This was one of the toughest outings into the mountains that I've ever had. When I finished, I felt like I'd been in a bar fight and sported an impressive collection of bruises and scrapes. I've long wanted to climb these peaks and felt that I'd prefer to do it as a snow climb in order to minimize the risk of rock fall. I didn't have much information on the current conditions but decide to give it a go this past week, the first week of June 2013. I headed down from Denver on Sunday June 2 at about 11 am and reached the Rock of Ages trailhead at 5pm. My plan was to get up as far as I could into the Silver Pick Basin that evening so I could stage my climbs over the next two days. I hiked until I reached a sign indicating that I'd passed the boundary from private property to public lands and set up camp on a platform cut into the snow (preferable to the jagged rocks).
My two days of climbing could not have gone more differently. Day one almost had me beating a hasty retreat back to Denver. I got going on Monday June 3 at 5:30am and started out right from the beginning in my crampons. I followed a solid and continuous snowfield all the way to the Rock of Ages saddle. For some unknown reason, I felt rather tired from the start and was moving quite slowly. I reach the saddle at around 7:00am and the removed the my crampons for the somewhat less snowy descent into Navajo Basin. I reached the base of the north slopes of El Diente at about 7:30am, donned my crampons and helmet and began the slow climb upward. For the most part, the snow was quite solid and easy to climb but I was getting easily gassed and would stop every 10-15 steps.
I was near the entry of the couloir which the defined North Slopes route follows when I decided to modify my route (you can see route on the photo to the right). I cannot be certain but it looked as if the exit point on the couloir had corniced over and I was reluctant the climb up only to get turned back. I could clearly see I point were I could gain the ridge if I veered to the right. I took a diagonal course west across the slope and everything was going fine. Except for the time. By the time I'd reached a narrowing point with about 150 feet of snow left too cross, it was 10am and the sun was really beating down on the slope and softening it considerably. The snow surface could no longer support me and I was swimming in snow up to my chest. I struggled to make upward progress toward my intended target on the ridge and ended up having to work my way left to a steep rock outcropping.
While more stable than the snow, it was difficult to get solid footing in my crampons and winter boots. I tried working my way up what I thought was a reasonable line but got stuck on a particular move. Before I knew it, my foothold gave way and the second and a half that followed were of sheer terror. I was suddenly in an uncontrolled slide down a 2000 foot, 45 degree plus slope. Fortunately, my axe caught in a seam in the rock after about 15 feet. I decided to anchor the axe and tie into the leash so I could change into a pair of light approach shoes while clinging to the rock face as I knew I would struggle in my current footwear. Once I'd changed my shoes, I had little difficulty with the climb up to the ridge and was on the summit at around 11am. My goal was to traverse to Mount Wilson and, though I was tired and it was later than I had wanted, the weather was holding and I had no desire to return the way I'd come and pushed on.
The traverse to Mount Wilson from El Diente
Had I not been so tired, I think I would have really enjoyed the traverse. Due to the conditions, I had to move slowly. While there were long sections that were clear of snow, I would often have to stop to put my crampons back on in order to cross steep snow slopes that often end in a cliff. I did not want to make a mistake and took my time. On two or three occasions, my feet started to slide but I'd always set a solid anchor with my axe and was able to immediately arrest the slide. After completing the high traverse under the gendarmes that blocked the ridge crest, it occurred to me that I did not have my camera. I realized that I must have set it down while change out my crampons and then then failed to pick it up again. I dropped my pack and started to head back in order to find it. Once I reached one of the more difficult spots I just gave up, realizing that I was too tired to go all the way back to El Diente and then return once again down the traverse to Mount Wilson and still get back to my campsite before dark. If anyone happens to stumble across my camera on the traverse, please let me know. After getting past the gendarmes, I regained the ridge and the walk became easier. A ribbon of snow snaked along the ridge in places and, despite seeing footprints on it, I was suspicious of it and stayed on the rocks to the right. It was a good thing for I reach one spot were I could see between the rocks and snow and realized that there was nothing beneath the snow but a lot of air. Eventually I came to very narrow stretch of ridge, that was not difficult but could certainly test someone's comfort with exposure. After a steep down climb to the saddle of the ridge, an exhilarating steep up climb toward Mount Wilson and a final snow filled gully, I reached the summit ridge of Mount Wilson.
I realize that my camera is back toward El Diente
The finally climb to the summit was mostly free of snow and fairly easy. I was eager to get to the Class 4 crux just before the summit and see what all of the fuss is about. With the right climbing technique, going up it is surprisingly easy. After a brief visit to the summit at 3:45, I learned that going down is a bit more challenging. The toughest part is that it is a very narrow landing from the crux and it is a little difficult to see where your foot is going to land. Soon I was back to where I reached the ridge and began the descent of Mount Wilson's Northwest ridge. It was hard to stay on the standard route with all of the snow and was able to slowly pick my way down the slope with out too much difficulty. I tried to stay as far right as possible so the I wouldn't lose too much elevation as I dropped into Navajo Basin, as I still had to climb up the the Rock of Ages addle in order to return to my campsite in the Silver Pick Basin. Once down, I contoured the basin as best I could and was back to the Rock of Ages Saddle at 5:45pm.
By this point, I was as gassed as I'd ever been on a climb. I was grateful that it was all down hill from here but still didn't want to walk. The snow seemed nice for a glissade down into the basin so away I went. Unfortunately, the snow at the bottom was not nearly as soft and gave me a rather jarring run out. When I finally got back to my tent at 6:45pm, I found that marmots or pikas had eaten a hole into my tent and had then eaten a corner of my Thermarest so that it would no longer hold air. While I was grateful that nothing else was damaged, I was kind of at my wits end. I was tired, sore, scraped up, had almost fallen down a mountain side and now I had a busted tent and sleeping pad. I had pretty much made up my mind that I was going to head down in the morning and leave Wilson Peak for another day. Why push my luck when I clearly had none. Fortunately, I woke up the next morning feeling recharged and ready to go.
Route up Wilson Peak
On Tuesday June 4, I set out at 5:45am and once again trace the same route up the snowfield that wound up the basin. I had been studying the north slopes of Wilson Peak the previous day and it looked like there may be a nice snow climb on it that would be preferable to the standard route which went over the Rock of Ages saddle. Halfway up the basin, I veered left and headed toward the north slopes. It was a slow, steady and uneventful climb on good, solid snow all the way to the West Ridge of Wilson Peak. There are several points where one could reach the ridge and I chose the one farthest to the left as it was closest to the summit. I reached the ridge right between the false and true summits and scrambled up an easy Class 3 gully to the top at 7:45am. I was very pleased that I'd chosen to give it a go today and finish off the Wilson group. While the peaks were very interesting and the area was quite beautiful, the previous day's struggles had left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth and I wasn't eager to have to return here anytime soon. Depending on how you count them, I have now completed 51 of the state's 58 14ers and was feeling quite please. I returned down Wilson Peak the same way I'd come up. I got back to my camp site at 9:15 and was pleased to find that there was no additional damage from the local varmints. I quickly packed up and got back to the trailhead by 11am. Overall the trip was a mixed bag. I'd completed my goal but had been scared, beaten up and lost some gear. I guess that how it goes sometimes in the mountain. I was happy to be safe and on my way home.
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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