Peak(s):  Mt. Sneffels  -  14,150 feet
Mt. Wilson  -  14,246 feet
Wilson Peak  -  14,017 feet
El Diente Peak  -  14,159 feet
Date Posted:  09/04/2019
Date Climbed:   08/30/2019
Author:  HikerBox
 Long weekend on Wilson Group + Sneffels via Woods Lake and Blue Lakes   

My last San Juan 14ers were the Wilson Group and Sneffels but I really wanted to minimize my driving and bag all of them in one weekend as a series of short backpacking approaches. Naturally labor day was both the opportunity to do an aggressive itinerary and a bit of a traffic and crowd curse, as it is every year. I was initially a bit confused as to how best to tackle the Wilson group since there are no fewer than 4 possible approach trailheads with varying driving times, approach elevations and mileages and the whole thing was kind of overwhelming. Eventually I realized the Woods Lake trailhead is about an hours drive from the Blue Lakes trailhead for Sneffels and it's in the Denver direction slightly. Since I drive a Honda Civic, the 2WD friendly trailheads were definitely welcome although the blue lakes road is a bit rough.

I had a long week at work but managed to leave Denver at 12:30 and beat the worst of the pre-labor day weekend traffic, only a few spots before Bailey and then following a lot of RV's struggling to do the speed limit. I made it to Woods Lake at 7:15 and was changed and hiking out from the car at 7:30 PM. Not long after leaving the car you pass a nice view of Dolores mountain:

View from Woods Lake at about 7:35 PM

I knew this weekend would involve more night hiking than usual so I packed a bigger headlamp with a rechargeable battery that would last 8 hours on the medium setting. Darkness came by 8:15 and I used the headlamp until I got to Navajo Lake at 9:30. The trail from Woods Lake was easy to follow and in decent shape aside from some horse damage and blown out steeper sections but I noticed the descent into Navajo Lake is anything but "gradual" that the 14ers route description includes. I had a lot of trouble finding a campsite at the Lake but eventually found a flat spot for the night. I slept in until 6:50 the next morning and was heading up to El Diente's North Buttress by 7:20 after realizing I forgot to pack my breakfasts for this leg of the trip. Woops but at least I had extra snacks!

The North Buttress was intimidating but obvious. I made my way across the boulder field at the base and stumbled upon a beautiful old miners trail switchbacking its way through the boulders not mentioned in the route description. It was much nicer than the trail to the upper basin! The miners had cleared the boulders and the trail had grown over in grass somehow. I believe you can find it staying on the highest part of the ridge through the boulders. It wound all the way up parallel to the old mine debris and I stumbled upon an upper portion later on in the scramble. Otherwise the North Buttress route is overly complex - you are in a pile of broken rock and discerning one saddle from another or one boulder from another was next to impossible for me. There were even multiple V shaped snowfields. Next time I would just climb and avoid even paying much attention to the route description because the time spent looking for it erases any efficiency gains. You could even ascend the gully to the right of the buttress for quite a while if you wanted and still regain the buttress crest. I also took the airy direct finish that deposits you an easy hundred yards from El Dientes summit - highly recommended!
There were a good 4 or 5 people on El Diente's summit block when I got there and I teamed up with a Boulder area couple who were working on the 50th 14ers - Kyle and Lindsey. We took turns leading the traverse, checking the route and eying the most efficient lines. The best part was the "narrow section" which felt less than 2 feet wide with incredible exposure! I had read the route description ahead of time but this was pucker factor 11/10! We did have to wait about 15 minutes for a group to descend the notch below the summit pitch but the traverse took us just over 2 hours total. The exposed summit move on Mount Wilson was also incredible! Far and away the most sustained exposed scrambling I've done.
Lindsey and Kyle had come up from a backpack in Kilpacker so we parted ways on Mount Wilson and I descended the standard route. I read some key beta on a trip report from this site that recommended traversing high for a while before descending instead of the long descending traverse described in the 14ers route description. I found an easy to follow trail and cairns that lead to the top of a rock rib and passed above all the snowed in gullies. The cairns ended and I simply descended the steep, broken but solid rib down, passing a group of 3 who stayed high for too long and wound up in loose talus. I ran out of water on the descent and stopped in the grassy meadow at the upper valley to drink, take off the shoes and lay down for a while. Before the traverse I had toyed with the idea of heading up Wilson Peak after the traverse but now I was pooped - the exposure and thousands of feet of scrambling really wore me out. I made my way slowly back to my tent where I moved camp to somewhere more comfortable. I put my Ursack down next to a rock then couldn't find it and though someone had walked off with it - I think I was dehydrated and beat from the climb. I found it eventually and then had a great night chatting with my neighbors - two of which did Gladstone and told harrowing stories of loose rock on the 1.5 mile ridge. They confirmed my idea to save Gladstone for a snow climb on the east face some spring. I did see a possible route skirting cliffs on the southwest ridge but the loose rock makes me think that would be pretty terrible.
The next day Wilson Peak was on the menu and the route was generally pretty simple aside from crossing some slabs near the Gladstone-Wilson saddle and the notch descent near the summit. I did pass a group headed up El Diente to do the traverse without helmets who asked me "where the trail was" up El Diente. There is none! They also said they didnt bring helmets because "The 14ers website didn't say we needed them".....
Anyhow, I made a few exposed moves just below the Wilson Peak summit and realized I had some exposure fatigue from the el diente traverse. I decided to follow a big group heading down from the summit instead of tackling it solo after they left.
Top of Wilson Peak looking back at the traverse

Back at the Rock of Ages saddle I ran into Kyle and Lindsey again! I told them about the route and wondered if we would see each other on Sneffels again. They had backpacked around from the kilpacker trail to Navajo lakes the night before and slept in - I didn't blame them! I hiked back to camp, packed up and was on the way back to my car by 11:30. At this point I was mentally pretty tired - I dont think I slept very well the night before but the legs felt good on the way back up the steep Woods Lake trail. I was back at the car at 1:30, ate some food there and got a pulled pork sandwich in Sawpit at the general store - 6/10 it wasn't great but wasn't terrible. I then drove a little ways up Highway 65 and turned in at the dallas creek road for a bumpy 10 miles to the Blue Lakes trail at 4:15. I really had to motivate myself to start the hike up to Blue Lakes with the thought of a future 12 hours of round trip driving if I went home then. Yet again though my eyes were more tired than my legs and I was at the lower lake about an hour fifteen after I left. I saw a TON of day hikers and more importantly a lot of backpackers exiting on my way up - finding a site was easy! Pooping, however, was terrible since the only area was a wooded ridge west of the lake practically covered in unburied TP and feces. I kicked myself for not bringing a WAG bag but I hadn't realized how popular blue lakes was.

The next morning I thought the lower lake was beautiful until I saw the upper lakes! The mountains are incredible and somehow not even named! On the way up to the pass I met Pavel - a great guy from the Czech Republic (Czeckia?) and we made the 2000 feet from the lower lake to the pass in about 1:15 - pretty damn good time for me! It was his first scramble and I convinced him to come with me on the Southwest ridge instead of the gully - he was grateful when we saw the gully!

Looking to Point 13735 from near Blue Lakes Pass!
Wilsons and El Diente from the southwest ridge on Sneffels - so cool to see what you just climbed!

Not ten minutes after summiting who shows up? Kyle and Lindsey!

Reunited by accident - again!

They had taken the gully up from the opposite side and regretted it so I guided the four of us down the southwest ridge - taking a more reasonable line down than our way up the summit pitch. Pavel had a great time on his first class 3 peak to boot.

Four new friends!
The view headed down to the lower lake was too big for my camera!

Every time I get to the San Juans I wish I had more time there but once back at Blue Lakes Pass Kyle and Lindsey parted ways and Pavel and I went back to blue lakes. Pavel and I parted at the lower lake since he still had a day extra to check out more San Juan lakes. I hit the road around 2 pm and made it home by 9. The traffic was only bad from Kenosha Pass to Bailey but man were my legs tired! I think the total elevation gain was 14,000' ironically.

In summary, Woods Lake and Blue Lakes are great approaches to get this group of 4 done in a long weekend with a 2WD vehicle. I think it minimizes driving time and maximizes views compared to any other approach combination. In hindsight I would recommend:

  1. Bring WAG bags for Navajo Lake and Blue Lakes - both are extremely high use areas with limited toliet opportunities.
  2. The north buttress route on el diente is great but don't sweat the directions - JUST GO UP!
  3. The traverse is more intense than you think it will be!
  4. Take lots of pictures!!!

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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