| Picture Perfect San Juans
Stewart Creek TH: 335 AM
San Luis Summit: 625-635
Back at TH: 845
Nellie Creek TH: 1140
Uncompahgre Summit: 130-150
Back at TH: 330
6400 feet vertical gain
San Luis is a mountain I've had plans to do many times, but the long drive always discouraged me from making it down. I had planned on finishing my 14er quest on Uncompahgre, but a foul weather weekend forced me to reschedule the El Diente/ Mt Wilson traverse for later in the year. After this year's August monsoon season, there was suddenly a weekend weather report with no rain at all in the forecast. This would be my chance to pick up both San Luis and Uncompahgre. I could take two days, but my friend Derek had got me thinking about a sunrise summit of San Luis, and I hoped I could get up the Nellie Creek 4x4 road and take my shot at Uncompahgre in the afternoon.
I left school Friday afternoon, grabbed a mocha to keep me awake, and started the long drive toward Gunnison. I made great time to the turn off from 50, and from there it is a long, but peaceful and pretty drive, especially listening to Natalie Merchant. The description of how to get to the trailhead is different between 14ers.com and Gary Roach, so I ended up a little confused, but it was pretty easy with all the signs. It did take longer than expected, but I was happy with a climbing day ahead.
backroads to San Luis
I arrived just at dusk, and talked to a 14ers.com lurker who was barnstorming the San Juans. I also saw that Mark Udall had signed in a couple days before to climb Stewart Peak. I had met him during the 2008 election, and asked about climbing the 14ers. He is done with the 58 official, and is working on the Centennial list now. I got to bed around 8:00. My alarm woke me at 3:15, and after a banana in the dark, I was on the trail. It was a good trail in the dark- one moment of uncertainty, but easy to follow. There was a moment when I heard some kind of large sounding animal fairly close to me, which always gets the blood pumping, but he didn't show himself, so I continued on and found myself nearing the ridge as it became light. My goal was to be on the summit before the sun peaked over the horizon, so I kicked into higher gear.
on the ridge
last push to the summit
I rounded onto the summit at exactly 6:25. The wind, which didn't seem to exist a few minutes ago, kicked in, and I was very cold very fast. Still, I had beaten the sun, and not by much, so I pulled out a snack and got ready to enjoy the show. Sitting there, I realized that today was 8/21, which is my son Connor's birthday. Even better, he was born just at 6:30. At that moment, the sun peaked over the horizon and I got a huge smile. I wished I could call him to wish him "Happy Birthday," but he would surely be sleeping, and I didn't have a phone. I would just be content to wish him well from atop San Luis. The sun celebrated with me:
waiting for the sun to appear
I would have loved to sit a little longer, but the wind was really ripping, and I was flat out cold. I looked to the northwest and saw Uncompahgre in the distance, and decided to haul out of there and see about making an afternoon visit if the weather held out.
Uncompahgre in the distance- my next stop
I took off at 6:35, and made good time back to the saddle. Looking down into the basin, I wonder if I'm foolish for always starting hikes so early. Loved the sunrise, but walking through this in the dark seems crazy. I was filled with that contentness that only seems to come in the mountains, and I enjoyed the walk out so much.
looking back at the summit
down into the basin
what a beautiful valley
back toward the saddle- San Luis can't be seen here
one looks at one
nearing the trailhead
sometimes you want time to stop
I was back at my car at 8:45, feeling terrific. The weather looked perfect, so I hoped the drive to Uncompahgre wouldn't be a problem. It did take longer than I wanted- those dirt backroads are never fast. Eventually, I got on the paved road toward Lake City, and caught a glimpse of Uncompahgre.
Uncompahgre from the road- hurry!
In Lake City, I found a coffee shop and got a bacon and egg bagel sandwich, and then took off toward Nellie Creek road. This road scared me- I had heard and read such mixed things, and in a Honda CRV, I have gotten myself into a couple jackpots on other 4x4 roads. It turned out that Nellie Creek was really tame compared to others. I never had any trouble, and got to the trailhead at 11:25. About 15 minutes to stretch and eat a snack, and check the weather- still perfect- and I was off. People were already coming off, and I realized I had become "that guy," who starts a climb at around noon without realizing how dangerous the weather can be. A couple climbers asked if I planned to summit with doubtful looks, but there really were no clouds, and I felt great. Before long I passed a couple groups going up, which helps me a lot psychologically- I'm not the last one, so I can't be in too bad shape.
When I left treeline and saw Uncompahgre, it really affected me. It's strange how the shape of something can just kind of get into your head. I spent about two hours one afternoon in San Francisco just gazing at the Golden Gate Bridge- I just couldn't leave. I didn't expect the Eiffel Tower to be such a big deal, but when I got to Paris, it was the same thing- I just couldn't take my eyes off it for over an hour. Uncompahgre had the same effect. As I walked up closer and closer to it, I felt like Richard Dryfuss in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," getting closer and closer to Devil's Tower, unable to turn back. I felt this urging to continue on and hurry to the top, like I'd had two or three mochas, but I swear I hadn't. It's just a pretty powerful mountain. My legs felt strong, and I made good time.
aliens on the other side?
switchbacks to the saddle
crux- somewhat loose, somewhat steep rock
on the top, nearing the summit proper
I got on the summit at 1:30. Some clouds had started to form, but I clearly had all day, so I took out my bagel sandwich, enjoyed the warm sunlight, and got one of those huge silly smiles on my face that I couldn't control. The sheer drop on the north side is stunning, Wetterhorn to the west, the Handies group south, and in the distance, I was able to make out San Luis-was that just earlier this morning?
San Luis way off in the distance
happy on #56
Eventually, the weather started to turn colder, so rather than layer up, I began my descent. I put on some Lyle Lovett and enjoyed the afternoon completely. Eventually, I got missing my wife, and my thoughts turned to the long drive back to Denver to see her. All the way to timberline I kept turning around for that one last look at Uncompahgre- it's funny how you feel connected to a peak after climbing it. I think I'll be returning before too long, and maybe several times. Both San Luis and Uncompahgre- what beautiful and amazing mountains.
a beautiful mountain
last glimpse from timberline
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