Peak(s):  Mt. Wilson  -  14,246 feet
Date Posted:  04/06/2020
Date Climbed:   03/05/2020
Author:  supranihilest
 Tom Hanks' Favorite Peak   


Tom Hanks has no idea what in the hell I'm talking about. To be fair, I don't either.

Mount Wilson is one of the San Juan sentinels. As the anchor for the far western San Juan it stands above everything else nearby, including the other two 14ers and a Centennial 13er in the same massif. There are no easy routes to its summit, a summit which is guarded by unpleasant, rotten rock, crappy approaches, often year round snow, and minimum Class 3 scrambling (on said rotten rock). It took me three attempts to get any of the Wilson group 14ers; other than North Maroon and Pyramid which took two attempts each the Wilsons were the only three that took me more than a single attempt, a testament to their ferocity. In winter the Wilsons are an especially formidable group that few bother with due to the added difficulty of snow on the scrambles and abundant avalanche terrain either on approach, climb, or both. When the San Juans dropped into the 1/5 LOW avalanche class I knew I had to go for it. Judiciously, sure, but a go nonetheless.

After getting about four hours of sleep in my car on a random road outside of Telluride I drove to the Cross Mountain trailhead, suited up and strapped into my snowshoes, and began up the beaten trail at around 4:15am. With not much work to do for the first couple of nicely packed miles I made quick time. I knew I'd have to eventually cut off into the forest and traverse around Cross Mountain's southern slopes and wasn't sure where exactly this cutoff was. I had a GPX track just in case I needed it but ultimately found a faint set of snowshoe tracks right where the cutoff was supposed to be. This eliminated the route finding question through the dark forest but the snow here was still a soft, icy affair. Postholing wasn't too bad but it also wasn't non-existent.

The route is supposed to stay at around 11,100 feet and follow the contour until it's in the Slate Creek drainage. Anyone who's attempted to follow a contour knows how difficult and tedious this is; add darkness, snow, and a forest and it's basically impossible. The tracks meandered through the forest and didn't maintain a perfectly steady elevation, which was to be expected. There were a couple of minor side creek crossings and eventually near sunrise the tracks spit me out into Slate Creek near treeline. Mount Wilson, "South Wilson," and Gladstone Peak reared up in front of me; what was I getting myself into?

First views of the real part of the route. "South Wilson" is on the left, Mount Wilson is in the center (though most of the route is behind what's visible here), and Gladstone Peak is on the right.

I was only a couple of hours in max, and the remainder of the route to the summit was avalanche terrain. I knew the likelihood was low but it's still spooky. In front of me the trees were tipped and some smashed from previous slides, and above me to my right sat Cross Mountain's loaded south face which I had to cross directly under.

I had considered also climbing "South Wilson" and "West Wilson" as well, especially since I knew "South Wilson" was such a choss pile that it was only recommended to climb with adequate snow coverage. That idea quickly went out the window as "South Wilson" was basically its own mountain and the route would take me far around the southern side and up several thousand feet to the summit. I could have added it but figured I'd just come back for it later. As for "West Wilson" I'd evaluate that from the main summit when I got there.

Snow conditions in Slate Creek were quite good and it didn't take me long to cross the first slope on a descending traverse. I still had my snowshoes on as it wasn't yet steep enough to warrant the crampons and axe. Another steep gully led to the top of a bench near 12,000 feet; I snuck to the top of this bench on a shallow rib instead since I still wasn't quite convinced of the snow's safety, and the sun lighting up the peaks in alpenglow nearly brought tears to my eyes. This may have been a dangerous, inhospitable place but it was also one of those sacred places that grows the heart. I waited a few minutes as the hues shifted between purple, pink, red, yellow, orange, gold... and drank in the beauty of being alone in such an inspiring place.

I have nothing to add to Mother Nature's opus.
Panorama of the entire basin. This shows how far apart the routes up "South Wilson" (far left snow slope to the ridge) and Wilson (go under Gladstone and then hang a hard left) are.

There was a short bit of flat ground as I traversed around Wilson's southeast shoulder and towards Gladstone's south face. I kept looking at Gladstone wondering if there'd be a route from Slate Creek, maybe a snow climb to one of the summit ridges. It looked like there'd be potential to climb up to Gladstone's southeast ridge on snow, but given that Gladstone is also known as Badstone, Sadstone, etc. due to the poor rock that didn't seem like such a good idea. In addition to Gladstone Mount Wilson's massive southeastern flanks walled me in. I kept snowshoeing through the snowy basin.

Gladstone Peak's south face.
Just some of the wild terrain on Wilson.

Moderate snow snaked ever higher below Gladstone, then curved gracefully to the left and out of sight. Talk about a snow superhighway!

Smooth sailing.
Potential routes up Gladstone's south side. The Y-shaped couloir looks like it had enough snow to climb right or left then over the cleaver to the right skyline ridge, but then what did that hold?

As I followed the snow the remaining route slowly came into view. More jagged towers and buttresses (buttri? I like buttri, made up word or not) leapt from the earth, and the two walls bounding the basin met at the far western edge, split by a narrow couloir just below Wilson's summit.

Most of what's left.. About 100-150 feet of Class 3 scrambling is out of view above the saddle with the couloir.
Rugged goodness. Check out that rock band in the middle that's obviously more rotten than even the rest of the rotten junk.
Looks cool but less than ideal for being alive on.
Definitely, totally looks $110% "safe".

Ahead of me there was a nice, long, dry talus field that I could cut off a bunch of steep snow on. I made my way to it and took off my snowshoes for the first time since the car. I parked them on top of a large, flat rock and stacked more rocks on top, then began booting up the talus. This stuff was awful and loose, skittering around under my feet, but at least it wouldn't avalanche. Beggars can't be choosers here.

The bottom of the talus would have been a good place to escape if I wasn't feeling the snow, but so far it had proven itself. Everything from this point onward was steep enough to rip (and RIP, if you catch my drift) so I was re-evaluating it all as I went. I wouldn't touch snow until the top of the rock but I could already see old prints ahead of me up both branches of the couloir. Seeing that they hadn't been wiped out yet gave me confidence in the snowpack's stability.

"Alright, doesn't look too bad" he says with a nervous shake in his voice. 500-600 feet of snow to the saddle, then a brief scramble to the top. Old, frozen tracks are visible up the left branch of the couloir.

This was it. If I was going to turn around this was the last place to do it with relative safety, prior to stepping out onto the snow. I hadn't come here to turn around though, so I sat down and took out my crampons and axe, then strapped on the 'pons. Time to prove myself.

I took a step out onto the snow and immediately sunk to my knee in the soft powder. Huh, OK. Not what I was expecting! I took a few more wallowing steps in the snow, which was just a bit damp and didn't offer much support until I hit whatever was below it. Rocks? A snow slab? The shell of the turtle that holds up the world? I didn't know or care, it was stable! That's what mattered.

The postholing didn't last long and I soon found a soft slab to kick up. The angle of the slope also slowly crept up, but noticeably so. I was moving fluidly up the snow, which by now was definitely steeper than my comfort level for this time of year, but all signs were green. No cracking, no collapsing, no sloughing or rollerballs, just a staircase for me to build. There probably wouldn't be any warnings of instability here, it'd just go if it was going to. Still, it would never get better. Only gentle kicks were needed in the sun-baked snow; I couldn't believe I was doing this.

Nearing the mid-way point and the bottom of the couloir's right branch. I dropped my pack at the boulder on the right.
Looking down from a little bit higher. I avoided the majority of snow on the left by climbing the talus in center.

It wasn't even 9am and the cirque was a total sauna. Lugging up my pack all the way seemed pointless so I walked over to a boulder poking out of the snow and dropped my pack behind it. I clipped my inReach to my belt loops and continued up into the narrow choke of the couloir. This is where I felt the final bit of fear, however unfounded that fear was and however proven the snow was. I took my time, despite wanting to race up and down to get away from any potential danger. The climbing was super fun and I didn't want to waste it.

Absolute perfection.
Almost to the saddle.
Down with summit selfies. Up with mid-couloir selfies.

As I neared the saddle the last prickling of fear melted away. I had this thing in the bag. The scramble, even if loose and snowy, would be nothing compared to the couloir. I stayed beside the old tracks, my spirit guide, and finally topped out on the saddle. Each side dropped away steeply, and El Diente stood guard over Colorado's far west.

El Diente and the desert.
Looking down the snow on the other side. If I'm not mistaken, this is the finish for Wilson's southwest slopes route.

Though the pure snow climbing was over I kept my crampons on for the scramble. I clamored over a short rib and into a shallow gully which led directly to the summit. The rock, which normally would have been pretty junky, was nicely frozen together, and the scrambling in this exposed position, on a mountain of winter repute, was exhilarating.

Not as bad as it looks, and way more fun than it looks.
I stuck to rock here where I could, avoiding thin snow on the left. This was solidly Class 3 but went without a hitch.

It took me less than ten minutes to reach the summit from the saddle. Mount Wilson was mine.

El Diente and the Wilson-El Diente traverse.
Wilson Peak (left foreground) and Gladstone Peak (right). The Sneffels range makes up the bulk of the right background.
"South Wilson". You can see why it's really best done as its own climb.
Endless San Juan.
Infinite San Juan.

I spent almost no time on the summit. With my pack below there was nothing to eat or drink, and I wanted to get moving before the snow started getting sloppy. Though it was barely after 9am I knew every additional minute on top would mean an additional minute in soft, crappy snow down low.

Looking down the scramble, which exited near the small sunny spot just right of center.

Scrambling down usually takes me a little longer than up, and this was no exception. The snow on this part of the mountain wasn't supportive at all so I had to be extra careful when stepping down onto it, but it only took me a minute or two longer than the ascent. My steps down the couloir were still nice and solid and I picked up my pack at the boulder and beat feet down to the talus.

Too fun!
Wide open and easy going.
Later, Wilson. Thanks for the fun. Tell Tom Hanks I said 'hi'!

Once back on the rock I quickly took my crampons off and then carried them as I descended to the rock where I stashed my snowshoes. I took a short break here to eat and drink and put away my crampons. The snow was still good enough to boot down so I carried my snowshoes and began what I knew was going to be a long, hot descent. For the most part my assessment of the snow was correct; I didn't have much trouble floating on top and was able to glissade some of the upper gullies, though the lower I got the softer the snow became until I was gouging deep enough into the snow glissading that I couldn't do it anymore.

From the top of the bench at 12,000 feet.
A little different looking in full sunlight.

I put my snowshoes back on once I reached the trees and for the next couple of hours I slugged it out with awful snow. What was decent snow in the morning when frozen was utter slop now, and it wasn't even afternoon yet. The snow was now soft enough that I was sinking in six to eight inches with each step, and the wet snow was sticking to my snowshoes. There was also a few hundred feet of elevation re-gain to extricate myself from Slate Creek. It really wanted me to stay, but I had other plans. Still, despite racing up Wilson in what I felt was really good time, I was now going painfully slow at a much lower elevation. I cursed the snow since I was hungry and wanted to go to Orvis Hot Springs. How dare a climb, even a great one, keep me from such pleasures of the flesh?!

It felt like an eternity trudging around in the forest but eventually I hit the trail again. Not a soul had been up since my passage, and I appreciated both the continued solitude and the continued quality of the packed trail. Time to go fast now!

Only an hour and change to get back to the trail, but it felt like double that with the heat and soft snow.

The route now was completely downhill and all on a nice trail, so it didn't take me long to reach the car. I was kind of surprised by how well that had gone, but I needed to be careful to avoid overconfidence. That could have just as easily been a miserable climb from start to finish, or it could have killed me. But I won't lie, I couldn't wipe the shit-eating grin off my face for the life of me. That was just too good of a climb to be sour about. I love winter climbing, and Wilson provided the full experience.

"South Wilson" and Mount Wilson, Gladstone Peak and Cross Mountain, Point 12,038 (no official name), and Lizard Head from the trailhead.


Climbers: Ben Feinstein (myself)
Trailhead: Cross Mountain
Total distance: 12.60 miles
Total elevation gain: 5,172 feet
Total time: 8:21:54
Peaks: One fourteener

  • Mount Wilson, 14,246'


Starting Location Ending Location Via Time (h:mm:ss) Cumulative Time (h:mm:ss) Rest Time (m:ss)
Cross Mountain Trailhead Mount Wilson 4:50:29 4:50:29 8:39
Mount Wilson Cross Mountain Trailhead 3:22:46 8:21:54 Trip End

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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

Very cool
04/06/2020 20:35
Nice read, great pics too.

Did you give any thought to the Traverse to El Diente?


Wilson-El Diente Traverse
04/06/2020 20:57
I considered it an option in the planning phase, but decided against it before even attempting the climb. I've never done the traverse myself and I read several winter trip reports of folks who've done it - Furthermore, Dad Mike among others - and knew it was probably beyond my abilities and definitely beyond my comfort level. Dad Mike made a point of saying he wished he had a rope for the climb down off of "West Wilson" (which I probably should have scrambled over to on this day since I doubt I'll ever get a second chance, but I didn't want to push my luck) and that sealed the deal for me. I might go back if I had a partner but just couldn't justify the risk solo. Plus this'll give me an opportunity to slog up El D's south slopes which is a route I loved in summer and can imagine it being pretty awesome in winter.

Derek's (Furthermore) report:
Dad Mike's report:


04/06/2020 21:20
I remember that section in DadMikeâs report of the traverse, when I did the traverse last summer there was a group roping up for it as I passed through. I only went up it, went down from Mt. Wilson a different way. It could definitely be hairy depending on the snow.


04/06/2020 22:31
For sure the snow would be a game changer. I'd have no problem doing the traverse dry but throw in snow, clunky boots, thick gloves, and a heavy pack and my fear level rises while my risk tolerance goes down. Plenty of climbs where those two factors invert when snowy.


04/07/2020 21:38
Pretty cool. looks like a great day and good call on not doing the traverse right now. I am living vicariously through your trip reports until I can leave the city and take a flight. Hopefully by summer I can actually climb something.


holy mackerel!
04/08/2020 08:54
What a winter/spring of bustin humps you're having! What are the plans for summer/fall? K2, Nanga Parbat...??


04/08/2020 16:41
@nyker: I think we're all hoping that. What's next on your list?

@greenonion: Only a first ascent of Olympus Mons on Mars would suffice, I think. It's been a great winter for sure, and one I hope I can repeat a few more times to bag the other snowflakes I have left!


Looking forward to...
04/09/2020 09:49
THAT trip report (Olympus Mons)!!

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