In all my years living in Colorado and later visiting the state, I had only been to the San Juans once.
Yep, just once.
The truth is, most people who live in Denver or northern Colorado don’t get there very much. The range is in an isolated corner of southwest Colorado. There are many spectacular ranges in the Colorado Rockies, but this remote – and rather extensive – alpine wilderness is by far the wildest, most complex and beautiful of the lot.
Going to a ski resort there just won’t do. A proper introduction was needed.
So me and a few buddies decided to check out the monarch of the San Juans, readily accessible from Lake City – Uncompahgre Peak.
At 14,309 feet, its massive bulk can be seen from many vantage points in the San Juans. When seen from afar to the east, it looks like the biggest in a line of massive shark’s teeth when seen together with neighboring Matterhorn Peak and Wetterhorn Peak. Its gentler east slopes contrast gorgeously with its fearsome – and still unclimbed – north face.
There are more difficult peaks to bag than Uncompahgre, and many others that rival its beauty. But “Unc” rules this range and it makes an excellent introduction to the San Juans.
The four of us had wheels to get there, but not four-wheel drive, and that was unfortunate. From the two-wheel drive trailhead on Nellie Creek Road, we parked our van, hoisted our backpacks and marched four miles in to the campsites at the four-wheel drive trailhead. It was a somewhat long day hike, but very scenic. Early on, we were given glimpses of the violent geological history of this part of the world, one which was shaped by several ancient forces. More on that later. In the midst of pointed spires and sweeping, knife-edge ridges in the distances were a mix of pines and aspen. It was a bit of a slog, but there were plenty of sights along the way to distract us.
The campsite itself was fairly large, with more than enough room to accommodate us and a sizable number of others who picked the same mountain we did for that weekend. One unexpected benefit here: an actual outhouse. That’s not something I’m accustomed to on trips like this, but I’ll take it.
The bad news came that night. I make a habit of making sure everyone I’m with has the proper gear. I own a lot of stuff for hiking, camping and backpacking. So if someone needs a pack, a tent or a sleeping bag, I’ll have them covered. But on this trip, that meant giving one of my buds my 20-degree bag, leaving me with one rated for 30 degrees.
So after a healthy hike and a warm dinner, we all bunked down and I proceeded to freeze my butt off that night. The campsite is somewhere around 11,500 feet, and by early September it can get fairly cold at night. So I was missing that 20-degree bag. Note to self: buy yourself an extra 20-degree bag in case the same thing happens again.
After a lousy night of sleep, we all managed to rouse ourselves and get ready for the ascent. My friend Rick Ponder slept a little better than me. The other two guys – Steve Soward and Steve Winterberg – fared much better. Soward, you see, had my good bag. So the Steves were pretty perky compared to the two oldsters of the group.
Starting off, we headed out of the trees and above treeline, then came across one of the craziest-looking boulders I’d ever seen. It was colored like sandstone, but pockmarked with holes, making it look like a somewhat round piece of sandy Swiss cheese.
What we were looking at was a massive – and ancient – lava bomb, taller than a man and weighing several tons. It has been flung here who knows how long ago, a relic from the area’s turbulent history.
Uncompahgre Peak, just like its many radical-looking neighbors, is shaped by eons-old geologic forces that make the San Juans so wild. Continental uplift forced them up while volcanic violence ripped them to pieces. Glacial carving then whittled the peaks into the amazing forms we see today. There are many beautiful mountains in Colorado, and some stunning ranges. But they aren’t anything like this.
The hiking up Uncompahgre’s south ridge (slope?) is fairly mild, just a steady upward trek that goes on for a little more than two miles until you get to a series of switchbacks near the summit. All around us were some pretty amazing views – spiny ridgelines, vertical peaks and stunning cliff faces. The Steves, being the well-rested young bucks that they are, left me and Rick in the dust, which was OK. When you get over 13,000 feet, you do best to pick your pace and eat up ground steadily.
One problem, though, was the weather. Dark clouds began to roll in, though they didn’t appear to be the typical summer boomers that breed in the Rockies during the afternoon hours. They seemed to be more of the “rain” variety, maybe more benign than a thunderstorm. At least that was my thinking, unwise as it may have been.
After trudging up the switchbacks we came to a series of chutes that led up higher. They were somewhat steep, bordering on Class 3, and filled with flat, loose rocks all the way up. At times, it was like scrambling over piles of dishes. It’s not really that dangerous, but a fall here could be a real ankle-buster. Not to mention getting cut up on all those loose rocks.
Upon exiting the chutes, we cut up to another steady uphill climb before that, too, leveled out and we were on Uncompahgre’s expansive summit plateau. By now, we’d experienced some of the precipitation from the gathering clouds – grauppel. How to describe it… basically small balls of icy snow that aren’t quite snow, and aren’t quite hail. They made some of the rocks in the chutes a little slick, but other than that they just covered the ground with stuff that looked like it came out of the inside of a bean bag.
From the summit, we could see rain lashing the lower flanks of the mountains and the valleys below. Grauppel also covered the higher reaches, giving the appearance of snow. It was awesome.
Uncompahgre is filled with stark contrasts. Going up its south ridge is fairly simple, as it’s mostly hiking. But as gentle as that slope is, the mountain is also home to several sheer cliffs, dropping away several under feet below you. They’re all easily avoided, but spooky upon approach.
Uncompaghre’s volcanic nature makes the quality of its rock a little sketchy, so as straightforward as those south slopes are, the peak’s sheer north face has yet to be climbed. It is far too vertical and crumbly for anyone thus far.
I couldn’t resist scrambling around the edge of the mountain, then snapping a picture looking down the north face. That pic still makes my palms get sweaty.
Hiking down, we did hear a couple of very distant rumbles of thunder far to the east – a gentle reminder that the perils of weather above treeline are never very far away. I admit that we dodged one there, though it didn’t seem that there was anything serious close by.
But the weather was kind to us in other ways. The cloud cover stayed with us the entire night, holding in the heat that escaped into space the night before. So that, plus a few adjustments in what I wore to bed, gave me an amazing night of sleep. The next morning, we were amused by the habits of local deer, which were rooting around and licking the ground where we’d stepped out in the middle of the night to whiz. I guess they like the salt, and I’ve heard mountain goats will do the same thing.
The hike out was a breeze, even with fully loaded packs. I admit to being tempted to hitchhike out, as plenty of people in four-wheel drives rolled past us as we ambled down the hill. But given the day – the weather was spectacular – the time spent hiking down was a nice way to decompress and think about the trip. My introduction complete, I knew that this wouldn’t be the last time I’d be in the San Juans. You could spend a lifetime trying to climb all its peaks and explore its valleys, which in my estimation would be time well spent.
GETTING THERE: From Lake City, turn west onto Second street. Drive 0.1 mile and turn left on to Henson Creek road. Go 5 miles to the sign for the Nellie Creek trail. If you want to continue driving to the trailhead, you will need a high-clearance 4WD vehicle. Otherwise, you will start your hike to the 4WD trailhead here. Continue 4 miles up the Nellie Creek road to reach the trailhead. The road crosses a stream twice. About 2.3 miles up this road there is a junction. Turn left and stay on the main road.
ROUTE INFO: From the 4WD trailhead, follow the well-established trail through the trees until you break through treeline. The trail will snake generally west toward the mountain, turn south, then gain the south slopes. Again, the trail is well-established and marked, going at an easy incline north toward the summit. Just below the summit plateau, follow a series of steeper switchbacks to the west side of the mountain. They will lead you to a series of chutes that are steeper and rockier. They are also filled with loose rock. This area is Class 2+. You can make it Class 3 if you want, but there is no reason it should exceed Class 2. Once you exit the chutes, the trail reforms toward the summit plateau. Follow this to the top and enjoy the views from Uncompahgre’s sizable summit. The route is about 7.25 miles round-trip from the 4WD trailhead, but if you hike it in one day from the 2WD trailhead, it’s more than 15 miles. The proper route has relatively mild exposure, but if you do any rock hopping around the north side of the summit be careful because it’s a long way down. Uncompahgre is known for its big, sheer drop-offs, but all are easily avoided.
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