Thursday, June 28, 2012

Wetterhorn Peak - Challenging the Mental and Physical

The first summer I started hiking Colorado’s 14ers I aimed to attempt Wetterhorn as my first class three. A class three mountain basically means there’s some exposure and both hands and feet are necessary for the climb. A fall could end badly. We drove down to Gunnison that September but alas it had already started to snow…so we went rock climbing instead.
Hartman Rocks, Gunnison Colorado
 Any mountaineer should be familiar with rock climbing, I think it goes hand in hand with climbing class three and up peaks if you understand hand and foot holds. Then last summer Chad and I were going to attempt Long’s peak as our first class three. He messed up his leg someway, somehow I don’t quite remember but needless to say I was not able to put to use my baby blue climbing helmet my dad had bought me that year. Summer came and went and again no class three mountain.

This summer would be the summer. And whatever the universe put in my way to hold me back those years before, it was probably a good thing. I don’t think I was mentally prepared to hike a class three mountain before this summer. But after 22 14ers I felt it was time, as Chad said, to step it up. I put out feelers to see who wanted to join us for the hike but no one else could go besides Chad and my friend Robyn. Robyn has hiked several of the 14ers already and she seemed unfazed by the classification of the mountain. She later told me she was actually really excited when I said we would need helmets.

We left Friday for Lake City which is about a five hour drive from Denver. Lake City is an hour past Gunnison and is a charming little town that thrives on tourism in the summer. It’s mostly a snowmobile town in the winter as it gets so covered in snow that the locals can’t get around otherwise. Like so many of these towns that host 14ers, this one was (and I believe still is) a mining town. Born of volcanic fire, but shaped primarily by glacial ice, the San Juans (the mountain range that we were hiking) make up the largest mountain range in Colorado. They encompass an area comparable in size to Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts combined, covering about 12,000 square miles of Colorado's awe-inspiring "southwest." Rich in veins of ore that have greatly influenced the history of this place, the northeastern San Juans – including Hinsdale County and Lake City – also boast the geologically significant Slumgullion Earthflow that produced Lake San Cristobal (the second largest natural lake in Colorado), dramatic waterfalls, rugged peaks, valleys, and gulches. We got a late start leaving Denver so we didn’t arrive to Lake City and set up camp until around 11:30pm. We drove up the Wetterhorn trail head, pulled off when we found a good spot and set up the tent and went to bed. The road is pretty rugged although with good clearance a 2wd vehicle can make it a good distance. If you have to hike from the start of the road it will dramatically increase your round trip hiking time.

We awoke at 6am and were on the trail by 7 after packing up the car. There were only a few other cars in the parking lot and two people that we could see beginning in front of us. It was about 45degrees out but we warmed up quickly as we hiked. The beauty of doing a 7mile round trip hike on a mountain that’s 14,015 feet is that the elevation gain was only 3,300. We moved up the mountain quickly, hiking through the valley and then arriving at the saddle. A note of caution when hiking, when you are in the valley you will reach a fork in the trail with a sign that says “Wetterhorn” and points to the left and “stock trail” or something of that nature to the right. Take the right and stay high. We saw the people that left before us up on a trail above us as we continued through the valley and I knew we were on the wrong path. So we had to bushwack up to the upper trail. When in doubt, as Chad says, always head up.

I knew, from reading the trip report that the real climb didn’t begin until we reached the yellow dirt. The friends we say hiking before us (Molly and John as it turned out to be) were relaxing on the saddle when we got there. We ended up following them up the mountain from here on out because John had hiked Wetterhorn before. Here is where the route finding got tricky and it was nice having both John and Chad to scout out where we should go. The thing is, on a mountain like this, there isn’t really a path after a certain point, there’s just, “which way would be easier and less dangerous?”
A look at the remainder of the route from the saddle

past the easy, helmets on now

onward and upward

We made our way up to the Ship’s prow where we had another small break before continuing through the V-notch. Here is where I read, is where the exposure, the real exposure would begin. There was already plenty of exposure but it wasn’t too steep yet. I looked up at John who had climbed the notch to a slab of rock and said, “is it scary?!” and he said, “Oh yes.” I admit I was a little afraid when I climbed up that slab of rock and stepped down to the other side. There was just a ledge about half the size of a sidewalk and from there 100 vertical feet of rock. There was nowhere to go but up. I put my fear out of my mind and set off for the task at hand. One of the three basic rules of mountaineering: it’s always tougher than it looks.
ships prow

this is the first notch, only good for taking pics- bypass to second notch to continue up

up the notch towards the final summit push

We stayed close on the way up and chad went first since he (not smartly) did not have a helmet. It’s easier to avoid rockfall if you are close behind someone rather than far away where a rock can pick up speed and take you out. We stopped to rest about halfway up and enjoy the view and then continued onward and upward. Before I knew it chad was yelling, “I’m at the top! You’re almost there.” And then…I was.

I have never been more happy to reach a summit before after all the hard work I put into it. Truthfully I was nervous for the hike down although John assured me that the hike down would be easier than the way up.

a look at Uncompaghre

Robyn and I chose the crabwalk method using four points of contact at all times. My backpack would get hung up every now and then on a rock which was a little disconcerting but before I knew it we were through the notch and back at the ships prow. Route finding our way back was a lot easier than on the way up we just tried to stay in the middle of the mountain, not too high or low. As we came down the vertical wall there were a few strong gusts of wind and a very very light dusting of snow flurries which went as quickly as it came. That is not a mountain I’d want to do if it were wet or covered in snow.
getting up is optional, getting down is mandatory

Before we knew it we were back to the car, about 6 hours after we started. We would have stayed in Lake City that night but Chad’s dad was in town in Gunnison for father’s day so we drove to his brother’s house. Instead of sleeping inside we set up our tent in the back yard and relaxed and grilled out and filled everyone in on our hiking adventure. We were all pretty spent and I must say my lats were sore from all the arm pull ups climbing.

lake san cristobal, the second largest lake in colorado

I would recommend Wetterhorn to anyone who is thinking about getting into class three climbing. The rock is solid and although the route finding is tricky, it’s a quick climb. The most time was spent on the class three sections so study the trip reports, keep the trail map with you and test every hand and foot hold before committing. As Chad says, class three is fun because at a certain point there are various routes you can take which tests you mentally.

And as Robert Frost said in the Road Not Taken:
“And both that morning equally lay
 In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.       
 I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference”


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