From Silver Pick Basin, Traverse from Mount Wilson to El Diente
For the Mount Wilson – El Diente traverse, we set the alarm at 3:30 am. I slept great again and had no problems getting up. We began hiking from the Silver Pick trailhead around 4 am. We had to use headlamps for about an hour and a half. Once we were high in Silver Pick basin, we were able to turn them off. It looked like we were way in front of anyone else this morning. We arrived at the Rock of Ages saddle just a little after 6am. We immediately began the 800 foot descent into Navajo basin knowing that we wouldn’t enjoy the hike back over the pass. On the way down, we passed a creepy old mining cabin and even and old iron mine car. At the very bottom of the basin, we met two other hikers who were packing up and heading back over the pass to head home. That had completed the traverse the day before.
We had spied our route from the day before. Basically, our route ascended the lower grass slopes that were to the right of the Navajo snowfield. We would keep going up until we hit the first big snowfield on the left side of the mountain, then begin an ascending traverse to the snow gully. From there, we’d shoot for a notch that was described in one of the 14er books and then from there over the airy ridge to the summit. A climber back at the trailhead had told us how scary he thought the ridge was so we were a little apprehensive. For some reason, I never really assumed Mount Wilson was a very hard peak.
Ascending the lower part of Mount Wilson was really nice. It’s super solid and there’s lots of ledges and grassy paths. We did pick some scrambling sections from time to time but this wasn’t necessary at all. We arrived at the high snowfield and began our ascending traverse. We passed one small gully, then another, then finally arrived at the gully with the snow in it. By this time we were a hundred feet or so below the ridge so we climbed to the top of the gully to a prominent notch. This was not THE official notch though as we realized when we got there. We took a quick bearing and studied the map and realized that the summit was still to the west of us. So, we stayed just under the top of the ridge and soon arrived at
You can’t see the summit from here but you do see the ridge that will take you there and it is very airy indeed. It’s not far at all though. I was leading so I started out by climbing up to the ridge proper. Then, I went right over the tip top of the thin ridge. The exposure over the right (west) side was tremendous and it was really exhilarating although probably a bit too scary for my liking. Once I was perched up there though, I decided that it would be even harder to turn around, so I kept going. From this airy aerie, however, I was able to point out to Ken the best way to go which is to stay on the left (east) side of the ridge the whole time. This side is really exposed too (nothing like the other side) but the moves aren’t that hard. We soon converged back on the ridge at a much safer section. I led on and picked another route on the left side. At this point you have to swing around a large chockstone and then ascend a short little 4th class section that will take you right to the top. Again, the moves were not hard, but this is one of the more exposed 14ers there are. Ken thought this was the scariest fourteener that he’d been on to date and we’ve done just about all the hard ones.
We stayed on the summit for maybe 30-45 minutes (a short time for us). The summit is pretty small. In the picture you can see El Diente in the background. Our next goal in the day was to arrive at the top of El Diente via the long traverse between the two mountains. This ridge is reputed to be easier than the Bells Traverse. We had a rope with us because there was apparently one spot that we could rappel to avoid a downclimb. We weren’t sure if we would need it.
We climbed back down the ridge. Consequently, it wasn’t as scary coming down since I didn’t climb straight over the tip top of the ridge. Back down at the notch, we had another short rest and prepared for the traverse.
From the notch, which you can faintly see in this picture (left base of same ridge), we hiked down a gully and then ascended back up and started the ridge. The ridge is very tricky from the very beginning. There’s lots of ups and downs and thin ridges and exposed cliffs. The climbing switches between class 3 and class 4. We had a rope with us in anticipation of the rappel tower that was a quarter mile or so from the summit of Mount Wilson. The scrambling was slow going but eventually we arrived at the rappel point and noticed that it would indeed be easier to downclimb. So, we backed up a hundred feet or so and found a winding route down to the bottom. The climbing wasn’t too hard at all. Along the way, we found and intermediary rappel point. There were about twenty slings wrapped around the boulder serving as an anchor. Apparently, no one was trusting anyone else’s sling.
Eventually we arrived at the bottom and hooked back up with the ridge at the saddle beneath the rappel tower.
Back on the main part of the ridge, we had a long stretch where we cruised. We were able to make up a lot of time. Just over halfway is a large set of towers. According to the route description, we could easily bypass these by dropping 250 feet down on the left side. We dropped down 100 feet and picked a fun route that hugged the towers. The route finding was really fun and this was one of the highlights of the traverse for me. The route took us on small ledges and over small chasms, on top of large pillar-like rocks we used as stepping columns, and in and out of small, solid couloirs. We had to scout here and there for the best route but overall, we had no problems at all. Eventually the climbing relented and we found ourselves at the base of the Organ Pipes gendarmes. These small towers looked really thin too so we passed them on the left as well.
At this point we were getting really close to El Diente. I figured that we’d just go straight up to the peak. However, the trail is deceptive. It passes over the ridge to the north side of the peak, traverses under the summit above some steep cliffs, then climbs a short gully, and finishes with a short scramble to the small blocky summit. From here, Mount Wilson looks a long way away. Overall, I’d rate this traverse more difficult than the Bells traverse. Though the Bells demanded a rope, this traverse was narrower in places, was a lot longer, and demanded a lot of 4th class scrambling. The traverse took us just over two hours.
On the summit of El Diente we rested up for the long, steep descent and the hike back over 13,000 foot Rock of Ages saddle and back to the truck.
The descent off El Diente was miserable. It was super steep and loose. I would not recommend ascending the north face at all…the traverse was a lot more solid and a lot more fun. In contrast, the climb up Mount Wilson was surprisingly solid and a joy to climb up. Finally, we made it back down to upper Navajo Basin. Looking behind us, we saw some really dark clouds. We began picking up the pace since we didn’t want to be caught in a storm. We rested one last time, ate some oreos, and drank some water. The storm seemed to be moving faster; there was now some lightning flashes and thunder somewhere behind Gladstone and Mount Wilson. We decided to zoom up to the old mining cabin near Rock of Ages and wait there if we had too…and zoom we did. I’ve never hiked so fast in my life; it took us a mere 10-15 minutes to arrive at the little cabin, which appeared to be haunted. We rested here for a while and at the last minute decided to zoom over Rock of Ages and back to the truck.
We made it up and over the saddle in no time at all, however, thunder was now sounding over nearby Wilson Peak. A couple of hundred feet down from the saddle it began to rain. We yanked our shells out of our packs and put them on and began going straight down the talus and scree. The thunder was getting closer. Then, it started to hail. Hard. And then the lightning came. And the thunder – at the exact same time. We were caught right in the middle of an absolutely vicious storm. We had hurled our trekking poles down the mountain like javelins and holed up, so to speak, in a narrow gulley. We crouched down, being careful to only allow our boots to touch the ground (nearby lightning strikes could conduct through the ground) as the lightning struck all around us. After the lightning had discharged, we ran down the mountain, grabbing our poles and hurling them again, repeating the process. After about 30 minutes, the storm abated. It now looked like a winter storm had moved through.
We got back to the cars to find a nearly vacant parking lot. The hike from upper Navajo Basin to the truck had been with the aid of adrenalin and, as a result, seemed a lot easier than we were expecting. It took us maybe an hour and a half to do the whole thing which is a super fast pace. In so many ways (except for the storm), this weekend had been the best hiking experience to date.