On the Trail: One for two in the San Juans
July 17, 2006
For some time now I’ve eyed a couple of peaks down in the San Juan Mountains, and last weekend I drove down there to hike them. I made it to the summit of one, but Mother Nature chased me off the other.Uncompahgre Peak and Wetterhorn Peak, both fourteeners, lie about three miles apart between the towns of Lake City and Ouray. Many people climb both in a day, but it’s a fairly long day – especially when, like me, you start too late.The six-mile walk to Uncompahgre’s summit passes through big, rolling meadows above timberline. The peak itself, flat on the top with sheer cliffs on three sides, towers above its surroundings. The standard route is a walk-up, but the peak is majestic and distinctive.It took three hours to reach the summit. I peered over the cliffs on the mountain’s north side and met some nice folks – they took a summit photo of me that arrived via e-mail Monday morning! – before heading back down.While descending, I asked myself whether I should try Wetterhorn. Hmmm … a few clouds, but they hadn’t consolidated yet. I’d play it by ear.By the time I crossed the divide into the Wetterhorn basin, it was afternoon. Wetterhorn’s craggy summit was sunny, but clouds were gathering nearby. I began a long scramble across the basin’s upper margins, glancing occasionally at the sky.A half-hour later I stood at the base of Wetterhorn’s summit block and heard distant thunder. Rain was falling a few miles to the south, but I’d reached the best part of the climb.I heard another, closer boom. OK, I thought, I could end up a statistic – by lightning or a fall from wet rock – or turn around and take a future Wetterhorn trip. I looked again. Rain was moving in and surely dousing my car below.Damn. I turned and began a swift descent to timber – and shelter. Somewhere around 12,200 feet, lightning flashed the entire basin and an instant BOOM spurred me into a run.By the time I reached the woods, rain was pouring and thunder was rolling all around. I’d made the right decision (probably should have come sooner), and saved Wetterhorn for another day.