Ouray Canyoning: Wetterhorn with Ira Lewis
Short Version (from Ira):
5:45am - wake up
6:30am - gear packed
6:45am - stash Tom's car in a place where he gets a ticket
8:30am - arrive at the end of the dirt offroad at the base of Oben. One very dented skid plate later.
12:00pm - arrive at saddle, high point for the day
3:00pm - arrive into Wetterhorn Creek after 2 raps from the tributary. We tried to descend a tributary, but found out quickly that it dropped off in the crumbly choss of the Canyon Right side of Wetterhorn. We descended the majority of the way to Wetterhorn on the ridge between tributaries, then rappelled the rest of the way amidst booming afternoon thunder and rain that caused Wetterhorn to flow muddy for 30min.
5:00pm - arrive at the big rappel, the 6th of the day. 200' into an area with initially suspect snow bridges
7:00pm - get past the snow bridge. This section took us a while. It was tricky to get the rope pull and re-ascending would have been tricky as we carefully pendulumed to avoid a menacing hydraulic. Luckily we didn't have to traverse under the snow bridge, we could walk over the top of it.
7:45pm - done with Wetterhorn! Cow Creek and 3.14 miles as the crow flies remains.
1:15am - arrive back at the trailhead/truck
2:45am - pull into camp in Ouray (no more dents to the skid plate).
What a day! high concern was placed on the water volume and we were really lucky that there wasn't a geometry issue where we had to face the full flow. We were also lucky to do this canyon in late July. I suspect in late June it would have been draining more snowmelt than we'd have wanted. For the most part the canyon was pretty and easily downclimbable. Options existed to rappel outside the flow at every rappel. Rock type in Cow Creek remains uniquely bizarre. Chossy pinnacles abounded for the whole day. The walk back in Cow Creek remains uneventful, long, and an unnecessary part of the day in all of our opinions.
Summary: amazing place to experience! One hell of a place to explore. The pay to play ratio is horrendously out of whack. We did it, so you don't have to. Or, take the beta and have a big day out. I would advise going no sooner in the season than we did and later is better.
We were in Ouray for Wayne and Laura's wedding, which went well. Ira invited me on an exploration - Wetterhorn Creek - presumably because he knew I enjoyed suffering -- certainly not for my uphill speed. Also on the team was Chris Hood from Salt Lake and Lori Shindel from Denver. We drove up the Cow Creek "road", which was an adventure in itself. Glad it was Ira's brand new well-insured Tacoma, rather than a lesser vehicle. Parked among the big trees at 8300 feet. From there, the trail went UP!
Chris and Ira had done the canyon next door the year before, Roostertail, and word was that this was the LAST, the furthest and the most painful canyon to do in this sector. Though not much used, we did have a good trail to follow up through the woods, up across some meadows, up to a pass, up up up up up... our high point 11,800. While I live at 5200 feet, I don't get above that much, so I was getting whipped by the thin air.
Thankfully at this point, we started working our way down. There was considerable uncertainty concerning how we were going to get in, but clearly going down was the way to start, so we did. Down a meadow and some tree area, then into a streambed that was clean and nice but ended at a potential big cliff, traversed to the side to find some more trees, down to where that dropped off, etc. We could see the canyon bottom below, but it took us a while to figure out how to get there, finally finding a short rappel off the side of a ridge into a streambed, that lead down to the main stream without too much difficulty.
It was raining - hey, it was 3 pm in Ouray, in summer - of course it was raining. We hemmed and hawed briefly, but were short on time, so decided to move on shortly. The water in the stream changed color... not a good sign. But the real question was - will the canyon be kind to us. There was enough water in the creek that getting the full face shot with that would be not so good, but the canyon bottom seemed to be wide, and downclimbing (and rappelling) along the side would probably work. We tiptoed downward, occasionally setting rappels from rocks, etc. The scenery was phantastic - and in wonderful pillars of bad rock soared around us on each side. We wove back and forth across the waterflow, finding reasonable downclimbs for most of the course.
But... toward the end, it started steepening up and then it plunged over an edge. Setting up the rope, I scuttled to the edge on belay to work out the geometry. Hmm, can't go to the right because that is where the bottom part of the waterfall converges. I see a ledge with some blocks on it and grab the lead, rapping the corner of the waterfall and down to what turns out to be a small, sloped ledge. I got off rope and started setting up a rappel anchor. I tossed a sling around a big block and tugged on it pretty good - looks like it will work!
I climbed a few feet above it and pulled out the rest of my lunch to wait for the others to come down. After a few minutes rest and a few bites to each, I stood up on the large block and... it moved!!! Yikes! Unnoticed by me, when I rapped down there I changed the ground a bit and some water started flowing over to the block, lubricating the bottom of it. I gave the block a good nudge and it tumbled off, a 500 pound trundle, breaking into chunks and bouncing down into the whitewater chute below the waterfall. Ooops! The other possible blocks to tie off for an anchor no longer looked very good.
No action from above yet, so I slapped a Micro-Traxion self-belay on the rope and climbed up the edge of the waterfall. Ira was just getting ready to commit over the edge when I made my appearance. "My anchor fell off" I told him. We revised the plan.
I rapped back down to my little perch, and Chris extended the rope to the full 200 feet as I kept the bottom under control. Ira came down and we kicked all the loose blocks off below us (quite a few), then Ira rapped down to the bottom, angling a bit to miss penduluming into the falls. While Chris and Lori were setting up the pull rope, I rapped down to Ira, and we figured out how we thought this all was going to work out. The pull was very uncertain, so we had a backup plan in the pocket in the case that the rope would not move. Where we were was a comfortable ledge tucked into the edge of a chunk of snow. I was beginning to bonk, so I pulled out food, water and all my warm clothes and spent some time getting my cac together, while Ira figured out the next section and Lori and Chris came on down.
Ira pieced together the geometry to get us out of there, while Chris rapped down and together they got the pull started. Much to our surprise, the pull worked, though requiring considerable pulling, and the rope falling down into the waterfall did not get stuck. After packing up, the next section involved climbing up onto a BIG chunk of snow that bridged the creek for 100 feet. Down at the toe, we did a quick, Utah-style assisted downclimb into the streambed. From there, no other technical obstacles remained - it was just walking.
Quite a bit of walking, of course. Rough work that, along the side of Cow Creek, sometimes on the gravel benches along the side, then either into or across the river, or up into the woods on the side. It was slow going. Even maintaining a good energy level and with good headlamps (thanks Chris), we were making less than a mile an hour. At least we were all suffering!
Back to the car for an amazing snack (thanks Ira), then the rough drive out, pick up my car in town (ticket: no parking at the Hot Springs after 11 pm, $35), back to the campground (thanks Malia) and quickly to bed. We had the BESTEST EVER breakfast the next morning. My 8 hour drive home was painful, but non-eventful.
Not destined to become a classic.