Uncompahgre trip report


Uncompahgre is a Ute word meaning "hot water spring". To me, it sounds like a Carnac joke from the old Tonight Show:

Ed: (Hands Carnac an envelope)
Carnac: (Holds envelope up to turban)
Ed: Hermetically sealed...
Carnac: (Glares at Ed)
Ed: Ho-ho-ho-ho
Carnac: Uncompahgre
Ed: Uncompahgre
Carnac: (Glares at Ed)
Ed: Ho-ho-ho-ho
Carnac: What's the sound you make when you spill hot coffee in your lap...Un-com-PAAAAAH-gre

I would have rather done this hike on Friday, but I couldn't resist playing 18 holes on Wednesday for the first time in 2 years, and my back needed an extra day of rest.

I left Laramie at 7:18pm and arrived at the base of the 4WD road up Nellie Creek at 2:06am. This is one of the 14ers where 4WD can get you a lot closer to the summit than a normal car. With 4WD, this is one of the shortest 14ers and is popular as first 14er. With a car, it's almost identical in length to Longs Peak, albiet much easier.

I started hiking up the road at 2:28 under crystal clear skies and a temperature in the upper 40s. With no Moon, I needed my headlamp for the hike. There are two fords about 2 miles or so up the road; the second one requires a log crossing just upstream to keep your boots (or trail shoes in my case) dry. There are numerous "car" camping spots along the road and I had a dog encounter at one of these spots shortly above the fords. The dog (not tied up, of course) trotted out into the road and barked at me for a while before the owner finally woke up and called it just before I was ready to shout "call your damn dog off". I took my first break shortly after this at about 3:30 and did some star-gazing.

I reached the trailhead at about...well, I forgot to write it down but from the memory feature of my altimeter watch it must have been about 4:20. I signed in and noticed that a pair had already signed in. I continued up the trail (actually, an old road for a while) with my headlamp. There's a trail junction near 12,000ft which I missed in the dark and that cost me a little bit of time and effort. Most importantly, because of that I didn't take my 2nd hourly break. When I finally took my 2nd break at 5:45, I was feeling tired with still 1700 vertical to go. However, at this point, despite some clouds that had moved in, the headlamp wasn't needed any more and I shot some footage with my borrowed camcorder. From your vantage point on the approach, Uncompahgre looks like a serious climb so if you are trying to impress someone with your mountaineering prowess with photographs of your trip, this is your mountain!

The trail continues up to the south ridge, with one muddy section where I sort of wished I had worn my boots. I had been watching a solo hiker ahead of me who looked to be moving fast enough to not be overtaken, especially because I wasn't maintaining a particularly fast pace. I was having a lot of trouble finding a maintainable pace. One breath every two steps was too fast but one breath every step was too slow. Finally, I got to the "tough" section which was a cairned climber's trail up a moderately steep dirt slope with some loose rock. This is the one part of the hike where a beginner might feel a little uncomfortable, so keep that in mind. This gets you from one "layer" of the mountain to the next. To get up to the top layer of the mountain the trail switchbacks up another steeper section, but the trail is good here and after that it's a gentle hike to the summit.

The summit is a large, gently sloping area with no prominent high point. I reached the summit register and a mysterious square concrete pad at 7:19. That's 5000ft in 4:51, which isn't really all that bad, but I used to be able to do a lot better and still feel better at the summit. Probably because of the round of golf, my lower back was sore. It was also a bit chilly due to a west or southwest breeze and the 40F air temperatures. Also, it was still mostly cloudy. None of the clouds looked "interesting", and at such an early hour, I wasn't worried about a repeat of my descent of Wilson Peak two weeks ago. I had this strange feeling of deja vu at the summit. The summit plateau has many rock shelters and I could've sworn I had been on a similar summit sometime in the past. For the life of me I can't figure out which one and I don't think it was one of the 14ers.

Anyway, you get some really good views from the summit. To the west lies Wetterhorn Peak which I climbed last year and from this vantage point you get a good look at it's 800ft vertical north face. And speaking of north faces, if you mosey over to the north edge of the summit plateau on Uncompahgre, there's nothing but air! It's essentially the same drop-off as Wetterhorn. My video of this came out pretty good because with the camera motion for a second it looks like I was going to keep walking right over the edge!

I packed up and left the summit at 7:45. Shortly after summiting, the solo hiker I had followed appeared out from behind some rocks just about shouting distance away and headed down. We never made contact, and with their 20 minute head start I never caught them. Going down, the trail has just about the perfect grade for hiking and with my trekking poles, I motored down quite quickly. Before dropping off the south ridge I briefly spoke to a solo hiker and a couple, all on their way up. The soloist was contemplating Wetterhorn as well, which is a very long day from Nellie Creek even with 4WD. Without even really trying, I was descending at about 2000ft/hr, and encountering quite a few people. Just about everyone asked when I started and were impressed with my start time and the fact that I hadn't driven up the 4WD road, which was good for my ego. :)

By the time I made it to the trailhead at around 9:15 (just 1:30 to descend 3000ft), I had encountered about 30 people and about a half-dozen non-threatening dogs. There was even a group just starting at that point, which is a little too late unless they were strong hikers. I continued to bang down the road although my knees were starting to complain a little. I'm embarrassed to admit this, but it was my hope that if things worked out right, I might get to finish the hike in the backseat of a kind hiker's 4WD. And it happened! I think it was the couple that I talked to high on the mountain. So, about 30 minutes into my hike down the road, my hike ended. They were experienced hikers and 14er baggers from Evergreen and we talked shop on the way down, including the importance of an early start.

They dropped me off at my car a little after 10am, and after thanking them, they continued on their way. I "ungeared" and was on my own way at 10:30. Driving home, especially in central Colorado, I was reminded why I try to avoid driving on weekends, but as usual when I hit the Colorado 14 juction just below Rabbit Ears Pass, the road cleared for the last 100 miles of the drive.

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File last modified: 27 December 2004

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