| Stress, Struggle, and Success on The Wilsons
Climbers: Zambo & John
Distance: 11 Miles
Vertical Feet: 7,100
Time: 18 hours (3:00 AM - 9:00 PM)
Conditions: A few small fields in Silver Pick Basin to cross, but nothing dangerous or difficult. The ascent up to Wilson Peak's summit is completely dry. Dropping into Navajo Basin is clear as well. Climbing up El Diente's North Slopes route was a nightmare as the snow runs out half-way up the coulior. The North buttress route is highly recommended as an alternative. The traverse was clear again, as is most of the descent off of Mt. Wilson's Northeast ridge. A few snowfields offer limited glissading opportunities, which may or may not have been worth it.
Summary: I am not the world's greatest mountaineer. Far from it. While I have spent much time in the hills, there is always much more to be learned and many more mistakes to be made. Our climb of the Wilson's in a day was a long and arduous struggle. The long day, poor route choice, loose rock, and challenges of the traverse made for a very mentally challenging outing. However, despite the difficulties and the scares, we were blessed to be successful on these imposing peaks. Some experience needs to be gained, and some lessons need to be taught the hard way.
Our journey began with a long weekend spent on Lake Dillon prior to heading down to Telluride. During our stay, we were given a firsthand look at the smoke and haze rising from all corners of the state all weekend. The long drive to Telluride gave us a view of this across the whole state. Cresting The Dallas divide, Sneffles and its sub-peaks were covered in an unsightly haze. The lack of snow this season has made for some terrific early-season 14ering, but it is a major concern and struggle for just about everything else.
Below: Even with the smoky views, it is still difficult to take a bad picture of the Dallas Divide.
Below: One of my favorite parts about climbing the peaks is the excuse to visit all corners of the state. An evening saloon dinner in Telluride with the Blue Grass Festival in full-swing is up there on that list of highlights.
Arriving at Rock of Ages late that Sunday night, we found only one other car in the lot. Curiously, as we were getting ready for bed around 10:00, a crew of three guys came lumbering off the trail. “Where in the world have these guys been?” I thought to myself. I knew the Wilson's is a big day, but I couldn’t quite understand how anyone could be coming off the trail that late at night. They hastily threw their gear into the truck and were gone before I had a chance to ask.
“Strange,” I thought, “Something must have happened to them.” Leaving it at that, I rolled up into my bag to enjoy the 2 hours of sleep before the long day ahead, not knowing how much their finish would foreshadow the day to come. A 2:30 wake up had us on the trail by 3:00. We departed alone from Rock of Ages.
The entire hike to the saddle was done in the dark. Walking through Silver Pick Basin was an eerie experience. Although we could see very little, we could almost feel the massive piles of dirt and scree towering over us like sleeping giants ready to wake on either side of our path. We were completely alone, it was cold, the wind was up, and we could hear the strange cries of the mountain from heights unseen above. As I trudged past old mining ruins, cables, and tailings, it only drove me faster onwards to the saddle. It was unnerving to say the least.
Below: But what hope and promise the dawn brings! Cresting the Rock of Ages Saddle at daybreak, our spirits were renewed at the promise of the coming day. The view of the Wilson's from here is spectacular.
Below: The first goal for the morning, Wilson Peak welcomes the dawn.
As others have reported, the climb from the saddle to Wilson Peak is as clear as it can be right now. We found the initial slopes to be annoyingly loose, but the rock quality only improved as we ascended.
Below: Finally making it to the ridge crest, where the rock improves somewhat.
Below: Looking North from ~13,800.
Below: Along the final crack systems to the summit. By far the most enjoyable Class 3 climbing of the morning.
Below: One of three complete! We were able to summit approximately one hour after departing the saddle. While slightly surprised by the rotten quality of the rock, overall we enjoyed the trip up and were in high spirits.
Below: Hero shot. (John)
Below: Gladstone Peak. (John)
We were able to descend back to the saddle only slight faster than we had climbed. Sitting there again, I knew it was a good time to take stock of our situation before plunging down some 800 feet and committing ourselves to the next two peaks. There were many miles and many feet left to cover. Escape once on the Mt. Wilson massif would be difficult and time consuming. However, we felt great, the weather was perfect, and the traverse looked inviting.
I also had some internal conflict as I surveyed and planned the route up El Diente. Our original plan was to ascend the couloir off of El Diente’s North face, followed by the traverse over to Mt. Wilson. This is the ‘standard’ direction to do the traverse, and I had been given advice from multiple parties that ascending El Diente first was the best option. However, looking at the couloir I found myself frustrated and nervous.
The snow ran out about half way up the route. I knew that the upper portions of the climb would be loose, but a passing climber from the Navajo side warned us that it was one of the most rotten climbs he had ever done. A mix of steep snow climbing followed by loose choss did not sound like fun. I was also kicking myself for not having the necessary beta on the North Buttress route. If there were any mistakes made on this day, not adequately planning both route options was by far and away the biggest and mine alone. I was angry at myself for not preparing like I should have on these challenging peaks. It would have been very nice to have both options.
However, like I said, we were feeling good to this point and we opted to go for the couloir. We could see the sun had been warming almost all of snow for some time now, this was in fact, a well-known route, and hey, how loose could it really be?
The privilege of hindsight now informs me what a dumb thought that was…
Below: Dropping down into Navajo Basin was quick and straightforward. From here, you can see our ascent line in red.
Below: Reaching the base of the couloir, we figured we would have soft snow up to about 13,000ft. After that, I assumed it would be short enough to not cause any real headaches.
Below: Standing at the base of the couloir ready for some snow. The rocks at left are evidence of just how rotten the layers underneath are.
We were able to move quite well on the snow itself. It was soft and we followed the steps of a previous climber up the chute. We were surprised at just how long it took to reach the upper portions of the route. El Diente is no small peak, and the snow climbing seemed to drag on.
At some point along the way, things took a turn. As we got higher into notch, we encountered snow which was not quite softened up yet. Lacking crampons, we felt it far too dangerous to continue for the final 100 feet on this bullet-proof layer. However, this also left us with few options. We eventually opted to climb on the more solid rock to the right of the notch. While relatively stable, this climbing was not easy: class 4 moves abounded with the prospect of a hard fall onto icy snow below. Quickly realizing the foolishness and danger of this option, John and I agreed to traverse to the other side of the couloir which had dried out by now. I assumed the choss on the other side had to be better than the difficult climbing we were finding on our end. This decision quickly turned things from mildly frustrating to downright maddening.
I thought I had been on loose rock before. Usually when you hear a route is “loose” my experience tells me it typically means something along the lines of “there are some loose rocks…just be careful…test holds…try not to knock anything down…it’s not THAT bad…etc.” While most of these routes have indeed been challenging and dangerous, thus far I had never really been in a situation where the “looseness” was all that challenging (that includes things like the Bells, Pyramid, Capitol, etc.) Still, I did not really have a category for just how bad the North Slopes route on El Diente is.
Simply put, this was probably the most frustrating and stressful hour of climbing in my life. While not nearly as impressive of a resume as others, I’ve done some fairly sketchy climbing in my short ‘career’: Little Bear in the winter, Bells Traverse (also known for being "loose"), crossed and skied some pretty suspect avy slopes, climbed most of the harder 14ers, etc. None of those were as stressful as this. Literally everything moved. Not a single rock, dirt pile, hold, notch, crack, foot jam, platform, pebble, or boulder was secure on that God-forsaken route. Every move of every limb had to be carefully planned, tested, and executed. More times than not, something which I had initially trusted as secure simply shook or gave out beneath me. Leading the climb, I was even more cognizant of John below. This was not just about keeping me on the mountain, I had to also do my best not to launch any missiles his way.
Below: The stuff of nightmares.
Dictated by lingering snow and ice, the mountain decided where we would climb. More often than not, the only available option was about as crappy as you could hope for.
As all this was going on, I was also thinking about my own planning which brought us here. In retrospect, this route should not EVER be an option in summertime. I was angry that my decision led John to this place, and I was angry and just how much pain, effort, and fear was going into climbing this peak. We had stopped having fun. I am not perfect and I know I have many, many things left to learn in the hills. Climbing that scree pile of rotten crap, I resolved to never forget the day’s lessons as I said a silent prayer for safety and calm.
At long last, we reached the ridge-line. The couloir had taken significantly longer than we expected. Although not all that physically tiring, we were mentally strained. Of course, that was all before the traverse to come….
“What, only another 3+ hours of life-threatening traversing to do? Excellent!”
The first taste of the traverse came as we hiked the .2 miles over to El Diente’s summit. I was thinking about weather and timing at this point, so I pushed us to move quick to the summit and we could reassess from there. Although the exposure and danger eased, we were still fairly unnerved as we rolled to the top of our second peak. We took the opportunity to rest, relax, and size up our situation.
It was 12:30 and I was nervous about the weather and our timing. However, we could not have asked for a more perfect day. Scattered fluffy clouds on the distant horizon were the only hint of any weather issues. Thank God too, as I knew that a descent down the couloir in bad conditions would be about the worst thing imaginable. With that, we saddled up and began the Great Traverse.
Below: The traverse and views from El Diente’s summit.
I found the traverse to be very fun, but also very frightening at times. Unlike other routes out there, there are never really too many majorly exposed sections. While the pucker factor is relatively kept low, what is stressful about the climb is just how loose these piles continue to be. Our route-finding was spot on and everything was well marked and relatively obvious. What was not obvious was which 1,000lb rock was going to move while standing on it, or which handhold was not quite as secure as it first looked. The theme all day had been to plan, test, and carefully survey every single move. This continued in earnest as we crossed the mile long ridge. The fear was no so much about the climbing, as it was hoping the mountain would just hold together.
Also, as usual, my thanks go out to Bill for the excellent beta, pictures, and route description. I know we all love Bill, but I don’t think we can say enough what a great job he does with the online guide book. For anyone looking to tackle this ridge, his description is an excellent resource.
Below: Shooting the notch.
Traversing the grey rock
Moving along, with climbers visible on Mt. Wilson’s summit.
While full of many difficulties and excitement, to me, the unquestioned crux of the route is the steep climbing just past the saddle. Thankfully this is some of the most solid rock on the traverse, the climbing never exceeds Class 4, and the exposure is relatively protected. Nevertheless, this section (along with the steep down climb thereafter) was probably the most challenging section of the traverse.
Admittedly, I ‘commandeered’ this photo from Bill’s route description. It illustrates our route (in red) past this difficulty. After reaching the final blocks on the left side, we opted to look for another way. Although certainly passable, the left blocks were quite a bit more exposed, and it didn’t seem worth the risk. We followed cairns to climbers’ right and found a much more passable option.
Below: Climbing the steep rock and nearing the finish.
Below: A look back down as I await my turn.
Below: Reaching the final scramble to Mt. Wilson’s ridge-line, and a look back from just below the final gulley.
Passing these obstacles, the only remaining challenge was Mt. Wilson’s final ridge. Ready to get things over with, I charged up the final obstacles and surprised myself at how quickly I was on the summit. The final blocks were tricky and highly exposed, but I was too numb at that point to let it get to me.
Standing at the top, the joy which so often come with achieving the summit were not there that day. Instead of being happy and relieved, I found myself angry, impatient, and stressed. Although the traverse had been fun, challenging, and enjoyable, it had also been a big stressor for us. We had been climbing on loose, rotten, life-threatening rock for over 6 hours. Physically we were doing ok, but the mental strain was really starting to wear us thin. While everything had been well within our capabilities and no specific section really ‘got’ to us, we were ready to stop risking our lives on the mountain. I was sick of being so nervous with every single step. I was sick of all the loose rock. I was sick of being strained from concentrating so hard on each move and dealing with exposed climbing without a break for so long.
Simply put, we were ready to go home.
A relatively unhappy summit.
Of course, mentally tired as we were, reaching the top is only half the journey. For my own sanity, I choose to block out as much of the memory of the descent off of Mt. Wilson as I can. We came down the Northeast ridge. As simple as it may look, getting off this thing was just a further exercise in tricky route-finding and horrible, awful loose rock. The hours ticked by as we slowly, carefully made our way back to the basin.
Below: Taken from earlier in the day, this picture also shows the fun once getting down off on Mt. Wilson. Another 800 feet of climbing awaited us as we crawled back to the Rock of Ages Saddle. With 6,300 vert climbed already to that point, there was nothing fun about ascending this again.
Below: Taken from the saddle 15.5 hours in, I forced us to take this picture. No matter how terrible we felt, I knew it would make for a hilarious picture later.
Again, this climb just never seemed to end as we had another 2+ hours back to the TH. Like all climbs, the finish always seemed just barely out of reach. But as always, it eventually comes. We hit the car just before 9:00 PM, a full 18 hours after departing. I am sure this could be done much faster, but we had eaten a lot of time ascending El Diente, stopping to filter water in Navajo basin, and dragging it out on the final sections back to the car. Besides, beyond a certain point, what’s an extra hour or two?
Reflecting on our efforts almost a week later, I feel that this struggle was invaluable experience. As crappy and long of a day that it was, the lessons learned are invaluable. I am a firm believer that every time I do a peak, there should be some lessons to take with me. It's part of the reason I even do these Trip Reports. What you remember today can very well save your life tomorrow. With that in mind, here are a few ramblings that I take away from the experience:
1. Never climb El Diente's North Slopes route without snow.
2. See #1.
3. Nothing beats a good partner. Despite all of the struggles, John and I never turned on each other. Rather, we leaned on one another for support. We found ourselves laughing time and time again during the climb and we always knew we were there for another. There is nothing more valuable than trust in an equal partner in the hills.
4. Study, know, and understand all routes before setting out on a harder peak. It is invaluable to understand all your options.
5. Being physically prepared is only half the battle. When things do not work out as planned, there is no substitute for keeping it together mentally.
6. I can walk for 18 straight hours and actually not feel too destroyed at the end of it!
Thanks for reading this if you made it all the way through. That was a lot of rambling, but like I said, I like to chronicle everything for my own reference as much as anything. I hope some nugget in there was useful to someone else.