Wetterhorn Basin and Cimarron River Backpack
On June 30, I led a three day backpack into the Uncompahgre Wilderness Area, with a group of seven people. Because of the large snowfields and the difficulty of following new trails, this was certainly the most difficult 21 mile hike I had done. We started from the Matterhorn Trailhead outside of Lake City, Colorado. There were many people in the area climbing the Wetterhorn Peak, a 14er. Not long after our start, we left the people behind when we turned onto the Matterhorn cutoff. Almost immediately, we had to wade across Matterhorn Creek in our sandals or water shoes, and my feet were numb from the cold water after the short crossing. As we climbed up through the forest, we had a more challenging stream crossing requiring some agility on our part. Soon, we climbed above the trees into alpine tundra. There were still many snow fields in this high area due to the heavy spring snows. We climbed through rolling terrain up to a point where we climbed a snow wall and descended on the Middle Canyon trail down into an open, beautiful canyon. The Forest Service had marked routes with poles, so we followed poles as we did with most of our backpack. We followed a trail into the forest and then steeply up the north side of the canyon. Climbing up the slope we saw trails and informal trails, and it was hard to know the difference. At one point, we missed a turn and had to traverse under the very top of the ridge across sharply tilted tundra and slippery scree fields. Finally, we got to the unnamed saddle and looked down into Wetterhorn Basin.
The Wetterhorn Basin is scenically dominated by the large, square Coxcomb Peak massif and by the enormous pyramid of Wetterhorn Peak at the top of the basin. It is a large open basin with scattered stands of evergreens, and because of the recently melted snow, it was covered by water-loving Marsh Marigolds and scattered Paintbrush flowers. We had a beautifully sunny evening in this gorgeous basin. Vaune made s’mores over her camp stove, a reviving medicinal for everyone.
From camp the next morning, we could see the steep climb we had to do over the high pass under Coxcombe Peak. Early in the climb, we traversed an interesting, light-colored geologic formation which drop steeply on both sides below us. The climb was steep and steady, and from the top, there was a grand view, endless in terms of both width and distance. We could see, to the south and west, much of the rugged San Juan range, speckled by innumerable snowfields.
As we climbed down from the pass, into the Middle Fork Basin of the Cimarron River, the clouds intensified and darkened behind us, and behind us, Coxcomb Peak had transformed from a large square mesa into a single, narrow spire. We descended to a plateau with a beautiful small pond and then reached our final steep descent into the basin. On this final descent, the snow fields were plentiful, and Vaune, our glissade expert, lead us all on a fun and easy glissade down the first snowfield. We slid down seated on our behinds using our poles as both rudders and brakes. Further down, we came to the most difficult spot on our backpack. The trail was buried by a very steep and hard snowfield which was too dangerous to cross. Vaune and Gennie, both trained climbers, climbed down some rocks on the side of the snow. Vaune glissaded down the field, accelerating at a startling rate, hit and crossed a rocky bare spot and at the bottom immediately jumping up to shout and indicate with gestures not to come down that way. Jennie continued to climb down the rocks around the snowfield. The rest of us decided to find a different route and climbed steeply, off-trail above the snowfield and steeply down the other side of the snowfield through willows and down streams, back to the trail. On the way down, we heard thunder above us, and it started to sleet and rain. When we got to the bottom, we realized Vaune had lost one of her hiking poles, high above in the snowfield.
We continued into the valley, less one hiking pole, waded across the creek, and climbed into the woods where there was a previously used campsite. The rain intensified and the temperature dropped, and we spent several hours under the trees at the campsite, waiting for the weather to improve before we climbed up to the next pass. The group decided to make a campfire which warmed us significantly, and we toasted marshmallows in the rain.
Eventually, the storm stopped and we even saw some sunshine. So, we started the climb to the next pass. We were hiking above tree line, through a large meadow when we heard thunder. Another storm was coming from the west; so we retreated back to the trees and set up our camp for the night. It was an uncomfortable evening with rain and cold winds. I was nearly hypothermic eating my dinner, and everyone went to bed early. During the night, I rose to find the sky clear with a bright Milky Way crossing it.
The third and final day started with a nice early morning hike across the rolling meadow below the pass. On the final ascent to the third pass, we had to climb steeply off the trail around a steep snow field. We reached the top at 8:00 am to experience a magnificent, sunny, early-morning scene of green slopes gently descending down to the basin of the East Fork of the Cimarron River, with enormous Uncompahgre Peak dominant above it all. We had a very pleasant hike down from the pass through lush tundra on an easy-to-follow trail. There were many flowers including paintbrush, larkspur, purple fringe and old man in the mountain. At the bottom of the valley, we had to wade across the creek and started the climb over the last pass. At the last alpine trail junction, I was not sure which way to go. Jennie, Stephania, and others convinced me of the correct way to go. Jennie was a great help with navigation throughout the trip using her GPS skills.
We climbed through gentle alpine terrain, crossing a few level snow fields and reached the rounded top. From that spot, Matterhorn Peak was directly above us and Wetterhorn Peak was just beyond it. We hiked back down below Wetterhorn Peak. At the trailhead, I retrieved the beer and soft drinks I had sunk in the creek, and we celebrated the successful completion of a challenging but exquisite hike through some of most outstandingly scenic terrain we had ever experienced. We finished our celebration with fried okra and catfish at Southern Vittles in Lake City.