Peak(s):  El Diente Peak  -  14,159 feet
Date Posted:  08/25/2014
Date Climbed:   08/23/2014
Author:  mspalding
 El Diente - South Slopes - Early Winter  

Pouring rain, snow and fog. Should we have climbed at all? Should we have continued to the top? Read this report and decide whether you would have summited or left it for another day.

The drive down included pouring rain from Montrose to the trailhead and then for another hour until after 7p. This was not a good start. Finally the clouds parted and we saw sun. But then we saw El Diente. Where did all that snow come from? This was the last time we (MSpalding and Mark81-gd) saw the peak.
Rain at the trailhead equals snow on the peak.

A shot of the snow on the peak across the basin. Note the depth.

No one else was at the trailhead. With tomorrow a Saturday, where was everyone? It got very cold around midnight and then was reasonable by the time we got up at 3:30a. We were hiking in complete darkness at 4a. The clouds were blocking the moon and the stars. After a half hour Brian (BLaComb) caught up with us and increased our pace. At 5a he motioned for us to stop and trained his headlamp up the hillside. It illuminated two glowing yellow eyes above us. All three of our headlamps weren't enough to light up the creature. The eyes were wide apart and I thought it was a bear. But then it did graceful arching leap and we saw the tip of the tail. It was a mountain lion! It continued to stare at us as we moved on down the trail.

We saw the El Diente sign but thought it was too early for the Navajo junction. After another mile we checked a GPS app I was testing and saw we were on the right trail. Later, when we were close to the edge of the vegetation, we turned up the hill on what turned out to be a drainage. Again the GPS app (Motion X on iPhone) showed us the correct route. All together we had 3 GPS, a watch and two different apps on different phones. By the end only one was working. Bring backups.

The trail in was mostly flat with bursts of steep hillsides. The real challenge was that the rain the day before left all the vegetation soaked. Mark had gaiters on but hip-waders would have been better. We were soaked. The vegetation often reached our shoulders and in some stretches it was head height. The pictures and route description in my pocket (from were soaked to worthless. Fortunately Brian had a multipage print out of the route and pictures in his pack. But every time he pulled it out, it absorbed more moisture from the thick fog we later encountered. It crumbled into uselessness partway up and in the end we were using pictures stored on a phone in the app. Bring backups.

Fog? What Fog? There were a few snow flurries on the way up but the air was clear in the dark. When we got out of the trees at 6:20 we got our first bit of daylight. It revealed that a thick roof of clouds completely closed in the basin and extended almost to the eastern horizon. We could see sun in a gap between the clouds and the ground. Over the next 1/2 hour the gap closed.

The closing gap. Our sliver of sun is gone.

We arrived at the turnoff for El Diente at 7:15. El Diente was hopelessly buried.

There is no mountain. There is only cloud.

The route up El Diente is oriented by huge landmarks. But visibility was 30' and sometimes only 10'. The route was well cairned and if it was a sunny day you could probably see many cairns in the distance. But we usually only saw one cairn at a time. And we couldn't even see the landmarks. We didn't find the large rock at 13,000 and we never saw a grey talus field. We could see looming shapes but we never saw the water stained cliffs. We saw the shadow of a large rib but the fog removed the color. Was it red?

If this is the bottom, what's ahead?

Is this rib red? There are no colors in the cloud.

The good news is that although the rocks were uniformly wet from the cloud moisture, they were still grippy. All the different rock on El Diente provided a good grip when wet.

Eventually we realized that we were off route. We weren't seeing any cairns anymore and the terrain we could see at our feet didn't match our expectation. At one point we were traversing back and forth between two gullies trying to decide which to take up. Which gully would lead to a cliff face? We didn't see the organ pipes, and we couldn't have in this fog, but we were sure we'd passed them by now. The rocks in the first gully looked too big. The photos showed dirt and smaller rocks. We climbed the second one and, toward the top, the GPS showed we were close to the trail.

Route finding is difficult with no visuals.

Where are we!

And then it was time for a decision. There were no cairns. We weren't sure where we were. Our altimeter was showing 13,800. But the route description for this altitude didn't match the terrain around us. Worse the weather was taking a toll. The rocks were wet and cold. We were squeezing and wringing out our gloves. My fingers were numb. My toes were wet from sweat and cold from the rocks. Occasionally the wind would come up to add to our discomfort. Visibility was dropping. And some of the rocks were starting to sport ice.

We were only 300' from the top. Yes the route is detailed to get you around various cliffs, but how hard could it be? Surely we could find our way. On the other hand visibility had dropped to 10', it was just getting colder, and it looked like we'd be climbing on icy rocks soon. We later found out that another group had encountered similar conditions that day on the north route and turned around at 13,500. Was this one of those fateful points that turns a climb into a bad day?

We decided to look around in a couple of directions to try to find a cairn or some other indicator. Mark found a narrow gully / chimney and we started up it. After climbing over a section of rock, Mark and Brian recognized it as the chimney in photo 22 of the standard route description. At the top we saw a matching rock formation (below) and a cairn! We were back on route. We decided we must have traversed too low, before we reached the organ pipes.

The marmot shall lead the way.

After clearing the chimney, the route description/photos seemed to say that we were to turn to our right and head nearly straight up. But the best way appeared to be to traverse further to our left and angle up. That worked and soon we were in another gully leading to a notch. I started feeling better as it was clear we were on route. All the other problems were there, but not being lost in the fog is much better. I did express my worries about a ledge on the other side that would be impassible with snow and ice covering the rocks. We decided to make the call when we saw it. In the meantime we found that the rocks we were climbing on were covered with snow and blasted with ice.

Imagine the weather that forms this. The ice was beautiful but not helpful.

The snow and ice on the upper route added to the challenge.

Fortunately the increasing winds had blown the ledge mostly clear and it wasn't any worse than the other parts. Even if you'd had a fear of exposure, you wouldn't have had a problem as the giant drop off was hidden by the 10' visibility. Our brains were a bit futzed by then and we were just climbing on. We walked the ledge, turned a corner and suddenly we were on the summit. How did that happen? This did not seem to match the route description, but there was an empty summit register canister. Mark walked along the ridge to see if there was a higher point, but this was it. We were pleased.

Super Scenic Summit Shot

We have climbed into Winter

Ok. It was 10a and we were halfway. The cloud was thicker than ever. We spent 5 minutes on the summit and headed down.

A long down climb awaits. And the weather is worsening.

Wohoo a cairn!

On the way down we followed the cairns and we did walk under a wall that we thought might be the organ pipes (see below). The light was brighter but the visibility never got over 30'. After the organ pipes, we again lost the cairns. We worked our way down trying to decide where we were supposed to traverse left. We found ourselves getting closer to a large rib (looming shadow) and finally found a cairn on it. But it looked odd and seemed to lead up onto the rib. Instead we continued down along the rib and turned left at the bottom. There we found cairns. And the light was bright enough to see that the rib was indeed made of red rock. We were on route and nearly down.

Organ Pipes?

We returned to the talus at 12:15, actually saw some views of the bottom of the basin, enjoyed fields of flowers, and made it back to camp by 2p. Did we make the right choice? Were we just lucky? Did I whine too much? And where is the rest of the Summer climbing season?

The soaking wet vegetation from this morning had dried.

Sun and flowers - we have left winter behind.


Are the trees bowing to our achievement or weeping over poor choices?

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

 Comments or Questions
Great Pics!
08/25/2014 22:11
Wow, looks like I missed out on an adventure! Glad I redirected to Challenger & Kit Carson. Weather there was not great - virtually no visibility the entire climb up, but didn't have the snow or ice to contend with. Glad you guys made it back safely. Nice report and some great photos!


Good report
08/26/2014 19:11
thanks for posting - informative and interesting. Hoping the weather this week is not too severe and hoping that Friday clears up. We are striving for the El D to Mt Wilson traverse thurs night/Friday. Take care and glad you were successful!


Excellent Trip Report: Stay safe out there!
08/26/2014 20:14
Excellent trip report and perseverance. Thanks. Your experience and photos brought back some vivid and haunting memories of a 1983 climb of Mt. Wilson done under similar circumstances, sleety rain and zero visibility. We were camped inside the old Silver Pick mine hut in late July, just under the pass. The weather was terrible and deteriorating, same monsoon crap as always. I wanted to bail but my partner who was older and wiser didn't, so I went along despite my reservations. Similarly, I remember climbing and route finding by altimeter in complete blindness. The only reason I knew that we were on the summit is because there was no place higher to go. It was an eerie and vulnerable feeling. On the way down, not too far below the summit, my partner above yelled ”ROCK! I quickly reacted and turned to look up slope and from the blanket of fog came a volleyball-sized rock that grazed my ear and helmet before bounding further down the mountain. It all happened in a millisecond. I could have just as easily been killed. All's well that ends well I suppose, but I learned a lesson that day that I've held on to ever since about climbing with a partner whose ambition and risk assessment was mismatched from my own. Looking back, if I had that 1983 climb to do over on that day, I would pass. I climbed it again later anyway. I‘m happy that you had a successful climb. Stay safe out there! Thanks again.


Well done
08/30/2014 03:15
That first pic is totally awesome! It seems the weather was poor all over the mountains Saturday. I was down south as well and didn't see anything above 12,500' or so, despite a successful summit. The only 14er we saw all day was Pikes, on our way back north. Everything else was socked in. An interesting ”summer” day for sure!


09/05/2014 17:27
I did the North Buttress route earlier this year and I certainly would never ever ever want to do it in those conditions. I didn't really enjoy it that much with almost perfect weather that day - but then again I was alone so I think that added to the scary factor. It seems like the South Side doesn't have as much Class 4 stuff - but still not sure I would do it in that weather.

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