| Wetterhorn & Uncompahgre
Wetterhorn Peak & Uncompahgre Peak
January 9-11, 2010
From Henson Creek Rd Winter Closure
Total 31.5 miles, 9350 ft (Backpacking: 14.2 miles, 1850 ft & Climbing: 17.3 miles, 7500 ft)
Early last week I'd agreed to spend the upcoming weekend at the ice park in Lake City with friends but as the time drew near I found myself squirming. The weather was predicted to be downright perfect for as long as the forecast could see, quite the winter anomaly. These are the opportunities winter mountaineers wait for and dream about, the chances we're given to attempt things that otherwise shouldn't be attempted, one of the key ingredients for safety and success on Colorado's tougher winter 14ers. It'd be rude to reject such a lavish gift from the mountain gods, would it not?
As it turned out Dominic wasn't thrilled about spending the whole weekend at the park either and plans remained in a state of limbo until late Friday afternoon. After strong consideration I remained hopelessy irresolute and in my frustration left the decision completely up to Dominic. When he proclaimed he'd prefer a three day trip to attempt Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre I was quite surprised. I had serious doubts whether we'd be able to pull off the physical feat without a bigger team and I was worried the snowpack wouldn't be cooperative, but the idea of checking out the area in winter was appealing in and of itself. We scrambled to gather supplies and gear at the last minute and arrived at the Henson Creek Road winter closure at midnight. This is about 1.5 miles past the Henson townsite.
Saturday: Backpack to camp along Matterhorn Creek
We are hiking up the snowmobile tracked road under heavy packs by 8am. In addition to the standard sub zero backpacking gear we're hauling three days worth of food, harnesses, a light rope, a few pieces of pro, and avy gear. Its both a curse and a blessing that our snowshoes are on our backs and not on our feet.
Time passes quickly and we weather the flat four mile walk to Capitol City with minimal suffering. The deluxe, fresh sled tracks don't continue up the North Fork Henson Creek Road but we're pleased to make out an older, buried sled track that does! On go the snowshoes and we slowly plod up the road toward Matterhorn Creek. The old track helps considerably.
After two more miles we reach the turnoff to the Matterhorn Creek TH. Can it be? What have we done to deserve this? The old sled track is going our way! Trailbreaking requires some effort but its a walk in the park compared to what we were expecting.
Our luck ends about a quarter mile before the summer trailhead and our pace is slowed to a crawl. We're wallowing in deep, unconsolidated snow and cursing our heavy burdens. After thrashing our way the remainder of the distance to the trailhead we ponder our next move. Do we set up camp here or try to push higher? The pros and cons are weighed and we unenthusiastically decide to venture a bit further.
We take turns at the tough trailbreaking. There's some whoomphing going on and despite the fact that we're on safe ground the horrible sound still instills fear in me. After a hard won 2/3 of a mile or so the trees start opening up and we decide to camp at 11,150 feet. Going on with our heavy packs would be too much torture. Its been a tough haul already.
After going about the usual winter camp construction procedures we cook up some lunch and then set out for dreaded trench duty. To navigate tomorrow morning for a bit in the dark and to improve our odds of success on Wetterhorn we need to give ourselves a track that leads us safely through any avalanche hazards and expedites the approach. My body is abused and complaining from the hike in but I'm anxious to see what we'll find up high. In general the snow pack hasn't inspired confidence so far but it looks like it hasn't snowed in days and the lack of snow on some slopes keeps me hopeful. I'm prepared to write this off as a recon trip and grab Uncompahgre as a consolation prize, but I'm still dreaming of the other guy.
We take turns breaking and its a slow process. Just past camp the summer trail climbs more steeply and travels across open slopes with avalanche potential. We carefully picked our way up a safe line here but its apparent that with another good dump it may be wise to deviate substantially from the summer trail and stay down in the drainage until safer terrain is reached.
After spending almost two hours breaking trail one mile to 11,750 feet we call it a day. We'd hoped to get a better view of possible routes up to Wetterhorn's southeast ridge but the sun is getting low we're beat. We improve the trench on the way down.
Matterhorn Peak in late afternoon from close to our turnaround point
Sunday: Wetterhorn Peak
6:45am we're back at it. We cruise the track to the end in just 35 minutes and are plenty satisfied with our decision to construct it the day before. Our progress now slowed by the act of trailbreaking, we stay west of the summer trail hoping to find an alternate way to gain Wetterhorn's southwest ridge. Several sources report that gaining the ridge earlier than the standard route does is sometimes a safer option in winter. The snowpack isn't trustworthy and we're careful to stay on low angle slopes and away from possible avalanche runouts. Old debris is visible.
A minor rib leading up to the ridge looks encouraging for safe passage. All but a very small spot near the top is windblown and that little bit of snow doesn't appear to be all that steep. We decide to give it a shot.
Heading up the base of the rib
Alternate route to the southeast ridge
Dominic leads the way up the steep slope which is a mix of dry rock and snowy grass. We gain elevation efficiently until posed with the short snowy section near the very top. We need get through a brief stint of thigh deep powder. We can see the ground and amazingly there appears to be no slab action in the snowpack here; its just fluff. We proceed cautiously but I'm a bit nervous and poor Dominic has to do all the hard work up front because of it. Its times like these being in the avalanche comes back to haunt me. Dominic appears confident and that helps ease my mind a little. The slope probably touches 30 degrees in one spot but is less steep in general. Steep snow slopes surround us on either side and the runout of even a small slide could be catastrophic.
After a few minutes of wallowing and extreme effort we reach the ridge crest and I breathe a sigh of relief. From here only a half mile stroll is required to gain the standard route.
Wetterhorn from its southeast ridge
The ridge eventually begins to roughen and we cache our snowshoes and prepare for the upper scrambly portion of the mountain. Along the way we've made a jubilant observation: the standard summer route up to the southwest ridge appears to be a very safe option at the moment and there's no need to descend our ascent route. Sweet!
Parts of the standard route on the southwest face are snow covered and other parts are bone dry.
Upper part of the route
We piece together our own variation to fit the existing conditions and pick our way upward. Its never difficult and an ice axe is all we use. There's plenty of fun scrambling to be had on good rock and we find this part quite enjoyable. By now there's little doubt that the summit will soon be ours so we just relax and enjoy the moment.
We reach the prow, posthole our way through a small but deep snowfield, and climb up to the slabby, downsloping ramp leading to the base of the summit pitch. Fortunately the slab is dry.
Ramp leading to base of summit pitch
Dominic heads down first and reports that the summit pitch looks pretty dry from below but that there is at least some snow here and there. I tell him to get the rope out just for extra security since we hauled it all the way up here but change my mind as soon as I set eyes on the pitch myself. No problem! Its easier than we both remember. Our first climb of Wetterhorn was in our "early days" and we both find it much less intimidating this time around! There is some snow and ice on the ledges in the upper half but not enough to make us uncomfortable.
Dominic climbing the summit pitch
At 11:20 we're on the familiar summit and grinning from ear to ear. Life couldn't be better. We've done it and are still feeling strong. A very rare, long, warm summit stay by winter standards ensues. There's no reason to rush. The views of Coxcomb, Heisshorn and El Punto and the Cimarron area in general are especially captivating. Nobody has signed the register since mid October but its in perfect condition.
Us on the summit
Matterhorn & Uncompahgre
When we've had our fill we begin the descent. After carefully downclimbing the crux pitch we make quick work retracing our steps back to the snowshoe cache.
Dominic downclimbing the summit pitch
Snowy scrambling on the descent
More scrambling on the descent
Descending the southeast ridge
The standard summer route down from the ridge is blown clear, a mix of talus and grass. The talus field below is filled with snow but the wallowing is only occasional. There are plenty of boulders exposed on the steep slopes down low to keep us quite happy and we're soon on easy ground in the basin south of Matterhorn Peak. The sun is bearing down on us and the unbearable heat forces us to strip layers that usually never come off in winter.
Wetterhorn's east face
Looking back at Wetterhorn on the descent
Its too early to call it a day so we feel obligated to break a track toward Uncompahgre. We have hopes of bagging it tomorrow morning before embarking on the dreaded hike out and long drive home. Many pounds of extra gear are stashed and we set out for the pass southeast of Matterhorn Peak. After taking turns breaking the track we reach the saddle without issue. From here our route drops down several hundred feet and the terrain ahead looks easy so we call it a day. It doesn't make sense to continue. We turn around and work on improving the track on the way down. We'll appreciate it in the morning.
Monday: Uncompahgre & hike out
5:15am we're headed up the track once again. By now we know it well even in the dark. At 6:40 we reach the end of our track five minutes ahead of schedule. Uncompahgre's silhouette is becoming more pronounced by the minute.
Uncompahgre at dawn
Its cold and there's enough light to navigate down the gentle slopes on the other side of the saddle so on we march. There's lots of hard crust here and the going is usually easy but the last two days seem to have taken their toll.
Wetterhorn & Matterhorn before sunrise
We'd hoped to climb a direct route up one of the shallow gullies on the west face but its holding some snow and there's evidence of an old slide. It looks like we might be able to work our way around the menacing snow, but we see a more attractive option that's a sure thing. The slopes leading up to the large notch in the south ridge are mostly bare – nasty steep scree, but bare. We'll take it. Utilizing some crunchy, shallow snow patches down low we mange to avoid some of the scree. Higher up we posthole through a talus filled snowfield before finishing it off with some more loose scree.
Climbing to the notch in the south ridge
At the top of the notch we gain the summer route and follow Ken's footprints through spotty snow.
Following the trail high on Uncompahgre
The rest of the ascent is straightforward and we reach the summit at 9:20. Although its another perfect winter weather day we only enjoy it for 20 minutes because the task ahead is weighing on our minds.
Wetterhorn & Matterhorn from Uncompahgre
The descent back to camp is straightforward but hot. I have never experienced such heat in January!
Descending from the notch in the south ridge
Uncompahgre parting shot
Camp along Matterhorn Creek
We're back at camp by 12:00 and shouldering our overnight packs by 1:00.
The trek back to the start of the old sled track is frustrating for a tired and aching body forced to carry such a load. The poor excuse for a track we created with our wallowing two days earlier helps but its still not pretty. To add to the difficulty, its so stinkin' hot that the snow is balling up in our snowshoes and on our poles like flies on you know what. Every two steps I'm kicking it off. Who would have thought there is such a thing as a winter day that is "too warm".
Luckily when we regain the snowmobile track the going becomes smoother, but its still sticky and heavy. The North Fork Henson Creek Road drags on forever.
Reaching Capitol City produces mixed feelings. I'm really ready for this to be over. Dominic inquires about the pace he should set from here: reasonable or feverish. I vote for the latter but fear that the two are nearly one in the same for me at this point. Dominic sets off at a pace I can barely maintain but I somehow manage. By some miracle the car appears at 3:35, long before it seems we deserve it. Just less then 6 hours ago we left the summit of Uncompahgre! I don't know how that can be but I don't have the energy to question it.
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