| Off Route on El Diente
We knew the El Diente - Mount Wilson traverse would be a serious challenge to us. We knew we might not complete it successfully. What we didn't expect was to get in a predicament where we thought we might not get off the mountain alive.
Our story starts in the winter of 2008, as we studied routes in the San Juan Mountains for a planned summer trip there. We fell in love with the majestic views and stark physical challenge of the El Diente - Mount Wilson traverse. We knew from the outset that this route would be an ambitious undertaking for a group that at that point had summitted one mountain: Longs Peak via the tourist route.
We thought we had a decent plan. Our family group of Midwesterners had handled the marathon hike of Longs Peak in 2007, comparable in length to the traverse. We would build our experience and acclimate for the extended time at high altitude by preceding this trip with climbs of Uncompahgre, Wetterhorn, and Sneffels. We knew summiting Mt. Wilson required crossing a highly exposed class 4 ridge, but other than that the route is rated class 3, same as Longs Peak and two of our preceding routes in the San Juans. It couldn't be that much harder than what we would already have experienced by then, right?
In the last couple days leading up to our attempt, we fought a growing sense of unease. If there had been another suitable 14er route available in our area, I believe I would have changed to it. But there wasn't, and we had done no research whatsoever on the many 13er routes available in the area. We had prepared for months for this traverse, and we were determined to give it our best shot.
So at 6 a.m. on a clear dry August morning, we headed out from our vehicle at the Kilpacker Basin trailhead. We had selected the Kilpacker Basin approach as the best route for going car-to-car, Like every day on our remarkable week in the San Juans, the forecast was ideal: clear and with not a hint of precipitation. Besides me, our group consisted of my brother Mark, the original instigator of our Longs Peak trip; my daughter Maryjane; and her boyfriend Garrett.
Another group of three was leaving for the same route as us. A brief chat revealed them to be very experienced hikers, which I found comforting, until one of them tossed out a casual remark about his prior experience on El Diente.
"Yeah, this will be my fifth try at this mountain," he said.
If a veteran hiker like this needs five attempts to summit this mountain, that's not encouraging for our rookie group, I thought. But, there was nothing to do in response to that comment than move ahead.
(At this junction, left leads around the west end of El Diente to Navajo Lake; we went right toward Kilpacker Basin.)
The early-morning approach hike was beautiful, as we crossed a stream on a fallen log, scared up a mule deer with a huge rack in an alpine meadow, and took in several beautiful mountain waterfalls.
But when I first saw the huge gray mass of El Diente in the dim morning light, instead of the soaring excitement I had felt upon first viewing our previous three destinations, I felt a sense of queasy foreboding. I dismissed it, reminding myself that Longs Peak had put the same sense of unease in me last year, and we had all enjoyed a safe, successful summit trip then.
So on we went, above tree line and into the barren upper Kilpacker Basin. A pair of hikers came up behind us and, after a brief chat, moved on ahead of us at a faster pace. They were named Steve and Mike, and Steve was on his way to El Diente as his 14er finisher, having summitted Mt. Wilson from the northerly approach years earlier. We had come to typically ask a few questions of such experienced hikers - favorite mountain, hardest, etc. I don't remember Steve's favorite, but I'll never forget his answer to the "hardest" question: "I think I'd have to say Mt. Wilson. That summit is really exposed."
I remember looking at Mark when Steve said that, thinking "what do we do with that information," and kind of regretting asking the question. We sure weren't going to turn around now based on one opinion.
It was around this point that we experienced another ominous event. My daughter Maryjane discovered her bladder pack was leaking. Whoever had filled it – probably me – had mis-threaded or left loose the cap. She had lost a lot of water.
I had an extra one-liter bottle in my pack, which I emptied into her bladder pack. She was re-filled, but our backup water supply was gone. We hoped we wouldn't need it. We hoped wrong, it would turn out.
(Mark and I take a break in the upper Kilpacker basin. Garrett, on the right, is, um, taking in the views I think.)
Finally, after many hours of hiking, we stood in the upper reaches of the basin. Mt. Wilson towered to our right; El Diente was slightly to our left (as we scrupulously followed instructions to avoid turning to climb El Diente too soon). The ridge between the two spanned across in front of us like a huge, inhospitable wall.
We were basing our approach up El Diente's south face on route descriptions and trip reports from SummitPost. While 14ers.com provided excellent information on the northerly Navajo Basin approach to both El Diente and Mt. Wilson, and on the traverse itself, we found little about the Kilpacker Basin approach on 14ers.com. A couple of trip reports helped some, as did a brief description in Gerry Roach's book. But SummitPost was the best source for info on this route.
We could see Steve and Mike partway up El Diente. Based on what we thought we knew about the route, we thought they appeared to be going a different route than the one we'd researched. Whether that was intentional or not we did not know. We also saw three climbers far off to the east on the wall between El Diente and Mt. Wilson. Again, we didn't know if they were lost or perhaps knew a route we didn't, although we suspected they were off course and confirmed that later. We eventually met them and learned they were 14ers.com member Uwe and his climbing associates, Monique and Dean.
(This cliff band is quite an obstacle, but there's a ramp to the climber's left (west). Uwe's group found a way up through it, but it's a tough route. Below is a closer look at the same general terrain.)
We worked our way toward the left end of a large cliff band. A cairn or two suggested we were headed the right way. Sure enough, we soon found a ramp of red rock leading above that cliff, as promised. More cairns took us into a large, steep couloir. We were on course.
(Mark surveys the gully up El Diente's south slope.)
We knew this gully wasn't nearly as long, steep or loose as the one leading up from Navajo Lake on the north side of El Diente. But to me, it was plenty steep and loose to be an unpleasant climb. We were not very far up it when we reached the point where Garrett was ready to turn back.
(Garrett and Maryjane struggling through the loose rubble.)
Garrett, my daughter's boyfriend, had joined us for this adventure in the San Juans only to discover that he had no taste for exposed altitude. Once that fact was established, he would accompany us partway up our ensuing mountains, and turn back when he reached his comfort limit. That point had arrived for this trip, but there was one significant difference: my daughter Maryjane was sitting with him, pondering whether she wanted to continue up or turn back with him. She was lacking in enthusiasm for the length and difficulty of the traverse that we planned.
After a fairly lengthy delay, it was settled: Maryjane would go back down with Garrett. We had a teary separation. It says something about my mental outlook on this trip that I was somewhat relieved with her decision. "This mountain is too dangerous to be climbing if you're not completely sold on the idea," I said to Mark after we parted.
(Part way up the gully.)
Mark and I continued up the couloir, and it didn't seem long before we reached the point where our route joined the route from Navajo Basin. It's on the south side of the ridge, a little west of the point where the Navajo Basin route reaches the ridge. Cairns and some distinctive landmarks, especially two parallel vertical rocks that form almost a chimney, confirmed that we were on course.
(Mark nears the top of the gully, close to where the Kilpacker Basin approach joins the Navajo Lake route.)
It was near these two parallel rocks that we got our first taste of one of the least pleasant features of El Diente: steep scree slopes with severe exposure and little in the way of handholds. It's a short traverse across one of these slopes on the south side of the ridge, just a few feet, but one slip is all that would be necessary for a catastrophe.
Once past that obstacle, I found the rest of the trail on the south side of the ridge to be comfortable. Up a "small, loose gully" as described in the 14ers.com route description, to the ridge. I found that gully to be no worse and perhaps a little easier than much of what preceded it.
(Looking back down into Kilpacker Basin from high on El Diente.)
Somewhere along here Uwe's group passed us. They had been far above us when we spotted them from Kilpacker Basin. But by staying on our intended route we had bypassed their convoluted windings and moved "ahead" of them, so to speak (not to imply it's a race). But they were moving quicker than us and now caught up to us.
Uwe's trip report skips the details, but I can tell you my impression of them as they passed us: Uwe came along first, displaying a visible intensity as he neared the summit of one of the few 14ers he had yet to complete. Next came Monique, chattering nonstop about how lost they had been and what difficult rock they had climbed. Bringing up the rear of this group was Dean. His words confirmed what was already written all over his face. "I just want to get done and get down from this place," he said, or something to that effect. He had experienced more than his fill of sustained difficult, exposed climbing – but like the rest of us, he wasn't about to turn back now that the summit was in sight.
The five of us climbed more or less together as we passed over the ridge to a section of the route that runs along the north side of the ridge. I don't know if the exposure is really worse, or if it had more to do with my state of mind, but portions of that route along the north side were too intense for me to enjoy, despite spectacular views. The sense of extreme exposure was exaggerated to me by the nasty, gnarly look of the rock below. Where there was rock to climb on, much of it was loose, requiring careful testing of every hold. But worse, there were more of those god-awful scree slopes. Worst of all, the few rocks available for holds on the scariest of the scree slopes sloped downward on this north side of the mountain. I found myself trusting my life to thumb-and-forefinger grips on pie-slice sized sections of rock sticking out of the muddy slope on a downward slant.
I don't mean to discourage people unnecessarily. My frame of mind really wasn't right, and a closer review of the 14ers.com route description afterward suggests we could have avoided some of the worst muddy slopes by turning and going right up to the ridge on solid rock. Still, my opinion of the experience was that my blithe "class 3" comparison to our previous summits was completely off-target. This mountain seemed to me to be a lot harder and more dangerous than Longs, Wetterhorn, or Sneffels' ridge route.
Nevertheless, we made it to the summit. Or summits, as there are three rocky outcropping so close in elevation it's hard to tell which one is the true summit. We hit all three, and were too fried from the effort of getting there to try to locate a summit marker or register.
Uwe, Monique and Dean were there also, and shortly thereafter, Steve and Mike showed up. They also had gotten jumbled up on their route, which accounted for our reaching the summit before them. A couple of other young fellows popped up on the summit a few minutes later, their movements displaying a youthful vigor and confidence that was long gone from my brother and me. And finally, the same group of three that had left the trailhead just before us showed up. I mixed them up with Uwe‘s group due to their remarkable resemblances in age, gender, and the Kenny Rogers look of their leader. They, too, told of getting off-route on their way up. El Diente's summit was a busy place that day.
None of the groups planned to try the traverse. Neither did Mark and I, at that point. It was pretty late for such an undertaking, sometime around noon, and although the weather remained perfect, our fortitude did not. Someone asked me if we were going to go for it. I shook my head in the negative.
"I just want to get down from this mountain alive," I said. It was a throwaway comment at the time, but I would find myself intensely praying that same thought a few hours later.
I had split our printed route description for this venture into three sections. The section describing the traverse I had stuffed into the back pocket of my hiking pants. As I scrambled down from the summit, it worked its way out and fell to the ground, unbeknownst to me. As Steve and Mike followed us down, Mike picked it up.
"Is this yours?" Mike called to me from a little ways behind me. Turning around, I recognized it and realized what had happened. "Thanks, but you can keep it," I said. "We won't be needing it."
But just a few minutes later along the return route, my mind was beginning to change. Mike caught up to me, and I took back the traverse route description, just in case.
We crossed over to the south side of the ridge, descended down the short gully and worked our way back, crossing that last wretched scree slope again. Now we stood at the top of the gully leading back down into Kilpacker Basin. It was decision time.
I looked down that gully. It looked miserable, loose, steep, no fun at all. I looked east at the ridge. It was still beautiful, magnificent, majestic. We felt refreshed from resting at the summit and the easier return trip. The traverse route that we had coveted for almost a year was before us. It was late, but the weather remained perfect. We may never get another chance at it, I thought.
"We can do this," I said to Mark. He instantly agreed. We fist-bumped and headed east.
It was a joint decision between the two of us, but I was the instigator. I've thought about that decision a lot since then, and some of my motives were less than stellar. For one thing, I didn't want to deal with going down the steep, loose gully that we had come up. That ignored the fact that our planned downclimb off Mt. Wilson's east face promised to be longer, steeper and looser than the gully we came up.
More significantly, there was a serious ego problem at work in the choice. We were pretty proud of taking on several of the tougher 14ers as 50-plus newbies from the Midwest. On top of that, we were well aware that we had stayed on-route to the summit of El Diente, while three other far more experienced parties on the same mountain that day had all gotten lost at one point or another. Now, why not take on the traverse to Mt. Wilson? We had an inflated view of our abilities at that point.
The mountain would take care of that problem soon enough. The first short distance went fine, but soon we faced our first challenge, the outcropping of gendarmes on the south side of the ridge. There are essentially two choices for dealing with those gendarmes: a higher route, with some serious exposure; or a lower route, with less daunting danger factor but a significant amount of elevation to give up and then re-gain.
We went for the higher route and found ourselves severely challenged by the narrow ledges, tall pull-up moves, and harsh exposure. Our progress was extremely slow as we rounded first one outcropping, then another of this difficult terrain, only to find a third cliffy outcropping awaiting us.
When we finally cleared that third outcropping, I for some reason expected to see a relatively easy trail leading to the ridge. Instead we looked at an incredibly steep, rugged, inhospitable wall of the most jagged, gnarly rocks imaginable. I still find it hard to fathom how that mountain can be so steep and so loose at the same time.
If we had studied the terrain in front of us longer, I think we would have seen the route to the ridge above and to the left of us. But we didn't get to that point, because Mark looked at me and said, "Thorn, we have to go back."
I knew immediately that he was right. We had spent something like an hour negotiating this one obstacle. We knew easier hiking awaited us at the ridge, for a while, but at least four more major challenges lay ahead on the route – five if you count the downclimb from Mt. Wilson. The weather remained warm and dry, but the afternoon was ticking on. The route was too hard, it was too late, and we were too whipped. We were turning back.
We wanted no part of re-tracing our "high route" across the gendarmes. We followed an easy trail down to the base of the gendarmes, a welcome relief from the stress of the exposed traverse we had just completed.
Trying the traverse in the first place had been a mistake. Taking the high route across those gendarmes had proven to be an error, in hindsight. But those were small potatoes compared to the blunder I led us into next. We should have come back up on the west side of the gendarmes to regain the standard route that we had taken up to that point. That's what Mark had in mind, but I had different ideas. From our vantage point, an easy path appeared to continue down a large gully. We could see the talus of Kilpacker Basin below us.
"C'mon, we can follow this right down to the basin," I confidently said to Mark. He reluctantly followed, but lingered above and behind me in doubt.
His doubt was accurate. After some significant amount of downclimbing, I realized the gully did not cruise down to the basin, but was beginning to deteriorate into a dangerous cliffy region. Just as we couldn't see the cliffs from further up, we now could not see if there was a route through it. But the risk of getting into a deathtrap in there looked high.
My solution was to cross over a rock rib to the next gully to the west. Surely that one would lead us down to safety, I thought. It did not. Rather, we faced the same cliff. I would later recognize this was the same cliff band we had bypassed to the west coming up – but that realization came far too late to be of help here.
(I don't know if it was this exact formation, but I was thrashing about above terrain something like this, trying to find a safe route down.)
I'm not sure how many ribs and gullies I tried all told – three, maybe four. The frustration was incredible. Our objective was in plain view a thousand or so feet below us. We could see people down there – some of those who had summitted with us. They were now watching us from below. They probably realized, better than we did at the time, that we were getting into serious trouble.
In the third (or perhaps fourth?) gully, though we were still far above the folks down in the basin, I thought we could communicate because of how well voices carry over the rocky terrain. I couldn't see from above if there was a safe path down through the steep region, but I thought they could tell from below. I stood tall, cupped my hands, and hollered my question as loud as I could: "Is this good?" Meaning, in my mind, is this gully a good route down?
Someone below answered. Voices travel better down than up, I suppose, and I wasn't sure I understood the answer, but I thought it was an affirmative. I repeated the questions, and he responded again, and again I thought it was a "yes."
Encouraged, I went further down, calling on Mark to follow, though he remained skeptical. And indeed, I soon found myself looking at more deadly-looking cliffs. Mark called down from his location. Another answer came, I believe from a different individual. This time, Mark heard clearly what was said.
"Do you have any rope?" he asked. "You need to rappel."
We had no rope. Because, we had no training in using rope on mountains. Mark had entrusted his life to the proper use of rope and knots years before, cutting massive trees in southern California. He retained his knowledge of the trade, and had impressed me in recent years with his negotiation of some trees in his yard and mine – but mountains are a completely different challenge than trees.
It was now clear there was only one course of action – the one we should have followed an hour or more earlier. Go back up, find the standard route that we had come east on, and get back to the couloir we had come up.
Easier said than done, at that point. As we worked our way up, the realization came over both of us, perhaps Mark first, that we were in severe danger of a catastrophic fall. We were climbing steep, loose, uncharted territory in wretched physical and mental condition.
I sipped on my water hose and drew air. I said nothing to Mark, but wondered if he had any water left.
We managed to get back up to the general vicinity of the standard route, far above 13,000 feet. But things look different climbing up a gully than they did when you were traversing from west to east. We knew we were in the neighborhood, but we couldn't find cairns or the route for the life of us. We weren't sure by that time where we were along the east-west traverse route, and it was all looking the same to us: seemingly endless slopes of barren, jagged, steep, loose, dangerous rock.
Looking back down into the basin, still clearly visible from this higher point, we saw the people who had watched us now leaving. As they headed away down the trail, I wondered what they were thinking of us. Were they leaving to get help for us? Or did they decide we were going to be okay? I sure didn't think we were okay.
"How is your water holding out?" I finally asked Mark. "Gone," was the terse reply.
Higher and higher we went, almost to the ridge, searching that wretched rubble for a familiar landmark. The higher we went, the steeper and tougher the terrain got, and the more scared we got. It seems you only have physical and mental capacity for a limited number of difficult, intense climbs, and we had long since exceeded anything we thought we were capable of. We were exhausted, dehydrated, and panicked – and no closer to getting down than we had been hours ago.
You've had those dreams, haven't you, where you really need to get somewhere, somewhere that shouldn't be hard to reach, but no matter how hard you try in the dream, you just can't get there. If the stakes seem high enough in the dream, you call it a nightmare.
We were living that nightmare. The safety of Kilpacker Basin lay in clear sight, but all our efforts to get there lead to dead ends.
(A year ago, I had laughed when two turkey buzzards circled above me as I trained alone at a ski resort in Michigan. There were buzzards on El Diente, and we didn't find the sight at all funny.)
We stumbled over the terrain in exhaustion. The careful examination of our course and testing of holds that we had scrupulously practiced earlier was long gone. I remember grabbing ahold of rocks that I could tell were loose, but being too fatigued to do anything else. I would use them to pull myself up as much as I could before they gave way, hoping to be able to grope ahold of something else when that happened. A deadly fall was more than a possibility at this point. It seemed almost inevitable.
Mark, I would later learn, thought it was more a question of when, than if, someone fell – and that I was the most likely to fall, for there is no doubt that he is the better climber. The very thought of it was haunting him as we struggled to find our way.
I learned this about myself on that mountain: I was not afraid of death. I had wondered to myself at times in recent years, with the humility that comes with age, if the faith in Christ as my savior that I had embraced almost thirty years ago would stand the acid test when I actually faced death. There on El Diente, for the first time, I thought my life may come to an end, and I was not terrified of death itself.
I was terrified, however, at the prospect of those I would leave behind: a wife and three daughters who still desperately needed me. The thought of leaving them, so foolishly and needlessly, haunted me. Perhaps worst of all was the thought of my daughter having to deal with retrieving one or both of our broken bodies from that mountain.
Mark was pondering similar thoughts about his family and mine. "We have to get through this, for their sake," he said. Talking about it further helped bolster our determination to make it down intact.
You may think I have over-dramatized the fear, in our minds then or in my account now. Logically reasoning, a worst-case scenario could have been to simply spend the night on the mountain, waiting for help to come the following day. It would have been miserable for lack of water, but the weather was mercifully dry and warm. But the fact is, that option simply never occurred to either of us. Our thinking was muddled from fatigue, dehydration, oxygen deprivation, and panic. We were going to get down from that mountain or die trying, literally.
Finally, we did something else we should have done long ago. We sat down together and prayed, out loud. As I prayed, I thought how my words might be very similar to what I will have to say when I finally do face my Creator. There were no excuses, no explanations, nothing to offer God in return for His help. We are responsible for our own actions. We got ourselves into this mess. Now all we could do was appeal to God's mercy to help us out of it, undeservedly. I expect that will be my general approach when my final day of reckoning arrives.
After praying, we started west again, looking for the gully we had come up. We had concluded by this point that it would be the only safe route down. All others seemed to dead-end on the cliff band that we had skirted on the way up. But would we recognize it when we reached it? Or would we think we were in it when in fact we were not, and head down the wrong gully again? If we did that, it seems we could not possibly expect to have the strength to come back up again.
We looked down a couloir that looked a lot like the right one. At this point, I had a moment of clear thinking, aided from above in answer to our prayer, I believe. I had snapped a photo looking down from the top the gully, just before we had decided to try the traverse. I pulled out my camera and looked at that photo on the view screen. Looking down the gully, several snowfields on the other side of Kilpacker Basin were visible, in a distinctive pattern. The same snowfields were visible from the gully we now stood in, but in a different pattern. This was not the right way.
West over another rock rib we went, to the next gully. The snowfields lined up. We started down the gully and found cairns. We had found the route down! This gully, which I had looked upon with such disdain a few hours earlier, was now a thing of beauty. Every step down the trail, every cairn, brought rejoicing and relief.
Our rejoicing proved to be slightly premature, however. We forgot that we had followed a long and winding route to get into that gully in the first place. So happy were we to be headed down, we neglected to watch the cairns. Somewhere down the gully, the trail left us, to our right, I believe. We did not notice that we no longer were following trail or cairns. We simply continued to climb down terrain that remained easy for a while – and then abruptly terminated in yet another maddening cliff.
We were much lower than before, and felt better in that regard. But here again, our path was blocked. Though the cliff was smaller, it was still plenty high enough to lead to a deadly fall. Had our fellow climbers still been in the basin, they could have helped us find the route out by that point – but they had long since left.
(This photo, taken on the way up, shows the plateau where we got off-route yet again. Because of the stress of the climb, we took no more photos on the way down.)
The obvious course of action at that point would have been to backtrack up again, a relatively short distance, to find the cairns and trail. But in our addled state of mind, that never occurred to us. When you want desperately to get down, the instinctive course is to go forward, or at least sideways, not back up. I learned from this hard experience to not trust that instinct.
We could not go forward, so we went sideways – to the right, west, because we believed the trail had gone that way. But as before, the trail, once lost, was not easily found in our condition. There were sort-of chutes and ramps veering this way and that, but which, if any, led to safety rather than death was impossible for us to tell from above.
Our frustration at this point was maddening. We realized by this point that we could spend the night there, but we were desperate to get off that mountain. So desperate that the two of us almost lost the one strength we had retained thus far – our unity. I thought we had gone too far west, as I saw Kilpacker Basin below us starting to fall away as it sloped downward to the west. Mark thought our path out lay further in that direction. He pressed west, I hung east, and we pleaded with each other to take the route we each favored.
I climbed up on a rocky rib, looked down and to my left, and saw what I believed to be our path out – a ramp of smooth red rock, which triggered a memory, not of climbing up that rock, but rather reading about it in advance research. I begged Mark to come my way to explore it, and he finally agreed. We negotiated some more steep, loose terrain to get in the vicinity of the red-rock ramp, and found a climbable route down to the basin. The way we came down turned out not to be the route we took up – how close to that we were we will never know – but it got us to safety. Once down into the basin, we glissaded across a gently-inclined snowfield, a welcome relief to our battered bodies. It was our first-ever glissade, but I can assure you we took no pleasure in that milestone by then.
We were out of danger, although our minds and bodies were so scrambled by then we still felt we were at risk of careening down the loose rock of some of the small slopes in the basin. We staggered through upper Kilpacker Basin without finding the trail, making the slog through the talus even harder. Grateful as we were to be down, we failed to stop and thank God out loud, an omission we would later regret. Perhaps the embarrassment, fatigue, and dehydration that we felt would not have been quite as intense if we had.
We heard a distant rumbling sound as we plodded down beyond the upper waterfall. We searched for the source, thinking perhaps it was a rescue helicopter, unlikely as that may have seemed. It proved to be no man-made sound. Far above us, on El Diente's west ridge, a rock slide roared, sending a cloud of dust skyward in the late afternoon light. Even from more than a mile away, the sight and sound provoked an eerie feeling after our ordeal.
As we hiked out, we wondered what, if anything, those who viewed our troubles had told Maryjane back at the trailhead. I imagined her sick with worry over us, informed of our situation but not of our getting down. I half expected to encounter a rescue party at every bend in the long trail out.
We summoned all the strength remaining in our weary legs to double-time the hike out. Our sense of urgency was elevated by the realization that the sun would likely be setting by the time we reached the trailhead. The falling of evening would pose no problem to us, as we had headlamps, but the additional concern it would pile on Maryjane was painful to think about.
We encountered Steve and Mike at their campsite near the lowest waterfall. They were relieved to see us down. "We were kinda worried about you guys," Steve said. It turned out that Steve had been the one who yelled up from far below to ask if we had rope, after watching us struggle for some time through his binoculars. That bit of advice, though discouraging at the time, had helped set us on the right course, as we had then abandoned my ill-advised exploration of the cliffs and turned back to find the standard route down.
We asked Steve and Mike if they had any means of communicating with the outer world. Only cell phones, they said, which were of no more use than ours in the dead zone of the Lizard Head Wilderness. After a brief thank-you, we headed on down the trail again toward our vehicle at the trailhead.
After what seemed to be an eternity of hiking we recognized the fields of the trailhead area. The vehicles are still perhaps a mile away when they first become visible through a break in the trees. The sun was indeed setting in the west. I broke into a jog. After 14 hours and something like 12 miles and 4,000 vertical feet, I found the strength to run much of the final mile, alternating with a tortured power-walk.
Garrett was outside the vehicle when I reached it. He asked where Mark was – back up the trail a little way, I gasped. And where, I asked, was Maryjane?
"In the car," Garrett answered. "Sleeping. Did you do the traverse?"
So much for my fear of a panicked daughter. The other hikers had told them only that we were attempting the traverse. And we had told Maryjane and Garrett to not expect us back until late if we did the traverse – like 8 p.m. or later. It was around 8:30. They had resolved to not worry about us until nightfall.
I woke Maryjane up and hugged her long and hard. We didn't give them the entire account of our ordeal at that time – only that we had gotten off-course and in some trouble. The details we would share with them later, when we had more strength and they had time to digest the information.
Our ordeal on El Diente is now 10 months in the past. Plenty of time to ponder the hubris that led us into trouble, the countless mistakes we made, and the grace of God that got us down from that nightmare. I hope that sharing this experience will help keep someone else from making the same mistakes we made.
I feel like I've changed some as a result of the ordeal. To be humbled, and yet come away unhurt, is a good thing. But I also felt for a long time like my soul had not completely recovered from the psychological pounding it took that day. At times I have felt like part of me was still trapped up on that mountain. Fortunately, that feeling has subsided over the months, which is good, because I have no plans to go back up there to get it any time soon.
Which is not to say I'll never go back up on a mountain. In fact, a less stressful summit may be just what I need to complete the healing from the wounds incurred that day. My brother and I agree that our previous summit experiences have been among the most joyful days of our lives, and we won't let one bad day rob us of that joy. But we now freely acknowledge that there are some 14ers we will probably never climb, which is fine, because we all have limits. We know better what ours are, and I suppose we should thank El Diente, or better yet, the One who formed that mountain, for teaching us that lesson.
(This was the last photo any of us took on El Diente, and it helped us escape the nightmare we were trapped in. We used it, especially the alignment of the snow fields below, to identify the right gully to go down.)
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):