| Half Cup o` San Juan
Half Cup o' San Juan: The 56 Hour Sampler
Peaks: San Luis, Wetterhorn, Uncompahgre, Handies, Redcloud, Sunshine
Routes: Standard, except Uncompahgre from Matterhorn TH.
Dates: June 16-18, 2010
Length: 53.2 miles RT
Vertical: 17,700 feet
Total hiking/climbing time: 23 hours
Total time incl camping/driving b/t peaks: 56 hours
Ascent Party: Dancesatmoonrise
Looking east from Wetterhorn at Uncompahgre and Matterhorn
Six for One
Nearly a fourth of all Colorado 14ers lie in the San Juan range. Reaching the San Juans can involve substantial travel; hence, many climbers prefer to ascend multiple peaks in a single trip. The San Juan 14ers fall into three geographically oriented groups: the Eastern San Juan, the Chicago Basin, and the Western San Juan. Of the three, the Eastern San Juan is the largest, comprising nearly half of the San Juan 14ers: San Luis, Wetterhorn, Uncompagre, Redcloud, Sunshine, and Handies. With good weather and a little planning, this half of the San Juan may be completed in little more than 48 hours.
High pressure settled into the Great Basin this week and the forecast opened up with a broad weather window. So I put down the back seats, threw in a mattress and some gear, and headed southwest to give this a shot.
Wednesday, June 16:
San Luis Peak: 3600 vertical, 13 miles
Thursday, June 17:
Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre: 6400 vertical, 20.7 miles
Friday, June 18:
Handies Peak, 2900 vertical, 7.5 miles
Redcloud and Sunshine, 4800 vertical, 12 miles
Wednesday June 16 - San Luis Peak: 3600 vertical, 13 miles RT
The Stewart Creek drainage, below San Luis Peak
San Luis is a long way back on dirt roads. They get a little rough at the final seven miles. Twenty miles of deserted dirt road conjure up thoughts like, do I have a good spare? What if I had to hike out for any reason? Shouldn't I be carrying a water filter? Given a vehicle failure, even after hiking 20 miles out on these roads, you'd still be pretty much nowhere. I think the nearest town this side of the TH is Saguache, or Gunnison.
But the lengthy dirt roads looked like they'd be a lot of fun on XC skis – a good possibility for one of next winter's 14ers. I arrived at the Stewart Creek TH about 10:30 and got started at 11:00 am.
Arriving at the summit at 1:40, it was too windy to enjoy lunch. The price of admission for the early part of the weather window was high winds, also part of the reason for making San Luis first up. The stream crossing lower down made for more pleasant creekside dining. Keep your sandals on after the first crossing; the second one is a couple hundred yards up the trail. There is essentially no snow on the route right now.
On the summit of San Luis Peak
Originally, the afternoon plan called for taking forest roads over to Lake City, though after the forest roads to Stewart creek and back, I chose pavement: 114 to 50 to 149. The scenery alone was worth the drive.
Arriving at the lower Matterhorn TH before dark, it was no trouble finding a desirable campsite. The place was deserted: one of the benefits of early season. If you made it to the lower TH, you would do fine to get to the upper TH, though flat ground is more limited at the upper TH than on the main road. I got started about six the next morning.
Thursday June 17 – Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre: 6400 vertical, 20.7 miles RT
Wetterhorn at dawn, from Matterhorn Creek
Wetterhorn was fabulous. I had the summit to myself at 8:30 am under clear, calm skies.
Coxcomb and Redcliff from Wetterhorn's summit
Looking east from the summit of Wetterhorn, toward Uncompahgre and Matterhorn
Wetterhorn's compact summit
The climbing reminded me of the San Luis Valley stuff my friend Louis used to call rhyolite. Back in the early 80's, Louis was a schoolteacher in Del Norte, and an excellent boulderer. We had the pleasure of pioneering his discovery, the Penitente Canyon climbing area, along with a friend of his from Colorado Springs. Penitente was ok, but it couldn't hold a candle to some of the stuff we found down there that ironically never got popular. The stuff climbs like granite, but can form incredible column-like flows similar to basalt. Wetterhorn's rock bore some resemblance to this stuff and took me back to the pleasant reverie of many years ago…I was like a kid in the rock garden. I particularly liked how you are moving up short, easy ledges on maybe 50 degree rock, turn the edge above, and suddenly you're on Wetterhorn's cozy summit. This is a beautiful mountain.
An example of some of the strikingly beautiful rock on Wetterhorn Peak
The solid crux pitch provides enjoyable low-angle climbing
"The peak should look striking from afar…" (Roper and Steck, 1979, on defining a "classic climb.")
Wetterhorn from Handies
Wetterhorn from Redcloud
The snow remaining on the east aspects is easily circumvented
If you're going for both peaks, descend off of the boulderfield just north of the main trail, cross the confluence of alpine runoff below, and take a high contour around the southwest facing grassy hill, staying high into the 12,458 saddle to your east. There is still some snow, but no gear is needed. The terrain is undulating, gaining and losing some vertical. Stay on the Ridge Stock Driveway Trail #233. It is marked with signs. Short-cuts are mostly futile, except for the south face of 13,320's east ridge, where a nice game trail can be found coming directly off the Uncompahgre trail at around 13,200, above.
Seen from high on Wetterhorn, this view shows the connecting route between Wett & Unca. Uncompahgre is at background left, the saddle is center, Wetterhorn's boulderfield is foreground left/center.
Uncompahgre, southwest aspect
Wetterhorn and Matterhorn
UN 13108 - the easiest way around it is to the south. Sarah and Dominic used the gulley in image 14 last winter.
Contrasted to the solitude on Wetterhorn, Uncompagre is festive. I must have passed a dozen folks. It's a nice mountain, and has a classic profile, but after ecstasy on Wetterhorn, it was somewhat anti-climactic.
The way back through rolling alpine hills is nice in the warm afternoon sun. Be prepared for a long haul if you do these as a combo, and make sure you have a great forecast. I arrived back at the car 11 hours later, including summit time, photos, and a leisurely lunch in the pleasant rolling terrain between the peaks. The trail to Matterhorn Peak comes directly off the main trail between Wett & Unca, in case you wanted to catch the 13er as well.
I was camped in a grassy meadow, lined with lush green aspens. Returning in the afternoon sun was so nice, it made it hard to leave. I splashed in the creek for a while and had dinner before saying goodbye to this favorite place.
The "shelf road" to Redcloud and Sunshine is not very bad. But after having quiet beauty at Matterhorn Gulch, I really didn't care to yuck it up with the boy scouts at Silver Creek that night. I found the place just a tad too urban. I made an ad-hoc motion to amend the original plan, which was immediately accepted and ratified – one of the easier facets of traveling solo – and was soon off to discover just how bad the road is over to American Basin. Three and one-half miles took nearly half an hour. The stream crossing looked easy, but it seems I'd recalled someone saying it's tougher than it looks, and it was getting dark, so I parked in the pulloff. Two hours later I awoke to clawing noises coming from under the car. Every time I tried to forget about it and doze off, it would start again and wake me up. By midnight, I was certain it was eating wires and I'd be stranded – or that it was trying to get at the food smells and was clawing its way through the air ducts. The boy scouts really would have been better after all. I got up and moved the car a few hundred feet back down the road to a level spot. No more clawing, and sound sleep at last. The car even started.
Friday June 18:
Handies Peak, 2900 vertical, 7.5 miles
Redcloud and Sunshine, 4800 vertical, 12 miles
The 6:00 am start found an easy mile to the upper TH, but at that point it didn't make sense to go back for the car. If you got to the stream crossing, you should be able to cross it (this time of year) and get to the upper TH. If you choose to hoof it, the stream crossing is bridged to the left with a huge drift which should be around for a while. It's quite solid to walk on.
American Basin is not quite as pretty without all the wildflowers. The trail is easy to lose where it crosses from the west drainage to the east drainage, but one would have to work pretty hard to get lost in this tight cirque. Not surprisingly, Sloan Lake, at close to 13,000 feet, is still frozen. Between the lake and the saddle, there are a few north facing snow-filled gullies to cross. One in particular has some runout. The snow is firm and crunchy in the morning, with good kicked in steps. One of the more intelligent decisions of the day was to leave the axe in the car. Fortunately, there is a way around the main gulley, though it would be better to just have the axe.
Sloan Lake, 12,900
If you want to party with your friends, you can either go down to the corner bar, or go climb a 14er. Right on schedule, at 8:00 am sharp, Shredthegnar10 and I arrived at the summit simultaneously – she from Grizzly Gulch, I from American Basin. I feel a little embarrassed that I talked so much. Guess it was all the solo time the prior two days. Maybe I should have stayed on her side of the hill last night. I'm thinking the boy scouts are starting to look pretty intelligent.
Well, more peaks were waiting, time to get down. The first hints of that pulled muscle from rock climbing Tuesday night blossomed into full tilt knee pain on the Handies descent. There was minimal pain with uphill travel, but extreme pain with descending. I could barely hobble to the car. Redcloud and Sunshine looked pretty much out of the question at this point, so I was about to call it at four peaks and go home.
On the way back to the Redcloud TH, about 11:00 am, I found myself making a half-hearted effort to repack, and started down the trail at 11:30 with serious doubts as to my sanity. I couldn't imagine how on earth I was going to descend 4800 verts in this condition, particularly after just doing 2900 verts earlier that morning. There was only another 12 miles to go. I was lamenting breaking my rule about not doing much of anything the night before a big climbing trip. I threw in a roll of duct tape to lash the poles to the knee just in case, but left the headlamp in the car. I really didn't expect to get very far. Food check: one cookie and two granola bars. I'm not really going to attempt this, am I? The only half intelligent thing I did was to pack three liters of water. It was a hot summer's afternoon in the San Juan.
Two miles up the trail, I'm ready to turn back. Sandalot recognizes me from past TRs. I can't thank him enough for diagnosing the knee problem and encouraging me to get those last two peaks. After nearly twenty minutes that seem more like a reunion of lost brothers than a chance meeting, he realizes I'm stalling and won't let me get away with it. Bless his heart; without his encouragement I'd probably have turned back. He even offered some Advil. Hey Sandalot, thanks, and best wishes on your Capitol Peak and Snowmass attempts next month.
Right after our chance meeting things got better – the scree disappeared and turned into rolling hills of tundra in an asthetic rounding cirque with classic alpine switchbacks to a saddle, looking more like Switzerland than Colorado. The knee pain was only on the occasional downhill dip during the ascent – but I knew I was racking up quite a payback with every vertical foot of gain. The plan was to worry about it after getting these last two summits.
The saddle en route to Redcloud Peak
Strawberry Scree Fields ... Forever
"So many fantastic colors; makes me feel so good..."
My new sweetheart
Redcloud and Sunshine are reminiscent of a monster Belford and Oxford. Bel/Ox is 6000 verts and 11 miles; Red/Sun is only 4800 verts and 12 miles, but feels like a much grander scale. Perhaps it was the knee. That three-mile stride out and back to Sunshine was murder.
Two hours and forty minutes to Redcloud, check. Two more hours out and back to Sunshine, not bad considering. Three hours to limp my way back down, ouch! If I weren't the only one up there at that late hour I'd have looked pretty funny with that hiking-pole-crutch-gait thing going on. But the weather was holding in what appears to be one of the best, broadest summer weather windows in quite some time. I hope this trip report is one tiny speck in a flurry of great reports from all you guys and gals during this great early summer weather. (Gypsy Girl, please email!)
Wildflowers on Redcloud
Aspen leaves glowing in the afternoon sun
I can't believe I'm back at the car by 7:00 pm. Trashed, but immensely satisfied. The first order of business is to toss all the gear into the back and assemble all the finger foods and several bottles of water on the passenger seat. After a quick douse in the stream and a change of clothes, I'm headed down the long road home, really happy to have six more in the bag, and nearly half the San Juan down in one short trip. That puts a smile on my face as big as the western sunset.
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