| West Ridge from Woods Lake
On Wednesday, the 26th of June I decided to repeat one of my favorite climbs, the West Ridge of El Diente. This route is outstanding and worth the effort it takes to get there. The Woods Lake approach saves over an hour of driving if approaching from the North and the trailhead is accessible by any vehicle. The Woods Lake approach is something that Roach added to the Third Edition of the 14ers guide so don't look for it if you are using earlier editions.
I left Montrose a little before 7:00 a.m. and was at the trailhead by 8:00. I like to take advantage of these long days in early summer before the monsoon makes the late start a risky proposition. The timing was fortuitous as I caught a nice view of the waning "super moon" as it set over a placid Woods Lake.
"Supper Moon 2013 - Waning
From the Woods Lake trailhead it is about 4 miles to the intersection with the Navajo Basin trail coming up from Kilpacker Basin. The hike ascends about 2000' through some very nice older growth forest. After a short while you reach the Lizard Head Wilderness boundry.
Nice Big Trees on this hike
You reach treeline after about 3 miles where the trail begins to contour around the western end of a prominant ridge that forms the northern side of Navajo Basin. The views along the traverse are some of the best that the San Juans (the most scenic mountains in the state) have to offer.
Careful, you might start singing "The Hills Are Alive. . ."
As you round the corner with your brain on visiual overload your gaze and attention are abruptly drawn to the objective at hand. El Diente from Mt. Wilson does not present its namesake profile. The vantage from this section of the Woods Lake trail reveals that the name is quite appropriate.
So that's why its called "The Tooth"
The trail does give up a few hundred vertical feet before it joins the Navajo Basin trail, but it isn't too bad. Of course it seemed longer going home after the climb, but it is steep and short and the contour is just as enjoyable coming and going. From the trail junction it is just a few hundred yards before you leave the trail and begin to ascend the flank of the West Ridge. I don't like the traverse from the western end of the lake as described in the Roach guide. It is far easier to start up just below the prominent group of trees that reach high up into the scree a few hundred yards west of the lake. The creek crossing may be problematic, but I have stayed dry in 5 out of 5 attempts.
The grunt up the north flank of the west ridge is unpleasant. There is no getting around it. There will be about an hour of loose scree. Whether you angle up from the lake or bust straight up the sooner you reach the west ridge proper the happier you will be. It isn't long before you can look back north and see the Woods Lake trail, faintly visible in the next photo traversing from the left into the trees near the center of the photo.
Here is a good look at the loose stuff that is a small price to pay for access to one of the nicest ridges in the state.
One hour in hell? A small price to pay!
Once you reach the ridge forward progress is much easier and the hike is immediately pleasant. It was noon when I reached the ridge and for the next 45 minutes or so it was an easy stroll up to the more technical sections of the ridge.
When you come to the first difficulty you may spot a cairn 100' or so below the ridge on the south side. I don't know why that is there, unless there is a way to bypass most of the ridge and scramble up a greasy gully just below the summit. Don't go that way. Climb directly on the ridge for a short while and drop to the north side, bypass the obstacle and scramble right back to the ridge. This is the first of what I consder two equally difficult sections.
Here is the terrain as you approach this section.
The downclimb is 4th class but very secure. The next photo is looking back up at drop off the ridge. It is not as difficult as it appears in this photo.
Easier than it appears
And looking ahead from here you see this as access to continue with the ridge.
Short bypass of fist obstacle
It may be possible to climb over this obstacle directly but it appears to me that it would push into some 5th class climbing to do so. Here is a view of the obstacle that was just bypassed on the north.
Might go direct, but not 4th class
Now the fun really begins. The next section is this wonderful blocky ramp.
The most fun you can have with your shoes on
The ridge runs up to the top of a tower. Getting down from this is the second crux. I found it pretty easy to back up a short bit and drop down to a flat area south of the ridge. Here is a look back at that tower from the flat spot. This is a great sheltered spot, big enough to pitch a tent and a nice place to take a break and get ready for the last bit. Here is a look back at that tower.
Get off this and you are home free!
Last time I was here I found a Peruvian coin on the ground. Not entirely relevant, but an odd thing.
Also, the terrain ahead looks intimidating.
Looks stout, but the crux is well behind you now.
It is possible to contour from this point and intersect that greasy gully I mentioned earlier. I had done this the first time I was here thinking the terrain ahead was too severe for my partner. What a terrible mistake. Some of the most enjoyable sections of the ridge are above and not to be missed. It is gymnastic scrambling at its best. Some knife edge sections and some airy moves where I would have to say if you are not having fun here you need another hobby. The next two photos show the section from the same vantage, first looking down and then at the final section to the summit.
I can't say too much about the quality of this route. It is a long day, no getting around it, but well worth the effort.
View from the summit back down the impressive ridge.
There are several options for getting down. I did not bring an axe so the two steep snow routes on the north side were out, but this would be the most expedient. I planned on doing the ridge to Mt. Wilson and descending to Navajo Basin just below the Rock of Ages pass. Another option would be to drop into Kilpacker and hike up toward Navajo Basin to the intersection with the Woods Lake trail. This will add some mileage, but avoids snow earlier in the season. When I got to the saddle between Wilson and El Diente I decided to try another option and dropped north into Navajo Basin, deciding to skip Mt. Wilson this time. This worked ok, but I would not recommend it, especially with a group. There is lots of loose rock and without careful routefinding it would be easy to get cliffed out. Here is a view of my descent.
It was a picture perfect day. I regained the Navajo Basin trail by 5:00 p.m. and enjoyed the leisurly 4 mile (mostly downhill) stroll back to Woods Lake.
Navajo Lake or Lake Placid?
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):