Uncompahgre Winter Ski Descent

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Date: January 12, 2010
Partner: Kiefer Thomas
Route: Ascent of South Ridge from 9,350` on the Nellie Creek Road, summit ski descent of summit plateau to Southeast Face
Stats:  ~5,300` climbed, ~5,250` skied, 16 miles, 12 hours

Uncompahgre Peak receiving first light on a brisk January morning. Photo by Kiefer.

Fresh off Holy Cross, Kiefer and I started stewing about more winter plans.  For a long time now I`ve wanted to get a peak in the San Juans on skis, but timing, lack of partners, and lack of snow seemed to always kill off my plans.  Kiefer was in no matter what the peak as he is tenaciously at work on his winter list, so I took another look at the San Juans as a possibility.

Things are beginning to turn for our horrendous snow pack, especially in the south; 4 straight days of surprisingly warm temps coupled with sun and clear skies has helped settle the nightmare somewhat (at least for now).  After doing a little research, Uncompahgre was an easy decision for us as access to this peak in winter makes for a reasonably doable day trip, plus the route faces southeast and features very little avy terrain.  Plans were laid down.

I headed up to Vail Monday morning and picked Kiefer up after breakfast with my Dad.  We arrived in Lake City around 4pm and sat down for an excellent (and large) meal at a local diner, we were also able to “bum” some lodging for the evening that came complete with a futon and a space heater (ask Kiefer for the details on this one).  Sleep at 8pm was difficult to come by for me as I live out a normal daily schedule, but for Kiefer, a man accustomed to all nighters and 30 hour jaunts of sleep deprivation, slumber hit him quickly and easily.  I`ve always hated the sleep aspect of mountaineering, when your partner is fast asleep and you have to lie there with nothing but your thoughts…seems like I`m always the one who is stuck awake but oh well.

A “warm and energetic” 2:15am wake up had us ready and stoked for more winter mountaineering.  The road to the bottom of Nellie Creek Jeep Road is very well kept, we geared up and set off at 3:30 from 9,350`.  The road slog to the upper parking lot and treeline went fairly effortlessly thanks to a preexisting trench.

After hiking in the dark for quite awhile, dawn finally arrived. Photo by Kiefer.

Sun hit breathed new life into us both.

But it was still freaking cold out. Photo by Kiefer.

This is an incredible alpine basin year round, but in winter it`s a particularly special treat.  We took a long break to re-fuel which allowed us to sit and watch the sun gradually light Uncompahgre`s Southeast Face, another fine January day was clearly in store.  Man, Colorado will never get old.

We made our way up and around numerous hills and rolls.  A friendly, day old snowshoe track etched by Ken Nolan stretched out before us and towards the peak.

Skinning towards the peak. Photo by Kiefer.

The temps began to absolutely soar and Kiefer and I were down to our base layers shortly thereafter.  A slow and methodical march had us on the south ridge below the southeast face at 10am.  Here we were treated to an incredible view to the west; an uncountable number of snowy peaks stretched out as far as the eye could see.  We were also able to spot from a vast distance the tiny, undulating snowshoe trench belonging to Sarah Thompson and company from a few days prior.  Congrads guys on nabbing both winter summits!

Taking a break.

Kiefer and I took in the view for a long time, drank some Gatorade, and headed on up to the west-facing gully that serves as a break in Uncompahgre`s well formed, cliffy defenses.  I was scoping out the Southeast Face as we went up and liked what I saw in terms of snow, though entertainable hopes of a viable summit descent were becoming bleaker and bleaker.  But as is often with these wind prone peaks, you never know until you get up there, so the skis were staying with me.

Once atop the snow face, Kiefer and I scrambled up the gully and onto the edge of the summit plateau.  Immediately I was piecing the descent together in my mind as, to my surprise, several patches of white seemed to be paving the way for me.

Booting up the Southeast Face. Photo by Kiefer.

We came around the corner to a much appreciated strip of snow leading straight off the summit.

Kiefer and I arrived at the roof of the San Juans at 11:45am.

We spent awhile on the summit, eating and drinking the massive assortment of food we brought along.  Kiefer and his chicken had me cracking up, though I can`t deny it hit the spot!  San Luis was clearly visible to the east and may have marked itself a near future target…I geared up and got ready for the ski.

After 50` of vert I traversed some talus and commenced skiing another conveniently placed wind-blown snow patch at equal elevation, from here snow filled in the summer trail which wrapped nicely around a corner and spilled out onto another large glob of white. I was able to ski continuously to the top of the rock gully before removing the skis for a 50` down climb.

Making a super conventional turn. Photo by Kiefer.

At the bottom of this gully a continuous snowdrift ran around the corner and connected with the Southeast Face, thus after this short down climb the skis stayed on for an uninterrupted 5,000` vertical run.

Photo by Kiefer.

I reached the bottom of the face and watched Kiefer come plodding down, once on flat ground we took another long break, man it was hot out!  After shedding practically everything we owned it was time to head out.  On the way out through the basin I had a fun time playing around in a few gullies.

Kiefer on the descent.

The road walk went fairly quickly thanks to some interesting conversation.  I think Kiefer watching me ski down this road provided icing on the cake for his desire to purchase an AT setup.  We arrived back at the car around 3:00pm, back in Vail for dinner at Garfunkles at 8:00pm.  Thanks Kiefer for making another trip happen on such short notice!

A serene Colorado backcountry scene.

…and a cool article on our trip from the Colorado Mountain Journal.