Sunday, July 06, 2008

Wetterhorn Peak (14,020 ft.)

1 July, 2008: Trisha and I left home in the afternoon, headed to Lake City, with an overnight reservation at the Silver Spur Motel. (Kudos to Trisha for finding accommodations in a town this small on one day’s notice.) It’s a 4½ to 5 hour drive, and it was nearly 6:30 when we got there. That was just in time to snag a dinner of pizza at the renowned Poker Alice restaurant before settling in. By 8:30, before the end of twilight, we were set to go to sleep.

Our plan was to get a modest night’s sleep—not really a full night, but lots better than none—before arising at 3:30 am to head out of town. I mis-set the room alarm clock, but, fortunately, Trisha’s cell phone alarm went off more-or-less on time. She awakened me at 4:15 (with something of a start!), and we threw our clothes and gear together as quickly as we could. We could only bemoan the fact that there was no place open at which to get breakfast, or even coffee, at that hour, but we were headed out of town up the Henson Creek road by 4:45.

We were too late to start hiking in darkness, as originally planned, and we got to the Matterhorn Creek trailhead, just over 11 miles out of town, at about 5:40. The upside of this was that we never needed our headlamps. Yes, it took nearly an hour, as the quality of the dirt road steadily decreases heading up Henson Creek. The last three-quarters of a mile or so is the true jeep road portion, rough and steep. While the Forester made it just fine, it is necessarily slow going.

As we were getting ready, headlights came up the road below us. Moments later, we met Ellen and Joey, also members, who were setting off on the same hike as us. They were kind enough to snap our trailhead picture before we took off up the trail just ahead of them. They passed us a few minutes later, but we would see them again, as they took the wrong fork at the first trail junction. We later saw them backtracking below us, now behind us.

The trail roughly follows Matterhorn Creek northward up into the basin before leaving the creek to the right at this first junction. Then, already above timberline, the trail levels out substantially as Matterhorn Peak comes into view.

The views open up dramatically here. The much higher Uncompahgre Peak becomes visible to the east, as well as our target, Wetterhorn, to the west. The trail spins around leftward almost 180º, heading basically south toward Wetterhorn’s southeast ridge.

Fortunately, there is a clear and easy trail all this way, and we found only a few small patches of snow to cross. Although we had brought crampons, we didn’t need them, as the snow was well consolidated and easy to walk over.

Somewhere around 8 am, nearing 13,000 feet, we met the other party of climbers on the mountain that day: another member, Nathan Hoobler, and his brother and sister-in-law, both out from Pennsylvania. They had come in on a multi-day backpacking trip via the Cimarron Creek trail on the west, but were headed for our same destination. We hiked in close proximity to them all the rest of the way to the top.

One of the attractions of this climb had been that there is a very clear trail nearly the whole way. Even on the rocky ridge, there are cairns and at least wisps of trail. Thus, even though it gets steeper, and rougher, on the ridge, we continued to make good time.

The last section of the climb is the crux, and the most interesting. After passing the prominent rock tower known as “the Prow” on (climber’s) right, one passes through a notch onto the left side of the ridge. Then one must give up a few feet of elevation, fractioning down a very flat piece of rock—which slopes rather startlingly away into the abyss on the other side!

The downclimb is easier than it looks, though, as the rock offers good traction and numerous small hand- and footholds. More importantly, it leads to the base of the steep, shallow gully immediately below the summit. This, too, looks a little more difficult and intimidating than it really is, but it will definitely catch your attention. I’m not sure that my photo does it justice.

The rock is actually very solid. But the ledges are narrow, and there is loose scree and small rocks to deal with. Unsure of the rockfall potential, I started up alone, cautioning Trisha to wait until I topped out. I found that the easiest route was basically right up the center of the concavity. Once I got into the rhythm of it, I found the climbing was thrilling. I didn’t do a lot of “looking down,” however. In five minutes or so, I found an exit from the steep stuff, and I could see that I had only a short walk to the actual summit. I called down to Trisha to start up herself.

Despite the abundant sunshine and nearly total lack of wind, I knew this one would stretch her ability to conquer nerves. But Nathan was right behind her, and he graciously coached her from one hand hold to another. He had climbed Wetterhorn before, so he knew well what he was doing, and that confidence helped Trisha make fairly quick work of the climb as well. At 8:55 MDT, just over four hours after leaving the trailhead, we walked onto Wetterhorn’s small, slightly tilted summit.

This is one of the most dramatic summits I’ve been on so far, rivaling Crestone Needle in its feeling of floating in the sky. The views are fantastic. Uncompahgre, of course, immediately grabs one’s attention, towering 300 feet higher three miles to the east. The lower, but nearer, Matterhorn is prominent, too, and the vertical view of the connecting ridge is fantastic eye candy to any rock enthusiast who thinks him- or herself capable of handling it obvious difficulty (undoubtedly 5th Class).

But it is the view to the south, out into the vastness of the San Juans that is really most impressive. It’s just mountains, mountains, and more mountains, as far as the eye can see. So many are visible that I found it difficult even to identify individual summits other than the very prominent Mt. Sneffels to the southwest. Even Handies, Redcloud, and Sunshine, the nearest group of fourteeners, managed to hide in the welter of only slightly lower peaks.

The view, the fabulous weather, lunch, picture taking, and extended conversation with the other five climbers (all of whom came up to the summit shortly after us), kept us on the summit for nearly 50 minutes. I think this is a record for us!

We also brought with us a small picture of Shadow, Trisha’s dog, who had died the week before. We pasted the photo into the summit register next to our names, to serve as a small memorial to this four-legged friend.

Finally, though we needed to start down. We had pretty much already decided that going for Uncompahgre would be unrealistic, as some clouds were beginning to form with a threat of showers later. But I still had hopes of taking the short detour to climb Matterhorn.

Once again, we took the crux one at a time. At the bottom, I found that going up the slanted slab to the notch was easier than going down it, or at least less scary. After that, Trisha waited a few minutes for me while I dropped my pack and climbed to the top of the Prow. It proved to be fairly easy, via ledges which led clockwise around the south side. But it sure looks impressive from the north (where Trisha snapped a picture of me), with a sheer drop of 40 feet or so.

As usual, we didn’t follow exactly our ascent route going down the ridge. We just picked our way through the rocks, picking up cairns here and there, but mostly just looking for the easiest path. We knew that much easier going was just a small distance ahead of us.

We also deviated from our ascent path after we got back to the trail, to take advantage of the remaining snow. Here, we finally got out our ice axes, and followed Nathan’s party through a series of three glissades, which probably added up to 600 or 700 vertical feet. The first, in particular, was steep and fast. It was great! It also saved us a lot of time going down. I regret that I didn’t take the time to unpack my camera and take any pictures or video of this. It was the best glissading we’d gotten in since Castle Peak last year.

Even though a couple of very light sprinkles actually fell on us on the way down, the weather held off and we arrived back at the car completely dry. The sky, however, was completely overcast by this time (12:35 pm), and we heard occasional booms of thunder. And sure enough, only minutes later, the clouds opened up with a pretty decent downpour. Through this, we saw Ellen and Joey coming out of the trees, dashing for their car.

The GPS said we had put in 7.15 miles—actually less than the eight mile round trip that Roach quotes. I credit the glissades with this. And it had taken us only a bit less than eight hours, so we weren’t dog-tired for a change! All in all, great fun! Fourteener #35 for me, #32 for Trisha. Pictures are at:

Long life and many peaks!


Post a Comment

<< Home