Peak(s):  Wetterhorn Peak  -  14,015 feet
Date Posted:  01/24/2008
Modified:  01/30/2008
Date Climbed:   01/20/2008
Author:  sgladbach
 MLK winter weekend in the San Juans- Part II  

MLK winter weekend in the San Juans- Part II

Wetterhorn 20 miles 5000' Overnight- 37 hours

As planned, Saturday morning Ken Nolan and Jean Aschenbrenner left the motel at 5:00AM and I left about 6:15. Five previous 14er ascents this winter has been long and cold, but I had managed to accomplish them, even the 18 mile long outing, as day trips. This was to be a 20 mile overnighter. Though I've spent weeks on Denali and in a Himalayan base camp, I'm really a novice winter camper. On Denali, the 24-hour daylight and warmth of two tent partners helped abate the cold and dreary nature of the camping (even in some frightening storms). On expedition climbs, I pulled a sled or had a yak. On Aconcagua, where I carried all my own gear, the weather was closer to springtime camping. This was going to be cold and, by agreement, I was going to be totally self-sufficient (no shared tent, stove etc.). In addition, I had crampons, ice axe, the rope, dog bowls/ food and lots of extra stuff to stay warm. The pack weighed in at 52 pounds. The temperature had warmed to a balmy -11F. I was off!

6:30 at the trailhead

The first 4 miles of the route follow the heavily snowmobiled Henson Creek road as it heads toward Engineer Pass from the end of the plowed road at Nellie Creek to Capitol City . As this easy trail reached Capitol City, I caught up with Ken and Jean with my dog and smug attitude in tow.

Catching up at Capitol City

Jean gets ready to attack the unbroken route to Matterhorn Creek

Then, it began. For both the dog, Cooper, and I, the previous day had taken a toll. It was time to turn to the right off the main road and head uphill through two miles of unbroken trail to the 2WD summer trailhead and then another mile to the summer 4WD trailhead at Matterhorn Creek. I took my bravado with me and began breaking a 10-inch trench up the road for about mile. The 50+ pound pack and the unplanned shortened snowshoe make it very hard to get any flotation. Ken disparages my snowshoes (so I fart on him!). As I started to fade, Ken took over and lumbered off with long, strong strides, making following his track seem like work too. When he took a short break, I did too. With our packs off, here comes Jean trekking by, not even stopping to adjust her pack. She broke for a mile or so, until Ken caught her and took over again. I struggled to catch him so that I could do my part again, and finally got him in about another mile.

I made about 1/16 mile before I asked Ken to spell me and he took off again. When we reached the 2-mile mark at the 2WD trailhead, Ken and I dropped our packs for a break. Immediately, Jean shows up, asks how much further to camp, and Ken sends her to the right, up Matterhorn creek, to the 4WD trailhead a mile beyond.. Jean takes off breaking and I no longer keep up the pretense; I'll be bringing up the rear heading into camp.

Jean breaks trail to the 4WD trailhead

About this time, it is evident that Cooper is very cold. The sun is shining and the temperature better than yesterday, but he's tired of dragging his belly in the snow and his metabolism isn't functioning at peak performance. I know the feeling. Its time to get him up to camp and into a tent. Somewhere before camp, Ken caught Jean and finished breaking the trail to camp. He picked the site where he had camped at Christmas on a previous Wetterhorn attempt. The site was about 100 yards below the gate and trail signage that announce your arrival at the final trailhead. It is about 11:45AM.

Ken sets up his tent

As is their custom, Jean and Ken quickly set up a winter camp, an experience in which they are well versed. After things were 75% settled, Ken planned to take off with a daypack and finish breaking trail to timberline in preparation for a pre-dawn 5:30AM start the next morning. Jean will finish up with camp, melt snow, and prepare dinner (I think a nap is in there too!) Trying to re-build Ken's confidence in me, I attempt to copy their efficiency and get my dog warming in the tent so that I could accompany Ken up the trail; I'll be plenty of help now that I dropped the big pack. By the time Ken is ready to leave at 12:30PM, I'm only half done, but I throw things in haphazardly, settle the dog, and hit the trail about 15 minutes behind him. Jean lends me her snowshoes and offers to make water for me (not in the sense of Morgan Freeman's "Driving Miss Daisy" character) while I'm gone. Now I'll shine. Hah!

I catch Ken in about hour, after he decides to stop and wait for me. He evaluates my speed and he tells me he'll keep breaking so that I could save myself for tomorrow. Ken takes us close to 12,000 feet then picks a spot to quit for the day. It's just beyond the last tree.

Full moon rising over Ken and the Matterhorn

Returning to camp

We turn around and make real efforts to improve the trail so that we can follow it in the morning even if the wind blows it in a bit. We arrive back at camp about 3:45PM. Jean has found a place to make it down to the creek to get water in liquid form. It needs to be boiled, but this will be a fuel saver. Ken and Jean conference and announce the 5:30AM start. They tell me their custom is to rise at 3:30, so I ask for a courtesy call.

Cooper warm inside the tent

I may have carried way too much stuff, but I sleep warmly during the -20F (?) night. The dog is cozy too. I wake at 4:00AM (I believed), dress, boil water, eat, and let the dog out to do his thing. At 5:30AM, I put the dog in the tent (after yesterday, I decided he was too worn out to join us today) and report to Commodore Nolan's tent precisely on time. "Are you ready to go?", I call out. "We will be in an hour", answers Jean; "It's only 4:30". When I set my watch alarm last night, I had managed to set the time back one hour. I'm ahead of the game without even trying!

I tell the others I'll take off now and they can follow in an hour; I hope to break some trail and be useful today. As it turns out, I'm back on my game quickly complete Ken's route to timberline. I find a very reasonable, avalanche-safe route that heads south then west while circling under Matterhorn and the east ridge of Wetterhorn.

Morning light on Wetterhorn's east ridge

Next, I turn southwest to climb and gain Wetterhorn's southeast ridge at a minor 13,100'saddle. This is a couple miles and a couple thousand feet of new trailbreaking; the timing is perfect as Jean and Ken catch up at the base of the SW summit ridge.

Ken and Jean climb to the SW ridge

View of Matterhorn and Uncompahgre from 13,100'

View up the ridge

There are two straightforward snow hills to ascend before snowshoes are stashed and decisions are made at 13, 350'. Ken and Jean traverse to look for some firm snow to kick-step and I decide to make my way up a rock route on the ridge crest. We find each other again at about 13,600' before they traverse again still searching for good snow. I continue up the ridge.

In summer the ridge is Class III on a route approximating the ridge crest with periodic diversions to one side or the other in order to avoid a very few Class IV moves. In current conditions, those traversing diversions would hang you over steep exposure on questionable snow; I opt to sloppily crawl over the short Class IV moves and stay on the crest. In 20 more minutes, I drop a few feet off the crest to the small plateau under the Prow/Wetterhorn saddle. The Keyhole is 50 yards away.

I kick-step up to the Keyhole and wait 20 minutes for the others to arrive. Meanwhile, I emptied my pack except for the rope and donned my harness. I prepared a little handrail to use to guide down the slab on the opposite side of the Keyhole and position myself under the final pitch. It appeared to be pretty dry, but the ledges were each topped with snow and a little ice. Not nearly enough to please jcwhite and the other ski-descent aficionados, but enough to tighten the sphincter of those who prefer dry hand and footholds above their 600' exposed drops.

After assessing the situation, I called out for my companions and heard a response that sounded only 50' around the corner. I waited, but no one showed up. I decided to climb to the summit dragging the rope and if either wanted a belay, I'd be ready. The summit views were 360 degrees of spectacular.

Eastern summit view of Matterhorn mad Uncompahgre

NW summit view of Coxcomb, Redcliff, the Fortress

Southern summit view

I waited 20 minutes and realized no one was coming. It turns out Ken and Jean were hoping for a nice firm snow-route, their preferred kind of climbing. They hope a return in late winter will provide a more aesthetic experience. They had stopped further down than I thought. I downclimbed half the pitch and rapped the other half (there had to be some reason to carry a 60m rope 10 miles up a mountain in winter!). I gathered my gear, plunge-stepped the snowfield west of the Prow and descended 650' in very short order. A 300 yard traverse re-united me with my snowshoes and gave me a view of my partners 1200' below.

We met up at timberline and arrived back in camp at 3:00PM. I let the dog out to run. He'd been a very good boy; I still had a clean tent (he must have been pretty tired). Cooper and I packed for the trip out; Jean and Ken opted for a more leisurely hike out the next morning.

Time to break camp

Packed at 4:00PM, I said my goodbyes and hit the trail. It took 2 hours to reach Capitol City, where I took a break and readied the headlamp. The last 4 miles was tiring, but went quickly. Cooper ran ahead, periodically returning to check on his charge. One time, he appeared excitedly at my feet and begged me to follow. He had a surprise to show me just 20 feet off the snowmobile track.

I've got something to show you.

Except for a trickle of blood from the mouth, there were no signs of explanation for the magnificent ram's demise.

Check it out!

We arrived at the car at 7:30PM, 16 hours after getting out of bed. I drive to -30F Gunnison and locate a decent motel that accepts dogs. The temp gets turned up to 78F and I fall into a utopian slumber. I love long weekends.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions
Ridge runner

nice work!
02/01/2011 00:24
Sounds like you really hit it hard last weekend with all that climbing! Great pictures; though I wouldn‘t want to come upon a dead ram in the dark. And I‘m impressed your dog behaved in the tent. Mine has figured out how to unzip my tent so he doesn‘t really stay in there anymore unless I‘ve got him on leash.


What a Stud!!
01/25/2008 04:23
That slope did look pretty steep. Good job!!!!


Nice work....
01/25/2008 04:24
Congratulations Steve.
I guess the crux couldn‘t have been too bad without a belay.
I also like the photos.


Well done
08/28/2008 00:37
Nice job on these and great write ups. Glad that slope held for you!


Great Job!
01/25/2008 21:58
Thanks for the reports and pictures. Looks like an epic trip.



01/26/2008 03:39
Hmm, I wonder if he was hit by a snowmobile? Great report!


02/03/2008 16:05
The San Juans are looking just beautiful. Winter camping at its finest. Congrats on ticking Wetterhorn off your winter list. You‘ll be done with the San Juans before you know it!

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