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Under Dark Skies: El Diente, Mount Wilson & Wilson Peak: The Descent

July 29, 2009

Index | Approach | El Diente's North Buttress | Traverse to Mount Wilson | *The Descent* | Wilson Peak

I will never forget my descent of Mount Wilson. I am not sure what I was thinking. It must have had something to do with the cairn and footprints I found at the saddle, but in any case, I made the completely wrong assumption that the ridge I began descending was the correct “shoulder” to the west of a large snowfield. I was not even descending from the correct saddle! The terrain was immediately steep and loose, but I figured this was part of the territory; besides, it looked like a trail below me, plus I was sure I could see footprints in the snow far below.

No matter how hard I tried to avoid it, rocks kept sliding loose from beneath my feet and careening down the couloir and onto the snow over one thousand feet below me. I tried to pick my way downward through wet gravel, ice and snow, but solid rock was almost impossible to find. This was the worst mix of steep scree and snow that I have ever experienced in the mountains, which should have been a clue to me that I was off-route.

I was just below 14,000 feet, facing out and trying to work my way over a buttress of wet slate-like rock covered in icy gravel, when both my feet suddenly went out from under me. I was sliding! It was one of the few moments in my life when I felt sheer terror. I knew what was about to happen if I could not stop; the rocks bottoming out a thousand feet below me told the story.

Having planned to move to the snowfield when possible, I was holding my ice axe in my right hand, but all it did was bounce off the rocks as I gained momentum. I slammed my left hand onto the rock face and grabbed furiously. Then, just as suddenly as I had taken off, everything stopped. My left hand had found a jagged rock after I had slid only about 50 feet, but had I not been able to stop there I would have been airborne.

Mount Wilson Descent

Yellow: Correct descent route / Red: My descent from Mount Wilson.

Quickly regaining my composure, the first thing I did was try to find a “stable” spot to sit and take off my pack. My second need was to figure out where all the blood was coming from. I was a little worried because my white shirt was now red, but after some self-inspection I realized all the blood was coming from my left hand and wrist. I had six cuts, two of them rather deep and right on the joint of my wrist. I hastily put some hand sanitizer over them and then wrapped some thick moleskin around my wrist to try to stop the bleeding.

It was after 1 o’clock now. I could hear thunder not too far away and hail was starting to pelt me, but I had no choice but to very carefully and meticulously continue to pick my way down the slopes. I continued to yell “ROCK!” every time rubble broke loose beneath my feet and went flying down the steep face, but there was no one else on the mountain to hear me. The “trail” I had seen from above turned out to be a long stripe of a mudslide that went right down the middle of the steep snow. The “footprints” I had seen in the snow below were simply divots left from bouncing rocks. It was now becoming evident I was standing where no human should be.

Realizing how far away Gladstone Peak was, it was not hard to figure out with a little bit of common sense that I was much too far west along the face. The “shoulder” I had started to descend was nothing more than a bump of loose rock between very steep couloirs, and far below me it was apparent that cliffs were guarding this entire face. To make it to the basin below, I knew I had to start working my way east along the face to locate the correct route.

Gladstone Peak

Gladstone Peak, in a rare sunny moment.

First I had to find a way over to the steep snow slope. Testing and re-testing every hand and foot-hold, I traversed my way down and east to the snow. The slushy stuff was worthless for glissading, and definitely too steep for my comfort. However, I found the mudslide provided perfect footing for kick-stepping my way directly down the face. Meanwhile more rocks broke loose from above; I ducked as they passed harmlessly to my right.

It took longer than I had hoped to make it down and to the opposite side of the mud and snow-filled couloir, but eventually I reached more slate-like rock to the east. I continued to make a descending traverse over tricky rock. The lower I went, the less sloped and more solid the footing became.

I had to ascend a short distance to get around some cliffs, but as I crested the shoulder my heart almost skipped a beat: a cairn! I had finally reached the trail! I easily followed this trail the rest of the way down the shoulder and through the basin to my tent above Navajo Lake, stopping just once to empty my shoes of all the mud and stones. More thunder and hail passed through as I descended, but it was not until I was safely in my tent that the skies let loose.

As I walked, my mind was reeling. I was angry at myself for a number of reasons. First of all, I had underestimated these mountains. The climb up El Diente had been ideal, but somewhere between the foggy traverse and the rushed descent from Mount Wilson, I had let down my guard, lost my mountain composure. I was also angry at how oblivious I had been to my own stupidity. I am not new to this; it should have been obvious to me that I was off-route on the descent. If I would have just taken a moment to ponder which saddle I was standing on and where the trail led to begin with, I could have avoided this whole mess. Finally I was upset at myself for slipping. Thousands of times a day the mountain requires I choose my footing and test my holds carefully. This was admittedly one of those moments when I did not pay enough attention to my footing, and probably at the most crucial part of the climb. I simply had rushed.


Navajo Lake. My campsite is in the trees in bottom-center of photo.

Technically I had met my objectives for the day: I climbed a bomber route on El Diente, traversed to Mount Wilson and made the descent. But I was sloppy about it, and the potential consequences of such sloppiness are not worth it to me. I would make sure the next day would be different.

Back in my tent, I cleaned and redressed my wounds, which were not as bad as I first thought. To calm my nerves, I tried writing:

Right now I am lying under yet another thunderstorm, hoping my tent will continue to keep me dry. Five days I’ve been in Southwestern Colorado, and every day, even while the sun may be shining everywhere else, I see storm clouds letting loose over the Wilsons. What is it about this place that makes it so dark, foreboding, with nasty, rugged mountains constantly clashing with the sky? I am intimidated and drawn in at the same time; I don’t want to leave but I can’t wait to get out of here.

One thing is for sure, I will not be lackadaisical about Wilson Peak tomorrow. After today, I am treating this place and these mountains with renewed reverence.

At first it was difficult to go to sleep: Behind my eyelids, I was constantly sliding down mud and scree, and rocks were bouncing off the snow below. But when I finally did fall asleep, it was other-worldly wonderful.