El Diente

  • El Diente
  • 4316 m.
  • No Rank
  • Primary factor 79 m.
  • Climbed August 17, 2001


How to get there: We used the trailhead serving Navajo Lake in Navajo Basin. We drove from Denver via US 285 to Poncha Springs, then US 50 to Gunnison and Monterose. From here follow the road towards Telluride, but turn right up to Lizard Head Pass a few miles before the town (Colorado Hwy 145). Drive 8.6 km down from Lizard Head Pass, then go right on a small dirt road, US Forest Service 535. This road is called Dunton Road, there is a sign. Follow this road up the side of the valley, then across an open flat area and finally descending down into a valley to the trailhead. There is a short, dead end road to the trailhead going sharply right near the bottom of the hill, this is 11.5 km from the beginning of Dunton Road. The trailhead has a good parking area. It took us 7.5 hours to drive from Denver including a quick lunch, gas, a few delays due to highway construction and a quick stop to buy some supplies in Monterose.
Route description: The ridge connecting Mount Wilson with El Diente is one of the "classic fourteener ridge traverses", it is moreover most likely the highest mile in the Continental United States. The ridge stays above 4200 meter all the way from Mount Wilson to the summit of El Diente. This description starts at the final summit ridge of Mount Wilson, in order to get there, see the description posted under Mount Wilson.
The first part of the route descends the obvious couloir on the left side of the ridge. This couloir contained a little bit of snow, some old and some new from the thunderstorm the previous night. No technical problems and no route finding problems, one soon exits the couloir to the right and returns to the highest ridge. The ridge climbs a bit and becomes distinctivly more narrow. This section is called the coxcomb, the rock is good, but narrow and the exposure to both sides is impressive. A very nice climb, it is a bit fun to report back (to the climber that follows) that here is a spot that is just a bit more narrow than the previous section. At the end of the coxcomb one must either downclimb on the left side or be prepared for a rappel. This downclimb was described as the crux of the route, however we found it completely straightforward with no difficult spots. One should start the downclimb a bit before the ridge itself heads down, the general line is a descent that continues diagonally forward. However, the best route makes a few zig-zags, this is pretty obvious and one arrives at the lower end only slightly below the (low point) saddle on the main ridge.
From here (this is the lowest spot along the entire ridge), one continues on very easy terrain up and across a local summit. The ridge is quite delightful here, several meters wide with a very good view. This continues for quite some distance until one approaches a new section with pinnacles and obvious difficulties. The "standard" route prescribes a very significant downclimb on the left side all the way down below various ribs of rock until one again can climb up to the ridge. However, I can strongly recommend an alternative route that avoids a considerable part of this elevation loss. Just before the ridge itself becomes more complicated, descend down a small gully. Keep your attention on the rock formations on your right hand side. The alternative route is marked with a few cairns (We made a couple that should help spot the beginning). The route stays more or less at this elevation, the climbing is no more than easy class 3. However, the route is interesting, the rock is good and the perhaps most interesting section consists of a rock ledge that turns around a corner (to the right), there one finds the top of a rock pillar about 4 feets below, but the holds are good and one can easily lower oneself down. From this pillar, the ledge continues in an arc going left and emerges onto easier terrain. There is only a short traverse up and one has regained the main ridge.
The ridge is now again broader and a large cairn marks the ramp that constitutes the beginning of the north slope descent route back into upper Navajo Basin. There are alternative routes going both left and right of the highest ridgeline from this point. I can only recommend staying at the very highest ridge a little more. The top ridge is easy, but gets at least as narrow as the sections on the coxcomb. Further complications, called the Organ Pipes rises ahead. This problem should be circumvented by going left. Fortunately, the required descent is very minimal, the route is quite easy to follow. There are minor variations (a bit higher/lower) along here as well, but eventually one arrives at the lower end of a distinct gully that heads up directly to the right. One should climb this gully to the top, then continue, but now on the right side of the ridge. This route eventually leads to another small gully that heads up towards the ridgeline, this time quite sharply to the climbers left. Climb this gully for a couple of meters, then cross it and continue the few final meters to the summit of El Diente. The summit is rocky and fairly small, just the highest point on what distinctly looks like a mountain ridge.
The return hike should follow the same route back to the cairn that marks the top of the North Slope route. This route starts as a descent on a very large, but steep ramp that leads you into the huge gully down to upper Navajo Basin. Anyone doing this route should be warned about the dangerously loose rock that exists everywhere. The best (safest) route is likely to stay as far right as possible while descending. Any party must stay together and be very careful not to trigger the loose rocks. There was only minimal icy/rotten snow left in the gully, not at all suitable for the descent. Earlier in the summer, the snow in the gully can likely be used for a glissade, thus avoiding some of the danger provided that safety is ensured on the (steep) glissade.
Comments: "The Highest Mile in the Continental United States."
I did this with Jan-Frode Myklebust. We started out from Mount Wilson at 1000, I was on the summit of El Diente at 1220, then back at the top of the North Slope descent at 1320 (after a long rest on El Diente), then back down at the tent 1520. We subsequently hiked out to the trailhead and reached the car around 1920, altogether about 12 hours of hiking/climbing - we deserved a nice dinner in Telluride that evening.
This traverse was a very nice mountain experience, first the interesting climb of Mount Wilson, then the traverse, and finally the climb of El Diente. The final descent down the north slope from the El Diente - Wilson ridge was, however, quite unpleasant with very loose rock and a near mishap as a rock hit my left leg just above the knee. The rocks that came were deadly and arrived when I was in a difficult spot with little opportunity for a quick escape. Always use a climbers helmet, seek rapid shelter behind whatever rocks you can find, lay down, protect your head. The lesson should be obvious, stay together in this kind of terrain. I made the stupid mistake of getting ahead downslope.