Michael, Ron, Bonnie and I left Denver early on the 4th of July and made the nice drive down to the Kilpacker Creek trailhead. After final additions and adjustments to our packs, and battling the bugs (which would continue the entire trip whenever we were in the trees), we were on our way up the trail. We made a great camp just before the Kilpacker Creek crossing (off to the left and down the hill a bit). It was a nice campsite with our own little "canyon" and a private waterfall nearby. The plan was to make an early start on Thursday ascending the Navajo Lake trail into Navajo Basin, up Mt. Wilson (hopefully via some non-snow route even though we had ice axes and crampons), across the ridge to El Diente and then descending into Kilpacker Creek, down the trail to the Navajo Lake trail and back to our camp (a circuitous route).
Thursday morning brought beautiful clear skies and we were out of camp by 5:00 a.m. The Navajo Lake trail is an up and down affair ... it loses elevation, gains elevation, loses more elevation and eventually gains elevation continually to and above Navajo Lake. It was fun to see this view of these peaks as they loomed high above us. There was still quite a bit of snow on the north side of both peaks and we opted to head fairly far up the valley and catch what ended up to be a great trail (and I do mean trail), mostly 2nd class, with some 3rd class scrambling (cairns the entire way). The views of Gladstone were incredible the entire time. This route was a bit farther east than the one we took 17 years ago, but was effective nonetheless. On the way up this route, we witnessed an incredible rock slide and subsequent snow avalanche on the typical north face descent/ascent route of El Diente ... we prayed no one was in the area. We topped out on the ridge about 100 yards from the final summit pitch and made our way west along the north side of the ridge following cairns. Just before the final summit pitch, we dropped our packs and followed the spiny ridge to the summit. This was a change from last time too ... last time, we dropped down and climbed below this exposed ridge on rock/dirt covered ledges, eventually regaining elevation to the summit. I much prefer staying on top as we did as the rock was solid, though the exposure was evident. It was definitely a 4th class finish. There were two guys on top who had come from El Diente along the ridge. We didn't stay very long, signed in the register, took a few pictures, and made our way back down to our packs.
My memory of this traverse was foggy to say the least (there's been many summits since then). I didn't really remember it at all except for the crappy descent down El Diente (with rocks the size of volkswagons tumbling down for no reason at all). This IS an incredible ridge. We had a mix of 3rd and 4th class staying on the very top of the ridge whenever possible and avoiding most obstacles on the south side when necessary (though we did go on the north side a couple of times). The rock, for the most part, was great and handholds and footholds seemed to be strategically placed for convenience. A bit past halfway across, we ran across an older man and his young teenage daughter that were coming from El Diente on their way to Mt. Wilson, and found out that they had set off the rockfall/avalanche that we had seen earlier in the day. They appeared to be no worse for the wear, but did complain about having to pull out a rope when avoiding the Organ Pipes (in retrospect, I believe they dropped too far down off the ridge on that part of the traverse). We continued on, up and down the ridge until we came to the Organ Pipes. We descended on the south side (staying as high as possible) following cairns the entire way. Electricity in the air stopped us for quite awhile (more than once) and we seemed to find a great place each time to take a bit of a rest for food and water. Soon, we were on our way again, heading back up towards the ridge proper. At this point, we dropped our packs where we intended to start our descent down to the Kilpacker Basin. The final ascent up to El Diente was wonderful (in spite of the dark clouds swirling about our heads), and after a couple of moves to avoid ice, we were on top. We stayed long enough to sign in the register and take a couple of pictures, and then high-tailed it back down to where we left our packs as the weather was definitely going to make it to our valley very soon.
The descent heading south off of the ridge was soooo wonderful compared to the north side of El Diente. The initial descent involved some 3rd class moves, but eventually turns into a 2nd class scree and talus fest (with a few patches of snow to cross). Cairns marked the entire route down from the ridge (be sure to avoid the cliffs as you head down to the basin). We made our way down to the rocky mining trail (well-cairned) that would lead us down to treeline, and the well-beaten path of the Kilpacker Creek trail. The torrential downpour (and gusty winds) waited to start until we hit that mining trail. The rain lasted about an hour-and-a-half. Once we got down by the lowest waterfall (and great campsites), we put on our headlamps and continued down the Kilpacker Creek trail to the Navajo Lake trail turnoff and back to our camp by the creek.
This was a 17-hour day from camp to camp (we're not spring chickens anymore!). I believe the key to this ridge traverse is to stay as high as possible ... of course, if I could make a standard comment, I would say that is the rule for most of the traverses we've done. We probably had a total downtime, due to bad weather and lightning, of about two hours on the ridge ... but, never literally on top of the ridge (thank heavens ... that's no place to be in bad weather). What a great, full day of hiking, scrambling, climbing, downclimbing, traversing, clinging, slipping and sliding (on the wet mining trail), gawking at the views and enjoying time with people I love. Who could ask for more! Happy Trails!
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