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Climbers: Zambo, Benners, Wes (Skier25), & Tyler Conditions: Essentially the opposite of what NOAA said. It was HOT, sunny, and hardly any wind. Dangerous afternoon conditions as the snow rapidly heated. We saw several wet slabs in the afternoon looking back up to higher, East facing aspects. Road Conditions: Once turning off onto the Matterhorn Creek Road, we got approx .5 miles up the rough 2wd road before having to stop. This added approx 2 miles (one way) and 500 vert to the day. Summary: 11 miles, 4,000 vertical feet. Ski descent off of the West Face for Ben and Wes after abandoning the East Face attempt due to dangerous concerns, and a fun snow climb on the South East Ridge for Tyler and I. Rapid heating and bountiful sun made for quite the furnace towards the end of the climb.
Report: This trip has a few different goals for those involved. Ben and Wes's primary purpose was to get Wetterhorn's East Face, while Tyler and I were out for the good snow climb, and potentially more.
Initially, there was some discussion about climbing both Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre or Matterhorn in one day. An ambitious goal on snow to be sure, but given a strong crew and good conditions, certainly possible. With that in mind, we settled on a 2:30 planned start time and went to sleep at the car.
However, a missed alarm and several gear mishaps later put us on the trail at 4:00. It's always something I guess...
The overnight forecast was calling for a low of 27 degrees at 12,500ft, with 30-40 mph winds and gusts up to 50. The high for the next day was supposed to be low 40's. Given all of that, we felt good about the conditions with some concern about the wind. And then, as has happened to so many others, throughout the day we all got to see just what a load of crap NOAA can be....
Even with a suburban, it always amazes me the sheer amount of crap required to put 4 guys on a summit in the Winter/Spring. (Zambo)
We made it approx 2 miles below the Summer TH (1.5 below the end of the 2wd road) before being able to go no further. There is still quite a bit of snow on the road; lots of intermittently placed drifts that don't look they're are going to be gone all that soon. The 4wd section is still under a solid 1-3ft the whole way. However, the road is not steep and a quick hour and a half or so put us at tree line.
First light looking back on the approach. (Zambo)
Sunrise over Uncompaghre. (Zambo)
At this point, we quickly realized that we needed to begin re-thinking the plans for the day. Despite the forecasted lows, it was obvious that the snow pack did not get a deep freeze as hoped. It was soft all the way to treeline, and didn't firm up enough to offer solid reassurance. Furthermore, the so called winds gusts of "50 mph" were non-existent. All indications pointed to this being a warm, sunny, and calm day.
Given all of these factors (not to mention the late start time), any ambitions of getting multiple peaks quickly went out the window. At this point, Ben and Wes were concerned about being able to even get the East Face. The only way to know was to move as quickly as possible and gain the base to have a look firsthand.
First real look into the upper basin. Clearly the San Juans have no idea it's almost June. (Zambo)
Working the lower basin (Ben)
Wes with Matterhorn Peak beyond (Zambo)
Gaining the upper basin, we got the first real look at the peak. Wetterhorn's East face has a well earned reputation for it's uniqueness, presence, and beauty.
The face also commands respect and humility as evidenced by it's 55 degree slope angle and the wet-slab tracks from the previous few days of warm temperatures. Given the East facing aspect and the baking sun, any hope for the skiers was fading fast.
About to reach the upper basin. (Ben)
Easily the best trekking shot. Nice Work Ben (Ben)
East Face, with debris obvious from the past few days (Zambo)
A quick jaunt up to the ridge finally gave us some of that predicted wind. At this point, lots of the real 'fun' starts. While this is an easy class 2 stroll in the summer, right now the West face is a full-on snow climb. Traversing up and across the various snowfields made for plenty of exciting, adventurous, and (sometimes) terrifying moments.
We laid a good boot path across the various fields, and the snow pack was solid given the wind and West facing aspect. These chutes are lots of fun to go across, but also absolutely command your presence. Every step and axe placement was a methodical and carefully planned motion. Needless to say, this is absolutely a no-fall/slip zone.
Views of the ridge and summit to come (Ben)
Ben from the saddle (Zambo)
Wes and Matterhorn Peak again (Zambo)
Interesting spot for a rest there Ty (Zambo)
One of the final chutes to the base of the Ship's Prow (Ben)
Climbing high at almost 14,00ft (Ben)
With the steep snow behind us, all that remained was the final climb to the top. Thankfully, the face is almost 100% dry which certainly makes climbing in ski/mountaineering boots much more straightforward.
As an aside, I do have one gripe with all of the guide books and beta out there claiming this as a class 3 climb. We went straight up the gully and the consensus was that there is no way this is anything less than class 4. The climbing is steep, holds can be pretty rotten, and the consequences are final. Granted, we didn't really have any issues topping out, but still, this is quite a bit more difficult than some of the other scramble routes out there. Anyways, just a bit of whining about potentially inaccurate beta that is out there IMO.
Climbing up the gulley (Ben)
Always more interesting in plastics... (Ben)
Wes about to sop out on the summit (Zambo)
Right now, this route up Wetterhorn has a bit of everything: a relatively short approach, a stunning trek through the basin, some intense and fun snow climbing, and an enjoyable scramble to the small, isolated, and wild summit - truly a mountaineer's dream. And, perhaps more so than usual, this summit rewards any climber with more than his fair-share of wonderful sights.
As far as we could see, the glistening San Juan's surrounded us in the morning sun, brilliant in their still remaining winter coat. Uncompahgre and Matterhorn Peak smiled at us from across the way, and the warm and calm conditions made for a special summit.
I am a firm believer that climbing the 14ers is a means to an end. Standing on top of this place looking out on the glory of the San Juans brought me right back to that idea. If these sights and experiences can't keep you coming back, nothing will.
Snow, snow, and more snow, as far as the eye can see across the San Juans (Zambo)
A look back down the approach (Zambo)
Matterhorn - Wetterhorn connecting ridge (Zambo)
The huge/beautiful mound that is Uncompaghre (Zambo)
Summit shot (Ben)
Of course, the overly warm and calm summit very quickly reminded us just how hot this day was becoming. The sooner we could get down, the better.
A quick down-climb led us back to under Ship's Prow. At this point, it was a relatively quick and easy decision which had Wes and Ben agreed that there was no way the East Face was still in. In the end, this turned out to be a very wise and good choice.
Still wanting to get the ski descent, they decided to go off of the West Face instead and meet us climbers back down at the saddle.
A final look over the East Face leaves little doubt (Zambo)
Ben & Wes' route off the West face (Ben)
Helmet Cam (Ben)
Helmet Cam (Ben)
Helmet Cam (Ben)
Helmet Cam (Ben)
When Tyler and I reached the saddle, we all realized just what a fortunate decision it was to avoid the face. Even though it was still relatively early, the sun was absolutely scathing and the temps just kept creeping upwards. Needless to say, we quickly packed up and hurried to get the hell off the peak.
We carefully picked our way down into the lower basin without any issues. It was relatively easy to find low-angles the whole way down, but there was no denying the wet and warming snow. By the time we reached the lower basin it felt like snowshoeing in the middle of a slurpee. Layers were shed, SPF 100 sunscreen was applied, and we could not wait for the shade of the trees below.
As you can see, still quite a bit of snow at the Summer TH (Zambo)
Before we knew it, we were in the trees, back to the car, and eating overpriced (but delicious) burgers in Lake City.
All in all, it was a fantastic day out, but it also left room for some very valuable lessons as well. As we drove back to Denver, we had a lengthy conversation about the crazy weather, and more importantly, some of the good and bad decisions we made along the way. It's my firm belief that if you are going to keep going out into the backcountry, you must also continually review your decision making process.
This was easily one of the hottest days of the year so far. This fact, combined with the warm days before and the faulty weather forecast led to some potentially hazardous situations. The good news is that we had a strong crew, we were able to adapt and change plans accordingly, and everyone made it home in one piece.
Having said that, we also absolutely have some lessons to take home from this. Nobody is the perfect mountaineer, and I think we all agreed that some things could have been differently eg: trusting more in what we saw as opposed to how things were 'supposed' to be, always starting early, etc. All great lesson to take out next time.
Anyways, thanks again guys for another great day out on the peaks.
Happy climbing everyone!
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