| Solitude on Uncompahgre
Solo climb and ski descent of Uncompahgre Peak, 4/22/2011, from the lower Nellie Creek trailhead.
Climb via west face, descent via south ridge and southeast face.
15 miles, 5399' climbed, about 5369' skied, 8.5 hours
Sometimes you just need to go out alone. Gerlinde is on her way to Nepal, my usual partners are skiing a line that I did just a couple of weeks ago... I was at a bit of a loss as to where to go on a gorgeous Saturday until Anna posted pictures from a drive through the San Juans, including Uncompahgre. Coverage looked better than in most previous skiers' TRs, so I decided to give it a shot. As it turned out, a lot of melting and wind transport has taken place since Anna's photos were taken. More on that later.
I arrived in Lake City early enough for a decent night's sleep, so I decided to indulge that possibility. The Quiet Moose was indeed quiet, and I was well cared for by Bruno and Frederique.
Anticipating a hot day, I hit the trail at 4:00 am. With only a few bare spots, snow started almost immediately. A spectacular shooting star cut across the northern sky. The snow was frozen hard, which made for very efficient skinning; I was at the 4WD trailhead by 6:00:
Stars were beginning to fade in the east, but I had gained another 1000' before dawn broke:
Dawn in the upper basin
What a gift to be above treeline at daybreak! Uncompahgre looked grand in the early light:
first light on the peak
Grand... but a little undressed, relative to Anna's pictures. Still, from a skier's point of view, it looked about as good as it ever does. The problem with Uncompahgre is that half the snow melts or blows away before the other half stabilizes, so it's always a bit scratchy for a ski descent. I noted that, by traversing to skier's left, I would be able to avoid most of the bare ground on the southeast slope:
The Southeast slopes
That, however, was only the backup plan. Being alone with my shadow...
A shady character
... I figured I could explore around without making anyone impatient. I was hoping to ski the Fin Couloir, which splits the cliffs on the south side. One approaches this by traversing what Dawson describes as an "improbable notch" at 13,460'. Improbable, yes - it's like stepping into a wind tunnel:
At the notch
Skins were off, boots buckled tight, and I skied down about 400' vertical to the shelf below the cliffs. Traversing this ledge with eager anticipation, I looked for snow in the Fin... and it was as dry as a bone. I gather the wind has been more southerly than westerly lately. The view was nice, though:
I continued across until I reached snow on the west face, and climbed up the first gully I came to. I regained the 13,460' level at 9:30; my detour had cost me an hour.
Ascending the west face
From here up, it was a battle with an increasingly strong wind. After seeing Anna's pictures, I still hoped for continuous snow from the summit onto one descent route or another, but it was not to be. Well, we have ways of dealing with such problems - and reading everyone else's TRs from skiing this mountain, it seems that it's always like this. So I settled on the standard South Ridge/Southeast Slope ski route. The views from the summit are spectacular, and the area is geologically interesting as well. Here is the view toward Sneffels. Ben, Brian and Glen are out there somewhere:
Looking south, I wondered: with all that snow out there, why couldn't there be a little more right here?
Uncompahgre is a beautiful summit...
A little snow at the summit...
... and from here you can see the gently curving escarpments that formed part of the wall of the vast volcanic caldera that once existed here...
Ancient crater rim
... but let's just say that it's not the skiing opportunities that make Uncompahgre special.
The descent off the summit was an exercise in billygoating and stitching together little patches of snow. I made it work, but it wasn't the prettiest descent. Eventually I managed to make some tracks worthy of looking back on...
Tracks on the southeast face
... and then headed down the Nellie Creek road, arriving back at the lower trailhead at 12:30.
Thanks for reading!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):