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Now This is Colorado

Monday, 25 July 2011 20:14 Published in Landscapes

If you ever listen to KRCC radio in Colorado Springs or if you've ever driven into Buena Vista via Highway 24, you may recall hearing or seeing reference to Chaffee County's motto, "Now This is Colorado!" I took this photo just off of Highway 285 in Chaffee County near Poncha Springs. Some people have told me that they don't know whether or not it is a dream or a nightmare - I think that is an apt description.

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Mount Adams is one of the last mountains in the top 100 in the Sangre de Cristo Range that I've yet to climb. It has always drawn my attention on other hikes in the area, and I had hopes of climbing it this spring. Instead, I opted to climb California Peak with Ethan, which was a great hike. Originally, I had planned to climb Pyramid Peak this weekend; however, none of my climbing partners had crampons, so we decided to hit Mount Adams instead. I had always read great things about climbing Mount Adams, and Gerry Roach has the west ridge route marked as a classic climb. Since I have more or less always agreed with Roach's ratings for "classic climbs," I figured that it would be the best way to climb it. So, Ethan and I agreed to take the west ridge route instead of the standard route. Feel free to read more about Roach's 13'er guidebook HERE.

This was particularly exciting since I have wanted to go back to Willow Lake for awhile now. Willow Lake is truly a magical place, and should be designated as a wilderness area, in all honesty. The lake is pristine, with a giant waterfall at its head. Additionally, it is surrounded by some of the most rugged and aesthetically remarkable mountains in Colorado, including Kit Carson Peak, Challenger Point, Columbia Point, Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle, not to mention Mount Adams!

Mount Adams is the 66th highest ranked summit in Colorado, sitting at 13,931 ft. 69 more feet and it would be climbed much more frequently, not that Ethan and I are complaining that we didn't see another soul on the summit...

Looking at the maps while driving over, Ethan and I also thought it might be fun to tack on another peak or two while we were out, so we decided that once we reached the summit of Adams, we would evaluate the conditions and how we felt and then decide on the next steps.

The drive over to the town of Crestone was remarkably unremarkable except for two incredible details. First, the pizza at Amicas in Salida was incredible, as usual. Second, the sunset as we were leaving Salida was insane. We drove out of town, heading west into Poncha Springs, and decided we HAD to pull over and take photos of this rediculous sunset. For my photos, I opted to do a minor HDR treatment since the foreground was quite interesting -we had stopped just in front of a huge grassy area used for cattle to pasture on. The results were stunning, with the sunsetting directly behind Mount Shavano.

Sunset over Mount Shavano HDR

Here's a zoomed-out version of the same scene, which I personally prefer.

Sunset over Mount Shavano HDR

We arrived at the Willow Lake trailhead around 10 PM, set-up Ethan's tent, and hit the sack, with our alarm set for 2 AM. We wanted to ensure that we had enough time to reach the summit of Adams before the weather hit. As soon as the alarm went off, we packed up quickly and hit the trail. The hike was an interesting one since there was a full moon and because we did not get a ton of sleep. Nevertheless, we hiked quickly and reached the base of Willow Lake within 2.5 hours.

Full moon in the Sangres

The full moon made for some pretty fun photography opportunities, although photographing the moon is always a big challenge unless you have a really nice zoom lens. Most photos you will see of the moon and of a scene are two images layered as one, since it is literally impossible to photograph the moon and your foreground without either overexposing the moon (like above) or underexposing your foreground. Anyways, seeing Willow Lake again was great. We rested there for a good 30 minutes and took some photos. The waterfall was just as awesome as I had remembered it to be.

Willow Lake at morning

We saw lots of tents on the way up, probably 15 total. Lots of people were up here to climb the 14ers. We were the only group doing Mount Adams though. We gained the trail to the left of the lake and began to ascend above the lake in quick order, stopping every once in awhile to get some photos.

Willow Lake

Before we knew it, we had gone too far and were nearly at the head of the lake near the waterfall. While we knew we were somewhat off-route, we decided to get into a good position to get photos of the sunrise and the full moon over Willow Lake.

Full Moon Over the San Luis Valley

We then turned sharply south to gain elevation into the small basin beneath Mount Adams. Since there is no trail up there, we just followed beneath the termination of a large cliff wall that led into the area, looking back from time to time to catch the sunlight on Kit Carson Peak.

Kit Carson Peak at sunrise

I've always like the geology of this area, which is comprised of clastic sedimentary rocks, which appear as large pebbles that are cemented together. These rocks sometimes erode, to leave behind some really interesting features. For more information on Crestone Conglomerate, check out this interesting website.

Matt Holding Up Mount Adams

As we gained the basin, we could not help but notice the amazing hues cast onto Willow Lake by the sun hitting the southern aspects of Challenger Point.

Willow Lake - Challenger Point Reflection

Indeed, the alpenglow on KIt Carson Peak and Challenger Point were quite impressive, and coupled with the moon and the lake it made for a perfect scene to hone my HDR skills. If you've ever wondered how to do HDR, you can do like I did, and read about it a ton, or watch this perfectly succinct tutorial from Trey Ratcliff.

Willow Lake and Kit Carson Peak HDR Sunrise

We kept on hiking up into the basin towards Mount Adams and stumbled upon a pair of really nice looking ponds. The ponds were surrounding by wildflowers and separated by a huge jutting rock feature, which made for quite a lovely subject for an HDR panoramic. Additionally, the clouds were insane, and continued to be all day long.

Kit Carson Peak and Challenger Point HDR Panoramic

After a few more minutes, Mount Adams finally came into view for the first time.

Mount Adams comes into view

The route seemed quite straight-forward to us, so we opted to just follow a rock gully up towards the ridge, which was strewn with all sorts of wildflowers.

Mount Adams trail of flowers

Challenger Point Black and White

Ethan was a superb photography this day - he captured many many photos of me throughout the journey, all of which I really enjoyed his perspective and composition on.

Matt gazes down at the lakes

We finally gained the ridge!

Matt on Mount Adams Ridge

Climbing Mount Adams

We were able to look down at South Crestone Lake and some 'miniture' Crestone Needle looking mountains.

South Crestone Lake

As we continued up, Crestone Peak came into view, and eventually Crestone Needle as well.

Ponds below Mount Adams

The wildflowers on Mount Adams were amazing.

Wildflowers on Mount Adams

Matt Payne photographing a flower

Wildflower macro

And the route up the west ridge was fabulous. In some sections, it really reminded me of Crestone Needle, just not as steep. The same type of rocks made for some enjoyable route-finding. I shall hereby dub Mount Adams, "Baby Crestone Needle." The similarities in the rock were remarkable.

Matt climbing Mount Adams west ridge

The clouds continued to look awesome, and so I was able to get this photo of Ethan gaining the ridge higher up.

Ethan Ascends Mount Adams

I was also able to get a really nice panoramic photo of Ethan gaining the ridge with the nutty clouds behind him. Click to see a larger version.

Ethan Ascends Mount Adams Panoramic

Check out this cloud - it looks like its going to eat my soul - thanks Ethan!

Matt Payne Silouhette

We stopped frequently to shoot photos. This is an all too familiar scene - me shooting photos of flowers. Thanks for catching me in the act, Ethan!

Matt Payne Photographing Flowers

Wildflowers on Mount Adams

Wildflowers on Mount Adams

Wildflowers on Mount Adams

We kept on truckin' up to the summit block, which proved to have some enjoyable class 3 options if one so chose, so we did.

Mount Adams summit block

Finally, we reached the summit and took a congratulatory summit shot using Ethan's camera on self-timer.

The summit of Mount Adams

Mount Adams was a great climb, for sure. The summit was superb, with excellent views in all directions.

Matt Payne on Mount Adams

We also had some insane smoke appear out of nowhere in the valleys around us, and before we knew it, the smoke was gone. It was truly odd. It was almost as if the valley below was on fire and then put out before we knew it. A look to the north revealed some crazy looking clouds over Rito Alto, Venable and Comanche.

Insane Clouds over the Northern Sangres

We also found an awesome spot with a great vantage point for a celebration pose. We took advantage and marvelled at the sheer depth below us from where we stood.

Matt Payne on Mount Adams

Ethan on Mount Adams

Naturally, my focus was on Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak, two of my favorite mountains in Colorado. They are so distinguishable and quite honestly some of the freakishly looking peaks there are in Colorado. In fact, Crestone Needle ranks just 4th on the "Most Impressive" list (for ranked peaks) that is based on the work of David Metzler and the ORS/RORS scales.

Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak Black and White

A view to the east revealed Fluted Peak (far left), Horn Peak (left, in distance) and the Horn Lakes below.  UN 13,580 (ranked 201) was directly south, with UN 13,541 and Obstruction Peak and Humboldt behind. Additionally, Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak stood out like sore thumbs with Columbia Point, Kit Carson Peak and Challenger Point all towering over the basin below.

Horn Lakes from Mount Adams Panoramic

A closer look at the 14ers of the area. Left to right - Crestone Needle, Crestone Peak, Columbia Point (13er, ranked 56th), Kit Carson Peak and Challenger Point.

Crestones from Adams

Ethan was loving the views and the clouds.

Ethan on Adams

And so was I...

Sangre de Cristo Mountains HDR

HDR with Crestones Bokeh

Dark Crestones

Alas - a perfect summit does not last forever, so we decided to head south towards UN 13,580 and beyond to see what we could accomplish. The dramatic nature of the cliffs to our left kept us on our toes and in amazement for quite a long distance.

Matt descending Adams

Ethan descending Adams

Also, the traverse over to 13,580 proved to offer some really fun challenges, including this class 3 manuever above a hugely exposed section.

Matt downclimbing Mount Adams

But it also offered some fun boulder scrambling on very solid rock.

More downclimbing

UN 13,580 was not too far from us, and the views kept us from moving too quickly.

UN 13,580

The rock was all totally solid, but in places it was awkward walking on slanted slopes of what felt like giant fissures in the earth.

Ho Hum

The terrain below


Ethan makes way

A look back at Mount Adams...

Looking back at Mount Adams

We finally reached the summit of UN 13,580 and enjoyed as what Gerry Roach describes on page 155 as "a startling view of Horn Lake." I don't disagree with Roach one bit on this detail, but what I do disagree with him on is that he describes UN 13,580 as a bi-centennial, meaning it is in the top 200 in Colorado ranked by elevation. According to my list, it is ranked 201 and just shy of that mark. When I built my database, I ranked mountains in the following order:

  1. By elevation
  2. By prominence
  3. By isolation
  4. By name

So, if two mountains had the same elevation and prominence, the mountain with more isolation is ranked higher. This seemed like the most fair way to rank mountains that had very similar characteristics. I am not sure how Roach or any others rank them.

Subsequently, according to my database, which is based almost entirely off of data compiled by John Kirk of Listsofjohn.com, Clark Peak, a 13er in the Elk Range, is also sitting at 13,580 ft. Additionally, it has the exact same prominence as UN 13,580, making them tied in most regards. The mountain with more isolation (Clark Peak) gets ranked higher.

Horn Lakes from UN 13,580

Sorry to get on that soap-box... here's a self-timer of Ethan and I on UN 13,580.

Ethan and Matt on UN 13,580

And Ethan with the Crestones in the background...

Ethan on 13,580 with Crestones in background

With me enjoying the "startling views."

Gazing on the Sangres

It was really cool signing the summit register for this rarely climbed peak. At the top of the register was Gerry and Jennifer Roach, followed later by John Kirk (of ListsofJohn fame), Susan Joy Paul (a regular on 14ers.com and a Facebook friend), and Doug Hatfield, another regular 14ers.com contributor who quoted on the summit register, "100/100 in Custer County," meaning, this was the last ranked peak in this county that he needed to finish. Quite an accomplishment!

Naturally, the Crestones just kept my gaze for much of our time resting on UN 13,580, so I decided to get some more HDR shots, as well as a non-HDR shot.

Sangre de Cristo HDR

Crestone Peak, Kit Carson Peak, Challenger Point

We decided to keep going along the ridge to see where it would take us. Much to our surprise, a lone goat crested the ridge to greet us below to the south.

Lone Goat in the Sangres

"We're gonna climb that one now?"

Ethan ponders the next

Unfortunately, the storm clouds starting building to the west, so we opted to bail at the first opportunity. Since there's no trails in this terrain, we had to do some heavy route-finding. This ended up being quite enjoyable and challenging, and afforded us with plenty of class 4 down-climbing opportunities.

Downclimbing to Willow Lake

Ethan downclimbing class 4

We found a crazy gully just below the first set of slabs we had down-climbed, and decided that the terrain on the other side of this mini-ridge below the gully looked much better as an exit. Unfortunately, the gully was loose and chossy, with eroded garbage and hardened mud. It was a real nightmare to downclimb. I went first, and faced-in for many sections. I kicked down tons of loose debris and tested every hold. It was quite a mess. Once I was down, I yelled up to Ethan that I was clear. Ethan had a bit more trouble, mostly because he was schlepping his trekking poles on his pack still (I opted to not bring any), and his camera bag was not of the LowePro Toploader variety that I have grown to love. His bag got into his way and he had to stop and re-pack the whole thing into his main pack. Almost down, Ethan had a few more moves left. He faced in and placed all of his weight on his feet, which were being held by what appeared to be a very solid and large boulder. Ethan shifted his weight to another rock, and as he did, the rock he was just standing on crumbled and disintegrated, causing huge blocks to go down the rest of the gully and down the mountain. Ethan was quite lucky. Here's some views of the nasty gully:

Sangre de Cristo escape gully

Escape gully

After the lame gully, we were greeted by a series of steep ledges that had interesting holds, probably rated at class 3 or 4.

Class 4 downclimb

Heading down the grassy ramps

A look back up the ledges:

Downclimb from 13,580

And over to Kit Carson and Challenger...

Kit Carson Peak

We descended this section pretty quickly, having to shift directions a few times due to the bands of ledges terminating a few times. I rested a few minutes at the base of the boulder field we came down and found a new friend.

Matt and a Butterfly

The columbine flowers were really nice too!

Columbine and Kit Carson Peak

Columbine close-up

Another look back up the insanity we down-climbed...


We re-joined the trail that leads up to Challenger Point and headed towards the waterfalls above Willow Lake.

Kit Carson stream

Creamy stream

Which were quite amazing!


Kit Carson and Willow Lake Waterfall HDR

Finally, we made it back around and to the lake in short order.

Willow Lake

When I was here in 2009, I took a panoramic photo series from the lake, which included the waterfall and a really interesting rock in the lake. I always regretted that photo because it cut the top off of Challenger Point. Not this time!

Willow Lake Panoramic

Also, we stopped below the lake to get some amazing shots of the lower waterfall near the trail.

Willow Lake Trail Lower Waterfall

Waterfall HDR

Waterfall HDR

The hike out was pretty uneventful after the waterfalls, except of course for the insane amount of switchbacks on the lower trail. We made it back to the car at 4 PM on the nose, just 14 hours after we started...

Lower Waterfall

Matt heading out!

Here's a look at the map, showing our route and elevation profile. Feel free to click on each to see larger versions. 

Mount Adams Route Map

Mount Adams Elevation Profile

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Sunrise from 14,015 feet: Wetterhorn Peak

Thursday, 14 July 2011 12:20 Published in Trip Reports

The adventure of my July 4th weekend for 2011 just wouldn't end on its own. After spending the morning in Telluride sulking about our partial defeat in Navajo Basin, Regina and I decided to drive back to Colorado Springs and lick our wounds. As we drove closer and closer to Blue Mesa Reservoir, I got a wild idea in my brain. Since both Regina and I still had three days off for climbing, I figured that it would be a total shame to waste that time off and gas money on only one climb up Wilson Peak. Even though we opted to not do El Diente and Mount Wilson, I still felt that we had more gas left in the tank, so to speak, so... I suggested to Regina that we head to Lake City and climb Wetterhorn Peak instead of driving home. At first Regina was more focused on a warm shower and a soft pillow, but it did not take long for the idea to set in and Regina enthusiastically agreed. Perhaps my tactic was not fair, since I knew that Wetterhorn Peak was Regina's favorite mountain of all time. Once Regina agreed, my mood increased dramatically and we set-off for Lake City and the Wetterhorn Peak Trailhead.

To make matters even more epic, I convinced Regina that we should start from camp at 2 AM so we could watch the sunrise from the summit. Climbing up the class 3 summit block of Wetterhorn in the dark sounded pretty fun too... We arrived at the trailhead and found a perfect campsite next to Matterhorn Creek. All night long, I had visions of a most epic sunrise over Uncompahgre Peak that looked something like this:

Uncompahgre Peak at Sunrise from Wetterhorn HDR

We quickly went over the game plan and Regina explained the route to me. Regina had been up this trail 3 times last year, so she knew all about it. The first time she went, she was pushed off before reaching the summit because of exhaustion. The second time, she was scared off the trail by actual mountain lions (true story), and the third time, she finally succeeded in reaching the top. She has never shut up about Wetterhorn in all of our trips together, so I figured that either she was exaggerating or that Wetterhorn was truly one of the best climbs in Colorado.
Wetterhorn Map

Our campsite was pretty awesome, and we were both thankful for our Mountain House meals that we had packed with us for Navajo Basin.
Wetterhorn Trailhead Camping

We went to bed, set the alarm for 2 AM, which arrived pretty quickly. I felt totally rested though, so we equipped our packs and opted to not pack up our tent so that we could hopefully reach the summit by sunrise. The trail was really easy to follow in the dark, but I could not help but think about the mountain lions that Regina encountered last year. Would they totally thwart our efforts? I really hoped not, and focused on the task at hand. We finally reached the area where Regina had encoutered the mountain lions last year, and wouldn't you know it, we looked down the hill to catch the gaze of three sets of eyes illuminated by our headlamps. Crap! Fortunately, we were able to realize pretty quickly that they were just deer, so we continued on up past treeline. It was not until we reached the final ridge of Wetterhorn that there as any light whatsoever in any direction, save the star light.
Matterhorn pre-sunrise

We continued on up Wetterhorn's ridge, enjoying the progressive light show that was starting to erupt to the east.
Uncompahgre before sunrise

Just before we reached Wetterhorn's final section, the sun began to get closer and closer to emerging... would we make it to the top before the sunrise? I was getting nervous in anticipation.
Uncompahgre at dawn

I was really having fun with my camera, firing off several bracketed shots for HDR, using rocks as a tripod and the self-timer to prevent camera shake.

We finally reached a small snowfield that was in a small flat area before the top. The snowfield was at the base of the huge cliff walls of Wetterhorn and lead us to a notch that was a portal to the super fun Class 3 section of Wetterhorn.
Uncompahgre HDR

At last, we reached the final summit pitch and Regina went first. Her enthusiasm for Wetterhorn was impressive and nothing like her lack of enthusiasm two days prior on Wilson Peak.
Regina scaling Wetterhorn Class 3

I was even able to take some video of Regina climbing up this section.

I followed Regina after she had secured herself above, and quickly made it up within a few seconds of fun climbing. We were literally about 20 seconds from the top and I told Regina that the sun would be rising in any second. I crested the summit and it was quite possibly one of the most amazing thing I've ever witnessed. The sun literally crested the horizon THE EXACT MOMENT that I crested the summit. The timing was insane. I ran as fast as I could to the other side, built a rock tripod, and began shooting. I knew that this was gold.
Uncompahgre at Sunrise HDR

These two are HDR and almost the same except for some slightly different processing techniques.
Uncompahgre at Sunrise in HDR

I was like a little kid on Christmas. I had no words to describe it. I didn't even realize it, but it was pretty cold up there. I think it took me a good 20 minutes to even feel it.
Regina Primavera on Wetterhorn at Sunrise

Regina was pretty excited too, being that it was the first time she had seen the sunrise from the top of the mountain.
Matt Payne on Wetterhorn

The views were simply incredible... including this 360 degree panoramic.
Wetterhorn 360 degree Panoramic

The lighting was perfect for High Dynamic Range (HDR). I knew that this would be the best chance I'd get in a long time to put together an HDR pano, so I gave it a shot. The results were mind-blowing. I can't wait to get one printed for my house.
Coxcomb Peak HDR

The views of Coxcomb and Redcliff were crazy!
Panoramic of Coxcomb and Uncompahgre from Wetterhorn at Sunrise in HDR

Hey, the summit shelter even makes a good tripod in a pinch! I decided to take a few HDR shots of Sneffels and the rest of the rugged San Juan Mountains to the west.
Mount Sneffels Black and White HDR

Uncompahgre Peak was truly an amazing feature to photograph from Wetterhorn.

I had always admired both Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn as a pair, especially last year from Handies Peak (Wetterhorn on the left, Uncompahgre on the right):

Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre

Is there really such a thing as too many sunrise photos?
Uncompahgre Silhouette

Or panoramics for that matter?
360 Panoramic from Wetterhorn

360 Panoramic from Wetterhorn

The Sprawling San Juan Mountains

The craggy features of Redcliff to the North were quite impressive as well!

All this photography and I had almost forgotten that Regina was with me, obviously a bit chilled!
Regina on Wetterhorn

Uncompahgre and Regina Panoramic

So, we decided we had enough amazing views for one morning and then departed the summit.
Regina and the San Juans

The downclimb was a little more tricky than the upclimb, but nothing worth worrying too much about. As long as you take your time and stagger your group, it is very safe.

Regina downclimbs Wetterhorn Class 3 Wetterhorn Class 3
Wetterhorn's Summit Block
Wetterhorn Terrain Regina at the notch

It never fails to amaze me what will grow on the side of a mountain...
Wetterhorn flora

Flowers on Wetterhorn

Regina on Wetterhorn

Naturally, Uncompahgre kept me in a state of wonder...
Uncompahgre with Lens Flare

As did Sneffels...
Sneffels Black and White

Uncompahgre and Matterhorn Black and White

Wetterhorn was pretty awesome looking for below, which was awesome since it was completely dark when we headed up.
Wetterhorn Black and White

Also, a set of lower peaks kept my attention to the west, near Ouray. They were so impressive and gnarly looking! I was convinced that it could only be Bighorn Ridge, just east of Ouray. I believe I have confirmed this by looking on the Impressiveness List on my website.
Descending Wetterhorn

All this photography set me back from Regina quite a ways, and before I knew it, Regina had reached the Golden Saddle.
Wetterhorn Golden Saddle

Wetterhorn Golden Saddle

We finally ran into some early hikers just after the ridge, who turned out to be none other than "Kitten" from 14ers.com.
Wetterhorn, Matterhorn and Uncompahgre Panoramic

Regina and I both spotted this awesome little pool below and I knew it would make for an interesting shot...
Matterhorn Reflection

Funny thing - unknown to me at the time, "Kitten" shot a photo of me taking that photo, as I discovered it in her trip report.
Matterhorn Reflection Black and White

I even got a picture of Regina, and Wetterhorn, plus the pool.
Regina and Wetterhorn

Wetterhorn Reflection Panoramic

Wetterhorn and Wildflowers

I spotted some interesting flowers off-trail and figured they might make for a cool shot with Uncompahgre behind them...
Uncompahgre and Wildflowers

And, out of nowhere, a plane went zooming by over Wetterhorn...
Airplane and Wetterhorn

The hike out was pristine. The views never got old. Wetterhorn and Matterhorn painted such an incredible vista.
Wetterhorn from Below

Wetterhorn - Uncompahgre Trail Junction

Wetterhorn looked pretty awesome from the valley below...

Matterhorn Creek Wildflowers

And of course, the weather started to move-in as we were heading out. The clouds were really intense, so I figured it might be fun to take some HDR shots of them.
Crazy Sky HDR

In case you were wondering, at the first trail junction, seen below... you go right. I barely noticed this one on the way up since Regina has this mountain memorized.
Wetterhorn Peak Trail Junction

Matterhorn Creek provided some amazing opportunities for photos as well, having a ton of water in it.
Pristine Waterfall Landscape

Matterhorn Creek Landscape

What else can be said about Wetterhorn? It is probably the perfect mountain. Here's why:

  1. The approach is short and easy, accesible to even the most novice of hikers.
  2. The route is solid - it is a terrific introduction to Class 3.
  3. The views are INSANE.

The only bad thing about Wetterhorn is that it is not closer to my house! I would rate it a 10/10.

I hope you enjoyed the photos! Please contact me if you would like to purchase any. See this page for more details.

Wilson Peak - An 'Airy' Scramble Above Navajo Lake

Wednesday, 13 July 2011 18:05 Published in Trip Reports

Fourth of July weekend always provides a tremendous opportunity for mountaineering, and this year was no different for me. Early in the year (January), I was eagerly planning my summer's climbs and saw this weekend and knew it would be both tremendous and controversial. You see, my wife's birthday is July 3rd. I begged her to allow me to climb on this weekend, knowing that it would probably be the only way I would be able to successfully complete the 14ers this year, which was my goal. My wife was really cool about it and said I could go. With that being said, I knew that the perfect match for this date range would be the Wilsons (Wilson Peak, El Diente and Mount Wilson). I set aside a total of 5 days for the trip and hoped I would not need all 5 days, but knew that weather could necessitate the use of all 5 days. My climbing partner, Regina and I roughly sketched what we thought would work best earlier in the year and when June 30th finally arrived, we were both excited to get out of town and up into the mountains! The plan was to drive to the Navajo Lake trailhead on June 30th and camp there, backpack up to Navajo Lake on July 1, establish camp, climb Wilson Peak and go to bed. After this, on July 2, we would do El Diente via the North Slopes route in the snow and then traverse over to Mount Wilson. This would leave July 3 for completing Gladstone Peak (a centennial 13er) and for the hike out. It even factored in one extra day for weather or for kicking it in Telluride for a bit.

So, with all that being said, Regina and I embarked for the Telluride area, a good 300 miles away. We drove through the Blue Mesa Reservoir area during dusk, and I was able to get one decent photo from the car while Regina was driving. I have always really enjoyed that part of the drive and someday I'll time it just right to get a gorgeous sunset photo there. Until then...

Blue Mesa Reservoir

The plan unfolded perfectly and before we knew it we had arrived at the trailhead for Navajo Lake at around midnight. We set-up camp away from the trailhead and set the alarm for 7 AM since we were looking at a good 4.5 miles or so to the lake and an additional 8 miles to Wilson Peak and back to the lake for our itinerary. The alarm went off and we sprang out of the tent and packed up quickly, eager to hit the trail. The weather was absolutely fantastic. This week, I decided to try something I've never done before and pack my tripod with me. While this added some additional weight, it would allow me to get some great photos at Navajo Lake and even try my hand at some more star trails photography.

Wilson Peak Route Map

Regina Prepares at the Navajo Lake Trailhead

The Navajo Lake trail was really quite fantastic - it weaves in and out of huge groves of corn lilies (Veratrum Californicum), but I like to refer to them as Indian Toilet Paper since back when I taught Leave No Trace we would always use them for, ahem, wiping.


Pretty quickly, the trail leads you up the long meadows and into view of El Diente, which by the way was one of the most deadly mountains last year.


The whole area was covered in those corn lilies and wildflowers, which slowed me down a bit due to me wanting to take a ton of photos. I think I have a serious photography problem or something... what do you think?

El Diente and Wildflowers Wild Lilies
More Lilies Columbine Flower


Naturally, a hike in the San Juans and the Lizard Head Wilderness Area are not complete without a sunbathing marmot!

Sunbathing Marmot

The trail kept winding up towards Navajo Lake and eventually we reached the trail junction for Woods Lake.

Woods Lake Sign

The closer we got to the lake, the more vibrant and ubiquitous the wildflowers became and I could not help but take more photos. What can I say, I'm a sucker.

Purple Wildflowers

Purple Wildflowers

A mere 3 hours later we finally arrived at Navajo Lake. The view of the lake and Gladstone Peak was absolutely stunning.

Navajo Lake

We were able to establish camp about 300 feet away from the lake up on a small plateau - it was an absolute gem of a campsite. After setting up our tent and getting everything else situated, we packed up our daypacks and headed on up the trail with the objective of Wilson Peak in mind. Our departure time was 12 PM. Normally, I would not attempt to climb a mountain so late in the day, but the weather was superb and I knew the forecast was totally clear, so we opted to give it a shot. Worst case scenario, we could always head back down to the lake if the weather turned on us.

Now, Wilson Peak has never held much status in my mind, purportedly being the easiest of the group's 14ers, so I never did much research on the route. Sure, I read the route description and printed off a few photos and paragraphs, but I felt pretty confident that it would be a fairly easy climb. Boy - I was really pleasantly surprised and wrong about that assumption, as you'll read later on.

The hike up into Navajo Basin was really enjoyable from the lake.

Navajo Basin Navajo Basin

After awhile, the trail finally brought us even with El Diente to our right, the view of the North Slopes route came into view nicely. Mount Wilson sits at the top of the basin, right of Gladstone Peak, and is connected to El Diente by a massive, spiny ridge, as seen in the below pano.

Mount Wilson and El Diente

Additionally, the blue hues of Navajo Lake kept me looking back, enjoying the vistas of the valley.

Navajo Lake

The trail was not terribly steep but it did weave in and out of large snowfields, making it a bit more interesting but nothing too dicey, so far.

Navajo Basin and Regina

Finally, we reached the headwall that leads to the Wilson Peak - Gladstone Peak saddle beneath the Rock of Ages Mine, which required us to head up a giant snowfield. The snow was quite firm and easy to hike through.

Wilson Peak snowfield

I was feeling really good and had gained a bit of distance between Regina and I, so I periodically stopped to let her catch up.

Mount Wilson and El Diente

The snow in the North Slopes Couliour for El Diente looked superb and I was a bit excited to see how that would work out on the following day.

At 2:30 PM, we both reached the Rock of Ages mine, which felt quite like something out of the 1800's. An old wooden mine shack still sits on the mountainside along with a small wooden bench, a mining cart and some other odds and ends.

Rock of Ages Mine

We rested at the mine, ate some food and discussed the next steps. The trail continued on up towards the Rock of Ages saddle to our left, but I knew from reading the route description that the trail winds back across the mountain just above the mine itself, so I figured it would be a good opportunity for some off-route exploring up through some easy class 2 boulders above us to the Wilson Peak - Gladstone Peak saddle.

Wilson Peak - Gladstone Peak Saddle

Personally, this terrain is a playground for me - the rock was somewhat loose but not too crazy, and it was fairly obvious which rocks were stable and where you needed to go. Regina on the other hand, not having grown up climbing off-route like me, felt a little less comfortable on the boulder field and was starting to have some doubts about the rest of the climb. I assured her that she would be fine and that she needed to treat the rocks with respect, expect that they will move, and be nimble about her movements. Eventually we made it up to the saddle without incident and were greeted by the first insane views of the day to our east. A cornicopia of San Juan mountains laid before our eyes and I was excited to finally get views of Lizard Head Peak, Fuller Peak, Vermillion Peak, Golden Horn, Pilot Knob, U.S. Grant Peak and South Lookout Peak, which all rest at the head of Ice Lake Basin - one of the most gorgeous locations in Colorado. Can you identify them all?

Ice Lake Basin from the Saddle

Here, let me help you!

Ice Lake Basin Map

Ice Lake Basin Zoom

Of particular awesomeness was the view of Lizard Head Peak, which will likely forever rest on my unclimbed list!

Lizard Head Peak

At this point, Regina and I had to make a decision. The weather was great. Barely any clouds in any direction. But - Wilson Peak was still a long ways off and it was already 3:30 PM. I still felt strong but Regina was fairly demoralized by how far away Wilson Peak looked still. From the saddle Wilson Peak was still a half mile away and a good 600 feet up across insane snowfields and rotten rock. I encouraged Regina to give it a shot with me, so we did. Right off the bat, we were greeted by a pretty intense snow field at the base of a cliff that was quite run-out, meaning, if you fell down, you were going to travel a long way down and probably die. We deployed our ice axes and secured our helmets and crossed, using extreme caution. Soon, a second and then a third snow field of equal danger were presented to us as well as crumbling rock and difficult trail-finding. Regina became really sketched out by the whole thing and decided that it was as far as she would travel and told me to keep going and that she would wait there. I was fine with that idea, so I continued on. I'm not going to lie - I was not mentally prepared for this climb. I thought Wilson Peak would be a walk in the park. Having much of the route obscured by steep and dangerous snow that had softened considerably throughout the day, my mountaineering skills were certainly challenged. The route before the false summit was chossy at best, with huge loose boulders cascading above and below me on a regular basis. Oddly enough, I was calm in this environment. I have an odd knack for loose rock and when my footholds and handholds gave way, I went with it, almost like walking onto an escalator. I chose my route carefully enough so that I could avoid the larger messes, but a few rocks did manage to take huge chunks of flesh out of my finger and hand. No worries though, the bleeding stopped quickly and I didn't even stop to apply a bandage. All in a days work. I was finally able to reach the ridgeline that connects to the false summit, and was able to catch views of a small wildfire that had broken out to the north-west of me.

Wilson Peak Wildfire

Of even more interest at the time, Wilson Peak's daunting summit block stood before me like some ancient pyramid. Again I found myself thinking - wow - really? I never expected this much awesomeness from this mountain. I was excited. Was this going to turn into a class 4 scramble? I sure hoped it did! The exposure looked inviting, but the rock was crumby and resembling of tiny pinnacles. I knew that I needed to choose my route carefully. The route description from 14ers.com stated that there was two ways to skin this cat - go left and downclimb to some safer class 3 sections, or continue on the ridge and challenge yourself with some nuts class 4 stuff. I chose the class 4 stuff and it did not disappoint me in the least.

Wilson Peak from the False Summit

In the interest of weight and balance, I decided to take a huge drink of gatorade and leave my pack on the false summit, bringing along my camera, which was attached to my chest by my new Lowepro Toploader bag. Yes, I realize that I broke one of the key tenets of mountaineering by leaving my pack behind, but I still feel it was the best decision.

After carefully finding my way down and through the class 4 section, I reached the summit at 4:50 PM. I was still feeling great. Naturally, the views were absurd and rediculous - in a good way of course! Sneffles towered to the north-east alongside all of her insanely shaped neighbors. All-in-all I would rate the Wilson Peak views as a 8 or 8.5. Pretty amazing.

Sneffles and her friends:

Sneffles Range from Wilson Peak

Wilson Peak summit pano

I was able to set my camera up to take a quick self-timer too - how fun.

Wilson Peak Self-Timer

I figured with Regina waiting below, I should get off the summit pretty quickly, and so I did, leaving at 5:03 PM. In the distance, I spotted my pack and I thought it was neat to see the nastiness of the downclimb I did earlier as well as my pack for a dose of perspective. I basically went straight down from where my pack was at.

Wilson Peak False Summit and Backpack

Zoomed out, you can see that the saddle where Regina was waiting for me was a long ways off. I believe she was waiting for me just where the snow was starting to end.

Rock of Ages Saddle from Wilson Peak

Another view of the climb back up to the false summit from Wilson Peak with my backpack at the top:

Wilson Peak False Summit

The downclimb back to Regina went much faster and I was able to reach her in just 30 minutes from the summit. She had safely crossed back to the saddle and had waited for me there. She also took a shot of me on the Gladstone Peak - Wilson Peak saddle:

Matt Payne on the Wilson Peak - Gladstone Peak Saddle

We opted to head back down the standard way to the Rock of Ages Saddle and had a long conversation on the way down. I knew that Regina was probably feeling pretty bummed about not getting to the top of Wilson Peak, especially after the absolute disaster that was our Snowmass Mountain attempt the week prior. I was pretty proud of the way Regina handled this situation. We talked about how this type of climbing just was not fun for her and that if she was feeling uncomfortable on the rock that it was not worth getting killed just to check off a box on a list. I knew that Regina had a strong goal to finish the 14ers this year, but I think she has a much richer appreciation for mountaineering and all of its challenges. I think that in time she will grow more and more comfortable on class 3 and class 4 climbs, and will complete the 14ers; however, there's no sense in getting killed because you don't feel comfortable! Kudos to Regina for having a clear mind about this issue. All too many climbers lose sight of this important perspective in their quest for glory.

Regina at the Rock of Ages Saddle

The Rock of Ages Saddle proved to be a nice location to capture a nice panoramic of the Navajo Basin, with Gladstone Peak (center) at the head and continuing on down the ridge to El Diente.

Rock of Ages Pano

We took pause back at the Rock of Ages Mine for some good 'ol fashioned mining fun. Regina took a more conservative approach to her mining pose:

Regina mining

But... I was still pumped from doing Wilson Peak, plus I wanted to give my best Miner-49-er impression! I think the result was more of a hybrid between pirate and crazy guy...


Cruising back down the Navajo Basin was quite fun since the snow had softened up just enough for some glissading and boot skiing.

Wilson Peak Glissading

However, the sun was beginning to set, and my photographic funny bone started to shake. I knew that the Golden Hour was approaching and that there would be some amazing opportunities for some killer shots soon.

Sun Setting in Navajo Basin

Navajo Basin

Water reflection in a small poolAs we worked our way down the snow fields, I was getting more and more anxious for the photography opportunities. I kept looking down at my altimeter watch to see what time the sun was setting. According to my watch, the sun would set at 8:45 PM. I was really pushing myself to get down to Navajo Lake before then so that I could take advantage of my tripod and the sunset.


Unfortunately, there were just too many awesome things to take pictures of on the way down!

Navajo Basin Pool Reflection

I even found a model marmot to pose for me - how kind of him!

Navajo Basin Marmot

I thought he was pretty funny! He even gave me his best "oh crap" look! Haha.

Marmot says OH CRAP

As the sun set further and further, I kept pushing myself to hike faster and faster. Would I make it?

Navajo Lake on the brink

Wildflowers at sunset

Huge lens flare and some cairns

The photographic opportunities were endless...

Navajo Basin Stream Flow

Navajo Basin

Creek in Navajo Basin with Gladstone Peak\

I was even able to get a quick HDR from the trail, although the results were not terribly great.

Navajo Basin trail HDR

I finally passed Regina and she pretty much knew what I was up to - I needed to get back to that lake! Alas - I did reach the lake right on time at 8:00 exactly, 8 hours after we had left camp. Navajo Lake submitted her glory to me quite beautifully...

Navajo Lake at Sunset

And I even did a pretty decent HDR too:

Navajo Lake at Sunset HDR

Regina and I convened at camp and decided to cook some Mountain House meals ASAP to refuel. While I gathered some water at the creek, I could not help but notice that the red rocks of El Diente were reflected off of the creek...

El Diente Reflection

Regina and I talked about our plans for the remainder of the weekend. We tossed around a few ideas. Maybe I could climb Mount Wilson and El Diente with another group at the lake? Maybe we would just head out and call it good? We decided on the latter. I did not want Regina sitting around all day while I climbed some more, and since the mountains are not going anywhere, I figured it would be totally cool.

Regina and I threw down on our meals like two starving children. Regina was pretty tired and went to bed, but I knew that my adventure had just begun. With tripod at hand and camera at the ready, I set-up for a night of star trails photography, which is quickly becoming one of my favorite things to do.

Navajo Lake would provide the perfect setting for star trails, and I knew that I would get a few keepers out of my efforts.

Navajo Basin at dusk

As I waited for the perfect amount of star light, I embarked on a slight experiment. I knew that in a lot of star trails photos, the goal is to center the photo on the North Star, since that star does not move across the sky. The result is a center star that does not move with the rest of the stars rotating around it like a carousel. Unfortunately, I totally forgot how to identify where the North Star is in the sky, but knew that it had something to do with the Big Dipper. I realized that the Big Dipper's cup pointed at the North Star, so I centered my camera on that star and tested it out. Sure enough, I had successfully located the North Star.

Finding the North Star

Finally, the moment was right and I opted to do the one exposure method of shooting star trails, where combining photos is not required, but precision is. I think it went pretty well, although I really wanted to do it for longer, but literally fell asleep on the shores of the lake while the camera took the shot...

Star Trails over Navajo Lake

I also decided to compile a set of exposures @30 seconds each to see which method produced the best results. I certainly feel torn!

Star Trails Above Navajo Lake

I finally went to bed, knowing that I had captured something magical in the reflection of the lake. In all, I ascended 5,280 ft. and hiked over 15 miles. Click the elevation profile for a larger version if you'd like.

Wilson Peak Profile

The next day, we packed our packs and headed out, but not without some obligatory shots of more wildflowers and one whacky mushroom!

Purple Wildflowers




Wilson-Wetterhorn-65We departed the valley thinking that our adventure had ended. We left knowing that we had gleaned some positives from the trip and that even though our plans did not pan out the way we intended, that it was still a great time. Little did we know then that our adventure had just begun...

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