Uncompahgre Peak and Handies Peak Trip Report

Day 1 Driving to the San Juans

Jen and I hadn't been to the San Juans for about two years.  Our last trip was an impromptu drive to do Sunshine and Redcloud in 2005.  During 2006 I took a couple weeks in Peru, worked on my technical rock and snow skills, and generally avoided driving too far because of gas prices.  This year, however, I decided to try to finish the 14ers.  To this end, Jen and I planned a three day weekend wherein we would drive to Lake City and then hike Uncompahgre and Handies.  

Come Friday, June 15th, 2007 we packed up our truck with all manner of car camping equipment (folding chairs, grill, blankets, etc), grabbed the birds, pet the cats, and headed out.  Our first stop was at Sally Blanchards place in Loveland where we dropped the birds off for boarding.  We are extremely lucky to have Sally around to take the birds because she likes them quite a bit and it would otherwise be a huge pain trying to get away for more than a day.  Our friend Brian Morsony takes care of the cats but dealing with large macaws is something of an art.

We left Loveland around 11:30 and headed towards Lake City.  The drive to Lake City is always a fun one. It starts with a climb over Kenosha pass via Highway 285 and continues on 285 for 100 miles before a turn onto Route 149 which goes over Monarch Pass.  Monarch Pass tends to be irritating because there is an unending supply of idiots that fail to pull over when they are driving under the speed limit or pull out in front of you when you are passing someone but I generally manage to get around most of them.  Once you are over the pass everything gets greener and lusher.  After 30 miles from the pass we entered Gunnison and stopped for gas.  The final push to Lake City is a 50 mile drive down Highway 50 which eventually turns gorgeous as it approaches Lake City and parallels a beautiful stream.

As usual we played a Stephen King audio book to pass the time.  Once we were in Lake City we stopped for some extra water and soda and then headed up towards the Nellie Creek Trailhead which is off of Engineers Pass.  As a word of caution, people will want to bring cash to Lake City, many places have credit card minimums, while they technically aren't allowed to it's not worth arguing when the next closest supplies are 55 miles away.  

The road to Nellie Creek was 4 miles long and had a few stream crossings.  All in all it was a pretty tame 4wd road with only a spot or two that took some consideration.  We arrived at the trailhead (~11,400 feet) and set up our tent and chairs. It was around 6:30.  We cooked up some gourmet soup, had dinner, then headed off to bed by 8:30.  I doubt it ever got below 40 degrees and my Montbell 32 degree stretch bag was super comfy.  So were the two layers of blankets we were using as a mattress.  The only thing I really didn't enjoy about the night was finding a huge, huge spider crawling around in the tent.  Normally I don't kill spiders but this thing started squirming when I picked it up and I wasn't risking it getting loose so I sent it to bug heaven.  It was a bit hard getting back to sleep after that but I managed.

Day 2 Uncompahgre Peak: Snow Variation to The East Slopes, 6.5 miles, 2800 feet, class 2

I'm a big fan of early starts, even when the weather is supposed to be good.  I like being back at camp before noon because then I still have the whole day to relax.  Given this predilection we awoke at 5:00, made up our Mountain House Granola, disassembled camp, and headed out on the trail by 6:00.  Given how little snow we saw we left the snowshoes and crampons in the car.  This turned out to be a good idea as all we needed were gaiters.  

The trail was snow free and wound up through the trees.  The initial views of Uncompahgre were very pretty and we marveled at what a unique looking mountain it was.  We were soon through the trees and followed the trail alongside (and sometimes in) a stream.  The trail switch-backed up after 1.5 miles and we were afforded great views of the streams in the valley below.

Uncompahgre Through The Trees

I've pretty much gotten to the point where I ignore beta for non-technical peaks and take whatever route looks most interesting.  I stay on marked trails until the climbing begins but after that I aim for fun.  I decided I was going to try to stay on snow as much as possible and aimed right for the snow which starts at the bottom of the picture below and continues up the left side of the photo until it intersects a flat spot above which the peaks ridge begins to angle upwards. The snow was soft enough that we side stepped up using only poles.  I doubt it got much worse than 30 degrees anywhere.  

We topped out at around 13,900 feet and then headed towards a series of weaknesses in the rock before the final ridge.  I picked the first one and we headed up some mildly snowy, loose, 2nd class rocks before gaining the ridge.  The final ridge was a straightforward hike and we made the summit by 8:30.

Blue Skies Over Uncompahgre

On The Summit

The summit was a great big place and we wandered around it taking in all the views.  As much as I would like to I don't really know the San Juans that well so I couldn't pick out the peaks around us.  I wish I could have because they were all magnificent and oddly shaped.  We spent about 40 minutes on the summit before heading down.  The day was absolutely gorgeous and quite temperate.


Wetterhorn And Matterhorn

The hike down was easy and we found the snow was much softer (it was melting fast).  Fortunately it wasn't too soft and we glissaded a goodly ways down. I even found a steeper glissade up high. We passed about 10 people on the way down and made it back to the truck by 10:30.  We hopped in the truck and headed back to town.  Along the way I snapped a picture of one of the stream crossings and some of the neat mining buildings along Engineers Pass.

Coming Down The Chimney We Used To Gain The Ridge

Driving Out Through Streams

Engineers Pass Road

Old Mining Buildings And Dam

The San Juan Solstice, a 50 mile run, was taking place the day we were in Lake City and we were a bit worried that it would make the town crowded but we hardly noticed it.  We spent a bit of time in town window shopping, getting coffee and food, and just enjoying the surroundings.  We also stopped to get Sally a little memento as a token of our appreciation for her taking care of our birds.

After awhile we hopped back in the truck and set out for Grizzly Gulch/Silver Creek Trailhead.  We drove past the trailhead for a couple miles to enjoy the scenery and spot out American Basin.  I can say that the drive down Cinnamon Pass is another spectacular scenic drive and a worthwhile destination in and of itself.  When we looped back to the trailhead we noticed that there was some serious cloud cover and lightning going on up high.  I didn't feel like getting all of our gear wet if the rains came so Jen hung out in the truck and napped and I pulled the chairs to a camping spot 15 feet away and sat around reading and drinking Guiness.  At one point I chatted with a hiker who informed me that there was ample snow on some parts of Handies.  This made me think I'd be lucky enough to get a good bit of snow climbing in so made sure to pack our crampons for the next day.

After awhile it appeared that the rains would not materialize and we set the camp up. After awhile a fellow named Malcolm came over and introduced himself. He had driven from Philadelphia and was spending two months hiking and climbing many of the Colorado 14ers.  He was quite a nice guy and  was (probably) trolling for partners for Handies but we needed to be back to our truck early for the long drive home (complete with a 3 hour detour to get the birds) so I didn't invite him to join us. I got the impression he was fine on his own and just wanted someone to chat with. During the evening I also met a guy named John who was a graduate student in Zoology from the University of Wyoming who was spending months surveying the high country for alpine birds (Scarlet Finches if I recall correctly).

Jen turned in around 7:30 but I stayed up to read for awhile longer.  Eventually I turned in at 8:30.  Sleeping near to the streams provided a nice bit of white noise and we slept soundly

Day 3 Handies Peak and Home: Some Snow Heading To The East Slopes, 6.5 miles, 3600 feet, ~45 degrees maximum

We awoke at 3:30 determined to get an early start so we wouldn't be going to bed at midnight.  We repeated our routine of having breakfast and breaking camp and were on the trail by 4:30.  The trail started going uphill immediately and we trudged along in the darkness for an hour.  Around 5:30 in the morning we ran into Malcolm and shortly thereafter John came up from behind.  We all hiked as a group until it was time for each of us to gain our respective routes of the day.  Right near the base of the snow in the picture below Malcolm headed off for thje ridge, John headed off to do his surveys, and Jen and I donned our crampons.


I Can Find Snow Everywhere

Steeper Snow

We set out up a gully that banked to the right before coming to the base of a snowfield.  The snow was not too hard and not too soft and made for perfect climbing.  If I had been alone I wouldn't have used crampons.  We climbed steadily up the snow and I made a point to kick steps for Jen in the areas where it steepened.  We climbed about two slopes and crossed two flat areas before coming to the last bit of snow.  This last part gained about 400-500 vertical feet and steepened to 40-45 degrees but was still in superb condition.  Right before gaining the ridge the snow became very soft and I started to posthole.  My original plan had been to head up another 100 vertical feet and cut through a cornice but the snow was too soft so I traversed right and gained rock.  All in all, we gained 1400 vertical feet on snow.  Not too bad considering I had assumed I would be rock bound for this trip.

Jen Coming Up The Last Bit Of Snow

The Final Walk To The Summit

We headed up to the summit on very easy ground for 5 minutes and arrived around 8:00 in the morning.  This time the weather was much colder and windier so we didn't spend too long before turning around.  On our way down we ran into Malcolm again, wished him a beautiful day, and headed for the snowfields we climbed up.  We jumped on the snow at a lower angled portion farther down than we had come off it and proceeded to glissade 1000 vertical feet.  The glissade was fantastic and the snow had softened up enough that I didn't even use my axe to stop.  During one stretch I picked up considerable speed and was catching some serious air.  Jen was a bit more trepidatious and took some coaxing to pick up speed but eventually made it down as well.  At the bottom of the snow we cinched our gaiters up and headed out.  We got back to the trailhead at 10:20.  No one but Malcolm was on Handies that day, I'm surprised so many more people choose to do Sunshine and Redcloud as Handies has beautiful views.  I can't imagine picking the American Basin approach, the one we took was spectacular with streams, animals, and flowers.


More Views

A Pretty Stream

Since we had gotten back even earlier than we had intended, we set the the tent back up and hung all of our gear over the truck to dry.  We spent about an hour lounging about and, when our stuff was dry, packed it back up and headed out.  On the way out we stopped at the bakery just at the beginning of town (right next to the market) and picked up some food.  I absolutely reccomend this place, they make great wraps, cookies, pizza, etc. and are cheap.  

The drive home was uneventful if somewhat surprisingly crowded (a mile long line of cars on 285 near Fairplay) and we made it to Sally's place at 6:00.  We picked up our birds and headed home.  By the time we had put their cage back together and unpacked it was 9:00. These peaks marked my 52nd and 53rd 14ers and Jen's 29th and 30th.  While I miss technical climbing, I am extremely excited about 3 or 4 more trips back to the San Juans.  The San Juans make the rest of the state look ugly and it's been too long since I was down there.  

As I write this my next adventure is the Notch Couloir on Friday with Dave Cooper.  I also can't wait to get out with him again, it's a real treat to get out with a guy with that much knowledge of climbing.

Trips Almost Over