Peak(s):  Mt. Wilson  -  14,246 feet
Date Posted:  09/11/2020
Date Climbed:   09/11/2020
Author:  heathbromley
 Solo Snow - Southwest Slopes   

Start time: 4:45AM
Goal: El Diente South slopes - Mt. Wilson Traverse - Down Mt. Wilson SW Slope <- lol what was I thinking...
Result: Opt out of El Diente altogether. Incredibly fun yet challenging snow climb up and down Mt. Wilson SW slopes
End time: 4:41PM <- where did all the time go!?

I went to bed early on the night of September 10th with the full intention of attempting the El Diente to Mt. Wilson traverse (shhhhh... don't tell my wife!). This had been my umptienth visit to Telluride and I still had not had a chance to knock out the entire Wilson Group. We normally come up here to ski, and they taunt me from across the valley every time. Back in 2017 I had the opportunity to summit Wilson Peak with @gtRidge (check out his page), and I had an absolute blast! From Wilson Peak I could see El Diente and Mt. Wilson looming, and I've been itching for a chance to climb them sometime in the summer.

Enter Covid-19 delayed vacation with my wife. We came up on a whim to Telluride with a couple of friends who have a place here and I seized my opportunity. My last day in town (Friday, 11th) was supposed to have blue-bird weather all day long and everyone else was out hiking the blue lake trail. I had the day to myself... yes! There was only one hiccup, we had just had two days of flurry filled nastiness that dumped about 2-3 inches of snow in Telluride. Psssht! Nothing to worry about... right?! More on that to come.

I meticulously memorized the El Diente route, the traverse and the SW slopes route for the down climb off of Wilson. I like to consider myself a strong rock climber and I was chomping at the bit for some tough class 4 moves on a nice sunny day. However, I knew there had been snow all over the area, especially up near lizard head, so before I left on the morning of the 11th I grabbed my ice axe. Now here I need to digress for just a sec, bear with me! I catch flack often from my climbing partner and my wife for bringing too much STUFF. I over prepare and always bring that extra whatever. So when I grabbed my axe I had the thought, are you going to look like a dweeb carrying an ice axe up on a summer climb? Well thank goodness I like looking cool, because bringing that axe was the only reason I had a successful, safe day. Sometimes is pays to overprep ;).

I drive up to Kilpacker trailhead and am met with this:

10'' of powdery snow EVERYWHERE around the trailhead and throughout the Kilpacker Basin approach

Shoot. This made me really nervous. If there was this much snow, this low... I was already concerned with the potential conditions on the traverse. As I threw my pack on I was mentally preparing to go down. DANG IT. But lets just see what its like up higher and make a decision then.

As I followed the trail I started going through priorities. The traverse is most likely NOT going to be in, so what do you want to do, and how much time do you have? Is the snow this powdery everywhere? Probably. That means you gotta get off the steep stuff before it starts to melt... so... what do you want Heath? I don't know, let me think. So we keep trudging.

Following the snow covered trail through Kilpacker was not too tough, and I made the falls in great time. Past the falls the trail gives way to endless talus with the occasional cairn. There's one problem though, the snow SUCKS! It's so powdery it wouldn't support any weight, so I'm basically navigating boulder fields and talus blind... yay....20694_03

I fell through the snow twice and caught me knee on some sharp rock. Great. Time to slow down and take careful steps. TIME TO BREAK OUT THE ICE AXE! WOOT! WOOT! I'M NOT A DWEEB! The only problem is this is going to add hours to my climb time... No way I can do both El D. and Wilson... well shoot.

It was incredibly slow going to round the corner, and if you look at photo 13 and 14 of the route description, you can somewhat match those features with the picture above. I basically stayed as high and hiker's left as I could to keep out of the worst of the snow.

When I finally rounded the corner and came to the underwhelmingly small cairn that marked the split to El Diente or Mt. Wilson, the full view of the traverse came into view. Pretty much the whole ridge was snow covered, and I knew immediately it wasn't a good idea to push my luck with slippy holds and snow covered class 4. Mt. Wilson was the one I wanted the most, anyway. I had made my decision.

The drainage basin up to the SW slopes was very straight forward and more of the same. Deep, soft snow sitting on top of uneven rock that I couldn't see. The cairns are fantastic and easy to find until about halfway up the drainage basin. After that I was kind of on my own. I knew that I needed to stay high and left of the three rock features shown here:

Three rock features seen in route description photo #6

Staying up high just under the El Diente - Wilson connection ridge made the traverse through this final field of talus and boulders more bearable. As I passed those three rock features, I could finally see the south gully in full view, rib crossover and all! Approaching it, I found it hard to tell where the crossover was and got a little nervous I was looking at the wrong gully. But never fear, you get a great view from the top of that final rock feature. Shown below:

South Gully with rib crossover and notch at the top.

The lower gully was the most tenuous section for me because the snow was incredibly deep (up to my belly button at times) and very uneven. Sometimes it would hold me and compact, and sometimes I would just fall through and catch a boulder below :/. This section is where my axe really came in handy. It would have been IMPOSSIBLE to keep stability and my feet under me if I hadn't had it.

After I made the rib, I tried climbing the rocks on the left side of the upper section of the gully (see picture above). I'm more comfortable making bouldering/climbing moves then waiting to fall through the snow. Unfortunately the rock was so slick and covered in inches of snow, it was nearly impossible to get clean footholds. I down climbed back to the snowy section of the gully and zig zagged my way up:

Stopping to look back at the rib crossover which is to the right following the boot prints - First a Zig...
Then a zag!

The snow through here was pretty steep, but also pretty deep and relatively stable. Thank goodness! I took a rest at the notch and then made my way up through the final 150-ft of class 3 terrain. I had a really hard time finding good holds. Everything was slippery and kept breaking off. Also, not being able to see a good starting point due to the snow was really annoying. Me faffing around for 15 minutes above the notch trying to find a good route only made me feel SO MUCH better about not trying the traverse. Eventually I snow climbed to some large boulders, shown from above:

The arrow indicates the aforementioned "faffing about", the circle is the boulder I eventually found a way up to.

These boulders in the middle of the top section of the final approach protrude steeply enough to have avoided snow cover and were easy to climb. From here I made the summit block and had myself a nice, smooshed PB&J.

Trying to look cool. I was the only one up the Kilpacker approach, and I think the Wilson group that day... spooky to see it so empty

Planning my descent, I started kicking myself for not bringing a rope, harness, anchor gear and rappel ring. It would have been so much easier than the tedious, step-by-step down climb. But I eventually made it back to the drainage basin and then to the falls. I followed my boot print nearly exactly down from the summit.

Happy to be out of that terrible, terrible down climb. An awesome adventure overall.

One final note! That snow melted so fast, by the time I got to the same area as the very first picture, this is what it looked like: NO JOKE!

Looks like a completely different hike!

Happy climbing!

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

Comments or Questions
Great job!
09/12/2020 09:43
Man, congrats on a wonderful day in the mountains. Snow came so early this year. Glad you made it to the top and down safely. It sucks going through soft snow above uneven sharp rocks.


Looks like winter
09/12/2020 11:26
Well done fighting through and succeeding, that's a lot of snow for that peak this early.

Nice report
09/13/2020 02:18
Congratulations on what looked like a winter climb.

RE: Fish, jesse, triordie
09/13/2020 12:09
Thank you all for the positive words. It was definitely unexpected! I wonder if the snow stayed?

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