Peak(s):  Wetterhorn Peak  -  14,015 feet
Date Posted:  12/18/2020
Modified:  12/22/2020
Date Climbed:   02/01/2020
Author:  JtheChemE
 Weary Wanderer Withstands Winter Wetterhorn - February 1st 2020   

Wetterhorn Peak

Preface: Winter has always made me happy. With everything that 2020 has been, I've probably been looking forward to winter all year (moreso than usual). Many of my best memories have been made in the Colorado winter alpine, and looking through old photos today brought back some nostalgia. So with the solstice just a couple days away, I figured I'd pop out of a three year TR hiatus and share a quick write up of Wetterhorn last winter.

2020 - January 26th

2019 winter was not shaping up to be as prolific as other winters past. I’d ended up with some nasty bronchitis after a failed attempt on North Maroon on January 1st which kept me sidelined until a weather window on Wetterhorn was too good to pass up. A reasonable CAIC (moderate avalanche danger above treeline) and bluebird day with a high of ~35 meant I should be able to enjoy a late start and be fine to walk out after dark. Easy peasy! ….I ended up sleeping late, so did not set out from Denver for the Lake City drive until 3am. I was able to drive to the standard lower closure and was walking by 9am. On the road there was an old snowmobile track with only ~6” of fresh snow on top so I made good time and was able to keep my snowshoes on my back, making it to the split in 1h15m. After the split, the snowmobile was buried under much more snow so snowshoes went on shortly after the split. Conditions on the road were still not too bad, and I was able to cover the flat terrain to the TH in another 1:30.

Sign Montage

Once at Matterhorn Trailhead, the deep trenching started in earnest. I was aided at times by a very faint skin track, which if I could sniff out, just about halved the trenching effort.

Pro Tip: Wear the right sunglasses so you can make out faint tracks.

Since the track was set under different snow conditions, and skiers think different than snowshowers, the track often went places I didn’t want to go. Particularly, on one of the avy suspect slopes the faint skinner went up the open SW face, which had clearly since been wind loaded. So I opted to stick to the faint ridgeline just north of the face, which was steep, treed, and deep with unconsolidated snow. PSA: Old tracks can make travel easier, but you still need to evaluate the snow around you. You should never blindly trust any sort of track in winter.

It took me three hours of hard trenching to cover ~2miles to my eventual high point of 11,700. It was now 3:00 pm, and with sunset ~1.5 hours away it was unrealistic to push onward since there was a storm moving in later in the evening. It was a bummer because it looked like the snow above treeline would improve considerably as it was pretty windhammered where I stopped. The day had been bluebird perfect, so if I had managed to leave Denver at 12:00am as planned I would have pushed on. I figured barring huge snow totals from the system that was pushing in, I’d take advantage of my trenching efforts the following weekend.

As I was sitting at my highpoint, I started to hear some every loud howls coming from somewhere below in the drainage. The howls didn’t come from multiple sources, clearly just the same location. I’ve been around coyotes plenty, but the howl seemed too loud for a coyote. Probably acoustics though. In any case, it was time to get down. Once I got back in view of the drainage I saw that a big critter had been following me for some time, probably the howl I heard. The tracks were larger than most coyote tracks I’ve seen at lower elevations. Maybe mountain coyotes are bigger? Who knows, in any case I didn’t perseverate on it much.

Critter pal wanted to keep me company

As soon as I got back in the flats, the binding on my snowshoes decided to shear where it connects the frame. Cool! I made a quick bushfix out of a dyneema sling by lashing my foot to the broken snowshoe. I was able to make it down to the road, albeit it was not really comfortable to lose ankle articulation and it slowed my pace.

The slog out was uneventful, but trudging out under darkness after another failed summit bid this winter, it was hard not to be pissed at myself. After having had zero failures on any winter 14er over the last 5 years, I had two back-to-back to think about and this one was firmly on me because I started late and squandered a perfect summit day. Between these recent misfortunes in the hills, and some personal struggles to ponder, it was a looong walk out alone and in the dark. I got back to the car and made the long drive back to Denver. Stats on the day: 15.3mi, ~2500 gain, 10h car-to-car.

Slog out in the dark

February 1st

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again. Right? After the failure Sunday the 26th, I was ready to give it a go again Saturday the 1st during another great weather window. There had been significant snow totals in the zone on the 27th, which bumped the avalanche forecast up to considerable above treeline, but by the 1st the forecast was back to moderate. There were a couple micro-terrain features below treeline to think about, as well as one area above treeline. With the current snowpack, it was nothing that I was overly concerned with since I could mitigate hazard by avoiding the terrain that was suspect. I was more concerned with what happened to my lovely trench. This time I was smarter, and left Denver at 12:30AM so I’d be able to start around 6:30am, which felt like good odds.

Not much opportunity for great sunrise pics in a deep drainage on a dirt road, but did have some nice colors during the blue hour.

I made good time back to my highpoint, shaving an hour from last weekend’s efforts (aided of course by old snowmobile tracks to the split sign, as well as my blown over trench).

Thanks, past Justin, you’re the best.

I managed the avy terrain below treeline by avoidance, the same as I did previously. That includes two micro-terrain features just past the trailhead that can slide, and while the slide would be small the area is right over a high consequence terrain trap. Higher up, there is the large obvious slopes to consider, and I did did hear a decent whoomph, which I triggered remotely from the vague treed ridge I mentioned earlier in the TR.

Take care in this area as the summer trail is not the place to be. I stayed low and went up the vague treed ridge just north of the obvious avy slope.

On reaching last weekend’s turnaround point it was snack time, and I drank the remainder of my 1.5L and boiled another 1L to hopefully get me back down. It was 11:15, and my “bail” time would be dictated such that I was off the scrambly bits before sunset. It seems like no problem.

Getting up to the saddle which accesses the south ridge was pretty uneventful, but at times laborious. There were often deep pockets of wind-drifted snow, and I had not trenched this portion last weekend. There are avalanche slopes in the area above treeline to consider and avoid.

A ways to go
Looking back, long track, how bout that?

Sitting at the saddle at ~2pm meant that there should be plenty of time to get up and down since there was a "mere" 1k of vertical gain remaining.

From saddle

After slamming a five hour energy and ditching snowshoes I was off for the scrambling of the day. To be honest, I had not thought the south ridge route would be all that challenging, and rather than stay ridge proper until forced off (as is my usual preference), I figured I would stick to what folks typically do in winter and work the gulley system on the west side.

Ridge Coverage

It ended up being a major PITA. I should have followed the ridge proper, but having read the other winter TRs, I thought I’d save time by avoiding what others had said was pretty stout scrambling. Eventually, I ended up in a steep gulley that I think folks usually cross over. First I went high, but it just wasn’t going to happen as I was eventually swimming hip deep, and didn’t want to climb further up given the exposure and steepening angle.

I dropped a bit down, and tried for another crossover point. This had some very deep trapdoors, and guarding the visible rib (pic below) was a concealed smooth slab. With less (or more mature) snow, I am sure a reasonable way over/around would be apparent, but the deep unconsolidated powder hid anything obvious. So again “no go”, and turned back around.

Deep snow, no go. (taken on descent)

Steep, exposed, deep. (Off angle shot adjusted upright post)

After wasting a ton of time faffing about in this last gulley, I ended up committing to a ~6' chimney between two sizable outcroppings, which I was able to stem to regain the ridge proper. There was another single climbing move in the low 5th somewhere above the chimney but below the prow, which was pretty exposed. I think another winter TR mentions that move, but I didn’t grab a pic since at this point light was fading.

Chimney dealybob (taken on descent)

After losing time with route finding on the west side of the ridge in gullies, things went smoothly and the slab that everyone frets about was a non-starter. It was a bit snowed, and somewhat icy, but thrashing the tips of my aluminum crampons provided pretty good purchase. On the descent, I just booted up the slab which was also fine. The ‘crux’ of the summer route was trivial compared to difficulties to access the ridge, but it was iced over and still consequential, so I appreciated crampons here.

View of the scramble post slab, I wore crampons since there was plenty of ice mixed in.

I made the summit around 4PM, and the obligatory summit photos are below. I was half tempted to stick around for sunset because the photography would have been spectacular. However, remembering the crap I just went up, I opted for a short stay on the summit so I could be back at the saddle before dark.

Northern Views
Eastern Views
You can see a majority of to the loooong 10miles back to the car.

After sending an InReach message to my wife, so began the long haul back out. (Notice that she sometimes thinks my hobbies are pretty silly.)


Descending the ridge was entirely uneventful, as I stuck to the more “difficult” scrambling and avoided the errors of my ascent. Once back to the saddle I drank the last of my water before it had a chance to freeze, but I didn’t want to boil anymore until I made treeline since the temperature was dropping pretty quickly.

Losing light.
Getting dark on the east side.
Unique lighting. East side of Wetterhorn had lost sunhit, but Uncompahgre was still on fire with alpenglow.

The bright side of wasting so much time on the ridge, was I got to tromp down through a long period of surreal lighting.

Just spectacular light.

I had supposed to boil some water near treeline, but now I was motivated to get past any questionable terrain before full dark. I made it, but just barely, and ended up melting another 1.5 liters of snow just below the 4x4 Matterhorn trailhead. It was getting very, very cold, so I appreciated having hot water to drink on the way out. Not much to say about the slog out, other than it was long. And a slog. I finally got back to my Jeep at 9:45PM, and after driving a short ways down the road to get cell signal I boiled some ramen for a quick meal. Weather still looked excellent for Sunday, and I had originally hoped to just sleep in the Jeep and go for Handies the next day since conditions would have been perfect. I was feeling really thrashed though since I had been up for nearly 24hrs, and the lack of fitness from the bronchitis caught up to me as well. So I decided to start the long drive home, but I ended up having to pull off 4 or 5 times to take short naps, so I didn’t get back to Denver until 6 am or so Sunday.

Wetterhorn was no gimme. I had underestimated the physicality of trenching solo below treeline, and I hadn’t expected the difficulties on the ridge. It was great to get redemption on Wetterhorn, and I was happy to have done it in a single effort push solo.

Stats (Per GPS):


~5020 vertical gained

Approximate Times:

~15.5h (car to car)

Car Start TIme: 6:30AM

Saddle: 1:45PM

Summit: 4:00PM

Car Finish Time: 10:00PM


Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29

Comments or Questions

If you’re not first you’re last
12/18/2020 17:44
My second least favorite snowflake was Wetterhorn. Good to see you suffered too. Your pictures are always amazing.


12/18/2020 17:49
Great effort and photos! I enjoyed that route about a month after you. One of my favorite winter ascents.

cool report
12/18/2020 21:07
That was a great report with wonderful photographs.
The lighting in the pictures below the saddle at sunset was incredible.

Robbie Crouse

12/19/2020 10:40
What's the brand of crampons you use?


Thanks for the Read
12/19/2020 12:15
Amy - The suffering is just part of it sometimes, I think in hindsight we can appreciate that. My least favorite is probably my second Bierstadt snowflake (frostnip, what a noob I was). Though I have done it many times in winter since, and enjoy it well enough now. As for the photos, it sure helps to be in the right place at the right time!

Cap'n - I think if I hadn't been sweating getting benighted well above treeline, it'd been a few ticks higher on the immediate fun factor. It is a worthy route for sure, and part of why I decided to write this mountain up over others.

Fish - Thanks, it's always special when you get to hike / climb in that other-worldly light saturation. I've had a few winter trips out like that, and they were all very memorable.

Robbie - The crampons on this trip were Camp XLC aluminum. I like the XLC for easy glacier approaches, or CO fast and light efforts where I don't perceive a ton of rock or sustained difficulties. Unfortunately they are kind of a disposable item if rock comes into the picture, which is usually does here in Colorado. Harder general mountaineering routes my go to is auto BD snaggletooth.


12/19/2020 12:55
Great pics and certainly an earned snowflake.



Nice report
12/21/2020 06:54
Great report Justin. I like the Jenna in-reach exchange. I‘m sure I‘ve got some entertaining ones in mine too. Beautiful pics.

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