After our successful blitzkrieg of the Chicago Basin 14ers the previous weekend, both Amy and I were within striking distance of completing all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks. I was down to just two left, Mt. Wilson and El Diente, while Amy needed these two plus Wetterhorn Peak and Wilson Peak. We made an ambitious plan for the weekend where we would try to tackle all four peaks and hopefully finish our 14er quest together on El Diente. With an iron will and a little luck from the weather, we just might have a chance to pull it off.
We departed Boulder Thursday afternoon making the long drive down to the San Juans for a second weekend in a row. We made a quick dinner stop in Gunnison before continuing to Lake City, arriving at the Matterhorn Creek Trailhead at 8 p.m. We set up camp in back of the 4runner at the 4wd parking area and hit the sack early.
The alarm rudely announced it was 4 a.m. and after forcing down some breakfast, we hit the trail just after 5 a.m. About a mile up the trail we came to a signed trail junction, but neither direction specified Wetterhorn Peak. I had climbed Wetterhorn before but decided to consult Roach to make sure we took the correct (right) fork. After some short switchbacks we found ourselves in the huge basin between Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre Peak. This was familiar territory for me and we proceeded up the basin towards Matterhorn Peak, with Wetterhorn Peak on our left. The trail we used last time was closed for restoration so we followed the new trail further up the basin before heading left towards Wetterhorn Peak.
During a small stream crossing, Amy stepped on a slick rock causing her to slip and fall. She landed pretty hard on a boulder with her side and knocked the wind out of herself. It took her a minute to regain her breath and she said her ribs hurt a little bit. She’s a tough South Dakota farm girl and it would take more than some bruised ribs to keep her from the summit, so we continued onward and upward. We would later learn on Tuesday that Amy did indeed suffer a broken rib from this fall. The new trail wanders back and forth through a boulder field before gaining Wetterhorn’s southeast ridge.
We had no problems with route-finding and soon enough found ourselves at the Ship’s Prow, immediately below the summit. We climbed through the notch between the Ship’s Prow and the summit block and quickly scampered up the class 3 crux to the summit. For more photos and details about climbing Wetterhorn Peak, see THIS REPORT. We reached the summit just after 7 a.m., our shortest and easiest ascent route in the last two months. We snapped some photos and soaked in the views of the surrounding San Juans that were just waking from their evening slumber. Coxcomb Peak was particularly intriguing and hopefully we will be back to climb it someday.
Knowing we had a long day still ahead of us, we made our stay on the summit brief. Once back below the Ship’s Prow we passed a couple parties making their way to the summit. It was a quick stroll back into the basin below Matterhorn Peak, quite possibly the most inaccurately named peak in Colorado, it looks nothing like the “real” Matterhorn. We found ourselves back at the 4wd parking just after 9 a.m. for a 4-hour roundtrip time, our first 14er hike under 8 hours for the entire summer.
We took the long way from Lake City over to Telluride where we had a late lunch at the Cornerhouse Bar & Grill. We had never driven over Lizard Head Pass and were captivated by the amazing views of the Wilson Group as well as Lizard Head Peak. After packing our big packs at the Navajo Lakes Trailhead we departed for 5 mile hike up to Navajo Lake just after 6 p.m. The trail climbs at an easy grade as it alternates between meadows and forest. El Diente dominates the skyline from the open areas of the meadows.
The area must have received an immense amount of rain recently, the trail was a complete mud bog in places and we were slipping and sliding all over the place. The plants near the trail were quite wet as well, giving us a nice and probably much needed bath. I couldn’t believe the vegetation along the trail, it was thick and as tall as Amy in many places. I felt like a fullback trying to blow a hole through the Oklahoma Sooner defense at times. I told Amy at least we never had to go jungle trekking in Cambodia, we were getting the full experience right here in Colorado. The last mile up to the lake climbs some ridiculously steep switchbacks and we began to slow down from the long day. We finally arrived at Navajo Lake around 8 p.m. and searched in earnest for an unoccupied flat section of ground to set up camp. All of the good campsites were taken and since it was beginning to get dark, we found some lumpy ground and called it good enough. We were too tired to cook dinner so we hit the sack around 9 p.m., wore out from our double duty.
When the alarm rang out at 3:30 a.m. I definitely was not motivated to get out of my extremely toasty, down-filled cocoon. After a breakfast of granola bars and fruit snacks, just like mom used to make, we hit the trail around 4:15 a.m. The stars were out and the full moon almost made our headlamps unnecessary. We skirted Navajo Lake’s north shoreline and began the steady climb up into Navajo Basin. The dark silhouette of El Diente and Mt. Wilson towered over us to the south, casting a menacing shadow in the moonlight. Around 12,400 feet on the far east end of Navajo Basin we turned south and began to climb in earnest up Mt. Wilson’s north slopes. The skies were lightening and we could see the horizon coming to life behind the Rock of Ages Saddle. We could use Gladstone Peak on our left as a height gauge since it rises to 13,913 feet.
The trail was well cairned and we boulder-hopped up towards the ridge along the right side of the “Navajo Glacier.” Near the top of the ridge we traversed right across a couple gullies, having to climb almost to the ridge crest to avoid the lingering snow in the first gully since we didn’t have ice axes with us. We climbed up to a notch along the ridge and were greeted by the class 4 crux just below Mt. Wilson’s summit. We opted to climb just below the ridge crest and had to take our time because the rock was a little slick this early in the morning.
The crux is pretty short and we found ourselves on the summit at 7:30 a.m., a little over 3 hours from when we left camp. We signed the summit register and admired the views of the surrounding San Juans. Wilson Peak, Gladstone Peak, and El Diente dominated the scene. Lizard Head Peak takes on a whole new perspective from this lofty vantage point.
We took a minute to admire the long and gnarly connecting ridge between Mt. Wilson and El Diente, one of the four great 14er traverses. This was Amy’s 52nd 14er and my 53rd.
It was a bit chilly on the summit and we still had a lot of ground to cover so we only stayed for about 10 minutes. Instead of climbing back down along the ridge, we opted to descend to the east off the summit, down the face. The climbing stayed at class 3, but the rock was much looser than the ridge, so I’m not sure we gained a whole lot by descending this route.
Our next objective of the day was Wilson Peak and as we descended Mt. Wilson we looked for a shorter route than descending all the way back down into Navajo Basin. We descended towards the Gladstone Peak ridge, intersecting the “Navajo Glacier”. I glissaded down the rock hard snow, dropping several hundred feet in mere seconds. Amy’s ribs were still sore from here slip on Wetterhorn Peak so she opted to skirt the snowfield and stick to the rocks until the snow slope was gentle enough to walk down. We began a long boulder-hop towards Wilson Peak / Gladstone saddle shown below in red, saving us a couple hundred feet of elevation loss had we followed the standard trail shown in yellow.
This photo is looking back at Mt. Wilson with our descent route shown in red and the standard route in yellow. Once to Wilson Peak / Gladstone saddle we tried to drop down around some broken class 3 cliffs like I did on my previous climb of Wilson Peak. Below the cliffs was a steep snowfield that didn’t make this route appealing, so Amy and I began to climb back up towards the route that traverses along the upper portions of these cliffs. I was almost back to the route when I heard Amy scream and yell for help. She was below me and out of sight, so I was scared that she had fallen. I quickly climbed back downhill and found her in a very precarious position. She was at the top of a 10-foot cliff and had grabbed a large rock to pull herself up and over the ledge. As she pulled up, the large rock slid down on her and she was holding it from falling on her by leaning her body against it with all her might, holding it up by her chest. She couldn’t move since she would fall and the rock had her basically pinned in the position I found her. I was able to awkwardly get a hold of the rock, but it was so heavy, I told Amy I would only be able to hold it for a second and she would have to move out of the way very quickly. I counted to three and held the rock just long enough for Amy to move to the right before I had to left go and let it crash down onto the snowfield below. Wow, that was probably the scariest moment we have ever had on a 14er and I thanked our Guardian Angels for watching out for Amy on that one.
Amy was a little shaken up and needed a minute to regain her composure. I asked her if she wanted to continue and made sure her head was back in the game before we continued skirting the broken cliffs without further incident. Once past this obstacle we continued up the trail until the false summit. From the false summit we were greeted by the class 3 crux of Wilson Peak’s west ridge. I remember being quite surprised by this section on my first climb of Wilson Peak.
We downclimbed from the false summit for about 50 vertical feet before traversing across the top of a gully along some broken ledges. Once across the gully, it is a pretty straightforward class 3 scramble to the summit of Wilson Peak. For some more information about climbing Wilson Peak, see THIS REPORT.
We topped out on our 2nd Wilson of the day at 11:15 a.m., 3.5 hours from when we left the summit of Mt. Wilson. A bit slow, but hey, we had some issues along the way. We admired the views of the surrounding San Juans and I pointed on as many peaks as I could to Amy. This was Amy’s 53rd 14er so we were finally tied, we both now just need El Diente to finish them all. El Diente, a.k.a. “The Tooth”, was standing majestically just across Navajo Basin and definitely appeared to be a formidable and challenging last peak. The clouds were starting to build so we quickly departed the summit, breathing a sigh of relief when we were past the crux again and back to the west ridge.
It was a cruise back down to the broken cliffs section where we took it nice and slow, reaching the other side without incident. All the difficulties for the day we now behind us and we began the long trudge back down to Navajo Lake. The rock and talus of Navajo Basin started to get a little old but we reached the lake just before 2 p.m. for a 10-hour roundtrip time. We were both a little tired so we quickly pumped some water at the lake before retiring to the tent for the afternoon. We planned to move our camp a few miles down the trail and set up over in Kilpacker Basin, but we would worry about that later, we needed a nap. The storms held out just long enough for us to get into the tent before releasing their fury, which lasted all afternoon.
The rain and thunder subsided around 5 p.m. so we decided we better take advantage of the break in the weather to cook dinner. Our familiar standby of flavored mash potatoes and tuna fish was on the menu again. I also heated some water for some hot lemonade, which lifted our spirits a bit from the gray and gloom that surrounded us. The break in the weather didn’t last long and we had to retreat to the tent to get out of the rain and finish dinner. I was getting worried that the rain wouldn’t let up and allow us to pack our camp up for the move over to Kilpacker Basin. Finally around 6:30 p.m. the rain eased to a sprinkle so we quickly packed up our camp and began our journey over to Kilpacker Basin, which would allow us access to El Diente’s south slopes.
We definitely could sympathize with all the people we passed lugging there heavy packs up the steep slopes below Navajo Lake. After descending for two miles we reached the turnoff for the Kilpacker Trail and shortly afterwards crossed over the Dolores River. We weren’t exactly sure where trail for Kilpacker Basin left from the Kilpacker Trail, but after crossing Kilpacker Creek about 1 mile down from the trail junction, we assumed we were getting close. About 200 yards past the stream crossing we noticed the sign below and I remembered somebody telling me the trail to Kilpacker Basin was by a sign, which ironically didn’t specify the direction to Kilpacker Basin. Makes sense. We continued down this new trail for about .25 mile and decided to set up camp on a hillside overlooking Kilpacker Creek. Darkness was fast approaching again, I’m not sure Amy and I will remember how to set up camp in daylight anymore. We were too tired to pump water so we decided we would just pump water in the morning, we would have to cross Kilpacker Creek again anyway.
Neither Amy and I had much trouble sleeping after the long day and before we knew it the alarm rudely woke us from our stupor at 4:30 a.m. We had read the route-finding in the upper Kilpacker Basin can be a little confusing so we wanted to get a later start so the sun would be up by the time we got to this section. After another breakfast of granola bars and fruit snacks, we left our camp around 5:15 a.m.
It was about 10 minutes until the Kilpacker Creek crossing where we stopped to fill up our water bottles. Well stocked with h2o, we continued along the gentle trail with El Diente monitoring our progress along the horizon. The moon was full and bright again and it wasn’t long before the skies began to lighten.
We took a wrong turn near the lower waterfall, which required us to climb a steep and loose slope to regain the trail. At least we were rewarded for this mistake but getting some excellent views of the lower waterfall.
Back on the trail again we entered an open area and were treated to the spectacular vista of the upper waterfall with “The Tooth” hovering overhead. Put your scree shoes on here, because there is a lot of it to come. The trail begins to climb steeply up the hillside along the leftside of the basin before making a long traverse above the waterfall. We proceeded along the “trail” and entered the upper basin. I use the term “trail” loosely, it is a path of scree through the rubber fields.
The route remained well cairned and around 12,800 feet, the cairns were telling us it was time to start gaining elevation in earnest up El Diente’s south slopes. The rocks were quite slick with a coating of frost over them and made for some slow going. Luckily the sun was beginning to hit the upper slopes so we were hopeful they would be melted out by the time we got up there.
We proceeded up underneath the large cliffs at 13,500 feet like Roach mentions in his guidebook, where we then turned left and began and ascending traverse. The traverse around the cliffs was relatively short and we turned uphill again, boulder-hopping up the slopes and following cairns. There were several gullies to choose from which would lead us to near the ridge crest, so we opted for the gully on our right.
The rock along this upper section of the south slopes is a bit loose and rotten, I think “The Tooth” could use a root canal. Soon enough we intersected the traverse route just below the ridge crest and began traverse to the left underneath the rock features known as the Organ Pipes. The scrambling along this section was quite enjoyable.
After several hundred feet of traversing along the ridge we came to an obvious gully where we needed to ascend up to the ridge crest and switch over to the north side of El Diente.
The north side had a bit more exposure but the route was well cairned and straightforward. We proceeded along some ledges towards an obvious notch to the west of our position. Once we reached this notch we could see that we had to climb up the upper portion of a couloir to gain the summit. This was definitely the trickiest section of the whole route. There was a steep snowfield in the couloir that we needed to avoid by climbing the rock along the left side. However, the rock in the shadowy confines of this couloir was frosted over and very slick. We took it very slowly, neither of us wanted to take a misstep that would deposit us onto the snowfield for a very quick 2000-foot descent back into Navajo Basin. This section was relatively short and we gained the ridge crest again just east of the summit.
After a very brief traverse along the ridge crest we found ourselves on the summit of our final Colorado 14er at 9:30 a.m., a little over 4 hours from leaving camp. For me it was a culmination of over 3 years of effort, a little of 2 years for Amy. El Diente, “The Tooth”, definitely proved to be a tough and worthy peak to complete our quest on. We signed the summit register that was basically just a scrap of paper and snapped some photos to commemorate the moment. It was only fitting that Amy and I finish this journey together since she has been with me on my quest every step of the way since we have met. She does more than just tag along, she loves it as much as I do and I am very fortunate to have her in my life.
I gazed out from the summit at the sea of San Juan Mountains that laid out before us. I was happy to finish on El Diente, in the San Juans, since many of my favorite 14ers surrounded us. With many of the San Juan 14ers along the horizon we felt like we were among old friends, each one a treasured memory and experience. To the northeast was Mt. Sneffels where we had to race up the mountain to beat a storm. I remembered the amazing summit view from Mt. Sneffels looking down on the Blue Lakes. The Eolus Group of Sunlight Peak, Windom Peak, and Mount Eolus were to the southeast. Both of my two journeys to these wonderful peaks are among my top days in the mountains. The train ride, the beautiful Chicago Basin, Twin Lakes, and all the amazing peaks that surround these 14ers. Directly east was Sunshine, Redcloud and Handies Peak. Who could ever forgot the beautiful wildflower studded slopes of American Basin or Redcloud’s Martian-like summit.
I could have stayed on the summit all day and reflected back on each and every 14er but I knew that wouldn’t be wise. After about 20 minutes we decided we better head down, after all, every summit is only the halfway point, even the last one. We took our time again descending the shadowy couloir just below the summit and breathed a sigh of relief when we reached the notch to begin the traverse along the north slopes again. The notch is shown in the photo below well above Amy.
It was a quick scramble back to the cross-over gully and down along the south side of the ridge. The rock on the south side was much more pleasant since the sun had melted the coating of frost. As we descended we took a moment to enjoy watching a curious Pika scamper about the boulders, looking for grass to stockpile for the upcoming winter. These little guys are some of the busiest creatures you will ever encounter and I’m amazed by how much ground they have to cover just to find a single patch of vegetation in this seemingly inhospitable environment.
Once near the bottom of the south slopes we passed a party of four on their way up. The weather was looking iffy so they were curious about how much longer it was to the summit. After a brief conversation Amy and I continued down to the upper basin and began the long scree trudge back to camp.
The waterfalls, forest, and flowers were a welcome relief from the scree and talus of the upper basin. We took our time descending back down Kilpacker Basin, enjoying all the magnificent scenery that surrounded us. I found myself delaying our return to camp, I didn’t want this hike to end. I wanted to soak in everything and remember it forever. The roar of the waterfalls, the smell of the meadows with the wildflowers and plants abound, how great it felt to enter the cool and shadowy forest and get a break from the hot afternoon sun.
Much to my dismay we found ourselves back at the tent around 1 p.m. and began the inevitable task of breaking up camp and departing this beautiful part of Colorado. I had to look back one last time at “The Tooth” before bidding this formidable giant a fond farewell. It took us a little over an hour to get back to the Kilpacker Basin Trailhead. From here it was another 1.2 miles along the trail that connects Kilpacker Basin Trailhead to the Navajo Lakes Trailhead where we arrived around 2:30 p.m., completely wore out but totally thrilled that we had pulled it off together.
After a quick spit bath at the trailhead and a much needed change of clothes, we began the long drive back to Boulder. We talked and reflected about our journey that started 54 mountains ago, reveling in all the wonderful experiences it has brought us. We witnessed some of finest scenery in the state, learned a lot about the wonderful Colorado Rockies, and also learned a bit about ourselves as well. We also turned our thoughts to the inevitable “now what” that so many people have asked us about. Fortunately for us living in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain region, all we had to do is look out the windshield in any direction to the multitude of fantastic peaks just begging to be climbed. The Colorado 14ers were a wonderful and very special leg of our life’s climbing adventure, but they were never the end destination, our journey has just barely begun.