El Diente Descents, South Side Couloir and Repeat of DeVore Route

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | April 30, 2007      

We’ve been getting envious of all the excellent rappells guys get to do on ski descents in the Tetons, so I threw in a rope for this past weekend’s El Diente mission. Good thing I did.

El Diente Peak backcountry skiing in Colorado
Morning on the climb. John Humphries photo.

For the past few years I’ve been teaming up with 14er skier Sean Crossen during his attempts to add fourteener El Diente to his “ski them all” quest. Diente has been tough for Sean. He started out his 14er skiing with minimal climbing skills, so the first time he skied Diente he chose not to summit via the awkward scramble on the final summit ridge (he was wearing plastic soled ski boots).

Back then the standard for a Diente ski descent (set by myself and a few before me) was to ski from high on the summit ridge, so Sean did that. But without summiting it was still hard to count his descent as legit. Then last winter Chris Davenport and others began finding more ways to ski off the summit, which raised the bar in the sport’s progression. Since Sean hadn’t finished his quest by then, to eliminate doubt about his public claim of skiing them all (he’s got one to go, Capitol) he now had to go back and get the summit — both as a climb and ski. As for myself, I was more interested in helping Sean than anything else (I’ve got a place in my heart for him since he was the first to continue with my idea of skiing them all), but I was of course fascinated with getting the peak from the summit. After all, are we not mountaineers? So I came out of retirement and went after it again this past weekend with a strong crew that included Sean. Story below.

Kilpacker Creek (south) side of El Diente Peak
Our crew skied a couple of routes on El Diente. Southern route we did is shown above — we called it the Mahogany Couloir in honor of a running joke about bar stool quarterbacking.

We camp near Silver Pick and get a sub-alpine start — about 2:00 AM in beautiful moonlight. The summit of Diente is under our feet just a few hours after sunrise. Perfect timing for snow that could avalanche once it glops out later in the day.

Sean knows Davenport and his crew had used an “interesting” traverse last season to get down from the summit and access several lines that only fill in once every several years. Once we climbed near the summit we could see the traverse was somewhat formed but not as filled with snow as others have found it (neither were the Dav crew lines). More, the traverse is basically a tightrope walk above large cliffs, so I’m not interested in making it a family outing for myself and Louie. I tell the crew there are other possibilities I’ve scoped out over the years: a south facing couloir that drops south to Kilpacker Creek, and another couloir that goes northwesterly from the tiny saddle between the two summit bumps and hopefully drops to Navajo Basin without any cliff bands (later we’d find this is actually the route Nick DeVore skied last spring when he was with Davenport, though snow coverage was much better when he did it). Today, looking from the summit it’s obvious we can get these lines as summit ski descents. But will they go the whole way with this spring’s good but not record snow cover?

Kilpacker Creek (south) side of El Diente Peak
Sean on the summit ridge (John Humphries photo). In lightweight hiking boots and a t-shirt this is easy. Try it with a pair of skis on a pack and crampons on your feet — different story. You wind around all these tricky little rock spikes, making scratchy moves above a 200 foot cliff to your left and a yawning chasm on your right. If I’d been guiding here I would have been shortroping my client. Snow to the left is the southern descent option. It looks possible, but we can’t see the choke where we’ll have to either downclimb or rappel over a small but awkward ice and rock area.

Crew for this mission is Telluride Helitrax guide John Humphries (sans heli), myself and son Louie, Sean Crossen, Jordan White, (and my wife Lisa holding down the fort in Navaho Basin while we visit the summit). Jordan has been on a tear this spring. Yesterday he found a way to stay on skis for most of the the summit block of Wetterhorn Peak (he did two short downclimbs), one of the few fourteeners that’s still not skied from the summit but instead from the base of a cliffy rock summit cap. His Wetterhorn route requires unusual and probably rare snow coverage so I don’t think it will become the new standard for Wetterhorn, but perhaps it will, and congratulations to Jordan for probably being the first to do it!

Jordan is feeling the burn from his Wetterhorn climb, but makes Diente’s summit in good style along with the rest of us. Once there we know time is our enemy, so we skip our summit group photos and immediately get down to the business of finding summit ski descents.

We like the couloir that might get us down to Navaho, as heading south down our other option will require climbing back up to Diente for return, or else doing a long wilderness slog to a remote trailhead 70 road miles from where our cars are currently parked.

Kilpacker Creek (south) side of El Diente Peak
Jordan volunteers for recon so we hand him a radio and he starts down the Navaho option, his first turn shown in photo above. “Looks like some rocks down here,” comes the call, “looks like a cliff band — yeah, I’ll have to downclimb — not too long though — you guys might want to rappel it.” (John Humphries photo).

While we wait at the summit it takes Jordan quite a while to do his downclimb (I’m glad he didn’t rush it). Eventually he reports route completion and what sounds like a rather hairy downclimb. I breath a secret sigh of relief and speak with the other guys. Do we want a route with a possibly mandatory rappel and who knows what anchors, or try the southern option down into Kilpacker creek? We opt for the unknown, as we can see much more of the southern couloir and thus know if there is a downclimb or rappel it has to be short.

Kilpacker Creek (south) side of El Diente Peak
Sean drops in (John Humphries photo). He makes a few nice turns in the narrow chute, then in the exact area we can’t see from the top (Murphy’s law of ski descents) he’s stopped by an ice bulge and rock choke. He ends up downclimbing a short distance — we think this is probably still better than the longer downclimb on Jordan’s route, so I head down and set up a rappel with the Beal “Rando Alpine” 8 mm x 30 meter rope I’m carrying. Louie scoots on down and raps over the ice, then it’s my turn. John sees how much time this is all taking. Knowing the snowpack may be getting dangerous from the heat, he opts to downclimb the summit ridge and ski back into Navajo by the regular route. I don’t like splitting up the group but see his point so no argument.

Kilpacker Creek (south) side of El Diente Peak
Louie on the rap. We carry small lightweight harnesses for this sort of thing, with one locking biner we rappel with using a munter hitch as a brake.

So we get the steep work done and we’re positioned on the side of El Diente, hanging over the Kilpacker drainage like eagles nesting on a canyon wall — only our nest is a rapidly weakening snowpack. I take my skis off and make a few test steps in the up direction. Sure enough I sink to my knees in the muck. No way we’re climbing up and over back to Navajo. We need exit. Fast. Only problem is Lisa and the others may end up waiting hours (if not days) for us if we do the southern exit to the remote trailhead. I get out my cheapie talkabout radio. “No way this thing is going to work,” I think, “with El Diente Peak between me and Lisa.”

“Lisa, you copy?” goes the broadcast. The words “This is Lisa,” come back! I can’t believe it. Somehow my weak signal has fringe reflected of the ridge above and gotten down to Lisa in the bottom of Navajo Basin. I’m certain this wouldn’t have been possible at all except she’s got our Yaesu FT-50 handheld HAM radio with a high quality multi-band antenna (a Diamond SRH815, highly recommended). Even so, I’m thinking that beyond technology this little event had to have some help from above — above meaning much higher up than the summit of Diente.

We explain our exit strategy to Lisa, and 30 seconds later we’re out of the danger zone skiing boudacious corn bowls down Kilpacker. Eventually I dig out the map (I always carry a chart on peak I’m less than intimately familiar with) and we plot an exit strategy. It takes about four more hours to beat out the rest of the Kilpacker and Dolores drainage to Dunton and a ride from Jordan (he’s our hero for doing that). The hiking hurts and Alaskan style bushwacking brings back interesting memories. But Sean’s high from doing his next-to-last fourteener is contagious, and we laugh all the way home.

Kilpacker Creek (south) side of El Diente Peak
An “Alaskan style deproach” needs at least three stream crossings that require wading in boots, as well as adequate willow thickets. Definition of “epic” is when your finish trailhead is a 70 mile drive from your start trailhead. Thus, we had an Alaskan style epic. ( I know I know, you Alaskans will tell me “not even close, Dawson.” Oh well, we tried (grin).

Summary: Two routes on El Diente Peak, San Miguel sub range of San Juan Mountains, Colorado. Southern route from summit by Sean Crossen, Louie Dawson, Lou Dawson. Northwestern route to Navajo Basin skied by Jordan White, possible first descent of that route was by Nick DeVore last spring, see comments below for first descent info for southern Couloir.

Ratings: Southern Couloir V, D13, R3 (possible downclimb or ropework depending on snow fill)
Northwest Couloir “DeVore” to Navajo IV, D14, R3 (possible downclimb or ropework depending on snow fill)


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25 Responses to “El Diente Descents, South Side Couloir and Repeat of DeVore Route”

  1. frank April 30th, 2007 3:30 pm

    Very Nice! I’ve been waiting for this report since talking to Jordan last night. I’d have to say, though, looking at your photos involving rope work and stream crossings, I’m glad I followed Davenport’s tracks down El Diente last spring- I’ll take the exposed traverse any day!!

  2. Oliver April 30th, 2007 3:46 pm

    Nice work crew!

  3. gmon April 30th, 2007 4:05 pm


    When you say “new route”, are you claiming noone else has ever skiied down either of those lines? I would find that somewhat hard to believe, as these mountains around these parts tend to get skiied, alot.

  4. Lou April 30th, 2007 4:24 pm

    Update: Gmon was right, see new comments below about first descent of this route. I guess Louie and I will have to search harder for something that hasn’t been skied before… Lou

    Gmon, yes, I’m claiming the south one as a new route, the northerly one might have been skied last season by Dav’s crew. If you don’t believe it that’s okay as it is indeed possible it has been skied.

    The route into Kilpacker is rarely in condition. Every other time I’ve been up there it had a big dry patch of rubble in it that would be tough to even downclimb and probably impossible to rappel and stay alive because of rockfall. More, getting out of there after you ski it is quite unattractive. Even so, someone might chime in and say they had skied it and thus I’d be wrong. For now, I’m claiming it. That’s ski mountaineering. Climbing works the same way.

    Frank, I think the traverse was in immensely better condition last spring. Amazingly filled in. I was there a few days before Dav was and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Even so it looked like it could be used this spring, but we couldn’t tell for sure and didn’t feel like the warm day was giving us any extra time to explore it. What makes the Mahogany Couloir special is it’s definitly the most direct line off the summit, and it drops into upper Kilpacker which is an amazing place.

    Also, Frank, wading is great since it cools your feet off.

  5. gmon April 30th, 2007 4:36 pm

    By the way, I am not saying I don’t believe it, I was just wondering. And I think it is great that you get to do it with your kid. I only asked because there are times when many of us have skiied things or found are selves in somewhat unique positions where we assume others could not or have not been there prior. For example, I skiied a line on the West face of the Nokhu crags on Friday morning that was touch and go in places. As I was climbing it, I was guessing very few if any others have ever skiied it [or perhaps were foolish enough to get into it], however, I have visions of some old school bearded guy from Fort Collins who probably skiied it in 72, with three pin bindings attached with rubber bands, on acid . That too, I suspect, is ski mountaineering. Thanks for the reports, always fun.

  6. Jordan April 30th, 2007 4:48 pm

    I dunno Lou, other than the 140 extra miles (roundtrip) in the car, i think I’d still stick to the route i skied. After studying other pics though, mine wasnt a first, Devore skied it last year.

  7. Lou April 30th, 2007 7:32 pm

    Hi Gmon, no big, I was just trying for clear communication about the issue. Agree there could always be someone who came before and perhaps we’re not the first on that line. But the nature of first descents or ascents is that those who claim them are generally regarded as the “first” unless the claim is totally ridiculous, e.g., as for something that’s easy and popular and/or clearly known to have been done for years (not just the “oh yeah, someone has to have done that…”. As for everything being skied, we’re far far from that. In fact, there are thousands of lines in Colorado that have never felt the kiss of the steel edges. Most such lines are the more remote ones that are harder to get to. Some are just less attractive lines near big known lines.

    Also, some of this is based on probability. I’d never claim a first for some roadside attraction, for example.

  8. Craig Burbank April 30th, 2007 9:55 pm

    Good work y’all!! El Denied-eh has been a bitch for many of us on our tours and I commend y’all and especially Sean “Skippy” Crossen…………….Git it Skippy!! I cant believe the Mahogany ridge namesake hasnt been used yet..Some people talk about it , some people are out there doing it!! Good work kids!!

  9. Jordan May 1st, 2007 12:38 am

    Here is a link to my report from Wetterhorn the previous day.

  10. Lou May 1st, 2007 6:24 am

    That’s really cool Jordan, congratulations, I think you are the first guy to do that on Wetterhorn.

  11. Joel May 1st, 2007 7:25 am

    Hey gmon,
    those lines on the west face of norku are nasty, eh? I’ve been at Agnes Lake and watched those lines become a bowling alley with rocks bashing their way down. Did the lines finish? Was there enough snow for you to ski all the way to the lake?

  12. gmon May 1st, 2007 8:59 am


    After my day Friday, I now understand what the West Face actually offers. Yes, there are numerous lines, many of which seem to finish (some of which cliff out.) Because of the amount of rock, you cannot get a view of what is actually up there until you actually get up there. Friday there was enough snow, in fact it was powder. However, given the aspect and amount of rock, I would question how many days a year those lines are worth getting into. Lastly, and yes, that entire face is a scary / dangerous pinball alley, need to be in an out before the sun starts hitting the rocks on the top of the west face, and of course be assured of a hard freeze the night before.

  13. thomas May 1st, 2007 11:11 am

    It may qualify as an” Alaskan style deproach”: you had the alder thickets, stream crossings,did you have any stinging /spiking vegetation and mosquitoes? If you thought about abandonning your skis because they were catching on branches every step and or never ever bc skiing again it sounds like you were close…..step in any fresh bear poo?:)
    Fun TR thanks.

  14. Lou May 1st, 2007 11:16 am

    Thomas, we didn’t have any bugs so dang, perhaps we fall short of the Alskan standard. We did have a few thorn bushes though, so that helps. And we saw some tracks from a bear that one of your bruins up there would have for a snack.

  15. DB May 1st, 2007 1:13 pm

    Just stirring the pot a little, but now that Wetterhorn has been skied from the summit does that invalidate the Dav and Dawson claim of skiing all the 14ers? Technically speaking I would say “Yes”, however I can see some room for argument. I’m just curious as to what others think.

    btw, nice work on the new route. I enjoyed the writeup. Entertaining and exciting.

  16. Lou May 1st, 2007 2:02 pm


    The progression of a sport doesn’t invalidate each level before. The definition of “skiing a peak” is based on current standards, not future possibilities. For years the standard way to ski Wetterhorn has been from the Ships Prow. Perhaps that’s now changed, but for me that was the standard I used when I claimed to have skied it years ago during my “ski them all” project, and I firmly believe that’s a fair and viable way of going about this sort of thing.

    My standards are here:

    After I was done with my project of skiing them all I fully expected the sport to progress, and enjoy seeing it happen. No person can do something in a sport that can’t be progressed.

    As I’m sure you know from being a mountaineer, when you improve on previous climbs or descents it doesn’t invalidate them, it’s simply a progression of the sport. This is especially true of “list” projects such as Davenport’s, Crossen’s or myself. When one does an “enchainment” of numerous peaks, they do the climbs or ski descents with a minimum baseline using current standards for what a climb or descent is of each peak. The main thing is that they don’t lower the bar and do descents that are less complete than those who came before them. But if a person comes along later and improves on a route, say frees an aid climb or skis through a rappel on a ski descent, or does a better “exact summit” descent, that doesn’t invalidate the enchainment or project, it only means the next guys to try it generally have to adhere to the new standard.

    A good example is Landry’s route on Pyramid. He roped or downclimbed through the final exit though you and others have done it on skis the whole way. He still did the first descent as far as we’re all concerned, right? Or take Bill Briggs on the Grand. He rappelled, later someone did it without rappelling, but Briggs is credited with the first descent and the standard is to still do it with a rap.

    In the case of Wetterhorn, since Jordan’s line requires such unusual snowcover and required taking his skis off several times in just a short distance, I’m not sure it will become the new standard, and I’d imagine most people saying they “skied Wetterhorn” will continue to go from the Ships Prow. On the other hand, with modern technique, gear, and vision it seems summit ski descents of El Diente now must go from the exact summit rather than the ridge where I and others used to ski from to claim a “ski descent.” Thus community standards are created and the sport progresses.

    If someone out there is skiing all the fourteeners and has not yet done Wetterhorn, they’ll probably be thinking about trying to get some kind of line on skis of the summit, since it’s been done now, but again, I’m not sure it’ll become the standard. Time will tell.

    A couple other things:

    It’s important to realize that the definition of “skiing” has also changed. Back when I skied them all I would never have considered doing the kind of billy goating Jordan did and claiming it as a descent. Indeed, when I skied Wetterhorn it had a nice snow cap and I could have skied from the summit twenty or thirty feet, then downclimbed the hundred or so feet to the Ships Prow, but that just wasn’t the standard and I didn’t even think about doing that sort of thing. With the advent of extreme comps and modern style, including park/pipe, people are generally coming from the point of view that if you’ve got your skis on your skiing. That all seems okay to me so long as it doesn’t get ridiculous (like “skiing” 200 yards of scree and claiming a descent), but it’s a progression. A ski of Wetterhorn 20 years ago was a ski from Ships Prow. Now, the community will banter about it and we’ll see if a new standard develops.

    And lastly, there are those uncomfortable with claims of “firsts” like me being the first to ski all the ‘teeners. Those folks will always find a way to split hairs and invalidate things other people have done — to the point of there being no such thing as a valid “first.” That point of view is of course fine if that’s what you want, but the tradition of recreational mountaineering involves goals, firsts, and things like that, and that’s where people like myself are coming from. I believe it’s a fun, healthy and even valuable way of approaching the alpine world but by no means do I think it’s the only way.

    ‘best, Lou

  17. DB May 1st, 2007 3:10 pm

    Thanks for the detailed response Lou. I wasn’t disagreeing or trying to get under your skin, but rather bringing up a good topic of discussion as this will probably be debated a little bit from both sides of the spectrum.

    I agree with your points and can see where you are coming from. Raising the bar with new standards for ski mountaineering is of course something that will happen with time, and it shouldn’t invalidate what others have done in the past just as long as they were following the accepted set of standards that were currently in place. That all makes sense.

    Standards can sometimes have a gray area, like your examples of Briggs, Landry, etc. A lot of it comes down to perception and acceptance by the general community. What seems like a rap route to some might look like a non-technical route for others. Which is the standard? What appears to be a mandatory air off the summit block to some, may appear to be a billygoat ski line to others. Which is the standard? If there’s snow on it and you can keep your skis on for the majority of the way, then why not make it the standard? It will be interesting to see what others have to say about the Wetterhorn debate. Part of the game is waiting and watching for that right moment where the conditions are prime and a complete descent is achieveable.

    Since the bar has been raised with a complete descent (some minimal scrambling) of Wetterhorn from the exact summit, does that mean others who want to claim a descent must ski from the exact summit as well? Will this be a new standard? It was an average to below average year in that part of the state in terms of snowpack, so that factor shouldn’t play a role into any decision making. It was also completed with minimal scrambling/downclimbing, which in my opinion is legit. Now that Wetterhorn has been skied from the exact summit I would want to follow the same standard and use this new route in order to check the peak off the list. I’m sure others would have to agree. It’s been proved the route is doable under an average-below average snow year, so why not make it the new standard? Raise that bar!

  18. Lou May 1st, 2007 3:29 pm

    I’d say Jordan’s descent could be a new standard for Wetterhorn, especially based on new standards of what “skiing” is. Seriously. But I’d rather see what all you guys who are skiing fourteeners do about it. DB, if you feel you need to do it now to check Wetterhorn off, then that is significant and I respect that. My project was over with almost 20 years ago. How we defined “skiing” was a lot different back then. You guys in the next generation will be the ones to create a community consensus on this sort of thing, based on new ideas, technique, gear, etc. The progression. Nice.

  19. steve May 1st, 2007 3:55 pm

    Jealous of us Tetonians???? I love it!!!!

    I guess this makes it ‘official’ now….aye Lou?


  20. Lou May 2nd, 2007 6:09 am

    Steve, just jealous of all the rope work you guys get to do. Having thousands of Colorado couloirs to choose from gets boring (grin).

  21. Frank May 2nd, 2007 12:14 pm

    Interesting discussion, only time will tell what the new standard will become on Wetterhorn.

    In rockclimbing or mountaineering, someone can always stand on top of others’ achievements and improve upon them, by going faster, harder, free-er, without oxygen, etc. Hillary and Norgay will always be first, but a tremendous amount of respect will always be given to Messner for going solo, as well as without oxygen. That doesn’t mean a new standard has been created, but better style is how many will think of it.

    So, in the future I think that it will be better style to ski Wetterhorn from the summit. I don’t think this means, however, that Dawson or Davenport need feel any responsibility to re-do Wetterhorn, any more than Hillary should have re-done Everest without oxygen. Nor do I think that Sean, CW, TM, or anyone else close to finishing the 14ers should redo Wetterhorn. At this point, had I not already skied Wetterhorn from the ship’s prow, I would want to try to get it from the top. As DB said, part of the 14er summit ski game is waiting for conditions. Which is why Davenport ended up having more trouble (in some ways) getting Long’s and Shavano than he did on Pyramid and Capital. The line I want on Long’s is the North Face Cables route, and to be honest I wonder if that has snow on it less often than the summit ramp of Wetterhorn.

    One last point is how public someone is with their claims. Anyone who wants to nitpick the descents that Davenport or Dawson made can do so- it’s all there on the web, what they did, what they didn’t do. If someone skis Wetterhorn from the ship’s prow and feels good about it, that’s their prerogative, but if they claim to ski them all, it would be nice to let others know what they did or didn’t do, so some standards on something so gray can be met.

    My worthless $.02 deposited…

  22. Will Stenzel May 2nd, 2007 9:46 pm

    In May few years ago, I was doing the El Diente-Wilson traverse, and stuck my ice axe in the big cornice between the two peaks. The cornice disappeared, along with my ice axe. Some sketch downclimbing ensued down that col you skied. That afternoon, I watched an incredible lightning storm over the peaks.

    Thanks for your head-to-head binding review. I ski the Naxo 21’s and was always wondering how they’d stack up against that “other” heavy binding.


  23. Dav May 3rd, 2007 5:39 pm

    For DB and Lou and Jordan,
    I emailed with Jordan the other day and told him that had he done a “complete” descent from Wetterhorn’s summit I would have hopped in the car and driven right down there to do it myself, but since it was a downclimb, both with skis off and with skis on, it doesn’t change anything in my book. Wetterhorn still awaits a true summit ski descent, but it is possible, on the right day.

  24. PI May 24th, 2007 3:40 pm

    The “Mahogany ” coiloir on El Diente was skied from the top about 15 years ago by Bruce Ericson, Neil Ringstad, Peter Inglis and other Telluriders.

  25. Lou May 24th, 2007 4:21 pm

    PI, thanks for getting us up to speed on the history, appreciate it. Nothing like claiming a first to get the info coming out of the woodwork, eh? I’ll correct the post. ‘best, Lou

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