Settling old scores on Colorado’s Wetterhorn Peak

Wetterhorn Peak, as seen from Matterhorn Creek Basin.

Wetterhorn Peak, as seen from Matterhorn Creek Basin.

Four years ago, things were different for me.

I’d had a goal of trying to climb Colorado’s Wetterhorn Peak, an airy, dramatic 14,015-foot mountain inside the northeastern San Juan Range.

But life being as it was, the two times I’d planned to try it fell through. So for the past four years, I’ve groused about not getting this summit under my belt.

Fortunately, I wasn’t alone in wanting another crack at it. A friend of mine, Noel, had likewise made a run at Wetterhorn, but at the time looked at the conditions and the verticality of the peak and called it a day a few hundred feet of topping out.

Noel is a different hiker and climber now than she was then, but Wetterhorn remained the bully on her peak list that continued to stand in her way.

So when she set a date to give it another shot and invited me to tag along, I jumped at it: Two people looking to expel a mountain demon that mocked us from higher up.

We wouldn’t be alone on this one. It would be a reunion of sorts with the same cast of characters from last June’s Mount Sneffels group: Dave, who had already climbed Wetterhorn twice, would be leading the way, and Chuck, another stalwart whose peak list is growing bigger by the week, joined in as well.

Coming along were folks I hadn’t met yet: Brady, a younger guy who is starting out on his peak-bagging journey; Michael and Tarra, a married couple finding a common interest in the high country; Durant, our elder statesman who we joined on a climb of Torreys Peak’s Kelso Ridge two years ago; and Dan, a friend of Michael and Tarra visiting from Minnesota.

Our campsite. Pretty awesome!

Our campsite. Pretty awesome!

Our group was a big one, but all were pretty laid back and easy to get along with. We shared some pretty sweet grub — bratwursts, cheeseburgers, mac and cheese, bacon and a whole bunch of cookies (Noel is kinda famous as the 14ers’ “cookie hiker” for her habit of bringing and sharing carefully crafted cookies with folks on the summit).

Not so awesome. I guess "leave no trace" does not apply to gun nuts. Pick up your empties!

Not so awesome. I guess “leave no trace” does not apply to gun nuts. Pick up your empties!

Hot food, a warm fire, good company and a bright, starry night was a dang good way to end the day. But the real fun was yet to come.

The ascent

It’s hard to put into words what makes Wetterhorn Peak such an appealing mountain, but I’ll try. First, just look at it. The long sweep of its southeast ridge (the most common route to the top) shoots up toward the top, promising some verticality at the end of the climb. It connects with neighboring Matterhorn Peak with a spiky, dragon’s-tail-like ridge. The other ridges and faces of the mountain are nearly sheer. Tectonic uplift, ice-age glacial carving and volcanic violence give the San Juans the most dramatic alpine skyline in the state, and Wetterhorn’s graceful sweep and sheer cliffs are emblematic of everything that makes the range what it is.

The gang greets our first sight of the basin, Matterhorn Peak.

The gang greets our first sight of the basin, Matterhorn Peak.

Aside from all of that, the peak is a gateway of sorts. People who have done the “walk-up” mountains in the state and are looking to tackle something more challenging often make the drive into southwestern Colorado to give Wetterhorn a try. The route isn’t prohibitively long, and the toughest parts — the steep, west-facing cliffs that culminate the climb — are airy yet solid. You get the excitement of big drop-offs and verticality without having to fret over loose rock.

The hike up Matterhorn Creek Basin is mostly what I remember from the last time I was here. A confusing sign at the first trail junction (go right, or you’ll add four miles to the route), a roaring creek, and of course, the welcoming vista that is Matterhorn Peak. The basin opens up and frames the peak beautifully. Gerry Roach, who wrote the famous guide to Colorado’s 14ers, described the peak as “stately,” and seeing that mountain staring down at you, you pretty much get his meaning.

This sign is confusing. When you see it, go right.

This sign is confusing. When you see it, go right.

What was different than last time was the snow. The mountains are beautiful and powerful places without snow, but something greater with it.

They’re also a little trickier. Postholing for a few miles takes a lot more time and energy than it does in dry conditions. Snow and ice also offer other challenges on steeper slopes. None of this was present the last time I was here, and we were warned to expect to cross more than a few snowfields on our way up.

The next trail junction. Go left. Matterhorn Peak in the background.

The next trail junction. Go left. Matterhorn Peak in the background.

Truth is, it wasn’t that bad. Yeah, there was some postholing, and if you’re unlucky, punching through a weak layer of snow might cut up your leg a little if you’re not wearing gaiters. But we got through all that OK.

In any case, it took some hiking for Matterhorn’s big brothers to appear. To the right, Uncompahgre Peak — the undisputed king of the San Juans, and Colorado’s sixth-highest mountain — emerged. And then to the left, we got our first full look at Wetterhorn.

Tarra, Dan and Michael pause for some photos. Wetterhorn can be seen in the background.

Tarra, Dan and Michael pause for some photos. Wetterhorn can be seen in the background.

Noel, with Wetterhorn behind.

Noel, with Wetterhorn behind.

Looking back at the basin.

Looking back at the basin.

Like Matterhorn, much of the peak was covered in snow. The trail heads northeast, then cuts back west on a somewhat long approach to the mountain’s southeast ridge. We were lucky on the weather so far, though the predicted sunny skies and 60-degree temps never materialized. It stayed mostly cloudy, and I’m not sure the temps breached the 40s the entire time we were higher in the basin.

As per usual, I struggled to keep up with my Colorado friends. They were kind enough to wait up from time to time while we back-of-the-pack folk trudged on. I think I remember hearing one of our crew who is new to this asking, “You guys do this for fun?” Hey man, I relate. Sometimes I wonder. But the payoff comes later. Always does.

We finally reached the ridge and crossed our last easy snowfield before the fun started. As vertical as Wetterhorn looks at first glance, it doesn’t start getting steep until you pass the “yellow dirt” section of the southeast ridge. This is where the peak earns its rugged reputation.

Matterhorn and Uncompahgre to the east.

Matterhorn and Uncompahgre to the east.

Approaching the southeast ridge, with the summit shown.

Approaching the southeast ridge, with the summit shown.

At the beginning of the yellow dirt, near 13,000 feet.

At the beginning of the yellow dirt, near 13,000 feet.

It was steep hiking at first, and then you hit some gullies that start to take you up toward the mountain’s distinctive prow. We’d been told in the days before the climb that the snow that was left was pretty easy to get around, but what we discovered is you either had to traverse some snow in the gullies or go well off route and up to avoid them. Most of us kicked-stepped into the snow and got across; the snow, while soft, was still firm enough to get solid footing. As with all things related to snow, however, that was temporary.

Steeper Class 2 hiking up the ridge.

Steeper Class 2 hiking up the ridge.

Going up mixed rock and snow in the gullies.

Going up mixed rock and snow in the gullies.

The snowfield below the prow (left) and the summit to the right.

The snowfield below the prow (left) and the summit to the right.

At the top of the snowfield below the prow, looking back. What a view!

At the top of the snowfield below the prow, looking back. What a view!

At the bottom of the ramp, where the final, steep pitch to the  summit begins.

At the bottom of the ramp, where the final, steep pitch to the summit begins.

Past those gullies, we hit one more broader snowfield just below the prow, leading up to a small notch that overlooked a flat piece of angled rock that slopes down before taking you up to the peak’s final pitch. The snowfield wasn’t bad, and the ramp — somewhat scary looking in pictures, if heights aren’t your thing — turned out to be no big deal.

Looking up the final pitch.

Looking up the final pitch.

There was no holding Noel back. While this was one of the few peaks that turned her back, she’s built up quite a resume since then. I looked up at that final pitch, and I have to tell you, it looked pretty steep for a Class 3 route. But the rock was extremely solid, and handholds and footholds were plentiful. Friends of mine who have climbed it before likened it to climbing a ladder. I have to agree. It’s about 75-80 degrees and very airy behind you, but easy climbing nonetheless.

Instead of going straight up, you could also walk this ledge to easier climbing. This is looking back on the ledge.

Instead of going straight up, you could also walk this ledge to easier climbing. This is looking back on the ledge.

Most write-ups of the mountain have you come up to a ledge that goes to your left, then leads you to mellow Class 3 climbing to the summit. Pictures of that look a little spooky, too. I checked out the ledge on the way down, and though it’s thin (no more than 2 feet at its widest) with a big cliff to your left, it’s not nearly as scary as pictures make it out to be.

Dave coming up the final pitch, with the ramp below.

Dave coming up the final pitch, with the ramp below.

Tarra and Michael climbing to the top. (Brady Lee photo)

Tarra and Michael climbing to the top. (Brady Lee photo)

That said, none of us used it. Instead, we opted to keep going straight up. That last 20 feet or so was the steepest, but it was pure fun.

I don’t have a ton of summits under my belt, but I’ve seen some good ones. When I got up there and looked around, I was stunned how gorgeous it all was.

Coxcomb, Redcliff, Precipice and Heisshorn.

Coxcomb, Redcliff, Precipice and Heisshorn.

The view into the basin, as well as the sea of southern San Juans peaks behind it, is dizzying in its scale. Most ranges in the Rockies are slender north-to-south ribbons of peaks, but not the San Juans. It is a massively thick alpine wilderness, with snow-capped mountaintops as far as you can see.

Far to the west, I made out Mount Sneffels and the dramatic 13er peaks that surround it. Further still, the Wilson group guards the range’s far west boundaries, giving way to the broad west slope that spreads far into Utah.

Matterhorn and Uncompahgre.

Matterhorn and Uncompahgre.

Back east, mighty Matterhorn suddenly looks humbly small. And past that, broad-shouldered Uncompahgre Peak hunches down like a lion surveying its own private savannah.

In front of us to the north are some of wildest 13,000-foot peaks I’ve seen. Coxcomb and Redcliff, joined by a ridge, Precipice jutting out further still, and the spiny, fin-like edge of rock that is the Heisshorn.

Taken together, this is one heck of a panorama. I figured it would be tough to beat the summit views from Matterhorn’s summit, and indeed, Wetterhorn as seen from its eastern neighbor is striking. But aside from what I saw on Sneffels a year ago, there’s simply no beating Wetterhorn’s views for me.

Chuck, Dave,Noel and Brady, with some random dude kneeling.

Chuck, Dave, Noel and Brady, with some random dude kneeling.

When we all topped out, several things crossed my mind. For Noel, this was a redemption achievement. Unnerved last time, she plowed through with no trouble now.

It was also cool to see Michael and Tarra doing this together. Michael has a lot of summits under his belt, but not Tarra. And seeing that his was her first Class 3, well, we were all impressed. She didn’t freak out at all. It’s awesome to see couples doing this together. I know that not every couple is going to share this interest, and that’s fine. It ain’t for everyone. But it’s pretty great to see a couple getting after it on the mountain as a team.

The gang: From left, Chuck, Dave, Noel, Brady, me, Tarra, Michael and Durant. (Brady Lee photo)

The gang: From left, Chuck, Dave, Noel, Brady, me, Tarra, Michael and Durant. (Brady Lee photo)

The cookie hiker with her own custom cookie. (Brady Lee photo)

The cookie hiker with her own custom cookie. (Brady Lee photo)

As for me, it was a score that had been settled. Past plans for Wetterhorn fell apart, and I could not stop thinking about this mountain for four freakin’ years. As it turned out, it was a pretty great host. At least, up to that point.

Getting down

Anyone with a little experience will tell you getting down a mountain is often more difficult than going up. Gravity makes ascending hard; it makes it tricky going down. His is particularly troublesome on steep rock, but we found our real issues on those snowfields.

The big snowfield below the prow wasn’t too bad, as it’s not very steep. Even with the warming temperatures, it held up OK.

At the end of that snowfield is where those gullies, some of which were still filled with snow.

This is where things got interesting.

Michael and Tarra heading down.

Michael and Tarra heading down.

The snow conditions had deteriorated since the morning. Whereas before they were somewhat soft, now things were getting downright mushy. Kicksteps that held firm an hour before were falling apart now.

Dave slipped, but quickly caught himself. On another snow gully, I slipped and skidded about four feet before halting my slide, and it’s a good thing, too. I’m not sure where things ended, but there are sizable cliffs on that side of the mountain. The thought of skittering off the edge into that oblivion is pretty sobering.

After catching myself and standing back up, I saw something no one ever wants to see high on a peak.

Me crossing a snow-filled gully. This was taken on the way up. On the way down, it was pretty sketchy. (Noel Johnson photo)

Me crossing a snow-filled gully. This was taken on the way up. On the way down, it was pretty sketchy. (Noel Johnson photo)

In an adjacent snow gully, Durant also had his feet go out from under him. Unfortunately, he didn’t catch himself as quickly as Dave and I. He slid for about 100 feet before slowing himself down and eventually hitting a large rock, which brought him to a stop. Durant got up OK, a little bruised from where he hit that boulder, but able to continue down. I’m fairly certain that had he not hit that rock, he would have stopped at a dirt section where the snow ran out. But there is a sickening, helpless feeling of watching someone slide down a snow slope at increasing speeds, where you can do nothing but hope that he finds a way to halt the skid before disaster strikes. Had he been in another snow gully, this could have gone from being a scary story to something tragic.

I’d add that when the mountain is free of snow, these gullies are pretty mellow, especially compared to the steeper pitches higher up. Snow just changes things. But to everyone’s credit, no one panicked. We just took our time getting across the dicey sections and moved on. But all that is a good reminder to learn about current peak conditions, make sure you have the right gear, properly weigh your skills against those conditions and trust your instincts.

These were the snow slopes we glissaded down. Pure fun!

These were the snow slopes we glissaded down. Pure fun!

Not every encounter with snow was bad, however. A little further down the trail we came up on a long snow slope that looked pretty inviting. A lot of us have pondered the fantasy of taking a zip line down from a summit after a tough hike or climb up. The next best thing: a glissade.

The term “glissade” is a fancy word for sliding down a snow slope on your butt. It’s pretty simple. You sit down and launch yourself downhill, using your ice axe or whatever tool you have available (a climbing helmet or trekking pole will work) as a brake and a rudder. Gravity does the rest.

Dan was first to go, and he did it with style, running downhill before flinging himself down the hill. The rest of us followed suit.

It was bumpy in spots, and there were a few times where it seemed like I’d lose control. But I won’t lie, it was a ton of fun. It also helped us lose about 1,000 feet of elevation and saved somewhere around 45 minutes of hiking through some rough stuff. My knees are forever grateful.

The rest of the hike down was pleasant. It stayed cool, but not unbearably so. Though taxed, I still felt pretty good. I’d eaten and drank enough to stave off the headaches I usually get from this stuff. We ended the day snarfing down some pretty good barbecue in Lake City before heading back to camp.

Having spent so much time studying this mountain, thinking about it, even obsessing a little, I can say it was worth the wait. I love the San Juans. Their wildness embodies adventure, and Wetterhorn Peak exemplifies that spirit in just about every way. The peak threw a lot at us – great views, steep inclines, pleasant climbing, even a little danger. It gave Noel a second shot at exercising an old demon. It gave Tarra a gateway of newfound confidence to do more in the mountains. I got to settle an old score. All but Dave got to see this peak’s summit for the first time. And all of us got to do this together.

That’s the beautiful thing about the mountains. You build bonds that are unlike anything else. Those common struggles, the victory of topping out, the shared experience of a common peril – all of these things are indelible. And in this group’s case, they are shared. It would be hard to find a better place to do it than on Wetterhorn Peak.

GETTING THERE: In Lake City, take Second Street to Henson Creek Road and turn left. This is also called the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway. Drive 11 miles to the Matterhorn Creek trail road, turn right. If you have a car with good clearance and preferably four-wheel drive, go 0.7 miles to the trailhead. There are dispersed campsites along the road all the way to the trailhead, though filtering water from the streams is not advised. Too much spoilage from mine tailings.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: Hike a good trail up Matterhorn Creek Basin until your reach your first sign at 0.75 mile. At that junction, go right. Continue up the trail to the next junction, then go left. The trail will take you toward the base of Wetterhorn’s southeast ridge. At the base of that ridge, hike northeast through a yellow dirt section before the trail gives way to rockier terrain. Climb the rocky gullies leading up to a prominent rock formation called the prow. There is a notch to the right or the prow; go over that and work your way down to an angled rock slab ramp that goes down to the base of the final pitch. Climb up solid rock until you reach one last ledge. From here, you have two choices. Turn left and walk along a narrow, exposed ledge before going up easy Class 3 climbing to the summit. If you don’t want to walk the ledge, just keep climbing straight up on steep but solid rock until you reach the top. Hiking is Class 1 until you get past the yellow dirt, where it turns into Class 2. Climbing can get steep, but the handholds and footholds are solid and plentiful and do not exceed Class 3.

EXTRA CREDIT: Plan a bigger trip out of it and climb neighboring Matterhorn Peak (13,590 feet, Class 3) and Uncompahgre Peak (14,309 feet, Class 2).  Matterhorn is accessible by the same trail as Wetterhorn. Uncompahgre can be reached from there as well, or by driving up Nellie Creek Road further east.

Last bit: A fun video Dave made of the climb. Enjoy!

Bob Doucette

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8 thoughts on “Settling old scores on Colorado’s Wetterhorn Peak

  1. What a report! loved it…video was sweet too, just what I needed to read. We are planning this one for saturday (2 days). Thanks for the insight.

    People would love to read about this over on 14ers.com

    • Thanks a bunch! I’d prepare for at least similar snow conditions this weekend, so microspikes and an ice axe would be good, just in case. It’s an awesome peak, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it very much. I may do a separate TR for 14ers.com, maybe something a little less wordy.

  2. Pingback: Places I like: Wetterhorn Peak | proactiveoutside

  3. Pingback: Getting in a staredown with Longs Peak | proactiveoutside

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