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Peak(s):  Mt. Wilson  -  14,246 feet
Post Date:  05/20/2012
Date Climbed:   05/19/2012
Posted By:  sstratta

 Mt. Wilson - North Face from the Navajo Lake TH   

On 5/19/12 I climbed Mt. Wilson from the Navajo Lake Trailhead. I figured I'd write this report since it might be useful to anyone looking to do this route as a snow climb and/or ski descent in the spring, since most of the trip reports out there are from the summer.

I purposely climbed this 14er solo, and for a few reasons. First, when I climb a mountain solo, I am forced to rely only on my abilities, my route-finding, and my knowledge. No one else's. It allows me to test my skills, encounter my own fears, and overcome them using my own capabilities. I am forced to be a leader for the entire day, whereas when I am with other people I sometimes just fall back and follow what they are doing. Plus, most of the other people I hike/climb/ski with are guys, and for some reason I think being a girl causes this to happen even more often. Especially on harder routes. So, that being said, periodically I force myself to do something difficult by myself so that I can recognize my abilities, fears, and work on improving them. I know not everyone agrees with climbing difficult routes solo (such as my parents), and I definitely let someone know where I'm going, but for me, I enjoy it sometimes and in a lot of ways the benefits outweigh the risks. This is the reason why I climbed Capitol solo two summers ago, and this is why I chose to climb Mt. Wilson solo.

With four 14ers left to climb, this one was the most difficult on the list (although I doubt Little Bear will be a walk in the park either). For some reason, after everything I had heard and read about the loose rock and the crux on the summit ridge, I was a little scared to climb this mountain. I've always had a fear of heights, and I find that the only way I can lessen this fear and be more comfortable on exposed routes is if I expose myself to them on a regular basis. However, I hadn't climbed anything class 4 since last Fall, so I knew I would be a little more intimidated than usual. But what better way to re-introduce myself than a trip down to the San Juans - arguably the coolest part of Colorado?

I decided to climb the north side of Mt. Wilson since I figured it was holding the most snow. Plus, I had already been up the Silver Pick and Kilpacker approaches last Fall for Wilson Peak and El Diente, so Navajo Basin would be a new adventure. I also wanted to do this as a snow climb (or possible ski descent, but I decided against that), that way I could avoid all the loose rock that one would encounter in the summer. Looking back, this was definitely a wise choice!

Anyways, I slept at the TH the night before and woke up at 2:15am. Usually before climbs like this I'm paranoid of not allowing myself enough time to summit before either thunderstorms hit or the snow softens, so I wanted to make sure to give myself a lot of time. During the night though, I was woken up at 11pm by a hailstorm, complete with thunder and lightning. I laid there for half an hour imagining that it was snowing heavily on the summit, and I would get up there tomorrow to find 10 feet of fresh snow on the summit ridge. I imagined climbing over the class 4 crux, trying to hang on to snow-covered rock, then slipping and falling to my death. But that obviously didn't happen. Luckily when I got up the sky was clear, and I left the TH at 2:40am. There was no moon out, so the stars were AMAZING. It was like I was hiking underneath a rainbow the entire way to Navajo Lake, since the milky way was so bright.

I made the mistake of watching "The top 100 classic hits of the 90's" on VH1 the day before, which included Celine Dion's "My heart will go on". So, I had the pleasure of having this song stuck in my head for the entire day (yes, the ENTIRE day). Not sure why my brain picked that song out of the list...even "Ice Ice Baby" by Vanilla Ice would've been more enjoyable! Anyways, I got to Navajo Lake at 5am, just as it was starting to get light to the east. I wanted to get a good picture of the lighting over the lake though, so I hung out for 20 mins until it got lighter. Plus, I knew the snow wasn't even getting close to softening up, so I could spare a few minutes. Just before I got to the lake I passed by a tent, and would later watch the three people camping here climb the North Face of El Diente while I climbed up Mt. Wilson. After that I followed the trail around the lake and into the upper basin. I encountered much more snow up here, but it was firm enough that I never post-holed and didn't need my snowshoes. In fact, I stashed them by some rocks right below the shoulder that curves around to the NE ridge of Mt. Wilson.
Navajo Lake early in the morning

Navajo Lake and Dolores Peak

Mt. Wilson (left) and El Diente ridge

NE ridge (standard route)

Mt. Wilson's north face

El Diente's north face

NE ridge standard route

Gladstone Peak

heading up the north face

El Diente and Navajo Basin

I continued to follow the standard route up the shoulder and towards the north face. In hindsight I could've climbed up the north face directly towards the summit (on snow of course), but in the morning I still wasn't sure which notch I was aiming for (or which "bump" in the ridgeline was in fact the summit) so I figured it might be best to stick to the cairns. I didn't see that many though, so once I got pretty high on the shoulder and hit a larger snowfield I just put on my crampons, took out my axe, and climbed straight up in the general direction of the summit. Eventually I saw some old ski tracks coming down from a col near the summit, and since that route had snow the enire way, I decided on that.

I got up to the col and found myself looking directly down into the Kilpacker drainage. Amazing views from up there! However, that's when I got a little confused. I wasn't sure where the summit was...there was a highpoint on both my right and left side. I remembered reading how to get to the summit from the standard route once it met up with the NE ridge, however, by this point I knew I wasn't on the standard route. I decided that the highpoint to my left looked taller, and plus, it looked like there was a feasible way to cross over to the next gully, where I could see if that was in fact where the standard route met up with the summit ridge. Turns out it was. The highpoint to my right was "West Wilson", and as I made my way over to the actual Mt. Wilson, I soon realized Mt. Wilson was significantly taller.

One thing I enjoy so much about harder mountains is that feeling you get when you first look at a route and think, "There's no way I can climb that", and then you do climb it successfully. That's exactly what happened when I first saw the summit ridge from the top of the col. However, I was only looking at one side of it...fortunately the other side was a little less intimidating (although a fall would still be pretty bad).

The traverse over to the summit ridge wasn't that bad - a mix of rock, snow, and ice, and I kept my crampons on the entire time. Once I traversed over to the base of the summit ridge I knew I was back on the standard route since I saw a cairn up on one of the large boulders along the ridge leading to the summit, plus I recognized this ridge from the photos I had looked at. To get here I had to climb maybe 10 feet up the uppermost part of a gully that led down into the Kilpacker drainage...I assume this is where you would climb up if you approached from this side (the gully was mostly snow-free until you got further down into the drainage and hit snow, in case anyone was wondering).
Kilpacker approach

"west wilson"

summit + summit ridge and my route to get back over to the standard route

Wilson Peak and where the standard route comes up

Lizard Head and Slate Creek approach

Now to get to the summit. Not gonna lie, the ridge looked terrifying. This is where I knew that if I was with other people, and they knew the route and what they were doing, I wouldn't be scared at all. But it was just me and the mountain. There were no other people nearby (the closest were the three climbing up El Diente, and two people I saw over on Wilson Peak), and I would have to deal with the consequences of a fall on my own. But it had to be done. I knew I could climb this route, it was just a matter of swallowing my fear, studying the route, making careful decisions, and executing them.
summit ridge

So after a few minutes (or was it 30?) of going through all that in my mind, I took off my crampons and axe, left them at the base of the ridge, and started up. I forced myself not to focus on the exposure but rather the move directly in front of me. That helped a lot. There was some snow and ice to deal with in between a few of the rocks along the ridge, but I still didn't need my crampons or ice axe. I soon reached the "crux", the big boulder directly on top of the ridge that you can either climb up directly (class 4) or climb around to the left (apparently keeping it class 3). I was a sissy and climbed around it...had I been with others I might've attempted to climb it directly. But I didn't care, because soon after that part I reached the summit!

Luckily the clouds that had formed in the morning weren't developiong into thunderstorms, so I hung out for half an hour on the summit taking pictures, eating, and just enjoying myself. I noticed on the summit register that some 8-year old kid had been up here on his 51st 14er...so hardcore! However, unfortunately on climbs like this you can never feel fully "satisfied" with the climb yet, because you still have to go down! So while I would've liked to stay up there for a few more hours, descending the ridge was still haunting part of my brain and wouldn't go away until I was safely back down in Navajo Basin.
El Diente and the traverse

Chicago Basin

Mt. Sneffels - in and out of the clouds all day

I didn't think the downclimb was as bad as going up, since I knew what to expect this time. Again, it was tempting to downclimb the class 4 crux, but I went around it instead. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I reached my crampons/ice axe again, and from that point on it was smooth sailing. I went back around to the route I had climbed up, since the upper portion of the standard route that leads to the summit ridge was snow-free, and I wanted to climb down on snow. I was able to plunge step the entire way down the north face, since now that I had a clear view of a continuous line of snow leading down into the basin, I didn't feel the need to follow my route back around to the shoulder.
Looking down at the crux on the summit ridge

The snow was perfect for descending, it was soft enough so that I could plunge step, but not soft enough yet to worry about wet slides. However, it would've been a lot more fun on skis! Originally my plan for this trip was to ski the north face, but as the weekend got closer and plans developed for Friday and Sunday, I realized I had to climb this as a day trip, which meant a lighter load was better. In hindsight it was a good call, since there was a lot of old wet slide debris on the north face, so the skiing wouldn't have been ideal.
Wilson Peak and old wet slide debris

I took another long break once I got back down into Navajo Basin to where I had stashed my snowshoes. Looking up at the north face and the summit (which I now realized you can see from down in Navajo Basin) gave me such a satisfying feeling and a huge sense of accomplishment. I took off a bunch of layers and hiked back down to Navajo Lake. I saw the group of three descending from El Diente down the north face as I hiked down the basin. I never ended up meeting them, but would've liked to hear how their climb went.
3 climbers on El Diente's north face

Mt. Wilson and most of the route

The snow was a little softer heading down towards the lake than it had been that morning, but I still didn't have a need to use my snowshoes. I continued on past the lake, where I witnessed a pretty epic fight between two marmots. Now I know that marmots can make a wide variety of noises...some that sound pretty human-like! I had some pretty cool views of El Diente and the Kilpacker side as I hiked down to my car, and it was cool to see everything in daylight for a change. I reached my car at 3pm to make for a little over a 12 hour day and 16 mi RT, 5200' gain. Once again I was rewarded immensely by the awesomeness of the San Juans, and I was happy to have reached another 14er summit completely under my own willpower. Thanks for reading!
Navajo Lake + Gladstone Peak in the afternoon

El Diente - Kilpacker side

Red = my ascent, Green = the standard route up to the summit, Blue = my descent

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

  • Comments or Questions
Matt Lemke

Spectacular photos!     05/20/2012 22:06
I can't wait to do these peaks in about a month!


Wilsontastic     05/20/2012 22:22
Congrats on a successful summit! Great pictures too, and a definite help in seeing what conditions are like. Thanks again for posting.


Good stuff     05/20/2012 22:34
Great pics on Wilson Peak.


Nicely Done!     05/20/2012 23:32
You get extra credit for doing it in a day from the Navajo Lake TH and with all that snow. Well done!


Awesome pics of an amazing area     05/20/2012 23:36
Great job soloing this peak in day from the TH, looks like conditions were about perfect! Amazing what we can do when we put our hearts into it.


Way to go!     05/21/2012 02:00
Congrats on a big day out - I think Mt Wilson has been one of my hardest 14ers to date.
One you'll always remember with satisfaction!
Well written TR, too. ”Like!”


Nice work!     05/21/2012 02:11
Way to get it done as a day hike, and solo nonetheless!


Not the only hardcore on the summit!     05/21/2012 02:30
Inspiring! I've done easier solos, but never one of the fearsome ”top 10” or whatever makes one ”too difficult” to do alone... you've given me reason to think about it. Awesome trip and report!


My heart will go on....     05/21/2012 02:56
and on and on and on.... That's the worst. You poor thing.

Excellent work Sarah. Way to go.


loved the report     05/21/2012 02:56
Amazing. Great job!


Successful solo!     05/21/2012 05:08
It's funny which songs pop up during a climb and continue to haunt one for the entire day. There was some recent Messner quote about splitting into three identities when he climbs: one part that does the actual climbing, another that simply watches in an out-of-body manner, and a final part that sings to just about everything.


Thanks     05/21/2012 13:48
The pics are great. Solo is the way to go!


Love it!     05/21/2012 16:39
way to get out and tackle a tough one head on!


Nice Work!     05/21/2012 17:18
We heard you roll through camp, and I'm glad you did, because our plan was to be up by then and in the basin - so thanks for being our alarm clock!

What a beautiful day, huh?!


Awesome!     05/21/2012 23:57
Awesome job! Solo rules - way to push beyond your comfort zone - glad to hear that it was such a great experience!


Thanks!     05/22/2012 00:06
WOW thanks for the comments everyone! you all are so nice. Mtnmaneric - happy to be the alarm clock! I hope I didn't freak you guys out too much hiking by in the dark, since I'm sure I shined my headlamp right on your tents trying to determine what they were. It was cool to watch you three climb up El Diente as I was heading up...looks like your route would've been a fun snow climb. I also saw you guys standing on the summit as I was heading down - congrats!!!


solo     05/22/2012 04:35
Great job on a very hard peak. I also ended up doing this one solo and climbed up/dn the class 4 option. I'd put it in the top half-dozen of my climbing memories that really stand out. Congrats! Now for the countdown.


Awesome Job, Sarah !     05/22/2012 16:22
Wow - very impressive ! I know we talked about getting this one together as a snow climb. Sorry I couldn't join in - I was in Utah running a marathon the day of this climb. Congrats on a tough solo summit !


music     05/23/2012 19:17
On a climb, I inevitably get Billy Joel's ”Second Wind” stuck in my head...you know, whenever my second wind kicks in.....and every time I make a promise to punch Billy Joel in the back of the head if I ever see him in person. Congrats on your summit!


We share the same thoughts     06/01/2012 15:44
you said it exactly the way i would. Climbing solo on a difficult mountain is a mental challenge. Your Awesome! Great TR

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