El Diente: A Reminder to Charge Your Batteries Before Climbing!
Solo climb and summit ski descent of El Diente
11 miles, 6259' climbed and skied
Last year Jarrett Luttrell (EasyRider) became the first person to snowboard all the 14ers. One of his more interesting projects was his solo descent of the northwest couloir of El Diente (TR here). Frank (gb) and Brittany (mtnbikerskierchick) have taken to calling this route the Luttrell line. My Telluride friends assure me that the line is known to the locals, but they don't seem to have a name for it. (If anyone wants to chime in on this subject, please feel free, that's why I mention it.) It is a spectacular run, deserving of classic status, except perhaps for its remoteness.
The route is somewhat hidden because it spirals around from the northeast to northwest aspects of the mountain. As a result there is no vantage point from which the entire line is visible. The short upper and long lower sections are connected by a traverse across a steep hanging snowfield which, from a distance, looks like a fox's face seen head-on (when there's a lot of snow) or a whole fox in profile, facing to viewer's right (with less snow); hence the name Fox Traverse. Frank has posted an excellent description of this route on his blog.
I decided to tackle this one solo, partly as a tip of the hat to Jarrett, partly because I couldn't talk anyone into going when I wanted to go. (Why does work keep getting in the way?!) Unfortunately the previous day's outing on Mt Wilson had used up the batteries in both my still and video cameras, leaving only enough for a couple of photos.
Brittany's TR is a tale of self-doubt yielding to perseverance and ultimately leading to joy. My day was much the same. Weather had chased me off last summer, when I set out to climb the north buttress, and it looked likely to do so again today. I set out, resolving to get to at least 12,000 feet before deciding whether to continue. Looking up to the Rock of Ages saddle I was watching clouds flow by that looked as solid as snowbanks, although it was fairly clear directly overhead. At the Rock of Ages, a cold wind was blowing and the summit was obscured:
The Fox was visible, however, and he is at almost 14,000 feet. So visibility should be good most of the way up... but then again, the clouds were flying past the summit, suggesting that a gale was blowing up there.
(With today's snowcover, the fox looked pretty fluffy - more like a Husky, with his nose sniffing the North Buttress. OK, sorry, strange things occur to solo climbers!)
Contemplating the way the weather seemed to be changing - very slowly, if at all - two things occurred to me: one, that the cloud cover meant that the snow would remain hard and stable most of the day, and two, that retreat is fairly easy from Navajo Basin. One doesn't feel really committed on this route until one is fairly far up the face. I cruised down into Navajo Basin, crossed over the foot of the north buttress, and found myself looking straight up the couloir:
Navajo Basin seems to be some sort of a weather trap. The wind was whistling straight up the couloir. Nice to have a tailwind, even if it was strong enough to knock me to my knees a couple of times. Anticipating that I wouldn't want to stop for long anywhere above this point, I stopped to eat and donned all my gear. Note to self: blow nose BEFORE putting on Balaclava.
This is a fairly direct and efficient route; I gained altitude quickly, aided by the sometimes overenthusiastic wind. I was able to take one last shot before my digital camera battery died. This is the top of the main (lower) couloir; the key to this route is to stay to the right, past the pillar in the center, and exit to the left only when you run out of snow going straight up.
I worked my way up, found the exit, and greeted Mr Fox. He is guarded by a wall that is not quite a cornice. To facilitate my return I kicked a notch in the wall. Crossing the Fox felt like crossing the Rubicon; although I was no longer worried about the weather I wasn't sure about the snow on the traverse. The cliff right underneath kind of gets one's attention. Once across, however, I realized I was only 150' from the summit. A second wind hit me - not that any more wind was really necessary - and I scampered to the top. This picture toward Wilson Peak was taken with my video camera:
I had planned to go to town on the helmet-cam video but the battery was left with only enough to show a quick panorama of the summit, after which the camera refused to power up:
Well, then... From the very summit, the descent begins with a short narrow slot that faces almost due east. I can tell you that the width of the slot is 186 cm, because my skis are 184's. I sideslipped into it, then pointed them downhill and checked to the right, then turned northwest and made careful jump turns down the fox's brushy tail (which you can't see from across the valley, unless you are fairly far to the west). Easing myself across the (northeast-facing) traverse, I sidestepped through he notch I had cut in the wall, then descended the narrow chute (northwest once again) into the main couloir (due north). At this point one can feel less intimidated; it's still fairly steep but at least you can see where it goes. Joyfully I skied down to the valley floor, then made my way back over the Rock of Ages, drawn home by the prospect of sharing a wonderful dinner with some good friends in Telluride.
Thanks for reading!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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