Spectacular scenes from the San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Seeing we’re in mid-summer, the mountain stoke is high. Summer gives us unique access to the high country, and it’s a busy and amazing time to be up there.

This got me to thinking about my favorite mountain range, the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado.

This will be one of those posts with a lot of pictures and not a lot of words. So here goes, my favorite images from the San Juans, starting from this moody image in the Weminuche…

Peak 18 and Windom Peak on a misty day in Chicago Basin.

Peak 18 and Windom Peak on a misty day in Chicago Basin.

Not far from there, but about 3,500 feet higher, there’s this…

Looking deep into the Weminuche Wilderness, as seen from 14,000 feet.

Looking deep into the Weminuche Wilderness, as seen from 14,000 feet.

On the eastern edge of the range, snow gives the peaks a whole new appearance…

Late spring atop Wetterhorn Peak.

Late spring atop Wetterhorn Peak.

And in the fall, you can see the mountains getting ready to make the transition to winter…

American Basin, near Lake City, Colorado.

American Basin, near Lake City, Colorado.

Skylines like these speak to how wild these mountains really are…

Wetterhorn Peak, as seen from neighboring Matterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn Peak, as seen from neighboring Matterhorn Peak.

…and how wild the weather can get.

Changing weather as seen from atop Uncompahgre Peak.

Changing weather as seen from atop Uncompahgre Peak.

Needless to say, I’ve never had a bad time in the San Juans…

Checking out the views on the southwest ridge of Mount Sneffels.

Checking out the views on the southwest ridge of Mount Sneffels.

Bob Doucette

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

Colorado’s Uncompahgre Peak: My introduction to the San Juans

The west face of Uncompahgre Peak.

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.

Leaving treeline, looking at Uncompahgre’s east side.

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.

A sharp ridge south of Uncompahgre.

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.

Going north toward Uncompahgre Peak’s summit.

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.

Looking west toward Matterhorn Peak (foreground) and Wetterhorn Peak.

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.

Heading toward the chutes leading toward the summit.

Looking up the chutes.

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.

Grauppel and rain fall on the surrounding mountains.

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, looking down Uncompahgre’s sheer north face.

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 hundred 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.

San Juan wildness.

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.

Coxcomb and Red Cliff peaks.

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.

The speck sitting atop that cliff is Steve Winterberg.

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.

Me coming down one of the chutes. (Rick Ponder photo)

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.

Looking back at Uncompahgre. (Rick Ponder photo)

Near our campsite. (Rick Ponder photo)

A deer rooting around the ground where I’d, er, relieved myself, the night before. (Rick Ponder photo)

A waterfall low on the Nellie Creek trail. (Rick Ponder photo)

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088