Tuesday, 16 August 2011 00:00

The Rock of Ages - Mt. Wilson and New Friends

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A Panoramic of Wildflowers beneath Mt. Wilson A Panoramic of Wildflowers beneath Mt. Wilson

Mount Wilson's claim to fame as one of Colorado's most dangerous 14ers is certainly well deserved. As Colorado's 16th highest mountain, Mount Wilson rises to an impressive 14,246 ft. above sea level and the boasts the State's 9th most amount of prominence with 4,024 ft. The monarch of the San Miguel sub-range of the San Juan Mountains, Mount Wilson is a formidable mountain, without question. The history surrounding this mountain is quite intriguing as well. The first ascent of Mount Wilson is somewhat contested, but it is generally agreed that the first group to ascend it was the Hayden Survey on September 13, 1874, which included A.D. Wilson, after which the mountain was named. Additionally, Franklin Rhoda, a member of the team, later wrote in the survey notes about Mount Wilson: "Only one peak of which we had any dread remained to be ascended, and that was Mt. Wilson. From various circumstances, we have reason to believe that this was higher than any station we had yet made, and from its rugged appearance we dreaded its ascent not a little." Rhoda later reported that, "Mt. Wilson was by far the most dangerous climb of the summer."

I personally had hoped to climb Mt. Wilson back in July; however, that climb was cancelled mid-trip due to my climbing partner not feeling capable of the climb, which is totally understandable given the loose and dangerous nature of the San Miguels. With Wilson Peak already in the bag, I really wanted to return to the basin for a shot at Mt. Wilson, El Diente and Gladstone Peak. Here's a view of Mt. Wilson from the Rock of Ages Saddle:


With a little less than a week left before my hike was scheduled, I was still without a partner. I scrambled to locate one on 14ers.com, but did not have much success. I finally did reach a guy named Will, who wanted to set-up a car shuttle, but it still meant that I would be driving out there alone, which was not something I wanted to do given the unreliable nature of my Jeep. I searched further on Facebook and found that one of my Facebook friends, Kara Bauman, was also planning a trip to the Wilsons. I communicated with her and we quickly made plans to join up. Her group was leaving from Denver on Friday afternoon and I could join them if I could get to Denver. I made it work - and before I knew it - I found myself at the Ken Caryl Park and Ride in Denver at 1 PM on Friday 8/12/11. Our group was comprised of Kara Bauman, Alli Kolega, Tom Shaar and me. The group all assembled and loaded our stuff into Tom Shaar's killer SUV and we departed on our 6 hour journey to the Wilsons. On the way over, we all discussed possible options on which order to climb the mountains and where from. We all conceded that the best day for weather was Saturday, so that made the most sense for an attempt on Mt. Wilson, since it was a longer approach. We would see about the traverse to El Diente from there, and then they would do Wilson Peak on Sunday while I would do Gladstone Peak. We also decided to make Silver Pick Basin our headquarters for the weekend since the trailhead had recently re-opened at a new location after several years of closure due to property issues. In total, our climb took us about 10 hours and we covered 12.7 miles and gained 6,775 vertical feet. Our route up Mt. Wilson and the elevation profile can be seen below (click on each for a larger version).


Mount Wilson Profile

On the way up Silver Pick Basin road, Alli was telling a story about someone she had heard about on 14ers.com that had been threatened with a gun. Before she could finish the story, I spoke up - "that was me!" Indeed - she was referring to my horrendous situation from 2009 where I encountered some quite disrepectful gun-toting young men. I had just finished telling the story about how the young men had a flat tire when Tom stopped me and said, "I think we have a problem - the tire pressure is dropping." It was crazy timing considering I was telling the story about the guys with the flat tire. Sure enough, Tom's tire had a hole in it. Fortunately, he had a Slime Portable Flat Tire Repair Kit, which enabled him to fix the tire quickly so we could at least reach the trailhead. He also had a portable air compressor, which turned out to be quite awesome!

Fixing the flat tire on Rock of Ages road

While Tom did all the heavy lifting, Alli and Kara (left and right respectively) were busy updating the world on our woes via Facebook.
Tech Savvy Hiking Partners

Since the basin had just re-opened the week before, we had anticipated that the trailhead would be busy. Indeed the area had quite a few people in it, and subsequently, all of the good campsites were taken. Tom and Alli ended up sleeping in the car, while Kara and I put up our tents in a field nearby. We decided to set our alarms for 3:30 AM for a 4:00 AM start and hit the sack. The next morning, we started up the trail, guided mostly by the numerous signs that were on the trail. We did find ourselves second guessing the trail at one point on the way up, which I will point out later in the report. It was at that point that we met up with a solo hiker, who turned out to be Will from 14ers.com who I had talked to earlier in the week. He decided to join us for the day and we did not regret it - he was a great companion! We wrapped around the long ridge to the west of Silver Pick Basin and entered the basin proper. The road and trail were very nice and well maintained. We also enjoyed the sunrise over Wilson Peak.
Sunrise over Wilson Peak

The clouds over Wilson Peak were great!
Sunrise over Wilson Peak

Kara and I stayed near the back of the pack, talking about life, religion and all other important topics that we could think of. I think I was putting her to sleep with my stories...
Kara Bauman

We finally reached the stone building which is a remnant of the old Silver Pick Mine, and enjoyed the views of Wilson Peak from there.
Stone Building at Rock of Ages

Wilson Peak had some great clouds above it and made for an interesting subject to experiment with HDR.
HDR Sunrise over Wilson Peak

The trail winded up the side of the mountain at a very manageable rate and soon we found the stone building well behind us.
Rock of Ages Trail in the morning

I found myself taking the lead up the trail with Will and we were soon joined by two solo hikers who both had a dog, one of which was a Chihuahua that was on its first 14er climb. The Chihuahua passed Kara on the trail, which was a humerous but sore subject for Kara for the remainder of the hike. We later joked that the dog had gotten to her psychologically and that it was haunting her the whole day. How do you let a small dog on its first hike pass you on the trail? Just kidding of course Kara!
Rock of Ages

Wilson Peak and the Rock of Ages Saddle neared and Will was getting pretty excited!
Will nears the Rock of Ages saddle

So excited that he took off and made it up first!
Closer to the Rock of Ages Saddle

Tom and I kept on trucking...
Rock of Ages Trail

The sunrise had finally fully illuminated the valley below and made for quite the sight! Will reached the saddle first and was trying to decide on what to do - Wilson Peak was right there, but he knew he couldn't pass up an opportunity to climb Mt. Wilson with some experienced climbers, so he stuck with us. Both Tom and I are very close to completing the 14ers, and would prove good leaders on the class 3 and 4 terrain ahead.
Will at the Rock of Ages saddle

The approach from Silver Pick Basin proved longer than advertised, and before we knew it, we had already hiked 4 miles just to reach the Rock of Ages Saddle at 13,000 ft. The thought of descending down into Navajo Basin to 12,400 ft. and back up Mt. Wilson was not exactly enticing, but we knew it was the best thing to do given the weather forecast for the weekend.
A look back from Rock of Ages

Eventually, both Alli and Kara caught up with us and we stopped to eat some food and take in the views.
Alli Kolega scouts from the Rock of Ages saddle

The sunrise was lighting up Navajo Basin and the surrounding mountains, including Gladstone Peak (center), Mt. Wilson (right of center) and El Diente (right).
HDR panoramic from Rock of Ages at sunrise

We headed on down into the basin and I stopped to get a few photos of Mt. Wilson from below.

Here you can see a view from the base of Navajo Basin - mouse-over to see our route up Mount Wilson.
Mount Wilson Northeast Route

We found the most amazing wildflower field at the base of Mt. Wilson, and I stopped to get some photos of it, including this panorama.

We all started up Mt. Wilson eagerly. It felt like it was right there! I stuck behind with Kara, listening to her stories about life. I also wanted to make sure that someone stayed with her since she was not feeling her best on that day.
Flowers on Mount Wilson - El Diente in the background

Before we knew it, we found ourselves looking back at the Rock of Ages saddle and Wilson Peak to its right. The climbing up the initial half of Mt. Wilson was quite easy, nothing more than a simple hike.
Wilson Peak

At the end of the easy terrain, we all stopped to rest and prepare for the meat of the climb.
Our group waits for Kara and I with Gladstone Peak behind

Gladstone Peak loomed over us to the left, blocking the sunlight for the first half of the climb. Eventually, the sun did rise above it, and I found myself drawn to the view of the sun and Gladstone repeatedly.
Gladstone Peak Black and White

I decided it would also be a good opportunity to test out some sun-framed HDR photography. The lens flares in the below photo initially bothered me, but after processing the image, I feel like they add value.
Gladstone Peak HDR

The climbing got more difficult and we reached the class 3 section. We all put on our helmets and started up the more difficult terrain. I found it to be much easier than advertised and the rock responded quite well to my intuitively-placed hands and feet. The rock was solid where I expected it to be solid, and loose where I expected it to be loose. Eventually we found ourselves at the base of a giant gully leading up, and I stuck behind with Kara to make sure she made it up safely.

Wilson Peak Loose Gully on Mt. Wilson

The entire route was littered with well-marked cairns that were also adorned with flourescent surveyors tape, making them easy to locate. I know that this is a controversial practice; however, I think everyone in the group found them to be helpful given the terrain we found ourselves in. The views of El Diente and Navajo Lake were quite superb.

El Diente and Navajo Lake

Once we reached the top of the gully, we knew we needed to start traversing across Mt. Wilson. The cairns pointed the way and we followed.
The start of the traverse across Mt. Wilson's face

From here the terrain continued to increase in difficulty. The rock was looser and less stable in general. We picked our steps carefully. A look back towards Wilson Peak revealed that we were gaining elevation quickly.
Wilson Peak

We finally reached the top of another loose gully and the route became obvious but less stable. The rock was getting better but the higher we climbed, the greater the consequences of a loose rock breaking free. The rocks were bigger and the terrain was steeper.

Kara was a real champ on this section.
Kara Bauman climbs up Mt. Wilson
Finally, we reached the ridgeline and could get views to our east. Tom had made it up to the summit by now.

Kara on Mt. Wilson Mt Wilson summit block

The route was getting more and more challenging and I was loving it. Kara was keeping her own as well and I think she was having fun on the interesting class 3 rock. By now, Tom had made it up and Will was photographing the journey.

More climbing on the summit block of Mt. Wilson

Tom topped out just before Will.
Tom on the summit

Tom contemplates the route on the crazy summit block of Wilson...
Alli moves towards the summit of Mt. Wilson

And Tom makes it up! As you can see, the terrain at the summit of Mt. Wilson is crazy and exposed. While it was very solid, I found the terrain to be the most exposed out of any section of any mountain I've done to date. The rocks were totally solid, but they looked like they could slab off at any moment. Someday in the future, someone is going to have the whole summit block slip off and it won't be pretty.
Tom on Mt. Wilson's summit

I finally reached the summit block and was totally shocked with the difficult nature of it. I had read about it, but that never really does it justice. There were two moves in particular that would end in death if not executed properly.
Matt approaches Mt. Wilson Summit Block

Alli captured me doing one of them...
Matt on Mt. Wilson Crux

Here's the view down from there - very exposed! The rock was no wider than a person at the most.
Exposure on Mt. Wilson

Once I reached the top, Tom, Will and I celebrated and took photos. The summit shots did not turn out great, but we were somewhat rushed because Tom wanted to get off the mountain and head for Wilson Peak before the weather got bad.
Tom and Will on Mt. Wilson

Tom and Will on Mt. Wilson.
Summit pose on Mt. Wilson

Tom, Matt and Will.

I took one look at El Diente and the weather conditions and said - "No thanks." It looked crazy from there. I know that looks are always deceiving, but I had no interest in soloing the traverse over to El Diente that day. Take a look for yourself:
El Diente

I did get time to shoot off some shots and capture a 360 from the top. Click to see a larger version.

And I played around with an HDR panoramic of Wilson Peak, Sneffels, Wetterhorn, Uncompahgre, Lizard Head and the Ice Lake Basin peaks.

Tom and Will started down before me, and it made for a good dose of perspective on the downclimb.
Downclimbing Mt. Wilson

Will graciously stopped and photographed me coming down off the top. It was wild stuff! It definately had my heart pumping!
Matt downclimbing Mt. Wilson

Will and I stayed in the back with Kara, while Tom and Alli went ahead.
more downclimbing

Then the craziest thing happened. We ran into a group of 4 young men coming up. None of them had helmets. One of them had a backpack and water. 3 of the 4 were wearing tennis shoes and one of them had a brace or cast on his arm, essentially rendering him one-armed. My only response to that was: "Fascinating." Since I don't liken myself as the 14ers police, I just said hello and kept on going. Now, I could be off here, and you might say I'm a bit of a safety freak and that I need to lighten up... I could not help but wonder though - what the hell were they thinking? Water? Helmets? Broken arm? Wow. Mouseover to see what he must have been thinking.
Arm Sling and no water on Mt. Wilson?

"Dude! Water is for pansies!"
Curious band of climbers

We took our time coming down, probably too long; however, Kara was good company and we wanted to make sure we did it safely. I kept my eyes on the sky and kept contemplating a hike over to start Gladstone; however, I abandoned the idea at the first sight of bad weather. Even though the weather did hold for the rest of the day, I feel like I made the right choice. We reached that awesome field of flowers again and I went crazy with the camera.
Wildflowers before Gladstone

Wildflowers and Gladstone Peak.
Flowers in Navajo Basin
The flowers made for a nice subject for some depth of field (DoF) work. Maybe someday I'll get a real lens that makes the bokeh look creamier. I found a really neat pond with some odd plants growing in it that were exuding bubbles. They also made for an interesting subject. With the thought of Gladstone out of my mind, I focused in on looking for interesting things to photograph on the way back down. I also wanted to find things with interesting texture and depth of field.

Wildflowers Wildflowers and bubbles

Interesting bubbles beneath pond
We finally reached the Rock of Ages mine again and the ever-so-popular mining cart that always makes for great photo opportunities.

Will in the Cart

Will jams out on the mining cart.
Matt in the mining cart

My best captain salute for Mt. Wilson.
Kara in the mining cart

Kara, riding the cart to victory!

We made up to the saddle again, where Tom and Alli were waiting for us. We all decided to head back down, despite the fact that the weather was holding. I was good with this decision since we had another day yet to climb.
Matt on Rock of Ages saddle

One thing I love about getting out on these hikes and climbs is that it lets me play around with different subjects for photography. In this case, I chose the old mining building and a barbed wire to focus on for a small depth of field. I can't wait for the day when I can get myself a nice 50mm prime lens to really make these kinds of photos pop.
Stone building Depth of Field

I also looked for things with interesting textures.
Interesting plant

And of course the wildflowers were great too.
Pink Paintbrush WildflowerOne cool thing about this area is the large amount of old mining equipment left behind. I felt like they made good subjects for black and white photos. The below left image is one of my favorites. It combines a few concepts that I wanted to demonstrate - lines and depth of field. I hope that you like them!

Mining Cable Mining Cart Wheel

We finally wrapped back around to the other side of the long ridge that separates the new Rock of Ages trail from the Rock of Ages basin.

New Rock of Ages trail

The clouds above were pretty neat.
New Rock of Ages Trail

As mentioned at the beginning of the report, we did encounter one area that confused us on the way up because we felt like we were going the wrong way (which we weren't). This rock in the trail led me to think that maybe we should turn-off on a less-worn trail here, but that proved to lead to nowhere. I wanted to point the rock out to anyone else doing this route so that you know to keep on going straight when you find this rock.
New Rock of Ages Trail

Also of interest, I noticed that the fire I saw last month was still happening in the same general area as before, so that led me to think that maybe there were some controlled fires going on in the area.

I took this photo to not only shot off the fire, but to also demonstrate the difference between using a polarizing filter and not. I took the below photo without the filter, and if you mouse-over it, you can see the same photo only with a filter, with all the same settings in camera. The filter really brings out the blues and adds some punch to the clouds. Check it out!
New Rock of Ages Trail

We reached our campsite and cooked dinner. We all decided to get up early the next day to finish our weekend of climbing. I opted to set my alarm for 1 AM because I wanted to reach the Rock of Ages saddle and then the Gladstone-Wilson saddle for star trails and sunrise. When my alarm went off at 1 AM, I got dressed and ready to go. I got out of my tent and looked up - the sky was full of clouds! Nooooo! I set the alarm for 3 AM and when I woke up again, it was raining. Eventually, we all agreed to cancel the Sunday climbs and head back to Denver. Tom's tire was still holding up, so we headed on out. Wetterhorn poked into view on the drive over Dallas Divide.

Sneffels was looking really awesome with the nasty weather in the area.
Sneffels Storm

Shortly before reaching Ridgway, Tom's air pressure went down again and he replaced the hole with another repair kit.
Flat tire

We once again found ourselves waiting for the air pressure to increase, so I took some photos of our group. Alli was in high spirits.
Allie in good spirits

But Kara, our Lisa Loeb lookalike contest winner, was less than happy.
Kara Bauman

And then, the most amazing thing happened. While the tire was airing up, I noticed a beam of light hitting the mountains to the east.

It was a good sign!
The Highway

But alas, shortly after Ridgway, the tire failed again and we decided to replace it with the spare. Fortunately, the views of Sneffels and the thought of breakfast kept our spirits high!
Sneffels and the changing of the tire

We stopped just by County Rd. 4 for the tire swap.

After switching out tires, we headed to Montrose and ate a glorious breakfast at Starvin' Arvins. The drive to Denver was uneventful.

It was a great weekend depsite some of our set-backs. I met some new people who were all really great. I hope to hike with all of them again!

At the time of this report after climbing Mt. Wilson, I am left with five of the ranked fifty-three 14ers: Mount Eolus, Windom Peak, Sunlight Peak, Maroon Peak and Pyramid Peak. I am on-track to finishing the 14ers this year, which is an amazing feeling!

Thanks for reading! Just a reminder - this site costs me time and money to maintain - if you find it useful, please consider supporting the site by remembering to use the affiliate links, especially if you purchase photography related gear from Adorama.


"The San Juan Mountains: A Climbing and Hiking Guide" - Robert F. Rosebrough. 1986. Cordillera Press.


Additional Info

  • Trip Date: August 13, 2011
  • Yosemite Decimal Class: Class 4: Simple climbing, with exposure. A rope is often used. Natural protection can be easily found. Falls may well be fatal.
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