Date Climbed: 7/15/20
Elevation: 14,017 Feet
Partners: Mom & Dad
The last 14er. It had been a six year journey filled with highs and lows; blood, sweat, and tears; moments primal fear and staggering awe. July 15, 2020 would be the culmination of this challenge. As my final summit, I had chosen Wilson Peak, the mountain famous for decorating the side of the Coors Light can. I had chosen this particular peak to be my 14er finisher as it had been my parents’ very first 14er about 20 years ago.
We had booked a place in Telluride for the week, hoping to find a cooperative weather window during that time. Unfortunately, the only real chance we had would be Wednesday, the day after we arrived. 4 AM rolled around dark and early; my parents and I packed and left our comfortable apartment for the trailhead. Upon arrival, there were quite a few cars for the middle of the week. We were obviously among the late arrivals, which did not bode well for the current forecast.
As we began our hike, my parents discussed how the trailhead had once been further up the now gated road. Along the way, they would point out differences, and recall a time when the 14ers were more wild and less crowded. An hour and a half up the now partially reclaimed road, we entered Silver Pick Basin. The road slowly faded as we hiked higher and higher, passing old mining ruins, giving way to a steeper trail that slowed our quick progress. Eventually, the trail left the road entirely, and we began to switchback up a steep and very loose slope. At one point, we missed a turn and ended up crossing a moderately steep snow field.
It was at this point that we faced our first real challenge, and my mom nearly turned around. Not wanting to lose the opportunity for all three of us to summit together, I tried to kick very good steps into the snow and keep the mood upbeat. Thankfully, she pushed through the first challenge with flying colors, and soon we were back on a dirt trail reminiscent of the Phantom Terrace in the Sangre De Cristos. Fifteen minutes later, we arrived on the saddle overlooking Rock of Ages mine. My dad was convinced that the trail had been altered since they had first climbed the peak. Rather than switch-backing up a loose slope and traversing, he believed they had hiked on a trail all the way to the end of the basin and had switch-backed up the last few hundred feet up the headwall to the pass. At no point had they traversed. Looking down, it appeared to me as though there were occasional remnants of a trail that matched my parents’ description, avoiding the steep and loose side hill we had just passed.
We took a break at this point, taking in the stunning views in every direction. Across the basin lay El Diente and Mount Wilson, behind were green forests as far as the eye could see. Above was an intimidating ridge of sharp points and loose slopes leading the final objective: Wilson Peak. We worked our way along the faint trail, reaching a second ridge connecting Wilson to Gladstone Peak. It was here that the real climbing began. Although my parents had sworn there was no real climbing on the route except for the last fifteen feet, the class three slabs began right off the bat. After covering about a hundred feet in twenty minutes, it became apparent we would not beat the coming storm at our current pace.
My mom was very nervous, and at this point handed me a poster they had planned to give me on the summit and asked me to take a picture with it. She turned around and decided to wait on the ridge for my dad and I to return. Off we went, trying to keep the pace as quick as possible without wearing my dad down too much.
A few hundred feet later, the slabs gave way to loose scree, but a well-defined trail. We soon began passing those on their way down, all of whom gave us words of encouragement. The hike was slow, but manageable and just on the right side of speed considering the quickly gathering storm. Finally came the ridge crossover. A few class three moves and we could see the final pitch.
Doable; yes. Safe? No. It was at this point that I became nervous not for myself, but for my dad. Risk is something I’m fine with taking on myself. I can accept the challenge and inherent consequences of my decisions. However, I was very nervous that I would get my dad into a bad position (especially on the way down). I could tell he had no memory of this part; everything he had described fit a class three featured scramble. This was a class four climb, as hard as any of the most infamous class four 14er. I took it very slow, testing every hold and knocking down anything I thought dad might use that could break away.
Some time later, we were working on the last fifty feet. Ahead, a guided group was descending roped together. At that moment, I was kicking myself for not bringing a rope for just this eventuality. I was close to asking the guide if she would be willing to let my dad tie in for the descent on the top 50 feet. Not wanting to impose on them and slow them down further, I opted against the decision, and we made the final climb to the top. Just as I topped out, and loud and ominous boom thundered above us.
I could not, unfortunately, take this time to celebrate in the way I had hoped, and the emotions of finishing such a long journey would have to wait. We would be very slow on the way back, and the ridge was exposed. I took a few mandatory summit pictures to look back on, spending less than a minute on the summit, and we turned right around. I did not even bother to take out the summit beer or poster I had taken with me in celebration. I had no desire for a repeat of what had happened to my brother and I on Bierstadt.
After an extremely slow and careful descent off the summit, we made our way back across the ridge. Off in the distance, we could still hear the thunder rumbling. Thankfully, the threatening clouds moved off to the East and the storm never materialized. Once back on the Gladstone-Wilson ridge, we discovered my mom had left and taken our trekking poles with her. Not sure why she had done this, we continued on our way.
Back on the Rock of Ages saddle, we celebrated a successful summit. The descent was, as always on loose mountains, worse than the hike up. Thankfully, we were able to avoid the snowfield we had ascended earlier in the day. Once back on the road, we found mom, along with our trekking poles. Apparently some marmots had taken a liking to them and had tried to eat them. Wanting to outrun the storm mom had retreated further down the basin and took the trekking poles with her so that the marmots would not have their way.
Reunited, I told her about or brief summit and we continued on our way back to the trailhead. The last mile, I went on ahead so as to get the truck ready (and to get out of my shoes and into my flip flops). Once back at the truck, I realized this was the last time I would ever have an experience like this. Although I had been working on a list I had developed, it would never be quite the same. It was not an officially recognized list like the 14ers. This was the end of my labors, which had brought me all across Colorado, taught me many new skills, given me many friends, and opened the doors for expeditions to places around the world. There is so much I could say about what I have learned from this journey; but the most important, perhaps, is to be content with what I have. My journey is far from over at this point, but the 14ers chapter of my life has come to a close. I am grateful for each and every person who has joined me on this extraordinary journey. Thank you very much for all of you who made this experience possible.