Backpacking into the wilderness is an activity that is not easily surpassed. There is something about the raw nature of it all, like a tribute to our roots as human beings, which makes it such a powerful experience. Pair that experience with the ascent of two of Colorado's more challenging Centennial peaks, all while being with one of your favorite humans on Earth, and you have yourself a recipe for unforgettable memories. When my friend Silas asked me to go with him to climb Wilson Peak and Mount Wilson again, I knew we would be in for an adventure to remember. Even though I'd already done both Wilsons already, I welcomed the opportunity to help to help him finish off the 14ers, just like he had with me on Pyramid Peak in 2012. Silas and I have done a lot of hiking and climbing together - I counted that this was our 18th summit together since 2011. When I met Silas in 2011, he went by Sarah and had recently had a suicide attempt. Since then, Silas has really turned his life around - he got married, he had a child, and he has made a successful career as a non-profit badass. I'm still getting used to the idea of calling Sarah by Silas, but it is growing on me quickly.
Our hike started with Silas telling me about the recent development of not feeling comfortable in his body as a woman and wanting to transition to a man. At first I was really skeptical just as his wife was; however, when Silas told me after our trip that the decision was official, it washed over me and made me smile. No matter what, I love this person for who they are, man or woman, and really, it just does not matter one bit. Anyways, my guess is that you're here to read about climbing and not Silas, I digress.
I enjoyed the short drive to Telluride from my new home in Durango. It felt so awesome to be so close to the best climbing and wilderness in the state!
We both eventually agreed on an alternative route into the area since I'd been up there via Navajo Basin and the Rock of Ages Trailhead already and wanted to try something new... plus Bilk Basin offered stunning views of Lizard Head Peak to the south and east and by my calculations offered some pretty amazing photographic opportunities since the Milky Way would be rising behind Lizard Head Peak. So, we settled on Bilk Basin via the Sunshine Mesa trailhead. This trailhead was not terribly hard to find using both Roach's 13er guidebook and other online resouces. Silas met me in Telluride and we drove up to the trailhead together.
For this particular trip, I opted to bring my Nikon D800, my Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 lens, and my Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 lens. I felt like those two lenses would cover the ranges I'd want to be shooting on this trip, even though they were both quite burly. Nothing really beats the 14-24 for night photography. I also decided to bring my new GoPro 4 with me to shoot some footage using my helmet mount during the ascent of Gladstone. Additionally, I know it sounds crazy, but I'm on my 3rd pair of the La Sportiva S EVO Trango boots - they are so good for mountaineering in Colorado - really there is not a better boot for me and my feet in my experience. I love the higher rubber on the sides because they protect my feet during difficult scrambles and I know I can step anywhere with confidence, plus they are super lightweight. You can pick up a pair from Bentgate, a great local Colorado gear shop.
The hike up into Bilk Basin was pretty outstanding - I really enjoyed this approach and think it is the best of the three that I've done into this area.
The trail was very full of wildflowers and interesting features like this crazy tall flower.
About 1/2 way up the Basin we encounted a stream crossing, which was not in any of the guidebooks to my knowledge. The location of the crossing was right after some old abandoned mining buildings, which I had read about before and seen on the USGS Topo map.
Instead of crossing the creek where it made sense, I wondered if the trail kept going higher since I had not read about the crossing. We ventured up into the valley further and even found ourselves on the creekbed, but eventually did decide to head across where the log dam was at after the mine.
It was a pretty easy log jam crossing, and it reminded me of the log jam at Snowmass, except not nearly as insane or difficult. I went first as Silas photographed me.
And then Silas followed. It was a bit tricky dropping down onto the logs but in the end it was no problem at all.
The early evening light was quite nice paired with the dark forest and the aquamarine creek.
After crossing the creek, the trail was very straightforward, following the creek until eventually going up some switchbacks. The evening light was lovely.
Silas enjoyed the view.
About 2/3 of the way up into the basin, the light began to change dramatically, with clouds hovering over the Mount Sneffels Wilderness Area across the valley from us. The last of the sun illuminated the summits of Campbell, Dallas, Gilpin, and Sneffels. I had to stop to capture it.
Well worth the stop, I think. For this one, I used a Circular Polarizer on my 24-70 lens in order to get greater color and tonal saturation and to reduce haze. Prints of this one are available HERE.
We managed to make it into Bilk Basin at dark and had trouble locating the trail going up to the lake below Wilson Peak (objective/camp possibility #1). We thought the basin would make for a good camping area too but it was super marshy down below and we did not want to get wet. We opted to try to follow where the trail that goes up to the Lizard Head Trail was supposed to be by using Gaia GPS on my phone. Since there was no trail to follow, we had to rely on technology. What an amazing application. It shows your location on a USGS map, tracks your progress, and even works in airplane mode. It is the best $20 I've ever spent in my life. We found some campsites just below the Lizard Head Trail and opted to stay there since we were both tired and the lake was a good distance away yet. After setting up my tent, I shot single long exposure of the Milky Way from camp. I kept the shutter open for 241 seconds for this shot using a cable shutter release in order to bring out the foreground. Then I crashed into bed at 11 PM to rest up for our big day of climbing. We set our alarm for 4 AM and declared that our 1st goal would be Gladstone Peak, followed by Wilson Peak.
Silas and I got very little sleep but that is the name of the game when it comes to mountaineering and backpacking. We got out of our tent quickly and started off in the dark at around 4:15 AM. We followed the trail by our campsite south and west for a very short distance and found the Lizard Head trail that comes up from the Cross Mountain trail at Lizard Head Pass and turns west towards Gladstone and Wilson Peak. We followed that trail west but it ended abruptly at the creek after about a quarter mile. According to the map, the trail appeared to cross the creek here and continue up into the basin following switchbacks, but the creek was way too deep and flowing fast for our comfort, so we bushwhacked up the hill, following the creek closely. After about 200 feet of elevation gain, we located the trail again and another creek crossing, which was much more desireable and easy to cross. We crossed here and followed the trail up into the basin in the dark. It was not terribly difficult to stay on the feint trail; however, we did have some trouble from time to time. Luckily, I had Gaia GPS to help me stay on course. After about an hour we found the small lake we had hoped to reach the night before. It was a glorious lake to say the least, nestled at the base of Wilson Peak with views of Lizard Head to the southeast. I set-up my tripod and camera for some blue hour photography (the hour prior to sunrise but before the beloved Golden Hour) and Silas enjoyed the view as well. As I was setting up, Silas was able to photograph some deer that paid us a visit on the ridge behind us.
I was incredibly impressed with this location. The low light prior to sunrise coupled with the huge towering massif of Wilson Peak made for a delightful photographic subject. P.S. on some of my photos in this trip report, you can click on it, which takes you to my photography website, where prints can be purchased. I wanted to disclose that up front so that readers were not expecting to be able to click on it to see a larger version.
I also combined some shots for a panorama of Wilson Peak (right) showcasing the long ridge over to Gladstone (left of center).
When I finished shooting at the lake, I started packing up my gear when I looked back and saw the clouds changing color. I raced up the hillside back where we came from and set-up for this shot of the sunrise and Lizard Head Peak. What an amazing sight!
Finally, we continued on, having spent about 45 minutes total at the lake.
I think Silas and I were equally jacked up and elated by the sights from the lake - it was quite tremendous indeed.
Just when I thought I was done using the tripod for the morning, I noticed some alpine sunflowers blooming and the early light of Wilson Peak, well, peaking. I had to stop and get this one. I have always admired the work of Jack Brauer and he has a shot with Wetterhorn Peak and alpine sunflowers that I've always greatly admired, so that was my inspiration for this shot.
As we contined up the basin, we kept our eyes on Gladstone.
The early light from the sunrise was looking good behind us, constantly changing the amazing beauty of Lizard Head Peak. I could not stop looking.
Finally, the sun hit in full force and illuminated all of Gladstone and created some wonderful light for this reflection in the lake.
Lizard Head Peak kept looking better and better behind us, and I could not help but stop and take photos - it was truly fabulous.
I'm sure Silas was sick of me constantly looking back, but I think we were both pretty stoked to have this basin to ourselves to witness this great sunrise.
Silas kept her gaze above at Gladstone and the nasty, crumbly ridgeline between Wilson Peak and Gladstone. It was intimindating for sure.
More sunrise beauty behind us - this time with the gorgeous Ice Lake Basin peaks including U.S. Grant, Pilot Knob, Golden Horn, and Vermillion showing up to the left of Lizard Head Peak. I was paying close attention to those peaks since my plan was to hit Ice Lake Basin the following weekend. What an amazing thing it is to live this close to such incredible scenery.
Alas, we continued up the long steep slopes of Bilk Basin, heading towards the most southernly weakest point between Gladstone and Wilson Peak.
As we climbed higher into the remote basin, Mount Wilson finally came into view just left of our target on the ridge. We had a lot of snow between us and Gladstone and knew we had some snow travel in our future. Fortunately, we had both brought ice axes and did some mental preparation for some snow travel. I even spent some time refreshing my memory for snow travel by reading a couple pages of Freedom of the Hills before leaving home. Actually, that probably saved my life. More on that later.
Finally, the sun came into view and I took advantage by getting a nice sunstar photo looking back east.
Silas also enjoyed the view of Lizard Head and the Ice Lakes peaks to our east. It was hard not to stare, honestly.
Climbing higher and higher into Bilk Basin and closer to our 1st objective. Silas weighs our route and contemplates life...
The snow travel began in full effect. The snow at this point was quite hard and finding our footing was a challenge. We did not bring crampons, which was fine. We just took our time and slowly ascended carefully.
Just a leisurely stroll up a giant snowfield...
The snow was quite blinding in the early sun, but it was quite warn and there was no wind at all. I had a feeling that this snow would be quite soft later in the day. We contined towards our destination - the notch just above and left of Silas in the photo below.
Without much trouble, we reached the Gladstone Peak - Wilson Peak saddle and enjoyed views of Navajo Basin to the west. I was really happy we chose Bilk Basin - the view on the way up was really quite a bit better than that of both the Navajo Basin and the Rock of Ages routes, in my opinion.
It was time to gear up. We both donned our helmets and mentally prepared for the ridge. I had read a lot of horror stories about this ridge up Gladstone and knew that we needed to remain vigilant throughout the morning to stay safe. I also decided it was a good time to finally use my GoPro that my wife bought me. I attached it to my helmet and we set sail.
Let's rock! It was good to be doing a hardcore scramble again. I love this type of stuff. Unfortunately, this particular scramble was frought with potential peril.
The rock on the way up Gladstone was chossy, loose garbage. Every time I looked up to find the next rock to step on, my thought was, "there's that rock, which is held up by that rock, which is held up by that rock, which holds up this rock." It was mentally exhausing to say the least. I tested every step, every hold, and kicked rocks before placing my weight on them. I was also extra careful to watch Silas as he ascended, making sure I could dodge a rock at any time. I'm so glad I did... because as you can see in the GoPro video below, I had a near miss that would have been very harmful, perhaps fatal. This video gives you a taste of the journey up Gladstone. I have about 40 minutes of footage that I condensed into 3-4 minutes. The video is a bit shaky - so be warned! I smoothed it out a bit which caused some strange effects, but I think it a bit more watchable now.
The high risk climbs like this always feel good when you reach the top, but for this one, I had a pretty bad feeling the whole time we were on top because I knew we had to go back down the same way and it was not something I looked forward to. Alas, we enjoyed the summit and our company while some people were yelling in joy from over on Mount Wilson. Wilson Peak loomed in the distance to the north and I was apprehensive to give it a go at this point. I was running really low on water and my body felt a bit tired from the near miss.
A 360 summit panorama from Gladstone...
One of my favorite features to stare at from up here was Lizard Head Peak and the long shadow it cast below with a sea of amazing mountains behind. Really tough to beat.
Also visible were Dallas Peak, Mount Sneffels (left of center), Teakettle (center), Potosi, Wetterhorn, and Uncompahgre (right of center), all above the town of Telluride. Pretty amazing view from this part of Colorado, for sure.
After enjoying the summit for awhile and posting updates to our loved ones, we decided to head down. For the way down, we stayed high on the ridge the entire way, which proved to be more challenging in some ways but much, much more stable than on the way up, where we decided to dodge left below the ridge (which in retrospect was a mistake). We also decided to see how we both felt once reaching the saddle again and decide on Wilson Peak from there. Since I was basically out of water, it was going to be an interesting decision. The views east were great so I was pretty happy no matter what.
More awesome views looking east on the way down...
There was a really awesome section on the way down which had a pretty committing move up a sheer face that probably saved us a lot of downclimbing into the nasty section of the ridge. Here is a glimpse of that section which I think was one of the highlights of the whole day.
The way down was tricky to say the least. I had to do some interesting manuevers to get across some sections.
We found ourselves at the top of a gully filled with snow and decided it made sense to fill up my Camelbak with snow and try to get it to melt so that I had water. It actually worked pretty well. We packed the Camelbak very tightly and after awhile it did melt some (about an ounze every 15 minutes. After every sip, I blew hot air back into the tube and the reservior, which helped facilitate the melting process. It was at this point we decided that we would keep going up to Wilson Peak.
To get to Wilson, we had to go around a small un-ranked 13er between Gladstone and the Rock of Ages saddle. Roach recommends dropping into the Navajo Basin side, but we thought that the Bilk Basin side looked more doable on the snow. I don't regret the decision to do that; however, the snow was steep and soft and made for slow travel with our ice axes. At one point, Silas started to slide and had to self-arrest, which worked like a charm.
Crossing snowfields sideways is just awkward and slow. Some sections were totally melted and made for uncomfortable and surprising post holing (which sucked)... and other sections were harder and more dangerous. I really dislike snow travel.
Silas looked bad-ass though...
We finally made it to the Rock of Ages saddle and committed to going up Wilson Peak. We passed a lot of people on the way, none of which were wearing helmets, which was a little surprising given the looseness and seriousness of this climb. To each their own, I guess.
Near the top of Wilson Peak, Silas got to hang out with a Marmot.
Wilson Peak is probably one of the more challenging and enjoyable 14ers. This was my second time up and I still found it to be quite fun, even after a very long day on Gladstone already under the belt. The rock on Wilson Peak is mostly picked through and the loose stuff mostly kicked or pulled down off the mountain. It still demands respect; however, and the sheer steepness of the final section is a real nail-biter. The consequences of any mistakes would be fatal for sure.
Silas topped out on Wilson Peak just before me and I was able to snap a quick shot on my cell phone of that moment - pretty awesome - two peaks in one day.
I setup the tripod and we got a self-timer shot of us celebrating.
We spent very little time on top and headed back down. Our plan was to take the Wilson Peak trail down just before the Rock of Ages saddle where it meets up with snow that decends into Bilk Basin and to glisade down from there. The plan, while super smart, was not devoid of risk, as I later found out. We reached the snow field and Silas went first. Silas used his axe and feet to keep the brakes on and made it down about 300 feet without issue. I followed on the same path (mistake #1) and sat down in the snow, readied my axe, and started to go. After mere seconds, my speed increased behind a point where I could slow myself with my axe and I began to worry. I knew that I was out of control and heading straight for Silas. This was bad. I'm not sure why, but I remained calm (maybe I read that in Freedom of the Hills) and did not yell or scream even though I was careening out of control towards Silas. I dug my elbows and feet in - nothing. It hurt like a bitch. Per what I read in Freedom of the Hills for an uncontrolled slide, I flipped over on my chest and planted my axe deep into the snow with the long end going into the snow and my hands firmly holding onto the axe part. It worked! I stopped immediately. Silas said he was going to take video of me but before he knew it, I was right next to him. Yep - that's because I was travelling at like 30 miles an hour down the hillside. Two close calls in one day - not OK. We carefully decended the rest of the snow without incident. I grew tired from the lack of water, and I had also run out of food. Fantastic. Way to prepare! We finally reached running water above the lake at the creek that feeds Bilk Basin and we stopped to refill our water. I had fortunately brought my water filter with me (which I usually don't do) and I began to engorge myself with sweet, sweet water. Too much of it... like a half gallon. Whoops. Now I felt sick from drinking too much water too quickly. Not my best day. When we reached the lake, I stopped to vomit, another first. Nothing really came out but it still sucked just the same. I thought we were done with the shenannagins until we reached the creek crossing from earlier in the morning. Guess what? It was about 3 feet higher from all of the snow melt! Fantastic. We both knew we had to keep going down and look for another way to cross. The below photo shows just how much water was coming down...
Unfortunately, we never did find another place to cross and had to go all the way back down to the start of the basin through Willows and fallen trees. It was a slog. We were both absolutely destroyed, mentally and physically. We had to climb all the way back up about 200-300 feet to our campsite through an area without a trail. Awesome. When we got to the top of the hill to the feint trail leading to our campsite, I vomited again. Excellent. We reached camp and Silas hooked me up with some electrolyte water. That shit works! I was feeling great after about 20 minutes of rest and ready to rock and roll again, excited for photographing sunset. Unbelievable. Sunset looked like it was going to be a total dud. The first "wave" of light after the sun set was pretty dull, some weak yellows and golds in the sky... then out of nowhere I looked back and saw the sky filled with small clouds all turning pink and purple. I ran out to a decent spot out of camp and barely had enough time to snap off this shot of sunset... which faded after only 2-3 minutes. We ate dinner and celebrated our accomplishments.
After dinner, I was totally exhausted. I knew that I really wanted to get some Milky Way photographs over Lizard Head Peak, but was not sure if I could make it long enough awake to pull it off. I slowly hiked up the hill to the south of our camp to find a spot. I was so exhausted after finding my spot to shoot that I set up my camera on my tripod, found a spot to lay down in the grass, and set my alarm on my phone to wake up two hours later so I could not miss the amazing night sky scene. This one did not disappoint - the dark skies of Southwest Colorado are not easily surpassed in quality. The position of the Galactic Core above Lizard Head's impressive massif was just about perfect with the dimly illuminated moon shining just the right amount of light onto Lizard Head Peak. This is a single exposure shot using the Nikon D800, using the 14-24 f/2.8 lens at f/2.8 at 24mm for 15 seconds at ISO 6400 and in-camera noise reduction.
I also was able to shoot some pretty nice panoramas, sweeping from right to left, getting 13,113 ft. Lizard Head Peak (right), 12,930 ft. Sunshine Mountain (center), and all of the Mount Sneffels area peaks in one photograph, above Telluride.
Lastly, I went for it all, getting Wilson Peak in the mix in a 360 degree panorama. The clouds were a really awesome compliment to the Milky Way.
I was pleased with my efforts to capture the night sky and head back to camp to get some much needed sleep. We decided to sleep in and then hike out, which meant Silas would have to return another day to get Mount Wilson. The "trail" down Bilk Basin from the Lizard Head trail was non-existent. We had to cross through some really huge fallen trees before we reached the creek again and trail out. Add in yet another memorable experience, why not?
We cruised down the Sunshine Mesa trail in no time, passing some day hikers on the way. We settled on Tellurde Brewing for our final stop to get some brews and to commemorate our unforgettable backpacking adventure before heading home.
Tellurude Brewing has some fantastic beers! I think my favorite was the Freshwater Double IPA or the Brown on nitro. Yum!
You can view and download my GPS track from Gaia GPS HERE. Hope that it is useful!