Wilson Peak Summit Ski: The Coors Face

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The northeast face of Wilson Peak seen from Rock of Ages, San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

Partners: Brian Miller, Carl Dowdy, Marc Barella, Rick Thompson
Route: Approach from 9,600′ in Silver Pick, ascent of Wilson’s Northwest Face, ski descent of Northeast Face (aka “The Coors Face”)
Stats: 7.5 miles, 4,500′ climbed and skied, 9 hours

Of all the areas I’ve explored in Colorado thus far the San Juans are undoubtedly my favorite place to adventure. After an awesome tour in Yankee Boy Basin earlier this spring, I was particularly eager to get back down there and visit Navajo again. Partners for this trip ended up being some long-time climbing buddies of mine in Brian, Carl, and Marc, and a mutual friend of ours, Rick, whom I had gotten to know last summer climbing rocks in Clear Creek Canyon.

Fast forward to Saturday morning. We began skinning towards Rock of Ages at 3:30am intent on bagging Mt. Wilson and El Diente. We knew this would be an ambitious combo to hit from camp at 9,600′ but we were certainly going to give it a shot. Skinning up a well-frozen crust had our spirits high as the overnight low at 12,800′ was only 32 degrees. It was apparent that the clear night had lent us a helping hand (some science concept called radiant cooling).

An hour of uneventful climbing prefaced the first unexpected hardship of the trip. We had just finished side-hilling a hundred yard long section of snow embankment when I heard Brian behind us cursing under his breath. He walked up dragging his skis behind him, a look of disappointment on his face, and announced that his Fritchi Freeride binding had failed at a critical location near the toe. We spent a good amount of time trying to come up with a solution that would enable him to finish the tour, to no avail. Brian’s day was effectively over.

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Skinning up firm morning snow.

After parting ways with Brian we had a group huddle and decided given the circumstances that we should reverse our days and hit Wilson Peak first. This way we could get out earlier and head into town to try to find a fix for Brian’s Freeride. With Wilson Peak the new focus, we began climbing the Northwest Face from upper-Silver Pick.

This route on Wilson Peak is incredibly expedient. In essence the route climbs a steadily steepening bowl up to the mouth of a small chute, which leads directly to the Southwest Ridge and bypasses many of the difficulties of the standard route.

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Into the chute we go.

This chute is short and sweet, at the top a few simple rock moves get you onto the ridge.

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Rock hopping in ski boots. Photo by Carl.

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Upon gaining the ridge, we joined up with the standard summer route. Photo by Carl.

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Exposure to the south.

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Rick marching to the top.

We hit the summit just before 10am. The views from the top of this peak are some of the best offered by any 14er in my opinion. It was tempting to just sit for awhile and enjoy the day, but we knew the sun was baking our intended ski route. We needed to get on with the skiing.

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Saddling up on top of Wilson Peak.

The standard way of getting onto the Northeast Face is to ski down the North Ridge a bit and look for a feasible entrance.

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After taking a look at the entrance it was clear getting into the couloir proper was going to be a challenge. The upper-face was more melted out than we were hoping for (despite what the pics appear to show, cover was uncomfortably thin) and on top of that, the snow was softening rapidly. Add all that to the fact that this section was well over 50 degrees in steepness in the condition in which we found it. Marc and Carl worked their way off the top first, followed by Rick and I.

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View over my skis down this harrowing section of the route.

We each made one or two crap-in-yer-pants jump turns on the upper-face, no more than were necessary to get our planks turned in the direction we wanted them. We picked our way into the couloir one at a time at our own pace, after which we were able to begin making confident turns without the fear of bottoming out. I was a tad frazzled and very happy to be into the chute proper, I think we all were.

From here the route is just awesome; over a thousand feet of steep skiing with an interesting problem to solve at the bottom. With good snow cover up top I can certainly see why this is on Davenport’s 50 North American Classics list. On this day however, the harrowing nature of the top of the route put somewhat of a damper on the descent as a whole, at least for me.

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Carl. Photo by Rick.

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Rick. Photo by Carl.

One of the unique aspects of skiing this face is that there are a number of exit options at the bottom. It’s somewhat of a choose-your-own-adventure-route, and we chose a long traverse skier’s right that led us to a viable exit chute. The central chute was not in condition on this day and probably won’t be for the remainder of the season. On a side note, we had the luxury of Brian guiding us down the face. He had returned to camp and had a decent view of the peak and, with the aid of binoculars, was able to direct us via radio to the correct exit chute.

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On a traverse,. Photo by Carl.

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Eventually we found the chute we wanted and had another couple hundred feet of good turns out to the apron. Photo by Carl.

Below the apron we began the long traverse back to the road.

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Trying to avoid private land. Photo by Carl.

The severity of the bushwack required to get back to the road took us all for surprise, but eventually after a significant amount of cursing and involuntary pine enemas, we crossed a barbed-wire fence and hit dirt. Back at the car we found Brian lounging and enjoying the day. He wasn’t all that bummed about missing Wilson Peak, I can think of far worse places to spend a day of solitude and relaxation.

Back in town we reloaded on burgers and beers (no Coors was consumed, imagine that) and managed to find a loaner AT setup for Brian courtesy of a friend of Carl’s. After that we headed back to camp, watched the sunset, and hit the sack early in preparation for another big one.

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A parting photo.

Here’s a link to Carl’s TR over on TGR.

Coming up next…El Diente.

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