Peak(s):  Pilot Knob A  -  13,738 feet
Golden Horn  -  13,780 feet
Vermilion Peak  -  13,894 feet
Date Posted:  08/27/2013
Date Climbed:   08/22/2013
Author:  Kevin Baker
Additional Members:   bergsteigen
 Pilot Knob Group: Return to Ice Lakes Basin   

Pilot Knob (13738')
Golden Horn (13780')
Vermilion Peak (13894')

11 miles RT, 4430' gain
August 22, 2013
From Clear Lake Rd TH (10360')

A new job has limited the amount of vacation time I can take this summer, so I was only able to get out to the San Juans a couple times this summer. Back in 2007, I was hoping to clean out all of the Ice Lakes basin 13ers in one trip. Pilot Knob was orphaned though due to a blown out shoe lace that forced me to wear one flip flop for a couple days! I didn't think it was wise trying Pilot Knob with a flip flop on (although I made it up US Grant), so a return was in order. Orphaning peaks in Ice Lakes Basin isn't exactly a bad deal as it is one of my favorite places in Colorado, filled with vivid color even in the waning days of summer. I sent out a few invites for Pilot Knob, and Otina was the only taker.

We decided to start from the higher trailhead at 10360', which starts at the first switchback along CR-12, which goes to Clear Lake. This will save you about 500' of gain. We set out at 3:45am with a 50% chance of rain in the forecast. I didn't want to get shut out on Pilot Knob this time! We were trying to time it right to hit the end of the trail at Upper Ice Lakes around first light and it worked out well.

The moon lights up the peaks we will climb.

We had just enough light to take a good line to the base of the nasty scree gully leading to the north ridge of Pilot Knob.

View of Pilot Knob's east face from the loose gully climb.

Pilot Knob is one impressive summit and it's north side is formidable to say the least.

The north ridge of Pilot Knob.

Happy to be off the kitty litter with Golden Horn and Vermilion beyond. Pic by Otina.

Luckily, the easiest route is on the south ridge, which is accessed by traversing the west face on a climber's trail to a loose gully. The trail is decently cairned, and we are soon at the key gully leading to the south ridge.

Gully climb to the south ridge.

There are a few loose 3rd class moves at the bottom, but the angle soon relents and we zig our way up to the dramatic south ridge. We follow the path of least resistance up the ridge and the difficulty never exceeds 3rd class, but the exposure will get your attention.

An exposed move on the south ridge.


We crest a tower and are pumped to see the summit cairn, but a nasty tower stands in our way! This must be the crux tower that some parties use a rope on.

Final tower blocking easy access to the summit.

The tower is skirted on the west side via a thin ledge. Otina goes first and says there is one move that is intense, but there is a good size crack to jam your hand in. I start across the ledge and looking down at the move, it doesn't inspire confidence. I hauled up a 35M rope just in case, and decide to break it out. There is an existing anchor at the notch between the true summit and the tower, so Otina uses the anchor there while I anchor the other end on a thin flake at the notch on the south side of the tower.

The imposing tower from the north side.

As we are setting up the belay, a group of 3 from TX catches up to us. I tie into the line with a prussic and the move is easy, but committing. The return across the ledge feels way less committing! A minor 3rd class scramble on climber's left of the summit block is all that is left and we top out around 8am. The summit of Pilot Knob is a flat, sandy platform with plenty room for 5 people on the summit. We chat with the group from TX and they are well into an extended trip in the San Juans, chasing 14ers and bi-centennials. The weather appears to be holding, so things are looking good to traverse to Golden Horn and Vermilion. We reverse our tracks across the ridge and descend the gully on the west side.

Otina on the crux, much easier on the return.

Looking down the south ridge.

What a cool little ridge run on Pilot Knob! Pic by Otina.

The traverse to the Golden Horn saddle is just under the cliffs on loose talus. This is the most annoying part of the traverse, but the exposure isn't too bad. We generally don't drop any lower than about 13300' to the saddle.

Pilot Knob on the traverse to Golden Horn.

We run the north ridge of Golden Horn until we hit the lower cliff bands, and skirt them on the west side at around 13600'. We end up intersecting the standard route, which is a trail with a few third class moves up the southeast face.

Easy 3rd class on Golden Horn's s.e. face.

The clouds are now starting to build, but we feel we have enough time to get over to Vermilion. The northeast ridge of Vermilion looks stiff from Golden Horn and the Dollar couloir looks like a choss fest, so we decide to traverse across the east face on a prominent shelf to the standard route on the south side. This goes very quickly and we soon hit a decent trail that intersects the trail heading up the bowl of scree to the s.e. ridge. We enjoy the good trail that weaves through the difficulties on the ridge and are soon on the summit of Vermilion. The traverse takes us about 2.5 hours.

Pilot Knob and Golden Horn from Vermilion.

Vermilion's s.e ridge

The summit block of Vermilion.

The descent of Vermilion the second time seems way less painful, probably because you don't get to enjoy too many trails on 13ers in the San Juans! The trail back to Upper Ice Lake seems more defined than I remember 6 years ago. I am looking forward to visiting Ice Lakes again and the views do not disappoint. It's a good thing this spot is many hours from Denver, or it would be crawling with people. The blue waters are enchanting to say the least. The descent is uneventful other than more exhilarating views, and we hit the trailhead around 3pm. I will return to Ice Lakes Basin!

Golden Horn and Pilot Knob

Magnificent Upper Ice Lake

Upper headwall views

The views do not disappoint!

Parting shot of Fuller and Golden Horn.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 9 10 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24

Comments or Questions
08/28/2013 05:07
Glad to see you climbing and posting.
You climbed Dallas with that flip flop, right?
Congrats on the job too!
If you ever slow your pace down a bit, give me a holler.

Great report!
08/28/2013 06:24
Pilot Knob is a great summit - nice work!

08/28/2013 13:16
Love this place! The parting shot was one of my favorite views coming out of the trees at sunrise when I was there! Thanks for sharing!

Wow! What a beautiful place!
08/29/2013 02:40
The brilliant color in pic 14 is amazing....not to mention that lake shot.
I am looking forward to the day to get to that basin.
Thanks for your report.

I Man
Nice Report!
08/29/2013 03:56
Looks like a fun way to get the centennial. Thanks for the beta

Good stuff Bluebird
08/29/2013 04:12
Pilot Knob does look pretty cool.

This was not even on my radar.
08/30/2013 15:56
This report makes me want to get up there. Nice job.

Amazing PHOTOS
08/31/2013 02:45
Excellent report and beautiful!

Nice to meet you...
09/13/2013 15:38
Nice to meet you and Otina on Pilot Knob. We have some photos of the two of you; PM me if interested.

50% chance of rain . . .
12/16/2013 12:35
yet there's lots of blue in those pictures. Good to be lucky with the weather on occasion. Congrats to both of you for a fine climb.

Beta fine tuning
09/09/2014 15:00
IMO, it's misleading to describe the crux of Pilot Knob as a traverse. When heading to the summit the crux is a 5' down climb. Reversing the crux on the descent is an up climb. Since Kevin, like most people, is more comfortable climbing up he found the ”descent” of the crux to be much easier. Because I had seen the crux described as a traverse, I was concerned I wouldn't be able to spot my my climbing partner on it though in fact I was able to offer a psychologically helpful spot. That said, my partner was an experienced rock climber. Someone hesitant about rock moves or uncomfortable with exposure would likely want more than a spot.

Also, for what it's worth, I agreed with Kevin about where the crux was. My partner thought there was a move lower down on the summit block that was harder than what Kevin and I consider the crux.

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