5th time’s a charm? Technically speaking, that’s how many times I’ve gone after this 14,246-foot mountain in Southern Colorado. The first was almost three years ago, when I had planned to do the traverse between Wilson and it’s neighboring peak, El Diente, but, weather forced me down after the first summit before ever setting foot near Wilson. I didn’t try it again until the next year when I made it to within 200 vertical feet of the summit via the standard route, but my partner and I again decided to turn around due to weather (which ended up being an excellent choice). Fed up with that route, last spring I made a couple short-lived and meager tries at the East Face route, but due to my newly diagnosed MS and difficult route finding, respectively, I didn’t make it out of treeline either time. At 6.5 hours of driving one way, it’s a tough mountain to keep failing on for that reason alone.
Starting the 2017 year I only had 8 of the 58 14ers in Colorado to finish, and I can’t say that I have been motivated to get after too many of them. I’ve attempted all but one of them and my finisher, many of those attempts having been very near misses – i.e. turn arounds very close to the summits, for various reasons. The idea of going back to do it all over again, knowing just how difficult it will be and how much work it will take makes it all the more difficult for me to want go up the peak. It’s almost as if the knowing is what makes it worse. This was the position I found myself in with Mount Wilson this past weekend: I was feeling great physically, it was a perfect weather forecast, and it was the calm before the storm as far as the end of my school semester. I had no reason not to go, but I still didn’t want to.
I used to relish the idea of a long car drive alone, a solo adventure, taking some Meg time. Perhaps it was because I’ve done this particular adventure so many times and failed that even the night before I left, laying in my warm bed, I thought to myself: “Ugh, tomorrow night I’m going to be coldly sleeping in my car at this time, do I really want to do this again? I could just stay home.” The next morning I woke up and hesitantly started to pack, again trying to think of reasons to not go; I even messaged a friend to see if he was going rock climbing the next day (I knew he would be, he always is). That’s when I knew I just had to get in the car and drive – it’s a cold day in hell when Meg chooses rock climbing over a snowy mountain.
Mount Wilson’s East Face
Mount Wilson is one of the more difficult 14ers due to some difficult and exposed climbing moves on it’s easiest route (the one I almost got two years ago). However, I prefer snow to rock, especially on this peak, because the rock here is very, very loose. Thus why I switched to the less often climbed East Face route that does not actually have a defined trail through the forest. The rule with doing snow climbs in the spring is get on and off them early in the day to get good snow conditions and avoid avalanches before the sun warms it up. For me, this means I have to start really early because I’m so miserably slow due to my asthma and MS. The idea of bushwhacking through those trees again through the wee hours of the morning did not appeal to me, but after making that drive I was determined to at least get out of my car in the middle of the night (though the thought did occur to me to go back to sleep and then go eat some breakfast in Telluride).
Luckily the moon was out, it was a gorgeous night, and I had a big cat’s paw prints to keep me company on the trail. That, by the way, was very creepy at dawn. I had a GPX file to follow for the trail and got slightly off-route, but was able to easily correct once it was light out. Soon enough, I found myself staring at the 13er Gladstone Peak in the early morning light, which was my objective for the time being as it stood guarding the view of the summit of Mount Wilson. There was a perfect amount of snow for this time of year – not too little and not too much as in some other years – and as I made my way up the first headwall toward Gladstone I appreciated some of the unique features the snow created that you don’t often see in Colorado.
When I finally reached the base of Gladstone at around 12,900 ft and got full eyes on the remaining portion of my route, my motivation faltered again. I had been going pretty slow up the snow so far, even though it wasn’t particularly steep; I’m just slow. Looking ahead, it was straight up the steep snow until the summit at 14,246ft. It was later in the day than I wanted it to be, which I knew would happen, but the snow was actually in really great condition because the temperature was still freezing. I knew about how long it would take me to get up that snow, and knew how difficult it would be for me even if I didn’t have avalanche to worry about. I didn’t want to do it. Nevertheless, I persisted.
Small goals, I told myself. There weren’t a lot of landmarks in the wide open route, so I aimed for the first rock from where I had stashed my snowshoes. Then to the next rock outcropping, etc. The snow was bulletproof, and though my breathing was belabored as it always is at altitude, I was enjoying myself. This. This is what I drove all the way out here for and hiked through the night for. It was so tranquil, calm, and still. For once, I didn’t have fast and loud metal or dubstep blasting in my ears as I pushed up the steep sections, but played soft piano music to accompany the serenity around me. There was no one but me and the mountain, the gentle push of my footsteps into her rising side.
When It Gets Tough
Up and up, kicking steps I went. The snow was still in great condition, not mushy or sliding at all, which made things much easier. Usually I need two ice axes, and feel the need to plunge each in fully to the head because my bad leg is so unstable. However, for most of the route, due to the great snow and what I guess is a stronger leg due to my recent physical therapy, I didn’t need to do this. Eventually, it did start aching and screaming at me, though. I tried to practice the mindfulness technique of focusing on my breath and just checking in at the edge of the pain, then going back to my breath. Yeah right. I think perhaps the people who came up with those techniques were thinking of a hangnail or a stubbed toe when they came up with that method. My leg throbbed with every heartbeat, yelling that it needed a break, that it wanted to stop, that it could go no further. So, I tried another technique aimed at a little self-compassion. I started talking to my leg inside my head, telling it that it was strong, that I was proud of it for carrying me up all of the mountains it had, and that I knew it could get me up this one. If I had been in a little less pain I may have thought about how hokey this sounds (or that my hippy university may be finally rubbing off on me!), but golly gee it worked. The throbbing stopped, and it felt more stable as I kicked it into the snow. Turns out my knee has just been fishing for compliments this whole time.
The upper portion of the snow climb steepened a fair bit, and it had some rocks on either side below which made it a definite no-fall zone. It wasn’t until about fifteen feet to the end of it that I got truly exhausted. Even my good leg was doing the Elvis dance, and I had to switch to the full “ladder climbing” technique with two axes. This means I had to put most of my weight on my arms and pull myself up with them instead of just walking up with my legs. Consider how much more energy it takes to do a pull-up or push-up than walk up a steep staircase and it will be apparent why this is not the preferred climbing technique. Luckily I did not have to do this for long, as I reached the top of the couloir soon.
This snow route pops the climber out pretty near the summit, with only about 150 feet of rocks left to gain the top. Since my attempts on this route last season, a description of it has appeared on the 14ers.com website, which is always welcome. For this section it recommended to drop down ten feet into the opposite side of the couloir and get on the rocks for class 3 scrambling. However, conditions at this time of year vary considerably and following the “route description” is not always a good idea. The snow at the top of the climb had started to turn soft, and there was no way I was going down the very steep other side in the conditions it was in. I had to gain the rocks from where I was, which looked miserable. Some expletives came out of my mouth, and I angrily considered my life against this summit. How badly did I really want this?
The transition from snow to rock seems to be a difficult one for me, as something similar happened to me on Snowmass mountain a couple summers ago and I didn’t get that summit. Those thoughts flashed through my head, but this day I determined I would not stop yet not no matter how scared I was. There seemed to be a loose class 3 way to get onto the rocks, but it was quite exposed and I didn’t like it. I looked for another option and found a finger crack system leading up a vertical wall with less exposure and drop below, but probably 5th class climbing. However, it was cracks, so I felt very confident on it. I ended up doing it twice, in fact, because I had opted to leave my pack but had to come back for my axe after I realized there was still snow up ahead. It was only 150 feet of climbing to the summit, but it really freaked me out. Loose rocks and mushy snow over exposure really gets the heart racing. Finally I reached the summit, but didn’t hang out long because I just wanted to get off those damn rocks.
Alone on the Mountain
There is just something different about soloing a mountain. I have soloed 21 of my 51 peaks. Some of those were “solos” that there were other people on the mountain with me, just not my actual partners. Some of those, like Mount Wilson, were true solos that I was really alone on the mountain, not seeing another person the whole time. At times, like with this peak, it takes really digging deep to even have the motivation to go. Walking alone through that forest without a trail is awful, and I got lost both to and from the car (which is very demoralizing). You have to make route-finding decisions on your own, which on a route like this when there isn’t a trail, are life and death. It’s a lot easier when someone else is there to confer with. The group mentality is also just nicer when your courage starts to fail, like mine did toward the top. A partner is there to bolster your nerve, and literally lend a hand if you’re gimp like me. If you get hurt on a mountain like that, there’s no one for miles and miles to help you.
Yet, that’s what true mountaineering is. It’s you against nature, and learning to respect that while learning your own limits. That’s what makes it exciting and worthwhile. I find days like that so much more rewarding, knowing that I only have myself to rely on. It’s been a while since I’ve challenged myself like this, and I needed to remind myself that it was still in me to accomplish something great. When I started up the final summit pitch I swore to myself I wouldn’t do any more difficult mountains by myself, but of course I will.