A Long Day in The Wilsons

On August 5, 2003 I made the long drive to Telluride for an attempt on Wilson Peak, Mt. Wilson and El Diente, as a group commonly known as “The Wilsons”.  These peaks potentially represented numbers 49, 50 & 51 of my personal count of climbed official and unofficial Colorado peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation (58 in total, according to my tally).

The drive down via Grand Junction was a long, tedious effort.  I listened to Paul Simon’s greatest hits 3 times for a total of 30 times so far this summer, all the while thinking that I really must get another CD.  I got so desperate for distraction that I even listened to a bit of talk radio.  But once the novelty wore off, I preferred silence to the noise of thin, simplistic opinions based on nothing.

In another part of my mind, I was amazed at the varied terrain of Colorado with water, sand and rock mixed in various proportions to create a multitude of settings.  This thinking helped me to settle into my adventure.  Once I hit Rifle, my overall mood shifted away from the stress of preparing for and executing the trip and toward the enjoyment of my freedom and adventure.  I had wonderful sense of total freedom that I have been lucky enough to feel a few times in my life.  While collecting all the Colorado Fourteeners had begun to feel like work, the adventure of exploring different parts of Colorado and being on my own won out.

Seven hours to reach the Silver Pick TH from Boulder left me a couple hours of daylight to prepare for the early morning climb and to eat my delicious two-Whopper dinner.  I was a bit disappointed not to find water at the trailhead;  I could see a dehydrated night coming 24 hours hence if I stayed a second night.

In planning for the climbs, I was mostly concerned about the 0.8 mile ridge connecting Mt. Wilson and El Diente.  I figured I could do the climbing bits, but was worried about the route-finding necessary to find those easy sections.  I initially considered not doing El Diente (not an official 14er), but quickly discarded that rationalization as a weakness that would not survive the trip home.  I ended up concluding that I would climb the two Wilsons and then move camp to Navajo Lake to allow a direct ascent of El Diente on the second day.

Still, I wanted to give myself the flexibility to do all three peaks in a day should the weather and my stamina remain good, so I left camp at 4:15am on the morning of August 6th.  And so a long day in the Wilsons began.

My route to collect "The Wilsons"

My route to collect "The Wilsons"

The 4×4 road to Silver Pick Mine was in excellent condition as it had been newly grated.  There was a mention of a “scenic shortcut” in Roach’s guidebook, but I decided that a hike in total darkness (no moon) needed an obvious trail and I elected to stay on the 4×4 road to its end.  Just after the 4×4 road ended (at the ruined stone building), I began hiking over talus, approximately aimed at the Rock of Ages Saddle (I could just barely make out a silhouette in the pre-dawn).

Roach makes mention of a trail switch-backing up the ridge west of the saddle, but I could not see any evidence of such a trail.  I crossed an old snow patch (no foot prints) and began moving over scree when I encountered dirt.  Looking up hill with the flashlight, I could see a 20-foot line of dirt aiming straight up the slope…no switchbacks, but some hope for a trail.  I ascended this line for approximately 300 feet to a beautiful trail aimed directly for the Rock of Ages saddle.

Leaving the Saddle, the trail stayed flat and moved quickly to the south side of the ridge.  After about 200 feet, the trail became indistinct (not quite light yet), but I could see the Wilson Peak – Gladstone Saddle and aimed for it over some large talus.

A view from Mt Wilson of my route to Wilson Peak

A view from Mt Wilson of my route to Wilson Peak

From the Gladstone saddle, the route moved left (northwest) through a class 3 cliff band (not hard, just some exposure) to reach a nice trail.  The trail moved quickly to the ridgeline and remains easy to follow.  A few scrambling moves in the 3rd class area added a bit of adventure to this short hike and I reached the summit at 7:30am.

Once on the summit (and not moving), I became aware of a sensation not felt in many months. My body started making uncontrolled, rapid, jerky movements just when I was trying to rest and enjoy the view.  It was cold and I was shivering in August.  I exchanged a dry shirt and fresh socks and put on my long pants and rain jacket; still I still could not tolerate it for long and shortly escaped back down the ridge.

My route to Mt Wilson, as seen from the Rock of Ages mine.  Can also see the remaining storm clouds.

My route to Mt Wilson, as seen from the Rock of Ages mine.

Once I reached the Gladstone saddle, I looked around for a shortcut to Mt. Wilson; I didn’t want to go down 700-800 feet to the basin.  I decided I would contour around the eastern end of the basin underneath Gladstone to save the elevation.

In doing so, I believe I did save some effort, but the climbing was nasty; the talus/scree felt like a thousand refrigerators loosely piled atop each other on a foundation of broken dinner plates.  At each step, I felt as if the entire slope would come down on top of me.  Taking slow, balanced, and deliberate steps to avoid slides and be prepared for a quick lunge to avoid rolling refrigerators was mentally exhausting.  But moving slowly was physically restful, and I did eventually reach the Navajo glacier just below Mt. Wilsons north shoulder.

Oddly, the Navajo glacier really looks like a glacier:  ice with water running over the top.  I have only seen this once before, in an old snowfield between Castle and Conundrum that tried to kill me.  The water was clear and I was able to refill my water bottles with pleasant tasting water.  For future reference, the water I had gathered near the mine building ruins on the north side of Rock of Ages saddle (and taken up and down Wilson peak) tasted like a dead marmot’s guts were leaching into the water.  I couldn’t drink it.

With another 2 liters of water, I scrambled up the North shoulder of Mt. Wilson.  It was an excellent climb:  good exposure, solid rock, and easy route finding combined to create a true pleasure.   The last 50 feet was the icing on the cake:  a long reach and high step over a short knife-edge with my butt hanging over a 1000-foot drop.  The experience was good for warming my cold blood; yes, it was still cold at 11:30am.

I reached the summit and had to make a decision regarding El Diente.   I had made a pact with myself while climbing Mt. Wilson:  if I got good weather, I would use it to do the traverse.  I figured the cold temperatures would lower the chance of thunderstorms.  I ate my lunch while studing the weather for signs that the weather would hold long enough.

A view of El Diente and the traverse from Mt Wilson

A view of El Diente and the traverse from Mt Wilson

Unfortunately, the clouds were darkening and moving in my direction.  I gambled that the storm would miss the Wilson Group to the southeast and decided to go for it.  Exiting the summit around noon, I began the ridge with a full sense of thrill.

Ah, the sweet feeling of life fully perceived only when death is near.  An extended stay within the reach of death will bring a low-brain awareness of life’s preciousness and an increase in the capabilities of the mind and body.  As has happened so many times, my mind became clearer and better focused on the work at hand; my body became more coordinated…better balance, higher pain tolerance, more confident movement over difficult moves.  It was the easiest climbing of the day.  Adrenaline is a wonderful thing.

I stayed on the ridge whenever possible and moved a bit lower to the south when necessary to avoid difficulties such as drop-offs or gendarmes.  The first few hundred feet were well described by Roach and the last 2/3rds of the route was well cairned; I didn’t have any route finding difficulties.  But to spice things up a bit, the weather started worsening just after I passed the crux.

The "Organ Pipes"

The "Organ Pipes"

The thunderheads, which I thought would miss me, only did so by one mile.  Since lightning can hit from 15 miles away, it wasn’t enough.  The lightning (when I took a moment to look) and thunder were quite spectacular; I managed to get a count of 30 (between flash and thunder) early in the ridge crossing, but was down to 5 at one point.  With additional dark clouds forming up-wind and likely rain moving my way, I was flat-out running across parts of the ridge that permitted such behavior.   All the while I was listening for my axe to start humming.

I would have made the traverse in approximately 1.5 hours except for the numerous delays I took to study the weather and look for signs of improvement.   Near the summit ridge of El Diente, I finally decided that the weather was not going to get better before it got worse and I took off for the summit at top speed.  I reached the summit just after 2pm and stayed only to sign the register.

My descent from El Diente

My descent from El Diente, seen from Wilson Peak

The fasted way down was the El Diente north slopes route.  I’d heard it was dirty, but it was in the guidebook.  How bad could it be?  It was a nightmare.  Whoever said it was a summer route should be shot.  It might be possible to ascend the route with your sanity intact, but a descent is intolerable.  The descent took forever as I reversed the natural order of things and descended through hell into heaven (the basin).  I finally reached the bottom, and more water, at 4pm.

The creek running though the basin was fed by the Navajo glacier and continued to be of good quality.   And the storms were gone, so I could take a few minutes to rest and recover my sanity.

By the time I was rested, hydrated and ready to continue it was nearing 5pm and I still had to get over the Rock of Ages pass.  It felt like I was climbing a 4th peak.  Stop to rest every 10-20 steps; sit down every 100-150 steps.  It was clear that I was going to spend another night at Silver Pick and only with the water I had collected at 4:30pm.

My mood was initially poor due to being agitated by the nasty down climb and the interminable hike over loose talus to reach the creek bed, but soon I felt privileged to have another challenge; I was dead tired, but I was going to win.

I reached camp at 8pm, ending a nearly 16-hour day.  I had climbed 3 Fourteeners, done 1 great traverse, hiked 13 miles, ascended nearly 6,000 feet, and fully stress-tested my courage and stamina.  A good, long day in the Wilsons.

See all trip reports

Location Altitude Altitude Chg Mileage Time Cumul. Hours
Camp 10,600 4:15am
Rock of Ages Saddle 13,000 +2,400 2.5 6:00am 1:45
Wilson Peak 14,017 +1,017 1.0 7:30am 3:15
Navajo Glacier 12,800 -1,217 2.0 10:00am 5:45
Mt. Wilson 14,246 +1,446 1.0 11:30am 7:15
El Diente 14,159 -446


1.0 2:00pm 9:15
Basin 12,300 -1,859 1.0 4:30pm 11:45
Rock of Ages Saddle 13,000 +700 2.0 6:30pm 13:45
Camp 10,600 -2,400 2.5 8:00pm 15:15
Totals 5,922 13 15:15

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One Response to “A Long Day in The Wilsons”

  1. Ringing the Bells « PeakMind Says:

    […] plans to knock off seven of those in the next couple weeks:  Chicago Basin Group (8/14/03) & Wilson Group […]

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