Rock of Ages Approach to the Southwest Ridge of Wilson Peak and the North Slopes of Mount Wilson

Date hiked: 09/05/16

Mileage: 17 miles and (according to my GPS) a net elevation gain of 8,000 feet

Head Count (how many other hikers I saw): 4 groups headed up Wilson Peak. 0 groups from the Rock of Ages saddle up to Mt. Wilson and back to the trailhead.

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I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to be down from a mountain so bad in my life.

With my intimate history of getting lost, I’ve tried to keep the habit of scrutinizing each trail class-3 or above online before I hike it. But sometimes, I just get lazy. A prime case in point was this hardscrabble up Mt. Wilson’s northern slope.

But, we should probably start from the beginning.

Living in the San Juan Mountains definitely has enough of its advantages, but it’s a difficult place to hike without 4WD. I’ve slowly come to terms with the fact I better get used to adding an extra mile or two each way just to hike in. While the Silver Pick Road to the Rock of Ages trailhead is far better than most, I still had to stop just outside of a mile from the parking lot to avoid crossing Big Bear Creek.

Of the three approaches to Mt. Wilson, Rock of Ages is probably the least common, but it does offer the shortest route up any of the three 14ers in the Wilson group, and in the off-chance the weather turned bad on me, I wanted to give myself the best shot at going home with at least one of them.

From the trailhead to treeline, easy class 1 hiking alongside Elk Creek gets you to about 11,000 feet, where the route climbs a tightly knit talus slope below Silver Pick Basin’s jagged western wall. As the creek meets its end inside Elk Creek Basin, the trail swings a wide arc to the north, ducks back under the canopy, then wraps west to climb inside Silver Pick Basin. The forest opens back up just in time for an unobstructed view to Wilson Peak.

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The start of the trail.

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Continue straight here. The Wilson Mesa trail branches off to the right.

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Elk Creek Basin

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Ice Pick Basin with Wilson Peak to the left.

Just after treeline, a private road branches off to the left. Continuing to the right, the Rock of Ages trail passes by several old mining remains, then levels again at 12,000 feet with the crumbling foundation of a stone hut leftover from the Silver Pick Mine.

Beyond the hut, the trail grows harder to read, and the grade steepens as it nears the Rock of Ages saddle. Finally topping out at 13,000 feet, Gladstone Peak and the Mount Wilson/El Diente Traverse come into view, forming the head of Navajo Basin.

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The stone hut.

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The sun rising behind Wilson Peak as we near the saddle.

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At the Rock of Ages saddle, looking up towards Wilson Peak.

Hiking east across the exposed spine of the saddle offers more difficult class-2 hiking. As the trail passes below a series of class-3 ledges, the standard route drops about 200 feet to follow the easier terrain, but you can shortcut the route by veering north and climbing straight over the obstacle. From another saddle connecting Wilson and Gladstone peaks, a few unavoidable segments of technical class-3 climbing gets you onto the southwest ridge, where the route eases up along a faint dirt trail treading between the rocks to the right of the ridge crest. It may be hard to follow, but this trail does stay intact all the way to the base of the 13,900 foot false summit.

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Stay right of the ridge crest. The red circles outline fellow climbers to give you an idea of the sheer scale of this mountain.

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Looking back towards the saddle. Gladstone Peak is to the left, with Mount Wilson to the right.

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Nearing the false summit.

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The final pitch from the false summit

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You have to drop about 50 feet from the false summit…

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…before gaining the true summit.

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Looking back at the terrain through the false summit.

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Basking in the solitude of another lonely summit.

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At the elation of summiting Wilson Peak, and with near perfect bluebird skies overhead, I had no hesitations in attempting Mount Wilson too. I’m glad I did it, but I really wished I was more prepared going into it. If anything, just to summit faster.

From Wilson Peak, backtrack to the Rock of Ages saddle, and this time head south into Navajo Basin. From the basin, the trail is difficult to spot, but just hike towards the shoulder of Mt. Wilson’s northwest ridge, and you should come across it eventually. The trail then scrambles across a massive talus field, mostly class-3, with wayfinding harder than anything I’d experienced yet. I literally had to hike from cairn to cairn to keep track of the trail. Don’t underestimate this mountain.

Nearing the top, the terrain becomes much more rugged, requiring a few easy class-4 moves. The crux of the mountain is a very exposed summit block which could result in disastrous consequences if not executed properly.23.JPG

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A faraway look at the general route up. I don’t advise using this as your trail map.

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Cairns do mark the trail, but I really had to scan the landscape for each one.

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The route downclimbs this slope.

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A closer look.

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Then scales this one.

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The summit block. I didn’t expect the sheer exposure involved in conquering this obstacle. Pictures just don’t do it justice.

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At the summit, looking towards Gladstone Peak and a red-tinted Sunshine Mountain in the background.

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El Diente. I think I’m done with class-4 for the year, but the El Diente/Mt. Wilson traverse is high on my bucket list for next summer.

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And a final word of warning for anyone looking to summit Mt. Wilson: BRING A HELMET.

For some reason, I had gotten it in my head you only needed one when hiking with others in case they kick rocks down at you. But I learned the hard way just how wrong that was.

The entire trip, my constant soundtrack was a cacophony of falling rocks showering the slopes in wide birth of me. I knew this probably wasn’t the safest environment to be hiking in, but I shoved those worries as far as I could into the deepest recesses in my mind and soldiered on. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder just how fast those rocks were moving. From 14,000 feet, they had to have been moving at least as fast as a car by the time they reached my elevation. And in the words of Isaac Newton: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

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Halfway up the mountain, standing at maybe 13,000 feet, a sudden rumbling echoed through the dead silence above me. I tried to figure out where it was coming from, but couldn’t see anything until the rocks were nearly right on top of me. My body gave in to autopilot, and I lunged ahead, out of the path of first few rocks, but before I even knew what was going on, a pressure like a vice gripped my skull. Stumbling, trying to shake the sudden pain off, it took a minute for the harsh realization to sink in that I had been hit. I don’t know how, but somehow, I turned my head just in time, and the rock only caught the frame of my glasses, rather than hitting me dead on. I got lucky. Needless to say, I’ll be getting a helmet before my next climb.

After I got home, I looked Mount Wilson up, only to realize it’s constantly ranked within the top five hardest and most dangerous 14ers to summit in Colorado. I also read – and this is the part that scares me – climbers have died attempting Mount Wilson because of falling rock. Regardless, with everything said and done, I wouldn’t have done it any differently – except maybe learned the route better and gotten a helmet beforehand.

Map

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Directions

(From Telluride): From the roundabout west of town, head north on Highway 145. After 8.8 miles, turn left onto 60M Road/Silver Pick Road. Follow this for 4 miles, then turn onto 622 road. The trailhead is at the end of 622 Road, 4.5 miles down the road. Big Bear Creek crosses the road 1.2 miles from the trailhead. For 2WD low clearance, there is a pullout just before the water with room for two cars. The road until this point is rough, but passable in low-clearance 2WD. I only had trouble on a couple deep ruts that I had to utilize the entire road to get past.

17.3 mi; 43min

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