May 10, 2009 - West Side Couloir (snow)
(see Wetterhorn - Southeast Ridge for the 1st half of this climb)
Wind, wind, and more wind, that is what got us out of the warm sleeping bags and on our way from our Matterhorn Basin camp. We had a snow climb of the Wetterhorn in hand from the day before, a great afternoon of sun and a good dinner, everything we needed to pull off a second 14'er on this incredible bluebird weekend in the San Juan range. The alarm was set for 4 am and we figured as long as we were on the trail by 5 am we would have good snow on the couloir we picked out to score Ed his 45th 14'er summit. We knew that the west side couloirs were the shortest route to the top of Uncompahgre from our camp in the Basin and the angle looked fun, not steep, but a good snow climb regardless.
The night had not been very cold and I had a hunch that the valley we had to cross would bring with it a bit of post holing, either on the way to the climb or more likely on the way back. We packed light, no overnight gear was coming along, and headed directly toward the peak in the far distance. We soon came upon the edge of an abyss blocking our path, an abyss that in the ghostly light of the early dawn looked very deep and seriously corniced, though later, on our return, we saw that the great depth was all of 50 to 75 feet. Funny how the light at that hour can make depth perception a challenge for the expert navigator and novice alike. We cut up toward Matterhorn Peak and looped around the "chasm" before regaining our more direct route toward Uncompahgre. The course to the peak was an undulating affair until we were nearly across when we stayed high to preserve all of the elevation possible.
Staying high also gave us a bit better grade of snow and though we would post hole to the knee or even the high thigh here and there, the snow was pretty solid. Once we got to the base of the closest west face couloir, we were on good frozen snow with little more than the points of the crampons penetrating. The couloir looked to be pretty straightforward, go up about the first third at a pretty low slope, take on the next third to the gap in the rocks and then knock out the last third that looked to be pretty mellow as well. We stopped and swapped out the hiking poles for the ice axes and shot a Goo before taking on the climb proper. The first third truly is a tame slope that gives you a warm up before the snow steepens en route to the gap in the rocks. The snow steepens before the gap and if you pick your route right you might be able to knock out a high 30's, perhaps a 40 degree section of snow.
The snow stayed in great shape and we were steadily gaining, at least until just beyond the rock gap. That is the point where you realize that the last third is a wide and fairly steep climb visually obscured at the lower reaches of the climb by a well placed roll. Here you get to choose a route that stays more tame to the right or you can push the upper moderate snow climb limits if you go toward the center and play around with the left hand slopes that roll upward. All in all, we put the better part of 2 hours into the snow climb portion of the trek before taking the obvious thread of snow onto the shelf below the sloping summit plateau of the peak. There was enough snow atop the flats to avoid much of the rock and within a few minutes we'd hiked on up to the summit flats proper and hoofed it over to the north edge to claim #45 in Ed's book, just 3 1/2 hours after leaving the tent.
Like I said, G messed up his ACL playing Jujitsu so another taunting call was in order. This time no talk of Meg Ryan chick flicks just three repetitions of our own gutteral Uncompahgre chant into the phone followed by a broken connection. Sometimes it is best to just keep it simple. Ed gnawed on a power bar and I shot a Goo before we hefted the packs and walked on back to the start of the snow thread leading down to the top of the couloir. I figured the snow would still be good as this is a west facing couloir and I was not disappointed at all. The snow took a solid heel placement and no more. We plunge stepped our way all the way down, wandering left and right to mess with a steep section or two when the mood struck. Now all we had to do was get back across the basin to our camp below the Wetterhorn, over a mile away across a sea of warming brown streaked snow.
The post holing at the start was just enough to irritate but what could we say, we left the snow shoes at the tent and had decided to "think light" and levitate across the snow. Actually we just aimed for the whitest deepest course and left the post holes behind for almost all of the route except a spot or two where the snow on the shallow side. We got to the camp and broke out some lunch before packing the overnight gear and putting the snowshoes on for the trudge down the basin to the woods, the road, and the truck. The snow had now gone to hell the right way and we were post holing to the knee with every other step, regardless of the snow shoes. We cut left, we cut right and then we just started swapping off the lead to lessen the torture on the both of us. It was a long "think light" trip to the tree line near the wilderness boundary, after which the snow took our weight once again.
We got to the zig zag and said the heck with any thought of a repeat of our inbound route. I knew we had just busted the route coming in and since I'd been following a set of ski ridges, I figured Mr. Ski had set a pretty tame route to the 4wd trail head. And, yes, Mr. Ski, you done good. We hoofed it out the 4wd portion of the road in, hit the main drag and diddy bopped right on back to the truck, that aspen be damned. We were at the truck at 12:30 and soon headed back to the Front Range and Cheyenne, having pulled off a classic turbo trip, 54 hours Cheyenne to Cheyenne with Ed now needing two less 14'ers to meet his goal. Not only that but would you beleive a spring weekend in the San Juans with nary another climber in sight over the whole of the trip . . .