So I’d never been to the San Juan range in southwestern Colorado before. I’d only seen pictures. What I saw seemed to be a dramatic range in an isolated, wild place that can be as remote as it gets in the Lower 48 states.
The king of these mountains, Uncompahgre Peak, stands at 14,309 feet and is a massive testimony to the power of the geological forces that were at work in this area eons ago. Most of Colorado’s mountains are caused from uplift, but deep in the San Juans, evidence of serious volcanic activity from earth’s ancient past are visible. The violence of those eruptions shaped the otherworldly peaks of this region, including the dramatic profile of Uncompahgre.
Pictures are one thing. Seeing it was another. Uncompahgre didn’t disappoint.
Four of us made the journey, staying first in Gunnison before heading down to the remote town of Lake City. A short drive out of town took us to what would be our trailhead.
Let me say right off, the next time I come to this range I want a four-wheel drive vehicle. We didn’t have that, so to reach our campsite at the Nellie Creek trailhead we had to backpack in four miles to 11,450 feet. A good four-wheeler would easily have made the trip without the extra exertion. But it’s a fairly gentle uphill trek with just a couple of stream crossings. The trailhead campground has a good number of sites and an outhouse — are rare luxury up here. Nellie Creek flowed nearby, giving us an excellent water source.
The first night of camping was quite cold, so I didn’t sleep well at all. Maybe dozed a total of an hour before getting a late start (7:30 a.m.) up the trail toward the peak. The lack of rest affected my performance, but it didn’t seem to bother the two first-timers in my party, Steven Soward and Steve Winterberg.
“The Steves” proved to be stout hikers and left me and climbing buddy Rick Ponder in the dust. Us oldsters had to take our time a bit, battling various joint pains and a common experience of horrible rest the night before. But I digress.
It doesn’t take long, maybe 30 minutes or so, for the peak to come into view. When you first view Uncompahgre, its size and dramatic skyline stand out. Its east ridge rises upward in a long sweep that provides safe access to the summit. Its fearsome north face shoots straight up.
Signs of past volcanic activity abound. Huge boulders — lava bombs flung from some ancient eruption long ago — were scattered along the route.
A good trail winds its way up to the east ridge, then turns west toward the peak. Once there, dramatic views of nearby summits come into view. You see no signs of civilization, only mile after mile of mountain wilderness. Immediately to your left, sharp cliffs plummet down, but the route is cleverly designed to avoid any serious exposure to falls while still giving you the chance to take in the energy of the heights you’ve scaled so far.
Soon, we came to the portion of the trail where the climb begins in earnest. As I said, we got a late start and Rick and I weren’t moving as fast as we should. Weather started to build — puffy, white clouds with gray bottoms that usually signal the beginning of the daily summer monsoon storms that form over the Rockies. It still looked doable, so we gave it a go.
As you begin the final ascent, the trail gets steeper and switchbacks upward. By now, we were well over 13,000 feet, so our speed was slowed even more. But the fun was just starting.
The trail eventually leads you to the back side of the mountain (its southwest side) and stops. This is the crux of the climb. In front of us was a choice of two gullies. The first one is steeper, more direct and probably borderline Class 3 scrambling (call it 2+, unless you want to make it more challenging), depending on what route you choose. It also has some loose rock and dirt that make footwork a little tricky.
The second gully is less direct, not as steep and slightly more exposed. It was also a mess of loose scree and talus, much worse than the first gully. I ascended the first gully just as a mix of snow pellets (called graupel) starting pelting us and putting a little moisture on the rocks. That’s never a good thing, but luckily it wasn’t so heavy as to create much of a problem. Had it been rain, it would have been much more dicey. After going up about 150 feet, we emerged from the gully and resumed hiking on flatter ground. One steeper hiking section remained before we gained Uncompahgre’s broad summit plateau.
To our east, I saw where the bad weather was pounding the area in earnest. Rain, snow and graupel were falling at a much harder rate than what we experienced. Thunder rolled nearby, but we were fortunate that it was moving away from us.
The beauty of Uncompahgre is that that severe dropoffs are avoidable. But if you really want to peer down into the void below, the north face of the peak awaits inspection. I skirted the edge of the summit in a few places and snapped a photo of the dropoff, memories that still make my palms sweat a little. You could stand on top of the tallest building in Oklahoma City or Tulsa and still not get the same experience as you would peering down Uncompahgre’s 700-foot north face. Glad I didn’t slip.
Atop the peak, all we could see were the summits of other, equally spectacular mountains that make up the San Juans’ 4,000 square miles. Nearest us were Matterhorn Peak and its larger, more regal looking neighbor, Wetterhorn Peak. Conquests for another day, perhaps.
Light snow flew around as we descended, but it looked like more bad weather might blow in. Someone had told us the second gully was easier than the first, so that’s the one I took down. Bad move. There were parts where I felt like I was walking on stacks of dishes. A fall would have been unpleasant in that section. I regretted making that choice, but finished my descent there and marked it off to experience. For future reference, take the first gully up or down. It’s more fun and safer.
The long haul back to camp left me and Rick pretty spent. The Steves, on the other hand, made good time and were down 30 minutes before us.
Cloud cover that threatened the climb earlier in the day actually made the evening a little warmer. So I slept well that night, with the exception of a couple motorcyclists coming into camp that night and honking their horns at someone. My guess is they were looking for someone already bedded down for the night. In any case, it was pretty bad form.
As for that four-mile hike out, it turned out to be pretty pleasant. We stopped to talk to others as they drove down, reliving our experience on Uncompahgre as well as some other mountains.
Uncompahgre capped off a pretty good summer in the high country for me. And it gave me my first taste of the San Juans. Without a doubt, I’ll be back to explore this range some more.