Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Mt Wilson El Diente Traverse

Guided Mt.Wilson (14,246) El Diente (14,159) Traverse- July 7th/8th.

I picked up Andy at the KOA campground outside of Ouray at noon. The weather forecast was not the best, we had been in an afternoon storm cycle for a few days, and it looked to continue for the next two days of our planned climb. That meant good waterproof gear, and an early a.m. start for summit day. Fingers crossed we would be up and off the ridge before the storm chased us off.

Just driving in the San Juan’s this time of year is exhilarating, and we made a pleasant journey over Lizard Head Pass and onto the 7 mile dirt road to the Navajo Lake Trailhead… just as the building clouds decided to unleash! A wet but mellow 4 mile approach led us to the Navajo Lake, where and when the sun came out and we enjoyed an evening’s meal, some well earned RnR, and a chance to dry out. Tents up and early to bed, the alarm was set for 4 a.m.  Hot coffee, oatmeal and some bread led to the head-lamped approach up the Navajo Basin, to our 1st objective of the day, the North Slopes route and summit of Mt.Wilson (14,246). As dawn broke and we stashed headlamps, a faint veil of clouds became apparent, not what we were wishing for, but not enough to deter us at this point. We continued up the north shoulder to the base of the North Slopes. Thanks to something of a record winter in the San Juan’s the summer snow climbs are still in great shape, and the couloir led all the way to the ridge, some 1000ft plus of cramponing above us. We broke out the rope and hardwear and made the ridge in great time. Dropping the packs in the notch we continued to short rope the exciting final 150ft ridge (and crux) to the summit of Mt.Wilson. It’s a classic, a small pinnacle summit that you virtually mantelshelf onto. 8.30 a.m. and Andy’s 51st Fourteener!

The weather continued somewhat overcast but unthreatening.  We retraced our steps back to the notch on the ridge proper, took a bite to eat and contemplated the next possible few hours at or above 14k on the ridge leading to the summit of El Diente, a mind bending half mile away! Now there’s no hiding the fact that the San Juan’s are not exactly the most stable of rock formations. But that’s part of there magnificent beauty which in turn creates such dramatic peaks and knife edge ridges. With that in mind it was a couscous 3hr roped traverse virtually across the top of the ridge itself. A wild ride as it narrows to mere body width in places and drops away some 2000ft on either side to the basins below.  The route finding along the ridge is complicated and can be time consuming, not to mention the constant elevation starts to slow things down, but we made ok time across to the saddle below El Diente. This was the meeting point of our chosen descent route and is still some 250ft and approximately an hour shy of the summit of El Diente. Andy had been trucking along fine but was finally starting to feel the weight of the day. There really is no substitute or training for acclimatization, other than going high, often and repeatedly. For me as a guide living at 9k ft in the San Juan’s, this was my 5th 14er of the week, I felt good but worked. We were perhaps an hour and half away from Andy’s 53rd 14,000ft summit in Colorado. It was 11.30 a.m, the weather was still holding… but it’s Andy’s call. A 15 minute break, some chocolate and liquids… and he was all in, “let’s do it!”. Stoked we crossed what was left of the ridge to a final short snow slope that led to the true summit of El Diente.. and number 52 for the day. Hard going but well worth it. 

Now it’s always a good feeling to start moving down and it felt especially good to leave such an exposed place, but we still had a 2000ft 60 degree snow slope to descend back into the Navajo Basin to our camp.  The snow was still holding up fine for plunge stepping, but the ropes didn’t really come off until we hit the valley floor… what a climb!

Hiking back into camp found us both somewhat exhausted but elated. A much needed bowl of hot Thai noodles helped pack camp and head out on the walk to the trailhead. Not to mention the beers we had promised each other for each summit from the Colorado Boy brew pub (my fav!) in Ridgway if we made it back in time. Needless to say, we did!
The pizza is excellent there too… good times, sore muscles. Andy headed back to the family at the KOA and I crawled off to the Orvis Hotsprings for the last hour… best hour.

For my part it had been a great couple of days getting to know a fun, strong client, in amazing surroundings and circumstances. Challenging and gawd awful hard work at times… but worth every Advil!  Thanks again for a great trip Andy… and best of luck with the final 3!

Gary Ryan
San Juan Mountain Guide