- Date: August 12, 2023
- Partner: Randy Weaver
- Height: 14,318 feet
- Range: San Juan
- Route: South Ridge (Class 2)
- Overall Distance: 7.50 miles
- Elevation Gain: 3,000 feet (car to summit)
- 14ers climbed: 45 separate climbs
- 14ers remaining: 8
- Road Condition to Trailhead: Out of Lake City, you will head west on the Alpine Loop for about 5 miles. You will then make a right and head north on the Nellie Creek Road. It is roughly 4 miles of rough 4W driving to the trailhead. I had a tricked-out Jeep Wrangler and had no problems crawling along (about 30 minutes). There are a couple of creek crossings and a few sharp and steep hairpin turns, along with some rocky stretches. A typical 2WD automobile would not be able to drive this road.
Last December, Dr. Thomas Gross resurfaced my right hip in Columbia, South Carolina. All those years of running long-distance races finally caught up to me, the osteoarthritis was too far gone, and it was clear that I had reached the end of the line. When I climbed Handies Peak last year, I was in some pain; there was no cartilage left in the joint. I decided it was better to act now, and continue to have an active lifestyle, rather than to be stubborn and likely create even worse health problems.
To make a long story short, the surgery went well and I took my recovery and my physical therapy very seriously. After six months, all restrictions were lifted and I began to try to get myself into “mountain shape”. This included doings lots of swimming, walking, stair workouts, weightlifting, and plyometrics. Even going into August, I had my doubts about whether I could do a 14er this year, but I seemed to turn a corner, both mentally and physically, and decided to give it a go.
My brother-in-law Randy Weaver had been training for a considerable time to go with me. We flew into Denver and took a leisurely two days to drive to Lake City. On Friday, August 10th, we arrived at the Nellie Creek Trailhead. The standard South Ridge Route is well-travelled and easy to follow. The first mile climbs up through the trees and keeps Nellie Creek off to the left. The summit itself, a monolithic block of rock, soon came into view as the trail broke out into a large sweeping valley. We got up to about 12,500′ and set up camp near a spring around 1 PM. A steady rain began to fall and turned into hail at times. I stayed underneath my tarp curled up in my quilt until dinner, when the rain stopped and the sun came out. Randy and I chatted a bit, I did some stretching, ate a little bit, and then went to bed.
Around 6:30 AM, Randy and I set off for the summit. Again, the route was very obvious as the trail headed back to the southwest and made its way to the top of the South Ridge. We headed north along the spine. Near 13,300, the trail became quite steep, but it was a comfortable ascent. The crux of the climb is near 13,800′. There’s a steep Class 2 chute with loose rock you need to scramble up for about 200′. However, if you pick your line carefully, it will not represent a big challenge. Once through the chute, it is an easy ramble for about 0.25 mile to get to the summit plateau. I will confess I was a little misty-eyed as I got to the summit. Last December, I honestly could not say for certain that I would be able to ever climb a 14er again …
The views of the San Juans, including the neighboring 14er Wetterhorn Peak, are spectacular (see the pictures below). Randy did a very good job in his second 14er and my right hip held up just fine. Since the route is an out-and-back, we just retraced our steps, paying close attention to down climbing the chute. It was a beautiful, cool, sunny day and we made it back to the car just after lunch time.
It looks like this will be my only 14er of the year, but given the circumstances, I am grateful I had the opportunity. Climbing Uncompahgre Peak using the standard approach is straightforward; I’d have no reservations taking someone on this trip for their first 14er if they were trained and in shape. I am going to give it about a 2.5 on a 1-to-10 scale of 14er difficulty. Hope to see you out in the Colorado mountains next year.