Peak(s):  Mt. Wilson  -  14,246 feet
El Diente Peak  -  14,159 feet
Wilson Peak  -  14,017 feet
Date Posted:  07/06/2019
Date Climbed:   07/05/2019
Author:  bwleachuk
 Wilson Group in the Snow   

When planning trips using this website it can be easy to underestimate the vast distances between, and difficulty of, completing this group of 14ers in the San Juans. You just think "If I'm going to drive all the way out there, I'll just knock out all three." Because the logistics involved are complicated, and because many people may be debating how to approach these in wintry conditions, I thought it warranted a brief Trip Report for posterity.

We set out to climb Wilson Peak from Rock of Ages TH on Day 1, then drive around to Kilpacker TH that evening, set up camp at 10,100' before heading out early the next morning to tackle El Diente and Mt. Wilson both in a day, using the traverse. We decided against the North Slopes of El Diente and Wilson Peak because the SW slopes looked more manageable. And Kilpacker TH was a bit closer/better place for a campsite than Navajo Lake. We ruled out stashing a car at Rock of Ages then driving around to Kilpacker in the other car because we were not sure we could hike all the way from Kilpacker to the top of El Diente, over to Mt. Wilson, and then all the way to Wilson Peak in a single day. It's a good thing we didn't try that, as it never would have been possible.

The first part of our plan went as planned. The Rock of Ages TH is easy to access and gets you fairly close to the Peak. Rather than follow the route, with enough snow you can take a direct line to the top using the snow fields that stretch all the way to within 100' of the summit. There are no real technical moves along this route, even at the top, and it's impossible to get lost. We did pass several climbers who lacked the proper equipment and turned back. Otherwise, it was straightforward. Peering down over at El Diente and Mt. Wilson from the summit, we could tell that we had just done the "easiest" one first. The others seemed much more formidable. This turned out to be true.


We drove out and around to Kilpacker TH, made camp at 8pm, and woke at 4:30am to get on the trail, hoping to complete the double. The hike in was much harder than anticipated. While there's only 700' of total net vertical gain to the end of the Kilpacker TH, there's lots of climbing and descending, meaning you're gaining 1,000' feet just to get into position. You almost need 3 sets of shoes to do this climb the right way - trail approach shoes, regular hiking boots, and stiff snow climbing boots that fit well in crampons. I had regular hiking boots only, which were great for the lower 2/3rds of the trail but not ideal for the top.

Once in the cirque, at 12,600' feet, we came to several realizations:

First, the traverse looked intimidating (for context, I've done the Crestone Traverse, but balked at the Little Bear - Blanca traverse), especially because there was plenty of snow still up high along the ridge. Just because it's in the sun doesn't mean it will have melted, and there could be icy conditions along the steep sections. So the traverse seemed out.

Second, navigating to the top of both peaks without using the traverse makes for a very long day, especially if your goal is to get back to the trailhead before dark. So we had to choose, and we chose Mt. Wilson, figuring it would be the harder of the two to come back to.

Third, the trail to Mt. Wilson is utterly buried and may be buried for the remainder of the season. The San Juans get a lot more snow than other areas of the state. I had climbed Shavano and Tabagauche two weeks earlier, but this was a whole different ballgame in terms of snow management.

Finally, these types of climbs feel like hiking up a long blue-black ski slope using crampons, for about 2 hours, pausing every 10 minutes. At the top, it's about 30 degrees angle, so careful foot placement and ice axe use is imperative. Rope is strongly advised for when the angle of ascent gets gnarlier.




At the top, we didn't cross over to the right mid-way up (as advised on the website). This would have kept to the Class 3 route. But it's hard to get over to the right when you're climbing up precarious snow and there's a clear gully up ahead. This was, in hindsight, a mistake, as it led us up to top of the exposed ridgeline, which was Class 4. We had ropes, which made everything safe, but without them (and even with them), I was grippin' more than a little!



The summit itself shows you the view back towards El Diente and the Traverse.


The sun was beating down and reflecting off the snow, creating a lot more solar radiation related exhaustion (and burnt lips) than I had anticipated. I also ran out of water about half way down Mt. Wilson, making the ascent of El Diente impossible. If I were trying this double again, I would take at least 4 liters of fluid. If I were going to give the Traverse a go, I would wait until it's completely dry. And I would make sure to bring ropes with me because there are sections at the tops of these peaks that require Class 4 maneuvers that I feel much better trying when on a short rope. Same goes for the descent. We rappelled down 300' or so of the steepest terrain and I was certainly glad not to have to glissade at such high angles with rock obstacles in the way.

In general, I would take a very strong effort, and perfect weather conditions, to summit El Diente, Mt. Wilson, and Wilson Peak in a single day, starting from Kilpacker and ending at Rock of Ages. In good weather, and without snow, this could be accomplished. Indeed, we saw someone attempting it. But a better, safer approach is to allow at least 2 and possibly 3 days to cover all this terrain. We had two days and knocked out 2 but not all 3. We shall return!

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions

07/07/2019 08:05
Thanks for the info! Looks great down there.

As far as ropes, unless you really feel the need for it, I'd recommend not using a rope on the El Diente-Mt Wilson traverse because of the loose rock. The only Class 4 move you should encounter is the summit pitch on Mt. Wilson. The rest is Class 3.


El Diente conditions
07/07/2019 14:08
Thank you for posting! This gives us a better idea of what to expect for our climb of El Diente on Tuesday July 9.

El Diente/Wilson update
07/08/2019 11:00
Many thanks for the current data!

Well Done
08/11/2019 19:44
I took the Rock of Ages approach about the same time last year and it's incredible to see the differences. Far more exhausting/sketch with the scenario you were given but at least you were able to take a more direct approach with that snowpack just past the treeline. Rock was very loose so at least the snow provided some stability reinforcement!

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