| El Diente - Mt. Wilson traverse
Saturday, Sept. 1, we left our house early in the morning and made it to Ridgway in less than 6 hours. It was almost another hour before we made it to the Navajo Lake trailhead.
The dirt parking lot was nearly full when we arrived, which was at about 3 p.m. (The 7-mile-long road to the Navajo Lake parking lot could be done in a 2WD, but the road is loose and very narrow in some sections.)
Shouldering our heavy packs, we started up the trail to Navajo Lake. I've lost track of how many times we've had to hike into backcountry basecamps this year, but this would be our last for the summer, and I was kind of glad.
The trail was easy to follow as it gradually gained elevation. I've never hiked across so many mountain meadows in my life. The trail crossed one meadow, then cut through a forest, then another meadow, then more woods, then another meadow, ... yada yada.
At one point a bow hunter (in search of elk) crossed our path. He said we were the first people he had seen in three days. We gave him directions to the Kilpacker trailhead, and then we went our separate ways. Jen and I wondered what he was going to do with an elk after killing one.
Around 5 p.m. we made it to the Navajo Lake campgrounds, just before the lake. We had a really hard time finding a camping spot because the place was so crowded (not the best place to go on a holiday weekend). We picked a less-than-ideal spot not far from the lake. Privacy was nonexistent, but there were plenty of views to take you away.
Shortly after setting up camp, a familiar-looking woman came by looking for a place to set up her tent. Long story short, it was Anne (New England Kid), a climber we briefly met during the Kit Carson group climb. She wasn't with the group, but she's since been sucked into the world that is 14ers.com. She ended up camping near us, and we had some great conversations that evening.
While we were all sitting around talking, I noticed another familiar face stumble into our camp. It was Del_Sur, in search of Astrobassman and Floyd. Del_Sur ended up tenting up just beyond our tent, behind some bushes.
Then, as the four of us were chatting that evening, we heard the sounds of Floyd and Astro while they blasted up the trail. Del_Sur yelled one of their names and they both stopped and pointed their headlamps in our direction. It was them.
Because campsites were far and few between, they both ended up plopping their tents down right next to ours. The party was on.
Sunday, Sept. 2, we all started up at different times. I can't remember when Floyd, Astrobassman and Del_Sur left, but it was sometime between 3 and 4 a.m., I think. Jen and I sluggishly got started at 4:40 a.m., and Anne left between 5 and 6, I believe.
The moon was pretty bright that morning. In fact, it was so bright, Jen woke me up at 3 a.m. and told me to turn off my headlamp. I thought she was dreaming so I ignored her.
Jen and I wanted to time it so that the sun was coming up just as we were entering the gully to El Diente Peak. It didn't really work out that way because we hiked too fast and the sun came up too slow.
At 5:40 we made it to the base of the scree apron, and it was still dark. We saw a few headlamps halfway up the couloir and we thought it was probably Del, Astro and Floyd.
It wasn't until about 6:15 a.m. that it was light enough to climb confidently, and without a headlamp. As we ascended, the couloir got narrower and steeper. It also became looser.
At one point we heard a loud "crack," and we both knew immediately what it was -- a rock falling. That first "crack" was followed by some more "cracks" and "smacks." Before that first crack had even finished echoing off the rock walls above us, Jen and I were darting off to the side, behind some large boulders.
After those rocks had passed and went on down the slope, we quickly made our way across the fall line and onto better rock on the left side of the couloir. We ended up climbing almost the entire way up on the left side.
All in all, that was the steepest, loosest, nastiest gully I think I've ever climbed up. Rock fall was a serious hazard, as it was almost impossible to not set rocks free below you. We were glad to make it to the top.
Looking back down:
The climbing beyond the top of that gully was much better. The route traversed around and through the ridge, then up a short gully, and then back around some rocky ledges and up to the summit.
As it turned out, Del, Astro and Floyd were just coming down from the summit as we were going up (7:40 a.m.).
The summit of El Diente is kind of nifty. It's small and there are some very steep and sheer drop-offs on many of its sides. I kept pointing out how amazingly steep that mountain was.
We didn't spend much time up there because we wanted to get onto our real challenge of the day: the ridge traverse to Mt. Wilson. We also wanted to catch back up with the three amigos so that we could do the ridge with them.
Not far from the Organ Pipes we caught back up with them, and the five of us tried to hone in on the best route along the ridge. It was nice to have five sets of eyes and five brains working together.
That was about the time we noticed three climbers way down in the valley. One of us suspected that it was the Jamies and Chicago Transplant. I yelled "Jamie!" down to them ... and then I heard an "Aubrey!" I threw back a "woohoo." The wind and the distance made communicating difficult. It was like a couple drunks trying to talk to one another.
After some slight ups and downs, we gained the ridge and stayed on its crest for some time. Some sections were 10 or more feet wide, but some narrowed tightly and became rather airy.
When our path became obstructed by some high towers of rock, we descended a couple hundred feet and then re-ascended to the ridge. Once back on the ridge, we came across a group of climbers coming from the other way. After saying hello and sharing beta, we continued on toward a big crux in the route: a very steep, 60-foot "chimney"/gully that we had to climb up. When coming from the other way, people often rappel down this section.
Supposedly, there's a Class 3 bypass to the right somewhere, but it's hard to find, and Gerry Roach calls it "sinuous," so it didn't sound too appealing. We ended up just climbing up the rock and, surprisingly enough, it wasn't as bad as I expected. There were plenty of hand holds and the rock was really solid. A couple sections were rather awkward, though, so I wouldn't call it easy.
Beyond that up climb, it was more of the same: a narrow, exposed ridge with more scrambling. Adding to the challenge, the sun was right in our eyes all the way across the ridge, and it was glaring and blinding.
Looking back at the ridge and El Diente:
On the ridge:
Just over 2 hours after leaving El Diente's summit, we made it to the base of Mt. Wilson's summit block, which was a total clusterf**k. After climbing only a few feet up this block, we were stopped by a trail of climbers waiting to go up. As it turned out, there were two large groups up there at the time. Some people were roping up, which delayed things even further. Adding to the bottleneck, most of the climbers seemed to be slow and new to climbing, not to mention exposure and/or Class 4 obstacles.
Our party patiently waited in the queue, as we were told that there were some people climbing down. We waited ... and we waited ... and we waited, as no one went up or down the section of rock above us. It was quite frustrating, but I know how scary your first 14er can be (yes, it was a first for some up there), so I gave the newbies some slack. But after 25 minutes had passed, I was losing my patience. So were some other climbers below, who were yelling up every few minutes, "What's going on up there?!"
Once a few climbers had finally come down, I was like a race horse waiting to be let out of the gates. A couple guys just ahead of me seemed to be contemplating going up any further. While they were deciding their fate, I skirted around the rock below them and started up. I wasn't sure of the exact route, but I ended up going around the side of a slab of rock, which led me to the crux of the summit block. The crux required a somewhat exposed and awkward move, but it wasn't entirely difficult; it just demanded a little commitment.
It only took us a few minutes to gain the summit, and none of the summit block climbing even came close to what we had encountered on the ridge.
Mt. Wilson's actual summit was unexciting but the views were wonderful.
As minutes passed, the summit continued to take on more and more people. I've never felt so crowded on a summit before. And, yes, it was worse than Grays Peak on a mid-summer weekend.
When an opportunity presented itself, we moved back down off the block. We all seemed to take the high route down, as almost all the other climbers chose the slab route below. Before I climbed down the lower section I had to wait for a roped-up climber, as she slowly worked her way up.
Glad to be away from the crowds, the five of us descended down Mt. Wilson. Since none of us had come up that way, we just followed a cairned trail off the mountain. Unfortunately, it wasn't the correct way to go. Going straight down that mountain into Navajo Basin was not such a good idea. We ended up on a really steep, really loose slope. Just across an ice-filled gully, we could see the correct route. We had two choices before us: 1. descend loose rock all the way down, or 2. cross the gully somehow. Astro chose option 1 and the rest of us chose option 2. Jen darted across the gully first, just above the ice. Floyd picked a different route, just upslope, and Del_Sur and I crossed at a different point.
Jen found it funny how everyone seemed to have a different tactic and method for getting across. Jen did the "pop" across. Floyd did a run-jump method. I made a methodical, ballet-like step across. Not sure what Del_Sur did, but it was unique. And Astro just said, "eff that," and took his chances with the loose scree.
Halfway down the slope, Astro and Floyd took off for the other Wilson and Del_Sur, Jen and I headed back to camp across endless fields of talus.
As far as the views go, it was a classic San Juan valley.
The three of us made it back to camp around 1 p.m., and by 2 p.m., after saying our goodbyes to Del, Jen and I were on the trail, headed back to the truck. As we looked back at the skies behind us, it looked like dark clouds were building. We hoped that the boys -- and Anne -- weren't experiencing any bad weather.
Ahead of us, the sky was dark. A few lightning bolts flickered in the distance. This prompted us to hike a little faster. And, then, when we realized that we were hiking toward the storm, we hiked even faster. Crossing all those open meadows wasn't the most comfortable thing, either. Needless to say, we started hauling some serious ass. We made it from Navajo Lake to the parking lot in just about an hour and a half.
As we drove to Ouray, I realized why I love the San Juans so much: They're just so damn beautiful and vast! The valleys are luscious and the peaks are high, craggy and colorful (red, green, grey, orange, burgundy, white, brown, mauve -- you name it).
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):