Sunday, July 21, 2013

Mt. Wilson (7/21/13)

Route: Northeast Ridge from the Rock of Ages Approach
Rock of Ages Trailhead Elevation: 10,349 ft.
Rock of Ages Saddle Elevation: 13,043 ft.
Navajo Basin Low Point: 12,241 ft.
Summit Elevation: 14,246 ft.
Hike Elevation Total: 6531 ft. (GEarth estimate of GPX)
Hike Mileage Total: 11.8 mi. (my GPX)


Start Time: 3:55am
ROA Saddle: 6:45am
Summit Time: 10:07am (10 minutes)
ROA Saddle: 12:57pm (15 minutes)
End Time: 3:23pm

It was tough setting a wakeup time for today's hike as we were running on a short amount of sleep (bedtime at midnight) but we also knew the amount of time that would be needed. We had it in the backs of our minds that we wanted to do Wilson Peak today as well. The Rock of Ages approach is a long haul and we were certain we'd have the time and energy to hit Wilson Peak on the "way back". The compromise time was wake-up cal at 3:30am which we did. I was pleased that I slept like a rock for the short 3 1/2 hours I was in my bag. Usually before a hike of this caliber, and at this elevation, I just can't sleep that well. This night, I did, a good sign.

Sky on fire sunrise
For gear we packed our normal dayhike 14er stuff as well as harnesses, some rope, and basic rope gear. This is our normal protection package for the class 4 14ers in case we feel we need something for the descent. We did a quick breakfast and taking care of personal needs time and walked from our camp down to the Rock of Ages trailhead. We were started at 3:55am.

Trail wipe out area
We made good work on the initial trail up through the trees. It eventually switchbacks its way higher onto the ridge and becomes a very rocky trail. It winds its way around the ridge and then into Silver Pick Basin. There it hugs the ridge initially but then begins to climb right up the middle of the Basin. In the basin the trail leveled out at a grassy area where an old mining building made of rock could be seen. It was here we also nearly lost the trail. As we looked around for it we could see it pick up about 50 yards ahead of us but between us and this trail segment it was all gone. We finally deduced that a rock slide had wiped out the trail and an inspection of the area seemed to confirm that theory. It must have also been a recent slide as the rock where the trail should have been was loose and still mostly dirt covered. We climbed through this loose rock and dirt and eventually were back onto the trail.

Mt. Wilson and El Diente from the Rock of Ages saddle
At around 12400 in the basin the trail leaves the road and switchbacks up the side of the basin until it has height to make one long run at the Rock of Ages saddle. We had turned headlamps off about 5:30am as the first hints of sunrise began to near. It was just about 6:45am when we hit the Rock of Ages saddle. It became windy and cool at the saddle and we were impressed with the first views of Mt. Wilson and El Diente. From that distance you'd think Mt. Wilson was nearly unclimbable.

The trail down from the saddle was a good one. Near the beginning we ran into the old mine shack and David checked it out. Shortly after that there is also an old mine car right alongside the trail. As the trail leads lower into Navajo Basin it was very easy to follow. Just below 12,300 we started to look for a shortcut over to Mt. Wilson's northeast ridge and we did so. It led us down to about 12,240 in upper Navajo Basin where we made an easy crossing of Navajo Creek and then began the long ascent of Wilson's northeast ridge.
These photos help visualize the lower half of the NE ridge ascent
It was easy-going at first and had cairns well marking the route. About half-way up there is a set of rock slabs that the route ascends through. I've seen it referred to as the white rock buttress. Again, at a distance they look pretty bad. Up close you see this area broken up with ledges and gaps in between that made the climb through there not that difficult.
Above the white rock buttress is where the route-finding gets interesting. There are cairns but they were very difficult to follow. Essentially the route was to head up and right traversing towards a notch that begins the summit ridge. There were rock ribs and gullies to be crossed on the way. I had seen in photos and route descriptions previously that there is a rectangular notch and then a point to its right. 

It appears between these two features is where you want to hit the summit ridge. We used these markers as something to aim for as we proceeded. As we ascended above the white rock we got split up with some indecisiveness on the group's part in where to go. Dad ended up ascending along the left side of a rib. David and I on the right side. For a time we seemed to have lost contact with each other. From below this was an area leading up to a patch of lichen-covered rocks. Just above them we finally made contact again. I was watching the GPX route on my GPS and it always seemed like we were climber's left of the "standard" route. But the terrain seemed good so we kept ascending.

We nearly topped out on the ridge at around 14000 feet, roughly 5/100ths of a mile northeast of the summit. Above us we could see the terrain cliffing out. To our right we could see a notch. I scouted this out and found that the notch led to a ledgy traverse that would allow us to scramble across the top of a steep gully that was keeping us from the summit area. We decided this was a go and were glad we crossed the gully here as we definitely would have cliffed out had we ascended any higher. After crossing this gully we moved across one last rib and this put us into the top part of the gully that hits the summit notch. As we looked below this gully looked steep and loose as well. In thinking of the downclimb we weren't sure yet which way would go best. It appeared as though the "standard route" GPX crossed the gully we had topped out in somewhere but it was so steep we couldn't imagine where.

The notch we discovered and topped out in is atop the gully angling up and left from the center
of the photo. We traversed across the terrain tot he right of its top to the top of the gully
to the right of the rectangular notch. This put us ever so close to the summit area.

When we made it to the summit area notch it was the first time in a long time the route became clear. The summit ridge is very narrow and you just have to go up and over. There is a bit of easy scrambling to start and then the ridge narrows into a jumble of 4 or 5 big blocks that you basically had to go up and over by hugging them and maneuvering around them. This had pretty big exposure on each side.
If you get this view, it means you've found the summit ridge. It is behind and above this spot.

Beyond that is a little more easy scrambling and then the well-known crux blocks the route. What we had seen and read previous was pretty accurate. You can go to the right and go up and over the block with dramatic exposure below. Or you can skirt it to the left, still with great exposure. We skirted it to the left. I went first and carefully found good hand holds and move along the side of the blocks to a flat spot where I could stand. There I had to traverse around one more block until there was a mini chute to ascend through. Above that chute was the remaining 10 feet or so to the summit. Having done this ascending and descending now, I hate to say it, but its feels as though these are more likely class 3 moves that we did traversing around the summit crux blocks.

I watched and waited as the others made their ways through and suddenly we were all on top of Mt. Wilson's small summit. It was about 10:07am. It was surreal. We could see everything in the area from Wilson Peak to Gladstone, to Lizard Head and around to the subpeaks of South Wilson and West Wilson. All of it seemed impossible to reach as the mountain dropped off sharply in every direction. We looked out along the traverse over to El Diente and that certainly looks like one heck of a climb.
During our short stay on the summit we found a very friendly marmot. I would have been hesitant to leave my pack sitting at all at this guy looked ready to walk off with or chew on anything. We spent no more than 10 minutes up there and part of that was waiting for the other two to complete the crux moves. As I started some of my normal summit routines I noticed Dad readying his pack. I knew this meant he was thinking of nothing but the crux and just wanted to get down. I really didn't want to see him start this on his own so I quickly readied myself up to head down. It was a short summit stay. I moved towards the crux and looked it over and decided I felt good descending it without a rope. I was able to drop in to the chute facing out, but quickly realized the next moves needed to be done facing in. So I maneuvered into position and carefully and deliberately found the right holds to make my way around the crux and on to better ground. When I was in a good position I played spotter for Dad and David and we all made it safely through.

Looking over to South Wilson

The friendly summit marmot
Back at the notch before the summit ridge we grabbed a few snacks while we discussed our plan of attack for the descent. We knew we had ascended east of the "standard route", but we had felt fairly good about our route. On the descent we looked carefully for how the standard route would go but never saw anything we liked, so we ended up aiming to descend the same way. This involved return across the tops of the gullies to the east and finding the notch at 14,000 feet just below the ridge crest.

Checking out the terrain on the upper northeast ridge as we descend
As we descended we actually ended up even further east of our ascent route, but this was okay. We hit mixes of loose dirt, scree, loose talus, and firm-lichen-covered talus on the descent. As we got better at it we realized the lichen-covered stuff was most stationary and we tried to stick to that no matter how steep the going went. The rest of the descent from Mt. Wilson's ridge went pretty much as expected though it just felt so long as we went. We took another good refreshment break as we hit the floor of Navajo Basin. Then we made the grueling ascent back up to Rock of Ages saddle.

Looking up to the Rock of Ages saddle from the Navajo Basin side
As we neared the top I could see everyone was feeling the hard day's work. At the saddle we ran into a handful of other hikers coming off Wilson Peak. It was 12:57pm. We spent about 15 minutes there working things out. The other hikers gave us some good beta to be used. They also told us they saw storms coming in south of Mt. Wilson. It was likely the storms were headed our way. I guess you could say we ultimately used that as our excuse to decide to descend and save Wilson Peak for tomorrow. With the time having rolled past 1pm this also helped us making our decision. There was also an element of acclimation and lacking of energy in helping us make the wise decision to skip Wilson Peak today.

This meant we had to start into the long, long, rocky descent from Rock of Ages saddle. This trail and road seemed to go forever and we quickly grew tired of the day's long incessant stepping over rocks. As we neared the rockfall section from early in the morning I groaned at the thought of descending through that loose and steep mess, but we did so anyway. I vowed tomorrow to skip that and ascend a snowy gully west of it.

Views to the northeast from Silver Pick Basin. Those peaks are the western end of the Sneffels group.
As we headed down we already began to bemoan the thought of doing this whole trail all over again tomorrow. We agreed unanimously that doing this road in the dark as much as possible was the way to go as it just went faster. We were back at camp at 3:23pm. While it took us 2:50 to ascend the ROA approach it took only 2:13 on the way down.


The entire track of the Mt. Wilson hike is available here as well as several waypoints from the hike.

My Track


You can see all of my photos from this climb on my Google Photos Album. Click the photo below:

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