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Sunrise from El Diente Peak

Sunrise from El Diente Peak, Lizard Head Wilderness, Colorado

Sunrise from El Diente Peak, Lizard Head Wilderness, Colorado

An intense drought had been plaguing Colorado for nine months, so I had low expectations for the summer 2012 wildflower season. Two days in the Blue Lakes region of the Mt. Sneffels Wilderness in mid-July confirmed my worst fears. The flowers were pathetic compared to 2011. I decided to change focus and try to shoot sunrise from the summit of 14,159-foot El Diente instead. El Diente was the last difficult Fourteener in the San Juans from which I had not shot sunrise. In addition to third-class scrambling near the summit, the guidebook contained disturbing references to poorly defined trails and confusing route-finding. Finding my way up all that in the dark on a moonless night sounded like a challenge. Ironically, the summer monsoon had also arrived, too late to resuscitate the wildflower season, but plenty wet enough to complicate the task of shooting sunrise from the summit of a Fourteener.

I decided to try the south face route on El Diente, starting out of Kilpacker Basin, and packed in to a campsite just below the basin's large waterfall. Rain began before I reached camp and continued off and on all evening, but the skies were only partly cloudy when I left camp about 1 a.m. As I emerged above timberline, however, I could see a dark mass to the west spitting cloud-to-ground lightning. If the prevailing wind steered the storm over El Diente, I would have to retreat. Armed with the GPS route I'd downloaded from, I managed to stay on the thin trail across the miles of scree filling the upper portion of Kilpacker Basin, then started up the south face. Keeping one wary eye on the thunderstorm, I followed confusing, braided trails that split, rejoined, then split again. Finally they led me to the base of an indistinct gully high on the south face where the scrambling began.

The gully ended on a large ledge beneath an impressive headwall. The GPS told me to climb diagonally across that wall to the next waypoint, so, feeling rather doubtful, I continued up. It soon became clear I was way too high. With difficulty I climbed back down to the ledge and traversed horizontally until I was directly beneath a much more obvious and feasible line leading straight up. Not for the first time, the waypoints on my GPS route proved to be more confusing than enlightening. After some easy scrambling I emerged onto the summit ridge and crossed over to the north side. The route twisted and turned several more times, but I was able to stay on it all the way to the summit.

It was still an hour and a half before sunrise. I pulled on all my warm clothes and fired up my smart phone. To my surprise I was able to get a 3G internet connection. I tapped my bookmark for the National Weather Service point forecast for 13,500 feet on El Diente, read the forecast once, then read it again in disbelief. The forecast called for a 100 percent chance of rain by noon. Almost never is the National Weather Service so confident of rain that it calls the chances 100 percent - dead certain.

As the sun rose, it lit up the clouds to the east, then the rapidly growing clouds to the north and west. Half an hour after sunrise I headed down as fast as the steep terrain would let me. I was desperately short of sleep when I reached my campsite, but the clouds were thickening rapidly and I didn't want to get caught in an intense thunderstorm during my hike out. I ate and packed as fast as possible and hit the trail. Drizzle began when I was still half a mile from my truck and quickly intensified to steady rain. By the time I had driven a mile the rain had turned into a downpour. I checked the forecast again when I picked up cell coverage. The forecast called for a 70 percent chance of rain that night, continuing for several days. My hopes to tick the remaining two San Juan Fourteeners, both merely high-altitude hikes, were dashed. With no flowers to shoot and no realistic hope of climbing any Fourteeners safely for at least several days, I wearily began the eight-hour drive home. 

To add insult to injury, the deluge continued when I got home, this time inside my house. The night after my return, the pressure-regulating valve on the main water line failed, flooding the downstairs storage closet. I had to laugh as I dug wet gear out of the closet and began scouring stores for a replacement for the forty-year-old part. Just forty-eight hours earlier, I had been standing on the summit of a Fourteener, watching in awe as the sun rose.

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