Peak(s):  Wetterhorn Peak  -  14,015 feet
Date Posted:  07/08/2009
Modified:  07/09/2009
Date Climbed:   07/01/2009
Author:  KeithK
 A Study in Adjectivity  

Wetterhorn Peak (14,015')
July 1, 2009
Southeast Ridge - Standard
Elevation Gain: 3,300'
Round Trip: 7 miles
Colleen (oriiion) and KeithK

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." - Franklin D. Roosevelt

Sometimes the build up only leads to let down. Our hopes diminish as we realize that our expectations were unrealistic, or simply overly hopeful. Enormous hype leads to disappointment, even when the end result may not be truly disappointing. Although not convinced that this would be the case on this morning, I couldn't help but think these things as Colleen and I mused on the trail. She had warned me of her apprehension about this peak, but I think I strong-willed her into going along anyway. After all, there are few if any reports of accidents on this peak; how hard can it be? We were about to find out what the mighty Wetterhorn was all about, as we aimed due north into the incredible basin east of the mountain, lush with streams, wildflowers and boulder fields, uniquely maze-like in their seemingly intentional spacing.

The four wheel drive Matterhorn Creek Trailhead...

A night free from wild visitors found me feeling rested and ready, although my lungs would disagree at the outset, as warming up to the trail seemed to take longer than usual. We had camped about seven tenths of a mile below the start of the four wheel drive road, virtually passing out immediately upon arriving after taking our time from Lake City. Maybe the 22 ounce bottle of Fat Tire served to assist in the easy slumber, especially after a ten-plus mile day on Sunshine and Redcloud Peaks under perfectly sunny skies. Pulling into the four wheel drive trailhead just after 6:30 a.m., we were off to seek what would surely be a completely different kind of adventure, Longs Peak having served as our only class three experiences, if you can truly call it class three.

A brief glimpse at the goal...

A signed trail junction leads the hiker to the right on the Ridge Stock Trail. The sign did not originally mention Wetterhorn, but it is scrawled on by a thoughtful hiker, so confusion should be easily avoided. After the split, the trail begins a short switchback to a long traversing line along the hillside, and we watched a lone mule deer stroll along the upper reaches of the slope. The feeling of anticipation built more and more, as the trees fell away and I knew that we'd be rounding that corner soon, when the true beauty of the area would truly unfold. Matterhorn Peak greeted us first; its broad south slope curving upward into a summit cone, serving as an appetizer for what was sure to come next.

Matterhorn Peak takes advantage of its only opportunity to dominate the view...

The next trail split arrives as the full view of Wetterhorn Peak and Matterhorn Peak explodes against the skyline, a dinosaur-spine as impressive as any ridge line I've seen to date. Colleen summed it up perfectly as we stopped for a photo opportunity. "F-ing incredible!" I couldn't say it better.

F-ing Incredible!!!

On any day, there are bound to be imperfections. A blister, a mosquito bite, insufficient calories, slippery creek crossings... We sat in the sun to allow for a change of socks and some garments to dry out, and for sore knees to hopefully feel better. The basin in this area is absolutely spectacular, equally if not more impressive than the Uncompahgre side of the plateau. It was a bit early for the peak wildflower bloom, but the lush vegetation and burgeoning summer colors were still breathtaking. Fans of winter can have their fun, but I absolutely revel in the glory of summer. Green landscapes underneath blue skies will get my vote every time.

Functioning again, we began the stroll up into the boulder field, an absolute garden of rocks with a superb trail meandering through it, the watchful denizens of the land keeping a close eye on us the entire time. This place is a marmot playground, and the giant squirrels were everywhere, sunning on the rocks and rooting in the tundra. There is such a comical presence to the marmot, as if watching the newest box-office animated feature film. They bound and chase amongst the rocks, like neighborhood children in a suburban cul-de-sac. I half expect them to start talking at some point...

Rock garden or Marmot Land?

Winding through the magical maze...

Climbing steadily through the twisting rock work, Wetterhorn becomes more and more commanding, dominating the view at all times. I found it difficult to take my eyes off of the thing, especially as climbers began to shriek and yelp as they reached the summit. Two other vehicles at the trailhead had alluded to the fact that we should have some company, and I knew that a group from was supposed to be up here on this day. With each summit whelp, my excitement grew more tangible, and I could not stop staring up at the ridge, looking for climbers to clue me in as to where I would be in just a few minutes.

Wetterhorn Peak takes over, clearly the day's star attraction...

The East Face of Wetterhorn, as the day's first summiteers begin to vocalize their triumph...

Not to be forgotten, Uncompahgre Peak's massive bulk absorbs the eastern sky...

With the oasis of stone behind us, we began up the ridge, seeking the notable slope of yellow dirt that serves as the climber's "red carpet", a final brief build up to Wetterhorn's true greatness. I followed Colleen up into the first outcropping of rock, winding around and through and onto a flat area with the patch of yellow greeting us, inviting us into the amusement park beyond. Crossing a short, stable snow field, we made our way over the loose but very short stretch of soil, and began the foray into the main attraction. Passing a pack and jacket stowed along the trail, we turned a corner to meet Tyler (tylerstorm), patiently keeping Jack the Yellow Labrador company. I felt that this was as good a time as any to switch from trekking poles to helmets, and after a nice break with some fresh beta of the route ahead, we thanked Tyler for his company and headed uphill. It did not take long to confront the mountain head on...

Early on the ridge...

The San Juans begin to expand in three directions; Mount Sneffels proclaims the view to the west...

The Wilson Group...

Handies Peak...

Redcloud and Sunshine...

A few more minutes of hiking, before shifting gears...

Just as we reached the bottom of the first gully, we met a couple of climbers on their way down. I recognized Britt (globreal), and we visited for a few minutes while one of his partners made his way down to join us. The climbing looked fun to me, and I could not believe how much I was actually embracing this challenge. I could tell Colleen was not quite so certain, though, and tried to maintain as much of a cautious attitude as possible. For some reason, Wetterhorn never has intimidated me. I've always expected it to be a really cool experience, and maybe that's why I felt so confident. Britt gave us some great advice on how to approach the upper sections, took our picture, and we decided it was time to get after it!

The class three climbing begins...

A look up the first gully (thanks to John from Britt's group for providing perspective)...

Anxious to see what's next...

The climb proved to be immediately interesting, as I managed a maneuver onto a higher ledge over some snow and ice, while Colleen just could not get comfortable with her footing to do the same. So, I guided her to a different, lower line, and she found a ledge that could be used to traverse onto a ramp on the west side of the gully, against the rock rib that blocks access to the next draw. Cairns marked much of the route, but what little snow there was seemed to be right in the easiest lines. Tyler came storming by, seemingly stepping from ledge to ledge without a breath, clearly not phased by the slope. It was apparent, however, that nerves were really playing on Colleen's mind, and I summoned the best of my Zig Ziglar and Tony Robbins teachings, offering as much encouragement as I possibly could. I think I even believed some of what I told her...

At the top of the first gully; we chose to exit to the left into the steeper upper gully...

We continued up easier terrain to the V-notch, where we turned into the notch to spy the next challenge. The second gully is steeper than the first, and several cairns seemed to be in inappropriate places. I began to lead down into the gully, but couldn't discern the next cairn to make the line work, so we instead turned upwards as I wanted to get a better look at things from closer to the ridge crest. Colleen did not like the looks of the line on the east side of the ridge, so I began a high line aiming into the center of the gully. While feeling the exposure, I couldn't help but think that I was actually really enjoying this new and different 14er experience. My partner, on the other hand, was less than overwhelmed with the same enthusiasm. Being taller, I was able to make a move that Colleen was having none of, and I completely understood her predicament. I gently offered her all the encouragement I could, and worked to guide her back down to the lower line that we had started from the notch, now clearly visible from my perch up high. "This is stupid, I can do this," she said, more to herself than anything. With some meticulous scrambling, she soon joined me on the easier terrain above the steep, ledgy lower reaches.

Colleen descends to a less exposed line...

It sure doesn't look bad from this angle...

It was now more of a walk than a climb for a few moments, as the area of the Prow became immediately attainable. More climbers dropped onto the ridge, and I shouted to the leader. "Hey Eric, are you going to guide us to the summit now?" Eric (lostsheep5) had been guiding the dispersed members of his group up and down the summit pitch. He was clearly enjoying himself. The rest of their group assembled and began their descent into the gully, while Eric and Tyler chose to stay on the ridge crest. Colleen and I continued towards the open area of the Prow, where she stashed her pack. Immediately, the improved balance was evident, and we launched off, ready to find the top of this amazing mountain.

Approaching the Prow...

The notch; at first it looks difficult, but upon inspection, there are easy steps to climb right onto it...

Climbing up and onto the notch gave me chills, and I viewed with my own eyes the famous ramp leading down to the bottom of the summit gully. I did not waste time, and honestly do not remember how I got to the bottom. I think I used hand holds along the side to just walk down, but I may have sat down and scooted, I really don't recall. I remember my words at the bottom, though. "Just like I thought, it's a freaking staircase!" Colleen made her way down to join me, and I began to climb.

Colleen always smiles for the camera...

The summit gully...

The excitement and concentration took my breath away, and I had to stop to slow my racing heart. We were barely a few feet below a prominent ledge that conveniently splits the middle of the gully. To the left, a cairn marks the easiest route; those seeking more thrilling rock just continue straight up. I led us to the cairn. Adrenaline erased any thought of pictures, and my camera was unfortunately forgotten for the final few moments to the summit. Rounding the corner on the ledge, a shallower, less defined staircase presented itself, and we continued the exhilarating ascent, though not for long. I stepped abruptly onto the flat summit, a family of marmots serving as a welcoming committee. Wow. We had climbed Wetterhorn Peak. The anxiety, fear, apprehension, all washed away with those final few steps onto the summit. "Whoo!" "Whooo!!!" We let Britt and the gang below know that we, too, could yodel in celebration on the summit of this remarkable peak.

Pure majesty...

Mount Sneffels and friends...

A view to the west, where the Wilson Group was building the most menacing clouds...

Redcloud, Sunshine and Handies Peak, swallowed up amongst the endless San Juans...

A very thrilling summit...


A few dark clouds were beginning to mar the perfection of the day, and we chose not to spend too much time at the top of this magnificent creation. I led back to the down climb, where a large cairn marks the route. We faced out and dropped from ledge to ledge, step to step. While not difficult, this was no place to slip, and concentration soon swallowed any sounds of the world around. With tunnel vision, in an almost machine-like manner, we sat down, scooted, and lowered ourselves to the last cairn, marking the ramp to the notch. I reasoned that this was the easier climbing on the route, that the gullies below would be more challenging.

Starting down from the summit...

We simply walked right up it...

Retrieving Colleen's pack, we began the steep and at times loose descent into the west gully. On the way up, I had taken a line that allowed me to avoid the snow on the standard route, while Colleen was able to navigate below it. For some reason, it looked easier to just try to cross it on the way down. It wasn't. Stepping out into the snow, I was beyond the point of return, and immediately regretted my decision. I slipped onto my backside, and clutched the rock as an only means of defeating gravity. I could not move to the left onto the snow, as a sheer layer of ice served as baseboard under the soft and sugary snow. Colleen dug my poles out of my pack, and handed me one, keeping the other for her own safety. With little choice, I let go of the rock and "glissaded" the ten or twelve feet straight down onto a soft and less than secure bench of scree. Pushing about three feet of scree down the side of the mountain, I came to a very relieving stop. My heart was pounding. Again faced with virtually no alternative, Colleen, having already committed to following me, also slipped, and I braced to keep us both at this very location on the mountain, instead of the ugly alternative below my feet. The run out was not pretty, and it took us a few minutes to regain composure and make our way up and away from the unpleasantness we had just endured. I guess it wasn't the best idea for me to have said earlier, "no one has ever fallen off of this mountain." I'm grateful that I'm not the first.

The upper gully...

Traversing to the notch was reasonably easy, as was the down climb of the lower gully. Still, with such an anxious experience so fresh in my mind, I couldn't help but feel very cautious with every single step. As we reached the relief of the lower ridge, relaxation returned, and the accomplishment and sheer elation of the recent hours became the dominant focus of my thoughts. I think Colleen felt equally as excited, and I couldn't have been more proud of the way she persevered and conquered the challenge. Climbing mountains can serve us in so many ways, and as individuals, I believe we each take something uniquely different from each experience. Personally, I've never felt more self-assured and confident than I did at the bottom of Wetterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn Peak in the rearview mirror...

This place will surely be exploding with color during the next couple of weeks...

Even though the snow at the saddle was very glissadable, we chose to just boot across the slope, reaching permanently dry ground above the boulder garden under increasingly cloudy but less than threatening skies. A thoroughly enjoyable hike ensued, and we arrived back at the truck shortly before 3:00. A stream crossing just a few hundred yards from the trailhead provided a welcome opportunity for a quick wade, an activity that is quickly becoming a staple of my summer post-hike routine. Congratulating each other on two days of incredible hiking in the incomparable San Juans, we parted ways. Colleen was city bound, while I had much more on the agenda, namely a trip over Engineer Pass and a Hot Springs pool in a super cool little town called Ouray. That is, if I were to arrive there in one piece after two and a half hours on one of the worst four wheel drive roads I've ever been on...

I'm ready to go back...

 Comments or Questions

5 stars
02/05/2011 00:22
Nice writing!
Nice trip.
Awesome mountain. ;-)

I‘m looking forward to repeating this one soon..


and concentration soon swallowed any sounds...
07/09/2009 03:34
Well said. I enjoyed reading your trip report. Congratulations to you and Colleen for defeating your fears.


Excellent TR!
11/30/2010 17:28
I'm headed up there the end of this month - thanks for your excellent TR. Congrats on the summit!
I also revel in the glory of SUMMER! Well said.

Kevin Baker

07/09/2009 04:37
You have a great way with words remembering all that detail, Keith! The Wetterhorn is neck and neck with Longs and the Needle as my favorite 14er. Keep on plugging away!

Wish I lived in CO

Very Nice Read
07/09/2009 12:39
Keith - I always enjoy your TR‘s. I don‘t think I‘ll ever ski down Capital, do the Bell traverse, or climb Pyramid in winter. I‘m truly happy for those that can and enjoy those TR‘s as well. You though seem to typify how the ”rest” of us feel, painting in words the thrills, apprehensions, elations, defeats, and all the other emotions involved in climbing a peak. As always, well written.


Great report !
07/09/2009 12:50
Sorry I missed you by a day Keith. This is one mountain I‘ll be looking to repeat in the future. I loved it as much as you ! Isn‘t overcoming your fears an incredibly powerful feeling ? Good for you and Colleen !


07/09/2009 12:55
Nice report - as always.


Delightful read ...
07/09/2009 15:16
Really enjoy your reports (and photos) Keith. Love the photo of you on the summit with Coxcomb and Redcliff in the background. And, that one of Sneffels (#11) also captured Potosi and Teakettle very nicely. Thanks for posting ... Happy Trails!

Chicago Transplant

07/09/2009 17:10
You have a great way with words Keith, its always enjoyable to read your reports!
PS - saw your name in the Sneffels register, congrats on all your San Juan success this past week!


07/09/2009 18:18
report as always!! You definitely have a way with words for sure. Are you getting ready to type one up for Pyramid??


Mel McKinney

07/09/2009 19:54
You mean the marmots aren‘t talking to you yet?
Awesome report, Keith!


07/10/2009 02:39
Thanks everyone, I appreciate the comments. This one definitely meant more to me, as it was one of my main goals last year, and I couldn‘t make it happen. It feels so good to have experienced it this early in the year.
Colleen deserves all the credit in the world for making it to the top of that peak, and I was very proud of her. It was a truly memorable day out.
Now if you‘ll excuse me, I have to continue working on my marmot-english translation manual. Mel, will we get to hike together this summer?


07/11/2009 00:45
This is an awesome report! I throughly enjoyed reading this! Just like an adventure novel actually!
Surburban cul-de-sac....Dinosaur Ridge....Great stuff!
I remember thinking the same thing you did about the Notch and the final gully. Reading your take on it made me chuckle.
Congrats on Wetterhorn, Keith...and Colleen too!


Nice TR!
07/18/2009 16:38
I am stuck in Budapest on business and am vicariously enjoying Colorado through your TR...planning this and a bunch of other San Juans peaks for early August and cannot wait!


05/20/2010 19:16
I‘ve considered climbing this peak but the hardest I‘ve done is Mt. Sneffels at a 2+ rating. I have the same reservations that it sounds like Colleen had. I think I‘ll climb a few more first, but this encourages me to stick with my goal of summiting Wetterhorn someday. Thanks!

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