Peak(s):  Wilson Peak  -  14,017 feet
Handies Peak  -  14,048 feet
Date Posted:  03/20/2008
Modified:  03/02/2009
Date Climbed:   03/11/2008
Author:  sgladbach

 Final trip of Winter 2008, Part II and III, Wilson Pk. and Handies  

Final trip of Winter 2008, Part II
Wilson Peak Winter Ascent
Hike in: 3/9/08
Summit: 3/11/08
From High Camp: 3 miles/ 2000'

Tuesday morning at 5:30AM the skies were as clear as predicted. I had a cold breakfast and at 6:00AM left the tent dressed for an attempt on Wilson Peak. Travel to Rock of Ages saddle was tougher today with about 5" of new snow on this northern aspect, but the views I'd missed yesterday were bountiful. This photo shows Gladstone in the center and the summit of Mt Wilson is the mostly indistinct high point on the ridge of the mountain on the right. The route is the rocky rib that snakes its way up to the summit ridge, left of the actual summit.

This is the Mt Wilson/El Diente Ridge. The view of El Diente's northern col and the shape of the snow so far led me to believe that the route is do-able right now, but I would have needed another experienced winter climber to consult with and confirm the opinion before I was willing to attempt.

At 7:30, I began the traverse from Rock of Ages to the Wilson Peak- Gladstone saddle. After reaching this saddle, I dropped about 150' on the east side and assessed different lines up the south face to reach Wilson Peak's west ridge. The summer trail takes a traversing ascent across this face, reaching the ridge crest quite a ways east. Today, I chose a direct line; I was hoping to reach the ridge as quickly as possible. The line was steep; I donned crampons and tried to put this southern-exposed face behind as quickly as possible. Still, it took quite a while. While climbing the face, I had excellent views of Lizard Head and the central San Juans.

Also from the ridge, I could see my camp 2000' below. This zoomed-in view makes the tent appear even closer.

I had left camp with only one quart of water which I was storing down my shirt against my skin. After each swig, I packed in a little snow and returned the bottle to it's 98.6 degree haven. In this way, I was able to garner at least one more quart through the course of the day. After running the ridge east for a quarter-mile , I reached the base of the main sub-peak. In anticipation of the difficulty of the rest of the route, I stashed all gear I could do without, taking in my pack only the rope, slings and harness; I was still wearing crampons and using an ice axe. In the summer, the trail to the top of this sub-peak is the final pedestrian portion of the route. Today, the route to the sub-peak crossed a scary, very exposed and corniced snowfield. Fortunately, a gully right of the trail allowed access to the sub-peak. This photo shows the sub-peak and the route to the sub-peak. The summit is not visible. The trail is visible in the foreground, then crosses through the snowfield left of top center. I used a gully to the right of center to top out on the sub-peak at center.

Now, the route drops back down via a steep snow filled gully. From summer experience, I knew there were rocks under here to help lower myself down. Sitting on my butt, I was able find those hand and footholds just under the snow.

At the bottom of the gully, there is an important notch to find as you traverse to a final, exposed, class 3 gully back to the summit ridge. The bottom of this gully also provides a northern escape route. I had carried all my gear as high as I did hoping to descend this northern route, but the challenges of the sub-peak made me decide not to bring the gear over the final portion of the route which would have allowed use of this descent. In the summer, the route back up to the summit ridge is a discernable, moderate, class three route. In the winter the route is less obvious and definitely tougher. I meandered a bit.

Once up the gully and back on the summit ridge, the terrain still refused to allow easy passage. At a final block which needed to be mantled over, I again clipped into my 40' sling and found soon myself on a snowfield climbing the last 30' in 50 yards to the summit. Even this snowfield had to be waded through in gluteus maximus-deep snow. Fifteen feet off the summit, you'll find the propeller of a plane that went down a couple of years ago taking the lives of four people. A few feet higher and they would not have plunged into the side of the mountain. I'm certain there must be more debris visible in the summer, but this is my first ascent since the accident.

The summit views were impressive for the full 360 degrees.
Summit photo facing east

I took 720 degrees of photos and began my descent. Again, I clipped into the webbing over the mantle move and a few feet later I contemplated the drop from the ridge to the gully between the peak and sub-peak. Deciding that I should actually use this rope I'd been hauling around for three days, I set up a rappel; the 60 meter rope was the perfect length to reach the bottom of the gully in one rap. Now I wished I'd brought all my gear with me. The northern route looked in fine shape. Unfortunately, I didn't have my pack.

Ten minutes later, at 1:30, I had recovered my gear. Though 1 mile and 1000' shorter, the climb to the summit and back over the route crux had taken 7 ˝ hours, just as long as Mt. Wilson. Today, there had been a lot more snow-work. I looked down the north-facing couloir on this western side of the sub-peak. Though too scree-filled in the summer to be of use, today it looked as good as the other, more accepted, northern route. Three minutes later I was 1000' down at the base of the north side of Wilson Peak. Here is a foreshortened view back up the glissade.

Camp was easier to find today.

The trip down from the ridge to the tent took one hour. A total savings of 6 hours! The north route would have been a more reasonable ascent route in these conditions, but it's a little late to do anything about it now. Still in need of water, I packed up and began the trek to the car. I kept my eyes open for any running water or melting ice, but no luck. Oh well, I'd be to the trailhead soon enough.

I was a little regretful that I wasn't giving El Diente a try, but I'm more familiar with its southern, Kilpacker route having summited on that side 6 times. Only once had I ever been on its northern slopes and that was as a descent after the Wilson/El Diente ridge run. The snow on the northern slopes of the Wilsons had proved to be in shape, but another noodle to help assess El Diente's steeper slopes was needed. I know a couple of winter climbers who have bagged the Wilsons, but missed El /Diente. Possibly we'll make a team of ourselves sometime next year.

Final trip of Winter 2008, Part III
Handies Winter ascent
Hike in: 3/12/08
Summit: 3/13/08
16 miles / 4600'

By 8:00PM, I had all my gear laid out on the floor and furniture of a Montrose motel. Everything could stand a little drying out. Checking the internet in the motel lobby, I learned that tomorrow was to be beautiful, Thursday cloudy and unsettled, and Friday ushering in a foot of spring snow. I decided I might be able to attempt Handies. Though I knew the Colorado Trail had a cabin which can be reserved on Cinnamon Pass road, I had no idea whether it would be in use. I packed my tent and other overnight gear and figured I'd check out the cabin when I got there.

Ken Nolan has done at least two winter daytrips to the summit of Handies by climbing a SE approach route up Boulder Creek starting from Sherman townsite. Jamie Princo has suggested a NE approach via Grizzly Gulch from the normal summer trailhead; I believe his idea will work well in stable snow conditions. I was theorizing an approach up the western slopes from American Basin. In recognition of my firm belief that I'm better than everyone else, I opted to try my own route. Therefore, cabin or not, I needed to hike up the Cinnamon Pass road far enough to be in position for a Thursday morning attempt.

I hit the trail about 11:00AM Wednesday morning and had easy hiking up the road, past the Grizzly Gulch trailhead. I thought I might have reached the Colorado Trail cabin.

I remembered it was a mile further up the road near Copper Creek at the 5 mile mark. One must know where the CT cabin is located, as it is not visible from the road. A 5 minute detour from the road brought me to an empty CT cabin at 2:00PM. This was going to be cozy.

I was sorry to have had to carry the overnight gear up the road, but the going had been easy. Now, I stoked up the wood stove, shoveled out the door to the outhouse, made a big bowl of popcorn, and settled down to read one of the books off the shelf. About 7:00PM, the wind began to howl.

All night long, the winds would wake me and I'd pull back the curtain to lament the starless, snowy skies. When 5:30AM came by, there seemed to be no real reason to get out of bed. By 6:30 AM, there seemed to be no real reason to stay in bed. The skies had cleared, but the winds were a steady 30mph from the west. Unwilling to admit that one of the other guys' routes might have been better, I put on all my cold-weather and wind gear before stepping out to brave the air. The trek another mile up the road was not pleasant as the blowing snow was blinding, making it hard to find the hidden base of ski tracks that lie under the snow. Every step of even a few inches off the old track led to knee-high snow.

Just after rounding the corner of White Cross Mountain and passing an avy slope descending from a col between White Cross and Handies, I found a very steep, treed, minor, north-facing rib that led up the defining right side of the avy slope. This is the very first rib leading to a Handies' ridge. An hour up this rib, I broke timberline intending to follow Handies' north ridge. However, just as I reached this point, I realized I could safely enter the wind-protected bowl leading to the White Cross/ Handies saddle. Once in this bowl I climbed gently for 1000', eventually veering right to the slightly higher of the White Cross saddles and then heading to the NE ridge of Handies. The whole time, views of Cinnamon Pass were discouraging.

High on the ridge, I could see the snowfields of Jamie's proposed route; they looked appealing. Meanwhile, I was looking down the western slopes for a good glissade line into American Basin. I reached the summit at Noon and was greeted by my first actually uncovered cairn and register of the entire winter. No digging necessary.

The register was placed by my good friends from Grand Junction, Mark and Terry Schmalz and their dog, Summit. They are both elementary school principals and once a year they offer to take staff members on a 14er. Apparently, though, they have trouble reading calendars.

They have lots of summits of Handies. Mark, a writing specialist, keeps detailed accounts of his climbs and the partners who accompanied him. Early last summer I passed the dog in tallies of total ascents with Mark; we have a couple hundred peaks together. I'm in second place behind only Terry ( I'm debating the ethics of breaking her legs; I'd like to be #1 at something). By coincidence, we met on the Colorado trail in 1988 here in the San Juans. On that 1988 CT trip, I was accompanied by Gudy Gaskill, first female president of the Colorado Mountain Club and Mother of the Colorado Trail. I took a photo of this self-portrait which hangs in the CT cabin. Those who know her will easily appreciate the way this painting captures her spirit. This IS Gudy Gaskill!

The last five days have been productive and challenging, but the weather is letting me know its time to go home. The visibility has dropped to zero; I find a nice western glissade and drop 2000' into American Basin in a very few minutes. There is no view as you try to look back to the summit.

The final 14er vista of my 2008 winter season

The trek to the cabin is efficient and I arrive about 2:30PM. It takes about an hour to re-shovel the latrine entrance, clean out the wood-stove ashes, sweep up, do dishes and pack. At 3:30, I'm headed back downhill and arrive at the car at 5:30PM. A visit with the locals at a Lake City gas stop confirms the impending storm. A foot of snow is expected. I point the car to Pueblo and, except for a difficult Monarch Pass, have a pleasant drive to Pueblo.

Though 10 days remain, my winter climbing is done; I'm a bit melancholy. Time to shift my sights to my 13er goals.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

03/20/2008 14:39
What a truly spectacular way to end the season, Steve! Thanks for the story, and the fantastic photos. Maybe we‘ll meet up on a 13er in the springtime. El Diente in the winter... now that sounds like an undertaking. Looking forward to another great San Juans trip report next year - maybe not solo, though. I have to admit, that worries me a little.


isn‘t that something
03/20/2008 16:18
great job steve, you certainly know how to finish in style! your list is dwindling away quickly with the elks, needles and evans(possible finisher?) remaining.

so they leave the CT cabin unlocked this time of year? i thought you mentioned something earlier about needing a key.

did you happen to get any photos of the grizzly gulch drainage? it‘s an intriguing option. i know the boulder gulch route is shorter, but the 1/2 mile stretch of avalanche exposure concerns me greatly. when ken and jean first climbed handies that way in winter, he mentioned they did it as an overnighter. i‘m assuming that‘s so they could cross the danger zone in the safer morning hours before sunhit, like montezuma basin heading towards castle.



03/20/2008 19:19
...on your winter finale. Doesn‘t get much better than that. I hear ya about shifting gears back to those 13er goals


03/21/2008 00:43
Way to end the season! And way to thieve my multi-part winter finale trip report idea, geez
Very cool report


Well done!
03/22/2008 05:00
Looks like you ended up with a nice trip after all. I should have stuck with the plan. My Shasta trip was much less successful -- I spent one of my most miserable nights in the mountains and basically got blown off the mountain. I‘m really glad to see that you had much better luck sticking around in Colorado. Very well done! Congrats on a stellar 2007-2008 winter season!

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