After a day of resting our bones (see the September 15, 2017, Handies Peak Report) and checking our phones in the bustling berg of Lake City (population 500, counting dogs and cats), Rik Fritz and I were ready for our next 14er objective. Again, we talked of Wetterhorn, but yet another brief dusting of snow up high the night before made us reconsider. Fickle autumn! So, to avoid any chance of a Fritz-Joder epic (see my post “The Fall” for an extreme example of just such an “epic”), we chose the relatively easy trail up Uncompahgre Peak for the adventure o’ the day.
If you happen to be in this area in mid-September, by the way, plan for a day of hanging out in Lake City as their Lake City Uncorked Wine and Music Festival takes place then. A fun event! Also, the leaves will likely be changing (as they were for us), so it is a fine time to be there. Bring both a jacket and short sleeves–it will be chilly in the shade, but hot in the sun!
Also, of historical and, perhaps, gastronomical interest in this land of many gold and silver mines, is the strange 19th century tale of Alferd G. Packer. He and five prospector companions found themselves snowbound here in the San Juans one winter and only Alferd came out alive when the storms cleared–apparently, thanks to a bit of cannibalism on his part. He was eventually convicted of murder for his acts, although there is a good chance he was railroaded and was simply a “creative survivor” of a tough situation (not unlike the Donner Party (1846-1847) and the Uruguayan rugby team (1972).
Some morbidly humorous Alferd Packer trivia: I remember eating at the Alferd G. Packer Memorial Grill at the University of Colorado back in the 70s (Since renamed the “Alferd Packer Restaurant and Grill”, apparently–spoilsports!). I think they had a “Cannibal Burger” on the menu then. Some of the slogans I have heard related to this eatery…”Have a friend for lunch!”…”Serving humanity since 1874″…and, “He ate the only two Democrats in Hinsdale County!”
But enough raucous levity. Let’s get back to the topic at hand–the trip report of our ascent of Uncompahgre Peak in late summer/early fall/light snow conditions. May you find it useful and/or entertaining.
Trip Report: Uncompahgre Peak (14,309′)
We hiked the standard South Ridge Route from the Nellie Creek 4WD Trailhead. This makes the trip about a 3000′ elevation gain and a 7.5 mile round trip. The trail starts out at a steady and gradual grade, then kicks up over the last mile or so to the summit. The Class 2 section going through the cliff bands up high is not difficult or very exposed making this a good first 14er hike–as it was for the German kid from Chicago we met on top.
This time, Rik and I stuck to the tried and true “alpine start method” and it paid off. We had hoisted our fannies perpendicular in the icy darkness and were on the trail by headlamp by 5:15a.m., perhaps an hour before first light. Surprisingly, given the number of other vehicles at the trailhead, we were the first to start. We were well above treeline and high in the big open basin below the imposing countenance of Uncompahgre at sunrise (which was scheduled by the universe for 6:54a.m.). We made the summit at 8:15a.m.–the first party to arrive for the day. The German kid joined us up there within a few minutes, then others began to arrive. We stayed on the summit, admiring the vast, veautiful, vonderful, vista of the San Juan Mountains until about 9a.m., then plunged on down into the thickening atmosphere, arriving at our vehicles at 11:15a.m., just as a brief but powerful snow flurry blew through. Great timing!
Scattered puffy cumulus cruised by in the sky throughout the morning, starting even before sunrise. Like two days earlier on Handies, the puffies never developed any significant vertical component during our time on the mountain, so they never became a storm king threat–until much later when we were long gone.
The hiking temperatures were chilly but comfortable–maybe high 20s or low 30s, with very little breeze–until we hit the south ridge of Uncompahgre. Here, we were fully exposed to the 30mph cold winds coming in from the west. We stopped and added a layer, gloves, balaclavas, etc. to cope. We assumed the summit would be horribly windswept as well, but surprisingly, it was relatively calm and there were small rock piles to hide behind. I suspect much of the wind, smashing as it was into the west side of the peak, was pushed vertically and we were in some sort of calm, leeward rotor on the summit. Back at the trailhead, I saw 46 degrees on the truck thermometer, so likely in the 30s on top at mid-morning. If you go in the fall, take all those layers, just in case!
Despite the recent snow flurries, the giant plasmic meatball had done its job and there were only bits of snow here and there along the easy, Class 1 trail. The Class 2 section through the rock band and up the talus slope was snow-free. As I mentioned, this short section was simple scrambling with no real exposure, so suitable for a 14er virgin.
–I carried my 20-megapixel Sony RX100iv pocketable camera and a spare battery and memory card. As I mentioned in my Handies report, the Sony had a hard time with the dynamic range of the white clouds and the dark canyons and forests. My brick-heavy kit of the Nikon D800 and three lenses and tripod would have done well, but they are on the boat to our new residence in Barcelona. Having such a light camera, though, was liberating.
–Adding on to the above comment…I will probably purchase the new 46-megapixel Nikon D850, but it will likely be my last “heavy” camera. Mirrorless is the wave of the future and the quality keeps moving up as the weight (and even price) comes down. I’m getting too old to be hauling bricks on my back up these mountains.
–The images in this report were shot as JPEGS and lightly processed through Photoshop and through the Google Color Efex Pro plug-in (using some variation of their Tonal Contrast filter, with tweaks, typically). I normally shoot RAW, but my ancient version of Photoshop doesn’t have a RAW converter for the Sony.
–No tripods were used in the making of these photographs.
–There is a free Century Link Wi-Fi hotspot, with convenient picnic table, in downtown Lake City on the corner of…hmmm…don’t remember, but you’ll find it. There may be other hot spots as well. Ask a local.
–The four-mile 4WD road from the main dirt road (CR20) to the trailhead is rough. 4WD experts would say it is maybe “intermediate” but I wouldn’t want to do anything much more challenging in my Tacoma (I am somewhat of a wimp in this regard and I don’t like to beat up my truck). I did see one Subaru at the trailhead, but most vehicles were 4WD trucks of some kind. There are some tight switchbacks and a couple of creek crossings, the latter being problematic in spring–check 14ers.com for the latest creek flow reports when planning your journey.
–There is no functioning toilet at the 4WD trailhead, although the building is there. Plan accordingly. Don’t leave a mess or strings of toilet paper for others to step upon…go faaar away and use best LNT poop disposal practices.
–The trailhead signs are awesome–see my picture below. Consider taking a few pictures of these signs with your cell phone as it can serve as your map. Just don’t forget to put your cell phone in airplane mode so the battery doesn’t run down.
–Speaking of cell phones, there was good Verizon service at the summit.
–As we were coming down, we saw several groups on their way up who had gotten a less-than-alpine start (as we did on Handies). Interestingly, the type of gear and clothing exhibited by each group got progressively more amateurish the later the group was. There was a collection of young folks, for example, who were hiking in shorts, running shoes, and cotton sweatshirts. I’m not sure how well they handled the freezing winds up on the ridge, or the snow and rain flurries that started about noon.
–Just as we came back down to treeline, we saw a pack train coming down the switchbacks from the north. It looked pretty Western-cliché! It turned out to be a hired hunting trip and three mules were loaded with elk meat and three sets of huge elk antlers. (As an aside, doesn’t Nature, via mountain lions, etc., prefer to cull the weakest of the elk? What happens when hunters consistently remove from the gene pool those huge macho animals with the monster racks? Shouldn’t they be shooting the weaklings instead?)
–In the afternoon, after Rik and I were both well on our way back to our resective homesteads, the sky blew up and rain began pouring down. I found myself in rain showers all the way from Lake City to Salida, with snow almost certainly falling on the high peaks. Perhaps the summer 14er season is over?
–Current Colorado 14er Senior Challenge summit count: 43 of the basic list of 58 (as per p. xxiii in Gerry Roach’s 14er “Bible”, Colorado Fourteeners, 3rd Ed.). The longer list of named 14er summits is now up to 52 of 73 peaks (pp. 347-348, with South Wilson added, also in Roach’s “Bible”). Or maybe that should be 74 named 14er summits with the recent re-measuring and addition of Sunlight Spire (5.10c)!
Rik prepares for the morrow at the 4WD trailhead parking area, after 4 miles of rough road. Eventually there would be at least twice as many vehicles here, since the morrow was a Sunday. The little outhouse is closed and not usable:
Here is a look at the well-marked start of the hike the afternoon prior to our adventure:
In this photo, you can see the wonderful detail that is provided at the trailhead so you won’t get your ass lost in the wilderness thus provoking a so-sad SAR response from the local authorities. You get trail statistics, a topo map, an elevation profile (note the even, gradual, grade), a 3D bird’s eye view, and even an inspirational quote! Take a picture of the these maps with your phone so you’ll have them with you on the hike (then set your phone to airplane mode to save the battery):
One of the first images from the morning of the hike…Venus and a fingernail moon herald the coming of first light in the east. These hand-held Sony images aren’t too bad. The metadata: f/2.8, 1/250, ISO 3200, lens set at 24mm equivalent. I could have settled for a slower shutter speed and dialed down the ISO to 1600 or even 800 to help reduce noise:
In the pre-dawn blue, Rik looks up at the massive rock known to the Ute Nation as Uncompahgre. Note that cumulus clouds are already starting to form even though the morning sun has yet to illuminate the landscape. The little white, snaky arrow indicates where we are headed and the short Class 2 area that cuts through the cliff band:
The first red light of dawn hits the peak and we rest beside a few patches of old snow. Most of the snow from the storms of the previous couple of days has melted–but you can still see a light dusting at the upper left on the red slope:
Then, Señor Sol pops above the horizon and sheds its warm light upon us from 93 million miles away:
Soon, the entire basin is filled with a reddish hue, and one of our shadows stop to photograph the effect. The summit of the peak appears to smoke as a cloud moves by in the brisk wind:
Rik pauses at one of the few intersections. Everything is well-marked, and the trails well-defined, so it would be hard to get lost. That’s “Unnamed 13,158′” in the background:
The trail steepens and we start to feel the full force of the west winds as we approach the south ridge. In the far distance, the first summit in from the left side of the picture is Handies Peak, where we stood two days ago:
Unnamed 13,158′ really ought to have a name. After all, it would be a lovely mount to mount, don’t you think?
The view as you walk up the south ridge is most excellent. Here, you are looking to the south-southwest, in the direction of Chicago Basin:
This is a good view looking up the south ridge toward the summit. That white arrow is where the trail will lead you and where you’ll find an easy gully to take you up through the formidable-looking cliff band:
Unnamed 13,158′ is looking ever smaller…now I see why it still has no name. A part of the trail, lined with snow, is visible below. You can even see a hiker down there if you look carefully–the German kid who had driven straight from Chicago to the trailhead. Evidently, the altitude change didn’t affect him much as he was rapidly gaining on us:
Rik is now rounding the corner where that white arrow was placed in the photograph above (second photo up from here). The clouds are thicker, but still no real vertical development going on:
Once around the corner, its up through the scree gully. This, they say, is Class 2. Just follow the well-worn trail and you’ll be fine:
Taking in the view. This is one photograph that the little Sony really couldn’t handle. Rik was sitting in dark shadow and the clouds were bright. I ended up pushing the sliders as much as I dared. Still, this shot has a bit too much of that fake HDR look:
Rik emerges from the Class 2 gully and the slope eases, although there are still some big rocks to hop and stomp. That pinnacle behind Rik is a good landmark. The route goes up the gully south of that pinnacle:
Eventually, the rocks get smaller, the slope flattens, and you are there! A unique summit with a huge yawning abyss on one side–I bet an Alaskan bush pilot could land up here in the flatter area:
The summit salute!
Uncomparable Uncompahgre views of the San Juan Mountains…and those summit rocks in the foreground make nice wind barriers:
Then, it’s back down…note the pinnacle landmark again on Rik’s right. And you can just see the pink jacket of another party on their way up. Be very wary about knocking rocks loose on anyone below. If in doubt, just stop and let the uphill climbers pass:
In no time, we are nearly back to treeline, bidding farewell to Unc in our rearview mirror:
Approaching treeline, keep your hairy eyeballs peeled for a cute little waterfall off in a side gully. In the spring, I think it would be aroarin’ and difficult to miss.
The pack train coming down the switchbacks off to our north. The deceased elk are loaded on those three mules with the red packs. Red meat, red packs?
A close-up of the meat-packin’ pack train:
A weird, pock-marked, boulder reverse-rhymes Uncompahgre Peak in one of the last views you get as you descend into the forest:
Rik walks the last few hundred yards through the forest back to the trailhead…and just in time. As we reached the vehicles, a brief snow flurry ripped through the area:
Here is the lower water crossing on the 4WD road–the first crossing if on your way up, the second on your way down. You might find it like this in late summer and fall. Beware in spring–check any recent reports on 14ers.com to be sure it is passable. The upper water crossing is similar but maybe a third as wide: