Peak(s):  Mt. Wilson  -  14,246 feet
Date Posted:  02/10/2020
Modified:  02/11/2020
Date Climbed:   01/25/2020
Author:  Kiefer
 Doing Everything Right, and yet...   

20022_06
Looking north towards Gladstone Peak & the Northern San Juan's.

Not going to lie, this was a kick-ass campsite. The ground was semi-padded with the grass that I dug down to, I had plenty of shelves for my gear and I carved out a small alcove for my boots. I could withstand ANY blizzard with this massive pothole I dug. Badgers and ferrets would bow to my digging abilities. Prairie Dogs would…well, they’d probably just bark and go hide. Screw them. What do Prairie Dogs know anyway? Unless we get just absolutely puked on in February and March, this five-foot deep hole is going to be here well past spring until the snow melts. I plopped down onto a lowered shelf that I carved into the piled snow trying to think of things to cheer myself up, if even a little bit. I quietly admired my new 4-season tent I bought (Nemo Chogori), kind of as a Christmas present to myself (it was a good paycheck) while enjoying my summit beer…at camp.

I failed at Mt. Wilson. I quite literally did everything perfect, textbook in fact. Even the weather was unbelievably warm (for January), blue and calm. How often do calm wind days come around in winter? Yet, I decided to throw in the towel only a hundred feet or so from the summit. In a matter of seconds, like flipping a light switch, the snow had gone from [fairly] stable to untrustworthy. This was one of those situations, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about because we’ve all heard it, you know those lame adages that we all like to tell each other when we don’t reach the summit, “Well, looks the mountain had other plans today!” or “The mountain will always be there.” Don’t you just want to tell these people to have a nice glass of ‘shut the hell up?!’

Well, I’ll be the first to admit that I think I have egg on my face*. Because apparently, the mountain did have other plans. It served me up a nice, ice-cold, frothy pint of ‘shut the hell up.’ The irony isn’t lost.

I arrived at Cross Mountain Trailhead (10,050’) at 8:00 am. It’s a popular trail-head down here, so I wasn’t too concerned about laying down a track the entire way. A small mercy considering my partner decided to bail last minute. If it’s not a technical peak (roped), I rarely let trifles like that prevent me from going anyway.

I used Mike’s (Dad Mike) report as a blueprint as to where to leave the main trail and the pictures as beta as what to expect. Since I don’t use GPS (never really have), I kept track where I was with brief views of Gladstone through the trees and surmised where Slate Creek was in relation. The weather was fantastic and I eventually had to strip down to just a long sleeve shirt. The 3-4 day old ski track I was following provided just enough base to keep me from sinking too much. After a few miles, I decided, rather abruptly to turn left and entered the forest. I was listening to a podcast and kind of forgot to turn earlier.

I tried to keep as level a trench as I could while intentionally losing altitude. I was looking for a nice glade where I could set camp. I was hoping for something large enough where the morning sun would warm up the tent. I passed on a few choices because I felt I hadn’t gone far enough. Eventually, I found a HUGE glade. I dropped my pack, stomped out a rough outline of what I wanted and channeled my inner badger. It was 11:00 am.

Ninety minutes later I was finished. The top my tent was nearly level with snowline. I carved out some shelves for my gear, a place to sit and took a well-earned break. It was now time to start putting in a trench up Slate Creek. I was hoping to at least get to the bottom of the headwall. It was still early, so I thought that would be easily manageable. I chose a path that stayed far right while in Slate Creek. I still had to descend about 150’, but I was still well above the creek. There was a large shelf I followed and stayed as close to the fall line as I safely could. And again, it worked out pretty well as the snow seemed to be in great shape. There were no recent signs of avy activity, no hoar and no whoompfs. I did trek through two old avy debris slides (from the prior year) as evidenced by the trees. Once I completely cleared tree-line, I could see I was well-above the valley floor, Awesome! That’s what I was gunning for. And the snow stayed stable, a bit odd for so early in the season. I dug one pit somewhere around 11,800’. The top layer, maybe 3” thick, was loose frozen crust easily penetrated by four fingers. Below that, the snow presented as fresh and granular. I didn’t have my tools with me so I couldn’t take grain size or rough water measurements. Feeling better about where I was, normally the slopes I was traversing would have given me pause, I kept switch-backing higher and higher to the top of the headwall. I stomped out an area next to some hardscrabble trees and called it a day. It was 3:30 pm. On the way back down, I off-stepped my tracks to better pack down the trench. It takes longer but in my opinion it’s worth it. It sets up better overnight and is easier to find the next day if spindrift fills it in (which as we all know, usually does). I was spent. So, I turned in early that night. It was a good day.

20022_12
Upper Slate Creek

I woke at 6:30 am. I decided I could sleep in a little since the weather was going to be perfect. I polished off the rest of my protein concoction, ate a banana who’d seen better days (probably while sunning in Ecuador) and forced down a cardboard-flavored Cliff Bar. Time to hit the trail!

I quickly regained the top of the headwall and my high point from the previous day. This was my first time in Slate Creek. The place is beautiful! You’re honed in by sheer walls on three sides. And, the higher you go, you get a good look at that super nasty and super technical ridge between Gladstone and Mt. Wilson. Let me tell you, it’s a thing to behold!

The trek up the valley stays on some mellow scree hills (in summer). In winter, they made for a nice parabolic line to follow to the base of Wilson’s North Couloir. I can’t really call it a north face; but it’s more like an open-faced spicy genoa panini that constricts gradually until the only thing left is that super spicy pepperoncini no one really ever wants. I got lucky because the left side was largely bare rock. I could now FINALLY lose the pontoon shoes. I stashed my shoes in the sun to melt off the remora ice and started up the exposed slope. It was easy cruising for a while. When I reached the top of the rock, I switched to crampons. The borrowed points I had from my girlfriend were super sharp. I loved it! I had used my old crampons for so long, I snapped the center metal bar on a climb up Boudoir on Horseshoe.

The slope started out around 36° and the snow was still holding up. I was only punching through maybe a couple/few inches, but stable below that. Instead of climbing straight up the gully which, would have been preferred later in the season, I chose to keep left so I could link the occasional exposed rock for safety reasons. This early in the season, stable or not, I didn’t put my full trust in the open slopes of the couloir. Italian salami can sneak up on ya when you’re not expecting it!

I reached the base of where some large rocks jutted out of the snow and reached for the ridge. I briefly thought about simply climbing them. I do enjoy simpler mixed climbing for the challenge of front-pointing and side-pointing. But decided keeping to the snow would be quicker. I started to climb tight switchbacks up a narrow funnel, maybe 40°. I wanted to reach a small perch climbers left of the main couloir. Half-way up this ‘funnel’ however, the snow went to shit. I started to sink in up to my thighs. Then there would be short patches of bullet (wind-blown) snow followed by more wallowing. I stopped ¾ up the funnel and took stock of the snow; large ice crystals going down a few feet; some as large as cat litter, capped with solid crust. I couldn’t even get a single finger to puncture it. I looked up to the perch, maybe 30’ higher, hesitated with a “you’ve got to be shitting me kind of look” then kept climbing.

Not my best idea, but I made the perch and stopped. I was so close to the ridge, I could have thrown a salami sandwich and hit someone. I walked a few steps out into the couloir and experienced the same unstable conditions. I gingerly backtracked to the perch and carved out a small spot to sit, my legs 45° to the slope. I sat there for a while thinking of what to do. I knew what I needed to do, and I knew what I wanted to do. I thought about the consequences of the possible two types of avy I could be caught in if the top of the couloir let loose. Both outcomes weren’t good. Is that something I was willing to tempt? Obviously, no. I know I have a higher tolerance of risk in most situations but it’s another thing when you willingly load extra bullets needlessly into the chamber. I got up, turned in to face the slope and started descending. I was probably 90’-120’ from the summit. And while descending, I was oddly calm. I felt I made the right decision.

Down-climbing went pretty fast. I didn’t second guess myself or mentally go through “what-If” scenarios. I made what I believed was a sound decision and that was that. Sure, it would have been great to have gotten Mt. Wilson and El Diente (I was also eyeing the traverse) but it simply wasn’t in the cards. The mountain had other plans (Shut up, Kiefer!).

The descent to camp was long. The snow was getting gloppy and making descending harder than it should have been. When I did get back to camp, I shed my pontoons, dropped the pack and collapsed inside the tent for roughly 30 minutes. I have to say, despite no summit, it was a good trip, partner or not. I know not all relish winter camping and it is a lot of work but like with most things, you can make a trip better or worse than it is by your mental outlook. And some of these peaks, like it or not, cannot be done in a day (in winter). I think this trip was a success for the right reasons.

The slang term, 'Egg on your Face' is a fairly recent expression meaning to do something foolish or to be caught with one's foot in one's mouth. It originated fairly recently, like maybe 30-50 years ago here in the States because apparently, eating eggs sloppily, will result in wearing some of them on your face.


20022_13
Top of Boxcar
20022_08
Somewhere around 13,800'
20022_02
Ice Station Zebra 2





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

Amazing report
02/10/2020 16:00
Thanks much Kiefer! This is very useful


Jay521

Inner Badger
02/10/2020 16:23
Hell of a pit you dug, Kiefer. Maybe you should stake a mining claim? Nice report, man!


FireOnTheMountain

nice man
02/10/2020 22:00
think you could have maybe set it off with some hard, big-ish rock throws perhaps? a little probe with the pole? how wide was the top? just curious, not trying to create any ruckus and/or question your judgement. safe, lovely day by yourself in the mountains is always a plus!


Kiefer

Second Guessing...
02/11/2020 07:44
Abe, you do bring up some good points dude. Half way down the slope I stopped and looked back up. I thought about taking a more easterly facing line to the right of the summit and just cutting tight switchbacks to the north ridge. I don't want to second-guess myself else I'm going to put my f*ing head through a wall. But yeah, I did think of probing.
The rocks I looked at earlier in the day possibly climbing probs needed protection. But hell no, man. No ruckus! Hard to see straight sometimes when you're too close to the problem. Hope Idaho is treating ya right!


FireOnTheMountain

Demons on your Shoulders
02/11/2020 09:32
No worries dude, glad you fended them off. Nice work again! As for ID, it's aite


oldschool

Go with your gut...
02/12/2020 07:55
When we think we should turn around, we should! I have learned to listen to that damn voice as many times it's wiser than I am. Well done Kiefer.


Voshkm

thank you
02/23/2020 16:14
for writing up a prolonged trip report from a fail. most of us understandable will not muster up the energy to put one together without having summitted. probably gives people wrong ideas about summit rates



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