Peak(s):  Uncompahgre Peak  -  14,309 feet
Date Posted:  04/02/2011
Date Climbed:   04/02/2011
Author:  pioletski

 Solitude on Uncompahgre   

Spring in the San Juans!

Solo climb and ski descent of Uncompahgre Peak, 4/22/2011, from the lower Nellie Creek trailhead.
Climb via west face, descent via south ridge and southeast face.
15 miles, 5399' climbed, about 5369' skied, 8.5 hours

Sometimes you just need to go out alone. Gerlinde is on her way to Nepal, my usual partners are skiing a line that I did just a couple of weeks ago... I was at a bit of a loss as to where to go on a gorgeous Saturday until Anna posted pictures from a drive through the San Juans, including Uncompahgre. Coverage looked better than in most previous skiers' TRs, so I decided to give it a shot. As it turned out, a lot of melting and wind transport has taken place since Anna's photos were taken. More on that later.

I arrived in Lake City early enough for a decent night's sleep, so I decided to indulge that possibility. The Quiet Moose was indeed quiet, and I was well cared for by Bruno and Frederique.

Anticipating a hot day, I hit the trail at 4:00 am. With only a few bare spots, snow started almost immediately. A spectacular shooting star cut across the northern sky. The snow was frozen hard, which made for very efficient skinning; I was at the 4WD trailhead by 6:00:

Upper trailhead

Stars were beginning to fade in the east, but I had gained another 1000' before dawn broke:

Dawn in the upper basin

What a gift to be above treeline at daybreak! Uncompahgre looked grand in the early light:

first light on the peak

Grand... but a little undressed, relative to Anna's pictures. Still, from a skier's point of view, it looked about as good as it ever does. The problem with Uncompahgre is that half the snow melts or blows away before the other half stabilizes, so it's always a bit scratchy for a ski descent. I noted that, by traversing to skier's left, I would be able to avoid most of the bare ground on the southeast slope:

The Southeast slopes

That, however, was only the backup plan. Being alone with my shadow...

A shady character

... I figured I could explore around without making anyone impatient. I was hoping to ski the Fin Couloir, which splits the cliffs on the south side. One approaches this by traversing what Dawson describes as an "improbable notch" at 13,460'. Improbable, yes - it's like stepping into a wind tunnel:

At the notch

Skins were off, boots buckled tight, and I skied down about 400' vertical to the shelf below the cliffs. Traversing this ledge with eager anticipation, I looked for snow in the Fin... and it was as dry as a bone. I gather the wind has been more southerly than westerly lately. The view was nice, though:

Wetterhorn, Matterhorn

And neighbors

I continued across until I reached snow on the west face, and climbed up the first gully I came to. I regained the 13,460' level at 9:30; my detour had cost me an hour.

Ascending the west face

From here up, it was a battle with an increasingly strong wind. After seeing Anna's pictures, I still hoped for continuous snow from the summit onto one descent route or another, but it was not to be. Well, we have ways of dealing with such problems - and reading everyone else's TRs from skiing this mountain, it seems that it's always like this. So I settled on the standard South Ridge/Southeast Slope ski route. The views from the summit are spectacular, and the area is geologically interesting as well. Here is the view toward Sneffels. Ben, Brian and Glen are out there somewhere:

Looking west

Looking south, I wondered: with all that snow out there, why couldn't there be a little more right here?

Looking south

Uncompahgre is a beautiful summit...

A little snow at the summit...

... and from here you can see the gently curving escarpments that formed part of the wall of the vast volcanic caldera that once existed here...

Ancient crater rim

... but let's just say that it's not the skiing opportunities that make Uncompahgre special.

Uncompahgre's benchmark

The descent off the summit was an exercise in billygoating and stitching together little patches of snow. I made it work, but it wasn't the prettiest descent. Eventually I managed to make some tracks worthy of looking back on...

Tracks on the southeast face

... and then headed down the Nellie Creek road, arriving back at the lower trailhead at 12:30.

Thanks for reading!

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

Nice Matt!
04/03/2011 14:09
Great job getting out solo and nabbing this one on a perfect spring day. The Juans sure are looking good right now (particularly Wetterhorn ).


I thought the same thing when I saw Anna's pic
05/02/2011 14:23
Way to make the ski descent happen. Looks like a good day and a sweet sunrise. Sonetimes solo is nice although you could have joined us on Crestone peak!


Hey Wesley -
04/03/2011 18:01
Looking forward to seeing your Crestone TR!


Great trip report
04/03/2011 18:29
Always cool to hear about your adventures and this one was great, though quirkier than most. It must have been so cool to be at that elevation so early in the a.m.


Atleast you skied off the summit
04/04/2011 01:03
Nice work Matt, beautiful day at the very least. We stashed our skis below the dry gully and just hoofed it to the summit. We had Dales Pale Ale waiting at the car, so we didn't want to prolong or risk anything.

p.s. Carl's avatar is in IMAX form right now.


Henson creek
04/04/2011 14:22
That shooting star was killer. At 9:30 Pam & I were just hitting the ridge on Wetterhorn. Hopefully the Quiet Moose was cheaper than The Matterhorn.


sweet solo
04/04/2011 01:59
Nice TR. Looks like great weather and day to be down South


04/05/2011 04:41
Nice, Matt!


Great TR!
04/05/2011 15:59
Nice solo Matt! Thanks for posting. How did the recent dust storm affect the San Juans?


Thanks y'all!
04/05/2011 19:11
@Chris: That's cool that you and Pam saw the same meteor I did - it was pretty unmistakeable. Wanna go skiing sometime?

@Caroline: Thanks! The dust has been covered up but it's definitely affecting bonding between layers. Be careful out there, as always.


04/26/2011 01:21
Hi Matt,
I guess I took a long time to check back. We are ready to ski!

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