| Wilson, Duke of Lizards
"I must inquire, Wilson, Can you still have fun?" - Phish
Wilson Peak 14,017'
Date climbed: Saturday, February 16th, 2013
Route: South Face to West Ridge
Approach: Cross Mountain Trail to Bilk Basin
Team 1: Mike (Mad Mike) & Dani
Team 2: Peter (Dereferenced), Jeff (Mickeys Grenade) & Matt (I Man)
Car to Car (Team 2): 13 hours (8 hour ascent)
Wilson Peak aka Suila Grande
The Wilson Group in February: Wow! I don’t think any of us were fully prepared for the awe inspiring beauty that we were about to witness. Throughout the day, a common question was if we were still in Colorado. As we approached the upper basin and got our first full view of Wilson Peak’s enormous south face, we knew that we weren't and agreed that we must have somehow been transported to the Andes. This climb, summit or not, would be worth the drive for the views alone.
The Colorado Fourteener Winter List has captured the imagination of many of Colorado’s mountaineers over the years, and I am far from immune. A large portion of the list can be done in relative safety, and persistence, going out week after week, year after year, is the name of the game. There are however, a group of peaks that simply have unreasonable objective hazard for any sane person. In many ways, these peaks are the Winter List. Affectionately called the Dirty Dozen (coined by Jim/Dancesatmoonrise), the Elks (minus Castle & Conundrum), the Wilson Group and Chicago Basin are without a doubt the crux of the endeavor. Like those who came before me, these strike fear into my heart, and rightfully so. What would these be like? This season I knew I had to find out for myself.
Peter had a 3 day weekend, and the original plan was to head down to Ouray to work on our ice skills. Sounded amazing, but still, sometimes it’s hard for me to fight my peak bagging tendencies – especially in winter. Being an awesome friend and partner, he told me to think of some options. Of course, I knew what those were, having already done Sneffels in January of 2012, the Wilson Group was the only real option.
“Damn, those are hard,” I said, but Peter and I had climbed a lot together, and we have some lofty goals. We figured that we should at least give it a look. The weather could not have been better, and it turned out we were not the only team with our sights set on peaks above Bilk Basin. Steve was looking at Gladstone and another team was planning Wilson Peak as well. On top of that, Mr. and Mrs. Mad Mike were in the area. Mike and I had talked extensively about teaming up this season, and Wilson Peak had often come up. This seemed a great chance to put it into action.
Everything seemed to be falling into place, except one major concern, the avy rose was orange on all aspects and elevations for the North San Juans…
With only a few days left before the attempt, Peter and I dove head first into researching the route. The topo suggested that the route to Lizard Head Pass could be safe with careful route selection. We concluded that the only way to see if Bilk Basin and the South Face of Wilson would go was to go in for a recon. There was potential for some real danger here, but being as we were already going to be in the area and we had a great forecast, it seemed worth a day to at least make an attempt. We expected it wouldn't go….but you know…we agreed to make an attempt. I ran our plans by Jeff, one of my usual winter partners, and he was instantly intrigued. We happily extended him an invitation to round out our team.
Now there were 7 climbers, split between 3 teams, set to make an attempt n Wilson Peak that Saturday, but things happen. By the time Peter and I pulled up to the Cross Mountain Trailhead around 2am Saturday morning, one of the teams had dropped out (car trouble in Montrose, bummer). We caught a few hours of shuteye in the front seats of the Honda Civic and woke just before 6am to find the other 3 gearing up. Mike and Dani were ready pretty quickly and got started to stay warm. After all, who were we kidding? None of us could keep up with them anyway, and we were happy to let him break trail (thanks Mike, you da man!) A few Shenanigan’s later and our team left the parking lot a bit before 7am.
Cross Mountain Trail
Lizard Head Wilderness Sign
The route up Lizard Head Pass is easy to follow, well traveled and safe. We each went at our own pace and enjoyed the forest. Before too long, we were treated to our first view of Lizard Head Peak. Wow. That is one cool, gnarly, “I wanna climb it” 13er! As we got closer to the pass we stayed on mostly dry or low angled terrain and passed directly below Lizard Head, and our team of 3 reconvened by a wooden post at the top of the pass. I was a bit worried about time, but we were all in good spirits and enjoying each other’s company. I don’t think any of us truly expected to be summit; after all, it was Wilson peak in winter. Having recently climbed it last August, I knew that even if we were able to mitigate all of the avy risk, we still had one hell of a scary crux section between the false and true summits.
First view of Lizard Head. Beautiful morning.
Peter and Jeff on the mellow slopes nearing Gladstone's East Ridge
We looked down into Bilk Basin, saw Mad Mike/Dani’s track skirting Gladstone’s East Ridge, Peter wondered how they could possibly be so far ahead, and we followed suit. The descent off of the pass is also safe and was fairly easy going. Care must be taken to watch the terrain above to your left, but we stayed sufficiently far away and despite one very short section, we all felt comfortable with the route selection. We took our time through this section, enjoying the views and the weather and picking Jeff’s brain about Denali. Good times.
Jeff approaches Lizard Head Pass
Idea of the terrain near Lizard Head Pass
As we rounded the ridge and made our way into the upper basin, I could hardly contain myself. Wilson Peak, when viewed from the South and dressed in white was simply breathtaking.
Gladstone's Northeast Face....LOADED.
From here, the route gets serious. I cannot stress enough that our team was in fact a team. At each sketchy slope or possible route selection, everyone gave their opinion and we discussed them thoroughly. Had anyone felt uncomfortable and wanted to turn around, our entire team would have. Partners, who have become close friends, are much more important than summits. The goal for the day was to make the summit together and safely return. I feel very lucky to be able to climb with such stand up guys.
Peter with Gladstone
Rocks that allowed us to avoid some of the avy danger
We cross a few low angled but questionable slopes and then stashed our snowshoes on a prominent ridge bump before heading straight up for a couple of hundred feet. Mike’s track crossed some terrain here that we preferred to avoid. We added some elevation gain and went up and over the ridge so we could stay mostly on rocks (on descent we followed Mike’s track and I do not think that he was reckless in his route selection, just more experienced than us!). Before long we found ourselves on a small saddle below the rock rib on Wilson’s South Face that could potentially lead us to the West Ridge. Excitement was running high. This was the real deal. Snow was shallow and there was rock showing in places, but there was the potential to slide. We came to the decision rather quickly; we were going to press on.
Approximate route we took We DID NOT cross the huge slope shown, but it is in fact a small saddle. It is hard to draw in Paint
With crampons, axe and helmets, we made our way up the slope. Team 1 had already kicked steps and the going was very easy to the first prominent rock band. This was probably the sketchiest snow that we were on for the day and I thought I was going to be happy to make it to the rocks, until I realized it was steep and loose class 3 that seemed to never end. I remember thinking that I did not want to descend this way and even more that the route ahead would prove much more difficult. Our team was fairly spread out and we each made our own decisions on exactly what route to take. After a bit I topped out on the rib and the terrain mellowed. I saw Mike and Dani up ahead.
Peter and Jeff begin the face climb
Peter makes his way up the ridge between the rock rib and the false summit. This was some amazing alpine climbing
Initial snow slope below the rock rib on the South Face
Wilson's Summit Cliffs
“Summit?!?!” I asked loudly. He raised his fist in the air to signal that they had made it. I continued up to them on a fantastic snow covered ridge that had me remembering exactly why I do this. We talked for a while, getting beta and just visiting. It was sure good to see them.
They continued down and gave words of encouragement to Peter and Jeff as I made my way to the false summit. Since we had been making team decisions, and I was carrying the rope and all the gear, I decided to wait for them. Unfortunately I got very cold and having to stare at the crux for a while certainly did not help to calm my nerves, but before too long Jeff arrived.
Rough route taken up the South Face
View from the ridge to the false summit
“Get started right away, man” I said, “I don’t think you need the rope.” He took a look and agreed. Like me, he figured that a delay would dull the nerves. After a move or two, Peter topped out on the false summit and I was able to get started now that we had all agreed to solo this section. My hands were cold; the downclimb was intimidating, low 5th class, covered in snow, wearing crampons. Shit. What am I doing?? I did the first few snow steps and then got stuck for a while on the crux move. Jeff was there to suggest some options and with his help I was able to lower myself onto a ramp. I then traversed left and found a ledge that I could stand on. “Warm your hands here,” Jeff said, “That’s what I did.” Whew. It worked! And what’s better, the climbing from here to the summit was much easier (though still 3rd and 4th class and very exposed). Today the mountain required us to flirt more closely with the huge summit cliffs to our right than I had to in summer. It was scary, there’s no way around that.
Mid crux, Peter waits to get started on the false summit
On the crux of the crux downclimb. I was not having fun here, just saying
A view of the upclimb to gain the summit
Jeff and I were climbing very close together, Peter was behind taking his time. I don’t know that I would have kept it together without Jeff there. We talked to each other, about nonsense, about the moves, about anything that would help us to concentrate on what we were doing while ignoring the fall potential. The terrain eased and we found ourselves walking.
“Holy shit…we are going to make it!” we both said. A few seconds later we were on top. Peter followed shortly after.
The Wilson - El Diente Traverse
“I don’t know,” Peter said as he arrived, “is the risk worth the euphoria?” What a loaded question…
Jeff and I making our way back to the false summit
We didn’t stay long as we were far from safety. We needed to negotiate the crux section, descend the snow slopes and make our way back to the safety of the Pass. I left first since I did not want my hands to get cold again. Jeff and Peter were right behind me. Luckily the trip back was much easier and again we talked about nonsense to distract ourselves. I breathed a sigh of relief once back on the false summit, but the danger ahead on the face was very real. Luckily, Team 1 had already gone down. They chose to glissade the snow and avoid the rock ribs. This is a tough choice. The slide potential is there, but the loose, steep snow covered rock had fall potential. No matter what we chose we were going to have to be careful. After another quick team meeting, we agreed to plunge step/glissade the slopes. Just for good measure we dug a pit and were pleased with what we found. Rather sooner than expected, we were back at the small saddle and making our way to the snowshoes. It was hard to believe, but it was looking like we were going to safely sneak out of harm’s way.
Summit of Wilson Peak. Winter 14er #24
Descent route...some glissade tracks can be seen
It was earlier in the day than expected and we enjoyed the daylight while changing layers, snacking and drinking and reveling in our success. It was hard to believe. We had done it.
Jeff and Peter make their way up a slope in the beautiful San Juans
The trip out was the usual, zone out, one foot in front of the other, follow the trench…same old same old. I arrived at the parking lot around 8pm to find Steve and Britt getting ready for their attempt of Gladstone the next day. We visited for a bit and I shared some beta. Peter arrived shortly after and we settled into the car for another night in the car. Joy.
What a trip. What a team. Congrats to Mike, Dani, Jeff and Peter on a safe and successful day. Days like these remind me of why I climb, and why this is more than a mere hobby. Have other areas of my life suffered for it? Of course…but I am happy, and what more can a guy ask for.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):