunately for us, at this point, the weather was starting to change – the winds increased and the clouds were moving in. Our best bet was to speed up our pace and hope for the weather to hold. We stashed all the unnecessary gear – ice axes, crampons, helmets on the trail near 12,500 and pushed on.
Menacing-looking clouds atop of Uncompahgre
Once on the ridge I kept looking down, trying to see if there was a gully I would be comfortable descending, but I found none.
Is this "our" gully?
or this one?
Near the summit
We made it to the summit at 2.15pm, or about 2.5 hours after parting ways with Jorge, but the trek up and down the ridge was miserable – it was cold and the wind gusts were about 30-40 mph. The sun tried to come out a few times, and it did not rain or snow, so we were thankful for that.
Cold & windy on the summit
It is a long way back to the pass
It just keeps going
Almost at the pass. From here, it is about 30 minutes back to the camp.
Near the summit, Kara was feeling the full impact of 5’500+ elevation gain on her first 14er hike since October (and we still had to regain the pass on the way back), but she is a real trooper. I was ok until we got back down to the valley, skirted around the Western face and started ascending the Broken Hill pass – that part was miserable! After filtering more water, we finally got to our camp at about 6pm – making for a 12-hour, 14+ miles, ~5’900 ft elevation gain day. What the h*ll was that?
Day 2 – Wetterhorn
Date: May 28, 2012
Mileage: 6.3 miles RT
Elevation gain: 2,671 ft
The next morning, I tried to lure Kara out of her tent, but she still felt the impact of the previous day and decided to stay in and rest. Since it was still early and we camped 0.5 miles away from the Wetterhorn face, I would be the first person on the mountain that day. I started hiking at 5.45am. The first mile was a slow going and took something like an hour – I was also feeling tired from the long hike the previous day and was even questioning my decision to continue. I think I have those moments on every mountain. Will I be able to make it? Should I continue? I knew I had some time before I had to be back, so I just zoned out and concentrated on putting one foot in front of another. I fiddled with the old beat up camera which was refusing to cooperate that morning, with the camelback's hose which tried to freeze up on me, ate breakfast, and lo and behold, I found myself on the ridge at 13K. The remaining route looked stunningly dry, so again, I stashed all the unnecessary gear – crampons and poles. Marmots were out in full force, so I spent some time building a barricade out of snow and rocks to protect the gear – and it held. The scrambling part (last 1,000 feet) was very dry, in summer-like conditions. I was glad I had 14ers.com route description with me, as the route finding in the couple of spots was tricky. Finally, after 3+ hours of leaving camp (yup, I was moving slowly that day), I reached the summit. Two day hikers caught up to me after about 20 minutes, but they would be the only 2 people I’d see on the mountain all day. I got back to the camp at 11am. Kara and I packed the camp, started hiking at noon and 30 minutes later found Jorge patiently waiting for us at 4WD TH (the tree that was blocking the road was cut so he was able to drive from 2WD to 4WD TH to pick us up).
Alpenglow on Wetterhorn
Ridge walking. Snow is completely avoidable
At the Prow
At the Notch. Route description was helpful here
Remaining Class 3 to the summit
On the summit - great weather
Handies and American Basin
Redcloud & Sunshine
Uncompahgre & Matterhorn
Back at the Notch
Looking back at the gullies and the Prow
Back at the ridge
Lower in the basin
Cool looking ice
On the face value, getting both peaks from Matterhorn Creek TH sounds like a good idea. However, there are caveats. Uncompahgre will be the heavily weighted part of the equation – about 4,600 feet of elevation and 14 miles RT on a standalone basis. Regaining the Broken Hill pass on the way back to Wetterhorn can be quite unpleasant. So unless you are superfit, and your goal is to get both peaks and enjoy yourself, the best bet is probably to do each peak by its standard route from respective TH.
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