El Diente Peak - 14,159 feet
Wilson Peak - 14,017 feet
Mt. Wilson - 14,246 feet
El Diente Peak - 14,159 feet
Wilson Peak - 14,017 feet
Mt. Wilson - 14,246 feet
|Wilson Group in a Decade|
This report details three successful trips over the decade it took me to ski the Wilson Group peaks from 2009-2019. For recent pow-skiing video from El Diente, which is the true highlight of my 14ers journey, skip to the end ...
March 22, 2009 -- A Solo Introduction to Skiing in the San Juans
The parties and their counsel in a pretty contentious lawsuit that I was involved in were ordered to appear in Cortez, CO for a mediation at the courthouse on March 24, 2009. As any aspiring 14er skier should do, I mapped various routes to Cortez from Denver to see if I could check off a new 14er on the way. A plan was hatched to add on an overnight camping stop on Lizard Head Pass and make an attempt at Mt. Wilson via the Slate Creek approach.
Dawson's description of the Slate Creek drainage made it sound as though there would be a significant advantage to navigating it in daylight. An overnight looked like the best chance of success.
I recall that back then there was a push to have 14ers.com members contribute material to the site for routes that Bill hadn't already added, which I thought was a pretty cool opportunity. So before heading out on the road, I checked to see if there was a Mt. Wilson route from Lizard Head Pass. Sure enough, nothing yet ... this is my big opportunity to contribute something back for all of the value the site had provided ... I'll take lot's of photos of the route and send something to Bill ...
I reached Lizard Head Pass in the dark and pulled over to the side of the road to get a bit of sleep in the back of my car before daylight. Since one advantage of an overnight is that there is usually plenty of time to reach camp, I had a leisurely start from the Pass. Heading up from there, I took a shot of the route as it enters the forest ...
... and promptly lost any semblance of a trail into the upper Slate Creek basin. The hours that followed were an up and down and over and under bushwhack in the general direction upper Slate Creek, but far from direct or efficient. Certainly not the stuff of Bill's clear and thorough routes! My dreams of making a name for myself for my new Mt. Wilson route were shattered :)
Snow conditions were surprisingly spring-like but some of the micro-slopes and gullies gave me pause in the warm weather. I should have gotten an earlier start. By the time I finally popped out of the woods at around 11,000 feet, it was clear that I was going to need to quickly find somewhere to camp.
I chose a spot right at treeline on the flattest slope I could identify as darkness fell rather suddenly. I would have to set up camp in the dark. I assembled the poles and got straight to setting up my tent, a single-walled tent that requires climbing in it to attach the poles. After getting the first pole situated, I backed out of the half-assembled tent and reached for the second pole. Gone. Had it slipped under the tent? WTF?? My fatigue was setting in and I had some bizarre irrational thoughts about what had happened to the pole. A meticulous search of the immediate area by headlamp revealed only more darkness. The pole was gone and I needed some sleep. So I used my BD telescoping ski poles and the emergency duct tape I have wrapped around them below the grip to fashion a pretty quick work-around. But for as good as the ski poles worked, I couldn't get the tent taught enough to avoid a loud and sleepless night in the wind.
In any event, getting as least a glimpse of the terrain before darkness was critical as I least had a picture of where I would be heading in the morning. After I got an alpine start towards Gladstone and the upper cirque.
My efforts were rewarded by an incredible sunrise over the Sneffels Group and Lizard Head itself.
Once I figured out which rock on the ridge was probably Mt. Wilson, I approached it from climber's right, eventually transitioning from snow to challenging rock and a narrow ridge. I was in awe of the Wilson Group and tried my best to orient myself to my intended descent route.
I carefully down-climbed to the highest continuous snow wider than my skis, hacked out a platform, clicked in and made some steep turns before cutting skier's right to the entrance to the Boxcar.
From the top of the couloir it was clear that I would have to wait awhile longer for things to corn up. But the wind that was gusting up the couloir meant that this was not going to be a pleasant spot to wait it out and I was ready to go. So I skied in smooth, but still refrozen condition, all the while a wind blow up in my face from the bottom of the chute. The line slowly drops off to the right before taking a hard left near the bottom of the line.
If I close my eyes, I can still feel the sting of refrozen spring snow being blown up into my face on each crusty turn. As I would learn a decade later closing out the group ... not all face-shots are created equal!
I made it back to my camp site, later found my tent pole sticking upright out of the snow at the bottom of the drainage and found a pretty efficient way back to my car on LH Pass. I recall arriving in Cortez to a wind-storm that required soaking towels and putting them under the motel room door in order to keep out the dust. As expected, the mediation was unsuccessful. After an email exchange with Lou Dawson himself, I felt good about my descent from an "ethics" standpoint.
May 5, 2017 -- A Technical Ski of Wilson's Coors Face
With thoughts of our fantastic day on North Maroon still fresh in my mind, I picked up Gueza on the side of the road at what had been our standard meeting place for awhile now. "I hope you like Radiohead, because I'm near the start of listening to every album consecutively ..." After a stop in Gunnison to pick up some food and the required beverages for our intended line, we arrived at the road to the TH in time for a short side-trip to check out the Coors Face ....
... and reached the end of the dry road as the last song from the last album played. I for one took this as a good sign.
We got ourselves a strong alpine start and switched to skinning at the point where the trail makes the right-hand turn. Above treeline in the dark we got spooked by the refraction of lights down by private property and switched to our red headlamps for "stealth-mode." My goal was to avoid as much of the ridge as possible and we followed a suspicion I had about a chute that would eventually take us up and to the left.
It was good to take in another San Juan sunrise ...
Sure enough, right about when it looked as though we would have to find a way up to the ridge proper, a ribbon of snow rose up and to the left.
The couloir provided a firm surface for climbing as it gradually steeped and narrowed to about snowboard's width.
The chute topped out about 30 vertical feet below the summit on the north side. A couple minutes on the ridge got us to the top. We agreed that we had probably found the most efficient route to the top of Wilson Peak. Four hours from the car.
After taking in the view for a bit we quickly transitioned to skiing. The east face was already beginning to cook. The Coors face was in, but thin. The lack of snow and abundance of sharks made the descent the most technically difficult either of us had ever undertaken. Eric did an amazing job leading the way and safely picking out our route. The upper face involved a mix of traversing, rock-hopping and high-consequence jump turns all in no-fall terrain. We had to spread out quite a bit in order for Eric to be out of the fall line of my slough, the occasional rock that let loose and (worst-case scenario) me. We worked our way down the ridge to the north, down the face a bit, cut left, cut right and then straight down into the gut of the line.
Above the choke we took a hard left across the line, worked our way down thru the cliff bands and headed hard left back to our up-track without more than a couple-dozen sidesteps. A bit later we found our beer stash and celebrated another successful 2017 descent that left us feeling pretty confident.
Here's the video edit, with apologies to anyone who gets motion sickness. (I tried to use an appropriate Radiohead song, but they are apparently very vigilant about their copyright on Youtube).
May 31, 2019 -- A POW Day on El Diente
For years we made tentative plans to head back to Telluride for El Diente, only to cancel because of timing or questioning conditions. Had the line been on the Front Range, I am certain we would have skied it years ago. But the initial hurdle of a six-hour drive before even putting on your pack is quite the impediment to a "let's at least go an check it out" attitude that applies to the ranges closer to the city.
This year the discouragement came in the form of snow. So Much Snow. I spent weeks stalking the El Diente weather station, the Telluride airport camera and the CDOT cameras in the area to try and get a feel for how much was actually accumulating. Two separate trip plans were scrapped because of probably high avy conditions at the very top of the line in the latter half of May. At one point the El Diente weather station was reporting an inch an hour for 4 days straight ...
After watching what appeared to be a fantastic weather window over Memorial Day weekend, Gueza and I decided that enough was enough and we would give it a go later that week. On Thursday we met at the usual spot and quickly settled back in to the standard 14er-related topics over familiar roads. One topic was that it appeared that there was a young tele skier from Roaring Forks Valley that was quickly catching up to me on the list while accompanying his partner as she attempted to become the first female splitboarder to ride the 14ers. Some friendly competition, perhaps?
We made good time and found the approach road in pretty much the same condition we had left it in 2017. Waiting at the end of the dry road were an SUV and a pickup with a camper on it. Looked like a pretty sweet trail head setup. We found a flat spot to park Eric's ride and began to get ourselves organized for an alpine start.
"You're Laura, aren't you?" I commented as someone finally emerged from the camper. We introduced ourselves to the @holyfrozenwater crew and compared notes on our goals for the following day. They were clearly on a different timeline than us, having slept in that day instead of getting out and planning to spend a few days in the San Juans ticking off peaks. We tried our best to talk them out of climbing the Coors Face and described our efficient route above from 2017.
We did the math backwards from the goal of being at the bottom of the line at ambient light, or 30 minutes before sunrise. For the unacquainted, skiing the Fox Traverse line on El Diente from our starting point would require climbing up the Silver Pick Basin, over the Rock of Ages pass at 13,000 ft., down 1,000 ft. into Navajo Basin, up a NW-facing couloir to the to start of the traverse. The extra vertical of starting from the wrong basin combined with my speed (slow) added up to a 1am start time.
One goal was to time it so that we would able to check out the terrain below the Fox Traverse, which we had been eyeing as reports came in this season. One potential skiing option was what we had been calling the Fox Direct line, which had been done by Nick DeVore during Dav's project (he aired out a rock band) and by Jordan White when he skied it (he downclimbed it) with a big Wildsnow group. We suspected that the line would be fully in, but carried a rope just in case there was any need. If in condition, the NE facing line is long, steep and direct from the summit. For me, it would be an ode to DeVore to make tele turns down it.
Our timing was on point and we skied down from Rock of Ages by headlamp under the cover of darkness and made our way to the bottom of the line as the sun rose.
We began booting at the bottom of the NW couloir and found boot-top powder that slowly got deeper and deeper as we ascended.
For awhile we leap-frogged, each taking our turn breaking trail ...
But as conditions turned into waist to chest-deep powder, Gueza took over as I did my best to keep up. The NW couloir is longer than it appears from below and when you turn left near the top there's another couple hundred of hidden vertical ... with the tough climbing conditions it seemed to just keep going and going.
Finally we reached the Fox Traverse, with its initial NE aspect cooking under the sun before transitioning back to a NW-facing shaded aspect.
The bootpack had taken much longer than expected. We had to leave the shade one more time to reach the summit as Gueza tunneled to the top.
Our assessment of skiing conditions was the the NE-facing snow would be "hot pow," while the NW-face was still cold enough that it was going to offer some of the best skiing either of us had ever experienced. The Fox Direct would have to wait for another day. It was tough to tell which of two cornices was the actually top of the peak, so we skied over them both.
And Gueza took the first tracks that he had earned from a third possible high point.
We cautiously made our way down to the traverse left ...
And after making our way back over the traverse and into the NW facing aspect of the main line, we were really able to let 'er rip.
Gueza finding a fun spine:
Skiing the NW line was a true highlight of a lifetime of skiing. I'll truly never be able to repay Gueza for the bootpack he put in on the way up.
Climbing back up to Rock of Ages, with the Fox Traverse (and Direct) over my left shoulder:
The pow conditions continued on the other side of Rock of Ages, down to at least about 12,000 ft. What a treat. The snow held out to a few hundred yards short of the truck, where we found the other crew relaxing but fired up after finding great conditions on the Coors Face. We shared the stoke for a bit while packing up and having a celebratory beverage. I shared my thoughts about the conditions on El Diente and it looks like Laura and Nicky rode the Fox Direct the following day. It was fun to finish up the Wilson Group while bumping into those two in the midst of their inspiring project.
Here's the El Diente video edit:
Thanks for reading!
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