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I had one more day in the San Juans before my old friends were to join me in Telluride, so I thought I should do something more challenging while I had the chance. Mt. Wilson is the highest summit in Dolores County, a CO 14er and the highest point in the Wilson Group that includes two other 14ers, Wilson Peak and El Diente. The latter doesn't qualify by CO's own prominence rule of 300ft, but for historical reasons it has remained on the "list". The traverse between El Diente and Mt. Wilson is considered a classic, so today's effort was to give that class 4 route a go. With the morning heavily overcast and low clouds obscuring the summits, the weather was decidedly against such an endeavor though it did have one non-obvious advantage - the overcast would keep things cool and prevent the thunderstorms from developing until much later in the day. I chose to start from the Kilpacker Trailhead on the south side of the peaks because it was easily accessible by any vehicle, notably the van I was driving. The entire outing would come in at 13mi and less than 5,000ft of gain, fairly moderate by Sierra Challenge standards, but a full day nonetheless.
Having planned to do this hike a day earlier, I got rained out and wasted the effort of driving to the Kilpacker TH where I'd spent the night before driving back out the next morning. This time I spent the night at the Lizard Pass TH along SR145 in case rain intervened. When I awoke at 4a to find that it did not, I drove up to the Kilpacker TH and started out on my hike around 5a. I wore rainpants to ward off the wetness of the encroaching plantlife for the first hour while I plied the trail by headlamp. Near the end of that hour I reached a trail junction where I turned right, put away the headlamp, crossed Kilpacker Creek on a partially submerged set of logs and followed the trail up Kilpacker Canyon. Up until this point I was traveling through mostly forest with limited views. Kilpacker Canyon by contrast is mostly open with wonderfully green meadows rife with flowers lower down, stark talus-strewn slopes higher up. The trail has had some rather nice work put into it, with neat, wooden stair steps that are cut with a checkerboard pattern for better footing.
Somewhere up the canyon I spied another hiker who had started before me, having noted his entry in the trail log back at the start. The trail through the talus had some large ducks at the 2.5hr-mark that I guessed were set to mark the point to turn right for heading up to El Diente. Snowfields scattered about the south-facing slopes made the effort a little serpentine, but it was possible to avoid the snow all the way up - a good thing since I didn't carry axe or crampons. By the time I turned to leave the trail I'd caught up with the other climber who was a short distance to the east taking a different line. He seemed to slow down here and I quickly moved out of sight above him without exchanging words. The climb to El Diente was no more than class 3 but it was not easy, taking me nearly an hour and a half to first make my way to the crest and then west to find the summit of El Diente. I heard rockfall below me, presumably from the other climber, some of it lasting a considerable time, but eventually all of it died away below me. I was buried in clouds for nearly the entire time, save for a few brief respites when I could see bits of blue sky. Today was not a day for views. The GPSr was most useful in locating the summit which I had to approach by going around the north side before climbing the last section from the west. I found an empty PVC tube serving as a register, a cap on one end missing.
After pausing to drink some Gatorade, I picked up my pack and returned along the same ducked route I had taken on the ridge to reach El Diente. My GPSr showed I was only 3/4mi from Mt. Wilson to the east - how long could that take? Almost two full hours, it turns out. The route was interesting, but didn't feel like a "classic". That there were no views during that time may have had a lot to do with the feeling I got. The rock quality was ok, not solid but not terribly loose either. Ducks marked the route periodically making the route-finding not very demanding. There are two points along the way found on LoJ - Pin Point and West Wilson, neither of which seemed to be much more than a bump along the ridgeline connecting the two 14ers. As I neared Mt. Wilson I would periodically again here rockfall. Having seen nothing of the early morning climber, I assumed this was another party heading up to, or down from, Mt. Wilson. I guessed the solo climber must have turned back since I didn't see him while retracing the route from El Diente to Pin Point where I had first attained the ridgeline.
It was just after 10:45a when I reached Mt. Wilson, again in the clouds, though with a weak view looking down into upper Kilpacker Canyon. Here, the PVC register was intact but the contents were a soggy mess, completely unuseable. I continue to question why the CMC bothers with these types of registers considering the usual result in the wet San Juan conditions. The party I had heard earlier did not materialize, and the rockfall sounds were now fading below, leading me to believe they must be descending. I wasn't well versed in the descent route off Mt. Wilson, hoping that it would be obvious once I got there. I imagined it was down one of several chutes on the SW side that presented themselves, but I didn't want to descend a loose chute with another party below that I might knock rocks down on. Instead, I headed towards South Wilson, another minor point about 1/3mi in that direction, hoping to find an alternate chute or slope I could descend. An actual class 4 downclimb got me to a narrow chute just south of the summit that I almost started to descend. Without being able to see the entire route, I was afraid I might get cliffed out and have to reascend. I decided to continue south. Some impressive gendarmes called for another brief bit of class 4 scrambling, the trickiest stuff I'd been on all day. these eventually gave way to an easier ridgeline that led down to the saddle between Mt. Wilson and South Wilson. Though South Wilson was only 1/4mi away at this point, I decided I was too tired to bother with it. Besides, with only 170ft of prominence it didn't qualify as a ranked peak anyway.
From the saddle I could see a clear, albeit annoying-looking talus and boulder slope heading down to the west. Having dropped lower, I was now getting below the cloud layer and could see east to Lizard Head and west into Kilpacker Canyon. Far below I could see three climbers on the snowfield, presumably the ones I had heard descending from Mt. Wilson earlier. I made good time descending the rock and snow, the latter being soft enough for some decent but not great boot skiing. I found tracks in the snow heading down from one climber, but wondered what route the other two had taken. In about twenty minutes' time I met up with a pair of gentlemen a few years older than myself. They were on their way up the canyon and had recently met up with the early morning climber, the three of which I had mistook for a party descending from Mt. Wilson. It took a minute to realize it was the same guy producing the rockfall all morning on the south slopes of the El Diente-Wilson ridge. Rob & Gary said the guy had told them he'd climbed El Diente and Mt. Wilson and was heading back. I had a quizzical look on my face before declaring, "That's impossible!" Rob & Gary were good-natured, more hikers than climbers, and got a laugh from my expression. "Well, I don't know why he'd make up such a thing, but who knows?" one of them quipped. We talked some more before departing, the pair deciding to go only a short distance further before turning around - they had no interest in class 3 terrain which would await them on any effort to ascend Mt. Wilson. I continued down the canyon, picking up the trail, all the while pondering the curious case of Kenny G.
I was having a hard time believing that someone would make up an ascent, more so that they would go through the trouble of spending all day hiking and scrambling along talus slopes and then making up the part about reaching the summits. Why not just make it up from the comfort of home and log the ascents electronically? I tried to reconstruct scenarios that would make sense - perhaps Rob and Gary had misheard him? Maybe he had reached Pin Point, thought it was El Diente, and then continued to Mt. Wilson? This latter idea seemed the most plausible since it would explain why I hadn't seen him after leaving El Diente and how he might have managed to get ahead of me after I had clearly left him far below. I retraced my route back through meadow and forest, across Kilpacker Creek at a better crossing I'd missed in the morning, enjoying some sunshine as the cloud cover slowly lessened. I wondered further if I'd be able to catch up with Kenny and what I might ask or say to him without causing trouble. I devised a few easy questions that would be innocuous but allow me to discern what really happened, or at least the big picture. With about 45min remaining to the TH I caught sight of, and soon caught up to Kenny. I first asked if he enjoyed the day to which he responded enthusiastically in the affirmative. I then asked the first of two questions: "Hey, did you head directly up to El Diente?" "Yes," he replied. I didn't want to deflate his spirits by saying he'd misplaced the summit since it was necessary to traverse some distance west to find it after reaching the ridge, so I simply responded with, "Ah, that's why I never saw you again." My second scenario was looking most probable at this point. The second question was far more telling: "Did you find the register on Mt. Wilson?" The register had been in plain sight out in the open, and though wet and unusable, he wouldn't know this unless he'd seen it on top. If he responded with "Yes, but I couldn't sign it," I'd know he'd been to the summit. Instead, he most curiously responded with, "No, I didn't see it, but I wasn't really looking for it. I just went to El Diente, Wilson and South Wilson without much stopping because of the weather. South Wilson is one of the Centennials so I didn't want to miss it." Here he had tossed in an additional claim to South Wilson which was clearly impossible as I'd seen his boot tracks descending the snowfields on the SW side of Mt. Wilson. And it wasn't a Centennial as he claimed. I simply responded with, "Wow, that sounds like a big day," before leaving him to finish the hike. In my mind he'd clearly made up all three summits, but for reasons I couldn't really understand. Maybe he was just embarrassed he couldn't climb the initial class 3 to El Diente? I may never know, but somehow it bothered me for days afterwards. With the odd exception of Dan Howitt, I've always thought of mountaineers as straight-up kinds of folks - say what you did and do what you said. This one had me baffled.
I finished up a little after 1:30p, watching as the weather steadily improved. I'd have gotten better views had I delayed the outing by 3-4 hours, but that's not the sort of thing one can count on during monsoon season in the San Juans. I was pleased with the effort and after driving back down from the TH I headed to Telluride where I met my pals later that afternoon. As luck would have it there was a free concert up at the Mountain Village in the late afternoon which made for a fine ending to a great day...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: El Diente - Mt. Wilson
This page last updated: Tue Aug 15 20:09:58 2017
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