Friday, August 19, 2011

Wilson Peak (14,024 ft.)

16 August, 2011: It's been a long time. Since our last fourteener together, Trisha moved north (to Greeley) and I moved south (to Rio Rancho, NM). After a hiatus of 13 months, we finally worked out the logistics to put together a trip to climb one of our remaining peaks.

Wilson Peak is the lowest of the three fourteeners in the “Wilson” group, but the high point of San Miguel County. Together with neighboring Mt. Wilson, it was named after (by??) A.D. Wilson, the chief surveyor of the Hayden expedition back in the 19th century. The confusion resulting from this oddity of nomenclature is legendary. Access to it has also been seriously disrupted for several years, after the owner of a private mining claim in the Silver Pick Basin blocked the traditional standard route to the peak. Fortunately for us, mere days before our planned trip, the Forest Service and a coalition of private groups finally reached a land-swap and purchase deal which, together with some new road construction by the FS,opened the new Rock of Ages trailhead to the public. This makes for a longer route than starting from the old Silver Pick Basin trailhead, but it is still a considerably shorter route than any of the alternatives. So that's where we started.

We camped about a mile-and-a-quarter below the actual trailhead the night before, at one of the newly-developed campsites which the FS has produced. This is one of those rare occasions in which I have to offer kudos to the FS: It took a long time, but the road to the TH is very good, and there are many available campsites along the way. Even better, their re-worked website provides good, up-to-date information which made our journey very easy.

After the short drive to the TH in the morning, we hit the trail just about sunrise.

It took us less than an hour to pass the trail junction where the Elk Creek trail splits off, and reach the major turn where the trail finally rounds a northern corner on the ridge and enters the Silver Pick Basin. At this point, across the basin, you can see Wilson Peak dominating the eastern horizon.

After traversing south on the west side of the basin, the trail comes to an amazing plateau, invisible from below, where there remain the ruins of a large stone house (see photos). After that, a series of very steep trail sections lead up to the Rock of Ages saddle,named for the Rock of Ages mine which is just on the other side. It had taken us almost four hours to get to this point, so we paused for a rest. We also met climbers who had come up from the other side, in Navajo Basin. We had some food here, donned helmets and prepared for the tough part of the climb. It would turn out to be tougher than we had anticipated.

A very short section of trail leads to a low point on the Gladstone Peak/Wilson Peak ridge. Then the serious stuff begins.

After a short (but potentially frustrating) section where the trail is sketchy and the fall potential is very real, the trail gradually climbs back toward the crest of the ridge. The going here is slow, as the rock is always loose.

After reaching a low point on the ridge, which affords dynamite views out to the northwest, a clearly defined trail drops back off on the southeast side and heads toward the false summit (approx. 13,865 ft.) Here we encountered the true crux of the route.

The actual ridge crest between the false and true summits is utterly unclimbable. It consists of spikes and towers of rock twenty to fifty feet high with huge vertical drops in between, and hundreds of feet of vertical drop on the southeast (climber's right) side. Fortunately, a series of steep steps, well worn by past climbers, leads down on the left side to a small but useable level spot next to this wall of spikes. On the other side, a similar, but longer, series of steps allows a climb up past the wall and, finally, onto the easier terrain just short of the summit.

The rock is so jumbled that the correct route is hard to discern at first. We not only stared at it for several minutes before descending, we waited for another party of climbers to begin descending, and spoke briefly with them about the route.

Thereafter, however, the route ahead was relatively clear. We made the final climb with little trouble, and finally strolled out onto the small summit just after noon.

The return trip was uneventful, although we were rather pleasantly sprinkled upon shortly before reaching the trailhead. At the TH, we met up with a trio of other members who proved to be interested in employing my experience on the El Diente-Mount Wilson ridge next summer. We'll see.

Overall, this was a very satisfying climb, partly because it was harder than expected. We now just have two hard peaks left to do. Photos can be found at:

RT: 8.6 miles

Time: 11 hrs., 17 min. (including nearly 45 min. on the summit)

Vert.: approx. 3,900 ft.

Long life and many peaks!


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