| Winter Contemplation: Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre
Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre
Peaks: Wetterhorn Peak, Uncompahgre Peak
Date: March 19, 2013
Route: Matterhorn TH to Wetterhorn, SW slopes to Uncompahgre
Approach: Hensen Creek Road
Length: ~20 miles RT
Vertical: ~7000 feet
Total time: ~14 hours
Ascent Party: Greg (Summit Lounger,) Jim (Dancesatmoonrise)
Wetterhorn and Matterhorn Peaks are seen from the SW flanks of Uncompahgre.
OK, I admit it. Wetterhorn had me smitten from that very first sunny day we met, on Thursday, June 17, 2010. The whole trip was a hair-brained scheme entirely predicated on avoidance of excessive driving.
By this point I'd already figured out my life would be hopelessly empty, unfulfilled, lacking, incomplete, unrequited, deficient, insufficient, unconsummated, imperfect, lackadaisical, rough, rude, lewd, and indecent without at least having made the effort to step foot on each and every one of Colorado's 58 14ers. But why in the world my soul had suddenly felt it could not possibly be at peace with the planet, after nearly six decades of wandering around on its surface, and even with occasional forays into those hallowed places where the last remnants of earth meet sky, remained an inexplicable Quandary. I'd no idea why I had the blues for Greys or felt partly cloudy without Sunlight. I'd already poked around Pikes but still longed for Longs, sniffled for Sneffels, howled for Handies and growled for the Challenger of Little Bear. Honestly, it was quite the Conundrum.
I knew not why, but only that it was so. No sense in putting up a fight, or feigning indifference, or attempting to quietly sneak away from it. Besides, in the prior ten months, I'd already managed to attain about half the goal anyway, so I figured, let's just go ahead and give destiny her way, indulge the whim, and let the soul go along its merry way. But the San Juan remained. And isn't it a pretty long drive?
So one night, in a feverish fit of logic over sychronicity, a plan hatched. Fourteen San Juan peaks. Three general areas. Nearly half just in the western portion of the San Juan. Equals one trip, half down. Perfect. One only has to drive down for San Luis in the afternoon, run over to Hensen Creek that night for Wett and Unca the next day, then over to American Basin that night, for Handies in the morning and Redcloud and Sunshine in the afternoon, and then head back home that night, to get nearly half the San Juan in one easy, 2.5 day trip. Right?
Well if the pace didn't smoke me, Wetterhorn did. As I made way back down Uncompahgre and westward, back into the Matterhorn drainage, on that warm gorgeous June afternoon, I gazed in deep lust for a return to Wetterhorn. I sat and looked at the peak for a long time, wondering what it might look like in winter. Getting back to the car at last light, it was painful to leave that pristine little campsite on the Hensen Creek Road.
June 2010: "Winter Contemplation." Since that first warm summer's meeting nearly three years ago, Wetterhorn has beckoned a winter return.
The whole 14er chapter culminated on a bright, brisk,colorful fall day in the Elk range, in a solo effort on Capitol Peak. My soul was finally complete.
But what they don't tell you, is that when you finish the 14ers, even though allowed a brief period of personal satisfaction and serenity, the addiction fails to abate. A compelling urge sets in to go to harder and more powerful drugs - I mean peaks. Like the 13ers. Well, by golly, I wasn't going to let that happen to me. Heck no, that's dangerous. I'll just stick to the winter 14ers.
I mean, having started this whole 14er quest thing in the snow season, it only made sense to continue with the winter 14ers. If you can call that sense. My old girlfriend would beg and plead with me not to go, but she was so proud when I'd return successful. It was schizophrenic. Though she did ask if I would take up something less risky, like race car driving.
Uncompahgre in June, seen from high on Wetterhorn's SE slopes.
The 2012-13 winter season was a bit rough for peaks. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center had put out significant watches and warnings through the balance of the season. Waiting out peaks can be frustrating.
Finally, in the last week of calendar winter, temps warm up and conditions stabilize. I seize a half-reasonable opportunity to attempt four of the season's ten peaks in just the final six days of winter. The universe is lumpy. So too, Colorado winter conditions are a quantum thing.
Wetterhorn seen from Redcloud, June 2010.
Returning home from Sneffels and Handies on the last weekend of winter, the car is a huge mess from camping the past three days. Greg and I had talked about Wetterhorn, but it hadn't happened. I'm tired, and ready to call it good for the season. Still, that's only eight peaks this winter, the lowest count in the past four years of winter 14ering.
Two days of winter remain. I'm on edge. Can I just let Monday and Tuesday slip by, content to quietly sneak into spring? Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre still beckon. Fitful sleep, taunted with visions of Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre.
Of course you know you wouldn't be reading this trip report if there were no trip. Ultimately, synchronicity shines despite our most brilliant efforts.
I meet Greg at the Hensen Creek winter closure Monday night, where he has just returned from three miles up the road by bike, reporting that we can drive at least that far tomorrow morning.
Wetterhorn seen from Redcloud, January 2013.
My usual philosophy for driving on snow to trailheads is that one's time is often better spent hiking than digging. But if we hoofed it from the winter TH tomorrow, we'd be looking at something close to 30 miles on the day.
Which is why I brought two shovels.
Wetterhorn Peak, seen from Handies summit, June 18, 2010.
Wetterhorn Peak, seen from Handies summit, March 15, 2013.
Well, yes, we get stuck, and that costs us some time. But we get to within three miles of the summer TH, saving us about two hours on the day. Well, minus the hour getting stuck. And maybe wondering about the drive back out tonight. Come to think of it, mountain bikes are sure easier to dig out...
Seems it takes forever to get to the summer TH, but once there, things level out to a smooth clip.
Finally at the summer TH. Meet Greg: One fast, capable winter machine!
Take the right.
We're in luck. Great day, great weather, and we've got a nice moon tonight. This is doable.
Looking back down the Matterhorn Trail.
We stick to the ridgelines most of the way, in stable snow.
Looking back. Our start is way down in the canyon below.
Nearing the first objective, things are going well.
Late season can be a good time to get winter peaks. The third-class section on Wetterhorn is south-facing and free of snow. The steeper part below the Prow has a few sketchy spots on steeper terrain where the snow does not hold an axe well, though much can be avoided on nearby dry rock.
Steeper portion of the SE ridge.
We'll worry about that thing later today.
Looks so innocent, doesn't he?
Looking down the ridge.
Passing the Prow.
The dreaded third-class section. Not an issue today.
Soon we're on Wetterhorn's compact, friendly summit. Greg, of course, is already eying Uncompahgre. He has a plan.
Redcloud and Sunshine.
Needles in the distance behind Cinnamon Mountain.
Greg wants the third finger on Uncompahgre. Can't we just take the weenie way around the back and get home by moonlight?
The Uncompahgre Direct.
A daunting proposition after coming this far, but then, it is the last full day of winter..
Wetterhorn and Matterhorn. You can see our tracks at left center, coming over the saddle.
Looking more doable.
Moon, clouds, hoo-doos... Must be getting close.
The going's not bad; making good time.
The last section is pretty steep and loose.
Didn't seem as far as it looks.
Incredible day. Greg's a motor; kept us both motivated and moving. Thanks, Greg!
We spend a few minutes enjoying Uncompahgre's summit in winter, slightly ahead of schedule. Everything seems in our favor. The snow is stable, the weather clear, and a half moon promises overhead light at sundown.
The difference in elevation is apparent. From the Uncompahgre summit, we gaze down upon Wetterhorn. Hard to believe we were there just this afternoon.
We were able to boot-glissade stable snow, picking up some time.
The long road home never felt better, as we bid a gracious farewell to winter.
Late day winter shadows.
Our descent line.
Back into the Matterhorn basin.
Then, just before last light, Greg breaks a rivet on his snowshoe. The binding falls off.
Who would think such a simple failure could be so potentially serious? It's winter. Can't get through this stuff without float. The warm afternoon gives way to evening's frigid temps. We're getting chilled just trying to fix the binding. We both have winter bail-out gear, but would rather not test it tonight.
We try some alpine cord. The abrasiveness of the snow destroys it in less than a hundred yards. We try re-tying with a large knot in each exposed end, running the cord on the non-snow side. This works better, and seems to hold up. Even with snowshoes, there's typical late day post-holing. We keep fingers cross and keep trudging. The moon serves us well. The road is long.
After ages, we arrive at the car. Surprisingly, I don't get the darn thing stuck on the way out. We're feeling good sorting gear at the winter closure after a long, satisfying day in some of the state's most beautiful mountains.
We don't part ways for the drive home till something like 10pm. I already knew work tomorrow was going to be rough. But we pulled off two moderate winter 14ers in a day - and even better - on the last full day of winter.
Greg, thanks for a great trip!