| 2 Days, 2 Summits & Some Magical Silver Thread
The Original Plan (aka Insanity Born)
In preparation for a proposed Mummy Mania trip later in the hiking season I wanted to bag Wetterhorn, Matterhorn and Uncompahgre Peaks in a single day. I knew this would be a semi-Herculean day, requiring about 6200 vertical gain and approximately 15 miles of hiking. In order to keep the day confined to the shortest amount of pain and suffering it would require starting at the Matterhorn trail head (TH) and then finishing at the Nellie Creek TH. This obviously required two cars or having a hiking partner to drop me off at the first trailhead and pick me up at the far end. Fortunately I was able to find such a person in Chris (cbauer10), whom I have shared 2-3 epic adventures, including our Little Bear trip last year.
When the going gets tough and when I have a hair brained idea I know that I can count on Chris to not only offer a dose of reality but be there in a pinch. As Chris had already summitted Uncompahgre Peak but not Wetterhorn (or "weather peak") the overall approach was great as he would be able to fulfill the above plan regarding the drop off and pick up points. The plan was born. As the date of the hike grew nearer plans often change – I have learned that it is extremely helpful to always be flexible when it comes to forays into the high country, particularly when you're relying on someone else for a free 4WD ride. As it turned out Chris was able to talk his long time friend Patrick (Axle) into joining him for the weekend. Due to our schedules (I needed to be back in Denver for a special event on Sunday and Chris & Patrick wanted to hang around an extra day) we elected to drive separately. Based on Chris' advice we decided to camp at the Lake San Cristobal "Wupperman" campground. This turned out to be a great choice as it is a beautiful area and is only 30-40 minutes from either TH. It is also great as it allowed me to drive in my 2WD van and use it (thanks again to my wonderful wife) to car camp (thanks to Honda for the awesome Ody fold-down back seat). The only other late breaking item worth noting is that due to hiking speeds (I needed to hike faster than Chris & Pat) we decided it was important to be in radio contact. Lastly, the weather looked to be favorable so I felt comfortable in starting in the 6:00 - 6:30 AM window. Being the (somewhat) consummate planner the worst case scenario for this hair-brained idea was that this start time would allow for me to bail on Uncompahgre Peak if needed and get picked up at the far end of the trail. If I'm foreshadowing too much please note that I'm just a dumb construction estimator and not a writer…
Day One "The Best Laid Plans…"
Party (2-legged): Jason, Chris, Patrick, and a certain guy named "Murphy" (mostly Jason solo; Murphy would join me later in the day)
Party (4-legged): Denali & Titus
TH: Matterhorn Creek
Start: 6:30 AM
Summit: 9:00 AM
Finish: 2:00 PM
If you're the least bit smarter than the average bear you've likely figured out by now that plans often change, particularly in the high country. This can be attributed to any number of factors, including (but not limited to) inadequate planning, inadequate training, poor sleep, dumb luck and/or uncooperative weather. Given that your one step ahead of the bear you have also noticed that I likely didn't fulfill my original plan. Here's how it actually went down. Friday started off to a great start – got some good sleep in the van (I likely could not have started any earlier as I didn't arrive at the camp until 9:00pm the night before and really didn't feel like sleeping until 11PM, having been in the car for 6 hours). The weather also looked very promising – not a cloud in the sky as we started the hike at the upper TH. After making a quick retreat to the TH (dropped one of my gloves) I was off like (insert your favorite saying here). I hit the tree line in no time flat and only passed by one hiker, who I would later discover was Lynne (LynnKH), on the ascent to Wetterhorn Peak. A few elk ran across the trail ahead of me just prior to the trail junction with the Ridge Stock Driveway (Trail 233). I continued to cruise on up the upper portions of the trail and greatly enjoyed the scrambling section near the summit. During this time Chris and I were in periodic radio contact. After signing the summit register (this marked #40 in my quest) and snapping a couple of photos I was on my way down, stopping only to shoot up to the top of the Prow (I do enjoy a good scramble and also like to score some easy extra credit points). The weather was still looking pretty good although I wasn't taking anything for granted so I hauled it back down the Class 3 section, where I ran into Lynn and later crossed paths with Chris & Pat, who had just reached the "yellow dirt" ridge line. After a minimal amount of shop talk we parted company and I was on my way back to the junction with the Driveway, doing as much of a jog is possible with a 18 pound pack and being at 13,000 feet.
Junction & Decision Time – As often happens in the high country the peaks tend to create their own weather. As I was getting ready to head east up the Driveway I noticed a large cloud was forming over Uncompahgre Peak, my final destination of the day. Borrowing from the old Grey Poupon commercials, "But of course". Man – this sucks I thought to myself. Here we go (again). It's always good to have choices although I really had to choose quickly the following 1) Stay put and just wait for Chris & Pat and then forget about the other two peaks – the lousiest choice; 2) Just summit Matterhorn (a slightly better choice but not great as it really wasn't high on my list, just bonus material) or 3) Forget about Matterhorn Peak and go for the gold and hope that the weather held out long enough for me to summit Uncompahgre. Given my type A personality I naturally gravitated toward the later option – too bad Monty was around to tell me immediately what was behind door #3.
As door #3 had the most risk I did not want to catch a bad case of summit fever so I quickly radioed Chris for advice. As I knew they were on or near the Wetterhorn summit I figured he would have a better view of the weather conditions than I (there was a ridge line that was partially obstructing my view to the east). Chris pretty much confirmed what I already knew – if I was going to summit two 14ers that day then I needed to forego my summit bid for Matterhorn Peak (Wetterhorn's 13,590 foot tall little brother). Not wanting to make the assumption that tomorrow's weather would provide for a summit of the Uncompahgre Peak (also a Hinsdale county highpoint – I gotta have my lists!), I again tore off like (again, insert your favorite saying) up past Matterhorn Peak and down into the basin between the peaks. I found the Driveway to be a pleasant, if not squishy, trail that meandered its way over to the base of the rock formation that is Uncompahgre Peak. Being that I didn't have time to meander I will admit that I took a few "shortcuts" however I can't truly tell you if I saved much time with this approach as it was filled with some ups/downs and required detours around several snow fields, some with an escarpment (or what I like to call a "healthy dropoff") of 8-10' high. This prevented any effective glissading. Bottom line is that I finally made the junction with the Uncompahgre Peak around 12:30 PM, after another approximate 1,500 feet of vertical gain and likely 3-4 miles since first hopping onto Driveway. I was on my 3rd Powerbar energy gel (or goo as I call them) of the day at this point. The stuff tastes nasty but it sure gives you a quick kick in the bum.
My least favorite hiking friend, named Murphy, now was hiking with me – he was likely behind me for the past several miles, just out of sight laughing all the way. At any rate it was clear at this point that the weather was likely going to be a real crap shoot. In addition, I was running about 90% power. To complicate things even more I had lost radio contact with Chris – given the weather situation they had been required to descend off Wetterhorn. I could actually hear him over the radio, however I could not respond to his queries with my unit (neither one of us had cell coverage either). Given my current elevation I would have to go higher in order to establish proper radio contact – not that this was the best choice.
At this point I had already invested quite a bit of time in the dance and didn't really like the notion of Murphy outclassing me. Frustration set in. "Son of a bleep" I said to myself. I was staring up at the summit block at around 12,800 feet. On most 14ers this would be great, however I knew this one was a couple hundred feet higher (the 6th tallest to be precise at 14,309'). Sometimes just 250' feet makes all the difference in the world. I was faced with another choice, albeit a much easier one than earlier in the day – go up or down. I again quickly evaluated the weather and my strength. I felt strong enough to make it – the question was how fast. The weather was the most interesting I'd seen to date on 14ers. It was cloudy over Uncompahgre and then a ribbon of clouds behind it stretching back to the west over Wetterhorn – the weather peak was living up to its name. Surrounding this little sea of gloom and doom were blue skies – I was still catching some good rays. I made the decision to go for it. I saw hikers coming off the summit block which in a strange kind of way gave some comfort. Having been in a similar situation on Belford/Oxford I had dropped my pack at the saddle and made a dash for the summit, just beating out a lightning bolt that hit the Oxford summit block. Not ever wanting to go through that again I made the decision that I would turn around at the first peal of thunder or lightning bolt in the distance. To make this long story short I made it to around 13,500 feet before Murphy won out. I donned my rain jacket as the rain/snow mix began to lightly (fortunately) fall on the upper reaches of the mountain. It was time to descend. I felt a wave of peace about the decision. I have four very good reasons to always return home safely. As I headed back down I left Murphy to his vices – he was not seen the remainder of the weekend I'm glad to report.
Even though I was frustrated about having to descend all the way back to the Nellie Creek TH (and later have to hike an additional 2 miles down the 4WD road to meet Chris & Patrick, who were running a little late) I knew it was the best choice. I just was hoping for a quick, successful summit the next day. I hate nothing more than leaving unfinished business.
Day Two "Wasn't I Just Here?"
Party (2-legged): Jason, Chris, Patrick, and Lynn
Party (4-legged): Denali & Titus
TH: Nellie Creek
Start: 6:30 AM
Summit: 9:30 AM
Finish: 12:45 PM
Stiff joints and sore muscles – Ah, there's nothing like day two of a hiking weekend. Or day three for Lynn, who had done San Luis, then Wetterhorn, now Uncompahgre. We decided to form a group for today's adventure. There's not much to say about this day except it was very uneventful. It was actually far more enjoyable to hike with a group and watch the dogs mouse around (I believe they must put on 2-3 times as many miles as their 2-legged masters). So much more is gained from connecting with other hikers and just talking along the trail. Having done 40% of my peaks solo I have come to appreciate the opportunity to hike with others.
Having been out for 3 days, Lynn set the pace, however her pace was fast enough for us guys. Her pace was also likely faster than many guys – kudos to you Lynn! We cruised up the trail and enjoyed at least 45 minutes on the summit sharing stories with 10-15 fellow hikers, many of whom are 14ers.com members. After taking the obligatory hero shots (sorry – no hanging my feet over the 1000 foot tall precipice that one encounters on the north side of this peak), it was time to descend. We ran into several upclimbing hikers and spoke with Craig (giarcd) who was making the best of a bad situation with his descent (glad to hear you got back ok – and you are in my prayers). It seemed like in no time flat we were back to the TH.
It was time for me to get back to where I belonged. After a quick ice cream "drumstick" at the general store near the campsite I packed up the van and parted company with Chris & Pat. I was now ready for another adventure – uncharted territory.
The Magical Silver Thread
I like to consider myself an explorer. While I doubt I have the moxie to do what was done in these parts in the 1800's I still enjoy going into the "unknown", which means sections of highways & byways I've never driven before. This meant driving the section of CO 149 from Lake City to South Fork, which I discovered is called the Silver Thread. As it turns out I believe this section of road is one of the most breath-taking roadways I've seen in this State. Upon leaving the Lake City area it offers tremendous views of Lake San Cristobal, Wetterhorn/Matterhorn/Uncompahgre and also the Slumgullion earth flow. After hitting the Slumgullion Pass it gently slopes down to the Rio Grande River headwaters, whereupon it chases the Rio Grande all the way down to the Alamosa valley. I could have spent time stopping to take much more pictures but had to keep rolling to get home on time. One word which I must repeat again about this road – magical.
Although this scenic detour added about one hour to my trip it was well worth it. One added benefit is that I got to see the Sangre range on my way north along I-285. So in one day's journey I was able to see nearly all the major mountain ranges in this fine state – San Juan, Sangre de Cristo, Sawatch, Mosquito, and Front Range. A very good day indeed!! And if that was not enough I finished my journey treated to a rainbow visible from Conifer all the way to my house.
Total elevation gain: Approx 8,000 feet
Total mileage: Approx 23 miles
In case you can't tell I was highly inspired about this trip. I hope that it inspires others to chase after their dreams of exploring the unknown, including the high peaks of this great state. I also hope that it will remind you to use proper judgment when selecting routes and then be willing to adjust them in the field when necessary so that you stay safe. Always remember that someone wants to hear your stories and you can't do that if you don't return back from the trail. The only thing my decision to turn back on day one cost me was a little tread from my boots. I believe that mountaineering is the process, not the result. Live long and hike hard my friends.
Elk along the Matterhorn Creek trail, below the junction with the Driveway
View of Wetterhorn Peak above treeline
Pano shot of Wetterhorn Peak (left) & Matterhorn Peak – that ridge would qualify as a great traverse if Matterhorn was just a little higher…
Closeup of Wetterhorn Peak, the Prow is to the left
Wetterhorn and the Prow, a little higher up the trail – just a little snow around the Prow
Closeup up the angled slab (I call it a ramp) and the Prow behind
Pic of final pitch to the summit
Pic of the ramp, Prow and lower portion of the trail back to the TH
Uncompahgre Peak from Wetterhorn with Matterhorn in the foreground
View north of Wetterhorn Peak
This little guy beat me to the Wetterhorn summit - not very photogenic though
Yet another view of the area around the ramp
Pic of the upper portion of the route to the summit
View of Matterhorn (left) and Uncompahgre around 13,000' on Wetterhorn trail
Closeup of Uncompahgre Peak
One of many trail signs – very well marked trails
View of Uncompahgre while on the Driveway (notice cloud build up)
Wetterhorn (left) and Matterhorn from the Driveway
Taking time to smell the "roses"
One of several snow fields in the basin west of Uncompahgre Peak. That is a 8-10' dropoff for better perspective
Uncompahgre SE face (taken on Day 2)
Uncompahgre south face with Denali in the foreground
Cool rock formation around 13,500' on the Uncompahgre Peak trail. Lynn in the foreground.
More trailside flora
Uncompahgre summit shot with Wetterhorn, Matterhorn and Coxcomb peaks behind; Mt. Sneffels in the distance
Long, sweeping ridge/plateau to the NE of Uncompahgre Peak
Pano view (West to North) with Wetterhorn, Matterhorn, Coxcomb, etc
Wetterhorn, Matterhorn and Uncompahgre peaks (l-r), taken from CO 149 (Silver Thread)
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):