Peaks Climbed: Mt. Wilson, South Wilson Start Time: 12:50pm End Time: 2:00pm (1hr 10 minutes total) Total Mileage: .45 miles Total Elevation Gain: 400ft.
While the traverse from El Diente to Mt. Wilson (including West Wilson) were a part of this trip, I am going to forgo detailing this portion of the route as Tyler (mountainmedic) will be covering that in his TR… or you could go and find one of a hundred others that cover that traverse.
I also apologize for picture quality. The pictures I took from the El Diente – Wilson traverse did not come out great as the widespread haze across the state is present even in the far southwestern corner of Colorado.
What is this LA???
The record on those who have climbed South Wilson from any route is minuscule. The number for bagging South Wilson by traversing the connecting ridge with Mt. Wilson is even tinier. Roof of the Rockies notes that a small group attempted the traverse from South Wilson, but abandoned their attempt. It was not until July of this year that the first (known) successful traverse occurred by Tom Driscoll (tommyboy360), the second person to complete all unranked 14er points in the state.
Before undertaking this route on my own, I read Tom’s trip report - : "Adding the traverse from Mt. Wilson to “South Wilson” is one of the hardest things I’ve done in this entire 14er journey. The crux of the route is the down climb off Mt. Wilson. If I ever attempted this route again, I would take a rope and a partner. It took me 1.5 hours to make it to this saddle from the summit of Mt. Wilson. It was impossible to spot the best route down as I repeatedly circled, cliffed out and climbed up, down and around the towers on the south ridge of Mt. Wilson. How I got to the Saddle was a major challenge and it took a lot of cautious exploring. Be careful if you explore the gullies here because they are loaded with loose rock that is ready to slide."
I also contacted him to gain a little more perspective. I wanted to be as prepared as possible for this challenge. With Tom being the only known success for this route, he was the only one I could ask. For larger difficulties on any mountain, I try to research as many perspectives as possible in order to best prepare myself. This couldn’t happen in this situation; it's the equivalent of studying Egyptian hieroglyphics using only the Rosetta Stone, yet I still found a way to spend more time studying photos and rereading his trip report than I did writing some papers in college. EDIT: Thanks to Rijaca for providing a scanned copu of an older guidebook that provides an (albeit) brief description of the ridgeline: pg.1pg.2.
The Notches of the Unranked Traverse: Photo Credit to tommyboy360
My expectations going into the climb was to expect Class 5 downclimbs, classic Wilson rock (that's the most objective way I could say it. Screw it - the rock sucks!), and a time consuming route. This was the only time I felt truly nervous about what I was going to undertake (that also speaks to my ignorance before mixed climbing the Hourglass on Little Bear in March). Doing this free-solo when Tom said he would want to have a partner and rope in the future also compounded my tension.
The look of no fear:
Hazy, yes, but you get a silhouette view of the traverse's difficulties
The Mt. Wilson descent portion
The first challenge was the descent off of Mt. Wilson. Helmet up, Barney Stinson style! (... hopefully this was done LONG ago!)
I descended south to the first gully. Instead of descending directly down (see following picture with route line), I tried to make the steep, south ridge work in order to reach the saddle. Since I spent so much time on the El.D-Wilson Traverse studying the route, I knew I did not want to stay on the ridge proper and that I would eventually get cliffed out. Instead, I stayed lower on the Kilpacker side working my way south. The rock through this section was VERY loose. I made it to the middle chimney, which is located right before Mt. Wilson's ridge steeply descends to the saddle, and looked for a way down. I climbed down as far as I could into the chimney, but could not reach the scree in the notch. Both walls of the chimney were vertical downclimbs with no apparent holds. I looked down to where the chimney reached the scree-field below the summit massif and was unable to see if it would cliff out or not. Knowing that it would be difficult to climb down and being unsure if it'd go, I decided to turn around to a route I knew would go (even though it meant I would be dealing with loose rock to reach the saddle).
Appox. Route. Photo credit to Mountain_Ninja.
View from below of the difficulties that were impassable on Mt. Wilson's South Ridge.
I returned to the first gully and descended it. This is one of the possible route to climb Mt. Wilson's summit massif from Kilpacker. Make sure to hang right otherwise you'll reach a sizable cliff. Once down, it's a side-hilling delight to reach the S. Wilson saddle. The scree is completely loose and every step will send rocks tumbling. I tried to hug the solid rock wall as best as I could in order to minimize the side-hilling difficulty.
Scree and Side-hilling. A terrible recipe
Thankfully, it doesn't take more than 5-10minutes to reach the saddle. NOTE: If I could not make this traverse work, I was prepared to sidehill all the way to the southeastern portion of the basin to ascend where Britt Jones and Steve Gladbach did in early June. After dealing with the scree slope just a few minutes to reach the saddle, I was SO glad this traverse worked instead of side-hilling like this for 3/4 of a mile!
From the saddle, it's a quick walk on the "broken dinner" plate rock S. Wilson is known for to reach the 1st notch. From a distance, this notch looks imposing as there is a massive, vertical wall. However, the vertical wall can be avoided with a scramble to the right side.
From West Wilson.
Up close view
This scramble quickly reveals what difficulties lie ahead - loose rock. Wilson rock is known for it's loose quality, even on the "trails;" the traverse to South Wilson elevates it to a whole new level. While the standard routes on Mt. Wilson have been beat down with constant traffic to make the rock a little more stable (understand I use the term "stable" very loosely), that isn't the case with the S.Wilson traverse. Since this traverse has seen, as far as I know, Tom and I, the rock is completely untouched making it looser than a whore's purse. I had to send at least a half ton work of rocks down (more on this later).
From Tom's account, and evaluating the route from the El-D Wilson Traverse, I knew that ascending to the ridge proper would increase the difficulty of the downclimbs. As I approached via scramble to the second notch, I stay a little lower on the Kilpacker side which turned out to be a great decision. The ridge proper drops abruptly into the notch - a definite Class 5.5+ downclimb.
Taken before descent into notch. Not a great photo given my angle, but a straight downlclimb wouldn't be easy.
I dropped a little farther right in order to find a suitable downclimb and was able to find a Class 4 (maybe low 5) about 20 meters from the ridge crest. I proceeded back to the notch saddle in order to evaluate my next move. The views of Lizard Head were great from here.
View of my descent route
Who's interested??? We'll call it a "Post-Climb Warm Down"
The climb up the second notch was best done on the east (Lizard Head facing) side. There was a loose (this term is completely redundant when discussing the traverse route) scree climb providing reasonable access towards the last and final notch challenge.
View from left side of ridge looking at remaining route
Route of Second Notch on left side of ridge.
Again, I stayed low since I didn't want to cliff myself out at the following notch, and I found some seriously loose rock. A boulder weighing at least 100 pounds and appearing to be secure in the soil immediately gave way when I put my weight on it. I let out a yelp, collapsed up the hill, and watch as the boulder went crashing down into the Lizard Head basin. I was able to capture this shot of the carnage:
Holy Shit! The picture does not show the true mayhem.
If you attempt this route, test every hand hold and every foot hold. After that, test it again. Do not assume anything is "safe" here. Everything in my experience told me this boulder was safe - I didn't even give it a second thought - and it took me by complete surprise. I won't go so far as to say I was in extreme danger, but it was a brutal reminder at the difficulty I was undertaking with every step.
After this incident, I figured it would be better to scramble up and take the ridge. We'll call it a piece of mind decision. The possibility of a Class 5 downclimb seemed better than having another rock avalanche recurrence. It turned out to be a wise decision as a Class 5 downclimb never came to fruition. Getting down into the 3rd notch was nothing more than a scramble down on the Kilpacker side of the ridge. From here, there's an imposing headwall in front of you. Straight up or going to the Kilpacker side would result in a 30ft. Class 5 climb.
The Imposing headwall. From the El-D Wilson travese, there even appears to be an overhang. The easier, Class 4 is left of the headwall.
It was something I didn't wanted to free-solo if I didn't have to. Thankfully, I spotted on the Lizard Head side a route to circumvent the Class 5 difficulties. It was a loose (seriously, play a drinking game every time this word appears. I wouldn't recommend playing this game on the route every time you find a loose rock though!) climb, but it was quick. This was another spot where the holds had to be tested with every step forward.
Looking down ascent route from 3rd Notch
I knew from this point that I was going to complete the "Great Unranked Traverse." My elation was growing just as quick as the dark clouds on the North side of Wilson Peak. The ridge walk brings you to the last and final challenge which is nothing more than a Class 2+ move; he biggest difficulty to the summit would be walking on the broken dinner plate rocks. Looking back at the traverse, it's possible to keep it Class 4 if you do well with route-finding. Like anything, you can easily make it more difficult.
From on top of 3rd Notch looking to South Wilson. Yahoo!!!
The last, and very minor, difficulty
I reached the summit and let out one of these: (the reverberation off Gladstone was pretty sweet)
Looking back to Mt. Wilson. Freaking Awesome!!!
I found the mason jar to sign my name to the seldom visited peak. I added my name to a list of 7 others to climb S.Wilson since 2009 with a few 14er Gods preceding me on the list - Ken Nolan, Steve Gladbach, Britt Jones, and Tom Driscoll. This was a special, yet humbling moment for me.
With the dark clouds growing quickly, I bolted from the summit as fast as I could. I decided to take Britt Jones's route off - - instead of continuing across the catwalk to the low-point in the saddle.
The descent over the broke dinner plate rocks and the ultra-loose scree
The descent was MISERABLE. Get ready to drink because the rock was LOOSE. The scree gave way as my foot slid an additional 5 feet with every step - this is not a hyperbole, I assure you. I lost my balance a few times and landed on my rear-end; I also ended up with a few nicks and scrapes on my forearms and calves. Thankfully, it last 5 minutes and the slope angle levels somewhat to provide a stabler (comparatively) surface. I would be curious to see what Britt and Tom feel about continuing over the catwalk and descending from the low point in the saddle. Maybe that point would offer more stable rock.
Looking back at the suckfest!
Getting around the Kilpacker Basin cliff. It's still sucktastic!
I basically angled towards West Wilson as I did not want to head straight down the basin. When ascending from Kilpacker, it's easy to see the massive rock wall on the south side of the basin, and the only way to avoid it is to head north in the direction of West Wilson. From this point, you rejoin the undefined route leading up the SW Mt. Wilson slopes. Eventually it reaches the El-D South Slopes route and all you need to do is retrace your steps.
The Traverse from the basin.
Oh, make sure to enjoy the waterfalls on the way out. It was a rewarding sight after completing S.Wilson. It's too bad the picturesque falls will be gone if you wait till mid-September right before your Sneffels finisher
Lower Waterfall with El Diente in the background.
I was sore, my feet ached, my forearms and calves were scratched and bruised, but I pulled it off! Tyler and I had a long discussion after I picked him up from the Rock of Ages TH (he completed all 3 Wilsons in a day, quite an accomplishment itself, too) about the unofficial peaks vs. the unranked peaks. S. Wilson is, by any route, not a "gimme," yet it does not get the respect it deserves based on the routes. South Wilson lies about the same distance (.35 miles) away from Mt. Wilson as North Maroon is from South Maroon. The traverse is a legitimate Class 4 challenge, at its easiest, that should command more respect and recognition than it receives. For perspective climbers, you will come away from this route with a new-found respect for South Wilson - I guarantee it. You will have completed the "Great Unranked Traverse."
Kilpacker basin from the Trailhead. South Wilson pokes out on the right side
A big shout-out to Britt Jones and Tom Driscoll for their assistance! I'm looking forward to joining you in a month on your exclusive list of unranked finishers.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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