Wetterhorn Peak - 14,015 feet
Wetterhorn Peak - 14,015 feet
|Wetterhorn for Wusses|
(Note: my laptop, which was approximately Methuselah’s age in computer years anyway, took its dying mechanical breath just as I was attempting to upload my pictures, which I then had to do via my phone. As I don’t particularly want to make an evening trip to the Central Library just to use the desktop interface, you’ll have to imagine that the photos were strategically placed and wittily captioned within this novella of a write-up.)
I generally save my trip reports either for something going tragicomically wrong, as happened on my last San Juan outing, or when I've climbed a non-Colorado peak that might be of interest to other forum enthusiasts who find themselves far from home without a route description to download from the 14ers app.
I managed to avoid getting punched by a rock this time, and there's plenty of good beta on this very site about how best to approach Wetterhorn's summit, but I thought I'd write a post all the same to answer a question I've seen a few times in various wordings on here, one which boils down to: "Wetterhorn: merely terrifying or Lovecraftian nightmare in mountain form?" In essence, I write this as someone who lets out a high-pitched whimpering noise when examining pictures of Class 3 routes for others who do the same.
A caveat up front: this was not my first Class 3 rodeo. I've summited Longs twice before, the second time because of how badly the first one went (short version: I had a two-day hospital visit, though before you let that scare you off the more challenging Front Range peak, allow me to clarify that that had more to do with a bum insulin pump and bad decision-making than the nature of the route), so I had that to draw from. I've also summited Half Dome via the Cables, an experience which I was able to put to use for reasons I'll elaborate on later. I'm not a total wide-eyed innocent to steeper stuff, in other words, so do keep that in mind if you'd rather read the perspective of someone who did this as their first all-hands-on-deck climb.
I was able to start from the lower Matterhorn Creek TH, which is rated as "Easy 4WD" up to that point. It's doable in a Subaru Outback, but a sedan or anything with less ground clearance will probably be better suited parking right off the Henson Creek Road, which would add ~5.5 miles roundtrip to the day. If you start from the lower 4WD trailhead, however, you'll only have a 15-20 minute walk to the upper lot.
Hikers familiar with Class 1 or regular Class 2 trails won't find anything off-putting up through the yellow-dirt section listed in Bill M.'s route description (or at least not until they're coming down :p ). The first gully, however, is pretty steep and loose in places, and I wound up using my hands for several portions of that section. For me, personally, this wound up being (or maybe just feeling) like the longest section of the whole mountain, which might be encouragement of sorts: make it past that, and the rest isn't so bad!
There is a caveat to those last ten words, however, because if you make the choice I did at the top of the gully and decide to head to the right of the rocks pictured in photo # 14 in the route description linked above, you'll wind up scrabbling around the side of the mountain with a breathtakingly steep drop to your right. As I crawled rather than hiked across that segment, I honestly believed that it was that portion which gave the mountain its exposure rating of High, and if there was any advantage to be had from taking this option, it was that it made me view the final Class 3 pitch's descent as no biggie in comparison. Oh, and there's plenty of loose dirt in this section, too, which is not reassuring for those of us who aren't half mountain goat.
I am not being melodramatic when I say I breathed a sigh of relief on gaining the brief walk-up along the ridge to the notch that acts as a gateway to that final pitch. It was here that I met a retired dentist from Grand Junction who was on his way down. We conversed as he retrieved his backpack, and there seemed a wisdom in following his cue and dropping my own pack there so that I could manage the final scramble as unencumbered as possible.
Perhaps, like me, you spent a great deal of time staring at photo # 21 in the route description, thinking to yourself that the slab at the bottom-right of the picture looked like a smooth, easy slide into the yawning void at bottom-left. While I don't think I'd have the guts to cross it under wet or icy conditions, I can say that when it's dry, it's gentler than the section of Cap Hill sidewalk between Lincoln and Sherman, and - at least on the day I was up there - with 100% fewer conspiracy theorists frothing at the mouth about chemtrails and UFOs!
Sure, the final pitch is steep, but if you already survived the gully, you'll be pleased at how comparatively stable the rock is. It's not very long, either; while I am faster than I used to be (testosterone is a wonder drug!), it's still saying something to report that it took me ten minutes, max, before I was on the summit.
I didn't stay on the summit too long; there isn't as much of one to explore here as there is on nearby Uncompahgre, so it was a quick matter of taking pictures of the surrounding views as well as getting one of the other two guys on the summit to take a victory pic of me with the loftier but easier-access summit in the background. Plus, I'd left the water my parched mouth craved at the base of the final notch, and besides, having started later than I'd initially planned (don't count on the rising sun's light to be your only alarm clock if you sleep at the TH, kids!), I wanted to be back on the sprintable section of trail as quickly as I could in case the clouds heading in decided to bring in reinforcements.
Part of the reason I had a relatively easy time of the Class 3 pitch's descent was thanks to my experience on Half Dome three years earlier. I'd summited that in spite of having a quasi-panic attack in the middle of the Cables while waiting for the line up ahead of me to move; just as I was trying to figure out how to get back down, it started going up, and in proof that panicky people make GREAT decisions, I went up with it. This actually turned out to be a good call - not only did I make the top, I also had to reach it in order to hear the advice from a Half Dome repeat summiter about the trick to descending: treat it like a rappel. Grab only one cable and use it as a guideline as you slide your feet from step to step.
There are, of course, no cables on Wetterhorn, but the same trick of positioning I'd picked up from following his advice applied for me in Colorado; I was able to sidestep or face in most of the way down, which not only forced me to look only as far as my next foothold (highly recommended for fellow acrophobics!), it also allowed me to keep at least one hand steady on its given hold while I took that next step.
I didn't run into trouble until I retrieved my backpack, pointed the notch out to another climber, and started down. Since I hadn't liked the climbers-right option at the top of that first gully, I decided to try descending the climbers-left option. I would absolutely recommend this option over my ascent route; yes, there's a downclimb involved on the way up that then has to be re-ascended on the way back down, but the exposure is far more forgiving.
I have to caution, however, that whichever route you decide to take up is the one you really ought to follow back down, as at least you'll know exactly what you're getting into. Because I hadn't ascended the same route I used to go down, I was clueless about the fact that you need to cross the tops of two gullies before you reach the right one.
As it was, I thankfully only got about 50 vertical feet down the first, incorrect gully before realizing that the descent path had its fair share of loose dirt, but not nearly as much as was filling my shoes, gloves, and pants here. While making my way back to the last cairn I'd seen to try and figure out where I'd screwed up, I saw the climber to whom I'd pointed out the uppermost notch waving from above (those darn kids and their super-strength and super-speed!), and he did me a solid by pointing out the cairned notch to the correct gully that I'd missed earlier.
Descending that gully also resulted in a clothed dirt bath, as did my more-slide-than-walk down the yellow dirt section (I’d say that part could kiss my butt, except it kinda already did...twice), but except for a brief slow-down so I could avoid too much slipping on the one unavoidable snowfield that remains, I was in the clear. And good thing, too, since the clouds were now rolling in with a vengeance!
The rest of the way back to the car was, for the most part, a literal jog, and getting a ride down to the lower TH from the retired dentist (seriously, sir, if you're reading this and ever looking to climb some eastward fourteeners, send me a PM!) helped my tired legs considerably. I was, however, surprised at how relatively good I felt; I'm a little stiffer than normal one day later, but considering Longs had me walking funny for about a week after the second, non-ER-visit-resulting, time I did it, I thought I'd be feeling way worse (though it is worth bearing in mind that Wetterhorn is, in essence, Longs halved). And without the baggage of my first trip up Longs attached, I can now understand why so many forum participants say Class 3s are so much fun!
Even if you're sketched out by heights, I'd still say to give this one the old college try, though do make sure you choose a dry day. And do it soon, because even if you do find yourself too wigged out by the upper mountain to get all the way up top, you'll nonetheless be able to revel in the late snow year's resultingly late wildflower season so that you, too, can take approximately 5000 pictures of the columbines decking out the tundra!
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