Wilson Peak P750

Sat, Jul 29, 2017

With: Steve Sywyk
Eric Smith

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX Profile


Eric, a native Coloradan now living in New Mexico, had been itching for several years to climb another 14er. He had done others in his younger days with his father and others, but now 55, he was beginning to think those days were behind him. He had climbed Kilimanjaro a month earlier and spent some time getting in shape for that adventure, so he was more eager than usual to climb something high in Colorado when the three of us got together in Telluride this year. He had originally set his eye on Mt. Sneffles near Ouray, but reconsidered and selected Wilson Peak when we found there was an hour less driving to the TH each way. As a native he was concerned about Colorado's fickle weather and wanted to get as early a start as possible, while Steve and I as Californians were blissfully unconcerned about such things as lightning. The weather forecast for the next day was awful - 70% chance of rain in the morning hours with a chance of thunderstorms after 9a. We had decided we'd cancel if we awoke to rain, continue with the plan otherwise. We got Eric to grant us another hour of sleep by picking a 4a departure time instead of 3a where I was hoping for something more like 6a. I went to bed that evening hoping it would be raining in morning.

Our starting point was the Rock of Ages TH on the north side of the range, a fairly new TH (as of 2011) that replaced the Silver Pick Basin TH of old that had been shut down due to private property issues in 2004. Our guidebooks were old and we were expecting a six mile roundrip effort with 3,300ft of gain, but got ten miles and 4,000ft- still not a particularly tough day under ordinary circumstances. But these are not oridinary circumstances. Steve isn't very fond of long hikes with much elevation gain and Eric has some issues with exposure that he didn't have when he was younger. Leroy was coming along which worried me a bit- how would a canine do on class 3 terrain? Eric had high confidence in his abilities but I wasn't sure that he'd been adequately tested.

We awoke in Telluride to overcast skies but no rain and dutifully drove to the TH where we arrived around 5a. The roads were in decent shape and easily managed by Eric's Subaru Forester. There was still no rain at the TH, but quite dark and headlamps would be most useful for the first half hour or so. We found the trail adequately signed from the start with no real issues in route-finding for the first three hours as we slowly made our way from 10,300ft at the TH to 13,000ft at the crest, covering four miles. Initially climbing up the Elk Creek drainage, the trail then traverses east into the Silver Pick Basin, avoiding the private property below and following an easement through the uppermost reaches of the property as it makes its way to the crest west of Wilson Peak. The pace was slow, mostly to keep Steve from over-exerting himself which might lead him to quit early. Eric was probably the least happy with the pace, wishing we'd started an hour earlier and worrying that we might be in for some thunderstorm trouble nearer the summit. The weather was short of miserable, but nothing to get excited about. Our views would be limited all day as we found ourselves in the cloud layer for all the elevations above 13,000ft. We carried rain gear, but luckily never had to use it. With such weather conditions, it was no surprise to find less than 10 people attempting the summit on a summer weekend when otherwise there might be three or four times that many.

Once we reached the crest we turned left to follow a lesser trail along the south side of the ridge and eastwards towards the Rock of Ages Saddle which is located just south of where the crest turns in that direction towards Gladstone Peak, a high 13er between Wilson Peak and Mt. Wilson. We reached the saddle around 8:30a with some partial views looking east to Bilk Basin and Lizard Head, south to Gladstone and Mt. Wilson (both summits in the clouds) and southwest into Navajo Basin, another popular access route for the Wilson Group. We met a pair of climbers returning from Wilson and could see two other parties on a snowfield not far below on the east side of the pass. I made the mistake of initially taking our group directly up from the saddle across the southwest side of the point above that I knew connected to Wilson Peak along a ridgeline running northeast. This quickly devolved into a class 3+ route and I called a retreat back to the saddle where we did what we should have done 10min earlier - follow the standard route down the east side of the saddle before following the ducked route up the southeast side of the ridgeline. We crossed a last snowfield soon after descending from the pass and then made our way through the rock and clouds trying to stay on the ducked route (which has various threads that split and rejoin).

The route changed slowly from standard class 2 to easy class 3 and it was soon clear Eric wasn't altogether comfortable with the increasing difficultly. So far, Leroy was managing just fine and had no trouble with the terrain. With the stress of the changing conditions, Eric had grown more frustrated with our slow progress and tried to press Steve into ramping up his effort. In a moment of quiet exasperation, Steve finally succumbed and murmured, "I think I'm done." Eric looked at me and said, "Did you hear that?" Though it looked like Eric was eager to heave the boat anchor overboard and set sail, I knew he wasn't behaving in a rational manner, his fear for his safety taking precedence over his desire to see his friend succeed. Concerned that our happy party was about to descend into partial anarchy, I decided to try and take charge. I had no idea if they would actually listen to me, but as the most experience of our party there on the mountain, it was clear that I had the best chance of making it work. Up until this time we tried various lead methods - put Steve in front, let Eric go up ahead, sometimes I was in front. Now I simply stopped the train and announced they both should just follow behind me. "I'll set a pace all three of us can manage," which of course meant one Steve could do without quitting. And so I set off with slow, deliberate steps, reminding the others to breathe deep and forcefully to compensate for the thinner air we were hiking through. Having ducks to follow made this easy for the most of the route, but these seemed to disappear when we were about a quarter mile from the summit as the route moved to the northwest side of the ridge. Here the terrain became solid class 3 with careful, deliberate foot and hand placements necessary. Leroy began to have some trouble, some minor whining while trying two, three or more times to get by a particularly difficult step. Eric was nearly beside himself with terror, asking where to put his hands, "Where did you put your foot?" and such, while Steve managed the technically difficult parts as calmly as I did. In a very short stretch, the boat anchor had changed hands as both Steve and I did our best to help Eric through this patch of fear, having him placed between the two of us so he could most easily follow my lead. We met up with two other climbers in this stretch, the last of the earlier parties to leave the summit.

Less than ten minutes after the difficulties, we found ourselves on class 2 terrain and the clouded-over summit. Eric's fears morphed into elation upon reaching his most difficult 14er to date, though somewhat tempered by his other fear of impending lightning strikes. Leroy had done well but had broken a nail on the rocks somewhere, leading to some minor blood loss. The first thing Eric's girlfriend would comment on when he sent a photo of our happy summit party was, "Why is Leroy bleeding?!" How she noticed such a small detail was hard to fathom. We stayed only about 10min at the summit before Eric's fear had built up enough strength to vocalize his strong desire to head back down.

In reversing the most difficult section it was Leroy's turn to be the problem child. Going up class 3 was tough enough, but going down was a real struggle for our four-legged companion. I helped him at two key steps and Eric helped him through a third, after which things got easier and Leroy could manage on his own. Eric was calmer and now that we were heading downhill, Steve did better, too. Once back to the trail it was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. Leroy, who usually runs circles around us on our hikes, was feeling the length of the day and stayed closer to the trail and our heels. Based on the previous week's outings in similarly cool temps, I carried only a single quart of Gatorade, but it had been so chilly and the pace sufficiently slow all day that I hadn't had any of it to drink. On the way back I gave my quart to Steve whose own supplies had been nearly exhausted. Better to keep Steve hydrated and moving than to slow our pace further, I figured, and besides, I wasn't really thirsty. By the time we got back shortly after 2p, we'd been at it nearly nine hours, setting no speed records to be sure. We shared some beers and chips at the TH before heading back to Telluride. We were all happy to have reached our goal, particularly Eric who was already wondering about the next 14er we might do. He and Steve thanked me appreciatively for my guiding services as I joked about only doing guiding for "special clients." We would leave the definition of "special" unexplored...

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