Trip Report
North Face Wetterhorn Peak
Wednesday May 24, 2017 12:13pm
In my youthful enthusiasm, which was usually overweening, I sometimes dragged unsuspecting friends into adventures they otherwise probably would have avoided. One such poor soul was Charlie Wah, my next-door neighbor at the La Veta Hotel in Gunnison. Charlie, like so many of us, had been attracted to go to college in Gunnison due to the town’s geography of being surrounded by mountains. Charlie was of the “I’m a relatively sane person who loves being in the mountains” persuasion rather than the “bonkers beyond all belief” persuasion of folks that I typically ran with. When I, in my enthusiasm, suggested that we climb the north face of Wetterhorn Peak, Charlie, in his innocence, agreed to come along for the ride.

The north face of Wetterhorn Peak is about 1,200 ft high and composed ...
The north face of Wetterhorn Peak is about 1,200 ft high and composed of densely welded tuff.
Credit: Nick Danger

Wetterhorn Peak is an interesting 14’er in the northern part of the San Juan Mountains in that it is composed top to bottom of densely welded tuff instead of the more typical choss interbedded with not choss volcanic stratigraphy that can characterize many San Juan peaks. The climbing underground in Gunnison had heard rumors of a 5.10 free climb put up by Jeff Lowe on either the north face or the west face of Wetterhorn (turns out it was the north face), we weren’t sure which but some of us were curious about it. Even the easy standard route on the south side has about 100 ft of interesting, steep scrambling on good rock just below the summit, so the thinking went that the north face should have more but harder of the same. Boy did that turn out to be true!

Looking northwest from the lower portions of Wetterhorn’s north face a...
Looking northwest from the lower portions of Wetterhorn’s north face at the choss/not choss stratigraphy of Courthouse Peak and Cockscomb Peak.
Credit: Nick Danger

Over an early autumn weekend Charlie and I hiked in to the north side of Wetterhorn Peak to set up camp in order to get an early start on the climbing the following day. We easily scampered up the 4th class climbing on the lower couple of hundred feet before we had to rope up and take it seriously. We were making good time and all was right with the world.

Charlie scrambling up the ledges on the lower angle rock near the base...
Charlie scrambling up the ledges on the lower angle rock near the base of the north face.
Credit: Nick Danger
Charlie Wah is still having fun.
Charlie Wah is still having fun.
Credit: Nick Danger

By and by things got steep and we roped up for some moderately difficult climbing. Much of this middle section of the face was in the 5.7 range, which seemed like the happy place of difficulty while wearing mountain boots and route finding in new terrain. As we climbed higher the rock got steeper and the day slipped deeper into the afternoon hours. There is an obvious deep cleft in the middle of the north face that naturally leads into a dihedral in the upper portion of the face. That top dihedral looked quite challenging as it required climbing on small little gas cavities (lithophysae) on a very steep head wall. At the time I figured it would go at about 5.10 if one had good rock shoes, which we didn’t. As such, we stayed on a broken arête just to the right of this feature where the cracks appeared to be better and local dihedrals came and went. At one critical point our particular dihedral loomed over us in an overhanging bulge, presenting us with the crux of the whole climb.

Nick thinking “well poop, what do I do now?”
Nick thinking “well poop, what do I do now?”
Credit: Nick Danger
Charlie looking somewhat skeptical about what he had gotten himself in...
Charlie looking somewhat skeptical about what he had gotten himself involved in.
Credit: Nick Danger

I cannot speak for others, but at this point in my young climbing career, I was always happy to hem and haw, fiddle fart around, and doubt my-own-self when the climbing reach a personally intimidating level of difficulty on the smaller local crags. However, whenever I got to this mental crux in the higher mountains, with fewer degrees of freedom, I found that I just had to suck it up and get on with it without a lot of drama. This was just such a moment. The crux required moving up as high as possible in this rather ridiculously wide stem beneath the overhang and then just go for this (hopefully) bomber handhold lying just out of reach. The move having been made, the easier 5.8 crack above the overhang felt like a blessed deliverance. From there the climbing remained straight forward and eased up in difficulty to the summit.

And a ridiculously wide stem was had by all.  The orange lichen-covere...
And a ridiculously wide stem was had by all. The orange lichen-covered edge on the skyline is my “Thank God handhold”.
Credit: Nick Danger
This photo could have been taken either above or below the crux, but i...
This photo could have been taken either above or below the crux, but it surely symbolizes my relief at the easier climbing past the crux moves.
Credit: Nick Danger

Once past the crux pitch we rapidly completed the climb and with thankful hearts scrambled onto the summit. We paused for repast and performed the usual summit ceremonies.

My hands felted rather gnarled after about a thousand feet of climbing...
My hands felted rather gnarled after about a thousand feet of climbing.
Credit: Nick Danger
The summiteers on the summit doing summit celebratory things.
The summiteers on the summit doing summit celebratory things.
Credit: Nick Danger

We descended the standard route and dropped down to our camp to sleep the sleep of the truly tired. Charlie thanked me profusely for getting him up and safely back down the north face of the Wetterhorn, but I noticed that he never volunteered to go with me into the back country for further adventures. I learned from mutual friends that Charlie gave up mountaineering after this climb, although he remained an enthusiastic backpacker. One of his favorite places to backpack was the Lost Creek Wilderness in the Front Range. Years later I would learn for myself just how “on the edge of madness” backpacking into Lost Creek could be. Charlie, you actually were your own kind of bonkers beyond all belief after all.

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Nick Danger
About the Author
Nick Danger is a ice climber from Arvada, CO.

Comments
Tarbuster

climber
right here, right now
  May 25, 2017 - 08:46am PT
Fun to get some info and pictures on this climb!

I probably heard about the Lowe route somewhere, and imagined it to be a choss menagerie, and forgot about it. Other than loose rock, it sounds like it might have its stimulating moments climbing those pockets through the crux bulge.

The Southeast Ridge route can be finished using a nifty little direct variation pitch, with some pleasant low fifth class moves in the upper part:

Nick Danger

Ice climber
Arvada, CO
Author's Reply  May 25, 2017 - 09:41am PT
Tarbuster,
Without a doubt there is a lot of frightening chossy rock in the San Juan Mtns, but I have often been amazed at how solid some of it is. There are something like 7 calderas in the San Juans, most of which have locally thick sequences of intra-caldera densely welded tuff. These densely welded tuffs often provide some real bullet-proof rock. Wetterhorn Peak is composed of just such rock, whereas Uncompahgre Peak to the east and Cockscomb Peak to the northwest are composed of outflow sheets of lava and pyroclastic flows - both those peaks have considerably more chossy. There are some cliffs many hundreds of feet high up Hensen Creek west of Lake City that are composed of densely welded intra-caldera tuff associated with either the Lake City caldera or the Silverton caldera (a lot of these caldera overlap) that is also just bullet-proof rock for climbing. That cliff was used for many years by Outward Bound to teach their rock climbing classes in the San Juans. Two places I always wanted to get back to but never did, was the west face of Wetterhorn, and the north Face of Cockscomb, both of which looked like they had some really nice crack systems on good rock. Who knows, maybe I can find someone willing to climb with an old duffer and go back to these places.
cheers
Tarbuster

climber
right here, right now
  May 25, 2017 - 01:00pm PT
With everything you just said, and given some of the relatively stable rock shown in your pictures, it begins to make more sense why there is a Lowe route on that north face.

I was surprised to find fairly solid rock on the Wettehorn southeast ridge direct finish, which also afforded a couple decent protection placements, right where they were needed.
TwistedCrank

climber
Released into general population, Idaho
  May 25, 2017 - 01:42pm PT
Nick Danger swats another one out of the park.

I know that Southeast Ridge - climbed it with a dog as the first stop on my way to Matterhorn and Uncompahgre in a day. A group of 4 were finishing up something on the north side when we got there. As I recall, they were ropeless. This was 1985.

I took a glorious nap on the football field-sized summit of Uncompahgre that day.
Tarbuster

climber
right here, right now
  May 26, 2017 - 07:34am PT
Bonus points for doing Southeast Ridge with a dog!

That's how we descended, IIRC it is third class, with a bit of a step across over some exposure.

Would your dog have been part mountain goat? That dog was too cool for school!
TWP

Trad climber
Mancos, CO & Bend, OR
  May 26, 2017 - 11:59am PT
Really enjoying all your classic, vintage trip reports.

Are you still as crazy today as in your youth? (Or somewhat as crazy, mildly tempered by wisdom gained from your years?)

If so, let's get together and climb something. Like in the Winds with llamas. This summer. Call me at nine seven zero two five nine zero zero zero two, if interested
Ezra Ellis

Trad climber
North wet, and Da souf
  May 26, 2017 - 03:00pm PT
Really nice stuff Nick,
You da man 👍👊👏
Mungeclimber

Trad climber
Nothing creative to say
  May 26, 2017 - 03:08pm PT
The Power of the Choss Compels You.
donini

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
  May 26, 2017 - 04:05pm PT
Thanks for the tr! Wetterhorn is in my backyard. I too have heard of Jeff's route. Now I have some real info. on it. I'll have to jump on it!
ydpl8s

Trad climber
Santa Monica, California
  May 30, 2017 - 09:06am PT
Great TR Nick! Nice to see you looking so young in those pics. I did the standard route in the Fall of 1972 with the cast of characters in the picture below (I know you will recognize most, if not all of these personages Nick). We threw a top rope on that little "thumb" near the top and ran laps on stuff that felt like it ranged from 5.7 to 5.9.

I also did a short stint in the La Veta Hotel, right outside my window was a fire escape that doubled as my beer refrigerator.


L to R - Me, Patrick O'Gorman, Shannon Grady, Charlie Pitts, Jon Ake, Gary Koscis (picture taken by Chuck Tolton)
Nick Danger

Ice climber
Arvada, CO
Author's Reply  May 30, 2017 - 09:53am PT
Scott,
I wondered if you might be weighing in on this one. Always a pleasure to see your flix from that era.

TWP, Still slightly nuts. Now the thing that buffers my more dubious outings is basic aerobic fitness and whatever soft-tissue injury is acting up. Still able to climb ice and rock though. I have your number and will give you a call. Anything I do will have to work around work commitments (a few trips to southern Nevada over the next 4 months) and family obligations (Helping my wife with her solo art show later this month). Within those boundary conditions I'm good to go.
Cheers, and thanks for the offer.
ydpl8s

Trad climber
Santa Monica, California
  May 30, 2017 - 10:14am PT
Yeah Bob, I haven't been on here too much lately as the last 2 1/2 mnths I have been working as a math/science substitute teacher for LAUSD. I have had my share of 5.12 teaching in S. LA, loving it though!

Moss
NutAgain!

Trad climber
https://nutagain.org
  May 30, 2017 - 10:44am PT
Great share Nick... my face contorted into a grimace looking at those choss ledges intermixed with dirt at the beginning, and didn't fully relax before I finished reading the rest :)

I had lodged in my brain a memory of Matterhorn and Wetterhorn and over the years I hadn't found any more references to Wetterhorn. I had always thought it was somewhere in the Sierra!

So double-thanks for the story and the education.
Charliewah

Boulder climber
Boring
  Mar 15, 2018 - 10:03pm PT
Charlie here.

Yes, Charlie Waugh (yeah, he tried to hide me from finding this page by misspelling my name, but just like I stupidly followed him up that mountain, I stupidly found this page!)

I'm the idiot. The fool. The rube. The unsuspecting victim of 'Nick'.
:-)

But... Ah! Revisiting the halcyon days of one’s youth (or the stupidious idiocy that darn near killed me!)

Truly, I stumbled upon this account of my who-knows-what-madness last technical climb of life.

I am flabbergasted by the pictures! That’s ME! In that garish God-knows-what-thrift-shop-it-came-from sweater (which I loved).

Well, this account really does cry out for (as Paul Harvey used to say: “The REST of the story!”)

Dear, dear ‘Nick’ seems to have left out some key elements of the journey (epic? thing?) which really flesh out the insanity and lack of basic self-protection skills I should have learned by age 5.

Oh! One more thing about those pics... I hate to ask, but it bears upon the veracity of some of Bob’s, er. Nick’s! reporting: who took that pic of the two of us on the summit? It was just us up there, and I don’t remember any timer being set on a camera ‘over there’. :-)

So, to add to (correct? modify? impugn?) the record...

Yes, we hiked in and spent the night, to get a good early start on that glorious high-mountain crispy Sunday morning. We did the final approach and threw ourselves bodily (and mindlessly) at the north face.

After scampering and then clambering and then roping up and climbing our way up, I found myself looking at an absolutely gorgeous abyss as I belayed the lead(er?) above me.

At one point, after about 10? 20? Minutes of no rope being paid out, I called up: “Everything OK?”

Down came the reply: “Well,... not quite! I need you to come up here.”

“OK, do you have a piece in?”

“No.”

“WHAT?!”

“I can’t... you’ll see when you get up here.”

So, here I am, in hiking boots, free-climbing at who knows what thousands-feet-up with no belay, no nothing, and sadly, no brains, just adrenaline to guide my sweaty hands and sewing-machine feet.

I inched my way up about 20 feet or so onto a triangular ledge about 10 feet long. I arrived at the thin end, of course, and slithered up onto it and put my back to the rock face behind me and tried to keep my gaze glued to Nick.. and... not... look... down!

Nick was half-standing on a large rock at the thick end of the ledge, a rock that had trapped his right calf against the dihedral when he had stepped up on the rock to get a hand in a crack, it rolled a bit, then rolled back and his leg was caught.

I seem to remember that his hand was jammed above his head, and his foot was trapped, well, below his waist, but maybe I am conflating here... my lizard-brain was in full swing at this point. He was kinda stretched out with no leverage... and no way to get a piece in to tie off to.

Well, being a sporting fellow, he tossed me a bong that I slid in behind a flake to my right and gave it a tug. That flake, about a thousand feet square if my fear-addled brain remembers rightly, popped off the face and launched out into space and whistled away to the scree slope about 45 or 90 seconds of free-fall below - OK, OK, maybe I’m rounding up a bit?

I finally got a piece in and tied off and inched over to help him get that dang boulder off of his leg and gave him a leg up to get a hand in that crack - and away we went!

So merry!, so carefree!, so lacking in native intelligence and basic self-preservation! We were climbing a mountain! Wheee!

That, my dear reader, was the LAST technical climb I ever did! I swore off that crap! Sheesh! :-)

I fear that I also kinda lost my basic trust in other humans about that time...

One last remembrance: we summited and then had to race down the low-angle side of the Wetterhorn, back to base-camp, and hike all the way out that night, because dear ‘Nick’ had a calculus test the next morning, for which he obviously studied hard.
Charliewah

Boulder climber
Boring
  Mar 15, 2018 - 10:12pm PT
Oh, one more thing.

As a professional photographer now (www.charleswaugh.com) I really must point out that the credits on many of those photos ought to go to me, if one were to be absolutely pedantic and persnickety about it, since I was running the shutter-release.

But, then again, maybe it's like the selfie that ape took (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monkey_selfie_copyright_dispute); and the copyright can't belong to me because I had NO BRAINS and therefore no legal standing.

:-)
Nick Danger

Ice climber
Arvada, CO
Author's Reply  Mar 19, 2018 - 12:23pm PT
WOW, Charlie, I really have wondered what became of you lo these many years. I am very glad you found this little post, and especially glad you wrote in and contributed. A few points:

Yes, you took some of these pictures using my camera, and yes, you deserve the photo credit, so here it is.

I had completely forgotten about the lose block that pinned my leg. I DO remember you giving up all technical climbing after our ascent, but am saddened to here you also gave up your faith in people. If I contributed to that, I am deeply sorry.

I remember that you had this quartz crystal about the size of a football that you found in the lost creek wilderness that I was always envious of. I have been into the Lost Creek wilderness more times than I can count and have never found a quartz dike that would have yielded such a treasure. You were really lucky.

We used the timer on my camera for our summit shot, so it is legit and we were there by ourselves.

Charlie, I rather enjoyed that climb we did together, and hope that you are doing well. Perhaps we may yet meet up for old time's sake.
cheers
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