Wilson Peak (4272m), Mount Wilson (4342m) and El Diente (4316m) are some of Colorado’s most difficult fourteeners. My approach to these peaks were ill-fated from the first moment, and the problems included closed trailheads, morning thunderstorms, food shortage and insufficient climbing equipment.
Day 1 (5-Sep-2005):
I had planned to reach high camp in Navajo Basin 5th of September. This was a relatively short hike from the Silver Pick Trailhead so I decided to do some sightseeing in Telluride before I drove up. Later in the afternoon, when I arrived the trailhead in Silver Pick Basin on extremely bad roads, I was furious to find out that the Silver Pick approach had been closed by the landowner. Later somebody told me that the landowner had tried to make a deal with US Forest Service. He proposed that in exchange for 160 acres of his Silver Pick area land, he requested 2,200 acres of Forest Service land at the south end of Wilson Mesa. The Forest Service denied his proposal because they determined it an uneven trade (I very much agree !!). His immediate reaction was to close all public access above the trailhead. But why didn’t the stupid guy post a message further down the road, to prevent people driving all the way up to the trailhead? It was late in the evening, and I did not have time to drive 70-80 kilometres to the alternative trailhead on the south side and hike up to high camp before it went dark, so I abandoned the whole idea. Instead I would drive into Telluride and have one more evening and night there.
Day 2 (6-Sep-2005):
Next day I woke up 08:00 at the campsite in Telluride. It started to rain already at 09:30, and the unreliable weather never seemed to end here in the San Juans. After I had purchased some additional supplies of food and batteries in Telluride, I drove south on Colorado 145. From the summit of Lizard Head Pass, I drove approx 8 kilometres before I turned right onto Dunton Road (Forest Service 535). Then west on Dunton Road (dirt) for 11 kilometres before I turned right onto a short road (100m) that ended in a parking lot. This was the trailhead and I measured the elevation to be 2846 metres. I had a long and interesting conversation with a hunter at the parking lot. He shot a big Elk last night, thus he was really occupied with load carrying. Hard work indeed !!
I packed my stuff including two days of supplies, and 13:20 I was off. Actually it was a stupid idea to leave my stove in the car, but I believed I could “survive” on bread and Nugatti for two days. The 8-9 kilometres up to Navajo Lake was a really nice hike, a beautiful mix of meadows and forest. There were a couple of things what worried me, however. I spotted 3 snakes and even fresh bear droppings on the trail. I managed to convince myself that snakes were not poisonous in Colorado, and secondly I armed myself with pepper-spray just in case of a bear encounter.
I reached Navajo Lake in less than two hours. The last few kilometres had been steep and really hard work with a huge backpack. I ate a late lunch and rested for maybe 45 minutes. I was entirely alone up here. But as I made myself ready to search for a campsite, two guys arrived. They were from Tennessee and suggested that we should find two campsites next to each others. I thought that was a great idea and followed them. Few minutes later we found a nice campsite in a small forest beyond the lake. The elevation here was 3418 metres.
Later in the evening I did a reconnoitre mission in the upper Navajo Basin. I was really bothered to see all the snow on the north side of Mount Wilson and El Diente. I had not expected any remaining snow/ice at all so late in the season, thus I had not carried my ice axe and crampons up to high camp. I more or less abandoned the idea of doing El Diente the next day. Ice axe would be mandatory and crampons nice to have in the snow couloir.
A comprehensive report was expected, when I returned to camp. We sat together and discussed for a long while. Wayne had a lot of wilderness experience, and he spent many of his earlier years camping alone in Yellowstone and other wilderness areas in the states. Thus he reminded me of the famous adventurer Lars Monsen from Norway. Tim had spent less time in the wilderness, but he had a strong passion for peak climbing. They were aiming for Mount Wilson and maybe El Diente tomorrow. I said I had changed my plans, going for Mount Wilson and Wilson Peak instead. The following day, when I was properly equipped, I would climb El Diente and the famous traverse if the weather allowed me.
Day 3 (7-Sep-2005):
Mount Wilson (4342)
I woke up early (05:50) and made myself a decent breakfast in the darkness. When I left camp at 06:30 I said good luck to Wayne and Tim, who had not finished their breakfast yet. I hiked up the rocky trail and reached a levelled area in the upper Navajo Basin half an hour later. I continued on the trail until I was close enough to start climbing the shoulder of Mount Wilson. It was easy going, but the last stretch up to the shoulder was somewhat steep, but never more than class 2+. The northeast ridge of Mount Wilson starts on this rounded shoulder. But instead of following the ridge I continued along the cairned route somewhat to the west. Then the route angled even more to the west, traversing below a large snowfield, and further up on the right side of this field. Here I lost the “trail”, but I found a feasible route up a spur. Then I managed to find a passage cross a snow couloir where the ice and snow had melted away. Then I scrambled steep up a another spur to reach the main ridge. Here I found out that I had reached the ridge too soon, and had to climb a buttress on the ridge to finally reach a notch 50 metres north of Mount Wilson’s summit. From here I climbed south on top of the exposed ridge crest. I could see that the proper route was below the crest, but I preferred to stay on the ridge. Just some few metres away from the summit, I arrived the crux of the route (class 4). I decided to make a push with my backpack on. I hauled myself to the top of the block without any problems, but it would certainly have been easier without a heavy backpack. Yes, it was exposed but in my opinion no need for rope in dry conditions. Then I walked the last few metres to the small summit plateau. The time was 08:35 and I had done the entire climb in approx 2 hours. I sat there for at least 20 minutes and contemplated the view, especially to the west where the classic ridge continues via numerous pinnacles to the summit of El Diente. But this ridge was not in my scope, simply because I didn’t want to risk my life going down from El Diente without proper equipment (ice-axe and crampons). I could of course have retraced my steps back to Mount Wilson, but that would have taken an awful lot of time on such a complex ridge. And time is always limited because of the everyday thunderstorms in Colorado. I had absolutely no desires to get trapped on this ridge during such events.
Wilson Peak (4272)
It was also stunning views to the north, where Wilson Peak towered high above its surroundings. The summit seemed to be very far away, but I was not worried about my endurance. I was more worried about the numerous clouds, so I decided to leave Mount Wilson and speeded up to reach Wilson Peak.
I climbed back to the notch and then followed some cairns. Once again I lost the route, but I found my own way down on very loose rocks. I met Wayne and Tim below the shoulder, surprised to see how slow progress they made. I showed them my digital photo of the crux and wished them good luck.
I did not follow the trail all the way down to Navajo Basin, simply because I would have lost a lot elevation doing so. Instead I stayed as high as possible in the basin, and I reached a low point of 3750 meters before I could start uphill again. Then I aimed for the northern saddle between Wilson Peak and Gladstone Peak, where I was supposed to find the trail from Silver Pick Basin to Wilson Peak. The steep scree slopes below the saddle was really tough going but I had to hurry up because of threatening clouds.
I really needed a short break when I reached the saddle just below 4000 metres. Then I continued on the climbers trail well below the ridge on it’s east side. The trail regained the ridge at 4100 metres and continued up to a false summit at 4200 metres, where I could see the remaining challenge to the true summit. The pinnacles on the ridge crest were too dangerous and fragile to climb, so I rather descended 15 metres on the left side of the ridge, before I climbed up a couloir (class 3) to regain the ridge again. From here it was easy class 3 scrambling to the summit of Wilson Peak (4272m), which I reached 11:00, approx two hours after I started from Mount Wilson. It was mostly cloudy, but all dark threatening clouds had in fact vanished. Thus I was in no hurry to descend, and rested on the summit for 30 minutes. I could see two small dots on the summit of Mount Wilson, and I was happy that Wayne and Tim finally had reached the summit. I could also see two small dots moving up from Silver Pick Basin, most likely trespassing on private property.
I met the two trespassers on my way down again from Wilson Peak. They were pretty much aware of the situation, but frankly didn’t care. Who will find out anyway?
I often spend more time on descending than ascending. I think this must have been one of those days. I reached the campsite 13:20 and went straight into the tent and slept for one hour. I was about to get myself some food when Wayne arrived, and to my surprise alone. Tim had decided to continue to El Diente and Wayne seemed a little bit worried about that. Tim was not very well equipped so I didn’t like the situation either.
My day was not over. It was time to hike down to the car and get my ice axe and crampons. I needed them on El Diente the following day. I also needed food supplies for one more day. I had already climbed 1400 height metres that day, and my extra trip would cause me to ascend additional 650 height metres. But I had slept for one hour and felt fine for the task. I left Wayne 15:00 and hoped that Tim was safely back in camp when I returned.
I walked and ran the 8-9 kilometres, and reached my car 16:10. I didn’t want to carry my stove up to high camp so I decided to make myself a dinner at the parking lot. I started back 17:00 and reached the campsite above Navajo Lake at 18:50. I was very happy to see Tim there. He told me about his adventure and the alternative route he had found down from El Diente. He had not descended the couloir (normal route) at all. He found a feasible route down the north side on El Diente, a little bit west of the Organ Pipes. But he had been anxious about getting trapped above steep cliffs. He also had to down-climb some steep snow fields, but he had found a sharp rock which he used as an ice axe.
Day 4 (8-Sep-2005):
El Diente (4316m)
The next morning at 05:45 the rain was still pouring down, and I decided to go back to sleep. One hour later it had stopped raining and I was out of my sleeping bag in few seconds. I had a quick breakfast before I started to walk 07:20. Wayne was still sleeping, but Tim wished me good luck. They were heading down after breakfast, and planned a first-class lunch in Telluride before they drove to Grand Junction.
My backpack was uncomfortably heavy because of ice-axe, crampons, rope, belays etc. Secondly I had not recovered 100% after yesterday physical exertion. I followed the trail to upper Navajo Basin, and left it when I reached the levelled area. From there it was tough going on talus/scree to reach the snow in the lower part of the couloir. I was actually surprised of how long time it took me to reach this point, it seemed to be much closer than it actually was. I rested there for 10 minutes in order to put on my crampons. I also thought about the young guy that sadly fell to death in this couloir only few weeks ago. Wayne had told me that the guy successfully had done the traverse between Mount Wilson and El Diente. It was late in the season so he had not brought crampons (or ice-axe?). Descending from El Diente, he lost his grip high up in the couloir, slid down and fell to death.
The snow steepness was modest in the begging. But the difficulties and exposedness increased further up, and the snow was hard as ice. I actually felt uneasy without any other belays than my ice-axe and crampons. The steepest part was 45+ and the couloir ended in an intimidating rock face below the ridge crest. I left the couloir before I reached the dead-end, took off my crampons and continued up a spur on the right side. Few minutes later I reached the main ridge (4200m) between Mount Wilson and El Diente slightly east of the obstacle Organ Pipes. I traversed west below the ridge crest on the south side to avoid this obstacle (class 3) before I climbed back to the ridge crest via a gully. I crossed the ridge and climbed to El Dientes’s summit on the ridge’s north side (class 3). The time was 09:50 and the fog had already started to hide the neighbouring peaks. I had no time for long rests, so I continued down after 15 minutes. I retraced my steps to the snow couloir, which I nervously down-climbed face in.
I was back in camp 11:50. Wayne and Tim had left, so my tent was the only left in the camp. I packed my stuff and left the camp 12:45. Heavy loaded I walked along the Navajo Lake and continued down the trail beyond the lake. I met two very talkative guys on my way down. They even brought their fishing equipment in order to survive a long weekend up there. I finally returned to my car 14:40 and immediately started the long drive to Gunnison. I was glad to be in my car when the raging thunderstorm started. It felt like the lightning hit my car several times on top of Lizard Head Pass. I have never before experienced so much raining and lightning during one afternoon/evening. But I was off the mountain and safe in my car.
(I’m referring to the YDS class rating system throughout this article)