Uncompahgre National Forest


Climbers and mountaineers in the Uncompahgre National Forest face many challenges, and not all of them come from the mountains. Home to no less than four fourteeners and many more peaks in the 13,000- to 14,000-foot range, the Forest offers an endless number of demanding technical climbs in often harsh conditions. Along with loose rocks, lightning, and snow, though, the crowds that sometimes clog the paths to a few of the summits here create an additional obstacle that frustrates climbers every year.

Uncompahgre Peak
, which at a height of 14,309 feet is the highest peak in the San Juans, is a strenuous but doable hike in the Uncompahgre Wilderness that doesn't require an extensive knowledge of technical climbing. As a result, the trail to the top is one of the most heavily used in the Forest, which puts the delicate ecosystem above the timberline at considerable risk. If you're looking for the solitude that comes with leaving the rest of the world down below, you won't usually find it here.

Neighboring Matterhorn Peak (13,590 feet) is another easy summit that sees frequent use. For more technical but less crowded climbs in this region, experienced cragsmen go for Coxcomb (13,656 feet), whose rooster-crest summit ridge requires ropes, or the Wetterhorn (14,015 feet), where the easiest summit approach is a Class 3.

Perhaps the most well-known peak in the Forest, along with Uncompahgre, is majestic Mount Sneffels (14,150 feet), crown of the Mount Sneffels Wilderness Area. Perhaps because it is visible from miles around, Mount Sneffels is one of the Uncompahgre's most popular destinations, attracting weekend crowds all intent on scrambling up the scree to an unspeakably awe-inspiring panorama of the San Juans and the Uncompahgre Plateau. Other summits in the same section of range include Dallas Peak (13,809 feet) and Teakettle Mountain (13,819 feet), considered by many to be some of the most difficult climbs in Colorado.

One ascent that's daunted Grizzly Adams types for years is Lizard Head (13,113 feet), which maxes out at a 5.8 before you reach the top. Lying in the Lizard Head Wilderness at the southern edge of the Forest, the peak can claim two fourteeners as neighbors. Both Mount Wilson (14,246) and El Diente Peak (14,159) lie outside the official boundaries of the Uncompahgre National Forest but, like Lizard Head, are a part of the San Miguel section of the San Juans. Rugged and high, these two bad boys are connected by a nearly mile-long ridge that makes it possible to summit both in the same trip.

The peaks in the Forest's wilderness areas, while undoubtedly scraping the most sky, are not the only climbing opportunities in the Uncompahgre. Just outside the southeast border of the Forest, a cluster of five thirteeners offer a variety of climbing possibilities around the Ice Lake Basin. Fuller Peak (13,761 feet), Vermillion Peak (13,894 feet), and Golden Horn (13,780 feet) are all day-hike summits that aren't too difficult. Pilot Knob (13,738 feet) and U.S. Grant Peak (13,767 feet) are major technical climbs for experienced summiteers only.

Rock Climbing
Rock composition in the Telluride area is a combination of sedimentary layers, with intrusive granite and volcanic stocks running through the layers. Most of the climbing in the area is done on loose, fragmented rock. Because the routes are not often climbed and the fragmentation allows for good protection, watch out for loose rock.

Technical climbing (free or aid) can be found approximately 10 miles south of Telluride on Ophir Wall, Ames Wall, and in Cracked Canyon. Drive south on Hwy. 145 to the turn off for the town of Ophir (Ophir Loop). A right turn takes you to Ames Wall and a left turn takes you past the Ophir Wall and Cracked Canyon.

Ophir Wall: Offers multi-pitch climbs ranging in difficulty from 5.6 to 5.10 pitches. Friction slabs, with fixed protection, are located down the left shoulder of the wall. Post Office Crack, a classic 4 or 5 pitch, 5.7 - 5.8 climb, is located in the middle of the wall beginning with a difficult chimney. The wall also offers a number of aid climbs.

East Buttress: This area is located just right of Ophir Wall. It offers 1 and 2 pitch climbs ranging in difficulty from 5.3 - 5.10. The Buttress also lends itself to descent routes for Ophir Wall and Cracked Canyon.

Cracked Canyon: This area has super climbing for the beginner (right side) up to the expert (left side). All climbs are one pitch and range in difficulty from 5.6 to 5.11. The climbs in this area are the most well-defined, clean routes.

Ames Wall: Located just behind the town of Ames, the wall offers 2 to 4 pitch climbs ranging in difficulty from 5.6 and up. Due to the stratification of rock types (granite, sandstone, shale), the climbing is challenging even on the less difficult pitches.

Telluride Cliffs: This cliff band is located just above the Telluride School. The band is easily accessible by Aspen Street. Climbs are short (20 to 55 feet) and can be top roped in most places. Rock is red sandstone.

Needle Rock: This is a spire located on the north facing ridge above town. Easily seen from north hillside of town. The route is a 5.8/5.9 double pitch climb requiring a double rope rappel.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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