| Good Weather in the Wilsons? Really?
Distance: ~22.5 miles
Vertical Gain: ~8000 feet
Climbed With: Brian Murray
Click here for the version of this trip report interspersed with pictures.
The complete picture gallery from this climb can be found here
The plan for the weekend was to climb both Mount Wilson and Wilson Peak. We'd planned on trying both last August when we climbed El Diente but found ourselves weathered away from doing the traverse at 8:30 am, and we decided to head for dryer climes rather than attempt Wilson Peak via Bilk Basin. That same weather had prevented us from even seeing the surrounding peaks except for brief glimpses through the mist.
Knowing the weather reputation of the San Miguels, we wanted to maximize our window of good weather and get as much done while the weather was good as we could. The forecast for the weekend showed steadily deteriorating weather, with the best chance for good weather on Friday and the monsoon apparently hitting on Sunday... every day after that looked to have high probability of rain. Knowing this we decided that we didn't want to "waste" the good weather window on Friday by just backpacking into the lake, so we decided that we would drive down on Thursday evening and hit the trail when we arrived, drop camp at Navajo Lake, and continue on to the summit of one or both of the Wilsons.
We left Denver at 8:30 or so on Thursday evening and switched off driving so that we could each grab a couple of hours of sleep on the way down. We put the seats in the back of the car down so that the person sleeping was able to lie down and stretch out. It was more comfortable than it sounds. I drove first, from Denver to Parachute, Brian drove from Parachute to Dallas Divide (where we admired the gorgeous night sky) and then I drove again from Dallas Divide to the Navajo Lake trailhead. We each got maybe 2 hours of sleep, though I apparently missed out on four Corvettes doing street-racing "Fast and the Furious" style between Grand Junction and Delta.
We arrived at the trailhead around 3:15, packed up our bags and we were hiking by 3:45. The trail went by quickly and the temperature was very pleasant. We hiked through meadows and forest while never quite knowing what was around us and watching as the stars slowly disappeared. It's easy to make good progress in the dark, and we arrived at the lake by about 6. I'd heard people say that the final push to Navajo Lake--the part where it switchbacks up the slope to skirt the cliffs--was surprisingly difficult, but that didn't keep it from surprising me.
We set up a tent to cache our gear, hung the food we wouldn't need for the day, pumped some water, and set off for Mount Wilson at 6:30. The lack of sleep definitely started to hit us at this point and we made slow but steady progress to the base of Mount Wilson's shoulder while the sun slowly illuminated the basin.
We climbed up the shoulder, which was totally snow free and very well cairned. Brian started feeling less than ideal as we ascended the shoulder, but he soldiered through. I got a second wind and felt great as we started some of the class 2+ and occasional class 3 route-finding on the shoulder and during the ascending traverse to the notch. We had avoided snow slopes until we got to one of the first snow gullies, but here it became unavoidable. Lower down we had considered ascending one of the gullies on snow but backed off because the snow seemed pretty hard and we were not comfortable with our ability to arrest on it (or at least I wasn't)... particularly given our fatigue.
But as we crossed the snow gully we didn't have much choice, and despite the fact that it was very warm, the snow was still bulletproof, even as we approached 10am. We still didn't feel comfortable at the crossing location the cairns had lead us to, so we descended about 100 feet to a place where we could cross with only a couple of steps. Not only that, but the snow here was pretty soft. This got us a bit off route, but we were able to find our way through some loose rock and head up this rib. We intentionally avoided crossing the next snow gully and instead we followed this rib all the way to a notch in the ridge, though we knew that it wasn't the notch that we were aiming for. We even found cairns along this route and found that it was well traveled in places.
From this notch we had a nice view of the summit and it was well cairned and easy to traverse from this "false notch" to the real notch. From here we dropped our packs and headed for the summit pitch with some food and a jacket and camera for each of us. There was another group on the summit pitch, some sort of outward bound type thing for teenagers. They were roping up and just starting their descent. We hoped to summit before they got in our way, so we headed up.
I flew up the first part of the summit pitch, including the part where it's easiest to go up and over the class four rocks with exposure all around. Perhaps it was from doing the Sunlight summit pitch, but it seemed very easy to me. This had been a move that had concerned me in my 14er quest, but it wasn't a problem at all... I actually quite enjoyed it. Brian was less enthused and still not feeling very well... he explained the Brian Murray pucker factor to me later: probability of a fall multiplied by the consequences. This move was high on the Brian Murray pucker factor scale due more to high consequences than high probability. I should point out that he didn't say "pucker factor"... I've cleaned that up a bit.
At this point, halfway up the pitch and just before what I've heard described as the crux (though it isn't the hardest part in my opinion), we ran into the other climbers. One of their rope teams was down through this pitch, with one on the way. They were being very slow and deliberate about it though. We waited for 10 minutes or so, but I got sick of just waiting there and decided to have a look to see if I could climb the final section without stepping on their rope. It looked doable and was. Brian followed shortly after and we summited at around 11am.
We waited for a while, still with good weather, and then began our descent. The clouds were finally getting around to building up now, so we didn't want to lollygag too much on the descent. We had hoped for a glissade of one of the gullies, but the snow conditions were still less than ideal so we descended on rock for a while before finding a lower angle part of the gully with better snow. We glissaded several hundred feet to the top of the shoulder where we got back onto rock. The tedious rock hopping down this final section of the shoulder really hurt my knee a lot and I was limping a bit by the time we got down to the upper basin. It also started to hail and sprinkle a bit at this point. It was clear that Wilson Peak was going to wait for the next day.
The next day we would see that from the top of the shoulder there was continuous snow down Navajo "Glacier" and east of the shoulder all the way to the basin that would have allowed us to avoid this tedious section and any knee pain. I highly recommend this option.
We struggled down the talus portion of the trail from the headwall back to the lake. I half-heartedly set up the second tent while the rain picked up and we hit the hay around 4:30 pm.
Twelve hours of mostly sound sleep later the alarm went off for our climb of Wilson Peak. I felt pretty miserable. I was dizzy and lightheaded and my knee was killing me. I ate some food and drank some water but I still didn't feel very well when we set off at 5am. I figured I would at least try to hike and see if I felt better as we progressed. The uphill was a bit easier on my knee, and as we got going and I had more water in me the dizziness faded. I still felt not too good as we got to the base of Mount Wilson's shoulder where we cut off in the opposite direction toward Rock of Ages Saddle.
Perhaps it was the food and water I was trying to force into myself, or perhaps it was my spirits being buoyed by such a nice trail, but I felt much better by the time we reached RoA Saddle. There were snow fields covering parts of this trail to the saddle, but they were easy to skirt. The snow was much softer than the day before, we figured that the rain had softened it up a bit since the morning itself was cooler.
We stopped to take in the view of the final ridge before setting out. Today it was my turn to be sketched out a bit. I had not paid that much attention to the route description for this section and had expected that following the cairns was the class 2 way that bypassed the cliffs. I managed to muck up my route finding at one point and scare myself a bit as we traversed the class 3 cliffs; Brian came to grab my camera and I was able to get out of it. I was a bit shaken up for a while, but I was able to psyche myself up a bit and put it behind me. I've found that to be an important skill, though this was the first time I'd successfully done it. I really don't care for climbing sideways with even a moderate amount of exposure below me.
The rest of the trail up the ridge was straightforward and easy all the way to the false summit. I had some concerns about snow and ice on the class 3 downclimb from this false summit, but there was only one tiny patch that was easily avoidable. We left our packs at the base of the summit pitch and scrambled up the final 150 feet to the summit. What a blast! Some of my favorite scrambling on any fourteener. We arrived at the summit around 8:30am, with one climber there ahead of us to take our picture.
A plane crashed almost directly into the summit of Wilson Peak during a blizzard on September 15th 2006, and while I had known to expect the debris on the summit, I wasn't aware of how personal it was. There is still underwear, towels, a perfume bottle, and many other personal effects inside of the summit windbreak. It was a very very hazy day because of the California wildfires, and we couldn't even make out the Telluride Ski area just a few miles to the east. We spent a while on the summit before descending. The descent was mostly uneventful and I was able to make it through the class 3 portion lower down with no trouble. From there it was just dealing with my knee pain on the descent.
I actually felt better than the day before as we headed down, and we made it back to camp by noon. We rested and ate a bit before packing up camp and heading out. It was nice to see the gorgeous hike that we'd missed on Friday morning. It was also interested to see some of the evidence of major avalanches along the route from last winter. We made it back to the car around 3:15 or so, and as it turned out Saturday was a better weather day than Friday--a day in the Wilsons with no rain! We left for the long drive home, though we took a scenic detour over Ophir Pass just for grins.
I really enjoyed this trip, and I think that Wilson Peak may very well have taken over as my favorite fourteener. And in some ways this trip brought mixed feelings: it was wildly successful and it left me with only three more peaks to finish the fourteeners. On the other hand, it marked the end of new fourteeners in the San Juans.