This was one of those trips that just wasn't meant to be. I was going to climb at least two out of the three 14ers in this area (Mount Wilson, Wilson Peak, and El Diente Peak). None of these is a simple walk-up, and I was looking forward to the challenge. I managed to completely screw up the timing on the first day and didn't started heading up the Navajo Basin trail until 9:20am, which is ridiculous for a long route, as I hope most of you know. However, I wanted to at least do something.
The trail here is excellent as it climbs slowly at first through beautiful lush flora (it's hard to find an ugly place in the San Juans). The trail was narrow in spots, and many places have plants a foot or two high bordering the trail so my trekking poles were a little awkward to use. After a while, the trail steepens as it climbs to a high point at a trail junction 0.5 miles from Navajo Lake (this is 4.5 miles from the trailhead). At the lake was a couple and their kid. The guy gave me the dreaded 'skiing' comment about my trekking poles, but they turned out to be nice people anyway. ;)
It took about two hours to reach the lake, which was right on target, but the weather was still good. In a way, I was hoping for the weather to be turning bad so I had an excuse to turn back. In fact, I commented to the people at the lake that they might see me running back down to the lake in an hour or two. But with the weather still good, I started thinking about a summit attempt. Above the lake the trail stays on the north side of the drainage on scree slopes, before eventually curving back toward the center at about 12000ft. From here you can see the minor ridge you climb which is to the right of the Navajo Glacier (you can't see this latter feature until you reach the ridge). Roach describes this as a "rounded shoulder". It does look like this on the topo map, but I think Dawson's "series of ribs" is more accurate.
I decided to put on my climbing helmet at the base of the ridge. The route-finding here is pretty straightforward, but the route isn't a straight line. Expect to make some Class 3 moves on this ridge unless you pick the exact perfect line. I was climbing pretty slowly, and was keeping a close eye on the weather which was slowly getting worse. A little before 1:30pm, I encountered a pair of climbers coming down. By this time, rain was visible below a cell out beyond Wilson Peak, with no lightning. There was nothing immediately upstream that looked threatening. I asked the first climber how the climb was and he replied by asking me, "Aren't you concerned about the weather?". Well, yeah, that's why I was asking about the climb. I didn't actually say this, though, and instead grovelled for a bit about my late start. All I could get was the observation that they hadn't seen any lightning from that rain shower. After this non-help (albiet sincere, I suppose), I continued up for another 100ft before I finally saw something that did give me some concern. I could now see that a line of showers was trying to form starting from the original shower and continuing on to the west. If this got itself together, then the end of the line could affect me. I did the math and figured that it was as much as two hours for the up and back from where I was, and another two hours to Navajo Lake and the best lightning safety. That didn't sound too good to me, and besides, I was tired. Thus, at 1:49pm and about 13300ft, less than 1000ft from the summit, I decided to turn back.
I made my way back to the trail (the two climbers had presumably taken a heading to get them back over the Rock of Ages saddle and the best one-day trailhead if you have a sturdy vehicle.) By the time I hit the trail, I had realized two things: 1) I really was tired; and 2) I had bailed out within about 15 minutes of the worst the weather was going to look the whole day.
I'm not used to being out in the sun hiking after 2pm and I didn't bring any 'summer' clothing so that was unpleasant. I've been having a surprisingly tough time with blisters this year, and hiking on the 'trail' through the scree was painful. Bitch, bitch, bitch. I made it back to Navajo Lake by about 3:40 and retaped my blisters.
The short climb to the high point above Navajo Lake was tough, but then it's all downhill. I chased a pair of hikers for a while, finding their pace reasonable and stayed a fair distance behind. I took my last break where I had taken my first break. While sitting there, a pair of hikers that had been well behind me caught up. It turned out that they were grad students from UCLA who were headed to Chicago for a wedding and decided to spend a few days hiking on the way. On the way down we talked about other places to go in the San Juans and when we made it back to the parking lot at around 6pm I let them take a look at the guidebooks that I had in the car.
I decided to completely bail out of my trip and headed home, spending the night in a motel room in Delta.
A few comments in case you are considering this climb. You might want to start up Mount Wilson a little before Roach says (12100-12200 as opposed to 12300); the trail isn't well defined in some of this area anyway and the route up to the ridge from here is reasonable. Consider a helmet. [Specific snow advice for 1996 deleted.] Dawson's info on the Dunton road is wrong. The road is fine for passenger cars from both sides (I had no problems getting to the trailhead from the east in my car, and the two UCLA students drove a relative's big ol' Cadillac in from the west.
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File last modified: 21 December 2004