The intrepid 14er climbers-Ann, Mary, Caryl, Barb and I-drove down to Lake City, CO in August of 2011 to climb two 14er's (over 14,000 foot mountains) which none of us had climbed before. It was further from Boulder than we had ventured before as a group and we were a bit apprehensive for a few reasons.
First, one of the mountains had over 150 feet of third class climbing which was more technical than we had attempted as a group (some of the group had never climbed third class before) and secondly the road to the trailheads was rated as class three, recommended for high clearance off-road vehicles. Third class climbing means that you have to use your hands as well as your feet to climb.
The oldest member of our group Ann gave her grown daughter a scare when her daughter called and asked where Mom was. She replied that she was at REI shopping for a climbing helmet. "She is shopping for a what?" Not many of the people back East understand that grandmas in Colorado go climbing helmet shopping in their 70's.
But we had done our research well. We secured lodging at the Aspen Grove cabin managed by the Pleasant View Lodge-a very nice home in a acre of land. A couple of us previewed the road the day before in daylight to be sure that driver Caryl would be comfortable navigating the road in the dark before our climbs. On the road preview Caryl stopped to let someone pass (one of the scariest possible situations on the narrow road.) He asked her if she feeling mean enough to drive that road. She responded by asking him if girls could drive it. I don't know if mean is what it took, but she drove it like a champ!
And we determined from previous on-line trip reports that the third-class portion of the climb was on solid rock- a good first-time experience for those not accustomed to third class rock.
We awoke at 4:00 and started climbing at 6:00 after an hour long drive to the trailhead to Wetterhorn, the most technical of the two. The peak is very dramatic and almost daunting.
The three-mile hike to the peak was beautiful through meadows of flowers and streams accompanied by the whistles and calls of our animal friends-the pikas and marmots. We had such a late snow season that the wildflowers seem to be especially beautiful for the late summer. We tried not to think about what lay ahead.
Generally the 14er summits are crowded in the summer, but we had this one all to ourselves. We hiked up large switchbacks to gain the ridge to the saddle. Then hiked up the ridge to the "gnarly towers". We opted for the direct route up the face and soon found ourselves at the Prow. From there we followed the very clear directions in 14ers.com and took the second notch to the ramp which was literally breathtaking.
It looks like the sloping ramp drops off in all directions. Mary took a few tentative steps onto the ramp and then turned to me and asked "Could you read where we go next?" "According to the directions, there is a right turn at the bottom of the ramp." And indeed, hidden at the bottom right was the infamous "staircase" of 150 feet of third-class rock, which I would have called the "ladder" but I wasn't consulted on the naming of that feature.
Luckily the "staircase" was very solid and had lots of good hand and footholds-much better than the loose scree that many of these mountians sport. We still exercised great care not to kick off loose rocks. Within 20 minutes, we found ourselves standing on top of Wetterhorn. Instead of the usual false summits, I called this a "surprise" summit which we reached at 10:30.
The first ones of the day to summit, we had it all to ourselves. No one had difficulty with the exposure and the views of the San Juan mountains in all directions were amazing. Just to the east we could see out objective for tomorrow-Uncompahgre.
After a brief snack and water break, and signing the peak register, we headed down. We've adopted a practice on 14'ers of placing orange flags in areas above treeline where the trail isn't clearly defined to aid us on our return trip. Although we don't doubt that we could always find our way back, there are frequently numerous cairned trails (trails marked by stacks of rocks). We have found it easier and faster to follow our flags down. Because thunderstorms are a common concern in the high country, we have more than once been coming off of a mountain in a hurry!
As we headed down, following our orange flagged trail and retrieving our flags, we met a couple from Washington State who was heading up. They expressed dismay that we were picking up the orange flags. This has happened before. I hope that people are not lulled into a false sense of security by following our flags and observe where they are going .
We scooted down the trail and stopped for lunch in a lovely meadow below the lightning danger area. We even mostly beat the rain and were back in Lake City having ice cream by 2:00.
After a wonderful home cooked dinner (by Ann) and early bedtime, we again awoke at 4:00 to begin another day of climbing. This day on Uncompahgre featured a longer, more treacherous drive and less technical climbing. Caryl again rose to the challenge of the road and got us there. We weren't sure if driving it in the dark was easier or more difficult.
We were treated to another beautiful day for climbing. In addition to the usual streams, wildflowers and mammals, we got to see a real treat-an endangered butterfly-the Uncompahgre fritilary. This butterfly was initally thought to be found only on Uncompahgre but has since been located in eight other locations. It is still a very sensitive species-breeding only on north-facing slopes in snow willows. They are likely very suseptible to climate change.
We climbed up the meadow, looped around a 13,000' knob onto a saddle, then gained the ridge. From there we traversed the west side of the mountain and unintentionally climbed up a 2+ to third class route which was off-trail before the towers. We came down the official trail which was looser. (I thought the off-trail route was safer and more pleasant.) I'm not sure all of my climbing partners would agree.
From there the trail was well-marked and more straightforward to the summit. Again the view from the summit was amazing. The San Juans are very different from Front Range mountains such as Longs or Greys and Torreys. The ranges seem endless and they are somehow more rounded, with notable exceptions.
The storm clouds seemed to be building earlier than they were the day before and even though we summited at 9:30, we had to hurry down after an hour. We got down off the ridge before the lightning started in earnest but it was raining pretty hard as we hiked out. Made for an interesting drive out, especially over the streams/rivers that we had to drive through, but again Caryl did an awesome job at the wheel!
The rain spoiled our plans for a picnic by the river but we had another wonderful home-cooked meal and enjoyed not having to get up a 4:00 the next morning. Although the very large bear that visited our cabin looking for trash at 5:30 was wishing that we had left the remains of our breakfast outside for him. NOT!
One of my favorite flowers-alpine gentian. But seeing it is always bittersweet because as much as I love it, it signals the end of summer-one of my favorite times in the high country