Wilson, a three-headed massif located in southwest Colorado, also happens to sit squarely on the Axis of Evil. When it comes to misbehaving, this is the Rockies’ Peerless Leader, their Kim Jong Il.
Not that it’s some K2-like monster that kills scores of people a year. Wilson (the collective name most use for 14,017-foot Wilson Peak, 14,159-foot El Diente, and, confusingly, 14,246-foot Mount Wilson) is a two-bit dictator of a massif because it likes attention and craves your fear, even if it never actually leads the league in body count. As for the annoyingly repetitive names—which fourteener guidebook author and ski mountaineer Lou Dawson says has led “to no small amount of guidebook writer’s angst—they’re meant to honor 1870s geographer and climber A.D. Wilson, who mapped most of southwest Colorado’s peaks. William Bueler, author of the mountaineering history Roof of the Rockies, thinks the lower Wilson should be named after Franklin Rhoda, the assistant photographer in Wilson’s party. But what kind of self-respecting peak answers to Rhoda? Ergo, double Wilsons.
Dawson, the first man to ski all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot-plus peaks, bagged the Wilsons in the late ’80s, when skis were long, alpine-touring bindings were flimsy, and handheld GPS units were sci-fi fantasy. He went back to El Diente last spring and skied it from the top again. But a few weeks earlier, Wilson weathered him off.
When Chris Davenport’s Ski the 14ers expedition (he succeeded in skiing all 54 in a year) arrived in May 2006, the Wilson team endured technical snow-and-rock ascents and descents with 50-degree pitches and mandatory billygoating through cliffs. It’s “intricate and dangerous, Davenport says. “You must know your line, because many lines that apparently go through actually cliff out lower down.
Davenport’s crew spent 15 hours and 8,500 vertical feet of climbing vanquishing the nasty massif—a feat (like multilateral peace negotiations) for history. But Davenport was on a mission to ski from the summit. Normally, Telluride’s earn-your-turns crowd gain Rock of Ages saddle (13,020 feet), bag Wilson Peak, and savor the more enjoyable Coors Light Couloir. “You don’t wanna fall, says skier Dylan Sloan. “But it’s straightforward and it goes without cliffing out. And it faces due north.
If Wilson is beginning to sound harmless, think again. The mountains remain happy to stomp on the backs of the Oppressed. Think of the lowly snowboarders who must conclude the descent with a traverse so miserably horizontal it violates human rights.
And when Wilson’s bad, it’s very bad. In September 2006, four Texans were flying a private plane to the Telluride Blues & Brews Festival when Wilson ripped them from the sky. There were no survivors, and only one body was intact enough to be quickly identified. The dead were young (ages 25 to 27), affluent, and flying without TSA hassles. Anyone who’s attended a Telluride music festival might wonder if the wreckage contained tie-dye, drugs, and cash. Maybe, like in Cliffhanger, the peaks hold loot. Perhaps Sly Stallone and his crampons could scoot up and find it. But the season’s first snowstorm blew in just 40 hours after the crash, covering any clues for months. The propeller is still lodged into Wilson’s crown.
The Wilson massif is known for crumbling schist and a lethal mixture of rock, ice, snow, and exposure. In July a few years back, a ledge trod by climbers crumbled, triggering a fatal avalanche that carried its victim 200 feet before burying him.
In 2004, a Virginia man, who’d summited minutes earlier, whooshed 800 feet down an ice field and landed in a pile of scree. He lost his footing on a narrow ridge and then, said his horrified partner, “slid uncontrollably at incredible speeds and died of head trauma. Pro skier Kim Havell of San Miguel County Search & Rescue says, “In seven years on SAR, every mission I’ve joined involved Mount Wilson or El Diente.. It’s why the unit’s commander grimly maintains a “box of death, a regularly updated bin containing photo evidence of local wilderness fatalities.
A few weeks before the Blues & Brews plane crash, another climber fell off El Diente (“The Tooth in Spanish). A slip there usually means you tumble hundreds—or thousands—of feet to your death. Responders have recovered eight bodies at the bottom of the toothier Wilson summit, all of them cold. But this victim was actually the first known person to survive a long fall off the north face—amazing, since Search & Rescue couldn’t get a helicopter to winch him off. A party of 12 climbed up, in freezing temperatures, in an operation that took 25 hours. “Normally we’re doing body recovery if someone gets into bad shape on El Diente, says the sheriff.
Not just a bloodthirsty killer, Wilson’s also a slut for attention. Last summer, a PR bid by Trust for Public Lands brought the famously blind Everest climber Eric Weihenmayer and several media types to Wilson Peak as a means of protest. That’s right, the summit of Wilson Peak is on private property. The landowner, Texas developer Rusty Nichols, threatens to mine its upper flanks unless the Forest Service swaps him better land. He charged climbers $100 each between 2004 and 2006 and barred them completely this year. As if Coloradans need another reason to loathe Texans.
Wilson, like many a crazed despot, sees its own image everywhere. It shows up in any travel story on the San Juans. And it lives loudly on ESPN and in your fridge: It’s the mountain depicted on Coors’s beer labels. Which means more Americans see its visage than any other mount’s.
A new season’s snow has now set in, covering random bits of aeronautics and undergarments. The cruelty is evident. So send in your monitors, Amnesty International and Oxfam: Wilson intends to kill, and kill again. But for all its evil ways, it sure looks like good skiing.