| Perfect day in the Uncompahgre Wilderness
who: Scott (scotthsu) and friend David
itinerary: hike/climb from Wetterhorn Basin TH in W Fork Cimarron River drainage (~10760') to Coxcomb Peak (13656') via SW chimney (low 5th class), rappel down N face and descend to Coxcomb/Redcliff saddle (13140'), climb Redcliff (13642') via S ridge (class 2), descend back to TH
total vertical climbed: ~3850'
RT mileage: ~7.5 miles (rough estimate)
car-to-car time: 9 hrs 40 min
climbing equipment: double 60m dry ropes (mostly for rappelling), harness/belay device, rock shoes (for me), light rack of cams (to 2.5") and nuts, 5 slings, helmet, ~40' rappel webbing.
My friend David, also from Los Alamos, NM, first mentioned this climb to me last year. At the time, I'd never even heard of these two peaks, as I was more focused on 14ers and centennial 13ers then. He needed these two peaks on his quest to finish off the bicentennial 13ers. These were numbers 155 and 156 (of the CO highest 200) for him (congrats)! He needed a climbing partner for Coxcomb since it involved roped climbing and rappelling, and I'm lucky he invited me to join him. I accepted immediately since I knew the trip had to be a good one. I should also mention that when I began technical climbing about 4 years ago, David was my primary climbing mentor and an excellent one. I followed him up a lot of great climbs in northern NM, and now I was happy to accompany him on the hardest peak of his remaining CO highest 200 peaks.
Coxcomb and Redcliff are located in the Uncompahgre Wilderness just to the NW of the 14er Wetterhorn Peak (14015'). You can approach the closest TH either from Hwy 50 west of Gunnison, or Hwy 550 just north of Ridgway. Two references for climbing these peaks are: "Climbing Colorado's San Juan Mountains" by Rosebrough or "Colorado's High Thirteeners" by Garratt & Martin.
We drove to the TH from Los Alamos, NM, on Friday afternoon (8/24). About 1.8 miles north of Ridgway on Hwy 550, we turned east onto County Rd 10. Following signs toward "Owl Creek Pass," we drove the well maintained gravel roads (dusty!) ~14 miles to Owl Creek Pass. The views were spectacular! Shortly afterward, we turned right onto FS 860 and headed up the Cimarron River (W. Fork) drainage just a few miles. A high clearance 4WD is a good idea for the last mile or so, which includes a river crossing (low at this time of year). There are plenty of pullout camping spots (mostly occupied!) as well as lots of space at the 4WD TH. The total driving time from Ridgway to the TH was about 45 minutes. Here is a view from the TH, with Redcliff (left of center) and Coxcomb (center).
David put up a tent, and I set up the back of my Xterra for sleeping. We were lights out by ~9pm. The next morning we were hiking with headlamps by 5am. The trail (Wetterhorn Basin trail #226) was in very good shape (with frequent tree blazes) and easy to follow with headlamps. We did lose the trail once about 1 mile in where the trail crosses a dry rocky creek bed. In the dark, it was easy to get suckered into following the dry creek bed SE into trees. Instead, you need to cross the dry creek bed and continue south. It started to get bright shortly afterward and the views in this basin were great. After about 2 hours (and 3.1 miles, ~1740' climb) of hiking, we arrived at the ~12,500' pass west of Coxcomb Peak. From here the trail continues down into Wetterhorn Basin. The views continued to be stunning. Here's our first view of Wetterhorn, always impressive. I had never seen it from the NW:
It is best to continue down on the trail until a flat section around 12100'. At this point, we headed NE up grass toward Coxcomb. Our approximate route and the climb up the SW chimney are shown here:
We arrived at the base of the summit block around 8:20am, making for a 3 hr 20 min approach. There was not a cloud in the sky! We donned our harnesses at this point, and I put on my rock shoes. We decided to free solo the start. David contemplating a tough (in hiking boots) exposed move early on:
The next section was easier class 4 scrambling before reaching a tall chimney. David at the base of the chimney:
David tried the chimney but decided to come back down for a belay. Knowing that I would lead this section in rock shoes, he decided to leave the rock shoes behind. We both decided afterward that we would have free soloed this section in rock shoes. Instead, I led up this chimney, heading toward the right. I placed a small cam early on and a small nut higher up just below a bunch of rappel slings.
David coming up, enjoying his chimney climb:
From here, we climbed up some short class 2/3, reached the summit ridge, and walked NE (right) until reaching a sharp notch:
We slung a rock and rappelled about 20'-30' down into the notch, and climbed class 3 up the other side. From here it was a short but very exposed walk to the summit, arriving around 10:10am.
We couldn't find a summit register. Picture of Scott on the summit:
We enjoyed a snack and summit juice (Cognac of course). The weather was perfect. We wanted to rappel down the N side because this would allow us to climb Redcliff much more easily than retracing our ascent route. David scrambled just a short bit N from the summit and spotted the rappel slings we wanted for rappelling down the N side:
The view to Redcliff:
At this point, I went back to retrieve our rope at the notch. (We had left it there in case we wanted to descend via our ascent route, and would need to climb up the summit ridge notch.)
We were both concerned about this rappel, as it looked loose and scary. We were happy to identify the rappel slings, but it still required a fairly exposed downclimb over loose rocks. Here is a picture of David downclimbing the last class 3/4 section to the rappel slings.
There were several weathered slings wrapped around a block with an old carabiner and rappel ring. We added two more new pieces of webbing and a rappel ring, and put our two 60m ropes (tied together with a double-fisherman's knot) through the rings and carabiner. We tossed the ropes over the edge and hoped for the best! I went first. The rock was lower angle than I expected, so the rappel wasn't quite so scary. However, there were still lots of loose rocks, and I probably wouldn't want to ascend this route. I had to take a lot of time untangling the ropes and tossing them down further. I reached the ground with quite a bit of rope to spare. Two 50m ropes tied together would probably reach the ground, but I can't say for sure. To be safe, I'd recommend bringing two 60m ropes for the rappel. Some loose rocks came hurtling down when David was rappelling. Luckily I had moved off to the right. If you rappel this route, make sure the first person down gets out of the way before the second person starts rappelling! Here is a picture of our rappel route. I am unsure of the exact location of the rappel slings in this picture. This is only my best guess.
We were both glad to get down safely. We put our harnesses away, and descended small talus to the grassy bench between Coxcomb and Redcliff. At the saddle, we met a nice lady from Granby/Boulder who took this picture (looking back at Coxcomb) for us:
We dropped our packs here. I grabbed my camera and summit juice, and we hiked (nice and light) to the summit of Redcliff, reaching the summit around 12:30pm. There was a summit register (with entries going back to 2002) and we signed it. Here's a picture of David on the way down just below the summit, pointing at his big accomplishment!
The descent from the saddle was directly down grass, loose scree, and steep dirt trails. We reached the main trail down in the basin around 2pm and got back to the car at 2:40pm, enjoying our sandals, snacks, and a beer! The perfect end to a perfect day.
Climbing endnotes: There are many "styles" to climb Coxcomb. Depending on a person's level of comfort, you could free solo all the climbing sections and bring a rope just for rappelling. Or you could rope up for the climb and bring very minimal rock protection (i.e., 50m rope and a few cams and nuts). If you rappel the SW chimney ascent route, a single 50m rope should be enough for 2 short rappels. If you rappel the N face (like we did), two 60m ropes are recommended.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):