Distance: 13 miles
Elevation Gain: 4,800'
Roundtrip Time: 13 hrs (over 2 days)
The San Juan Mountains contain some of Colorado's most magnificent and beautiful terrain, including 14 peaks over 14,000' and more than 300 peaks over 13,000'. At the far western end of the range lies a large massif known as the "Wilson Group". Within this group resides three 14ers (Mt. Wilson, El Diente Peak, and Wilson Peak) and several 13ers (including Gladstone Peak and Lizard Head Peak). Mt. Wilson and El Diente Peak are unique in that they are the two westernmost 14ers in the state, some 200 miles (as the crow flies) from Denver. In other words, they are a great place to go if you want to get far away from the fast-growing metropolis along the Front Range.
I've had my eye on these peaks for quite some time, although their distance from my home in southeast Wyoming (about a 7-hr drive) had kept me from climbing them. Over the years, I had made several trips down to the San Juans, allowing me to knock off 14ers Wetterhorn, Redcloud, Sunshine, Handies, and Sneffels. While certainly beautiful and enjoyable to climb, those peaks are all on the easier end of San Juan climbs. The harder 14ers - the class 3 and class 4 climbs in more remote parts of the range - had eluded me. It was only a matter of time.
The summer of 2017 was a slow one for me with regard to 14ers. I skied Quandary Peak in May before breaking my foot in late June, putting me on the DL for about 2 months. Coming into the summer, my friends and I had been eyeing up some challenging 14ers in the Elk Range - most notably the Maroon Bells and their famous class 4/5 Bells Traverse. A few of us had unsuccessfully attempted the Bells Traverse, one of Colorado's Great 14er Traverses, back in September 2014 and we were itching to get back there. However, with the broken foot and doubts about whether we were mentally prepared for such a serious endeavor, we began considering other options. A friend of mine suggested that we try another one of the Great 14er Traverses, the class 4 Wilson & El Diente Traverse. This one would be a bit easier, yet would still be difficult enough to test our climbing skills and mental preparedness.
As my foot healed, I was able to get back into the mountains and summit a few 14ers mid-late August. Surprisingly, I was still in pretty good shape despite being "grounded" for a couple months. In early September, myself and two friends, Mike and Matt, decided we would give the Wilson & El Diente Traverse a shot.
On a Friday, Matt and I met up with Mike at his home in Grand Junction and then made the 3 hour drive down to the Kilpacker Basin trailhead at 10,100'. The so-called Kilpacker Approach brings you to the Wilson Group from the south and is a great option if climbing Mt. Wilson and El Diente Peak together, via the traverse. Our plan that night was to backpack in to about treeline and find a spot to set up camp. Early the next morning, we would climb El Diente first, giving ourselves plenty of time to do the traverse and be on the summit of Wilson by noon. The forecast called for a chance of showers or storms by early afternoon, so if we could be off Wilson by noon we would likely be fine.
We were on the trail by 6pm. What a wonderful approach route! It begins by heading west across an open field and then turns northwest into a forest mixed with aspen and pine trees (Photo 1). About 1.7 miles in, the trail then turns northeast and continues through the forest, finally emerging from the trees at about 2.5 miles in. Here, we caught our first real good glimpse of El Diente Peak (Photos 2 & 3). The trail is pretty flat for these first 2.5 miles, gaining only about 300'.
We kinda decided to keep going until dark or until we reached treeline, whatever came first. Turns out we made it to treeline by 7:30, just after sunset, at 11,000' - about 4 miles from the trailhead. Better than a 2.5 mph pace, not too shabby! This was a good place to camp since the terrain became quite rocky not too far up the basin. Photo 4 shows a view looking northeast up the basin near where we camped. We found a nice flat area among some trees, laid out our tents, enjoyed a nice campfire, hid our bear canister, and finally bedded down around 10pm.
It rained some overnight, but then cleared out enough that the near full moon came out and lit everything up. I would know since I didn't get a whole lot of sleep. Maybe 3 or 4 hours at most. Sleep before a 14er hike is always an issue for me, but I find that 3 or 4 hours is often enough to keep me from getting sick and exhausted later in the day. Anyway, we awoke as planned at 4am, got dressed, grabbed our food from the bear canister, and were on the trail again by 5.
SUMMIT DAY – EL DIENTE PEAK
From our camp, it was about 1.5 miles up to the El Diente trail turnoff at 12,600'. We made it to the turnoff shortly after 6am and began ascending El Diente's steep south slopes. From here, it's a little more than a half mile to the top, but you gain 1,500' in the process. Our hope was to be on the summit by 8am. As the sun rose around 7am, the growing light gave us a great view of much of the basin below us and to our east (Photo 5). There is a cairned trail with many switchbacks most of the way up these slopes, at least til about 13,400'. After this, the trail disappears and only cairns remain (Photo 6). It's also just past this point that the hiking turns to climbing, as the route ascends an easy class 3 gully near 13,700' (Photos 7, 8, & 9).
The view to the south here (Photo 10) is incredible! This class 3 section is actually quite easy, especially compared with what we would encounter later in the day. Once out of the gully at 13,800', you reach the base of a large band of rocks called the "Organ Pipes" (Photos 11 & 12).
At the top of the Organ Pipes is the ridge proper. However, the route does not yet go up to the ridge but instead turns left (west) and traverses under the Organ Pipes for a few hundred yards. We followed the route through a gap in the rocks (Photo 13) and then continued west to a small gully that finally takes you up to the ridge (Photo 14).
We reached the ridge (14,000') by 7:45am and stopped for a quick rest (Photo 15). While only 15 minutes from the summit, we knew we still had a very long day ahead of us. Much of the great traverse was visible before us to our east at this point, with Mt. Wilson only about 3/4 of a mile away (Photo 16). Looking to the northeast, we had a wonderful view of Wilson Peak and Gladstone Peak, and Navajo Basin in between (Photo 17). You can also see 14er Sneffels Peak from here, about 16 miles away.
We would return to this spot later when it was time to begin the traverse. To first reach the summit of El Diente, the route wraps around to the north side of the ridge and continues west. This part was fun. However, a fall here would be quite bad, with steep dropoffs of several hundred feet flanking the right side of the faint trail (Photo 18).
I don't have any photos from here to the summit, but it does get a bit interesting near the top. The route eventually reaches the gap in the rocks seen at the top of Photo 18, followed immediately by a short but very narrow and steep north-facing gully just below the summit. There happened to still be a rock-hard slab of snow in the center of the gully that we had to avoid, lest we slip and slide hundreds of feet down to whatever awaited us below. Where there wasn't snow, there was damp, slippery dirt/mud - remember it had rained (maybe even snowed this high) overnight. Anyway, we negotiated our way through this section and eventually found ourselves on the 14,159-ft summit of El Diente at 8am (Photo 19). El Diente is officially an unranked 14er, but is the 33rd one I've climbed.
SUMMIT DAY – THE TRAVERSE
Part 1 of our day: success! We hit our intended 8am summit time and were feeling pretty freakin' good about our chances that day. If only the weather would hold off for another 3-4 hours, we would be golden! We spent maybe 20 minutes on El Diente's summit, grabbing photos and re-nourishing. But, it wasn't all that warm up there and the clock was a tickin'. So, we were off again, retracing our steps back to the top of the small gully at 14,000'. We would first have to descend the small gully and retrace our steps back to the base of the Organ Pipes, which would now be to our left (Photo 20). The route then continues east, skirting below the south side of the ridge proper (Photo 21). This is the beginning of the Wilson & El Diente Traverse!
After about 1/4 mile, the route reaches the first major obstacle: a very large stack of rocks blocking the ridgeline (Photo 22). In climbing parlance, these are called a gendarmes. To reach the other side, you must correctly answer three questions from an ugly bearded gatekeeper who guards the passageway through the rocks. Alternatively, you may follow cairns over the rocks along the right (south) side of the gendarmes, or drop down a bit farther (about 100') to the right and avoid the gendarmes altogether.
Taking the first alternative and staying high requires a tough and exposed class 3 move with a 30-ft dropoff on one side (Photo 23). We decided to avoid this. Another group of climbers that came through after us later said that this move wasn't as bad as it looks. We instead dropped down underneath the gendarmes, eventually finding another sequence of cairns that led back up to the ridgeline. This certainly added both elevation gain and time to our climb, but it was what we were comfortable with at the moment. Although we did avoid that initial exposed move by dropping down, we still ended up having to meander through some fairly exposed sections nonetheless.
The traverse eases significantly after this for another 1/4 mile, as the ridge itself widens some and becomes quite mellow. We met up with the other group of climbers here and enjoyed the relatively relaxing walk to the next obstacle, chatting with our new friends about 14ers and other random stuff. We passed the halfway point of the traverse, although the most difficult sections were ahead of us.
Near the end of this easier section, the ridge narrows again, requiring another straightforward yet exposed class 3 move (Photos 24 & 25). About a hundred yards later, we downclimbed (class 3) to a low point along the ridge. Here, the crux of the traverse stood before us in the form of a 40-ft wall of steep class 4 rock that must be climbed (Photo 26). This is where things get real.
Personally, I remember the rocks looking steeper than they appear in Photo 26. Nevertheless, the route goes up and over. Mike, Matt, and I decided to follow our new friends straight up the "gully", as seen in Photo 26. This is also the way that the 14ers.com route description directs you to go.
From the bottom, it looks pretty nuts... but also very doable if care is taken. Mike went first (well, third if you count our new friends) and absolutely nailed the climb (Photo 27), stopping about 2/3 of the way up to wait for us. Matt followed and nailed it as well (Photos 28 & 29). Then it was my turn.
Now directly below the climb, it looked even more gnarly (Photo 30). Right from the get-go, I had trouble making the very first move (the one Matt is making in Photo 28). Why? My bulky camera bag, hanging from my backpack shoulder straps over my stomach, was getting in the way. This has happened before when I've had to make a move that requires me to face in and get close to the rocks. I have three options when climbing these sorts of climbs: (1) leave the full-frame camera (Canon 6D) and camera bag behind, using only my iPhone for photos, (2) leave the camera bag behind but still bring the camera, stowing it in my backpack, or (3) bring it all and take off the camera bag when I have to make difficult moves like this.
I typically choose option 3 since, well, option 1 is dumb (can't get 21 megapixels and a super wide view with the iPhone) and option 2 is pointless (I'd never take the camera out of the backpack). But trying to climb with a camera bag on my waist, and then having to take the bag off mid-climb so I can balance my weight better, does lead to some white knuckle moments. Anyway, I made it work this time and continued climbing up the class 4 pitch.
It was a lot harder, for me at least, than it looked from below. That's saying something, I guess. Either it was really hard, or I suck at guesstimating the difficulty of a climb. Another possibility is that I simply suck at climbing. I'll let you decide. I am certainly a bit tentative at times, hence why it took me probably twice as long to get up to Mike and Matt. Once we all convened where Mike had stopped, the climbing eased for a moment before we reached one last very short but steep section just below the ridge. A few minutes later and the three of us were standing in victory on the ridge.
By this point, we were very close to Mt. Wilson. However, one final obstacle remained: several hundred yards of highly exposed ridgeline. I don't have any photos from this section, but take it from me... there were several stretches in this section where the ridge was 2 feet wide with 300' dropoffs on either side. Actually, take it from Mike, who was wise enough to record GoPro footage during this hair-raising part of the climb (see video below).
Not many words were spoken as we made our way across "the narrows". It was during this time that we were becoming increasingly aware of an approaching raincloud to the south. No thunder was heard, but knew it wasn't something we wanted to be caught in on the top of Mt. Wilson. There was really no safe way back down into Kilpacker Basin from where we were without first reaching Wilson's summit, so we were quite focused on steadily moving forward and getting off the ridge.
SUMMIT DAY – MOUNT WILSON
Eventually, we found ourselves staring Mt. Wilson's north face in the... face (Photo 31). All that was left was a short 150-ft climb to the summit and then we could begin heading back down to our camp. Photo 32 was taken from this point showing the expansive view of the east side of the traverse and Kilpacker Basin.
The route ascended a short gully just north of the peak and met up with Mt. Wilson's standard route coming up from Navajo Basin. We had finally reached the end of the traverse! However, the crux of Wilson's standard route was still to come. I was smart this time and decided to take video of the final 100' climb, which you can watch in the video below.
As it turns out, the class 3 (or 4, if you go right) move just below the summit was nothing compared to what we had faced on the traverse. Perhaps I should have gone right and tried the class 4 move. Maybe next time (and there could very well be a next time). We reached the 14,246-ft summit at noon (for my 34th 14er) and spent about 15 minutes up there before the raincloud got too close for comfort. To get back down into Kilpacker Basin, you take Mt. Wilson's Southwest Slopes route. It's a very nasty route, only because you spend the first 1,000' descending steep scree. It's very easy to send rocks down on your friends below. Fortunately, I only hit Matt and Mike with a couple big rocks. Actually, that's not true... we were very safe, but it was still not the most fun I've ever had on a mountain.
I took a couple photos on the way back down Kilpacker Basin, but there's not really much to say about them (Photos 33, 34, & 35). We did get drizzled on a little, but still no thunder. From the summit, it took us about 3 hours to make the 2.25-mile trek back to our tents. Not nearly as much fun going down as it was going up, that is a certainty.
My feet hurt a lot when we made it back to our campsite around 3pm. It was only going to get worse, I thought, since I was about to load another 15-20 lbs on my back. About 15 minutes later we were back on the trail, basically sprinting back to the trailhead. My feet didn't hurt much anymore, surprisingly, but my whole body was feeling the usual aches and pains that follow such a day.
It took us about 75 minutes to get back (a 3+ mph clip). I snapped just one photo along the way, of a very nice scene about a half mile from the trailhead (Photo 36). This would have been even more stunning just a week or so ago (from when this was written), with the changing leaves.
What a wonderful trip it was! Both peaks were a joy to summit, the traverse was as challenging as it needed to be, and the scenery was typical of the San Juans... breathtaking. I will certainly be back to the Wilson Group, obviously to climb Wilson Peak, but perhaps - someday - to revisit these two peaks as well.
As 14ers go, this ranks as a top 3 climb for me, right up there with Little Bear, Longs, and Crestone Needle. I guess that should be top 4 then, eh? Whatever. Bring on the next great traverse!