Undeterred by an unusually soggy week in Durango, I set off Friday for Lake City, determined to make one last summer foray into the northeast San Juans. When I first landed in Lake City for the San Juan Solstice 50 back in June, I’d been itching to return and explore some of the surrounding wilderness. On this trip I would head into the Uncompahgre, and climb the peak for which it is named.
I left work early, but darkness beat me to my destination, greeting me with a merciless deluge. I continued through the muddy town streets several miles up a bumpy jeep road, then parked my trusty Scoob-a-doo in a dark, dripping stand of unhappy-looking pine trees. The rain showed no sign of easing, so I unraveled my blanket and sleeping bag in the cramped back seat and proceeded to let the drumming raindrops lull me into a restless sleep.
At dawn I awoke to the roar of Nellie Creek, left swollen and angry by the week’s rain. I peered through the foggy rear window to observe a persistent drizzle; it was gloomy, sunless, and reminded me all too much of my days back in Seattle. I still hate rain. Undeterred, I went through my usual motions: coffee, oatmeal, gear check — then stepped out into the damp morning to put some miles behind me.
After climbing a short way, it wasn’t long before snowflakes filled the sky as the temperature noticeably dropped. Seasonal change makes me anxious. The long summer days spoil me with week after week of warm, worry-free weather, rendering me blissfully complacent. But it only ever takes just one cold snap to rouse me back to reality. The diminishing daylight is suddenly obvious, and I’m hit with a sense of urgency: Quick, to the mountains — before the leaves fall and the snow flies! Too late…
While part of me can’t stand the shortened days and fear of missed opportunity, another part of me embraces it. Its a sensory experience — the smell of a woodstove, freshly baked pumpkin bread, the paling of green aspen leaves preparing to turn a brilliant gold, as if by alchemy.
I press onward, reaching treeline just as the mighty Uncompahgre Peak makes a brief appearance. It looms before me like a larger-than-life painting against a dark gray canvas before vanishing back into the clouds just seconds later. I take a mental picture, noting the path of the narrow trail as it winds up the peak’s south saddle, before making a hard right and climbing to the summit.
The cloud spills into the valley as I ascend Uncompahgre’s south ridge, and we meet somewhere in between. My visibility is reduced, and a stiff westerly wind blasts my eyes and face with bits of ice. Limited to the landmarks immediately around me, I pick my way along the trail, noting ice-studded rocks and clumps of confused tundra, still tinged green by recently warmer days. Those days have come to an abrupt end.
As I sally forth, I detect no evidence that I share the trail with anyone else on this day. The climb, typically considered an easy one (even runnable in good conditions), suddenly has me on all fours, scrambling cautiously up an icy outcropping. Am I even on the trail anymore? At last, the terrain levels out and I put my doubts to rest as I fight the wind the last few hundred yards to what I assume is the summit.
I spend little time up there as I, for the first time all day, admit to myself that I am unprepared for these early winter conditions. My running shoes and thin wool socks are frozen from the knee-deep drifts through which I’ve postholed. But it’s only September! The Rocky Mountains never cease to humble and surprise me, earning my respect. Just last October I climbed Mt. of the Holy Cross wearing shorts and a T-shirt in what were quite possibly the most placid alpine conditions I’ve ever experienced. The lesson is: Expect anything at any time from these peaks. They want to catch you off-guard!
I conduct a sweeping panorama of the blank, whiteness that surrounds me, and try to envision what the view might provide on a clear day. Then, I turn and attempt to retrace my steps, which have already been erased by the wild wind, and proceed back through blowing ice and snow to Nellie Creek, some 9 miles and over 5000 feet below me.