Upping My Game | Wetterhorn Peak (June 2013)


Mountain(s):  Wetterhorn Peak (14,021')

Distance:  8.5 miles

Elevation Gain:  3,600'

Roundtrip Time:  7 hrs


This was a fun one! Not only was this my first real climb, an easier Class 3 scramble, but it also marked my first time in the San Juans. Unlike the previous hike of Quandary Peak, I took LOTS of photos on this one, for a good reason. The San Juans are BEA-U-TI-FUL!

Myself and two friends headed down the night before, as usual, getting into Lake City well after dark and to the 2WD trailhead by 10pm or so. The drive in to Lake City from Gunnison to the north is long and pretty boring, especially when it's dark and there's nothing to see. But, Lake City happens to be situated in one of the most scenic areas of Colorado... if you can get out of town and up above treeline. The valleys in the San Juans are steep so you've gotta get some elevation if you want the views. Anyway, enough about that. We set up camp and eventually made it to bed.

The forecast for the following day called for bluebird skies and no chance of rain, and we had 14er Wetterhorn Peak in our sights. Wetterhorn means "weather peak" in German, apparently, but we weren't gonna get any of that during the hike. This peak is named after the "Wetterhorn", a 12,000' mountain in the Swiss Alps. Right next to Wetterhorn Peak is Matterhorn Peak (13,596'), named for the more famous "Matterhorn", also in the Swiss Alps. I'm not sure why the taller peak in Colorado wasn't named after the Matterhorn, which rises to 14,692' and dwarfs the Wetterhorn.


As usual, we were on the trail "early", sometime between 6:30 and 7am. Since we were less than two weeks from the summer solstice, the sun was already up. We began at the 2WD trailhead for the Matterhorn Creek trail at 10,300', which I don't believe is the official trailhead. The official one begins 3/4 mile to the north up a 4WD road at 10,800'. Once there, the trail continued to the north along an old road which follows Matterhorn Creek up the valley through a lightly-wooded forest of firs and aspens.

About 3/4 mile past the main trailhead the trail bears right at a fork around 11,200'. We continued on our merry way, eventually breaking out of the trees around 11,600'. Here, we could see the wide open basin between Matterhorn and Wetterhorn Peaks. For whatever reason, I decided not to take any photos of this area until later, when we were heading back down. We also noticed a tent set up close by. Kudos to those people for hitting the campsite jackpot!

This alpine setting was pretty cool and the hike north through the gently-ascending basin was refreshing in the morning air. As we gained elevation, Wetterhorn came into view (it had been obscured by its southeast ridge). The route headed northwest, directly toward the base of Wetterhorn's east face (Photo 1). From there we turned left (to the west) and began hiking up the slopes to a saddle on the southeast ridge, between Wetterhorn and an unranked 13er. We had to cross a snow field or two along the way, but the views to the north and east made it worth it. Eventually, we were able to see Wetterhorn, Matterhorn, and Uncompahgre Peaks together (Photo 2).

Photo 1 - Approaching Wetterhorn's east face

Photo 2 - Panorama taken during the descent from the slopes below the southeast ridge, looking northeast. Wetterhorn Peak (left), Matterhorn Peak (right center), and Uncompahgre Peak (far right) were all visible here

Once on the ridge at ~13,000', the views opened up even more (Photo 3). From here, the route followed the ridge all the way up to the base of the summit block, which is the final crux. However, it is not merely a stroll along a gentle ridge. While the trail is essentially Difficult Class 2 in this section, there are several rocky obstacles to maneuver through (Photo 4). We glided through these fairly quickly and with ease.

Photo 3 - On Wetterhorn's southeast ridge, looking south. The valley we came up during our approach can be seen here. Three other 14ers - Redcloud, Sunshine, and Handies Peaks - are visible off in the distance

Photo 4 - A rocky section we had to climb through higher up on the ridge. Most of this was rated Difficult Class 2, but there were perhaps one or two Class 3 spots as well. The summit is on the right and a rock feature called the Ships Prow is just to its left

Near 13,900', a large rock feature called the Ships Prow blocks the way along the ridge (Photo 5). We scooted around it to the right (east) and made one last scamper up a short snow field to reach the base of the summit pitch at 13,900'. Here, there is a relatively flat rocky ledge that makes for a nice resting spot before the final push to the summit.

The summit pitch is a Class 3 scramble up a steep 100' gully that leads right to the summit. From below, it looks like a wall and you might think it's quite difficult (Photo 6). While there is a lot of exposure (you don't want to fall here), the climb up is actually very manageable and not nearly as steep as it looks from afar (Photo 7). There were a bunch of rock ledges along the way that essentially made it feel like a steep staircase.

Photo 5 - The Ships Prow as viewed from 13,900', after we had already passed it

Photo 6 - A view of the rocky ledge that leads up to the Class 3 summit pitch. Chris is getting at it!

Photo 7 - My friend Sean on the Class 3 summit pitch. The numerous ledges on the way up made it feel more like climbing up a steep staircase

Just a short time later, we were on the summit enjoying the tremendous 360-degree views (Photos 8 & 9). It was only 9:30am so we sat around and relaxed for a while. Surprisingly, we were not alone. We were joined by the token summit marmot and his little chipmunk friend (Photos 10 & 11). How and why they are on the summit always baffles me. Anyway, they kept us company for a bit before we had enough summit and began heading back down.

Photo 8 - Mighty Sean conquered the mountain!

Photo 9 - Casual Chris posing in from of at least four 14ers. Who can name them?

Photo 10 - Summit marmot

Photo 11 - Summit chipmunk

Before heading down, I managed to snap a shot to the east of both Matterhorn and Uncompaghre (Photo 12). First of all, Uncompahgre is a beast! Secondly, the traverse over to Matterhorn Peak looks pretty cool. Maybe that would be worth doing one day...

Photo 12 - The traverse from Wetterhorn to Matterhorn (near), with Uncompahgre looming in the distance

Obviously, we had to descend back down the summit pitch. It really was pretty cool and at no point did I feel even the slightest bit unsafe. We did the sensible thing and took it step by step, always paying attention to where we were stepping and what we were holding on to. Still can't get enough of those views, though (Photo 13). Once back to the ledge at the bottom, I took a quick detour to grab a shot of part of Wetterhorn's incredibly steep west face (Photo 14). I wouldn't want to be climbing up that thing, but I wouldn't be surprised if its already been done!

Photo 13 - Climbing down the Class 3 summit pitch, looking west across the northern San Juans. The Uncompahgre Valley is off to the right

Photo 14 - Looking northwest, with part of Wetterhorn's steep west face slab in the foreground. I believe that may be Grand Mesa way off in the distance

The hike back down was fairly routine and we made it to the car by about 1:45pm. The scenic views from above the valley reminded me, for whatever reason, of the Alps (Photos 15 & 16). I've never even been to the Alps! I guess they reminded me of the Alps I had seen in films and photos. Whatever, it was gorgeous to say the least. Unfortunately, it would be more than two years before I would make it back down to the San Juans. This needs to happen more! Well, that's all for this trip report. If you ever have a chance to get to the San Juans, do it. Highly worth it!

Photo 15 - Descending back through the basin with numerous 13ers dominating the view. Can you spot the tent I mentioned earlier?

Photo 16 - Almost back to treeline