Mount Wilson (14,250′) & El Diente Peak (14,160′) via Wilson-Diente Traverse (Class-5 Scramble)

Looking east along Wilson-Diente Ridge toward El Diente Peak.

Looking east along Wilson-Diente Ridge toward El Diente Peak.

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.

Wildflowers in Kilpacker Basin!

Wildflowers in Kilpacker Basin!

Looking north at the Wilson massif from the Kilpacker Trailhead.

Looking north at the Wilson massif from the Kilpacker Trailhead.

We start up the Kilpacker trail, slugging through waist-deep wildflowers until reaching the first conifer grove, where a refreshing cascade awaits us.

The author dangling feet above Kilpacker Falls.

Dangling feet above Kilpacker Falls.

After about three miles, we reach the junction with the Navajo trail, turning north and starting the climb to Navajo Lake.

Looking south from the junction of Kilpacker and Navajo Lake trails.

Looking south from the junction of Kilpacker and Navajo Lake trails.

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.

Looking northeast at El Diente (right peak) from the Navajo Lake trail.

Looking northeast at El Diente (right peak) from the Navajo Lake trail.

Looking east at El Diente (left peak) from the Navajo Lake trail.

Looking east at El Diente (left peak) from the Navajo Lake trail.

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.

The author at a pungent cavern along the Navajo Lake trail.

At a pungent cavern along the Navajo Lake 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.

Looking east at the author with Giselle on the west shore of Navajo Lake.

On the west shore of Navajo 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).

The author looking up northeast at Wilson Peak (14,016').

Looking up northeast at Wilson Peak (14,016′).

Looking northeast at the author scrambling up to Rock of Ages saddle.

Scrambling up to Rock of Ages Saddle.

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.

Looking south at Wilson-Diente ridge from Rock of Ages saddle (13,020'). From left to right: Gladstone Peak (13,919'), Mount Wilson (14,252'), and El Diente Peak (14,160').

Looking south at Wilson-Diente ridge from just below Rock of Ages Saddle (13,020′). From left to right: Gladstone Peak (13,919′), Mount Wilson (14,252′), and El Diente Peak (14,160′).

Climbing further up towards the saddle, we come across an abandoned mining camp.

The author testing out an old mining cart at Rock of Ages saddle (13,020').

Testing out an old mining cart at Rock of Ages Saddle (13,020′).

The author testing out an old mining cart at Rock of Ages saddle (13,020').

Testing out an old mining cart at Rock of Ages Saddle (13,020′).

Looking south at Giselle passing by a defunct mining camp. The peaks in the background are Gladstone Peak (left) and Mount Wilson (right).

Looking south at Giselle passing by a defunct mining camp. The peaks in the background are Gladstone Peak (left) and Mount Wilson (right).

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.

Giselle looking east into Lizard Head Wilderness from Rock of Ages saddle (13,020'). The peaks on the right are Gladstone Peak (left) and Mount Wilson (right).

Giselle looking east into Lizard Head Wilderness from Rock of Ages saddle (13,020′). The peaks on the right are Gladstone Peak (left) and Mount Wilson (right).

Giselle looking east out to Lizard Head from Rock of Ages saddle (13,020').

Giselle looking east out to Lizard Head from Rock of Ages saddle (13,020′).

Looking east at the iconic Lizard Head (13,119') from Rock of Ages saddle (13,020').

Looking east at the iconic Lizard Head (13,119′) from Rock of Ages saddle (13,020′).

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 author looking east at Wilson Peak from Rock of Ages saddle (13,020').

Looking east at Wilson Peak from Rock of Ages saddle (13,020′).

The author scrambling up the class-3 south ridge of Wilson Peak.

Scrambling up the class-3 south ridge of Wilson Peak.

Spot the miniature author hiding up high on the intimidating southern walls of Wilson Peak.

Spot the miniature figure hiding up high on the intimidating eastern walls of Wilson Peak.

Giselle scrambling up the south flank of Wilson Peak.

Giselle scrambling up the east flank of Wilson Peak.

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.

Panorama of Giselle looking south from a 13,500' sub-summit of Wilson Peak. From left to right: Wilson Peak, Lizard Head (slender and distant), Gladstone Peak, Mount Wilson, and El Diente Peak.

Panorama of Giselle looking south from a 13,500′ sub-summit of Wilson Peak. From left to right: Wilson Peak, Lizard Head (slender and distant), Gladstone Peak, Mount Wilson, and El Diente Peak.

Looking south at the author and Giselle on a 13,500' sub-summit of Wilson Peak. The peaks in the distance are Gladstone Peak (left) and Mount Wilson (right).

Looking south at the author and Giselle on a 13,500′ sub-summit of Wilson Peak. The peaks in the distance are Gladstone Peak (left) and Mount Wilson (right).

Being silly on a 13,500' sub-summit of Wilson Peak.

Being silly on a 13,500′ sub-summit of Wilson Peak.

Being silly on a 13,500' sub-summit of Wilson Peak.

Being silly on a 13,500′ sub-summit of Wilson Peak.

Panorama looking south at the Wilson massif from just below Rock of Ages saddle.

Panorama looking south at the Wilson massif from just below Rock of Ages saddle.

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.

Looking east at alpenglow on Gladstone Peak (left) and the western slopes of El Diente Peak from the west shore of Navajo Lake.

Looking east at alpenglow on Gladstone Peak (left) and the western slopes of El Diente Peak from the west shore of Navajo Lake.

 


 

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.

Looking southwest across Navajo Lake in the morning.

Looking southwest across Navajo Lake in the morning.

Panorama looking southwest across Navajo Lake in the morning.

Panorama looking southwest across Navajo Lake in the morning.

Marmot on the shore of Navajo Lake.

Marmot on the shore of Navajo Lake.

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.

Looking west at Giselle crossing the immense red scree slopes below the west ridge of El Diente.

Looking west at Giselle crossing the immense red scree slopes below the west ridge of El Diente.

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.

Looking northwest at Giselle cresting the west ridge of El Diente.

Looking northwest at Giselle cresting the west ridge of El Diente.

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.

The author looking east toward El Diente Peak from the western segment of Wilson-Diente ridge.

The author looking east toward El Diente Peak from the west ridge.

Looking east toward El Diente Peak from the west ridge.

Looking east at Giselle scrambling along the west ridge toward El Diente Peak.

Looking east at Giselle scrambling along the west ridge toward El Diente Peak.

Looking east at Giselle scrambling along the west ridge toward El Diente Peak.

Looking east at Giselle scrambling along the west ridge toward El Diente Peak.

Looking east at Giselle scrambling along the west ridge toward El Diente Peak.

Looking east at Giselle scrambling along the west ridge toward El Diente Peak.

Looking east at Giselle scrambling along the west ridge toward El Diente Peak.

Looking east at Giselle scrambling along the west ridge toward El Diente Peak.

Looking east at Giselle delicately working her way up a narrow ledge on the ridge west of El Diente.

Looking east at Giselle delicately working her way up a narrow ledge on the ridge west of El Diente.

Looking west at the author scrambling along the ridge west of El Diente.

Scrambling along the ridge west of El Diente. Top right of photo: Navajo Lake (our base camp) can be seen far below.

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.

Looking east at Giselle soloing a class-5 chimney on the ridge west of El Diente.

Looking east at Giselle soloing a class-5 dihedral on the ridge west of El Diente.

Looking down at Giselle soloing a class-4 face on the ridge west of El Diente.

Looking down at Giselle soloing a class-4 face on the ridge west of El Diente.

Looking down at Giselle soloing a class-4 face on the ridge west of El Diente.

Looking down at Giselle soloing a class-4 face on the ridge west of El Diente.

Looking east at the author doing a class-4 hand traverse on the knife-edge Wilson-Diente ridge.

Looking east at the author doing a class-4 hand traverse on the knife-edge of Wilson-Diente ridge.

Looking east at the author balancing on the knife-edge of Wilson-Diente ridge.

Looking northwest at Giselle scrambling the knife-edge Wilson-Diente ridge.

Looking northwest at Giselle scrambling the knife-edge of Wilson-Diente ridge.

Looking east at the author climbing a class-4 section of Wilson-Diente ridge.

Climbing a class-4 section of Wilson-Diente ridge.

Looking down at the author scrambling up the class-4 summit block of El Diente Peak (14,160').

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.

Looking southwest at the author and Giselle on the 14,160-ft summit of El Diente Peak.

Looking southwest at the author and Giselle on the 14,160-ft summit of El Diente Peak.

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.

Giselle looking east along Wilson-Diente ridge at Mount Wilson.

Giselle looking east along Wilson-Diente ridge at Mount Wilson. The peak on the left is Gladstone Peak.

Looking east at the author balancing on the knife-edge of Wilson-Diente ridge.

Looking east at the author balancing on the knife-edge of Wilson-Diente ridge.

Looking east at the author stemming a gap while traversing the south side of Wilson-Diente ridge.

Stemming a gap while traversing the south side of Wilson-Diente ridge.

Looking back west at Giselle traversing a steep wall on the south side of Wilson-Diente ridge. The peak behind her is El Diente Peak.

Looking back west at Giselle traversing a steep wall on the south side of Wilson-Diente ridge. The peak behind her is El Diente Peak.

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.

Looking back west at Giselle atop West Wilson Peak. Behind her, the knife-edge Wilson-Diente ridge extends to El Diente Peak.

Looking back west at Giselle atop West Wilson Peak. Behind her, the knife-edge Wilson-Diente ridge extends to El Diente Peak.

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.

Looking east at the author treading the knife-edge crest toward the 14,250-ft summit of Mount Wilson.

Looking east at the author treading the knife-edge crest toward the 14,250-ft summit of Mount Wilson.

Looking east at the author straddling the tip of Wilson-Diente ridge. The 14,250-ft summit of Mount Wilson is behind.

Straddling the tip of Wilson-Diente ridge. The 14,250-ft summit of Mount Wilson is behind.

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.

Looking down at Giselle working carefully up the class-4 summit block of Mount Wilson (14,250').

Looking down at Giselle working carefully up the class-4 summit block of Mount Wilson (14,250′).

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.

Looking west at the author and Giselle on the 14,250-ft summit of Mount Wilson. The peak on the left is El Diente Peak.

Panorama looking west at the author on the 14,250-ft summit of Mount Wilson. The peak in the center of the photo is El Diente Peak.

Panorama looking west from the 14,250-ft summit of Mount Wilson. The peak in the center of the photo is El Diente Peak.

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.

Panorama looking east over the vast San Juan Mountains from the 14,250-ft summit of Mount Wilson.

Panorama looking east over the vast San Juan Mountains from the 14,250-ft summit of Mount Wilson.

Looking east at the author and Giselle on the 14,250-ft summit of Mount Wilson. The tower in the center of the photo is Lizard Head.

Looking east from the 14,250-ft summit of Mount Wilson. The tower in the center of the photo is Lizard Head.

Looking east at Lizard Head (13,119') from the 14,250-ft summit of Mount Wilson.

Looking east at Lizard Head (13,119′) from the 14,250-ft summit of Mount Wilson.

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.

Looking north at the author descending the north couloir on Mount Wilson.

Descending the north couloir on Mount Wilson.

Despite our efforts to avoid the dirty hardened snowpatches, eventually we are forced to deal with them.

Looking north at the author descending the north snow couloir on Mount Wilson.

Descending the north snow couloir on Mount Wilson.

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.

Looking north down at the author descending the grassy ledges on the lower north face of Mount Wilson.

Descending the grassy ledges on the lower north face of Mount Wilson.

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.

Giselle filtering water at our little camp in the forest by Navajo Lake.

Giselle filtering water at our little camp in the forest by Navajo Lake.

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.

Filtered photo looking east across Navajo Lake [by Giselle].

Filtered photo looking east across Navajo Lake [by Giselle].

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.

Looking west across a wildflower meadow in Kilpacker Basin.

Looking west across a wildflower meadow in Kilpacker Basin.

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