These dramatic peaks guard the San Juan’ northern edge about 15 kilometres west of Lake City in Colorado. Uncompahgre’s great height (4361m) and Wetterhorn’s classic shape make them siren sentinels. The day before I had been admiring those beautiful peaks from a distance, and I was really looking forward to an excellent outing.
Approach from Lake City
I stayed the night in a campground outside of Lake City, and did not wake up as early as planned. My alarm clock was set to 05:45, but apparently it was not loud enough to wake me up from the deep sleep after yesterday’s strenuous hike. Instead it was 06:45 when I finally crawled out of my tent, to yet another sunny morning. I was in a hurry, thus I decided to eat my breakfast in the car while I drove the long way to Matterhorn Creek Trailhead. I had no problems to find the sign for Engineer Pass in the junction of Second Street and Gunnison Avenue (Colorado 149) in downtown Lake City. After two blocks I turned left onto the Henson Creek Road, a dirt road in surprisingly good conditions. After 6km I passed the old Henson townsite, and then the Capitol City townsite after 14 kilometres. Here I left the Henson Creek Road and continued northwest on the North Henson Creek Road (Forest Service Road 870), which I found to be in a terrible state. I would never have taken a passenger car on this road. My Jeep, however, did not have any problems and I easily reached Matterhorn Creek after 18 kilometres. This was the trailhead (3120m), but due to time constraints I tried my luck on the 4WD drive to shorten the approach even further (1km). This road was a nightmare for the brand new Jeep, and I tried my best to avoid any damage to the rented vehicle. At one occasion the clearance was not high enough, so I could hear a big rock crushing into the frame underneath my car. I did not risk to drive any further, so I parked the car on a grassy shoulder on the left side of the road.
Wetterhorn Peak (4272m)
It was 08:05 when I started to walk. I signed myself into a book at the 4WD parking lot, and continued on a old road beyond the gate (closed for vehicles). There was a confusing sign 1 kilometre above the gate, but luckily somebody had written Wetterhorn in the right corner to prevent people from taking the wrong trail. So I continued on the right hand trail, which had several switchbacks up some steep grassy slopes. I was above the tree line and could easily see both Wetterhorn and Matterhorn Peak, the latter one being far less beautiful than the famous peak in Switzerland. After a while there was a sign saying that the old trail to Wetterhorn was closed due to environmental reasons, thus I had to use the new one. I hiked into the south-facing basin between Matterhorn and Wetterhorn on the new but well cairned trail. I frequently looked up at Wetterhorn’s sweeping east face. The southeast ridge also looked quite impressive. Then I continued up to the saddle where the southeast ridge of Wetterhorn started (3920m). I had to take a short rest there, because my legs felt kind of tired after yesterday’s climb. I continued along the ridge, but soon the trail switched into a gully on the left side of the ridge. It was a lot of loose rocks there, but I safely got to the upper part of the gully where it was a narrow notch on the left side. Big people would probably risk getting stuck in the notch. But I was rather slim after months of biking, hiking and climbing, so I easily passed it, and climbed into a new gully. I scrambled up the gully and reached the ridge after 50 metres. Shortly after, the ridge rose abruptly because of a prominent tower called Ship’s Prow. I passed this obstacle easily on the right hand side of the ridge, but I had to be very careful because the ledges was covered with sand and gravel. Then I reached a levelled area just below the final summit cliff. The route up to this point had been mostly class 2 with an occasional class 3 spot.
I climbed into the easternmost of the two notches between the Ship’s Prow and Wetterhorn’s summit. From there I could see the west-facing summit pitch for the first time, and it surely looked steep and dubious without a rope. From the notch I had to traverse 5 metres on an easy angled slab, before I climbed a shallow gully. This gully felt like a steep staircase, providing good holds for both hands and feet. Higher up it became more exposed, so then I traversed left on a distinct ledge. The ledge rounded a corner and beyond that it was easy climbing the last few metres to the summit, which I reached 10:15. Although the difficulty of the summit pitch was only Class 3, it was exposed and somewhat loose.
The summit plateau of Wetterhorn was surprisingly large and flat. I sat there for 15 minutes, enjoying the beautiful panorama, especially to the east where the characteristic peak of Uncompahgre towered high above its surroundings. That peak was actually my next objective for the day. It seemed to be very far away (5km), so I had to hurry up in case of thunderstorms in the afternoon. I could only see a few clouds when I finally left the summit of Wetterhorn.
Uncompahgre Peak (4361m)
I descended Wetterhorn easily and started on the long hike towards the foot of Uncompahgre Peak. I tried to stay as high as feasible underneath Matterhorn, to prevent loosing too much elevation before I joined the main trail to Uncompahgre. The main trail took me over a minor pass, before I continued for several kilometres on a mainly flat terrain. The trail led me south of Uncompahgre before it started to climb up a shoulder. From there it contoured northeast. I was tempted to take a shortcut in order to reach the ridge faster, but I decided to stick to the main trail and save the environment. When I finally reached the ridge, I could see a trail coming up from Nellie Creek, which seemed to be the normal approach to Uncompahgre Peak. From there the trail was almost the size of a highway, still I could only see some few people. I met two American guys who shook my hand and welcomed me to USA. I used the opportunity to ask the locals about the weather, and if it was likely that thunderstorms would appear later in the afternoon. They told me that some of the clouds looked a bit suspicious and that showers would be likely and maybe blizzards as well. Shit, I thought, and hurried up.
I followed the trail easily until I reached a cliff band. It seemed to be several alternatives through the loose rocks, but nothing harder than class 2. Beyond the cliffs it was easy walking to the highest point of the enormous summit plateau of Uncompahgre. I arrived 12:55 and spent at least 30 minutes on the top, mainly sitting on a rock while I gazed down the fearsome, vertical and 250 metres high north face. I also spent some time walking around to make sure that I had visited all potential high points on the plateau, before I left the summit.
I really struggled on my way back to the trailhead, especially when I had to ascend 100 metres in order to reach the pass southeast of Matterhorn Peak. It was a beaten man who finally arrived the parking lot 4 o’clock in the afternoon. I had ascended more than 4000 metres in two days and climbed 22 official fourteeners during the last 18 days. A couple of beers, followed by a rest day, was certainly needed before my legs would be ready to climb San Luis Peak, the last 14000 feet peak in the San Juan Range.
(I’m referring to the YDS class rating system throughout this article)