Uncompahgre Peak and Mt. Elbert

20 Aug 1996 - by John Cowan

Flew into Colorado Springs on Tuesday, Aug 20. Toward the end of the flight, I looked out the window and saw an unimaginably huge mountain below. Standing alone, it was surrounded by green meadows from which projected an immense brown rock. The whole thing seemed maybe fifteen miles across. Of course, it was Pikes Peak. What a sight. The view was somewhat obscured by cloud, so I'd love to see it on a clear day. Cloud was the name of the game for this trip. The entire week saw moisture shoveled up from the Gulf through Texas. Dry Sierra afternoons were just wishful thinking.

Stayed the night in Denver and the next morning drove West up Clear Creek Canyon to Georgetown and then South to Guanella Pass. The pass is at 11,300 or so and is flanked on the South by Mt. Bierstadt, a Fourteener, and on the North by Flattop Peak at 13,700. My friend Joe and I started up Flattop in questionable weather, with black clouds and rain in every quadrant, but it always headed away from us and we heard no thunder and saw no lightening. We hiked up to 12,700 with our eye always on the sky and finally turned back when the dark clouds seemed to be advancing on us from the North. From that altitude and in that weather, Bierstadt looks a lot like Mt. Dana - dark and foreboding. Mt. Evans behind it to the East had a somewhat lighter aspect. As we scooted down, the black cloud began to dump soft hail on us and thunder commenced. We had two lightening strikes, perhaps a half mile away, before making the car. We were reckless and lucky. We experienced no adverse effects from the altitude.

The next day, we drove to Boulder and scouted the flatirons for my partner's rock climbing benefit. That evening we drove over the divide and met my old room mate, Jim, who drove up from work in Denver. We stayed in Buena Vista, in the Arkansas River Valley, between the Sawatch Range to the West and the Mosquitos to the East. In bad weather, these mountains sure are ugly. The Mosquitos seem ill-formed and ruined by mining. The Sawatches are immense dark pyramids of soft rock, heavily glaciated to the East, but lacking the cool, white, crystalline hardness of many Sierra Peaks. They are convex, rather than concave. It is their bulk and their solid lines that impress, rather than their beauty.

The next morning we drove to Lake City, in the middle of the San Juan Range. Lake City is the county seat of Hinsdale County, the least populated county in the US, It is a little jewel in a valley surrounded by the high and congested San Juans. We drove up a spooky mining road (of which their are thousands in Colorado) in Jim's Jeep Cherokee, until we reached the trail head for Handies Peak, a Fourteener. We hiked up from 11,600 and ran into teeming rain 1000 feet above. I didn't have a poncho and turned back soaked. Joe and Jim motored on ahead and the weather broke a bit. They reached the summit and were homeward bound before it socked in again.

I was just as happy to have quit. I can't see the point of putting in all that work to see nothing from the top. The aesthetics of the whole deal is way too important for me. Climbing all fifty four Fourteeners just for the sake of it a widespread but harmless Colorado obsession. My obsession is to climb interesting mountains on warm, sunny days.

So far, we had begun both jaunts at about 11:30 AM - when wisdom in Colorado says you should be starting down from the summit by noon. This wisdom was ratified for us without fail. For the climb up Uncompahgre Peak, we got up the next morning at five and were on the trail before eight, after another kidney busting "road" trip. Weather this day was the best of the trip and the climb most reminiscent of California. We started up a trail through woods to the lip of a huge glacial cirque (valley?) above tree line. Uncompahgre is a big volcanic plug, resembling a cross between Mt. Hoffman and Half Dome. The glaciated basin that forms the remainder of the mountain is a couple of miles across and worn away by eons of erosion. We headed South up a meadow and onto rock until reaching the Southeast ridge off the Peak. Then up the ridge and around a promontory to some vertical Class two and a half (Gerry Roach's term - He's the author of the definitive Colorado Fourteener guide book) for a hundred feet or so. Finally up the summit plateau for another quarter of an hour. We arrived at the top along with the cloud cover (at noon, of course) and were in and out of cloud until we started down twenty minutes later. Plenty of people at the top - and a couple of dogs, one a border collie pup who wasn't even breathing hard and the other a little dropkick dog that had to be carried up the vertical. My only altitude symptom was a little lightheadedness and an insistent urge after twenty minutes or so to be down where there was more air.

The views were interesting from the time we reached the ridge. Wetterhorn Peak, another Fourteener, is less than a mile to the West in open country and very imposing, but to the South and East is the confusing tangle of the San Juan's, with hundreds of difficult to identify high peaks. Uncompahgre is a mountain with character and it was a pleasure to be on it.

By Sunday, even my friends had had enough, so we decided to drive across the 4WD only Engineer Pass to Ouray. The pass is at 13,000 feet and crosses the N S ridge West of Lake City. The trip up was pleasant on fairly decent road and the view back toward Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn, superb. The trip down was the jaunt from hell, eight miles of bad road along a goat track with thousand foot dropoffs, foot and a half rock obstructions and axle deep pot holes. I have a bad back so I got out and walked for a mile or so - the Jeep was going that slow. When we reached Ouray, a mining town that now mines tourist wallets, I asked myself why they didn't put the pass over a lower spot along the ridge. After checking the topos, it was clear that the only lower spot was at 12,600 feet and there was another pass at that point.

Headed North and East on paved road back to Buena Vista, and stopped at the magnificent Black Canyon of the Gunnison, viewing it amid another crashing thunderstorm. The Canyon is a thousand foot deep gash in an upthrust black granite dome.

Rural Colorado, behind the Front Range, is a series of green, cultivated valleys separating the various ranges. It is a beautiful and surprising country to knock around in, much nicer than California's Central Valley. Jim left us at our car in Buena Vista and headed back to Denver.

The next morning, Joe and I were again diligent, getting up at five-thirty for a Mount Elbert assault. The Sawatches are an impressive sight, rising in echelon over 6000 feet above the Arkansas River Valley. Huge, dark, glaciated piles of semi-rotten rock, they'll be long gone when the hard granite of the Sierra Nevada is still standing. In their own way, however, they are attractive (not least in Winter, when snow covered) and Mt. Elbert is a perfect example.

Approaching, Mt. Elbert bulks above, all broad shouldered convex ridges, separating vast glaciated valleys. The entire mountain is visible and imposing, its feel entirely different from the more familiar Uncompahgre. We drive into aspen and pine forest to the trail head at 10,300 feet and search for a half hour among attractive ponds, locating the trail at about 8:30 - late again. Then straight up through the forest for a while and out onto a lightly wooded chapparal ridge. The trees soon disappear behind and we are on a pleasant, grassy shoulder that looks like the open ridges behind Los Altos Hills on the Peninsula - except many times larger. The view of the Arkansas River Valley behind is spectacular.

The air grows thinner, but progress is steady. It gets darker above and is soon apparent that we are in yet another race against rain, so we don't rest enough. Eventually the grass disappears and we begin to gauge our progress by the view of a 14,100 foot sub-peak across the canyon. At about 14,000 feet, the lack of oxygen gets to me, leading to fatigue and really unpleasant breathlessness, but nothing worse. At this point, I just want to get to the top and back down a ways before the clouds cut loose. I persevere, and reach the summit at 12:50. 4100 feet and four and a half miles in four and a half hours - I amaze myself.

Does anybody remember the plot line in The Dharma Bums, where Kerouac turns a climb of Matterhorn Peak in Yosemite into a spiritual quest? (incidentally, the first peak I climbed with the PCS, in Aug 1967). I got a little of that feeling on the hike up Elbert. Straight ahead, the mountain immense, the way far, no problems to solve except to keep moving, the summit always in sight, into ever diminishing resources, time collapsing, until at last, the goal is reached.

The view from the Elbert is more coherent than from Uncompahgre - with the Fourteeners La Plata to the South and Mt. Massive to the North. A large, bold, friendly raven sits at the top, the landlord, we suppose. He flaps over to join us while we get pictures and rest a bit. I'm off the peak in ten minutes, practically galloping down hill and beginning to feel better when I hit the traverse at 13,700. If the weather had been warm and sunny, sitting still on top would have worked the oxygen problem, but under the circumstances it had clearly been time to go. By now, the peak really looked ugly, but a few people were still heading up. Stopped for lunch on the way down after seeing bands of rain ahead. It's strange to watch it raining below you.

Soon reached the ponds just past the trail head. A woman we met on the climb pointed out that they were entirely the work of beavers, something we had totally missed in our concern for route finding. The biggest was larger than a football field, with a dam as high as three feet and more than a hundred feet long. In the middle, was a lodge many feet across and perhaps chest high out of the water. All around were stumps with the characteristic beaver gnaw. It was exciting to see this evidence of clever wildlife.

The Colorado venture ended spectacularly that night with one of the Godawfulest thunderstorms, over Denver, I have ever seen. It flooded the interstate to the point that there was no option other than exiting. We pulled into a motel and flew home the next day.


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