Uncompahgre means where water makes rock red…
To say that Uncompahgre Peak is a stunning, incredible, and unique mountain would be to understate this feature of Colorado so severely as to be nearly criminal. In short, this mountain is a feast for the eyes. A song for the ears. And a total hit of speed for the mind. It is incredible and has something for everyone.
I was once at a book signing with the patriarch of Colorado mountaineering and author of the original 14er guidebook, “A Climbing Guide to Colorado's Fourteeners” Walter R. Borneman, when someone asked him what his favorite Colorado 14er is. He answered without hesitation, “Uncompahgre Peak.”
…And now I know why. The climb is straight forward on an excellent trail winding gently thorough some of the finest terrain I have ever seen. Wildlife, waterfalls, high alpine meadows, shear cliffs… There is even a short section of class 2+ to 3 climbing below the summit. Uncompahgre’s summit itself is a huge, broad, and slanting plain that ends in the most terrifying and steep cliff I have ever been near.
Don and I left the Denver area around 2:00pm and headed to Gunnison for dinner. We ate at a place called Pie-Zans New York Pizza. I don't often mention places where we eat. However, I feel that Pie-Zans does merit a mention due to its excellent New York style pizza. We have eaten there pretty much every time we pass through Gunnison on the way to a 14er and it is very reliable.
From Gunnison we made our way south to Lake City and then West to the Nellie Creek Trail Head. The last 4 miles to the actual trail head is pretty rough and steep with two substantial stream crossings.
Besides being an all round good guy, smart, and a fun climbing partner, Don is also the owner of a lifted Jeep Cherokee. If it were not for this fine vehicle there are several 14ers that would not be on my completed list. The Cherokee climbed this road with no problems. In fact, were it not for a short steep and muddy section it would have climbed all four miles in 2 wheel hi.
I highly recommend getting your own good friend with a capable 4 X 4. If you don't have one for Uncompahgre, then you will double your hike from 8 to 16 miles with the first and last 4 miles on this crappy four wheel drive road.
We made the trail head at around 7PM and quickly set up camp in a relatively (sort of) flat area. The weather was perfect and was forecast to be incredible the next day. We set our alarms for 5am the next day for a 6am start.
The Camp Site Near the Trail Head at 11,400 Feet
After a less than good night of sleep I woke up at about 5:16am and both Don and I were ready to go just before 6. The weather was great. It read 32 degrees F in my tent when I woke up. Skies were clear and there was no wind.
Don and I signed into the register and started off the gentle trail that paralleled a small stream into the last of tree line. We were presented with incredible views from the start. We entered a geologically interesting area that looked a bit like Moab as we left the last bit of trees. There were interesting cliffs where giant boulders had cleaved off and rolled into the stream valley. Not while we were there, but we did ponder if we could outrun a several hundred ton boulder careening towards us.
A Boulder Filled Stream Valley with Alpenglow Lighting Uncompahgre in the Distance
Uncompahgre Peak finally made its appearance as we cleared the last of the trees and was dramatically lit by amazing purple and red morning alpenglow. The trail continued to wind around the fallen boulders generally following the stream.
Don and I slowly made our way up the trail. Very slowly. We would walk (literally) maybe about 90 seconds before one of us would look up, see the view and great light, and say, “Sorry I hate to do this again.” The offender would then get out their camera and…Well this went on for a while but it was worth it. Its not that often one is presented with such subject matter.
Finally, after many many pictures we topped out of the valley and entered a broad relatively flat meadow that presented its own picturesque subject matter. The sun was coming up and there was a prominent shadow line sweeping across the meadow and meandering its way slowly towards us.
Uncompahgre Stands in Morning Light while the Shadow is Swept from the Meadow
We continued up the excellent trail gently making its way towards the peak. As we headed into this vast meadow we stopped at the light/shadow terminator for some food and sun block.
The Trail Winds Toward Uncompahgre in the Last of the Early Morning Light
Don and I kept up the pace from here on out. We felt we had doddled enough on the lower portion of the trail. That is not to say we “hurried”, but we did keep up a decent pace with just a few stops here and there for pictures. The weather was so non-threatening as to be completely benign with not a cloud in the sky. That was to change however. As later in the afternoon there were indeed three or four small clouds.
We hiked up to an area that had been closed for the protection of a “Threatened Species.” There was a woman running around in the area with a large butterfly net catching some sort of flying fauna. We found out later from a ranger that she was a grad student doing research on some sort of butterfly.
We continued to climb well above the meadow until we gained a ridge. This ridge, like the summit itself, was gently sloping on one side and a sheer cliff on the other. Into the top of this ridge were cut beautiful “Windows” with views thousands of feet down and out towards the Southwest.
One of the Ridge “Windows” Looking to the Southwest
Viewing Wetterhorn and Matterhorn Through Another “Window”
This ridge, and the views it offered, were frankly unbelievable in their beauty. I sometimes feel jaded because I have spent so much time in the mountains. Its good to sometimes just take a look at your surroundings and how incomparably incredible they are.
One could also look up at the remainder of the route to Uncompahgre’s summit. From this point you simply ascend the broad ridge to a couple of switch backs where you then cross onto the southern side of the ridge.
Uncompahgre’s Broad Summit Block from near the top of the “Windowed” Ridge
Crossing Over the Ridge - Looking Up at the Rugged Portion of the Hike. Technical Section is Near the Spire at Left in the Background
The hike really got interesting from this point. Not to say that the hike was not interesting until we reached the ridge crest. I just really like hiking in rocky, high, and rugged areas below a summit. Knowing that the summit is very close…
We continued on the Southern portion of the ridge. I stopped a little ahead of Don and was shooting pictures when I heard an unexpected sound. Unexpected is an understatement actually. What I heard was sheep baaing. And when I say sheep I don't mean one. Or a few. I heard LOTS of sheep. I should point out that I was well into the high 13,000 feet at this point. Probably about 13,700ish feet. I really did not expect to hear sheep here.
Looking around I found the source of the sounds. Thousands of feet below me, in a meadow between Matterhorn and myself, were several hundred sheep. (Later to find out from the ranger domestic sheep) Here I was, at nearly 14,000 feet, and I could hear all these sheep baaing and see them walking around. Its was really quite surreal.
Sheep! And lots of them. They are the Very Small White Dots Stippling the Center Portion of the Image Crossing the Gully
With that mystery solved we hiked on. Around the corner we came to the only “technical” portion of the climb. It was a good class 2+ to class 3 section of say 100 feet vertical climb up some loose rock. Not too bad really. Actually fun. This part of the hike wound through an aesthetically rich area generously populated with beautiful spires.
The Short “Technical” Portion of the Climb
At the top of the technical portion you pop out into a somewhat less vertical rocky landscape. You need to look carefully for cairns to find the actual trail that wraps through larger boulders, spires, and rocks.
The Rugged Portion of the Climb Between the Top of the “Technical” Section and the Easier Trail to the Summit
This part of the trail soon exits you to the relatively smooth, more open, and straight forward last pitch to the summit.
The Trail Smoothes out a Bit and is a Little More Straight Forward from Here to the Summit
From this point on it is a very pleasant and easy walk through some interesting terrain and rocks to the summit proper.
The Last Easy Bit to the Summit
The trail flattens out and passes several human built shelters as you near Uncopmpahgre’s Summit. The summit is not obvious from this point. In fact we were hiking along and Don says, “Well there is the register.” And sure enough, the register is sitting there all by itself cabled to a rather unlikely look anchor rock in an area that really didn't not look like a summit.
The Summit of Uncompahgre Peak and the Summit Register. At least the Register had Room to Write Ourselves In
Don and I had the entire vast summit to ourselves. At least for five minutes. Then a younger couple that we had been playing leapfrog with all day came up. Then the gates seemed to open and before we knew it the summit was abuzz with around twenty people. I have know idea what is going on these days on the 14ers. Maybe its the economy. Maybe its something else. But to see this many people on a remote and hard to get to mountain (drive wise) was strange. Its was like Huron all over again. As usual it was a fun crowd. And Uncompahgre’s summit is truly vast so it did not seem crowded.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this entry one side of Uncompahgre is a gentle vast slope. The other side, the Northeast, is the steepest most terrifyingly undercut cliff I have ever ventured near. It was crazy.
This Image Shows How Steep the Northeast Side of Uncompahgre Really is. The Rocks at the Bottom of this Image are What I am Standing on. The Upper Part of the Image is the Base of the Peak…Nearly 2,000 Feet Below
Don and I milled around the summit for a total of about 45 minutes or so. The weather was perfect. A little cool with a pleasant slight breeze. We took tons of pictures and ate lunch. I attacked my sandwich like a pack of wolves on a stinky old corpse. I was starved!
The Author (left) and Don (right) at the Summit with Wetterhorn and Sneffels (way back) in the Background
The Trail Unwinding Far Below Us Showing the Ridge We Ascended and its Magnificent “Windows”
Finally, in no particular hurry, we started to pack up our copious gear and head back down the mountain. There were still plenty of people making their way up. As we descended we ran into Anya the Forestry Ranger and talked to her for quite a while. She told us about the sheep (they were domestic) and the grad student (she had the long butterfly net) and was generally a very nice person to talk to on such a fine day.
Anya the Forest Ranger Just Above the “Technical” Section
The return trip back down to the trail head was beautiful and uneventful except for the views. Uncompahgre is truly a majestic beautiful giant tucked well away within the San Juans.
A Small Cascade with Uncompahgre in the Background
A meandering Stream Spills Down Rocks and Snow Into a Valley
GPS Track for the Uncompahgre Hike
Next hike…Castle and Conundrum Peaks…