Flying Blind: Wetterhorn & Uncompahgre

Me and Isabella @ 4 years old

Me and Isabella @ 4 years old

I was going to be a dad.

My wife and I were going to have our first child, a girl whom we would name Isabella.   It was going to be the most exciting day of our lives.  But the big event was 5 days away; surely I had time to bag some Colorado 14ers beforehand.

Yet, having time and having consensus for such an adventure were two very different things.  I carefully worked out and then very carefully delivered my thinking to my wife.  I argued that it would be far, far better that I go adventuring right before rather than right after our first child is born. Right?  The Assumptive Close (changing the question about going from whether to when) was a long shot, but it was all I had.

She agreed! My wife is a very understanding and generous person. I always take credit for picking her.

With a family consensus in hand,  I made plans to leave for Lake City on July 26, 2002 to collect Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre, and possibly also San Luis.  These were three of the few unclimbed 14ers on my list of 58 Colorado peaks over fourteen thousand feet. And with the rest of the world having better things to do than climb 14ers on the far side of the state, I would go alone.

By the morning of, I had everything ready except my navigational planning.  I still didn’t have confirmation on the current information for the drive to the trailhead or the approach hike from the Matterhorn Creek trailhead.  And in the few remaining hours prior to departure, I stupidly wasted my time on unimportant and unrelated tasks, forcing me to leave unprepared and behind schedule.  Reduced to relying on the guidebooks printed years ago, I grabbed my Dawson and my Roach books and headed out into rush hour traffic; my punishment would be the trauma of  being “lost and flying blind” in the Heart of Darkness.

“Flying Blind” is an aviation term that describes a navigation scenario where the pilot/navigator cannot see the ground and must navigate by instrument alone to find a place to land before the fuel runs out (and the aircraft crashes into the ground).   When through error or mishap the aviator becomes “lost and flying blind,” he rides a ticking time-bomb while desperately gathering information to save himself.

As expected, I arrived in Lake City after dark:  no one to ask for directions and nothing to see but roadsigns.  Heck, I didn’t even have a map, just the guidebook directions that were printed years before. And yet, it might have even worked, but I was in too much of a hurry to stop for 5 minutes and read the dang directions carefully.

My simul-drive-read concluded with a simple set of instructions for me to follow:  drive into Lake City via CO-149 and turn right at the sign for Engineer Pass that I’d find near the middle of town, and then take that road to a junction near Capital City to find a sign for Matterhorn Creek.  It wouldn’t be hard, but flying blind, without any normal visual clues or basic spatial orientation, I could not afford to lose my way.  I might not find it again in time.

I had been to Lake City before, so that wasn’t hard.  Then I found the sign for Engineer Pass and made that turn; so far so good.  After 2 blocks the road ended in a T-junction with a sign that said, “Alpine Loop — 18 miles.”  Crap.  I looked down the road each way, but couldn’t see anything in the pitch dark.  I turned around and went back to the main drag to see if I could find additional clues.  Nothing. I was screwed; 5.5 hours invested (and just as much to get home) and my narrow time window quickly closing.  I couldn’t believe I had let myself get into this situation.  So stupid.

Full of dread, I went back to the T-junction and guessed left.  I followed the Alpine Loop that I feared would take me on a tour of the utterly dark mountains and deposit me back in Lake City after an hour of anxious self-loathing, and leave me with nothing to do but go home empty handed.

Now I was lost and flying blind.

It is a battle between confidence and fear.  Confidence of success desperately hangs on while pulled down by the weight of the rapidly growing fear of failure.  The driver, lost and flying blind must go on and on as long as possible, afraid to turn around because the goal might be just ahead, but afraid of being wrong and losing irreplaceable time. Desperately seeking a clear confirming clue, the driver continues until exhausting his reservoir of hope.  With his confidence broken, the driver turns around without knowing if he is actually lost. And, in the worst case, the driver returns to search for additional information, only to find that he was almost at his destination, and now does not have enough time.

A mistake of this magnitude could ruin the trip (if not a life!), and such a terrible conclusion is worthy of great fear.

Desperate to figure out where I was in the pitch dark, my solution was to go faster.  Driving at top speed with my nose in the guidebooks; I looked up periodically to stay on the road while trying to find some information in the books about the “Alpine Loop” or some clue that would confirm I was on the right road.  Heck, I’d have been delighted with indisputable evidence that I was on the wrong road.  The uncertainty was killing me.

Eventually I read that the Nellie Creek trailhead was found off the road I hoped I was on. It was only supposed to be 5 miles up the road, but when I didn’t find it (started looking too late) or any other indication of where I was, I lost hope.  I turned around.  I figured I should get back to Lake City before I forgot how.

When I got back to Lake City, I looked again for any road signs that I missed in the darkness; but found nothing.  It was time to go home; but before spending another 5.5 hours on that long, lonely drive, I thought I’d invest 5 minutes in careful, non-driving study of the directions.  I pulled over and started reading carefully; it took only one minute to find my mistake.  I was on the right road the whole time and must have been within minutes of finding the sign to Matterhorn Creek.

So, I went back up the road to Capitol City (noticing the Nellie Creek trailhead along the way), and then turned right onto North Henson Creek Road to head up to Matterhorn Creek trailhead. The road roughened significantly at this point, but still wasn’t too bad for a 4×4. After a couple miles, I entered a full parking area for the trailhead at 10,400 feet. I continued up the “four wheel drive road” for another 300 feet to reach the high parking lot below the Forest Service Gate at 10,720 feet. I continued up, taking the right fork at the end of the camping area, to an empty parking lot next to the trailhead register. I made it. It was 11pm; the drive to Lake City was 280 miles long and had taken 5.5 hours (51 miles per hour), while the drive from Lake City to the trailhead was an additional 12 miles in 2 hours.  I was so happy to still be in the game that I wasn’t even mad.

I set up camp quickly and spent the early morning studying the guidebooks. The weather had been rainy lately and was forecast to thunder in the afternoon; I would need to move quickly and without additional mistakes.  And to minimize the chance of weather interruption, I planned to start hiking at 5am.  Starting even earlier was a problem because I needed to be able to see well enough to find a switchback leaving the main trail less than 1 miles into the hike.

My route from the Matterhorn Creek trailhead to Wetterhorn Peak

My route from the Matterhorn Creek trailhead to Wetterhorn Peak

My guidebook study resulted in a plan what would start with five sections:

  1. Wake up and leave camp
  2. Find the place to leave the main trail and switchback up to a higher trail
  3. Find the cut-off point to leave the main trail and head toward Wetterhorn’s southeast ridge
  4. Ascend the tricky steep finish to reach the Wetterhorn summit; decide if a traverse to the Matterhorn summit was a good idea (it wasn’t)
  5. Return to the main trail heading toward Uncompahgre
  6. With a close up view of the peak, decide which route to take to the summit of Uncompahgre

The alarm went off at 4:30am. I packed my gear, my copy of Roach’s 14er book, and put on my trusty old Makalus that I had resoled after several futile attempts to break in my new Eigers. I had not seen any tents the night before and was worried that somehow I was camping in an illegal spot, so I decided to pack up the tent before leaving. This and other distractions cost me an extra 30 minutes.  I began hiking at 5:30am; yet, I was the first on the trail, somehow.  And with a near full moon, I could see the sky was already threatening.

About the time I started worrying about having missed the “switchback” I found it. Basically, the main trail is blocked off.  The only way to proceed is to follow the switchback. I continued up the trail, slowly gaining ground on the mountains until I could see the Matterhorn Peak in the early light; oh, what a misuse of a great name.

I was tempted to follow Roaches advice regarding the Wetterhorn / Uncompahgre combination, and do Uncompahgre first. But since the weather was threatening, and the most difficult climbing was on Wetterhorn, I decided to reverse that order.

Roach says to “leave the main trail at 12,040 feet”…a rather precise instruction to use with an altimeter that is never more reliable than +/- 200 feet (a variance of approximately 1/2 mile along this hiking trail). Without some sort of landmark. I tried to get my bearings by looking to the Wetterhorn Peak and its Southeast Ridge but couldn’t see much from beneath the ridge. I decided to  mimic the route drawn on the map by veering 45 degrees left (northwest) toward the saddle between Matterhorn and Wetterhorn peaks once the main trail turned toward Uncompahgre.  Of course, knowing when the trail makes a permanent turn in direction vs. just a temporary one isn’t easy.  But it was a plan.

A view of Wetterhorn and my early-day route, seen from the summit of Uncompahgre

A view of Wetterhorn and my early-day route, seen from the summit of Uncompahgre. The marmot in the lower left is waiting for me to leave my food unattended.

I had a moderate amount of altitude loss and wandering.  After proceeding northeast approx. 0.25 miles, I found a well-beaten trail which I would follow up to the southeast ridge.  Looking down, I noticed a single set of fresh footprints in the mud.  I was surprised because I hadn’t seen or heard anyone on the trail. I wondered if the climber was from the bivy site I passed on a grassy slope below. I looked up toward the ridge to look for him/her when movement on the summit caught my eye – a climber! This person had summited before 7am; that’s commitment.

I had made good time (1,500 feet per hour) so far and wanted to manage my energy level. In my life-long battle to bring-enough-but-not-too-much-water, I had decided to bring four liters (I can hear Brian groaning at this admission). I just didn’t know for certain that I’d be able to find any and I had a long day of hiking. To avoid dragging nearly 10 lbs of water up Wetterhorn, I decided I would stash two liters down low.  All I had to do was remember to reclaim it.

The Middle Notch

The Middle Notch

I continued up to the saddle between Point 13,117 and Wetterhorn and then up the southeast ridge. The hiking included a significant amount of scrambling, but all easily within 2nd class difficulty. Numerous cairns revealed numerous paths; I took the path closest to the ridge and passed underneath and left of the initial towers and eventually reached a flat area to the right and beneath the peak of the “Ships Prow” tower.

From this point I could see 3 notches, which didn’t match the descriptions of my guidebooks (they mentioned either one or two notches). Fortunately, the middle notch (see photo) had a big cairn near it, so I climbed it first and found the impressive finish to the climb.

The last 100 foot stretch was very impressive:  steep and airy. In slippery conditions, I could see it would be troublesome.

And the sky looked like rain.

The final stretch beneath low clouds

The final stretch beneath low clouds

I traversed the down angle ledge to the east for 15 feet to reach the bottom of the finish. I paused to test holds a couple times, but the handholds were good enough to catch my weight if a foothold broke. I reached the tiny summit at 8am.

I looked down the ridge toward Matterhorn to see if I might bag it as well, but the ridge looked loose and steep. After a moment, I retreated back to the summit having silently agreed to leave the Matterhorn for another day. As I looked for a comfy rock to sit on, a cloud rolled over the summit obscuring my vision.

I wanted to see the footholds as I down climbed; so I descended as soon as visibility returned. Naturally, the down climb was harder than the climb up; but I only needed a few  “face-the-rock” moves to make it back to the ledge, and then the Middle Notch.

After a quick break below the “Ships Prow”, I was ready to start back down the southeast ridge. That is when I realized that I hadn’t again seen the person whom I had spied on the summit at 7am…hmmmmm. Where did he/she go? Perhaps I should name my trip report, “The Ghost of Wetterhorn”?

The descent went quickly. Once reaching the saddle with Point 13,117 on the southeast ridge, I turned left (north) off the ridge and headed toward Matterhorn. I backtracked my original route and discovered that the trail I had used earlier in the morning was a good traversing route between Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre; I didn’t lose any altitude and was able to take a nearly straight shot west to the saddle between the two 14ers at 12,380 feet. Oh, and I collected my stashed water.

Once I connected with the main trail, I followed it over to where I could see Uncompahgre where I began to consider how to climb it.

My early morning study revealed three basic options:

  1. Go the long way around to the using the Southwest Slopes route which connects with the East Slope route taking approximately 2 extra miles than the shortest route
  2. Take the shortest path, 2000 feet directly up the West Face (steep scree slope) to join the East Slope route near the summit
  3. Take a compromise path that Roach calls V1 of the Southwest slopes route, which takes a mile off the long approach and only goes up 1,000 feet of rock to the ridge line.
A view of Uncompahgre from the south, while hiking around to the east

A view of Uncompahgre from the south, while hiking around to the east

I was in a hurry to beat the weather, but I wasn’t willing to churn up the scree and cause significant erosion; I took the third option.

I left the main trail and did a bit wandering to find the start of the V1 route. It looked a bit looser than I expected, but only the first 400 feet were very steep and loose.  The rest of the route was straightforward, and I reached the ridgeline (13,260 ft) at 10:45.

The view from the ridge was impressive (see photo). A massive cliff band stood before me guarding the large, flat summit area.

My initial reaction was…”wow!…do I get to climb that cliff?”

The forbidding cliffband protecting the Uncompahgre summit

The forbidding cliffband protecting the Uncompahgre summit

But it wasn’t to be so.  The trail angled up to the south corner of the broad summit where it turned the corner and reached the south face. The trail switch backed and scrambled to the summit area, then traversed north and, finally, headed to the western edge. I reached the summit at 11:30am.

The wind was hard and cold; I was only able to remain on the summit at all by wearing my jacket, balaclava, and gloves. I enjoyed most of the rest of my dwindling water supply and a couple Balance Bars while examining my route up Wetterhorn.  I also enjoyed the views of Sunlight, Redcloud, and Handies which I had climbed a few weeks earlier (see trip report).

After a fast, enjoyable 20 minutes on top, it was time to get down.

I had climbed 5800′ and was running out of steam.  I was sorely tempted to go down the West Face route to shave some effort.  But with the weather cooperating, I still couldn’t justify the trail erosion.

I resolved to return using the trail I had ascended.

Once back down to the Matterhorn Creek trail, I took a short break near a creek to clear my boots of gravel and replenish my water supply.  I also needed another rest.

The weather was still holding; but to be prudent, I kept up a good downhill pace to reach treeline. I reached camp by 2:30pm despite another brief rest below treeline.

I was tempted to stay another day to collect San Luis Peak since I was so close to it, but I felt anxious to get home. Better late than never, my wife was probably thinking when I explained my early return.

It would take me 4 years to return to collect San Luis.

Despite a rough start, I got my 14ers:  approximately 15 miles and 5,800 feet of elevation gain in 8 hours.

My route map for summiting Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre

My route map for summiting Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre

The day included 10 sections:

  1. Wake up and leave camp
  2. Find the place to leave the main trail and switchback up to a higher trail
  3. Find the cut-off point to leave the main trail and head toward Wetterhorn’s southeast ridge
  4. Ascend the tricky steep finish to reach the Wetterhorn summit; decide if a traverse to the Matterhorn summit was a good idea (it wasn’t)
  5. Return to the main trail heading toward Uncompahgre
  6. With a close up view of the peak, decide which route to take to the summit of Uncompahgre
  7. Find the start to the V1 route to join the East Slopes finish on Uncompahgre
  8. Complete the ascent of Uncompahgre
  9. Enjoy the summit of the 6th highest mountain in Colorado and the  highest on Colorado’s Western Slope
  10. Go home and be a good husband and father
My observation of mountain name appropriateness

My observation of mountain name appropriateness

Six and one-half hours and three liters of Diet Coke (for caffeine) later, I was home. It was a great trip designed to scratch my 14er itch, but it didn’t work; two weeks later I used my in-laws visit to excuse another trip to collect Castle and Conundrum.  But, don’t worry; I would get my “just desserts.”

The Castle-Conundrum trip would be my last for a while as another “lost and flying blind” scenario conspired with errors in judgment to give me an injury.  It was time to start being a better husband, and to get serious about this father thing.

See all trip reports

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2 Responses to “Flying Blind: Wetterhorn & Uncompahgre”

  1. Tying Up Loose Ends « PeakMind Says:

    […] and drove.  My drive through Lake City reminded me of an earlier reading-while-driving error (see Flying Blind) and I committed to finding a place in Creede to stop and figure it […]

  2. Slank Nu Says:

    Slank Nu…

    […]Flying Blind: Wetterhorn & Uncompahgre « PeakMind[…]…

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