El Diente Mt Wilson Traverse was the first of the four Colorado 14er Grand Traverses that I did. The route was a long, fun one with some interesting moves and exposure, not for those starting out.
Know Before You Go
Location: San Juan
Trail: Kilpacker up to El Diente’s South Slopes and down Mt. Wilson’s Southwest Slopes.
Distance: 13.25 miles RT
Elevation Gain: 4,800 feet
Summit Elevations: El Diente – 14,159 feet; Mt. Wilson – 14,246 feet
Difficulty: Extreme, a fall from this route would end in serious injury or death. High potential for rockfall. We heard a large one that lasted almost a minute while on the traverse along with two others. Rock is very loose on the entire route. Test EVERY hold before weighting it, even the big stuff. I tested a couple large pieces that looked very in the mountain to find out that they weren’t.
Season: Summer, but having snowfields on Mt. Wilson’s southwest slopes was fantastic. Go early enough in the summer that the gullies still maintain some snow to help stabilize rock (and bring proper gear for it) but go late enough that the rock on the ridge routes is dry. It can be done without the snowfields, but it definitely made the descent easier (and more fun!).
Weather: Go on a day that has a 0% chance of afternoon rain. It is a long route and once on it, you don’t really have any bail points. You do not want to be on this exposed route with lightning and rain.
Trip Date: 07/01/2020
Getting to the El Diente Mt Wilson Traverse
There are a few ways to do this route, I went to the Kilpacker trailhead, but you can do other routes up the peaks. Read the route descriptions on 14ers.com before deciding which one you want to do. I had already done Wilson Peak, right next to Mt. Wilson. Many choose to backpack in from the Navajo Basin trailhead, or the Rock of Ages Trailhead. There is also the Woods Lake Trailhead which is less commonly used.
The nearest town is Telluride, which is still at least an hour from any of the trailheads. There was camping at Kilpacker, though we opted for sleeping in our cars. Rock of Ages has some camping sites along the road before, but there is no camping at the trailhead. It was pretty packed with tents so when I used this trailhead for Wilson Peak, I just slept in the car also. For Rock of Ages you’ll need a 4WD but Kilpacker was find with 2WD.
Climbing the El Diente Mt Wilson Traverse
Ascending El Diente
We started the ascent for these peaks early, 2:50am in the morning to be precise. This ended up being a good time to go. We got to the base of El Diente right before it started getting light out, so we didn’t have to wait long before we were able to see the route. There were a couple snowfield crossings that we opted for microspikes and ice axes. A couple people before had said they didn’t need them, but the consequences of falling on the some of the snowfield would be pretty bad.
We got to the base and started heading up, paying attention to the route description on 14ers.com. There are a few different gullies going up. We followed the route description for the South Slopes so took the correct gully, but it did seem like the one on the left also went, as two guys who were coming up behind us chose to take that route.
The route meandered up around some loose rocks, before we popped over on the northern side of El Diente. We came across a guy who tried to go straight up the ridge line. I don’t know what this goes at, but there looked to be some 5th class moves in it. He said he was sketched out and lost until he saw us on the route, so pay attention to the cairns here and the route description. It is pretty obvious as long as you pay attention and are familiar with route finding.
There were a couple more snowfields here we decided to use gear on again. While definitely possible without it, a fall on this would be disastrous. We continued the short scramble up before reaching the summit at 7:20am getting great views of the El Diente Mt. Wilson Traverse.
Climbing the El Diente Mt. Wilson Traverse
We ate a quick breakfast at the top of El Diente before heading back down the way we came for a couple minutes. We crossed the couple snowfields that we came up on. Once we rejoined the trail the traverse, the fun started!
I already knew I was going to come back and redo this route. Unfortunately, I was feeling sort of sick on the route, so I did not enjoy it as much as I normally would.
We followed the route description and cairns for most of it. There was a section where Jamie decided to go high on a more exposed catwalk. It looked fun but since I was feeling like I might pass out on the mountain, I opted for the lower portion to keep it at class 2 and 3. Slightly disappointing but also probably smarter. Though I’m sure some people reading this would say the smarter option would have been to not do the traverse but what can I say. I wasn’t feeling that bad.
We stayed along the ridge for a lot of it and there were only a couple moves that caught my attention. For the most part I just tested everything before weighting is as even the bigger boulders could be loose. A couple sections had an exposed move or two but nothing too tricky.
We eventually got to the last section when we saw the guys who had passes us earlier. They hadn’t realized you could descend on Mt. Wilson and thought they had to take the traverse back across. We told them they didn’t need to traverse back, but they didn’t believe us when we said there was a route down Wilson. They had gotten sketched on the last few moves going up Wilson and didn’t seem keen to go back up to follow us on the way down. It’s a good warning to read route descriptions before doing the route.
The final section before the summit is considered the crux. It was a little icy on some of the cracks but was completely avoidable. Definitely not a place to fall but it did not seem to be much more difficult than other parts of the route, just longer. There was one section that was weird but fun going up the crux. There was a large enough hole to fit through that we squeezed in. It was not in the route description but was a fun move that was different. The route seemed to go more left than what we went.
We had heard from a few people that the last move going up the traverse was also really weird, so we arrived with the expectation that the hardest part was here. In the end, neither of us found it to be too weird. I had heard of people going right, but it seemed to be more ‘tall person beta’ so we went left. Both ways were a little exposed which probably attributed to people not liking these final moves. The hardest part of these moves were getting a marmot to move off the rocks we needed to grab on to. He seemed pretty content there and refused to move for a couple minutes.
Eventually he decided to be on his way and we reached the summit of Mt. Wilson at 11:05am. This put us at about 3.5 hours on the actual El Diente Mt Wilson Traverse, which wasn’t too terrible. We ate a quick snack and enjoyed the views before heading down the mountain.
Descending Mt. Wilson
We started down the Southwest Slopes of Mt. Wilson, which we were both extremely happy to see was still filled in with snow. It still was not my favorite part of the route, but the snow made the descent a lot easier. From what I’ve heard, it is no one’s favorite when in full summer conditions. The snow definitely made it more stable and easier to descend.
One we exited the gully, it was easy going down to the base of the mountains where we had started early that morning. We glissaded down a fairly steep hill before coming back to the scree and my least favorite part of this mountain. We continued walking out, meeting a couple people coming in for day hikes. Overall though, the trail was still pretty empty.
We reached the cars at 3:05pm, almost 12 hours exactly on the El Diente Mt Wilson Traverse. We spent our time celebrating by driving down to Lake City to pass out at the trailhead of Uncompahgre, another Colorado 14er before waking up the next morning to do it again.
What to Bring on the El Diente Mt Wilson Traverse
Approach Shoes – I brought my trusty LaSportiva TX3s with me. And my Hoka OneOne Challengers for the approach. Hence the larger than normal backpack on this route. Normally, I would not bring two pairs of shoes. Due to some foot problems I’ve been having for the past couple months after a running injury, I’ve been switching out shoes recently to help my feet out.
Helmet – I used my Black Diamond Half Dome. It is chossy (loose rock) on the mountain. You’ll want it if you are below anyone else.
Trekking Poles, Ice Axe, and MicroTraction – Make fun all you want. I may be one of the few twenty-somethings with my Leki trekking poles on the mountain, but I never regret it on the downhill. Plus it is useful on snow climbs to have a pole in your non-axe hand. I borrowed an axe as I had planned on being in the desert for two days when I left Denver. And ended up in my vehicle hiking, canyoneering, kayaking, and scrambling around for a few weeks instead. Usually I bring my C.A.M.P. ice axe though. I also borrowed Kahtoola MicroSpikes, which is what I typically use when not using crampons, but my pair also was in Denver.
Normal 14er Gear – If you aren’t sure what this looks like, maybe consider some other peaks to gain some experience before attempting these two. Here is my list of my normal 14er gear to get you started on some of the easier ones.
have you done this route and if so, what did you think of it? Let me know in the comments! If you aren’t quite ready to tackle this one but want to start climbing some class 3 ones, read my post on the Best Beginner Class 3 14ers.