Peak(s):  Wetterhorn Peak  -  14,015 feet
Date Posted:  04/08/2020
Date Climbed:   03/06/2020
Author:  supranihilest
 Walking on Wetterhorn's Winter Wild Side   

Wetterhorn Peak in winter is quite the lengthy sufferfest. The majority of mileage is in fact on a road, and though it can be knocked out early in the morning in the dark and again in the afternoon when tired it adds a significant amount of time and tedium to the route. The peak itself isn't a gimme either, as it requires good snow conditions, proper conditioning, and a good head for exposed, snowy scrambling. Wetterhorn was a favorite of mine when dry, but my only other climb of it was years prior and so I had little idea what the scrambles on the upper mountain would entail in winter. Fun, certainly, but probably with a thin margin for error. But what good is winter mountaineering without something to really keep you on your toes?

Judd and I got started a little prior to 4am. Yep, too damn early, I agree. But for such a long and formidable winter peak it's a necessity to get such early starts. We started from the junction of Henson Creek Road/Hinsdale County Road 20 and Nellie Creek Road, as it was only plowed to that point. Snowshoes were on from the car, though fortunately the road was packed down by numerous snowmobilers. We hiked mostly in silence. After several miles we reached the end of the tracked road; the snowmobilers were all congregated at a remote cabin at the junction of County Roads 20 and 24 and none had continued past. To this point the road was very nearly flat, with only 200 or 300 feet of elevation gain in nearly four miles. At the junction things started increasing in angle. Old snowshoe tracks took us to the start of the Matterhorn Creek Road at nearly six miles; twelve miles round trip just to even get to the approach road is quite a lot. The sun was rising as we began snowshoeing up the third road of the day.

The early morning snow was working in our favor as it was quite solid, even off the old trench. As we neared the upper 4WD trailhead and the canyon walls began to encroach we could see the sheer face of Wetterhorn's southeast ridge and 13er Matterhorn Peak far off in the distance.

The rounded hump on the left with the sheer face is the toe of Wetterhorn's southeast ridge. In center is part of the Wetterhorn-Matterhorn connecting ridge with Matterhorn, looking regal, on the right.

I remembered the road being pretty rough when dry but with a nice cover of snow it was smooth sailing and soon we were at the 4WD trailhead where things flattened out again. We snowshoed alongside the creek and enjoyed the serenity of the calm, cool morning. At around 7am we got our first views of Wetterhorn itself standing tall even over the massive cliffs at its ridge's end.

Wetterhorn rising to a singular summit. We thought about investigating a snow climb directly up the ridge and decided it was probably a bad idea.

The gentle valley we ascended contrasted with the size and fierce posture the peaks ahead of us took. After ascending a steep hillside through the trees we reached treeline with spectacular views into the basin below Matterhorn.

Matterhorn Peak.
Closer shot.
The eastern/northeastern cliffs wrapping around Wetterhorn's southeast ridge, with possible direct snow climb on the left.
Wetterhorn looking far away and not nearly as dramatic.

Despite the flat-ish nature of the basin a hook-shaped approach was more prudent than a straight line and a number of small rollers were between us and the saddle that would give us access to the upper ridge. We continued towards Matterhorn before zig-zagging into and out of a ditch.

Me looking for the easiest entrance to the ditch. Photo: Judd D.
Speaks for itself.
Our snowshoe track down valley with Broken Hill in the background. Looks like a Regular Hill to me.
Matterhorn Peak and Uncompahgre Peak. Photo: Judd D.

Our goal wasn't the standard route exactly. That led up a secondary ridge off the southeast ridge, and we figured we could save ourselves a little bit of distance by going up a snow bowl instead. That got steeper than we liked near the top and we rejoined the standard route just below the final push to the low point on the ridge.

Snowshoe tracks are a thing of beauty. Photo: Judd D.

Once we arrived at the saddle there was one last easy section before things got too steep for snowshoes to be the right choice.

From the saddle.
Getting closer to the goods.
This is definitely looking more interesting.

We stashed our snowshoes and got our ice axes out. Helmets and crampons were donned. High fives were exchanged. Let the fun begin! At first things started off pretty mild, just a steep, grassy slope with shallow snow cover and boulders strewn about.

Alright, not so bad.
Gives a sense of how steep the initial part is, which is to say not that steep.

Judd and I anticipated 45 minutes to the summit from here. How many of you snickered at our gross underestimation? Our ascending traverse across the open slopes eventually led us to a series of steep, snow-filled gullies separated by rock ribs. Route finding became more difficult, as it was difficult to tell one gully from the next. Cairns sometimes proved helpful, but not in every case.

The first major gully we encountered. Do we go straight up it or cut across it into another one?
Some easy, if exposed, scrambling at the bottom of the gully.

At the top we crossed a rib and were confronted with the steepest snow yet. This stuff had better be in safe shape or else...

I went first up to the double-notched rock. Photo: Judd D.
Judd looking like a spaceman.

I scrambled up the Class 3 rock and was presented with yet another snow gully. The down climb to get into it wasn't my favorite, but I took it anyway. Judd went up his own way so we could have double the chances of finding an easier route.

Getting ready to climb down slabby rock without much in the way of holds.
Judd's route, which he said was pretty hard. The exposure was definitely high.

We met higher on the ridge, having made a pincer move, Judd climbing up and across on rock and me climbing across and up on snow.

Super fun climbing high up! Photo: Judd D.

The route eventually opened up enough that we could see the Prow, the large rock fin below the summit. There was plenty of steep snow and Easy Class 3 climbing to get there but nothing like the initial snow gullies.

Judd for scale.

The steep snow continued as the rock generally eased off. Each step we took increased the exposure. We both felt secure yet maintained our high levels of alertness in this great place.

Airy! Photo: Judd D.
Yes, the route is actually that steep. A second axe/ice tool would probably have been a good idea but we obviously didn't have that available. Photo: Judd D.

When we arrived at the Prow one final steep snow slope remained. It was dispatched with ease and we finally stepped through the notch, climbed down an easy, short slab, and prepared ourselves for the crux summit pitch.

Up we goooooooooo! Photo: Judd D.
Slabalicious. Slabtastic. Slabtacular. Slabarrific.
Me at the bottom of the crux pitch. Photo: Judd D.

Anyone who's done Wetterhorn before knows how exposed and amazing the summit pitch is. It's not all that difficult, a very solid Class 3 on generally solid rock, but there's a lot of air below your feet. Add snow on the ledges, crampons on your feet, gloves on your hands, and the weight of 1,000 excuses and it can actually be a little difficult! There's ample rest spots as it's essentially a staircase where each stair is a couple of feet high and a foot deep, which really helps.

Looking up the summit pitch (where I am standing in Judd's photo).
Looking down from the same spot.

I went first and Judd followed closely behind.

Dat ass. Photo: Judd D.
Judd starting up.

About halfway up one of my crampons popped off - the front welts on my boots were ground down to almost nothing and the crampons' bail slipped off as I climbed on the rock. I let Judd go by as I tried to put it back on, but going without hands on a one foot wide ledge with thousands of feet of exposure wasn't my idea of fun. I unstrapped the other crampon, now useless, and carried them as I continued up to the summit.

Me studying the upper third of the route. Photo: Judd D.
Just a couple more moves! Photo: Judd D.
Topping out on the rock. Photo: Judd D.

All in all the crux pitch had taken us about 15 minutes, and two hours had elapsed since we began the technical section. Wetterhorn Peak, a mountain I once thought to be far out of my grasp in winter, was ours.

Uncompahgre Peak in the background, Matterhorn Peak in the foreground.
Coxcomb Peak and Redcliff Peak.
Wilson group on the left, Sneffels Range in center.
Redcloud Peak and Sunshine Peak in center, Half Peak on the far right.

We spent another 15 minutes on the summit celebrating and lounging, but by now it was almost noon and we had a long way to go before we were done. We knew the snow would be losing its cohesion soon too, if it hadn't already. I kept my crampons off as we began down climbing the summit pitch back to the slab and the Prow.

Looking down from the top of the scramble with the slab and Prow in focus.
Me heading down to the slab. It looks totally different from above. Photo: Judd D.
Almost out of the way; I asked Judd to wait until I was out of the choke to avoid rockfall. Photo: Judd D.
Judd guarding his domain.

Once down and across the slab we took yet another short break, just long enough for me to put my crampons back on for all the snow we'd be crossing back to our snowshoes. This time we decided to check out the ridge proper on the way down and this proved to be about the same difficulty climbing-wise while all but eliminating the route finding we'd encountered on the ascent.

Judd on the ridge proper. Note the sheer drop off to the left.
Some of the only Class 3 scrambling on the ridge. Photo: Judd D.

Eventually the ridge dumped us into the second major gully, the one where Judd and I had split earlier. This time we both returned over the way I had gone, as down climbing his route was doubtless Class 4, possibly Class 5.easy.

Second gully with the first out of sight behind the rocks on the left. Photo: Judd D.

A short climb across the first gully and we were back at the easy stuff, and thence back to pure hiking terrain.

Judd making the final Class 2+ scramble down to our snowshoe cache.

Back at our little hidey-hole we stopped to put away the technical climbing gear, put on our snowshoes, and eat and hydrate. It was insanely hot and my water was so refreshing after a hard-won summit like Wetterhorn. When we were feeling ready we began the long and now dreadfully boring (compared to Wetterhorn's upper reaches, anyway) snowshoe back to our cars.

Follow those tracks! Photo: Judd D.

This time instead of following the snow bowl down like we'd come up we stuck to the subsidiary ridge, essentially staying on top of the hiking trail. Partway down my eyes started bothering me. I don't know if I had gotten sunscreen or sweat in them, or was beginning to experience snowblindness (I'd been wearing my glacier glasses all day, so that probably wasn't it), but my eyes hurt like hell and were watering like crazy. I followed behind Judd as best as I could, feeling nearly blind as I did so. Everything was a wet blur, and I was concerned with how quickly this had come out of nowhere with no apparent cause. Whatever the case I plodded slowly, trying not to stumble as I went.

Progress became quicker when we reached the flats, but my eyes continued to bother me for quite a while, perhaps up to two hours. Things did improve, again without explanation. This is the only time something like that has happened, which left me quite perplexed. Happily we reached the trees where I could expect some shade, and we eventually made it to the steep hill we ascended early in the morning, the last bit of steep anything all day. The snow by now was, of course, utter slop. Deep and punchy, wet, heavy trash that was infuriating and slow. We tried to stick to our trench as best as possible but even that had mixed results.

Mixed results. It was like this for... a lot longer than I would have liked. Photo: Judd D.

We were absolutely destroying our trench, leaving a mess of oddly angled postholes of inconsistent depth as we went. This went on for quite a ways, almost until we were back to County Road 24, where things finally were compressed enough for us not to posthole. Only six more miles to get back to the parking area. Judd and I were blasted by now. It felt like we were going crazy slow, which perhaps we were. We trudged onward, inching our way back past the snowmobiler's cabin, past Henson Creek, under the cliffs cut away to make the road, reaching the parking area as the sun set. Judd's girlfriend Sonia had come to pick him up, having watched us all day on my Garmin inReach from Lake City. We packed up our gear, exhausted, and drove into town where we ate at the Lake City Cafe, which hit the spot after such a long day. We all drove back to the Front Range that night, a grueling end to our climb; a truly awesome and enjoyable climb, at that.


Climbers: Ben Feinstein (myself), Judd D. (CaptainSuburbia)
Trailhead: Bottom of Nellie Creek Road on Hinsdale County Road 20
Total distance: 22.77 miles
Total elevation gain: 4,892 feet¹
Total time: 13:14:35
Peaks: One fourteener

  • Wetterhorn Peak, 14,015'


Starting Location Ending Location Via Time (h:mm:ss) Cumulative Time (h:mm:ss) Rest Time (m:ss)
Bottom of Nellie Creek Road Bottom of Matterhorn Creek Road 2:11:15 2:11:15 0:00
Bottom of Matterhorn Creek Road Wetterhorn Peak 5:22:33 7:33:48 0:00
Wetterhorn Peak Bottom of Nellie Creek Road 5:40:47 13:14:35 Trip End

¹Without elevation corrections (in Garmin Connect) the elevation gain is listed as 4,892 feet. With elevation corrections Garmin seems to think it's 7,870 feet. Importing my track into Caltopo, at 5,475 feet, is much closer to the uncorrected gain from Garmin. Normally I go with the corrected number but it is very clearly several thousand feet high, for some reason, so the true gain is closer to the lower number of 4,892 feet. Still, I thought it worth mentioning.

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 9 10 11 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53

Comments or Questions

Nice work
04/08/2020 20:03
Definitely a long day, but went quickly. Crazy that Sunshine/Redcloud have more elevation gain in about half the distance.


04/09/2020 09:14
I hadn't actually thought of that comparison to Redcloud and Sunshine, but that's a great point. Same vert in half the time and distance. Kind of proves how superfluous and tedious all those extra miles are on the road for Wetterhorn. I'm all about those steep routes like Sunshine's east ridge, just get all the gain over with as quickly as possible.


Nice, Ben
04/12/2020 14:25
Another winner for sure. Bet you were glad the slabtacular slab in pic 30 was dry, eh?


Dry slab
04/12/2020 15:56
I do a lot of free soloing in the Flatirons and let me tell you, there's nothing that gets me scared faster than a wet/snowy/icy slab. I have climbed a fair amount of all of those but there's clearly no substitute for a nice dry slab and good, sticky rubber. The slab on Wetterhorn is actually pretty shallow in angle though. I think you'd have to try real hard to fall on that one, even with snow or ice (and proper footwear, of course). Thanks for reading, Jay, and for the comment.


Flat road walk
04/13/2020 09:38
A bet that long approach road felt uphill both ways as the old-timers used to say. Level terrain is so fast when dry and so amazingly slow when snow covered. You had a great winter!


Uphill road walk
04/13/2020 14:09
It sure did. Perception of time is a funny thing. Every hike/climb I do it always feels like the descent takes longer and that's almost never actually the case, it just feels like it. Ditto for uphill vs downhill, though how about those climbs that actually have uphill sections on the way out? Pure evil, those ones! It's been a great winter indeed, thanks for reading, Andrew.


04/13/2020 17:41
Another great report Ben! I will second the road walk seeming uphill on the way out. It always does. Look forward to more great climbs with you.

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