| Three Musketeers + one marmot on Wetterhorn
Author‘s note: This is the second of four trip reports from a trip to the San Juan Mountains in August of 2008
Our group of four Midwesterners started our hike toward Wetterhorn Peak with a combination of excitement and trepidation. This mountain's steep slopes and rugged beauty were enticing. Our group was eager to take on the sustained class 3 scrambling that Wetterhorn promised.
But nagging at the back of my mind was the question if it were perhaps too much. Our group of newbies had handled Longs Peak fairly well the preceding summer. Some of us getting our first taste of high-altitude exposure then were a little freaked out, but we successfully summitted and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Our pre-trip research indicated Wetterhorn's exposure was roughly similar to Longs. Still, some of the photos of the summit pitch looked awfully intimidating.
Those concerns were elevated when we summitted Uncompahgre the day before our planned trek on Wetterhorn. We negotiated the relatively easy trail to Uncompahgre's summit okay. But prolonged problems with altitude sickness, and some extremely cold, blustery winds at the summit, left us uncertain about our next day's goal. Then we talked with another climber who had hiked Wetterhorn the day before. He judged Wetterhorn's summit pitch to be significantly more airy and exposed than Longs Peak.
Doubts nagged us as we departed Uncompahgre. No way were we going to put ourselves on Wetterhorn's steep, exposed upper slopes with frozen fingers, dizziness and nausea from altitude, and strong winds aggravating the disorientation and danger. But this peak was a highlight of a trip we had planned for almost a year. We weren't about to give up on it without trying.
And so, we left the Matterhorn Creek trailhead on a beautiful Monday morning. We were thankful to encounter no problems with altitude sickness as we passed tree line. I will never forget the excitement of seeing first Matterhorn Peak, then Wetterhorn, appear ahead of us as we progressed along the trail.
The approach to this mountain is enchanting. Brilliantly-colored creeks -- blue/white and rust red -- from mineral deposits. Beautiful wildflowers, just barely past peak.
And my personal favorite, a field strewn with boulders in the upper basin, interspersed with majestic mountain grasses and Columbine.
It was in this field of boulders, which we named the "Rock Garden," that we first noticed the only company we were to have on this Monday hike. First one, and then several, marmots began poking their heads out of hideaways in the boulders. They curiously followed, and occasionally led, us along the trail. I know frequent hikers tend to look down upon marmots as pests, but to us, they were intriguing and well, kind of cute. They tagged along not far behind us as we hiked out of the rock garden to gained a grassy plateau not far below Wetterhorn's southeast ridge.
(A great place for a break, with a fine view of yesterday's summit, Uncompahgre.)
We decided to take a food break on that plateau, as the weather continued to hold perfectly, allowing us to take our time. That, of course, elevated the interest of the marmots, which edged ever closer. Here, although we knew better, and some readers will no doubt be aghast, we must admit the truth: we fed the marmots. First, a little trail mix, which they were no doubt used to. Then an additional delicacy which we supposed they had never before experienced: bagel with cream cheese.
(You gotta admit, they are kinda cute.)
Despite the satisfying meal - or perhaps because of it? - the marmots disappeared from our proximity when we left that plateau and gained the distinctive yellow-dirt band of the southeast ridge, at about 13,200 feet. Ahead of us lay the beautiful, yet ominous, rocky slopes of Wetterhorn's upper reaches. It was time to switch gears from an idyllic mountain hike to a serious climb with more than a little safety concern.
As we prepared for the push up the final 800 vertical feet, we lightened out loads. Hiking poles, extra water, unneeded warm clothes on this sunny day, and some food would wait for us at the base of the rock slope in extra packs. Our would it, we wondered as we considered the food in our stashed packs. We had read stories of marmots destroying packs to get to the food inside them. "Do marmots come this high?" we wondered. To be safe, Garrett, who was staying behind, took all the food from our stashed packs.
(Our human base camp, Garrett, just below the yellow-dirt shoulder at 13,200 feet.)
It was also time to don climbing helmets for the first time in our lives. We had a memorable daddy-daughter moment as I adjusted Maryjane's chinstrap. As I warned her of the infamously treacherous loose rock of the San Juans, the look in her eyes was unforgettable: trusting, excited, and confident. This will be a wonderful, unforgettable experience, we told each other, as long as we make good decisions.
Then it was time to head on up those rock-ribbed slopes. The mountain quickly corrected one false impression I had held. I had thought the only real exposure on the route was the final summit pitch above the "Prow," a huge rocky outcropping about 150 feet below the summit. I quickly learned that much of those final 800 vertical feet consisted of steep, intimidating slopes. The holds were good, and the climbing was easy, but when you look down, you know you're in a serious undertaking.
Our decision to transfer all the food to Garrett's pack was validated when, shortly after we embarked on the rocky upper slopes, a marmot poked its head up from among the rocks. We would see it several times on the way up and down that section of the route. Maybe it was my imagination, but I thought it looked an awful lot like the light-brown marmot that we had fed back on the grassy plateau above the "rock garden."
We soon gained a distinctive landmark identified in the route description: Two tall smooth boulders leaning against one another in an inverted "V". Some room is visible between the two, but the route description tells you to either go left, to continue a rising traverse across rock ribs toward the Prow; or to go right to gain the ridge.
As the primary route researcher in our group, I had decided on our course long ago. "Go right," I said to Mark ahead of me, as though it were the only option. As we moved that way, I explained why I wanted to go to the ridge route. We had more ridges in our plans for the days ahead -- Sneffels southwest ridge, and the extremely exposed ridges of El Diente and Mt. Wilson. I wanted us to experience Wetterhorn's short ridge section before taking on those more ambitious endeavors.
That plan flopped when we never did gain the ridge on Wetterhorn. We followed a cairned route which started around the east face of the mountain. I knew that east face was not where we wanted to go, but I supposed the cairns would turn left and up to the ridge soon.
Problem was, the cairns showed no sign of leading us back to the ridge. They just kept leading northeast, with a few modest ups and downs but no real gain in elevation. I concluded that we were off our intended route, possibly following a route which connected to the Wetterhorn-Matterhorn ridge.
(The rugged ridge between Wetterhorn and Matterhorn. We didn't go near that ridge, but got off-route briefly on a trail that I think headed that way. This photo was taken from the yellow-dirt shoulder at 13,200 feet.)
I was furious at myself for leading our party astray. "This is no good," I hissed at Mark, a few feet ahead of me. "We need to go up and get to the Prow." I knew that landmark would be easily recognizable, and has a large flat area at its base for regrouping. Although more difficult climbing followed it, to reach it would mean we had successfully negotiated this off-route venture and returned to the "standard" route.
Mark, as always, was more than glad to climb, and he led us up as we departed the cairned route. The climbing was not terribly hard, although I suppose a few spots may be considered class 4. But I was deeply worried that we would blunder into some extremely difficult and dangerous terrain, and would have a hard time backtracking. As long as we were on a "standard" route, we knew we could follow a path that many people have safely negotiated before. Now off that path, the potential for disaster was greatly elevated, in my mind at least.
"This is no good," I kept repeating. "This is how bad things happen." Mark, above me, was enjoying the climbing but knew that if I was worried, he should be too. Maryjane, below me, was essentially oblivious to my concerns, and was having a great time. I eventually told her we were off-route, to try to elevate her caution, but she judged our terrain to be fine and continued on her merry way.
(Maryjane, having too much fun to worry about being off-route.)
"Dad, stop, let me take your picture," Maryjane said from below me. I had consented to snapping one shot of her below me a few minutes earlier, in an attempt to ease my internal tension. But the further we climbed in uncharted terrain, the more angry and upset I became. "No!" I snapped to Maryjane. "No more pictures, no more distractions of any type, until we reach the Prow."
"I have good news," Mark called out from above me. "I'm looking right at it." And indeed, it was just a few more feet of easy climbing to reach our regrouping zone.
(A welcome site: Mark at the prow. The rest of the route follows the second notch, to the right of Mark in the photo)
The relief was palpable to me as we rested in front of the Prow. A few drinks, a few deep breaths, and we were more than ready to take on the next big event: the summit pitch. I pointed out the route -- the second large notch beyond the Prow -- and told my co-climbers in detail what to expect: a flat down-sloping rock leading to the base of a steep gully, which will have excellent holds for hand-and-feet climbing but be sure to carefully test each hold before trusting your life to it.
Mark was the first to climb up into the notch and look over. His reaction was not what I expected. "Oh my God," he exclaimed. "We can't do that. No way."
I climbed up beside him, to his left, and saw about what I had expected. I would realize later that Mark, to my right, had his view of the gully blocked by a rock outcropping. All he could see was sheer cliffs beyond the gully; and the flat downsloping rock appeared from that angle to drop off into an abyss.
"We absolutely can do that," I said from my better angle, not realizing what Mark was seeing.
"No!" Mark replied. "I'm not kidding, I can't do it and I won't let you either. My balls won't stop tingling!"
My reaction was sorely lacking in compassion for my brother's rare loss of nerve. I started down the sloping slab, an easy butt-scoot on a dry surface with ample crevices for holds. (Some would walk it.) I got to the base of the summit pitch gully and turned around to see Maryjane coming behind me. I got a huge kick out of coaxing Big Brother into this move, even if his hesitation was due to a distorted perspective. Mark is without doubt the better climber. He can go with confidence over terrain that I find daunting. But just this once, I took the lead.
(It looks bad enough to make your balls tingle. The weakness in the summit cliff, behind my left shoulder, isn't visible from this angle.)
Mark came down behind Maryjane, now seeing the route clearly. Perhaps slightly peeved at his hesitation -- maybe even realizing it would end up posted on our trip report -- he appeared determined to make up for it on the next stretch. "Okay, you're right, it is easy," he said, and up he went like a jackrabbit. In a matter of what seemed like a few seconds, he was 20 feet, then 30 feet above us. "C'mon, let's go," he said. "The summit awaits!"
That summit pitch is indeed steep, and the runout below is, well, balls-tingling. But the holds and ledges are excellent. Having been blessed with warm and dry conditions, we found it to be easy and fun.
We worked our way up until we reached a ledge just a few feet below the summit. The numerous trip reports I read, and the route description, in my opinion did not do justice to this fascinating "catwalk." Maybe 30 to 40 feet in length, as wide and in most places as flat as a sidewalk, perched at 14,000 feet just short of the summit, we found it to be a great place to take in the view, shoot some memorable photographs, admire the route we had thus far taken, and savor the upcoming summit move.
Mark walked to the right end of the catwalk, and Maryjane strolled to the left end. "There's a good route to the summit over here," said Maryjane. "Same thing at this end," said Mark. If I had looked up, I would have seen a nice rock-climbing route not far from me in the middle -- but with two options already identified, I didn't notice it until looking at photos weeks later.
We ended up taking the right-hand route, and regretting it. We negotiated it okay, but I would not do it again. It was a short pull-up move -- maybe 10 vertical feet plus a few feet more of walk-up to the summit -- but we had to start it off a very small, exposed ledge. The weakness in the small cliff through which we pulled ourselves was full of loose rock. Pretty much everything you want to grab moves; I ended up spreading my weight across several loose holds and bellying up the dusty gravel slope -- with a huge drop-off right below me. Not fun, and totally unnecessary. The route up from the other end of the catwalk would have been a piece of cake, and I suspect the center route would have been easy also.
(Don't go this way: Too loose, too much exposure. But we made it okay.)
Nevertheless, upon completing that move, there we were, at the summit! We exchanged hugs and high-fives for a tremendously fun, rewarding and memorable climb. Wetterhorn's relatively small summit accentuated the sense of accomplishment. We took in sights of our previous day's conquest, Uncompahgre; our next target, Sneffels; and our climactic goal, the distant, ominous, but clearly recognizable Wilson Group.
Then we broke out and shared the best-tasting Three Musketeers bar I had ever had. Our choice of food the day before on Uncompahgre had been almost uneatable between the frozen food and our frozen faces. So we brought a Three Musketeers for Wetterhorn's summit because it would be easy to eat, but as soon as we broke it out the symbolism was inescapable. A new family tradition was born: the three of us sharing a Three Musketeers bar on the summit.
We were joined at the summit moments later by the only other company we would find this day: that distinctive light-brown marmot. We couldn't help but reward his diligence with a little trail mix.
(Congratulations to this marmot for summiting. How many summits on your peak list, marmot?)
We called out to Garrett, about 1,000 feet below us. We couldn't see him or hear his reply, but he could both see and hear us, and he in fact shot photos of us on the summit with his super-zoom camera.
Too soon it came time to head back down. The downclimb was pretty easy as I recall it. We walked down from the summit to the catwalk at the opposite end of our upward route. From there to the prow, we faced in some, faced out some. In some sections one of us would face in, another would face out. As long as the weather conditions and our physical conditions held, which they did, it was all easy.
(Feeling a little cocky after topping out Wetterhorn. Don't worry -- El Diente would take care of that problem a few days later.)
Our downward route from the Prow was more like what most people take on the way up, I believe, based on the cairns we saw. Except when we came down to those two tall boulders in the inverted "V", we found a crevice that allowed us to slip down directly between the two boulders. Before long we were walking out onto the yellow-dirt shoulder, sharing the congratulations and euphoria of a safe summit and return.
We found the walk back of our eight-mile round trip to seem extremely long and fatiguing, perhaps reflecting the fact that we had summitted 14ers on back-to-back days. The marmots seemed to stay at the rock garden as we departed the area. Our total time was around eight hours from car-to-car. We returned to Lake City with great memories of a hike that I'm sure will always be one of our favorite 14ers.
(My favorite of many treasured photos from Wetterhorn: Big Brother on the catwalk. Help me out, readers: I think that's Sneffels directly behind him and the Wilson Group to the far left, but I'm not sure.)
The back-to-back summit hikes took their toll on us old guys. While Maryjane and Garrett socialized at a local pub, Mark and I zonked early. The next morning, we saw the aftermath of a large bear's decision to go dumpster-diving right outside our cabin window. It actually tipped over a three-yard container, pried open the metal top, and scattered the contents across the parking lot – while we slept soundly less than 20 feet away. "Musta been an eight-footer," drawled the maintenance man at the Wagon Wheel Resort the next morning. I think it could've been an eighty-footer and we still would've slept right through it.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):