Climbing El Diente Peak via the Kilpacker Approach - San Juans, Colorado

August 29, 2021 - After camping at 10,000 feet in a lovely pine forest in my mobile home (chez Larry) in the shadow of my objective, I slept in a bit and didn't begin my approach to the mountain until about 0630. After studying all approaches, I decided that the Kilpacker approach seemed like it would be the safest way to climb El Diente from the southeast rather than using the standard route on the north face. With the snow being gone this late in the summer, I figured that the north face would be a bowling alley of loose rocks to dodge. The southeast side of El D offered more moderate relief with little danger of rockfall until the final pitches.


The approach hike is very moderate across sheep meadows until a broad talus field is reached just below treeline. Despite a lack of cairns the route across the talus was clear enough to reach the upper shelf above a couple of waterfalls. As the sun rose higher it became warm crossing the mile-long plus of talus to reach the beginning of the actual climb. One gets some perspective with my shadow as I looked back on the Kilpacker route. The picture at the top left shows the extent of the entire field.

Before beginning the actual climb, looking straight up at El Diente above, I filled my water bottles with some fresh glacial meltwater. The cairn-marked trail cut straight up the mountain to the left (above) away from the talus field that stretched further up the basin toward Mt. Wilson in the photo below.

While the temperature at the start of my day was 41 degrees aat 10,000 feet, the meadows at around 11,500 feet still showed signs of a light frost the night before. All indications were that fall was late in arrival this season, as I only witnessed two aspen trees with only a few yellowed leaves. Other than that, the skunk cabbage fading to brown was the only tell-tale sign of a change of seasons. The only wildlife I saw was a female blue grouse up close that I was not quick enough to capture on film.

Above, peering at the top of Mt. Wilson with the ridge leading there from El D to the west of it. Below, looking west back toward where I started the day.

It had been my plan to summit El Diente (the tooth), then traverse east over to the summit of Mt. Wilson, then descend via its north slopes to bag Wilson Peak before retreating past Navajo Lake and back around El D to hike back on the Kilpacker Trail from Navajo Basin. I opted to turn around at about 13,000 feet and get off the mountain for a variety of reasons. The photo below shows the summit of El D from my furthest progress on the climb, well within an hour's reach by traversing below the "pipe organs".

This was certainly a reachable objective, but I was climbing solo; I had not seen another climber all morning - perhaps because of my late start. After wasting some time route-finding in the loose talus and scree I was fatigued after the previous day's effort in my Telluride race, with a sore knee from an ACL injury to boot. My stamina and strength seemed to be already spent. The deciding factor, however, was some troubling dark clouds building above Mt. Wilson at only ten a.m. A long solo effort on a challenging traverse across to Wilson seemed dubious in the face of a potential electrical storm, so I backed off as a matter of prudent discretion and saved the trio for another day.

It was a beautiful day, otherwise, and I immensely enjoyed my foray into the San Juans once again. When I got back to the car, it was clear to me that I had made the correct decision to retreat. It was hard to discern whether the peaks received any electro-magnetic activity or not, however, in my experience being up high, when the weather is questionable it is always better to drop down to lower elevations.