Peak(s):  Wilson Peak  -  14,021 feet
Date Posted:  01/21/2015
Modified:  01/22/2015
Date Climbed:   01/18/2015
Author:  Kevin Baker
Additional Members:   wooderson, Papillon, sdkeil
 Wilson Peak Winter Ascent via South Slopes   

Wilson Peak (14017')
January 18, 2015
14 miles RT, 5300' gain
Via Cross Mtn TH/Bilk Basin/South Slopes
Participants: Shawn Keil, Greg Gorrell, Kevin Pustulka, Sarah Behnke, and Kevin Baker

Full Res Photos

Wilson Peak is considered to be one of the easier of the hard 14ers to do in winter. It can be reached by a strong group as a dayhike with good snow conditions from the Cross Mountain trailhead (10039') near Lizard Head Pass on Highway 145. Avalanche danger can be avoided on the route with proper routefinding until you get to the unavoidable steep south slopes, but south facing snow can sometimes be in decent shape in winter. I was thinking about giving one of the Wilsons a shot in early winter if conditions and weather lined up with a weekend, and Abe's successful summit of Mount Wilson encouraged me to give Wilson Peak a shot. I got a strong team on board with Kevin P, Sarah, Greg, and Shawn signed up. Let's do this!

The northern San Juans were in a bit of a dry spell with a minor storm 4 days before our hike that dropped only about 5 inches on Lizard Head Pass. It's hard to know exactly what to expect conditions wise and we hoped we didn't just drive 6 hours for a long snowshoe outing! We met at the Cayton campground off Hwy 145 near the trailhead Sat night and car camped there. The night went by quick and we set out at 5:34am under clear skies and a chilly 13 degrees. There was little wind and we were expecting a bluebird day. Greg had scoped out the trail the day before and there was a nice track in place all the way to Lizard Head Pass. I think this trail is used quite often by backcountry skiers in winter, so there is a decent chance there will be a track in place if it hasn't snowed recently. Shawn and I started out with snowshoes just to keep the weight off our backs while the rest of the group booted up.

As we neared the pass, we were treated with a nice sunrise over the Ice Lakes Basin group! The views over to the Wilson group were mighty fine as well and Wilson Peak looked a long ways away. Lizard Head, the hardest ranked 13er in Colorado, towered above us.

Sunrise over the Ice Lakes Basin group

Lizard Head

Wilson Group

The winds picked up a bit around sunrise, but we would soon be out of it when we dropped down the north side of the pass. The annoying part of this hike is there is a lot of sidehilling on snowshoes and you have to lose 540 feet down into the southern branch of Bilk Basin. We were making good time though, and the trenching wasn't too bad, especially since the immortal Greg did about 75% of it! After a brief break at the low point of the drainage, we contoured around the nose of the east ridge of Gladstone and got a nice view of the southeast face of Wilson Peak. The views in this seldom visited drainage are world class in winter and Gladstone stole the show all day!


Mt Wilson and Gladstone

Rounding the corner

As we progressed higher into the drainage we were feeling pretty good about finding a safe line up the south slopes as we did not encounter any audible instability in the snowpack, and there was no recent avy activity that we could see. East and north facing slopes had a fair amount of wind slab though. The few winter trip reports out there for Wilson Peak suggest that there is a good chance there will be a few potential rock ribs that can be climbed on the south slopes if the snow is shallow enough. From the lake at 12100', we decided to go up a broad shoulder to a mellow bench that we could take us over to the south face. This stretch was tough and the wind started to pick up, but it wasn't blowing hard enough for goggles.


Pain cave!


Nearing the south slopes

We found a suitable line up a rib that started at around 12900'. We were only 4/10ths of a mile from the summit, but still 1300 vertical to go! It was time to enter the pain cave as Greg would say, although he doesn't feel any pain. We were initially on shallow snow and talus, then started going up some nice snow that eventually got a bit too icy without crampons. We got on the loose rib of talus and fought our way up the nastiness. Nazarene f-bombs ensued, but Papi can verify that they were all kid friendly. In hindsight, we probably should have just put on crampons and gone up the snow as it would have been much quicker. We had to go slow and tread lightly to keep from kicking rocks down. Time seemed to fly by as progress was slow, and we finally topped out on the s.w. ridge just below the false summit. The wind greeted us as we crested the ridge, so we kept moving and went up an icy ramp to the false summit.

Start of rib climb near 12900'

Greg cruising on good snow

Nearing the ridge

True summit from false summit

I've only done Wilson Peak once, and it was way back in 2006 in summer. I thought the notch bypass was pretty easy then, but who knows how much harder it would be with snow. Everyone was a bit apprehensive about the crux bypass of the notch, and the climb back to the ridge does look pretty steep with snow! The wind was blowing enough that all of us except for one elected to go without crampons. Greg had already negotiated the crux, and I went first. There was a bit more snow than expected and I faced in for a couple spots. The wind was really swirling the snow around, which made it more mentally challenging. We went down one at a time and I made my way across the wide ledge and there was more snow to get through here. I had to keep moving because I didn't have time to put on my bigger gloves and my hands were getting cold. The climb back up the ridge was more wind scoured, and I enjoyed it. It seemed like the rock was more solid than when I did it previously. Greg got a great shot of Kevin and I on the downclimb. It's not near as steep as it looks!

Crux downclimb of false summit. Pic by Greg Gorrell

Greg was enjoying his "summit lounge" on the leeward side of the ridge, and he let me go first up the last bit of deep snow on the ridge crest to the summit. I was astonished that it was already 2pm when we got there. It was a great feeling to work together as a team on one of Colorado's tougher 14ers in winter. The views up there were pretty sweet to say the least!

Nearing summit

Group shot

Quick summit video

It was too cold for a sit down break, so we were there just long enough for a few pics and headed down to get out of the wind. The skirting of the notch was easier on the descent as the gully on the true summit is not as steep, but the wind seemed to be blowing in our face regardless of which direction we were going! It truly felt like a winter summit even though it was a bluebird day out of the wind. We finally were able to take a sit down break with some food and put on crampons for the descent of the rib. We were able to plunge step on snow most of the way, with one brief section of nasty rock to negotiate. Back at the snowshoe cache, we could finally celebrate a safe and successful summit!

Ridge descent. Pic by Shawn Keil.

Initial downclimb of summit gully

Summit gully downclimb

Notch tower

Top of the false summit gully

All we had left now was the long 6 mile march back to the cars. We took a line a bit south of our ascent track so we didn't have to go down the steep shoulder we had climbed from the lake, but there was a lot of snowshoe sidehilling we had to do. I did a face plant, but I don't think anybody saw me! I now have the longer Lightning Ascent MSR's, and they don't sidehill as well as the Denali's. Back at the lowpoint in Bilk Basin, I dreaded the 540' reclimb to Lizard Head Pass and it indeed was brutal! Our reward was a stunning sunset as we scooted by Lizard Head and all was well. I was glad to finally be done with the endless sidehilling as we cruised down the well tracked trail. I was running out of gas because I had only had half of a Payday bar for the last few hours and downed a Muscle Milk to rejuvenate. We got back to the cars a bit after 7pm and celebrated with a nice meal at the Floradora Saloon in Telluride. Now that was one heck of a beatdown!

Looking back at the rib we climbed on south slopes

Wilson Peak B&W

Greg and Lizard Head

Lizard Head sunset

Sunset Lizard Head Pass

Worth the price of admission!

GPS Track

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
Very nice, Kevin
01/22/2015 13:21
Congrats to all of you for getting this one in winter. It looked like a beautiful day and those parting sunset shots are awesome!

I Man
Great Job!!
01/22/2015 13:49
Nice work, guys. These pictures took me back. This is a true gem in winter. The crux down climb is pretty rough!!

Congrats Kevin and Greg, and team. I hope you guys have a safe and successful season.

01/22/2015 14:39
Hey this looked like perfect day to make such a climb. Great job! I am particularly impressed with the photos too. I climbed Mt. Wilson/El Diente and Gladstone last 4th of July and you bring back memories. You’ve got me excited to do this route later this year as my finisher!

It’s a me, Mario!
01/22/2015 15:46
wish I would of known you guys were doing this. I would of slept in and just poached your trench that monring. Oh well, theres always next time.

Awesome outing, looks like you all enjoyed some of that sweet, sweet SJ goodness! That sunset spot is absolute money.

01/22/2015 16:38
Nice to see you all get such a fine peak in (mostly) fine conditions. Great pics and write up. Good luck this winter!

excellent report as usual
01/22/2015 17:06
good work kids. Let me know when you all are ready for El D. I think a couple of you have it all ready.

Oh we can be heroes, just for one day...
01/22/2015 17:31
I told Sarah that I don’t think anything makes me feel so much alive as crunching out in the dark in winter. The fatigue and aches are magnified, the cool air has a distinct smell and burn, shadows and sounds play games, etc. I am grateful for my time here and for my partners.

The winter game can be unbelievably frustrating. Forecasts love to leak. Illnesses love to pop up. But every now and then partners and peaks and time off and weather and avy forecasts and health come together and you get to ride it to the top like a comet. An incredible feeling.

10–20" of snow was supposed to fall but Lizard Head Pass only got 5. Greg said he’d rather go out and fail then sit at home. We all felt the same.

The crux looks worse than it is, but harder than I anticipated. I had not been up there since September 2009. It was intimidating to stare down but once I got 3–4 feet into the descent, it was not bad at all.

It was great getting out with Shawn and Greg again. We’ve been able to brew up some winter magic over the years and I look forward to the next one.

Thanks for the writeup, Mr. Bluebird, and take a bow. You’ve earned it.

Nice work, Kevin (x2), Sarah, Shawn, etc...
01/22/2015 17:59
I don’t really read many TRs anymore on the 14ers, but this one sparked my interest. Gorgeous pics and wonderful write–up on what seemed like a sweet day to be up high. Happy to hear all worked out. Congrats to you all.

Livin’ the dream
01/22/2015 18:04
See this is why I don’t do trip reports, there are other people who capture the moment much better than I can. Great write–up Kevin.

Greg it was great to finally meet up for a climb.

Pappy your descriptions are spot on. Always fun to get out with you and Sarah.

In the words of the A–Team "I love it when a plan comes together!"

01/22/2015 19:50
Congratulations on your impressive and beautiful climb!

Great work on your report as well!

Fire is funny
01/22/2015 22:21
Nice work Baker, you got Papi to post on 14ers again!

Great photos too! I’m getting way past homesick now.

Nice looking trip for all of you...keep it up!

Well done!
01/23/2015 02:43
Great write up! That’s a solid effort on a big day.

Holy smokes
01/23/2015 02:44
I tried to read the TR but then I saw the pic of Papi and just couldn’t look away. What a stud!

Congrats on a fine summit, all

Monster is funny too...
01/23/2015 04:44
Great write up, Kevin! And thank you for organizing this fine little adventure. What an awesome day. Yeah, the winds got a tad annoying and that climb back up to the pass was, as you said, a "beatdown," but it was all so, so worth it in the end.

I was pretty darn close to turning around at that notch... I am glad I persevered. I was the weenie who put crampons on there, and I still stand by that decision! But kudos to the rest of y’all for going without.

So when we got home, Papi celebrated with a tallboy of Coors Light (purely for sentimental/symbolic purposes). I took one sip and I gotta say, him downing that thing took more courage than negotiating the crux!

It was great to get out with Shawn, Kevin B. and, of course, The Terminator, who laid waste to that deep snow practically single handedly. Greg, I’m glad we were all able to facilitate your lounging yet again.

01/23/2015 15:37
Really love the sunrise and sunset photos. Nice work to the entire team on a tough and beautiful winter summit.

I opened up 14ers and had 4 blue TR’s
01/23/2015 15:55
I thought it was summer for a second, until I realized each one was a quality read! Great report, Kevin. Really enjoyed it man. Sarah, Pap – it’s nice to see your faces in a TR! Congrats to the whole gang on a fine outing!

01/26/2015 01:14
Awesome documentation. This one is on my winter list, but the recent warm weather streak here in the area makes me apprehensive about a southern approach.

Was there enough bare rock on the crux to make crampons more of a liability than an advantage?

Kevin Baker
01/26/2015 17:19

I think microspikes might actually be more beneficial than crampons on the crux, but I guess it depends on conditions. There were a few spots of hard snow that crampons would have been nice on. South facing slopes in the area are in spring condition right now until the next big storm.

Summit Lounger
Awesome day
02/17/2015 14:11
I’m glad I got to spend an awesome day with our team. The sunrise and sunset on Lizard Head and the surrounding peaks was great. Beautiful report Kevin B. Looking forward to the next one.

Excellent report
01/30/2020 00:46
Thank you very much for the excellent report and all of the great information. I'm trying to talk a buddy into this one in the next month and your report provides some very good info. Cool pictures also.

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