We’ve been getting envious of all the excellent rappells guys get to do on ski descents in the Tetons, so I threw in a rope for this past weekend’s El Diente mission. Good thing I did.
For the past few years I’ve been teaming up with 14er skier Sean Crossen during his attempts to add fourteener El Diente to his “ski them all” quest. Diente has been tough for Sean. He started out his 14er skiing with minimal climbing skills, so the first time he skied Diente he chose not to summit via the awkward scramble on the final summit ridge (he was wearing plastic soled ski boots).
Back then the standard for a Diente ski descent (set by myself and a few before me) was to ski from high on the summit ridge, so Sean did that. But without summiting it was still hard to count his descent as legit. Then last winter Chris Davenport and others began finding more ways to ski off the summit, which raised the bar in the sport’s progression. Since Sean hadn’t finished his quest by then, to eliminate doubt about his public claim of skiing them all (he’s got one to go, Capitol) he now had to go back and get the summit — both as a climb and ski. As for myself, I was more interested in helping Sean than anything else (I’ve got a place in my heart for him since he was the first to continue with my idea of skiing them all), but I was of course fascinated with getting the peak from the summit. After all, are we not mountaineers? So I came out of retirement and went after it again this past weekend with a strong crew that included Sean. Story below.
|Our crew skied a couple of routes on El Diente. Southern route we did is shown above — we called it the Mahogany Couloir in honor of a running joke about bar stool quarterbacking.
We camp near Silver Pick and get a sub-alpine start — about 2:00 AM in beautiful moonlight. The summit of Diente is under our feet just a few hours after sunrise. Perfect timing for snow that could avalanche once it glops out later in the day.
Sean knows Davenport and his crew had used an “interesting” traverse last season to get down from the summit and access several lines that only fill in once every several years. Once we climbed near the summit we could see the traverse was somewhat formed but not as filled with snow as others have found it (neither were the Dav crew lines). More, the traverse is basically a tightrope walk above large cliffs, so I’m not interested in making it a family outing for myself and Louie. I tell the crew there are other possibilities I’ve scoped out over the years: a south facing couloir that drops south to Kilpacker Creek, and another couloir that goes northwesterly from the tiny saddle between the two summit bumps and hopefully drops to Navajo Basin without any cliff bands (later we’d find this is actually the route Nick DeVore skied last spring when he was with Davenport, though snow coverage was much better when he did it). Today, looking from the summit it’s obvious we can get these lines as summit ski descents. But will they go the whole way with this spring’s good but not record snow cover?
|Sean on the summit ridge (John Humphries photo). In lightweight hiking boots and a t-shirt this is easy. Try it with a pair of skis on a pack and crampons on your feet — different story. You wind around all these tricky little rock spikes, making scratchy moves above a 200 foot cliff to your left and a yawning chasm on your right. If I’d been guiding here I would have been shortroping my client. Snow to the left is the southern descent option. It looks possible, but we can’t see the choke where we’ll have to either downclimb or rappel over a small but awkward ice and rock area.|
Crew for this mission is Telluride Helitrax guide John Humphries (sans heli), myself and son Louie, Sean Crossen, Jordan White, (and my wife Lisa holding down the fort in Navaho Basin while we visit the summit). Jordan has been on a tear this spring. Yesterday he found a way to stay on skis for most of the the summit block of Wetterhorn Peak (he did two short downclimbs), one of the few fourteeners that’s still not skied from the summit but instead from the base of a cliffy rock summit cap. His Wetterhorn route requires unusual and probably rare snow coverage so I don’t think it will become the new standard for Wetterhorn, but perhaps it will, and congratulations to Jordan for probably being the first to do it!
Jordan is feeling the burn from his Wetterhorn climb, but makes Diente’s summit in good style along with the rest of us. Once there we know time is our enemy, so we skip our summit group photos and immediately get down to the business of finding summit ski descents.
We like the couloir that might get us down to Navaho, as heading south down our other option will require climbing back up to Diente for return, or else doing a long wilderness slog to a remote trailhead 70 road miles from where our cars are currently parked.
|Jordan volunteers for recon so we hand him a radio and he starts down the Navaho option, his first turn shown in photo above. “Looks like some rocks down here,” comes the call, “looks like a cliff band — yeah, I’ll have to downclimb — not too long though — you guys might want to rappel it.” (John Humphries photo).|
While we wait at the summit it takes Jordan quite a while to do his downclimb (I’m glad he didn’t rush it). Eventually he reports route completion and what sounds like a rather hairy downclimb. I breath a secret sigh of relief and speak with the other guys. Do we want a route with a possibly mandatory rappel and who knows what anchors, or try the southern option down into Kilpacker creek? We opt for the unknown, as we can see much more of the southern couloir and thus know if there is a downclimb or rappel it has to be short.
|Sean drops in (John Humphries photo). He makes a few nice turns in the narrow chute, then in the exact area we can’t see from the top (Murphy’s law of ski descents) he’s stopped by an ice bulge and rock choke. He ends up downclimbing a short distance — we think this is probably still better than the longer downclimb on Jordan’s route, so I head down and set up a rappel with the Beal “Rando Alpine” 8 mm x 30 meter rope I’m carrying. Louie scoots on down and raps over the ice, then it’s my turn. John sees how much time this is all taking. Knowing the snowpack may be getting dangerous from the heat, he opts to downclimb the summit ridge and ski back into Navajo by the regular route. I don’t like splitting up the group but see his point so no argument.|
|Louie on the rap. We carry small lightweight harnesses for this sort of thing, with one locking biner we rappel with using a munter hitch as a brake.|
So we get the steep work done and we’re positioned on the side of El Diente, hanging over the Kilpacker drainage like eagles nesting on a canyon wall — only our nest is a rapidly weakening snowpack. I take my skis off and make a few test steps in the up direction. Sure enough I sink to my knees in the muck. No way we’re climbing up and over back to Navajo. We need exit. Fast. Only problem is Lisa and the others may end up waiting hours (if not days) for us if we do the southern exit to the remote trailhead. I get out my cheapie talkabout radio. “No way this thing is going to work,” I think, “with El Diente Peak between me and Lisa.”
“Lisa, you copy?” goes the broadcast. The words “This is Lisa,” come back! I can’t believe it. Somehow my weak signal has fringe reflected of the ridge above and gotten down to Lisa in the bottom of Navajo Basin. I’m certain this wouldn’t have been possible at all except she’s got our Yaesu FT-50 handheld HAM radio with a high quality multi-band antenna (a Diamond SRH815, highly recommended). Even so, I’m thinking that beyond technology this little event had to have some help from above — above meaning much higher up than the summit of Diente.
We explain our exit strategy to Lisa, and 30 seconds later we’re out of the danger zone skiing boudacious corn bowls down Kilpacker. Eventually I dig out the map (I always carry a chart on peak I’m less than intimately familiar with) and we plot an exit strategy. It takes about four more hours to beat out the rest of the Kilpacker and Dolores drainage to Dunton and a ride from Jordan (he’s our hero for doing that). The hiking hurts and Alaskan style bushwacking brings back interesting memories. But Sean’s high from doing his next-to-last fourteener is contagious, and we laugh all the way home.
|An “Alaskan style deproach” needs at least three stream crossings that require wading in boots, as well as adequate willow thickets. Definition of “epic” is when your finish trailhead is a 70 mile drive from your start trailhead. Thus, we had an Alaskan style epic. ( I know I know, you Alaskans will tell me “not even close, Dawson.” Oh well, we tried (grin).|
Summary: Two routes on El Diente Peak, San Miguel sub range of San Juan Mountains, Colorado. Southern route from summit by Sean Crossen, Louie Dawson, Lou Dawson. Northwestern route to Navajo Basin skied by Jordan White, possible first descent of that route was by Nick DeVore last spring, see comments below for first descent info for southern Couloir.
Ratings: Southern Couloir V, D13, R3 (possible downclimb or ropework depending on snow fill)
Northwest Couloir “DeVore” to Navajo IV, D14, R3 (possible downclimb or ropework depending on snow fill)
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.