Kim Fenske wanders the Uncompahgre Wilderness
Story and photos by Kim Fenske
The Uncompahgre Wilderness Area lies west of Lake City and southwest of Gunnison. The Henson Creek Road begins at Second Street in Lake City and leads to Engineer Pass. Nellie Creek Trailhead lies a five miles west of town. Nellie Creek leads north to the broad summit of Uncompahgre Peak (14,309 feet), appearing like a monolith displaced from Monument Valley. A few miles west of Uncompahgre Peak, across a sharp and ragged ridge, 14,015-foot Wetterhorn Peak points skyward. Wetterhorn Peak is commonly ranked as the eighth most difficult ascent among the Fourteeners of Colorado.
The mountain’s namesake is a, 12,113-feet peak in the Swiss Alps near Grindelwald, named for its propensity to create its own weather. Three peaks comprise the Swiss mountain, the Mittelhorn, Wetterhorn, and Rosenhorn. Historic fame befalls the European peak from an ascent by Winston Churchill in 1894.
Last summer, I parked my vehicle on the Engineer Pass road and hiked up the four-wheel-drive forest road to Nellie Creek Trailhead. I followed the long, easy trail to the short rock chute at the southwest corner of the Uncompahgre summit. From the flat scree field on Uncompahgre, I saw the pointed finger of Wetterhorn Peak.
With a dry high-pressure system dominating the state, I decided to drive over to Lake City and explore the watershed of Matterhorn Creek, four miles west of Nellie Creek. Two miles up a rough and narrow North Henson Road, I parked my vehicle after scraping bottom a couple of times. With full pack, I hiked up to Matterhorn Creek Trailhead and made a base camp at about 11,000 feet.
My campsite was within a short walking distance of an icy brook. Finding snow scattered around the tree trunks in my site and knowing that the temperature would soon fall below freezing, I filled a couple of quart bottles with filtered water. Too tired to prepare a hot meal, I boiled one quart of water and threw it inside my zero-degree sleeping bag for breakfast. The other quart, I heated and poured over hot chocolate powder to compliment a few ounces of homemade beef jerky. I packed a third quart of cold water for the trail in the morning, but wished that I had brought a fourth quart. I mention this to emphasize the importance of water, at least a gallon per day, during any hiking adventure.
I continued northeast up the valley on Ridge Stock Trail, taking a break near the Uncompahgre Wilderness Area boundary to lunch on rice chips and brie as the ice melted in my bottle. During the ascent, the steep west face of Uncompahgre Peak rises above the horizon. Wetterhorn Trail branches west from a junction and crosses a small stream at 11,900 feet, the last opportunity to fill water bottles before crossing a large boulder field a mile away. Snow obliterated the trail to the ridge of Wetterhorn, so route-finding across the boulders and adjacent tundra was essential.
Gaining the ridge at 13,100 feet in early afternoon, I continued north into an imposing face of rounded rock in which the trail vanished. The route from 13,700 feet for the final few hundred vertical feet to the summit is not a hike, but an exposed climb where a fall could be fatal. The route ascends almost in a straight line over a series of rib-like gaps to the summit. Descending from the mountain is twice as fast, typical of a downhill hike once a track marks the path.
I was able to complete the four-mile drop and close my base camp by dusk, returning to Summit County at midnight.
Kim Fenske is a former wilderness ranger, firefighter who has hiked thousands of miles in the Colorado mountains. He has served on the board of directors of Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.
Fenske has authored several hiking books filled with hundreds of photographs of Colorado wildlife, wildflowers, and scenery. His books are enjoyed by thousands of outdoor enthusiasts. His current electronic book titles are published on Amazon for Kindle, as well as Barnes and Noble for Nook. Search for these titles: “Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado,” “Holy Cross Wilderness Area,” and “Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.”
More stories by Kim Fenske:
- A Colorado classic: Longs Peak
- Explore Whitney Peak in the Holy Cross Wilderness
- Colorado: Climb San Luis Peak with Kim Fenske
- Morning photo: The Deer Creek trail, a Summit crossroads
- Travel: Explore Colorado’s spectacular Gore Creek trail
- Colorado: Explore Pikes Peak with Kim Fenske
- A hike to Windom Peak, Sunlight Peak, and Mount Eolus
- Colorado: A fall hike on Castle Peak