Mount Wilson (14,250-feet) and El Diente (14,160-feet) are two peaks located in the San Miguel Mountains of southwestern Colorado. These two volcanic promontories belong to the greater Wilson massif, and are connected by a solitary knife-edge crest known as Wilson-Diente Ridge. Because of their remoteness and difficulty, these are often among the last peaks to be conquered on the popular quest to climb the esteemed Colorado Fourteeners.
Jutting over a hundred feet above jagged Wilson-Diente ridge, El Diente (14,160-feet) is an iconic landmark of the San Miguel range. It boasts just enough prominence to be deemed a separate summit from Mount Wilson, and is therefore considered to be a member of the infamous Colorado Fourteeners. The easiest route to the top is class-3.
Mount Wilson (14,250-feet), on the other hand, is the undisputed monarch of the San Miguel Range, reigning high above its surroundings as a sinister castle of dark volcanic rock. The easiest route to the top is class-3, with a short section of class-4 climbing just below the summit block.
The ridgeline traverse from El Diente to Mount Wilson is one of Colorado’s classic mountaineering objectives. The proper route ascends Wilson-Diente Ridge at its absolute far western terminus, continuing up and over the summit of El Diente until exiting the summit of Mount Wilson by it’s couloirs on the north flank. The majority of climbing goes at class-3, but there are multiple sections of class-4 and class-5 climbing along the narrow crest, including the final pitch to the summit of Mount Wilson.
SUMMARY: I completed the Wilson-Diente traverse with Giselle in late August of the year 2015. We had but one week remaining before the beginning of the fall semester, and used the time to drive some six hours up into southwest Colorado. We parked at the Kilpacker trailhead and hiked 7 miles to Navajo Lake. With time to kill in the afternoon, we clambered up to a subsidiary summit of Wilson Peak (not to be confused with Mount Wilson). Following a good night’s rest, we awoke early and began the Wilson-Diente traverse. We gained the main Wilson-Diente Ridge at its far western terminus and spent eight hours tracing the knife-edge ridge over El Diente and to the summit of Mount Wilson. With storms rolling in, we descended the system of couloirs on the north slopes of Mount Wilson and returned to our camp at Navajo Lake. In the morning we packed up camp and returned to the trailhead on the Kilpacker Basin trail.
20 August, 2015
Without digressing on how Giselle and I spent the entire morning fumbling up the wrong trail, I’ll start this story at Kilpacker trailhead. At an elevation of 10,060 feet, wildflowers burst from the open meadows, carpeting the vast plateau of the San Miguel range. The high peaks look distant and minuscule. While they may be distant (our own peak is more than five miles to the northeast as the crow flies) these mountains are certainly not minuscule.
We start up the Kilpacker trail, slugging through waist-deep wildflowers until reaching the first conifer grove, where a refreshing cascade awaits us.
After about three miles, we reach the junction with the Navajo trail, turning north and starting the climb to Navajo Lake.
Partway up the giant ramp to Navajo Lake, we glimpse our first hint of El Diente Peak: a sinister blackened tooth capping a mass of bright red scree.
Two miles of steady climbing bring us to the lip of Navajo Basin. We ramble through the forest at 11,200 feet elevation, encountering a grungy little cavern just off the trail.
Three hours after leaving the car, we’ve completed the 7-mile ascent to Navajo Lake. The top of Mount Wilson is obscured by its own bulbous exoskeleton, but the terrific pyramid of Gladstone Peak (13,919-ft) makes an aesthetic backdrop to this alpine lake.
We’ll camp at Navajo Lake tonight, but for now we’ve got the remainder of the afternoon to explore the surrounding terrain. The two of us stash our rucksacks in the forest, grab a couple snacks and begin probing into the upper reaches of the basin, bound for Rock of Ages Saddle (13,020-ft).
Just below Rock of Ages Saddle, we are treated to our first view of Mount Wilson. The famed ridgeline looks relatively benign, though lengthy, from this angle.
Climbing further up towards the saddle, we come across an abandoned mining camp.
At 5:30 in the afternoon we crest Rock of Ages Saddle (13,020-ft), pausing to rest and take in the sweeping views of the western San Juan Range, including the iconic 13,119-foot spire known as Lizard Head.
The two of us turn our attention to the north, where an attractive ridge of fiery volcanic rock leads up to Wilson Peak, another of the Colorado fourteeners. The scrambling along the south ridge is fun because there are many obstacles to overcome. We find that dipping below the east side of the ridge solves most of our minor dilemmas.
The two of us come to the top of an unnamed 13,500-ft peak along the ridge, deciding that we lack the appropriate window of time to continue on to the summit of Wilson Peak itself. We aren’t heartbroken because it was never in our plan to make it even as far as we have, so instead we celebrate our achievement and inspect Wilson-Diente ridge across the basin in preparation for tomorrow’s big climb.
When the sun starts dipping below the western horizon, the two of us jog all the way back down to our camp by Navajo Lake, settling in for a beautiful alpenglow show on the lower slopes of El Diente Peak.
21 August 2015
Feeling well rested, Giselle and I prepare breakfast alongside the serene reflections on the perfectly still surface of Navajo Lake. Furry marmots continually try to join our oatmeal feast, so we’ve got to keep a sharp eye on our peripherals.
We leave camp at 9:00am to begin the Wilson-Diente traverse, starting with a torturous scree traverse below the west ridge of El Diente. The going here is pretty grungy, but the views are absolutely spectacular.
In less than an hour we’ve gained Wilson-Diente ridge at its far western terminus. Most parties would do this traverse starting with a direct ascent of El Diente Peak, but we are invested in the pure mission of traversing the entire ridgeline. So here we are at 13,000 feet, several miles of ridgeline still separating us from our ultimate goal of Mount Wilson.
The ridge leading up to El Diente Peak gets progressively steeper and narrower as we work our way eastwards. There are a number of exciting class-2 catwalks with thousand-foot exposure on either side; we tread lightly on the fractured stone.
After a couple hours on the ridge, the grade of climbing becomes sustained at class-4 and class-5, calling us to full attention in routefinding and in technique itself.
It’s 1:15 in the afternoon when the two of us reach the 14,160-foot summit of El Diente Peak. We pay brief celebration to our first Colorado fourteener summit before continuing eastward along the ridge toward Mount Wilson, soon to be our second.
The knife-edge crest between El Diente Peak and Mount Wilson resembles a jagged, unforgiving rollercoaster. Multiple gendarmes of columnar andesite (called “The Organ Pipes”) block our way, forcing us to creatively work around on one side of the ridge or the other.
We trace the sinuous crest up to the intermediate summit of West Wilson Peak, which stands a little more than halfway between El Diente and Mount Wilson but does not claim enough prominence to earn the title of Fourteener.
The ridge continues in typical fashion toward the summit of Mount Wilson, throwing at us a variance of class-2 catwalks, class-3 ledges, and class-4 traverses.
The final sequence to the very top requires making an airy class-4 traverse around a fickle bulge. The very sight of this bulge gives us a moment of pause, before we remember that we’ve come waaaay too far to turn back now.
Six hours since leaving camp, Giselle and I stamp our feet triumphantly on the 14,250-foot summit of Mount Wilson. This peak is the literal crown of the entire San Miguel Range, and the views are tremendous in all directions. My heart skips a beat to look back west over my shoulder and see the terrifying knife-edge of Wilson-Diente ridge, but I breathe a sigh of relief to know that all of that madness is now behind us.
Instead we focus our gaze eastward over the incredibly vast and wild San Juan Mountains punctuated by the 13,191-foot volcanic neck of Lizard Head, replete with early-20th-century mountaineering history.
With dark grey electrical clouds accumulating on the northern horizon, Giselle and I deem it best to remove ourselves from the mountaintop as quickly as possible. We take the most direct line down the north face of Mount Wilson, scrambling down a couloir of horribly loose rock.
Despite our efforts to avoid the dirty hardened snowpatches, eventually we are forced to deal with them.
Our final obstacle is a perplexing system of grassy ledges that we zigzag down, often coming to dead-end cliffs and having to retrace our steps only to try a different zigzag pattern. Wondrous relief washes over us when we finally return to the relative plain of upper Navajo Basin, although we’ve still got a couple of cross-country miles to hike back to camp.
Eventually the two of us return to the shore of Navajo Lake and collapse beside our tent, exhausted from a physically demanding eight-hour stint of mountainclimbing. To rejuvenate ourselves for the 7-mile hike out, we cook macaroni-n-cheese using filtered creek water.
Just before 6:00pm we pack up our camp and start heading off down the trail, pausing to view the wonderful landscape of Navajo Lake one final time.We make it back to our trailhead just as the sunset begins to paint the sky in pastel hues, softening the sea of wildflowers and symbolically putting a close to our unforgettable Wilson-Diente traverse.