Wetterhorn Peak trip report

Disclaimer

I was going to take yet another trip into the Sawatch Range in central Colorado to bag a couple more 14ers. I wanted to have a nap before heading down, but couldn't get to sleep. I decided to go ahead and drive down and arrived on the Clear Creek road at around daybreak. By then I was tired, so I went ahead and set up my tent and crashed.

By the time I woke up it was too late to start climbing anything, so I needed a change in plans. I decided since I already was halfway there, I would head for the San Juans. I decided on San Luis Peak which is one of the easiest 14ers in the range. I made my way south, driving through the San Luis Valley for the first time. I was on the west side of the valley on US 285, so the views of the Sangre de Cristos were distant. I could see the sandy (heh) color of Great Sand Dunes National Monument at the foot of the range. And then turning westward up into the San Juans on highways paralleling the Rio Grande. I hit Creede just before 4pm, and headed up towards the Equity Mine using the "longer, gentler" approach given in Roach's guidebook (this is not the steeper approach given in Dawson's book, which Roach gives as an alternate route). Anyway, Roach's driving info is on the mark as usual, but the road was still quite steep.

I was planning on taking Roach's variation of the south ridge route which includes a rugged stretch of the Continental Divide, so I parked on the sideroad mentioned in the guidebook well below the Equity Mine. I set up camp here, and once the sun dropped below the hill to the west at about 7pm, I retired to my sleeping bag. I almost got to sleep, when a rain shower started up. I put the fly on and tried to sleep again. I never made it. My tent is cheap, and with the fly on and the door zipped up I was having condensation problems. The rain didn't last long, but it was quite humid. Frustrated and bored (it was near full moon so even when it cleared off the stargazing wasn't any good), I reformulated my plans again. It was about 11pm and I didn't want to start my route on San Luis much before dawn because of the scrambling on the divide. I didn't really want to do the standard route that starts at the mine. I knew I wouldn't be able to get to sleep anytime soon, and wasn't sure I wanted to do the long route on such little sleep two nights in a row. I was bored out of my mind. I was already this far south, so I didn't want to waste the trip. Looking through the guidebook I decided to head for Wetterhorn Peak.

I slowly made my way back down to Creede, enjoying the overlooks with views down to the town and it's valley. From Creede, it's a 50 mile trip to Lake City over Slumgullion and Spring Creek passes. I stopped at both passes to add to my geeky collection of pass-sign photos; I illuminated the signs with my high-beams and my headlamp! The most amazing thing about this drive was that I went for 50 minutes (about 40 miles) on the highway without seeing another car! My God, I've never done that before in my life! This was on a highway. In summertime. In Colorado. Sure it was after midnight, and this is a relatively remote part of the state, but I was still amazed. Of course, the most amazing thing about this might be that it took me 50 minutes to drive just 40 miles, but that's a whole different topic. :)

The Henson Creek road up to the old Capitol Creek site is pretty good. The North Henson Creek road that branches off from here is described as "steep and rough but passable for most passenger cars". Well, I have and haven't made it up roads like that in my car. Interestingly, the Trails Illustrated map for this area, last updated just last year, shows this as a 4WD road. My high point on the road was 1.6 miles, which is only a few tenths short of the nominal car trailhead. At this point, there were sizeable rocks and deep puddles. When I hiked through there, I found that there were two sections totalling about 40 feet that I likely couldn't have safely driven, otherwise the rest was OK. Mountain roads like this are often too narrow in spots to turn around, so I had to back up for a couple hundred feet. Then, in the dark, I had trouble finding a good place to park off the road. As it would turn out, I missed a place that would have left me a little higher up, and I ended up parking down at the National Forest boundary at 1.2 miles. It was about 2:30am, and I was finally a little tired so I caught a couple short naps in my car.

I started hiking at 5:09, shortly before sunrise. I reached the turnoff at Matterhorn Creek at 5:28, and the closure gate of the short Matterhorn Creek road at 5:39. Above this, the trail is an old 4WD road that is slowly naturalizing. Interestingly, you hike up the trail for a while before coming to the Uncompahgre Wilderness (formerly the Big Blue Wilderness) boundary; in most cases in Colorado, the legal wilderness begins at a road closure.

The start of the trail parallels Matterhorn Creek through sparse timber. The weather was clear and cold - a bit below freezing - with no wind. The old road made for easy hiking, so I was up near treeline by my first rest break at 7am. This was in the area where you take the only real switchback on the route and I saw another solo hiker above me just before my break.

Matterhorn Peak appears first as you hike above treeline, and more and more of the jagged connecting ridge to Wetterhorn comes into view. Finally, the very steep looking summit of Wetterhorn comes into view. The famous shark-fin tower that you skirt just before the 150ft summit scramble is visible. All this rocky terrain rises above graceful rolling tundra; Matterhorn basin has great 'alpine aesthetics'.

The guidebooks say to leave the trail at about 12000ft to head up Wetterhorn. This requires what would normally be an easy crossing of upper Matterhorn Creek. However, when I tried this, my choices were to wade through deep enough water to soak my boots, or to hike across the ice-covered rocks protruding above the water surface and fall and hurt myself. I ended up hiking upstream a little ways until I found good spot to cross. There was no obvious trail here, so I headed cross-country over crunchy tundra. Although, the guidebook route descriptions really aren't particularly helpful, it's pretty obvious where you need to go, and I headed for a small ridge that leads to a 13060ft saddle on the SE ridge of the mountain. And eventually, there is a trail of sorts.

The first part of the ridge is easy, but at around 13400ft, you hit the first towers. There is a sometimes-cairned route from here to the summit. It skirts the first set of towers on the left side of the ridge before reaching the shark-fin tower. Occasional handwork is needed in this section, but this wasn't the worst part. Remember how cold it was? Well, skirting the ridge crest involves some sidehilling of fairly steep dirt and scree and a sliding fall could be fatal in places. I found the dirt to be frozen in spots and very slick, and in one spot I fell on my butt. This wasn't a gradual fall, but one of those, now-you're-standing-now-you're-not falls. This really scared me and I had to sit there for a minute to recover. I persevered upward, being very careful and finally ended up at the shark-fin tower. Around this, I was careful to follow Roach's advice go through the second, less-defined notch. This leads down a short low-angle friction slab to the base of the summit pitch. I was still a little on edge and worried about this part, but frankly this wasn't the hardest part of the climb for me. The rock was just as described (steep, exposed, and a little loose), but not too bad. Interestingly, halfway up this, there is a cairn that leads you a couple steps around a corner to the final scramble to the summit plateau, several meters left of the summit. This is not the exact same route implied in the guidebook, but looked to be slightly easier than continuing up past this ledge.

The summit! I topped out at 8:18, after about 5 minutes spent on the 150ft summit pitch. The summit is level and about 10 meters across with steep dropoffs in all directions. The sky was flawless except for some cirrus clouds to the east. The view was typical San Juans; mountains, mountains everywhere. Coxcomb Peak two miles NW was the most striking. The nearby 14er Uncompahgre Peak was a little muted by sun glare, but was still impressive.

I was anxious to get the downclimbing behind me, so I only stayed on top for about 20 minutes. I won't get into a blow-by-blow description of this, except that the summit pitch was a bit harder going down, and the slick dirt was still slick. I encountered about a half-dozen people on the ridge, and lost a couple minutes waiting at comfortable spots to avoid the possibility of rolling rocks on people.

Once I reached the exit point of the ridge, I was able to do two glissades; 100ft first, then 200ft. Then I basically retraced my route back down to the main trail. Some people add Uncompahgre from here for a double-bagger day; I doubt if many people have done it from where I parked. Matterhorn Peak would have been a more reasonable add-on but I was low on sleep and wanted to make it home the same day.

The wildflowers are starting to look good; mostly alpine sunflowers, but I did see a few columbines. The last people I encountered were two guys backpacking up for Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre. I talked to them for a minute and continued down. I made it back to the car after an elapsed time of just 6:01, about an hour short of what I expected, but the going was pretty easy except for the ridge and I didn't spend much time on top.

I know at least one person has listed Wetterhorn as one of the ten hardest 14ers. I haven't done enough of the hard ones to even begin such a list, but this was definitely a challenge. I wonder, though, if there's a better route over or around the lower towers. Oh well, the next time I climb Wetterhorn, I'll come earlier in the year and do the east face snow climb. Wetterhorn will always be significant because this is #27, my halfway point of the Colorado 14ers. I still don't know if I want to do them all.


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File last modified: 21 December 2004

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