“That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:10
- SUMMIT ELEVATION: 14,309 feet
- TRAILHEAD: Nellie Creek
- ROUTE: South Ridge
- ELEVATION GAIN: 3,000 feet
- ROUNDTRIP LENGTH: 7.25 miles
- ROUNDTRIP TIME: 3 hours, 50 minutes
- CLIMBING PARTNER(S): Solo
Uncompahgre Peak was the final peak in my extended weekend within the San Juan Range. The previous two days I successfully hiked San Luis Peak and climbed Wetterhorn Peak with my good friends Charlie and Jon. They unfortunately had to head back to Denver for work so I was going solo for my attempt of Uncompahgre Peak.
Uncompahgre Peak is an enormous butte reaching to the heavens. The peak provides a stark contrast from its steep pointed neighbor, Wetterhorn Peak. At 14,309 feet, Uncompahgre Peak is a peak of many highs; it’s the 6th highest peak in Colorado, the highest peak in the San Juan Range, and the highest peak in Hinsdale County. Gerry Roach described Uncompahgre Peak perfectly when he stated “Uncompahgre is a peak of contrasts. A trail reaches the summit from the south, but the peak has a fearsome, vertical, 700-foot-high north face. Courtly cliffs grace this compelling peak’s lower ramparts, and clever routes winding past them will draw you upward.” Although the standard route is not a technical hike, Uncompahgre’s massive summit strongly exemplifies a unique strength of Colorado’s 14ers.
I had some anxiety leading into my hike. First, the forecast for Monday called for a 50% chance of precipitation throughout the entire day with thunderstorms developing in the late morning and afternoon. I didn’t fear the precipitation; my fear was with the potential lightning associated with alpine storms. My previous experience on Culebra Peak earlier this summer completely changed perception of lightning and I feared it. My hope was the precipitation and storms would hold off until the afternoon.
The second component causing some anxiety was Nellie Creek Road. I know that sounds ridiculous, but honestly it was. I had to travel 4 miles up Nellie Creek Road from Henson Road to the trailhead. Nellie Creek Road is a 4-wheel drive road. There is something about 4-wheeling that stresses me out. If you don’t think I wasn’t slightly nervous, consider my reluctance from the day before. I didn’t want to travel up Matterhorn Creek Road, which was shorter and considered to be less difficult. Even having the comfort and support of my friends on that road, I still choose not to proceed. I worry about breaking down. I am not truck savvy; so if I did break down, I am not sure how I would fix it. I worry about getting stuck and clogging the road. I dislike inconveniencing other people so I worry about this. I stress about damaging my truck. You know, as I write this, I realize all of these things are possibilities, and they are just that. If any of these happen, it wouldn’t be the end of the world and all of it could be mended. I wish I would have written this down when I was stressing.
My final and likely greatest stress was hiking alone. The thought of hiking alone only intensified my other stresses. Hiking alone leaves you isolated, which can be the perfect feeling yet increases the risk. There are numerous ways things can go wrong when hiking above 14,000 feet. Hiking alone leaves you more vulnerable in the event something does happen. My preference and desire is to always hike with friends; I enjoy the company and there is safety in case something goes wrong. But for this hike, that wasn’t an option. My only option was to decide whether to stay at the motel or hike alone. My previous experiences of hiking alone added stress and intensified my fear, yet it amplified the feeling of success in my adventure. I have resolved myself to overcoming the stresses, the fears, in my life. Thus, hiking Uncompahgre Peak wasn’t my challenge, hiking alone was my true obstacle.
I know that I often describe stresses or fears of my hiking adventures. I have fears going into every hike. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have them as I am venturing into new places and unique. I think I wrestle with the unknowns, both good and bad, in all aspects of my life. However, I also have a tremendous amount of excitement going into each climb. I think I just wanted to say that because I don’t just have concerns when going into a hike. With the unknown come an exciting challenge, a new adventure, and a new experience. Ultimately, I was looking forward to Uncompahgre Peak more than I was dreading it. The joy and pain motivate me.
I had time to focus on my stresses the night before the hike. Instead of staying my tent as I had the previous couple of nights, I decided to stay in a quaint motel in Lake City. I figured a shower and a comfortable bed would be nice before the hike. The motel was a really nice setting but the comfortable bed I was searching for was far from cozy. The bed was unpleasant. An uncomfortable bed coupled with the small fears I was having lead to a night of unrest. I did not sleep well at all. I would have been better off sleeping in my tent and saving my money.
After a blissful 3 hours of sleep, I woke up at 4:30 am. This was even earlier than my alarm clock. Nonetheless, I was packed up and heading out of Lake City at 4:50 am. The roads were wet from a recent dusting of rain. I couldn’t see any stars because it was overcast. Luckily, once outside of town the roads were dry so the wet roads in Lake City were hopefully an isolated incidence. This still didn’t provide me a tremendous amount of confidence that the weather was going to hold but I pressed forward.
I was driving along Henson Creek Road and it wasn’t long before I came to Nellie Creek Road. My first obstacle was to overcome the 4 miles of 4WD navigation along this road. The road definitely requires a 4WD vehicle and having a high clearance truck was an added bonus. The driving was slow moving and some areas required careful navigation. I crossed Nellie Creek twice, which was amusing each time. After both crossings, I observed two tracks of water that had fallen off of a vehicle. The vehicle must have been slightly in front of me. This provided me some optimism that although I may be hiking alone, there may be some other people of the trail this Monday. Similar to hiking, I found myself enjoying this drive the further I journeyed up the road. About 45 minutes later, I was at the trailhead for Uncompahgre Peak.
Starting from the Nellie Creek Trailhead (elevation 11,400 feet), my plan was to follow the standard route to the summit of Uncompahgre Peak. The South Slope Route has a Class II rating. To acquire the summit, I would hike approximately 7.25 miles with a vertical gain of approximately 3,000 feet.
At 5:45 am, Nellie Creek Trailhead was quiet. The trailhead was still dark and there was only one additional car in the parking lot. I was hopeful that this was the vehicle from which I saw its traces while driving up Nellie Creek Road.
I started hiking solo in the dark at 6:00 am. Of course, as soon as I started I had the uneasy feeling of curious eyes stalking me. Adjacent to me and the trail were a set of three glowing eyes in a grassy meadow. Luckily it was only a small herd of deer watching me with curious eyes. Quickly, memories of my solo hike up Missouri Mountain resurfaced. How I became literally incapable of hiking due to fear. However, today I felt comfortable, more confident. I didn’t have the same fear as once before. Experiencing fear aides in overcoming it.
Prior to venturing to far up the trail, I signed my name into the register. Within the register, I saw that someone else was hiking in front of me. Knowing I wasn’t the only hiker on this day relieved all of my remaining concerns of hiking solo today.
Although two of my items that caused anxiety were gone, the weather remained and still concerned me. It was breezy and the ample moisture that I felt in the air was alarming. As light began to reveal my surroundings, the light also revealed abundant scattered clouds that appeared to be moving faster than the breeze that was impacting me. The weather motivated me to hike fast. I only took few pictures. My focus was on moving.
When I exited treeline, I still couldn’t see Uncompahgre. I moved quickly along Nellie Creek until I hit the plateau at 11,950 feet. On top of the plateau, I obtained my first unobstructed view of Uncompahgre Peak. He was beginning to wake up with the sun rising. The light was welcomed and revealed the impressive, unique mountain.
Some dark clouds were visible to the west and provided an attention-grabbing backdrop of the peak. However, the ridge and peak really obstructed a distant view to the west. Interestingly, when I looked to the east there were fewer clouds. It was almost like they were dissipating or at least decreasing in size east of Uncompahgre.
The mountain and ridge obstructed my view and the closer I hiked to the base, the less I could see to the west. I could only see what was coming over the mountain. I didn’t particularly like the feeling of not being able to see what, if anything was coming. So with each step, I watched how the weather evolved. Clouds were moving from south to north but seemed to be staying west of Uncompahgre.
As I evaluated the route and knowing that I couldn’t really see what was happening west of the peak, I knew I would be able to quickly descend in the event bad weather reached me. At this point, I questioned if I would summit. I knew that I would make my final decision once I reached the ridge to the south of Uncompahgre Peak at approximately 12,900 feet. At that elevation, I would have a better view of the west and be able to make a better assessment. Even if I made the push, I knew that at any point I might potentially bail.
I moved through the large meadow below Uncompahgre hastily to acquire the ridge. The hike along a defined path was gentle and easy. I could see a couple ahead of me. Logically, they must be the party that signed in ahead of me. Besides the weather, catching them further motivated me to hike even faster.
I quickly acquired the ridge. To the west there were clouds and more clouds. Several of the clouds had dark bases, which is not an ideal sight. Luckily the clouds were still in the distance so I decided pushing on would be okay. Although the south and west looked bleak, the sunrise to the east was incredible. The ridge also exposed a strong, cold wind. The wind explained why the clouds were moving at a higher pace than the breeze I was experiencing down below.
Once I acquired the ridge I also met the couple I was attempting to catch up to. They were from Eagle and I briefly chatted with them. However, my focus was truly on Uncompahgre Peak. I had a summit to reach.
The beginning of the South Ridge steepened briefly before maintaining the gentle slope present below the ridge line. Although there were clouds, I now also admired the view to the west. The clouds were a unique dark blue and the sun was illuminating the peaks providing such a contrast. Seeing Wetterhorn Peak from this view was awesome, especially considering the day before I was on top of it.
The gentle slope of the south ridge went to switchbacks at 13,600 feet. The switchbacks took me to the base of Uncompahgre’s flat summit. Now at approximately 13,900 feet and I was on the south edge of Uncompahgre Peak. From this point, the hiking went from easy hike to a segment of what I would consider difficult Class II terrain. It was a quick 200 foot ascent up the south face but it was along really loose talus. With each step up, I slid back down the mountain about ¾ of a step. Soon I found myself actually scrambling through this portion instead of fighting the sliding. This portion was not sustained and was the only isolated section of Class II terrain on a relatively easy hike.
Once through the south face, I now stood at an elevation of approximately 14,100 feet. I was essentially on the top of Uncompahgre’s massive summit. The remainder of the hike was gradual and took me to the summit on the north side of this giant plateau at 14,309 feet.
I arrived at the summit of Uncompahgre Peak at 7:50 am. I completed another solo summit and had this summit all to myself. I continued to move quickly on summit because I didn’t want to spend too much time up here. I wanted to get down and be safely below treeline just in case anything moved in. The clouds to the west were moving quickly and didn’t look very nice. No lightning, but I didn’t want to be this high to find out.
In all of my research, there was one thing I was looking forward to the most; it was the classic summit shot that Uncompahgre Peak offers. As I mentioned earlier, Uncompahgre Peak has a 700 foot high vertical cliff along its northern edge. The summit provides a perfect angle to capture a hiker overlooking the impressive cliff. However, one unfortunate result of hiking solo is that I can’t capture the shot of myself. I guess I could if I had brought my tripod and remote but I didn’t. I was saddened that I couldn’t get the classic summit shot of Uncompahgre (I guess I will have to climb it again another day…oh darn!), so I settled for taking the classic shot with my Fat Tire. Can you find it? The can is small but if you look close you see it.
I spent about 20 minutes alone on the quiet summit. I had hoped the hikers behind me would soon summit so I could have someone to take the classic summit shot, but with the weather approaching in the distance, I decided not to wait. I left the summit at 8:10.
On my descent I encountered the couple as they were making their final approach up the gentle terrain. His wife didn’t look like she enjoyed the steep, loose ascent up the south face. However, they were pressing forward to the summit.
Descending the south face went really quickly. Going down always seems to take less time. Once through the difficult section, I really began to move because the weather was looking worse and worse. I wanted to get off the ridgeline. At 8:40, I was off the ridge.
I felt a little more comfort once off the ridge but I still was moving. The next goal was to get to treeline. However, now feeling a little more comfortable I would take additional pauses to capture the mountain. It was a great day to capture some powerful shots of Uncompahgre Peak with such a vivid display of contrasting colors. I was thrilled with the pictures I was getting. It was interesting to me how I was descending. To someone watching, I probably looked crazy. I would jog down, stop, take a picture, and then jog some more till I decided to take another picture.
As I neared the plateau at 11,950 feet, I encountered two people working on the trail. They were working for the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI) to stabilize the trail. I thanked them for their service.
Soon after talking to them, it began to lightly rain. I finished the quick descent and didn’t take a break until I was at the trailhead. I arrived back at Nellie Creek Trailhead at 9:50 am. In less than three hours I hiked to and from the trailhead, while covering approximately 7.25 miles and 3,000 vertical feet. I realized that I can cover a lot of ground when I’m motivated to. Since I was focused on hiking, I took fewer pictures than I typically do. However, what I lacked in quantity was compensated by the great quality of the pictures.
At the trailhead were a few more trucks and a group of men standing around. At first I thought it was odd. Soon, a group of about 20 horses and three men on horseback came down from the direction I had just hiked. The horses belong to an outfitter and the waiting men were getting ready to go deep into the backcountry to hunt elk. I recalled it was that time of the year. I then packed up and headed down the vibrant Nellie Creek Road. It was steadily raining now and I counted my blessings for being off the mountain. I now also had the glow of daylight through the clouds to enjoy the surroundings of Nellie Creek Road. The changing aspens were still incredibly brilliant.
After this hike, I was grateful for a successful three day outing in the San Juan’s. I hiked/climbed three different, yet uniquely beautiful peaks. I enjoyed two days with good friends doing something we all love and admire and then I took pleasure in a solo climb of Uncompahgre Peak. God has created such great beauty around us. I am thankful that I can enjoy it with Him.
All Photographs property of Josh Duncan
All Rights Reserved
The unauthorized reproduction and usage of any image is strictly prohibited.