El Diente Ski Descent: The Luttrel Line

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El Diente Peak seen from the Rock of Ages Saddle, San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

Partners: Brian Miller, Carl Dowdy, Marc Barella
Route: Approach from 9,600′ in Silver Pick, ski descent from Rock of Ages to 12,000′ at the base of El Diente’s Northwest Face, climb and ski of the Luttrel Line (aka Fox Traverse)
Stats: 11 miles, 6,600′ climbed and skied, 14 hours

We began skinning at 3am as a group of four, intent on skiing El Diente and maybe Mt. Wilson if things went well. Rick, with whom we had skied Wilson Peak the day before, decided he wanted to sleep in and enjoy a liesure day at camp. Understandable given the day we had prior, and also given the fact that skiing El Diente from Silver Pick involves gaining the Rock of Ages Saddle, twice, and climbing and skiing a steep line on tired legs.

Brian however would be joining us, as he was able to locate and borrow a ski setup from Carl’s friend in Telluride. Brian had enjoyed his day of lounging at camp but it was easy to see he was ready to get a peak done. Good thing too, because getting to the base of El Diente’s North Face from 9,600′ in Silver Pick is not exactly an easy task. We retraced our track from the previous day until we hit treeline, from there we were able to find an efficient route through the upper-basin en route to Rock of Ages.

To gain the saddle, we skinned up the west wall of the basin a ways and traversed over, as opposed to taking a direct line. From there we clicked in and skied a thousand feet of hard snow down to the base of El Diente’s Northwest Couloir.

Brian and El Diente.

…and a closeup of The Fox. See the ears and nose? Photo by Brian.

The North Buttress looms large.

At the base of the couloir we regrouped and transitioned to climbing mode, the crampons went on and we began the ascent.

Upper-Navajo Basin. Photo by Brian.

This is a unique route indeed. Even when viewing the Northwest Face straight on from across the valley, the Luttrel Line is not at all obvious. I think it was either Frank or Brittany who observed that one cannot see the entire route from any single vantage point. Once in the couloir, it appears as though you’re climbing into a dead end. A little faith is required on this one.

Climbing the lower-route.

You really do have to resist the urge to cut climber’s left too early. We made this mistake initially thinking we were climbing the chute that leads to the Fox, only to climb into a dead end and realize we turned too soon. A bit of backtracking had us back on route, a 30 minute error.

Entering the correct chute.

At the very top of the couloir, and I mean the very top, you’ll find a conveniently placed chute that heads up and east towards the summit.

This chute narrows and steepens, and then comes to an abrupt end at the base of the Fox Traverse.

The Fox faces northeast, so it had been getting sun since the start of the day. This abrupt northwest to northeast transition had us on our guard. It was 10am, but luckily the snow along the traverse had been kept cold by wind and low morning temperatures, so we decided to go for it. In general though it’s probably a good idea to cross this puppy a little earlier than we did.

The traverse is steep. Photo by Carl.

Past the Fox, another steep, narrow chute grants access to the summit. From the summit snowfield down through this chute and across the Fox traverse is one continuous no-fall zone. The terrain is commiting and the climbing is challenging, especially with the soft snow.

After a short ridge scramble to the west, we topped out on “The Tooth”.

Photo by Carl.

Marc on the summit. Photo by Carl.

Our plan was to summit and then immediately turn around and ski down back across the Fox. We wanted to make that crossing as soon as possible, so unfortunately we didn’t get much of a break. Four people transitioning to ski mode on a summit as small and exposed as El Diente’s made for an interesting experience. Kinda like four dudes trying to get dressed in a phone booth, not that I’ve done that.

Carl clicked in first and skied off the top.

Followed by Marc and I. Photo by Brian.

Brian just off the summit heading down towards the Fox.

The turns ranged from wind-deposited powder to chattery ice and even some breakable crust. As soon as each of us were down the chute and past the Fox, we were able to relax a little bit and take a much needed breather.

Brian and I negotiating The Fox. Photo by Carl.

After refueling on grub and Gatorade (Brian’s Salt n’ Vinegar Pringles need to be mentioned), we were ready to ski out the remainder of the route. From the west end of the Fox, the skiing continues down the narrow corridor…

Carl skiing good snow down the upper-chute.

Eventually you get spit out into the main couloir. Here we had powder turns for the first few hundred feet.

Brian making his turns high in the main chute.

Kind of a neat one. Photo by Brian.

We each skied out of the mouth of the couloir one by and one, elated that we had just skied the Luttrel Line in good condition. Another long break mentally prepared us for the next leg of the journey; the skin out. From here we had a thousand vert to the Rock of Ages Saddle.

Heading for ROA.

It was just one foot in front of the other, we were all pretty tired at this point but the day was basically in the bag. The views through this basin are something else, I knew we had a long drive home but part of me wanted to stay and watch the sunset over these peaks. Maybe someday when I don’t have a nine to five…

At the saddle.

Eventually the Rock of Ages saddle was gained, and then we had 3,500′ of soft, afternoon corn turns back to the car.

The end.

This was an incredible day on an incredible line. El Diente deserves respect, as does Jarrett for riding and documenting the route last spring. I’d agree that this is the most logical, continuous, and safe snow route on El Diente. Not only that, but the route is very aesthetic, and takes on numerous different chutes and traverses to go continuously from the summit. I’d highly recommend checking it out sometime.

Happy climbing!

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