Hinsdale County Highpoint Trip Report

Uncompahgre Peak (14,309 ft)

Date: July 18, 2005
Author: Kevin Baker

added Wetterhorn Peak (14,015 ft)

Patrick Thornley, Risa Hayes, Steve Johnson, and Kevin Baker

This trip had been on our agenda for quite sometime as our Lake City trip last year was a lot of fun. Pat, Risa, and Steve came out Thursday night, as I couldn't get an extra day off work. Pat & Steve did Redcloud/Sunshine, while Risa did Handies. I drove Pat's wife down later in the day Friday, arriving at the nice Materhorn Creek hotel at around 9 pm. The weather was pretty unstable throughout the evening with storms off and on during the drive. The goal was for everybody to climb Uncompahgre, then I would do the long traverse over to Wetterhorn if the weather held. The forecast looked great but what are the odds of getting both in the middle of monsoon season? A camper at the trailhead said that it had rained for 6 hours solid, so we hoped a better day was in store.

We left the hotel at 5 am and Steve was gracious enough to bounce his Toyota Tundra all the way up to the Nellie Creek 4WD trailhead at 11,440 feet. He dropped me off at 6 am at around 11,000 feet so I could get 3000 feet of total gain for Wetterhorn. This silly personal rule added only 1 mile to the hike. I arrived at the trailhead at 6:20 and we were off. There were a few cars pulling in as we left but not as many as I thought there would be in the middle of the summer.

We made good time up the nice trail, which follows Nellie Creek, affording spectacular views of unique Uncompahgre. This is the first time I have hiked with Steve and he was smoking all of us! He has just recently got back into hiking and I struggled to catch him. At around 12,000 feet, we took our only break then headed up to the southeast ridge. From there, the trail switchbacks up the steep southeqast face, one of the few weaknesses on this massive mountain.

The gully on the backside was loose but manageable and soon I was on the summit plateau back on the trail. I crested the gentle slopes of Uncompahgre at 8:30 am with incredible views down the impressive east face. Even on a hazy day, the San Juans were spectacular. The views of Wetterhorn beckoned me to go for it and the weather looked promising. A few minutes later, Risa and Steve joined me along with a wedding party! They were dressed casually and some of them wore Tevas for the hike. Quite impressive! Apparently the small ceremony transpired after I left the summit. Pat soon arrived and after pictures and a snack, I parted ways and headed over to Wetterhorn at 9:45.

The descent down the gully went quickly and I was soon wrapping around the south side on the excellent trail. The basin between the two peaks is a beautiful walk. The trail is well constructed and minimizes the ups and downs, dropping to about 12,300 feet and then climbing to the pass south of ranked 13'er Matterhorn. I was within 1000 vertical feet of Matterhorn but I knew my weather window was too short to do all three. From this vantage point, the views of Wetterhorn are inspiring, so I plodded on in a race to beat the clouds. A few puffy cumulus began to develop from the west but there was little vertical development yet. Luck was on my side as I spotted some hikers taking a break in the meadow below Wetterhor, so I left the trail and headed for them and saved losing 300 feet of vertical. They descended an alternate trail and pointed the way to the new trail just to the right of the stream. I quickly found it and ascended the well cairned trail through talus and marmots to the southeast ridge. Quite a few parties were coming down and told me that the weather still looked good to the west.

The first part of the ridge was a little annoying as the trail just went straight up loose scree, then the climbing and route finding began as I stayed near the crest of the ridge to the left. There are plenty of trails to choose from and there are a few occasional class 3 moves among the boulders. I came to the Ship's Prow fin just below the summit and confirmed the remaining route with a couple guys who had done the trip from Uncompahgre. The notch leading to the easiest route led me to a down-sloping wide ledge to the ladder like gully. I then found another ledge with a cairn, which wrapped me around to the easiest climb to the left. A very enjoyable climb indeed as the exposure is minimized by stable holds for the most part with a few sandy areas. At 12:56, I had the summit of Wetterhorn to myself. I spent only 10 minutes on top relishing the luck I had but the clouds continued to build, forcing me to get down quickly. The down-climb wasn't too bad and in short order I was heading back down the ridge, staying high as much as possible.

Pat and I had arranged to start attempting radio contact at 2 pm but I was still way out of range. The clouds darkened over Wetterhorn, but nothing happened. As I made my way back to tree line, I walked through a herd of I'm guessing 500 sheep! Where did these guys come from? Most were unfazed by my presence and they were quite a site to behold. I made good time down the trail and was back at the 4wd trailhead at 2:55. No sign of Pat or Steve yet as they were to go back to Lake City to freshen up and pick me up either at the Matterhorn Creek trailhead or along the road. As I descended, the mosquitoes started hammering me so I walked fast to keep them at bay. On the road at around 10,600 feet, I made contact with Pat and was glad to see his 4Runner at around 3:15.

This was a great hike, the length of which was minimized by using the Nellie Creek approach with a car shuttle. I would highly suggest this loop hike with good weather, but you are exposed to the elements for a long time. I will be back to visit this special place.

Climb statistics: 15.5 miles with 6,000 feet of elevation gain.