Peak(s):  Mt. Sneffels  -  14,150 feet
Mt. Wilson  -  14,246 feet
El Diente Peak  -  14,159 feet
Wilson Peak  -  14,017 feet
San Luis Peak  -  14,014 feet
Date Posted:  10/02/2017
Date Climbed:   10/01/2017
Author:  bmcqueen
Additional Members:   ScreeSurfer
 Making the Most of a Broken Down Train - Plan B in the San Juans  

When fall officially started Friday, September 22, 2017, John Balciar (ScreeSurfer) and I were ready. After the drive to Aspen, we started our fall climbing season with Pyramid Peak on Saturday, where Ryan Montoya joined us for his return to the mountain that was nearly his demise this past March.

The Bells from Pyramid in unsettled early fall weather

It snowed about 4" up high Saturday afternoon after we were down from Pyramid, making North Maroon a bit spicier on Sunday.

Looking down at Maroon Lake from North Maroon

Day 1 - Thursday

Next up in our fall climbing plans was Chicago Basin. We drove to Durango Wednesday night 9/27 and hopped on the train Thursday morning. Barely out of cell coverage, the train stopped - too early for the first water stop. They came and told us that the engine had broken (quote from a friend at home, "that train has been running for 150 years and it breaks today?!?!") and they would not be able to get us to Silverton (or Needleton in our case). John and I just looked at each other. They backed the train down the tracks until they could turn around, then rolled back down hill into Durango about noon. The conductor told us that our tickets would be automatically refunded if we didn't want to rebook for the next day - no need to wait in line back at the station. Thankfully, John and I both needed a bunch of peaks in the San Juans in fall season, so we had options. He looked at me and said, "Let's go climb Sneffels this afternoon while we figure out Plan B." The golden rule is be off the summit by noon, not make your climbing plans for the day around noon. I checked the weather and said, "sure, let's go." After a Burger King lunch of champions and a quick gas up, we were on the road to Ouray.

We set off for Sneffels from the trailhead at 2:56 PM (definitely my latest 14er start ever!) and topped out in a little over two hours. It was pretty easy going except for getting out of the Lavender Couloir onto the summit ridge.

Me on the Sneffels crux. PC John.

Looking west over Dallas from the top of Sneffels

We had an awesome dinner at the Adobe Inn in Ridgeway, then drove to the Kilpacker trailhead, setting our sights on the Wilson Group as our next unplanned destination. We talked a little about plans for Friday, figuring we'd try to at least get Mt. Wilson and El Diente, and possibly trying to get Wilson Peak also if weather and speed cooperated. I threw in that neither of us had done South Wilson, and it might be fun to get that also. I was still tired from the late-night drive to Durango from Wednesday night, so I asked if we could sleep in a little. John is incredibly fast on the trail, so he wasn't worried about it and agreed.

Day 2 - Friday

We rolled from Kilpacker at 7:20 AM Friday and enjoyed the great new CFI-constructed trail up into the basin, at one point following fresh bear tracks up the trail.

Bears also enjoy CFI's trails.

I was not moving particularly fast that morning, so John waited for me at the El Diente turn-off cairn and we re-grouped on our objective for the day. I admitted I was not moving fast enough to even think about getting Wilson Peak, so I suggested that we try for South Wilson, Mt. Wilson and El Diente Friday and move over to Wilson Peak Saturday from the Rock of Ages trailhead. John agreed and resumed breaking trail up through the fresh snow, which was at times knee-deep. I did my best to keep up, plodding along in John's footprints.

We stopped and put crampons on, then John continued to lead up a steep snow gully that he believed would take us to South Wilson. We topped out on the ridge, hung a left and climbed a short class 3 section to the top. John said, "Well, I don't think we're where we want to be at all." We looked north and saw Mt. Wilson looking miles away. To the south was more jagged ridge with a bump a ways to the south that we assumed must be South Wilson. Looking at the ridge in either direction, it was pretty clear that we weren't doing a simple traverse to either. So we coined our location the summit of "Middle South Wilson", descended a few hundred feet of steep snow and looked for a place to traverse across onto Mt. Wilson's Southwest Slopes route.

The route to "Middle South Wilson"

Mt. Wilson from "Middle South Wilson"

South Wilson from "Middle South Wilson"

As we arrived at the summit ridge of Mt. Wilson, I saw John turn up and right. Crap. That means we're doing the Class 4 (when it's dry) crux and not the Class 3 (when it's dry) SW slopes route. The exposure on both sides was enough to keep me moving (stopping too long on something like that is not a good look for me). I joined John on top, thanked him for taking the hard way and suggested we go down the easier way.

John leading the Mt. Wilson crux.

Don't fall here!

Looking across at El Diente

John asked how I wanted to get to El Diente. I said I had no interest in the traverse in these conditions, so once down to about 13,200', I led across to join the El Diente South Slopes route. John resumed lead as we moved up towards the ridge. Near the ridge crest, we heard our first thunder - an odd thing when you've been getting snowed on here and there throughout the day and it's technically fall. I knew that we would have to transition to the north side of the ridge for the finish and was a bit leery of how much snow we might find there. I remembered snowalien spinning at this spot in February and wondered what it was going to look like. As if to make the moment that much more dramatic, when we came around the corner, the sky crackled loudly. The sky was dark enough that any flash of light was quite faint. The sound, however, was as unnerving as anything I've experienced in the mountains. I pointed out the notch across the way to John and said the summit was just around the corner. He looked to see if the ridge direct would go and returned saying that there was buzzing on the rocks. That was enough for me. Since John is so much faster than me, I didn't want to slow him down across the tricky slope leading to the notch. I said I would wait there while he ran for the summit if he wanted. After a minute and another crackle, he said he was going to go summit. He expertly traversed the snowy ledges, dropped his pack at the notch and went for the summit. I squatted down, flipped my stowed trekking pole on the side of my pack around so that the metal was pointed downward instead of upward and waited. Soon, he came back through the notch and told me to start heading down (which I was HAPPY to do!).

Almost to the top of El Diente. John traversing the ledges from my stopping point.

As we hustled down, John told me he saw a blue flash make contact with the rock above us. Yikes! The wind was blowing and it was snowing hard, rendering my glasses useless as I tried to down climb one of the trickier parts. John gave me a spot as he has done so many other times and we moved down the rest of the slope quickly and without incident. Thankfully, the sky stopped crackling within 20 minutes of the start of our descent. As we got back down into the forest, the snow turned to rain - a fitting end to this 11 hour day. We made dinner at our Kilpacker camp and climbed into our bags to warm up.

Day 3 - Saturday

We left camp at 5:30 Saturday morning and drove to the Rock of Ages trailhead with aims on Wilson Peak. Winds were forecasted to be stronger with gusts up to 31 mph, but we had mostly blue sky Saturday morning when we started.

Wilson Peak at dawn.

Fall colors below us.

At 8:18 AM, the sky had turned cloudy and a wave of thunder rumbled above us. Oh, not again! The winds were blowing and it was cold. I was again lagging behind, so John waited for me to catch up. He said he was having his doubts and asked if I wanted to keep going, wait it out or turn around. The forecast was for "scattered" snow and thunderstorms with higher winds, so we thought maybe the current one would blow through. We were still only at about 12,000'. I voted to either keep going for another 30 minutes to see if it cleared or spin then. The thought of sitting and waiting it out in the wind and cold was not appealing. John said, "let's keep going then." and we were off again. Pleasantly, that cell did blow over and it got reasonably nice for a few minutes as we approached the Rock of Ages saddle. There, the wind picked up again. Not a big deal though in our wind shells. We traversed across to the Gladstone saddle and looked at the route above.

Wilson Peak at left in the clouds from the ROA saddle.

Thunder. Well, crap. Knowing that I'm the slow guy on this trip (a role I don't play often and one I don't especially enjoy), I tell John that he should go on without me. With his speed, he'll do the last 500 vertical feet in no time. Given the unsettled weather, I am a liability at this point. He asks if I'm sure and I say yes. He reluctantly agrees, gives me the car keys and says, "If I get to the top, I'm going down the North Face". He has descended it before, so we agree to reconnect back down in Silver Pick Basin. He has his Spot, I have my DeLorme, so we will have communication if we really need it, albeit through a relay system with help from back home.

I cruise back to the ROA saddle, start across the high summer trail, then see a snow gully that looks like it will get me out of the wind more quickly. I plunge step down it and am back in the basin shortly. The peak is socked in and I'm glad I'm not holding John back.

I look back up at Wilson Peak to check on John. Yep, looks good.

As I descend the trail through the basin, I run into the first people we've seen on a mountain so far this fall - a couple of gents from Arizona heading up through the snow in their running shoes. They ask about my gaiters and I tell them they really ought to invest in some. They tell me they are turning around in a minute. Good call guys. I wander down below the snow line and enjoy cell coverage from Telluride while I wait for John to descend. The Arizona guys pass me on their way down while I'm sitting enjoying the view, then John appears not long after, with another fall summit (and total 14er summit #299) under his belt. I congratulate him and we head down to the car, eager for lunch in Ridgeway (this time at Colorado Boy Pub & Brewery - great pizza!). Despite knowing I've made the right call for me the past two days, I'm not used to trying 14ers and not getting them. I've actually never been denied twice in a row.

We've still got one more day left in our long weekend, so we decide to drive to the Stewart Creek trailhead and give San Luis a shot on Sunday.

Day 4 - Sunday

With a 13.5 mile day ahead of us and knowing I've been dragging a bit the past two days, we roll from the trailhead at 5:30 Sunday morning. John is committed to making sure we both get this summit (which will be his 300th!). He leads us out of camp at breakneck pace. Since it's pretty flat, I'm actually keeping up! When we start going up hill, John suggests I pace for a while. Oh, thank God! I dial back our pace a touch, still going quickly on the flat parts, but slowing us considerably on the uphill stretches. Sunrise behind us makes me happy and I'm hopeful I'll close out the trip with a summit and not a third straight defeat.

Sunrise from San Luis

Fresh snow and my turn to break trail for a while.

John says he's going to take a break at the drainage before we cross to the south and head up towards the saddle. I keep trudging along, slow and steady, giving myself my own advice to make my best tortoise noises as I go - the tortoise always wins. I finally find a rhythm breaking trail through the fresh snow and I put in a solid 1,000 vertical feet of breaking before John catches me. I'm tired, so he takes over again and heads towards the saddle.

John resumes breaking just before the saddle.

I throw my wind shell and goggles on and get ready to get blown around a bit. Chris Tomer has recently put out a public service announcement that a cold front is hitting Sunday and Monday that is being overlooked by too many folks. He tells Melissa (who relays it to me) that we're far enough south that we shouldn't have precip, but "he'll feel the wind", he tells Melissa. It almost blew us over a couple of times on the ridge as we worked towards the top of San Luis, but thankfully, this terrain is forgiving. John is on the summit cheering me on as I plod along towards him. Soon enough, I join him on top, ending my 14er losing streak at two. I look at my watch - 3:42 up - not bad for 6.75 miles up hill in snow. Why am I so hard on myself? We snap a couple of quick pictures, then blaze back down, returning to camp in 5:54 round trip. Good grief, that was quick. We're going to be back to civilization in time to listen to the Broncos vs. Raiders game on the radio!

San Luis summit - 14er #300 for John.

Looking back down.

All in all, great trip. John is an amazing partner, and I'm lucky to have the opportunity to climb with him. I ended the trip with 3 new fall summits while John got 5 including #300. Not a single one of them was planned. I suppose we made the most out of that broken down train.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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 Comments or Questions

Nice work
10/02/2017 08:02
Glad to see some snow on these peaks for a change!


Making it look easy!
10/02/2017 08:17
Great photos and super speedy TR! Congrats on making the best of bad situation and snagging some great peaks in Fall!


10/02/2017 10:01
Y'all did some work. Good stuff.
John is so fast! After hiking with him with a heavy pack in snow, I can't imagine just how quick he would be with a light pack.


10/02/2017 10:45
"Middle South Wilson", funny! We'll have to go back and get "South Wilson" now that I know where it is! You have to admit it was a fun little climb with some great views! Sorry though that the time spent doing it may have cost you a summit of El Diente, just some bad timing with some very unstable weather. Thanks Joel, looking forward to climbing with you again, maybe this winter...


10/02/2017 16:20
Gnarly "fall" grid slots! Congrats on getting those, Brad. I don't envy you the thundersnow on El Diente, that sounds just awful.

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