Peak(s):  El Diente Peak  -  14,159 feet
Date Posted:  02/19/2015
Date Climbed:   02/15/2015
Author:  Kevin Baker
Additional Members:   dsunwall, sdkeil
 Robbing the Candy Store on El Diente   

El Diente Peak (14159')
25 miles RT, 5200' gain
Via Kilpacker Basin/South Face Standard Route
From Hwy 145/Dunton Road (9400')
Participants: Shawn Keil, Dwight Sunwall, and Kevin Baker
February 14-15, 2015

Full Res Pics

El Diente is typically a tough nut to crack in winter, and it still is even with a below normal snowpack in the San Juans. There are basically 3 options in winter. You can either start at the east end of the Dunton Road on Highway 145 or drive about 1.5 hours farther for a west approach from the Dunton guard station that is about 6 miles round trip shorter, but adds about 500' vertical. The third option is a grueling day via an out and back traverse from Mount Wilson. All three of these can only be done when snow conditions are stable as there is a lot of avalanche terrain. Shawn and I were able to successfully make it up Wilson Peak and Mount Wilson in successive Jan weekends. A couple weeks off, and things are still looking quite favorable in the San Juans. Dwight needed El Diente badly and had already made two attempts in previous seasons. The great window was too good to pass up!

Dwight car camped at the trailhead, while Shawn and I stayed at a hotel in Montrose. Dwight started a bit earlier than us on a nice snowmobile track up the Dunton Road. It is typical for there to be a track on this road unless it is right after a dump. We left at 9:20am and it was a quick 5.1 mile approach up the mellow road to the summer Kilpacker trailhead at Morgan Camp, elevation 10060'.

Easy road walk to summer trail head, Delores beyond

Here we met up with Dwight and had a snack break before continuing on for the trench busting session that was about to begin. Initially the trail breaking was pretty easy on south and west facing slopes, but when the trail turned north, it got tougher. We were able to follow the trail for all but about mile where we were a bit too high, but otherwise we made decent time. The snow really softened up with the warm day for the last couple miles, and we decided to setup camp a bit short of treeline at 10600' after about 8.6 miles and 5:20 of backpacking. It wasn't easy getting here, but it could have been much worse.

El Diente from camp

We setup camp in an open area that was still well lit by the sun and were able to fix dinner outside our tents well before the sun went down. This was probably the warmest winter camping evening I have had! I got by with my one man Big Agnes Seedhouse tent and a -20 bag, but it did get down to 15 degrees. We had a nice view of El Diente's s.w. face from camp and soaked in the sun as long as we could. Dwight was able to lay a track to just below the waterfall at 11K and we were set for a 6am start time.

Camp tracks

Luxurious camp

The night went a lot quicker than many of my winter camps for 14ers as I got some good sleep in my cozy bag and we were off a bit after 6am. It was nice not to start with cold hands! The hardest part of a winter outing is getting out of the tent and the initial 30 minutes of trying to generate body heat, but it wasn't much of an issue today. We quickly made it to the waterfall and left the floor of the drainage left on steep grass. The second headwall is reached at 11200', which we skirted left on moderate snow, finding a way through the willows to the summer trail! It's not too often that you get to use a trail in winter. We decided to cache the snowshoes even though we couldn't see the whole route, hoping the snow would stay in good shape.

El Diente's southwest face

We were able to follow the trail across talus and hard snowfields all the way to 12600', where you are directly beneath the south face. As expected, the snow was in awesome shape and we kicked steps up a little steep section to a section of rock where we could put our crampons on. I was pumped to be able to climb some steeper snow in winter! It doesn't happen too often.

Heading up the apron of the south face

The first time I climbed El Diente was in summer 2006 via Navajo Basin from the north, so this was my first time on the route. I was hoping my 2nd experience on El Diente would be more pleasant, because I really pushed it with the weather the first time and got nailed by a huge storm that dumped 6 inches of graupel in the north couloir in a few minutes! Other than a little wind, today was going to be a bluebird day.

The name of the game today was to try and make good use of the awesome snow conditions by staying on it as much as possible. We were able to stay on or very close to the summer route zigging through the initial cliff bands. There were a few cairns poking out to aid our progress. This was probably the best snow I have climbed on in winter as it was perfect for crampons and we made good time up to the east ridge. There was one brief section of crappy snow that we got off in favor of the rock just below the ridge.

Lower ramp on south face

Dwight on lower south face

Upper south face and east ridge

Shawn enjoying the nice snow

Mount Wilson and South Wilson

El Diente summit

We hit the ridge traverse just below Pin Point and found Derek and Matt's tracks from the previous weekend. The south side traverse went fairly quickly and the views were dramatic. We regrouped at the notch where the route traverses over to the north face for the finish.

South side traverse

Shawn on south side traverse

Gully climb

Dwight approaching the notch. Photo by Shawn Keil.

The north face traverse can many times be too dangerous to attempt in winter as it could be loaded with deep, unconsolidated snow. The other option is to go over the ridge direct, which involves some exposed low 5th class climbing. We knew from Derek's pics that the north face looked reasonable to attempt. The west ridge is also a more difficult option as this was done by the late Steve Gladbach.

I led out onto the face and the snow was indeed more in winter condition than the south side, mostly loose powder. We took our time through the finish as the pucker factor is a lot higher than the south side. In summer, I didn't even notice this part because I was worried about the weather! We made our way through the loose snow and made it to the easy gully that brings you back to the ridge just below the summit. The top of this gully can sometimes hold a cornice, which happened last year. We finally topped out at 11:15, ecstatic to make it up one of the harder 14ers in winter.

North face traverse

Beginning of the north face traverse. Photo by Shawn Keil.

Nearing the end of difficulties. Photo by Shawn Keil.

Dwight and Shawn in final gully climb to summit ridge.

Good windows don't come about very often on this peak as Dwight can attest to, and I felt blessed to get it on the first try. Congrats to Dwight on winter 14er #51! I think it was our 12th winter 14er together. The winds were mostly calm on the summit and we enjoyed it for about 20 minutes, which was great since the Wilsons last month were too cold and windy to enjoy! We kind of felt like we robbed the candy store, but the name of the game for the tougher 14ers in winter is knowing when to go to ensure a safe ascent with higher odds of success. This has been the winter to do that in the San Juans as I would imagine Kilpacker Basin is in scary shape for the duration of most winters.

Gladstone and Mount Wilson from summit.

Wilson Peak

Dwight led the way down and I felt like the descent was easier because we knocked off some of the loose snow over the slabby sections and knew what to expect.

Initial downclimb

No fall zone

Good view of traverse to Mount Wilson

Back across

Looking back at the north face traverse

Back at the notch and across the ridge traverse we went, and it was great to start soaking up the views. The upper south face snowfield had softened up quite a bit, and we endured about a 10 minute stretch of some unexpected postholing, the type where you can't tell if you will sink or not. Lower down, the face didn't receive as much sun, so we were in the clear with some efficient plunge stepping down to the valley floor. The wind had now picked up and clouds were starting to build, so we kept our de-crampon break short.

Back on the south side

Crampon edging on rock.

Back on the south face

Looking back at the south face.

Upper Kilpacker

We took a slightly different route back to camp, staying in the valley floor down to about 11900' and then traversing back to the trail. Shawn and I followed the trail this time all the way down to 11160' and were able to avoid the steep grass we came up in the morning. We got back to camp at 3pm and were ready to head out by 4, while Dwight took his time.

All that was left now was the long slog back to the cars, and a long slog it was. We all hiked out at our own paces and I made it back to the summer trailhead just as it got dark at 6:15. Following our trench back wasn't too bad until about a mile from the trailhead when heavy postholing ensued! I didn't think it would get this bad, but I've been in a lot worse snow conditions than this. I told Shawn when I got to the summer trailhead that we should be able to blast down the 5 mile snowmobile track in 1.5 hours. That was wishful thinking!

Many miles to go before we sleep



The bad thing about this road is it's not steep enough for gravity to help. It began to snow on us and the wind picked up, but not enough for me to put a hard shell on. It seemed to take forever to get to treeline, and then my feet started hurting when the road got steeper. It was a bad hike to forget the ibuprofen! I finally rounded the corner to go down the shelf and saw the car lights on Highway 145, but I knew it was still a long ways down. Shelf roads are brutal to hike on in the dark in winter because you have no sense of scale. I was going delirious in non-stop zombie mode. The last mile dragged on forever, and I finally staggered back to the truck at 8:20pm. I can't imagine day hiking this even with a track in place all the way. One would have to be as strong as John Prater to be insane enough to dayhike this with no track from the summer trailhead because it's a long ways to the top if you want to rock and roll!

GPS track

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 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36

Comments or Questions
Summit Lounger

Another great one
02/20/2015 13:11
Congrats on another great summit to all. It is great to see so many people on this site getting some of the harder winter ascents done this year. Patience is key when chasing snowflakes....Get it when it is good.


02/20/2015 13:23
Thanks for sharing. Makes me both happy (that you had a successful summit) and a little sad (that I used last weekend for a "rest"). I am glad the snow conditions on the south face were so good, because from the prior TRs it looked pretty loaded. I guess the nice weather locked up all that snow.

Curious why you have Dwight at 51 and not #55 (of 59)..

Git er done.



Nice Report
02/20/2015 14:35
...but where’s the snow? Unreal

I’ve really enjoyed all of the SJ reports! Great stuff.


50 something
02/20/2015 15:26
Yikes, it’s the age old question, how many 14ers are there? I’ve been told that the first finishers claimed 55 winter summits so that’s where 51 comes from, I am at 51/55 54/58. Bill has options for 53, 58 and 73 but not 54, 59? and 55. I don’t care to discuss this further, 14er math is extremely difficult.

Where’s the snow? funny thing is we were on snow 98% of the time, I’m sure someone could ski it . There was plenty of mashed potato trenching in the trees. Lots of bare rock above treeline though obviously.

Thanks to Shawn and Kevin for joining me on this one. Last time I was there it was zero degrees and very high wind, bad planning on my part.


02/20/2015 15:48
I love these reports. Thanks!
I’m curious; it seems to me being rather new, why few rap from some of the summits rather than downclimb?
At least through the no–fall zones?
Maybe I’m just soft but I can see myself leaving a few slings and biners.
I’m much more used to climbing roped so excuse my ignorance. I am seriously interested in the opinions/advice, etc.


02/20/2015 16:33
Great work and congrats on a fine summit. Congrats to the three of you on closing in. Great pics too, especially 29 and 35


What Monster5 said...
02/20/2015 17:03
... really incredible pics. And a very nice report. But I expect nothing less from THE Kevin Baker. Huge congrats!!!


zombie mode
02/20/2015 17:11
Kevin, your description of walking down that shelf road in the dark brings back memories... it’s a surreal and frustrating feeling to look down on the cars and trucks whizzing by far below. But I know you must have felt incredibly satisfied as well, with El D under your belt (not to mention both Wilsons just a few weeks prior!). Being a zombie is fun, right??

Congrats to all. Looks like you had a perfect day (and night) up there.

Chicago Transplant

I am not worthy!
02/20/2015 17:17
I feel like a wimp, all these cool harder winter 14er trips and all I did on Saturday was a trenched out Yale.
You guys are all kicking some serious butt this winter, I am impressed! I am sure you all are liking the weather window, but up here in ski country we are hoping that door slams shut and we get some snow


Not arguing the list
02/20/2015 18:20
.. just feel you should get credit for those 3 additional peaks.

Regardless, awesome job on getting #51/#54.


02/20/2015 18:44
the difficulties on El Diente are more horizontal than vertical. You could of course protect the horizontal but the extra time and effort involved in this case didn’t seem to warrant bringing the gear. Being sure of every move was sufficient. One stumble on the ridge and you would be history though.


Chicago Transplant
02/20/2015 19:32
Mike – I was thinking the same thing! I felt pretty good about a recent skin/ski trip and then I read a report like this.

Think snow


So stoked here...
02/20/2015 19:42
Congrats to all three of you for getting this one. I thought about you quite a bit last weekend. At one point I said to Sarah "They gotta be slogging up that road right now..." and then I let out a nice cackle.

I think image #31 sums it up, and there is nothing like that north face air breezing up your baselayer.

Hope you guys get some rest this weekend.


02/20/2015 19:49
Thanks for sharing. "the pucker factor is a lot higher than the south side." El Diente can bite!


Candy Store, Not Baby
02/20/2015 20:41
It looked like y’all were getting away with one. Then I remembered the north side (having only been there in summer, just imagining the change in snowpack). Then I realized you hiked up from the highway! Fine work.

Steve Knapp

02/20/2015 22:27
Excellent trip guys. Nice looking weather, glad it all worked out well for you. Wow, just four more winter peaks to go for Dwight, impressive.

Kevin Baker

02/21/2015 00:03
Thanks for the kind words, folks. It was a fun outing for sure. Jwendling, I will add on to what Dwight said on rappelling. The route is only 3rd class, but 3rd class with loose snow can be a lot more unnerving when there is exposure over a very steep face. Even if you did try to rap this, it wouldn’t benefit you much because the route across the north face and pretty much all the other exposed areas is more of a traverse.

Natalie, skins on that road would be beneficial for sure, but not much more than just booting it beyond the switchbacks because it is so flat. That was a long 5 miles for such a mellow road! It actually took me the same time to go down as up.

Summit Lounger

What about the bike????
02/21/2015 01:09
Bike that road. It is the only way....I was cussing out my partners for not telling me about the 5 mile ¨road¨ being groomed by snowmobiles. I was expecting trench warfare. Think about it.

Kevin Baker

Greg has got it down
02/21/2015 01:27
Greg, yep, the bike would be the ticket on that road! I might have to borrow yours for a certain road in the future.


snowflake candy?
02/21/2015 02:16
I didn’t read the report, but looked at the awesome pictures! So tell me, what kind of candy did you steal?

Kevin Baker

02/21/2015 15:14
Darin, I guess the candy reference is a play on words. I was thinking El Diente is the candy since we think of mountains sometimes as eye candy and the SJ’s is the big candy store. Snowflake candy is a good one!


All in winter
02/21/2015 19:54
Dwight, I didn’t realize you were so close to finishing all of them in winter. With only Maroon, Evans/Bier and Challenger remaining, I assume you’re trying to finish this winter. Really an amazing accomplishment. Good luck.


10 miles of road
02/21/2015 20:49
Greg/Kevin, there’s always the snowmobile option. I know some people hate to even think about such a disgusting way of "cheating" but blasting out 5 miles of road in 2 minutes is sometimes the way to go.


5 miles in 2 min...
02/22/2015 17:05
Bill I gotta get a ride on your snow you have a jet engine in it?

So I will have to admit that road sucked in all ways imaginable and although I would never let myself cheat with the a snowmobile had someone driven by on our way out I would have been seriously tempted.

Dwight it was great to finally meet and get a snow flake together, I still need three of your final four so let me know if you need a partner.

Kevin as always you are the trench master and it has been fun stealing some San Juan snowflakes this year. Also another great trip report....until the next great adventure, hopefully though with less driving.


02/23/2015 03:34
A groomed road is the best walking surface on the planet, that’s cheating enough. again I will say, not being in a rush is the key to enjoying the road. I had a cup of ramen before leaving camp and loaded mashed potatoes about half ways out, so I felt good all the way.

I am not pushing to be done this winter.


Private Jet
02/24/2015 01:12
Shawn, I’m not sure I could keep it at 150mph with a passenger. Ok, so 5 miles in 2 minutes was a bit of an exaggeration but I did run it at 100mph the last time I rode from Taylor Reservoir to Tincup. I know a snow ride is not for everyone, especially if your targeted goal is to do an entire trip without the use of motorized equipment. I also realize some people look down on snowmobiles in general. I get it. Personally, I have no specific goals other than getting to the good stuff and sometimes that means burning a bit of gasoline. I like the climbing and skiing part. When I’m riding and come upon a hiking crew, I almost always offer a ride. Some take it and some don’t but I offer. Anyway, forget I mentioned the snowmobile thing...

Again, great job on the winter climbs!
Excellent photos


I had no idea
04/02/2015 19:45
the TH is so far below the summer TH. Thanks for the report and beta. And yes, I do recall now that the hike out did require a fair amount of uphill. Ugh, that finally might be the route for skins both on the way in and out. Congrats on the awesome peak in great conditions!

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