Peak(s):  El Diente Peak  -  14,159 feet
Mt. Wilson  -  14,246 feet
Date Posted:  08/19/2020
Modified:  08/28/2020
Date Climbed:   08/15/2020
Author:  HikesInGeologicTime
Additional Members:   bosnian2014, TallGrass
 Rockfall for the Recalcitrant   

I knew I wasn't totally done with rockfall on Colorado's fourteeners, but after I'd survived Little Bear, I hoped I'd seen the worst of it and the rest would be smooth sailing well over my head.

But mountains, of course, care little for one's hopes, dreams, and aspirations. A preceding week that saw me summit Teakettle (so much for avoiding rocks, though in fairness, that peak tops out a hundred feet and change short of 14k), bike down (if not up) Mount Evans, and push up and over four peaks on or right beside the Continental Divide in a single day gave me the kind of confidence that oozes over into cockiness, however, and when TallGrass offered to help me make some badly-needed improvements to my climbing skills by taking on the El Diente-Wilson traverse, I accepted without hesitation.

Alas, like a first-time hot-dog eating contestant who doesn't realize there's more to winning the competition than possessing a passion for questionably sourced meat, our ambitions outpaced our abilities on that particular day, and we really should've realized it when we left Denver at 11 p.m. on Friday night after having spent most of the day sleeping off the previous day's exploits on Argentine, McClellan, Edwards, et. al. I'm not sure I even made it as far as Johnson Village before my eyes elected to go their separate ways, and when my partner pulled over somewhere west of Gunnison and announced that he too needed a nap, the tiny glory-thirsting part of my brain that shouted, "You've gotten enough sleep! You can get us the rest of the way!" quickly succumbed to the rest of my brain drowsing out an "Okay!" as I happily reclined the passenger seat as far back as it would go.

I was able to take over only an hour or two later after waking up from a nightmare in which my mother (already dead IRL) and my dog (I'm allergic to the whole species IRL) were doomed to crumble into the earth each day because they had tasted the refreshments of the Sand Fae, according to the gorgeous woman offering me coffee shortly before dawn. I tried not to consider the implications of what my subconscious seemed to be hinting about being lured into gritty terrain by someone more conventionally attractive than I am as my tall, thin, birth-gender-conforming buddy took his own turn reclining in the passenger seat.

Yet another seat swap when my eyes once again took divergent paths near Ridgway secured our 9:30 a.m. start time, but I wasn't deterred; NOAA had promised a full day of sunshine, and the Kilpacker trail up to treeline is quite pleasant. Even the rock-laden course after that is well-laid and mostly easy to follow - all my praises to CFI for what I assume was their fine work here!

Not a cloud in the sky when we started, and no rain at all that day - I know they mostly only hear when they get it wrong, so good job on this one, NOAA!

They clearly figured on letting some of nature remain fully natural once the paths for El Diente and Mt. Wilson split, however, but even then, I saw no reason to worry. Of course the rock was loose, but compared to Teakettle's sandy flanks - which were bad enough that they had inspired me to channel my inner Shakespeare and coin the term "gravalanche" to describe them properly - this was the 101 class. I didn't even give much though to descending climbers' words of warning regarding a sizable rockslide they'd heard someone set off along the traverse, which had scared at least one of them away from attempting it!

It wasn't until we were joined by fellow late-starters that we ran into complications. Not from the route itself, though the ease with which we were able to follow a well-cairned track on the way down compared to...whatever we did going up leads me to believe that I may have led us to Choose Your Own Adventure territory, but from our companions, who decided that my partner's line up to the ridge looked preferable to my own, despite mine being less steep and me thus being able to move more quickly, and so asked him if he wouldn't mind moving out of their way so they could pass.

He did, in the only way he could: by reaching the top of the gully. We may have exchanged a quiet snicker as we began working our way over to the summit over their nerve - where *had* they expected to pass him, anyway? There'd been maybe 2-3' of room to his left, maybe! Anyway, it was already mid-afternoon, possibly even sliding into late afternoon...what kind of rush were they in?

I probably would have forgotten all about them as I let TallGrass - who had climbed this peak before, even if he'd approached it via the North Buttress that time - take lead on the final series of scrambles up to the summit, heeding his advice to hang back at the base of the short gullies on which gravity-chasing stones were inevitable. When it was my turn to ascend the last of them, I must've set off a pebble of my own, one so seemingly inconsequential that I didn't feel or hear it slide out once my foot gave it leave. I'm surprised I didn't immediately flinch backward into the void myself from the shock of hearing "OW!" screamed from what sounded like directly below my shoulder, followed by a lecture about the importance of calling out whenever a rock goes flying.

I feel fairly confident that I stammered out something more polite than, "I'm sorry, I didn't know this was the Iditarod and that you needed to have your nose up my rear end the whole way!" but to judge from the invective I got in response about how I ALWAYS needed to declare my rocks, no matter how minuscule and how likely they were to stop before hitting somebody if the somebody in question had employed a little common sense and started up a steep scree slope sometime after the person ahead of them had exited it...or perhaps I once again channeled my inner Shakespeare and added the last clause on my own. At least they were kinder enough to give me more room for the last few feet to the summit, and TallGrass and I made sure to let them have a good head start on their way down so that they could make whichever Guinness record they were obviously trying to set that day.

I was clearly in a record-setting mood myself.

I'd been on the fence about doing the traverse from the time we summited - it was after 4 p.m., I was pre-loaded with fatigue from the week's prior exploits, and wow did that connecting ridge look long and gnarly - but I did perk up a little when we made it back to the top of the Gray Gully in what was a record descent time for me. TallGrass, however, expressed his concern about the possibility of climbing the Class 4 headwall in the dark, and whether we'd have wound up using the ropes we'd brought specifically for it or not, I shared his reluctance. Mt. Wilson would have to wait for another day.

It would wind up having to wait for more than a month and a partner for whom the higher Wilson would also be a new ascent. This time, we started at 5 a.m., even though we had no intention of tackling the traverse: I consider them means to an end and am more concerned with the peaks themselves than how I ascend/connect them; bosnian2014, like me, prefers a less-grueling hiking pace. The trail nevertheless faded into the background soon enough, as did the rocky basin leading up to the lingering snowfields. We blundered our way past one on what we would confirm 100% on the descent was the wrong side to take - climber's left is narrow and sloppy, but the slope to climber's right, while loose, does offer more room to work with.

Taken on the descent. Though there are footprints visible in the snow, the entire thing can be avoided entirely; stay on the rocks just beneath it, then find a path up the slope on the right of the photo.

We played hopscotch with the boulders beside and even embedded in subsequent snowfields. We paused for a break around 13,500', shortly before the highest of them fizzled out beneath a layer cake of scree and intimidatingly vertical rock bands. I glanced at the helmet attached to my pack as I put my water bottle away. "Think we should put these on here, or can we get away with waiting until we're a little higher up?"

My partner glanced at the boulders surrounding us, most of which had been sturdy, but a few of which had wobbled beneath our feet. "Anywhere the rock is loose, it's probably a good idea to put on a helmet."

I groused about how I was already sweating profusely, though I removed the helmet from my pack and put it on just the same. I gave more thought to the obstacles I couldn't see yet than the ones right beneath my hands and feet - the gully crossover in the route description seemed like it ought to be easy to identify, but I'd screwed up on lesser routes! - and so it almost didn't register when I heard a sound akin to leaded glass shattering and scattering in an echo chamber: rockslide.

My head reflexively turned back behind me, where the sound had come from. No way it could be my partner, though, I tried to tell myself. We'd heard a rockslide go from evidently natural causes from a gully opposite El Diente that morning; surely this was just another natural rockslide, one a lot closer! I called my partner's name, but got no immediate response.

Two other climbers who had caught up to and passed us with appropriate distance and technique had a better vantage than I did at that point. "Looks like he might've twisted his leg," one of them softly told me.

My partner yelled my name out as the other climber's words pushed me back to reality and I combined speed and caution as best I could while I scurried back down to his position. His face was bruised, and he was testing his limbs slowly.

As I ran through what I remembered from First Aid training and tried to figure out how I was going to carry him off this mountain if he had, in fact, twisted his leg, he explained that a rock near the "trail," which was loose dirt where he'd been, had given way. He'd fallen and flipped twice, hitting his head the first time he'd landed...but fortunately, we'd both put our helmets on at that last break not ten minutes before.

I helped him find his phone and retrieve the bottom part of his trekking pole, which had continued downward another few feet. We took another pause while he drank some water, concluded that the physical damage he'd suffered had been merely surface wounds, and so considered whether to turn around then and there, whether to let me go on to the summit while he waited there, or whether to go on himself.

This was a bit above where he'd fallen, and we couldn't see this much from where he'd landed. I don't think I would've had the guts to go on if I'd had that filling my still-dazed pupils!

He eventually decided on the third option, with me leading the way and cautioning him on where to wait so I wouldn't accidentally attack him with still more rocks, as the entire top layer of this particular peak seemed to be potentially mobile. After a few pauses to catch our breath and, in one case, so that my partner could give a brief rundown of why a descending climber who'd come off the traverse would be best served putting his helmet back on, we made the summit.

Where I got to see that traverse from the other side, and I gotta say, it still don't look that great to me...

Just as on neighboring El D., my partner and I gave our summitmates plenty of time to clear the final pitch before we started down. I was pleased that we mostly managed to stay on our feet in spite of how steep and loose the uppermost 500 vertical feet are; it may have been mild compared to certain more-technically-challenging Centennials in the near vicinity, but it was obnoxious nonetheless.

I breathed a little easier when the lowest gully receded into the top of the boulderfield, though it was understandable that my partner did not. I relaxed even more when we once again had something resembling a trail, or at least a well-trod path, though it wouldn't be too long before the junction with the slopes leading up to El Diente that I would start cursing the rocks piled all the way between my feet and treeline for their continued existence. Even once back below the trees and on real trail, I had fault to find; there should never be that much *up*hill on the descent!

Just below the last of the super-loose stuff. It's still not all fun and games from here, especially as the lowest patch of snow in the picture (center) is itself above where my buddy took his tumble.

Still, it had to end eventually, and eventually, it did. And while I know all too well that Mt. Wilson will not be my last Too-Close Encounter of the Rocky Kind, I can at least be grateful that to my knowledge, no one was irreparably harmed during unplanned demonstrations of lessons in not hounding one's fellow climbers in loose terrain and the importance of wearing a helmet in the same.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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