May 9, 2009 - Modified Southeast Ridge Snow Climb
Ed is still working on the 14'ers and he and I have a tradition of picking out a peak in the Elk or San Juan range and ticking it off his list, usually in September. We've done Pyramid with an early mantle of snow, a direct route on Castle's north face, Capital on the most fall weekend one could ask for and, believe it or not, a moose free climb of San Luis. So in the middle of March, Ed calls me up and wants to talk 14'ers, I knew something was up. He sings a song of a trip to the San Juans, probing, trolling, hoping to get a bite. He did not have to work too hard as short of our San Luis trip, I hadn't been in the San Juans since I wrapped up the 14'ers back in 2002. He needed the Wilsons, Sneffels, the Weminuche peaks, and lucky for him, Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre. He suggested the last weekend in April but I convinced him that my 48 year old frame was more oriented to early May when the roads were more likely to be open, at least to the Capital City junction. Fine . . . Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre were the goal.
I cut out of work at 2:45 on Friday afternoon and headed to Ed's place in Thornton for a 4:10 rendezvous and departure for Lake City. I hit right on time and Ed was ready to go, psyched, 14'ers on the brain. I was pretty enthused as well, as I had snow climbing on the mind. I knew from a call to the Hinsdale County road shop that the road to Capital City was open and that one could get at least a half mile up the North Henson Creek Road. That info was a week old and it had been warm, I was betting on most of the way to the 4wd cut off. We made our way through Denver going anti traffic wise for some of the way and simply being blessed for the remainder of the drive to the commuter's edge of town. We headed for Buena Vista via 285 and what a difference from my Mines days when the road was just a two lane out of town and a very long trip. We were over Kenosha Pass in no time and soon refueling in Poncha Springs.
We caught a fast dinner in Gunnison and went on to Lake City, which when we arrived at 10:30 had rolled up the side walks and gone to bed, perhaps hours before. We took the road toward Engineer Pass, to the Capital City junction and on up the North Henson Creek Road. How far would we get, I was thinking positively as there was almost no snow on the ground so far. We got about 1.2 miles, having 4 wheeled one virgin drift and skirted another before we were finally blocked by a 12 inch diameter aspen across the road. The thought of taking a chain saw along for this reason had occurred to me but I'd just cleaned up the my loaner saw and returned it to the owner pending the arrival of a new saw I had ordered just four days before this trip. Oh well, we'd get to walk an extra 0.8 miles in each direction.
For those familiar with the route, we backed down the hill and parked at the open spot with the remains of a fireplace/chimney off on the side of the road. There is a moderately flat spot and it was going onto 11:30 pm so we just put the pads on the ground and bivied for a few hours before getting started. I think we are both going soft as we used to put up the tent for a three hour night, but now I just toss the bag on the pad, put on a balaclava and shake off the frost in the morning. Next thing I know I'll just quit sleeping out altogether. Regardless, the night was warmish, perhaps in the lowest of 30's and the frost was still light at 3 am when we got up to put the finishing touches on our packs and set off up the road toward the Wetterhorn.
The real question was one peak or two and whether we were going to camp in the Matterhorn basin or come and go twice if climb of Uncompahgre peak was in the making. I had decided before the climb that if we were going to camp in the basin, we were going Twight, as in Mark Twight light. If you've not read any of Mark Twight's alpine treatises, especially Extreme Alpinism, give it a read. His technical instruction is great and I've taken much of his climb light and fast mantra to heart. As the body has aged, I've come to the conclusion that if I can shave a pound here and there, I will climb better and enjoy it more. So I packed a summer sleeping bag, a blow up mattress, a space blanket and our BD Megamid light. Took along the MSR Dragonfly and 10 oz. fuel to melt snow and 16 pouches of Goo. Ed brought bagels, cheese, summer sausage and Ramen and veggie bits for lunches and dinner . . . that was going to have to do it.
We woke at 3 am and were headed up the road an hour later. We passed the tree and were soon at the 4wd cut off and headed up to the summer 4wd trail head. I knew the way points, having climbed the same route in 2001 but sure enough after we got onto the trail part on the other side of the gate, it took me all of 10 minutes to lose the trail in a semi tangle of snow hummocks, still clad in darkness. How I did it I do not know, but I did it with exceptional skill and we paid the price for the next hour or so. We cut up hill into the trees away from the stream as I knew I wanted that 200 feet of climb before we got into the basin proper. We beat our way through crappy rotted out tree snow and got the idea to get up toward the ridge where we could at least walk on level ground. Well if you refer to a map, which we did, and then add in some progress and the interception of a deep in feeder stream, you too would cry out in disgust at the thought of bushwhacking until the meadow switchback.
I found an old road trace and we followed it a very small distance to the meadow with the 200 foot switchback. We were back on course but had waste an hour due to my myopic navigation in the pre-dawn darkness, having missed a route that, the next afternoon would prove to be so obvious as to defy an understanding of our error. The snow shoes we put on just ten minutes before in disgust came off and we were on our way, in the light, to the start of the Matterhorn Basin. We passed the Wilderness boundary and broke out into the open basin just a few minutes later. No more trees, very little navigation, just pick a line and gain elevation on the hard morning snow, going toward the Wetterhorn. About 2/3 of the way along, we decided we would drop all the overnight gear and climb light.
We aimed for a bit rock, free of snow cover, and aimed for it as a good drop point. The rock turned out to be a small buttress with a bit of flat on top certainly suitable for a gear drop and marmot meeting place. We dropped the overnight stuff and headed on up the basin toward the ridge route on the Wetterhorn. I'd done this route in the middle of the summer but this snow angle was better, just pick your line and go for it. The snow was hard enough to settle any avi issues for the time being so we more or less tracked the summer trail before taking a sweeping direct route to hit the ridge just before the real rock climbing starts. We mounted a sub-ridge and walked a more or less level course to the flats below the saddle and stopped to put on the crampons, break out eh ice axes and stow the hiking poles.
I was looking for a steep snow line and the east face of the peak was that line. But I had only my poor navigation to blame for being where we were about an hour later than I really wanted to. Add to that the remains of an erstwhile wet slough avalanche on the right side of the climb and the supply of rock that could come down the slop under the right morning sun, we opted to strike a happy medium of avoiding the tedium of the traversing summer route and the danger of the eastern face but splitting the difference and aim for the upper ridge via a sweeping snow climb. We'd score a "medium" climb and fall short of 45 degree snow but that was good for me after the morning slog through the trees. We put one foot in front of the other and made good progress to the ridge, crossing onto the rounded ridge through a gap in the minor cornices that guarded most of the ridge. Not big cornices by any means just a few feet of verticality at the top of the climb would be a better description.
We mounted the rounded spin e of the ridge and walked on up and through the class 2+ scramble portion of the climb to hit the first of two snow pitches before the prow that guards the final portion of the climb. The first pitch came and went while the second gave another medium snow climbing opportunity on the western side of the peak. Rather than dealing with softening snow, this pitch still had a good freeze on, allowing only the points of the crampons to mark the snow surface. There was a good bit of run out so both of us bore in mid the need for good axe skills should either of us take a slip along the way. We broke the ridge below the prow and climbed past the prominence to duck around its upper side to make the final stair step climb to the summit. The summit pitch was dry but for a patch of ice here and there and within just five minutes or so, Ed was on the summit and had #44 in hand. I joined him and we took the obligatory photos and took in the route we would traverse the next morning en route to Uncompahgre.
We also called G'tard on Ed's cell phone as he was now four months post op from an ACL repair. Since he did the damage playing Mr. Jujitsu and not climbing, we felt that a taunting call from the summit was justified even though my personal belief is that such calls are best left to those whose thrice precious rest eternal in a small earthen jar, awaiting reunion with their owner upon the termination of one's earthly existence. We retreated from the summit and found the western snow descent soft enough to take a sound heal placement while the lower eastern reaches were warming up nicely. We descended the scramble and dropped down the ridge beyond the gendarmes near the saddle proper before dropping off the ridge and plunge stepping our way on down and through the basin to our gear drop. We'd started from the truck at 4am, summitted at 10:30 and were back at the gear at a bit before 12:30.
We debated where to camp and really came to the conclusion that we were more or less best off to stick with our island in the sea of crappy hip deep afternoon snow, rather than going out into the mush, stomping a pad and setting up camp. The snow had truly gone to crap so the buttress would be our overnight. We ate lunch and then I set up the 'Mid to gain some shade and to just get the task over with. If you have never camped in the floor-less Black Diamond Megamid, you should give it a try. The whole affair weighs no more than a pound, the center pole is your ski or hiking poles bound together and who cares if you have your boots on in the tent? The footprint is all of 9 by 9 feet and there is plenty of head room. Well, there is a 9 inch gap along each side but come on . . . one pound! I put down my space blanket to avoid the damp of the ground, added my Big Agnes air mattress and the summer bag . . . all I needed for the night.
We were about one or two weeks ahead of a nearby stream coming to the surface so it was a game of melting snow for drinking and cooking water. We ended up melting about 6 quarts and the Arizona dust that seems to have coated the San Juan range left us with a skiff of brown sediment in the bottom of the pot, even though we scraped the dust layer off the snow before we scooped out the "clean" stuff. Dinner followed a post melting duty nap and then we called it a night. The sun went down behind the ridge and I broke out the down jacket that I planned to combine with the summer bag for a warm night. Long underwear bottoms and wool socks for the bum and toes and I was good to go. The only hassle was the newly arrived wind, which tossed one of our stakes to the snows for recovery by some summer climber. Once re-secured, the 'Mid handled a full night of 30 to 40 mph gusts that managed to keep the both of us from getting any sort of a real sleep before the start of our second climb.
The alarm was set for 4 am and rest assured, when it went off, I was more than ready to abandon my warm sleeping arrangements for cold boots and the hope to take the wind face on rather than taking continuing the nocturnal beating. Enough was enough . . . we were up and soon headed for Uncompahgre Peak's western couloir.