Wilson Peak trip report

Disclaimer

(NB: As of 2006, this climb is currently illegal due to private property concerns.)

This is a spectacularly long report (although perhaps not a long, spectacular report), so if you're inclined to read these things, bear with me because the really interesting stuff starts about halfway down.

I hadn't summitted a new mountain (of any elevation) this year and I was hoping to be able to climb a few of the more difficult 14ers this year so I decided to head for the San Miguels, a small but dramatic sub-range in the San Juans. I had no idea about snow conditions, but was figuring that there might be enough snow for the Northwest Face snow route and if not, I would do the standard West Ridge route. (Dawson calls this the Southwest Ridge; to be anal-retentive about it, the route should probably be the West-Southwest Ridge.) Both the face and ridge routes have the same approach into Silver Pick Basin.

The highlight of the overnight drive was a very near miss involving a deer on US 50 northwest of Delta; yikes! I had reconnoitered the Silver Pick Road last year, and decided that the road got too rough for my car at about 5.1 miles, just past a small parking turnout. It looked much the same in my low-beams Monday morning, but I decided that I could probably get by that part and I ended up parking across from the gated entrance to some private property at about mile 5.7 (9712 feet). If you have above average clearance, you might be able to make it all the way to the real trailhead even in a car, and a pickup should have no problems. Garrett and Martin suggest that you should be able to get a car up to about 10,000ft in their description of a climb of nearby Gladstone Peak, and I was only stopped by a mudhole of uncertain depth; better safe than sorry.

I hoisted the pack unto my back and started hiking at 4:35. And a heavy pack it was. In addition to my ice axe (2 lbs), I also carried my full crampons (another 2 lbs; my instep crampons would have saved a pound), and a helmet (1+ lbs). On top of that, I was home for my 10-year high school reunion two weekends ago and talked my Mom into letting me borrow her 8mm camcorder (2+ lbs). Thus the pack was easily 25 pounds at the start. Since I figured that I would be carrying them most of the trip, I left my trekking poles in the car.

With the Moon and a headlamp, I worked my way up the road and in less than an hour I reached the "real" trailhead. According to the USFS bulletin board, this is 7.5 miles up the road at 10,500ft. Unlike in the past, you can't drive up any further. There is a locked gate here as the upper road is on private property and now the only allowed public access on the upper road is via hiking, biking, or motorcycle. The summit of Wilson Peak is actually just on the Wilderness boundary while the Silver Pick Basin approach is not in the legal Wilderness.

I took my first sit-down rest at about 6am at a little above 11,000ft. This was the first place where the road was covered by snow necessitating a traverse of the snowfield with my axe for security. By the time I reached the famous rock cabin with the collapsed roof at 12,140ft I had repeated this procedure a couple times. The cabin is one of the many reminders of the rich mining history of this area, and with 4WD a person used to be able to drive up that high. I took another break here (and some more video) and assessed the two routes.

The NW face had a lot of snow, but there was a steep lower area that was snow-free. This would probably have not been a problem. The top of the slope near the summit was partially snow-free and looked steep whether on snow or rock. The north-facing slope below the Rock of Ages saddle was totally snow-covered and I could see a set of tracks traversing across the right-hand side of the slope where the trail would be. I was equipped for snow climbing and I obviously wanted to do some, and the route to the saddle wouldn't be too steep and yet would provide several hundred feet of snow. If this slope wasn't snowy I might have went up the NW face, but I ended up voting 1-0 for the easier route.

With that decision made, I headed towards the basin immediately below the saddle (mostly on snow) so I could climb straight up the slope. The sky had been mostly clear, but now occasional clouds were drifting by and they were of the sort that sometimes indicate future thunderstorm activity. At the base of the slope I put on my crampons and helmet (the snow climbing wasn't that serious, but I was going to be putting on the helmet at the top of the slope in any case). The crampons were helpful as the snow was still a little bit frozen on top and step-kicking wasn't very practical. The angle smoothly increased from nothing at the bottom of the slope to a measured 35 degrees at the top. After about 500ft of snow, the last 20-40ft the slope was snow- free to reach the saddle.

From here the view opens up dramatically to the south to reveal the north faces of Mount Wilson and El Diente Peak, the other two 14ers in this area, in addition to the high 13er Gladstone Peak. The north faces were well-stocked with snow. By now it was about 8:30am and the weather looked OK. This is where the route starts to get interesting. You have to traverse under some steep rock to get to a minor saddle on Wilson Peak's south ridge at which you go around the corner to finish on the west ridge. The trail is pretty good, but the rock is loose.

At this saddle you can see the rest of the ridge to the summit. According to one guidebook, you can either take the high road (Class 3) or the low road (Class 2) to get by some cliffs below the ridge crest. The crest itself is probably impossible to climb even with rope due to very steep loose rock. Taking the low road would have required traversing a substantional amount of snow (a surprising amount for a southeast face), so I went with the high road. This involved scrambling through occasional steep areas on loose rock, following foot trails where available.

The weather was slowly deteriorating with increasing clouds. At about 13,500ft, you finally hit the west ridge for the first time, giving a view down the northwest face. For a while, the hike is easier near the ridge crest on a mostly decent climber's trail. I was glad to be getting near the summit due to the possibility of bad weather. As it turned out, I was still a long way from summitting.

The deal with the final push to the summit is that there is a very steep section near the summit that must be avoided by a down-over-up manuever. My problem is that I went down too soon. I think I was so focussed on having to make the detour that I got too anxious. I descended down a steep loose slope for a while and then went around a corner. It didn't look quite right, but I decided to keep going. A classic case of "forcing a route". This was not the smartest decision I've ever made but it turned out OK in the short run. I continued on a climbing traverse and then climbed a narrow 50ft snow gully (at least a 45 degree angle). I kept thinking that I could probably backtrack my route, but really hoped I didn't have to. The snow climb emptied me out into a broader gully and I painstakingly worked my way up the scree and dirt for perhaps 50ft (this might have been the finish on the NW face route).

And then salvation. Although I didn't realize it at that moment, I was at the low point of the down-over-up thingy about 50ft below the ridge crest. The climb to the ridge to the right (away from the summit) looked easier so I scrambled up that way. At the top of this, I realized where I was. I had wasted about a half-hour and the weather was becoming a concern as some rain was falling from clouds off to the south. I was also very tired from the relatively long climb, plus I had spent my adrenaline getting back on route. But, I was also only about 10 minutes from the summit and knew exactly how to get there.

I retraced my steps down to the low point, and then up the other side. This was steep, but reasonable. From here it was a short walk to the long, flat summit which I reached at 10:52. I was glad to finally be there, but rather unhappy with the weather. I decided to only stay on the summit for about 10-15 minutes. I'm not even sure if I ate anything up there. I did shoot a few still photos and about 2 minutes worth of video. Mostly I rested. The views were muted by the heavy overcast, and I barely even registered the presence of nearby Lizard Head spire. I took a quick look at the summit register to sign in and verify that I was alone on the mountain. There had been maybe a dozen sign-ins on Sunday.

I needed more rest, but left the summit at 11:06. For quite some time my philosophy has been to summit by 10:00 to be sure to miss the afternoon mountain t-storms, which occasionally fire up before noon. An oft-quoted standard is to be off the summit by noon, which I think is too late. Not summiting by 10am almost cost me this time. Right after making it back to through the tricky part, I heard a loud thunderclap immediately to the southwest. Oh, shit! I looked at my watch: 11:18. Options. I was still in a good position to bail down the NW face and would be for a little while. If the NW face had been glissadable it would have provided a really quick exit once I descended the loose crap to get to the snow. On the other hand, if the snow was still frozen, I would have spent a long time out in the middle of a snow slope. To my left, I could bail straight down the loose rock, and then have to eventually climb back up to get back home. I decided to keep going and see what the weather was going to do.

One thing the weather was doing was sprinkling. I don't remember if this began before or after the thunder started, but it was starting to lay a slick patina over the smooth rocks. It was another 5 minutes before I heard another thunder and I didn't see a lightning flash. I decided that my best option was to continue heading down the route, especially because after descending past 13,500ft, the route stays significantly below the ridge crest. There sure didn't seem to be any particularly good lightning safety anywhere on the basically featureless slopes. The weather didn't change as I was descending to the small saddle on the south ridge. I kept hearing thunder every several minutes to the southwest and then west as the storm moved northward. However, I never saw any lightning, so the biggest saving grace with this storm was that apparently the lightning was all within the cloud. Also, the subsequent thunder was a bit farther away than the first one. I was dog-tired, though, and it seemed like I was moving at a sloth-like pace. Did I mention the loose rock? I was being quite careful, but still managed to set loose a microwave oven sized rock which bounced a couple of times before burying itself into a snowbank. Somewhere, maybe here, I pulled a muscle in my back; luckily only minor (and things like that usually don't hurt until the next day).

I continued on past the small saddle to the Rock of Ages saddle. I decided to take this traverse farther below the ridge crest than the trail, and this was a bit tedious. I was getting closer to where the storm started, but with it's slow northward movement I wasn't any closer to it's current position. Finally, about an hour after leaving the summit I arrived at the broad saddle and startled a marmot. I wanted to just sit there for a good half- hour, but knew that I'd better glissade down. I didn't even bother to put on my rain pants. It took a few minutes to get down because the snow was slushy and self-arrest took a while so I took more care with my speed than usual. And there were scattered rocks at the bottom of the slope.

Shortly after this descent, the thunder quit altogether, and the rain intensified a bit. I heard a total of about 10 thunderclaps in about 45 minutes. When I reached the rock cabin, I changed from my wet Polartec jacket and helmet to my shell jacket with a hood. My pants were damp from the glissade, but I was still warm (the temperature was in the 40s during the rain) and Polartec works pretty well in keeping water off your skin. I had wanted to shoot a little more video here, but had to pass due to the rain and the possibility of another t-storm. By the time I had descended below 11,500ft at about 1pm, the rain had stopped and the Sun came out for a while.

I took a long break in the Sun at about 1:30, and I was finally feeling pretty good at that point. Then I continued pounding down the road at a good clip (this is where I wish I had my poles), as it slowly clouded up again. Shortly after passing the eastbound trailhead for the Wilson Mesa trail at about 9900ft, it suddenly began to rain heavily. I knew I was just minutes from my car so even though the rain was coming straight down and the roadside trees weren't providing an umbrella, I didn't even bother stopping to put on a jacket. At 2:17 I finally reached my car just after the rain suddenly stopped. After a 6:17 ascent, it took just 3:11 to descend; the reasons are obvious.

On the surface, this appears to simply be a case of not being on the summit early enough or not retreating soon enough. Then I thought about it a little more. Let's suppose I had started earlier and/or not made the route-finding error and/or had retreated earlier. I'll be generous and assume that I would have been an hour ahead of myself getting back to the Rock of Ages saddle. That would have been about a bit after 11am and I would have been at the bottom of the glissade when the storm hit. However, I would have been almost right underneath it! Not only that, but the storm would have overtaken me while descending to the relative safety of the lower elevations. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. However, if I had made a "real" alpine start (like 3am), I would have been totally safe, something I need to consider a little more carefully on harder mountains where you can't easily escape.

I would just like to add that I didn't see anybody from the start of the Silver Pick Road on the way up, to the bottom of the road on the way down. Mondays rule!


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File last modified: 02 July 2006

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