El Diente (The Tooth)

by Daniel Weiss September. 14, 2016 1261 views

Date Climbed: 9/1/16

Elevation: 14,159'

Evening backpack into Kilpacker Basin

    For the first time in over a year, I had three consecutive days to climb as many 14ers as I could. That meant choosing the cluster of 14ers that would allow me the best chance of success, along with a minimum of three 14ers. The only options left were the Wilsons, the Eolus, and the Little Bear groups. Unfortunately, the Eolus group would require more like four days because of the train required to reach these remote peaks. Little Bear was too popular with wildlife, and thus too dangerous to do alone. That left me with one option: the Wilsons. Unfortunately, the Wilsons are constantly pounded by thunderstorms, and I do not have a single memory from this particular group that did not involve a downpour. Even though I had been to Kilpacker and Navajo basins a number of times, I was always turned back by bad weather.

    The forecast was not promising either, but since this was the only chance in my schedule, I kissed my wife goodbye and began the tedious drive from Denver to the San Juans. I slept in and got a much later start than intended, and so did not arrive at the Kilpacker trailhead until around 4 PM, leaving me only four hours to backpack into camp and setup everything. The clouds were low and obscured any view of the peaks high above. Thankfully, I did not have to summit that evening, and could simply take pictures and enjoy the beauty of these great peaks.

    Wanting to get a very early start, I set up camp as near to timberline as I dared, what with the high chance of thunderstorms that night. I had a sneaking suspicion that there was some flat ground high up in the basin, closer to the waterfalls, but if I was wrong, I would be setting up my tent in the dark. So I decided to set up camp in a well-used sight, and prepared dinner.

View from camp

    The forecast had an 80% chance of thunderstorms tomorrow afternoon, which meant I would have to get up before first light, and hopefully make it to the base of the peak before sunrise. As the fire died down, I hung my food and trash in a tree, and turned in for the night, setting my alarm for 4 AM.


    I was occasionally awakened by the soft pit-pat of raindrops on my tent. My heart sank; "if its raining already, there's no way I can ascend El Diente..." I thought, half asleep. A few hours later, my alarm went off, and I unzipped my tent, hoping to see bright stars dotting the heavens, indicating clear skies. It seemed luck was on my side, as I could make out countless little white dots, only blocked out by the immense peaks to the east. I zipped up my tent, brought my stove to life, and made hot chocolate mixed with a chocolate chip Clif bar. After a 30 minute nap to allow the food to digest, I was off into the cool night.

    It had not been nearly as cold that night as it should have been, meaning I did not have to bother with layering and other time consuming details. In the dark, the route finding was very difficult. Little to no trail existed in this basin, save for a few cairns. But once again, the winter had prepared me for such difficulties, and I only lost about 10 minutes in my slow, and steady search through the endless boulder fields. Off to my right, I could hear the thundering of waterfalls as I passed one drop after another. At least if I lost the trail on the way back, all I had to do was follow the water!

Upper Kilpacker Basin

    Just as the first of the sunlight began to burn away the inky blackness around me, I could finally make out El Diente and West Wilson (a sub summit of Mount Wilson). If the weather held, I would attempt one of the Grand Traverses of Colorado; the El Diente-Wilson traverse. The weather would need to be perfect, however, as this was a very long and slow climb that had claimed many lives, and I did not intend to lose mine just yet.

South Slopes    

    The sunlight revealed what I had been dreading: cloudy skies. There was a 50/50 chance that the clouds would burn off. Unfortunately, unlike most 14ers, El Diente's climbs are time consuming and there is no quick retreat. Fraught with needle like rocks jutting from its flanks, each one could easily act as a lightening rod, should weather come in. What's more, there was more than a little snow in the bowls above me. Although I had an ice axe, I did not have crampons, and even if I did, the snow would be just deep enough to slide in, but not deep enough to allow for good purchase with my axe. But that's just a part of the risk of climbing, and if I had to turn back because everything was not perfect, I would never be able to summit another peak. Obstacles and unplanned challenges are a part of the experience!

Almost on the ridge

    After some steep hiking, the terrain became more difficult and exposed, and before long, I was just below the beautiful 'Organ Pipes'. Unfortunately, I did not think to take a picture of them, but they looked like a lot of fun to climb if I'd had the gear and a partner. Alas, I didn't so I had to stick to the regular route. The route finding remained difficult, but the tough terrain slowed me down enough so that I could pick out a line to follow long before I got there. Up the last (hopefully) loose gully I went and over the ridge to the North side, and all that remained was 300 vertical feet of scrambling!... Or so I thought.

On the north face

    The south face, which had seemed so invitingly dry and warm was exchanged for cold, wet rocks and loose unconsolidated snow. Clouds were building in the distance, which meant time was running out, and what should have been the easiest part of the whole climb turned out to be the most difficult and dangerous. Had the snow been deeper, I would have brought crampons and made quick work of the ridge, but as it was, I was left to carefully think about each step, hoping not to slip off the edge. Not a week after my climb, another gentleman would attempt the traverse in the same snow, where he slipped and fell, resulting in an injury, a long bivouac overnight with no equipment, and an aerial rescue.

The couloir

    In better circumstances, I would have loved to climb a couloir like the one pictured above. However, without the proper equipment and a partner to belay me on such bad snow, this was the most difficult and dangerous part of the climb. Leaving my bag behind to allow better balance, I began the short 100 foot climb, kicking steps as I went. Every other kick, my foothold would crumble when I put weight on it, but thankfully the other holds helped my keep my balance. Carefully picking my line, I tried to stay on the slick rock as much as possible, since the snow was not deep enough to truly be supportive. Heart beating, fingers numb, and axe in hand, I ascended the last few feet to the very top of El Diente.

The only summit pic of the day

    After a quick selfie, I began to descend, with no time to rest. There were blue skies above, but on the horizon, I could see thunderheads forming. I'd hoped to make the traverse, but seeing as this short 300 feet took me over half an hour, I knew the even more difficult and longer traverse would have to wait for another day. Carefully down climbing each step I had kicked in the snow, I made my way back to my backpack. I flung it over my shoulder, sent out the OK on my SPOT, and began the slow traverse back to the gully.

    Once below the Organ Pipes, I called my parents, who were in Telluride at the time to let them know I was descending. A quick chat and I was off. The once blue skies had given way to cloud covered peaks in less than 10 minutes (see below). I pushed myself as fast as I could, wondering the whole way down why there was no one else on the trail. True, the forecast was not great, but an early ascent could allow for safety, and these peaks were pretty popular in the summer.

    Once back at camp, the peaks were again shrouded in darkening clouds. Had the weather been the same this morning, I would not have even attempted the peak. It seems that the Lord had decided to give me at least one peak on this trip! Once packed and fed, I began the long hike out.

Dark clouds

    After an uneventful hike back to the truck, I could see rain beginning to hammer the peaks. The low rumble of thunder seemed to be almost continuous. Once I had exited the Dunton road and was crossing Lizard Head Pass, the streets were soaked and Lizard Head Peak was barely discernible through the heavy sheets of rain now coming down. I had really lucked out, and narrowly missed the storm. Had I been just an hour or two later (like I would have been had I attempted the traverse), I would have been down climbing a very dangerous peak in very bad weather.

    Once back at the hotel where my parents were staying, I hopped on the 14ers website, hoping for a better forecast for tomorrow. Maybe I could get in at least two peaks? 100% chance of thunderstorms and rain beginning at 3 AM. Not a chance. I decided to enjoy some time with my parents instead. I woke up at 3:30 the next morning, taking one last glance at the skies to see if anything had changed. It was still pouring rain. So after catching up on some lost sleep, we enjoyed a day in Telluride, and I returned home that evening. Although not entirely successful, the trip was fun, and I got my backpacking fix in before the winter came and I had to lug the behemoth -20 bag with me. At least I had taken down one of the hard ones! Only a handful left!

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