| Winter on El Diente‘s West Ridge
El Diente (14,189') via West Ridge
Winter Ascent 12/29/08 to 1/1/09
28 miles / 8800' (as climbed with winter adjustments including pre-packing trail)
14 miles / 4800' in summer
Warning: This is the longest, most boring TR ever posted on 14ers.com. It is however, the first El Diente West Ridge report. If you want to save yourself some valuable time, skim the photos and check out the link at the end. I'm trying to irritate Bill. The guy has to learn to put his foot down before idiots fill up the internet and it spills into the ocean requiring Al Gore to invent an outernet and make another movie.
One hard but rewarding route! Colorado climbing has it all; while I was summiting the West Ridge of El Diente on New Years Eve, there were people making their first winter ascent on Quandary the same day. We were both enjoying amazing views and pristine weather, and a true sense of accomplishment. Let's not forget in this New Year how blessed we are to live here and have the health to enjoy it!
I'm trying to climb all the list of 59 Fourteeners in calendar winter (58 on the 14ers.com list plus North Massive; somebody else already set the precedent). I have 14 of the most difficult peaks to finish. As late as December 10, I was really psyched to have the opportunity to climb El Diente before Christmas, return home for four days, and then head into Chicago Basin for a seven day trip. There were less than 10" of snow in both basins and very favorable avalanche conditions. These were the same plans and the same conditions I had at this time last year. Also like last year, in the two weeks before official winter began, the San Juans were hit with five feet of snow and the avalanche conditions rocketed to extreme. Anyone who actually PLANS winter trips in Colorado is either naive or stupid. I tend toward the latter.
I had a partner lined up for the pre-Christmas trip to El Diente and my ex-wife's mother flew in specially to sit for the week after Christmas so that I'd have a chance to do these trips. Of course, my partner and I bailed on the pre-Christmas trip due to blizzard and avalanche warnings, and my sitter and visiting relatives kept wanting to pin down my plans. All I could say was, "I don't know; I may not be going at all".
Finally, on the 27th, the danger was lowered from extreme to moderate with 4 days of good weather expected to follow. I figured I'd ski at Monarch with my brother the next day (the 28th) and let things settle a little more. Then if I traveled to Delores (Telluride area), by the time I took a day or two to hike in, then the good weather would bring the danger on south slopes down to moderate. I wasn't certain, but analysis seemed logical. When I checked out the CAIC website on my return, that's just how it played out (on ether-paper).
I don't like to go solo, even on very easy trips; it doesn't fit my personality. Those of you who've climbed with me (or read my reports) know I can't stop talking. But I couldn't scare up a partner who was both available and knew what he was in for, so, as in the past, I took off alone. Though I'm 47 years old, this stuff scares my parents and, as a result, I was given a SPOT satellite transceiver as an early Christmas present. It worked great.
In the winter, you reach the Navajo Lake trailhead by turning north off HWY 154 onto West Delores Road (14 miles north of Delores, CO). The road is plowed to Dunton, a resort about 22 miles NE. Here, I spent the night of the 28th in the car at the plow turn-around. At 7:00AM on Monday the 29th, I sent out my first SPOT message and I started a seemingly endless snowshoe slog with a 45-pound pack; I was headed for El Diente. I expected the 3 ½ mile road from here to the Navajo TH to be nicely packed by snowmobiles. The first ¼ mile was packed; then, the snowmobilers turned left toward Delores Peak. A giant burm was plowed to discourage snowmobilers from following the right fork which I needed to use to reach the Navajo Lake TH. This seemed strange since, the evening before, I had passed the other end of the road near Lizard Head Pass and it had obviously been used enthusiastically; I wonder why they don't use the road all the way over here to utilize these other roads too? Watch at the end of the story for the surprise, but not surprising, answer. Immediately, the road turned into a snowshoer's bad dream, fresh baseless powder not trodden all season. For the next 6 ½ hours, I plodded through 18-24" powder, falling in every hidden willow hole and wandering back and forth in a weaving pattern since my head was always looking down at my feet. I decided that I'd had it for the day. I had covered the 3 ½ miles to the TH and another 2 miles up the Navajo Lake Trail. It was far less than I had planned, but at the last willow hole took 5 minutes to extricate myself and I was done!
When I managed to look up, the weather and views were glorious. Here is a view over my shoulder of Delores and Middle Peaks which I dubbed the "Spanish Peaks of the West" when I climbed them this summer from the opposite side if this view.
I set a nice little camp in this grove which was not too terribly distant from a running stream to gather water. This is a special blessing, saving lots of fuel and TONS of time wasted melting water when you could be sleeping.
From camp I had my first views of El Diente's West Ridge. It's still 5 miles and 4100' away.
After camp was settled, I started out to break some trail for tomorrow. I soon learned that between being exhausted and the snow condition's failure to improve, I wasn't making any better time than I did with the heavy pack. An hour later, I returned to camp having only broken another ½ mile of trail.
The view of the West Ridge from the final advance of Day 1
A view of Kilpacker basin and the south face of El Diente, the easiest summer route, if you find the right way!
Back at camp, I was pleased by this twilight view of tomorrow's goal.
The sun set at 5PM, dusk was complete at 6PM. I sent out a second SPOT message to give an idea of where I was camping. A very small, waxing, crescent moon set about 9PM. A nice dehydrated dinner and cup of cocoa settled me nicely for the night.
I was in no great hurry for an early start since I'd quickly cover the ½ mile of broken trail and the sun wouldn't rise till 7AM. There is no sense wandering around in these indistinct meadows by headlamp; it'd be wasted effort. I rose at 6AM, breakfasted and prepared a summit pack, leaving camp at 6:45AM.
As all the previous day, it was easy to find a route clear of avalanche zones, but the trailbreaking was gruesome. Near the junction of Navajo Creek and Kilpacker Falls, I tackled the steepest slopes of the trip (North Facing), by troughing a meandering line up a densely forested ridge with a duck-walking (at least how a duck would walk wearing snowshoes) technique. 500' of this allowed me to turn east and continued up a little less steep slope (it was more like cow-walking) another 500' to timberline. At last, a clear view of the ridge and evidence that I could stash my snowshoes until the return trip. I've climbed four miles and 1600' above camp, one mile and 2400' to go; but it took five hours!
Camp is in the dark patch of trees at the skinniest part of the multi-armed snowfields at the center of the photo
I lunched and at 11:50 took off up the loose talus toward the first major goal other TR authors have mentioned, Point 13,082'. This tops you out at the beginning of the West Ridge proper (search Summit Post for a summer perspective.) The loose talus was ALMOST as discouraging as the trailbreaking in the snow and it was 1:30PM when I reached the ridge crest at 13,082' viewing , for the first time, the complications of the final 4/5 mile distance and 1000' gain.
Oh My Goodness! This was going to be tough and WAY too much to tackle exhausted at 1:30 in the afternoon, even on this pristine winter day.
Back to camp I go.
Descents are always quick and enjoyable; unless, that is, you're with me. I will complicate it. About 15 minutes after regaining my snowshoes, the entire binding breaks off the snowshoe. Four solid rivets hold the binding to these MSR Denali's that I've sworn allegiance to since the first season they were introduced (15 years?). A hasty parachute cord and duct tape repair gets me 75% of the way back to camp, then another half-hearted effort brings me on home.
I gather water and send a 6:30PM SPOT message. Congratulations are owed to Marlyn for being the only one on my list to correctly guess the events of my day based on two consecutive SPOT messages on separate evenings from the same camp! He actually was able to tell me exactly what each day had been like simply from the same standard message aided only by the time and coordinates. My family only gets the "I'm OK" part
An hour of thoughtful effort with the cord and duct tape and I'm confident that I have a snowshoe repair that will last me the rest of the trip.
I set the alarm for 3AM, knowing that Friday, the 31st was going to be a challenging, long day. There is almost a mile of real 3rd, 4th, and low 5th class scrambling (using necessary winter variations; summer should not exceed class 4) to be done. There will be no problem starting early though; I have 4 miles of broken trail to timberline! I wake at 4:30 to pee. What happened to the alarm? You know old men and technology!
By 5:15, I've dressed, eaten, gathered water at the creek and headed off for the day This time, at timberline, I strapped my snowshoes to my pack rather than stashing them; I had an idea. At 11:15AM, I reached yesterday's high point. I had intended to be here by 9AM. Que sera, sera.
At 11:30, I get serious. This is a tough ridge.
A little close-up
About 2/3 of the way up the ridge, you can enjoy the view looking back down
Unless you are still worried about the last 1/3 up
Other reports suggest avoiding the 4th and 5th class gendarme sections by traversing around on steep scree. Today, that means traversing 60-70degree snow slopes, some south-facing, other north facing. 95% of the time, I find a way to stick to the ridge. Twice, I don crampons for a short traverse around gendarmes too tall and steep to climb over unprotected in winter boots. As I write, my seamstress is in surgery with the seat of my pants that took the brunt of the butt-scooting technique I perfected (and for which I have applied for the copyright). Think 0.8 miles of the Capitol Knife Edge. I may exaggerate a bit (I'm a math teacher; I confuse my hyperbole with my hyperbola.) You'll have to climb it next New Year's Eve and give me your opinion. At a saddle 80% of the way across this tough section, I stash as much as I can, keeping only half what I've had. The final 300' go much easier and I send a SPOT message from the summit of El Diente at 3:30 PM.
Yea me! Oh boy! The sun sets in an hour and a half and I've got a 4 hour ridge to get back across! I take some quick photos the hurry back to may stash.
Using the Dr. Fredrick Cook technique to prove a successful summit
Wilson Peak and most of the ridge to unseen Gladstone. What's that behind? Cockscomb?
A not too definitive view of the Mount Wilson- El Diente Ridge
Ever heard of Lone Cone? The West Slopers and the hard-core baggers have
Retrieving my gear at 4PM, I put on my crampons, pull out my axe, don headlamp for eminent use and plunge step 2000' of very good South-facing winter snow in about 10 minutes. I got marbles (I mean brains), you see! An hour before dark, I'm far off the ridge and simply need to snowshoe a mile or so around the mountain to reach my track on the West side. I'll be there just as the sun sets. Unless, of course, something happens to go wrong, but what are the chances?
I know we don't have crevasses in Colorado, but, I swear, I found one. Not a horizontal running fault in glacial ice, but, rather, a vertically running fault in the rock of the mountainside completely disguised by blending snow cover. This gap was designed by Archimedes himself to do its dastardly deed. I stepped on it in perfect position. My 34" snowshoes centered themselves across the 30" crack with my full weight at the center. Crack! The snowshoes simultaneously break through the snow, hit the rock edges of this crack and snap in two at the center, dropping me and two broken snowshoes at the bottom of a 15' hole. Honestly, I didn't panic. I was too stunned. This is absolutely impossible. I was flabbergasted! I could see the snow-covered fault running uphill above me and downhill below me, but, obviously, the only way out was the way I'd come in. Through that hole 15' above my head. For the record, I'll admit my environmental ethics deserted me. The four halves of those snowshoes can still be found at the bottom of that hole. Everything else was tied to a 20' piece of webbing; I easily stemmed out of the hole and pulled up my bag.
I'm no longer a snowshoer; I'm now, officially, a postholer. Well that's going to add a couple hours to my return! About an hour later, the twilight was fading and even my night eyes were no longer able to cut the mustard. I reach to my forehead to turn on my headlamp. It won't turn on; I can't even locate the "on" button. I pull off my mittens to get a better feel. Can you guess what else is at the bottom of that hole? It must have knocked off when I fell or sometime during my preparation to climb out. I wonder how long it's going to take to posthole blind to my tent 4 miles and 3000' below. I got a pretty fair emergency bag in my pack, but only today did I add a second headlamp. It's at this point in relating the story to my relatives that they turn on their heels and walk away in disgust muttering. "You're an idiot for doing this stuff and a bigger idiot for doing it alone; I hope when you kill yourself that you will have learned your lesson!" I keep telling them I'm a teacher, not a learner.
Seriously, I just had a couple bad breaks, but I'm not worried. I always have enough in my summit pack to spend the night out and I've climbed this peak more than 10 times and the surrounding peaks no less than 5 times (albeit not the ridge route, but I'm not up there anymore). I'm pretty sure I can get back. I got 2 more hours of moonlight to get me through the trees and starlight might be just enough to get me through the snowy meadows. I don't think it is necessary to bivy yet and don't really want to consider it until I'm back in my trough in the trees.
Well. The postholing was discouraging and the visibility non-existent, but I was headed down. I could literally use my ski pole like a blind man's cane and locate the trough whenever I lost it. It was sort of fun! When I reached the valley floor the trough was quickly lost, either because the relatively mild winds had been enough to fill the trough with the very light powder, or because the wide open meadow had led me astray and the trail was nearby, but not to be found. Either way, The starlight was enough to orient me to Navajo Creek on my right, the trees of the South-facing slope to my left and center me in the snow for travel down the center, I postholed to mid-thigh for two miles, but I knew exactly how I'd find my camp. As long as I stayed on this orientation, within 50 yards of the creek, I'd eventually hit the trough I knew wouldn't be blown in; the 3' deep trench connecting my tent to my watering hole.
The one problem I was having is that my big toe on the right foot had gone numb from the cold. Snowshoeing gives you enough floatation that your feet aren't always directly in the snow. Postholing makes you feel every bit of the cold. My dog tells me this all the time. He does fine above timberline, but too many miles of dragging himself through the snow trenches that I create causes his body core temperature to drop and it's the only time we hike where I can see he's uncomfortable. Well,tonight things are really strange. My left foot starts talking to my right foot. "Hang in there. You'll be OK. I can do this, just follow me. I'd never leave you behind. Stick with me.". You think I'm kidding, but I swear, every time I'd let my mind wander, I'd come back to focus when I could hear my feet talking to each other. Now the right foot is saying. "No, go more this way". The left says. "I tried over there, it's just as deep; leave me alone; I know what I'm doing". I wasn't hypothermic, just going a little stir crazy from exhaustion and lack of someone to talk to. I figured as long as the glutes were ignoring every Jim Carrey movie I've ever seen, then I'm still sane.
The plan to find the tent via the watering-hole trench worked perfectly and I flopped down cold and exhausted at 10PM. I had a plan. I have a 10 hour candle in my emergency bag and got it burning inside a cook pot where even if tipped over it was fairly safe (and boy-oh-boy, I paid attention to that thing!). Now it was time to work on that right foot (and then the left; he earned it.) It was tough getting the frozen boot off and I hated taking off my mittens, but both got done. Dry socks, the last of my chemical warmers (I'm embarrassed to say, I went through twenty!), and down boots made things go much better. I got water boiling and had couscous and cocoa and warmed up pretty well. I changed into dry fleece pants, a fresh shirt and my expedition down jacket. I was toasty and happy. I sent a SPOT message to let then know I was back in camp. I'd been home 20 minutes and all was well.
Then, my alarm clock goes off. What the fizzleberry? No wonder it didn't wake me this morning; I had set it completely wrong. Then I had a thought. I turn on the GPS (I hadn't so far, since I always knew where I was within 50 yards or so. I planned to turn it on if I find the expected watering area and couldn't find the tent). The GPS says 3AM. I had guessed 10PM. It had taken 22 hours. No wonder I was tired. Off to dream land.
I turned over and saw the clock at 7AM. I laughed and turned back over. I saw it again at 11AM. I grabbed a bunch of frozen stuff for which I had no dry replacements and placed them between my 0 degree bag and the 20 extra degrees overbag. I went back to sleep. I woke at 2PM, decided I HAD to get out of the bag, put on those cold clothes, pack up (which is when I found two more chemical warmers!) and get moving. I had 4 ½ miles of postholing to do and still no headlamp. Once I got moving, I warmed up nicely except for that one big toe. I think he'll be mad a couple weeks or so. I did my mile back to the road. For two days from the ridge I'd watched the snowmobilers go nuts in the Morgan Camp meadows near the normal Kilpacker TH. It was going to be nice to cruise their track back to Dunton.
As my mom would say, "Pardon my French, but Damn Sam!". Where are those smelly two stroke engines when you need them? This section of road was just as pristine as it was 4 days ago. Not a sole had been there but me; I had to posthole all the way back. I later learned that burm across the access that had been plowed on this side is controlled by the resort. Though I don't think it's enforceable, there is a definite conspiracy to discourage snowmobilers crossing back and forth between the two sides. Check out the link at the end of the story and you'll get it. It was dark again, but I made the truck before moonset, about 8:30PM.
I want a hot bathtub to soak in and a real bed. 22 miles down the road is the highway and 13 miles south is Delores. Cheap motel, here I come! Starting at the edge of town, alone on the street, I'm squinting at every building on both sides in an attempt to find a sleazy (cheap) enough motel. Just as I see a vacancy sign on a decent looking place on the left, a truck with the ski rack on top that started following me a few blocks back follows me into the motel parking lot and cranks up this blaring stereo and disco ball!. Or is that a siren and those obnoxious flashing lights designed to distract you?
"Sir, do you know why I pulled you over?"
"Sure, I'm a hot guy; it happens to me all the time."
"No, you were driving very slowly and weaving. Those are the classic signs of a drunken diver".
"Look, if you want to ask me out for a drink, just say so."
"Do you have any weapons in the car?"
"I always figured I could kill a guy with my ice axe, but I haven't tried it, yet."
Seriously, he bought the old "looking for a motel story", warned me for driving too slow and weaving, and then wrote a $93 ticket for expired plates (they were due October 1). I'm telling you I'm an old guy; I forget stuff. If they came to the door and reminded me, like the girl scouts and the shortbread cookies, I'd have gladly paid them the $35 renewal registration due on a 15 year-old car. They didn't have to wake the whole motel. Oh well, it's not like everybody who knows me hasn't already clued in on the fact that I'm a crappy driver. He gave me a business card with the summons; said to call if I had any questions or he could help. Next time I'm in town, I'll see if I can crash at his place and raid the refrigerator; the motel and restaurant savings will even the whole thing out. Now I have a pal in Delores, CO.
That's my story and I'm sticking to it!
Check this out! While writing this report, I realized I'd just had an $8000 vacation for only $211 ($60 of gas, a $58 Delores motel room, and a $93 ticket). I'm THE guy who has ruined the economy!
Since writing this report, Dunton Hot Springs has removed the $8000 mountaineering package and replaced it with a $4000 snowshoeing package. Maybe it will return this summer?? Guess the economy is even hurting the rich and famous. Wanna bet some underpaid guide lost his job?
For $8000 a week, couldn't they level the floor?
P.S. to Bill
I tried ski mountaineering when I was still overweight, but I was a worse skier than I am a driver! They pulled that license back in '92.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):