By Labor Day weekend, when Michael and our friend Ron were climbing Crestolita and Kit Carson Peak (and neighbors), I was able to log six miles roundtrip on the jeep road wearing my hiking boots. So, we planned a return to climbing for mid-September.
September climbing in Colorado can bring a mixed bag. The nights are generally much cooler, the bugs are gone, the fall colors are abundant and the mornings are crisp. You can have unending sun or unending blizzards (haha). We would come to find the best of both of those worlds with this trip.
We decided upon El Diente/Mt. Wilson (from Kilpacker) and Wilson Peak and Gladstone Peak (from Bilk Basin).
We left Denver on Wednesday and drove to the Kilpacker Creek trailhead (arriving in the afternoon and setting up a nice camp in the trees). The entire drive was highlighted with the fall colors in full swing. Since Michael and I had already done the three 14'ers (all from the Silver Pick side many many years ago), we elected to approach Wilson/El Diente from this beautiful side of the massif. There was a group of three hunters from Texas camped near us (practically homesteading with the conveniences they had) and they complained to me that they were not having luck with the elk bow-hunting season; they stated that the snow level needed to drop. Little did we know that their wish would soon be granted.
On Thursday, we shouldered our backpacks (mine a bit lighter than normal as this was the first weight I had carried since the break) and we hiked to a beautiful campsite in the trees just below the lower waterfall. It was raining lightly as we set up our tents and got our gear organized. We discussed our plan during dinner. On Friday, I would do a day hike up to the upper waterfall and get some bouldering in, while Michael and Ron would ascend El Diente (via the south slopes), do the traverse over to Mt. Wilson, descend into Navajo Basin, and loop back around to the Kilpacker Creek Trail and ascend back to our camp. So much for the plan.
On Friday, we awoke to rain (actually, it had rained most of the night). We decided to hang out for the day, hoping that the weather would improve. Unfortunately, the weather Gods were not with us. It continued to rain all day in camp, which meant it was snowing all day higher up on the mountain. Oh, there would be moments when a sucker hole would lure one into thinking it might get better, but it never did. We remained optimistic, going so far as to pack our day packs for the next day; munch some breakfast, shoulder the pack, and get on with the climbing.
On Saturday, we were greeted not only by rain, but snow too. Not a good sign. After a very short discussion, we decided to pack up, backpack out and drive to Ron's friends' home in Norwood to dry out our stuff and get a fresh start on the second half of the trip. El Diente/Mt. Wilson would need to wait until next year. As is always the case with Murphy's Law (or whomever's law you would like to reference), as soon as we got to Norwood, the sun came out, the sky cleared up and the views were spectacular. Norwood sits atop a plateau of sorts and the views were awesome. The wind was continuous enough to dry out our gear and we re-packed everything, took showers, ate yummy pizza and enjoyed the good company of friends. The entire time we were haunted by the fact that the weather was perfect. How much longer could that last? Should we have just driven to the Bilk Basin trailhead? Maybe we shouldn't have taken the break!
On Sunday, we got up super duper early, ate breakfast and drove to the trailhead for Lizard Head Trail/Bilk Basin Trail. It was a beautiful day. Since I was supposed to be packing "the marshmallows" and the guys were packing "the bowling balls", I had stopped at the store the day before and picked up a great big bag of marshmallows (haha); we hoped the weather would be good enough to allow us a campfire and the opportunity to toast them. The backpack in was laden with golden, orange and red aspens. Our attention, however, was focused on helicopters that appeared to be hovering around Wilson Peak. After my initial reaction of, "is it a rescue", the continuing presence of the choppers made us all think maybe they were sight-seeing excursions. I mean, it was a great day ... clear ... no wind ... the trees are in full transitional colorful glory.
So, onward and upward on this beautiful trail, switchbacking to treeline and passing eye-catching waterfalls. We found the perfect camp above the trail just before we left treeline (and about 10 minutes before the Bilk Basin Trail branches off from the Lizard Head Trail. It was a great spot that fit both of our tents, was fairly sheltered, with a creek close, and there was an established fire ring nearby (with plenty of firewood around). The views of Gladstone Peak were intimidating ... it was caked with snow ... especially our route (the north ridge). Wilson Peak, in contrast, looked fairly melted out and do-able.
The plan all along for me on this trip was to nail Gladstone Peak. Since I'd done the 14'ers already and this was my first climb after the broken foot, I had not planned on doing other climbs on this trip and jeopardizing my chances of adding a centennial peak to my list of accomplishments. So, we decided on Monday, we would all hike together until I branched off to do Gladstone; and, Michael and Ron would go up and climb Wilson Peak, descend and catch up with me on the ridge to Gladstone. None of us thought I would be moving too fast (though the foot was feeling fine, the sprained ankle was still weak and had not been tested on sloping, slanted or tenuous footing).
On Monday, we were greeted by a spectacular, clear day. Up the trail we headed. But, as we got closer to the connecting ridge of Gladstone and Wilson Peak, it became very apparent that I would not be doing any "soloing" of the north ridge on Gladstone. In fact, it looked like our bringing the rope and hardware was a good idea. So, I opted to head on up Wilson Peak with Michael and Ron. After trying to push the route on the ridge above the saddle connecting the two peaks, the snow and exposure caused us to make a wise decision, drop down a bit and hook on to the foot path that leads to the sub-peak of Wilson Peak.
Let's take a moment while I interject some information here (and let's not forget those helicopters from yesterday). Michael carries a small transistor radio with him (he listens to it at night to keep up on the news of the world, sports scores, weather reports, etc.). Well, on Sunday night, he picked up a Dallas station and on their hourly news, they talked about a plane crash (and subsequent rescue/recovery) occurring on Wilson Peak. There was a small plane with people on board on their way to Telluride to the Blues and Brews Festival. The crash had occurred on Friday (when we were experiencing the bad weather in the Kilpacker Creek area). So, on Monday morning, Michael told Ron and I about this and we thought, well that must be why those helicopters were up there hovering around the peak all day.
So, now, let's go back to the sub-peak of Wilson Peak. The short descending/ascending traverse to the summit is on the north side of the peak and was caked with snow. I opted to wait on the sub-peak (I'd already done the peak before and didn't want to stress out my ankle/foot while I still had a long way down to get back to camp). So, Ron and Michael headed down on sketchy snow covered ledges and rocks, and over to the summit ridge and scrambled up to the top. My husband was the first to arrive and started walking around when he was hit in the face with fuel fumes. They were so strong that he talked about it as he walked around. Then, he said, oh my God, it happened right here. Ron joined him and they told me how the summit had a large black burned area. The rock windbreak that had been built (to house the register and shelter climbers) was destroyed and one of the plane's engines was laying nearby, as was the ignition switch. There were personal items (hairbrush, book, hand lotion bottle, etc.) and debris in a small pile. The effect on the two of them was very apparent to me and I could hear them trying to work through the sadness and shock that was overwhelming them both. It was obvious that people had died there. They could see where the recovery workers had rappelled down some north facing gullies. It was a scene of devastation. They did not stay long on the top, and soon were back over to me where we discussed the events on the way down. The way the peak summit is positioned, if the plane had simply gone a bit to the left or to the right or even 50 feet higher, they probably would not have crashed. But, with the weather the way it was, I'm sure their visibility was so bad that they didn't even know ...
We later came to find out that it was a group of four young people (all in their 20's) from Texas. No one survived. Our prayers went out to their families and friends.
Needless to say, this put a bit of a damper on our psyche. We got back to camp fine, had dinner and discussed the plans for Tuesday. I was pretty sore from the climb, and thought I could probably get Gladstone done, but would make better time and be in better shape if we waited until Wednesday. The guys agreed and we decided to take Tuesday off. Tuesday was a perfect day. Sunny, warm, relaxing. Michael rigged up a shower and we all rinsed of the sweat and grit from the previous days events. Then, we hiked down to the creek and soaked our feet in the ice cold water. A helicopter did re-appear over Wilson Peak and we figured it might be to pick up some of the objects piled up on the summit. We had a great dinner and toasted marshmallows around the campfire. What a nice day off. You know, in retrospect, you pay for days like this. And, we should have known of things to come ...
On Wednesday, we got up, ate breakfast, grabbed our packs and hit the trail. The morning sky looked odd. It wasn't a clear blue sky and there were ominous clouds coming in from the west and south. Ron stated that the barometer was dropping. So, we picked up the pace a bit. Once at the abandoned mining cabin, we headed a bit south and connected with the low point of the north ridge of Gladstone. From here, we could see the crap that was coming. We would need to move fast. Ron told us the barometer dropped again. There's not a better motivator to move than bad weather when you're on an already snow-covered, exposed ridge. I cannot tell you how much more desirable this challenging ridge would be if it was dry. The snow started falling lightly and the wind picked up. We were making good progress. Up, over, around, balancing, grabbing rock, trying to race what we now knew would not be a quick-moving autumn snowstorm. About 150 feet below the summit, I dropped my pack and we scrambled up to the top. There was no time to celebrate. But, I was overcome with emotion ... I'd never broken a bone before and was actually fearful I would not be able to climb again. We signed in the register, took a couple of pictures and hurried back down to my pack.
We had only made it a couple of hundred feet down the ridge when the heavens opened up and it started blizzarding and blowing. The visibility was poor; at times, it was nonexistent. And, then came the lightning. Ron noticed it first with the rocks buzzing. Then, Michael's ice axe. Then, my wet long hair started standing up. We had to stop. So, we dropped about 8 feet off the ridge (you can't really get off the ridge and make any decent time on this route) and waited about 10 minutes taking the opportunity to put on more clothes and munch some food. Then, we started down the ridge again. Our ascent tracks were gone already and the few dry clean rocks we had on the way up were covered up with snow. The lightning came again and we repeated the same brief rest stop. The routine continued and it soon became apparent that the weather would not get better as we descended. We wondered how far down the valley it was snowing.
After several hours, we finally made it down off that ridge (we never did use the rope), back to the abandoned cabin, down the trail (now covered over with snow and fairly indistinguishable), down to the mining road, and got to the turnoff for the Lizard Head Trail back to our camp. We lost the trail the willows (due to deep snow) and bushwacked, finally making it back to our camp before dark. Our tents were covered with snow so we shook them off, took off every wet piece of clothing we had (yup, that means we were naked), and got into our tents.
I guess we were all thinking this would let up at some point. But, it didn't. It kept snowing all night. We would occasionally bang the snow off the top, and finally had to vent the vestibule just to get breathable air. We woke on Thursday to about 14 inches of snow at our camp. We dug around for equipment and packed up in one of the few breaks in the weather that we would have. Wish we had brought those snowshoes (hehehe). Lucky for us, we were able to find the trail all the way out literally and it was a difficult task on the switchbacking part where the willows collapsed under the weight of the snow (thank heavens for many years of experience under adverse conditions). We eventually made our way back to Ron's truck which was covered with about 5 inches of snow and followed the sloppy road back to the highway (having to stop a couple of times to remove downed timber).
As a reward, we got a motel room at Ridgway, soaked at Orvis, and ate great steaks at the True Grit Cafe. And, as if we hadn't experienced enough weather on this trip, on Friday we were awakened by snow plows on the highway outside our motel room window ... boy, sometimes you just can't get enough! Happy Trails!