Finisher Weekend in the Soggy and Brooding San Juans
Mountains: Mt. of the Holy Cross (Day 1), Wilson Peak (Day 2), Mt. Wilson and El Diente (Day 3), Sneffels (Day 5) with a detour to the base of Lizard Head (Day 4) Climbers: nkan02 (solo) Dates: 7/4/12 - 7/8/12 Trip Totals: ~56 miles, 20,600' vertical
Day 2 – Wilson Peak from Silver Pick/Rock of Ages TH
July 5th, 2012
Route: Rock of Ages TH/Silver Pick basin
Distance: ~9 miles RT, 4,000 elevation gain, 8.5 hours
I had July 5-6 off – for the sole purpose of driving to Telluride and climbing the Wilsons group, but given the weather forecast – 60-70% chance of rain every day, I was strongly considering moving my vacation days to the following week. I am fairly certain though that my boss did not need yet another reminder that it is my work that revolves around my hiking schedule & not the other way around, and he could probably just say no. Checking with the home base on the 4th and obtaining a confirmation that I would at least have 5 to 9 am weather window on both Thursday & Friday (with far bleaker forecast for Saturday & Sunday), I decided to give it a try.
My original plan was to hike into Navaho Lake and attempt both Wilson Peak and Mt. Wilson from there and then hike out, drive to Kilpacker and attempt the traverse from El Diente. However, my hike of Mt. of the Holy Cross on the 4th did not give me enough time to both drive to Telluride and to do the hike in. I was not ready to start with the traverse, which left just one option – Wilson Peak from Silver Pick/Rock of Ages TH, where I made it to around 10pm. With a 9 mile roundtrip, I was shooting for a 4.30am start, with one alarm set for 3.30am, and the second one for 4.00am. It turns out I only heard the 2nd alarm. Dang, that was getting late. I started hiking at 5am, but did not feel as strongly as the day before. Combined with a little detour near the Rock of Ages saddle (I somehow managed to lose the trail and was forced to do the ascending traverse on not so pleasant scree which cost me valuable time and energy), I made to the saddle around 9am, just in time to see the weather starting to move in, and summits of both El Diente and Mt. Wilson already shrouded in milky clouds. The summit ridge of Wilson Peak was still clear, but I knew not to take it for granted. I found Wilson Peak to be really fun – just the right mix of scrambling, route finding, exposure & loose rock to make things interesting, but not menacing – and it was probably my favorite peak of this week’s bunch. I found myself on the summit around 9.50am enjoying stunning views of Lizard Head & Sneffels. I really wished I could stay longer, but considering the weather, I left the summit sometime after 10am, meeting just one other group of 2 quickly ascending the peak as I was descending (and I saw a number of groups of 2 & 3 people turning around earlier). I made sure not to miss the proper trail leading from the ROA saddle back to the Silver Pick basin and made reasonably good time. The weather stayed nice until about 1.30pm, when I got soaked 10 minutes away from my car. Well, that was refreshing!
Near ROA saddle
A rather unpleasant scree near ROA saddle
First look at Mt. Wilson & El Diente from ROA saddle
Gladstone & Mt. Wilson
On the summit ridge
On the summit looking at Gladstone & Mt. Wilson
Advantage of being shorter (Gladstone is a 13er)
Some fun Class 3 scramble near WP-Gladstone saddle
Descending into Silver Pick basin - no missing trail this time
Route: SW slopes up Mt. Wilson, traverse to El Diente, descent via South slopes to Kilpacker TH
Distance: 14.5 miles RT, 4,900 elevation gain, ~15 hours
After leaving the ROA TH, I got some late lunch in Telluride, which took a while (for some reason, everything was moving in slow motion) and started driving to Kilpacker TH. The rain would not let from 1.30pm to well after 7pm. Trying to recover from 2 days of hiking, it only made sense to go to sleep early.
Kilpacker TH is very nice and easy to get to even in my wimpy outdoor vehicle (Subaru) and the campsites are as good as they get with stunning views of El Diente (well, when it is not raining or hailing). The alarm was set for an ungodly hour of 2am, but I was getting really worried about all the rainfall the mountains were receiving – Wilson Peak earlier in the day was very soggy, and both El Diente and Mount Wilson would not be too much fun (or even safe) with all that wet rock. The alarm went off at 2am, but I was not convinced that hiking today would be a good idea. After hitting several snooze buttons, I finally got going around 3am, and on the trail at 3.45 am (likely too late for trying to get both peaks). I was moving a bit slow, but not too horribly slow for the 3rd hiking day in a row (getting about 7 hours of sleep certainly helped). Kilpacker trail is very gentle and easy to follow, even in the dark. I reached the lower waterfall & campsites @10,700 feet around 5.20am, just as the dawn was breaking, but it took me awhile to get above the upper waterfall. The weather did not look promising at all – gray clouds were sitting atop of both El Diente & Mount Wilson from 6 am in the morning, just as I was taking my first long break. It was decision time – should I go for El Diente, Mount Wilson or both? Weather was not great, but was not deteriorating further either, and, as the experience of the past couple of days showed, it could hold for a few hours.
How did I end up in the Pacific Northwest?
I was curious about the SW slope route on Mount Wilson, but I was not entirely comfortable downclimbing it. On the other hand, my research (recent TRs and conditions updates) showed that El Diente route is well marked & relatively stable, so it should not be a big problem on the descent. Hence, I decided to go for Mt Wilson first. To my great surprise and relief, the route was not nearly as loose as I was expecting. In fact, I thought it was pretty stable up to 13,800 feet. There were multiple boulder fields to cross, but the rock quality & stability was similar to Pyramid’s Amphitheater and North Maroon’s boulder field. There were no cairns as far as I could tell after approximately 12K, but the route finding is relatively straightforward - the goal is to ascend to the higher basin and near 13,800 feet reach the base of the gullies leading to the summit.
Boulder field on the way to Mt. Wilson
Route finding after 13,800ft became the biggest issue – even after reading multiple TRs on the route, I was not entirely sure which gully to take. Out of several gullies, two seemed like viable options. I took the most obvious gully on the left, as the one next to it looked steeper initially, but about halfway up, I decided to switch gullies (similar to the East/West gully switch on Crestone Needle). I did not think the route exceeded 2+/3 class difficulty (although great care has to be exercised not to dislodge any rocks). I hugged the right side of the second (right) gully as it appeared to be more stable.
Ten minutes after 9am I made the summit, just in time to see 2 climbers skillfully negotiating the crux on the standard, Class 4 route – quite a sight to see!
On the summit of Mt. Wilson
Dan (dannymiller15) and Lou at the crux of Mt. Wilson
Gladstone & Wilson Peak
My next look was across the ridge to El Diente – and miraculously, with overcast sky, the ridge itself was clear of clouds. The traverse was in! After introductions and a brief stay on the summit, by 9.30am, all three of us were off.
El Diente - the traverse is in!
The downclimbing the crux on Mt. Wilson was interesting and I was glad to have company and helpful tips (and awesome action shots) that came with it. Alas, Lou and Dan were descending the Northeast ridge route back to the Navajo Lake and we parted ways on the saddle at the beginning of the traverse.
Navigating the crux.
Dan & Lou starting the descent back to Navajo Lake
I did the Crestone Peak to Needle traverse last year, and thought that it was pretty straightforward, so I reasoned the El Diente – Mt. Wilson traverse should be within my abilities, as it was supposed to be slightly easier. I started on the proper traverse exactly at 10am. One drawback of doing the route in reverse (i.e. going from Mt. Wilson to El Diente as opposed to the other way) became obvious very quickly – the 14ers.com route description as well as cairns appear to favor the route going from El Diente to Mt. Wilson.
The traverse took just over 3 hours, a bit longer than I hoped for, with a lot of time spent reading the route description & trying to figure out which side of the ridge had to be climbed over and around. It was as if I was reading the script backwards – first, look back and read the route description that matches the part I just cleared. Then read the paragraph just above it to see what needs to be done in the current section. All photos of the route were as if in the rear-view mirror. Oh well. The cairns were also harder to spot going towards El Diente, but I could see them fairly easily if I looked backwards.
Remaining route to El Diente
Rock is mostly dry, but occasionally, you'll get a puddle
The first part of the traverse, i.e. the initial ~0.2 miles was particularly slow going. As the traverse was taking longer than expected, the weather started to move in and out, bringing light snow with it now & then (but no hail, rain, thunder or lightning).
I thought the Class 3 crux was the most fun climbing on the traverse – multiple downclimbing options were available (I counted at least 3 or 4) and it could be made as easy or as difficult as one desires.
Downclimbing the crux - Class 3 section
The easy Class 2 section
By the time I reached gendarmes, I was getting tired, so maybe because of that they did not seem to be as easy as expected. At some point, I found myself too high on the ridge and had to backtrack my steps – it's better be safe than cliffed out.
Negotiating the section around gendarmes
I almost missed the fact that I reached some gully that leads to some saddle where I found two poles. Great, thought I, there must be people on the summit. Only as I was climbing the last 200 feet to my final 14er summit, it occurred to me that the poles marked the turn-off to the standard Kilpacker trail. It was a nice “aha” moment.
The gully leading to the saddle where Kilpacker & the North face routes merge
The final stretch between the saddle and the summit was reasonably stable and very well cairned. Finally, after just over 3 hours on the traverse, I reached the summit (or at least I thought I did), but I could not find the register or the geological marker right away. After traversing back and forth between a couple of false summits, and not before pulling out the 14ers.com route description one more time, I was able to locate the actual summit and to find the register (yet another curveball!) to sign in for my 14er #58!
On the summit but cannot find the register yet
Here it is!
I don’t think it hit me just yet, so as normal, I settled in to refuel and to enjoy the views. But soon it started raining and snowing again, and it was time to go.
Wet, slick rock
The rain made the rock really slick, so I exercised great caution in getting back to the saddle, which slowed me down considerably. The poles were still there (they turned out to be RJansen77's poles which he left earlier in the day), so I picked them up. The weight was not an issue – I drank most of the water and ate most of the food at that point, and my pack was light to begin with. I was excited to start descending the South slopes route down to the Kilpacker trail, which I heard so many good things about.
The gully that marks the start of the Kilpacker trail
The obvious problem became apparently almost immediately – I could not locate the trail with certainty. I was seeing plenty of cairns leading to the traverse, but no clear path down. I marked the Kilpacker trail turn-off on my GPS down in the valley, but it was about 2,000 feet lower. After traversing the slope for some time back and forth to no avail, and with rain intensifying, I picked the most acceptably looking gully and started the descent.
Wet rock slows things down a bit
I *think* I took the wrong path since the route turned out to be extremely loose! I was very careful on slick rock, but still managed to dislodge multiple rocks with every other step – glad there was nobody below me at this late (~2pm) time of the day. The route was not technical (never really above Class 2+) but very loose. Occasionally, I was able to pick a more solid rock rib, which mitigated rockfall risk considerably. It took me a long time to get down to 12K, as again, I was reading the route description in reverse, trying to figure out my juxtaposition on the mountain – I *thought* I was able to identify the hallmarks of the route – i.e. the red rock rib, but never saw a cairn that would tell me – “you are on the route!” Finally, I was able to see the Class 2 approach trail down below and angled to merge with it around 4pm.
Red rock rib
Very loose talus
Less loose but slick rock
The approach trail finally becomes visible
About an hour later, as I was hiking near the waterfalls, the weather completely cleared and the sun came out – the sight I haven’t seen in what it seemed like days. It looked like the mountain was smiling – and I was smiling as well. After meeting and chatting with some friendly folks along the trail I reached the car at 7pm in high spirits – the monsoon weather and the brooding mountains still allowed me to accomplish my goal – to summit my final 14er.
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