“So how bad was the weather today, compared to the other times you’ve climbed Wilson?” I asked our guide, Carl, once safely below treeline.
“Today? Today was the scariest weather I’ve seen up there,” Carl said—and he meant it.
You’ve known of Colorado’s Wilson Peak longer than you might think. It’s arguably most famous for turning blue when your Coors Light is cold enough to drink. But this mountain is far more than a marketing tool. It’s a real place in Colorado—and you can go to the top...with a little skill and perseverance, that is.
Wilson stands at a mighty 14,017 feet, rising in the distance above the ski town of Telluride. Unfortunately, no river of Coors Light flows from its top, and summiting is a serious endeavor, requiring an 11-mile, all-day climb with exposed scrambling and 5,300 feet of elevation change. But it's a fantastic 14er experience nonetheless.
Just 45 minutes from Telluride, Wilson is accessible, but remote. Set in the Lizard Head Wilderness of the Uncompahgre National Forest, Wilson Peak, El Diente, and Mount Wilson, make up a venerable group of 14ers called simply, The Wilsons. Of Colorado’s 50-something 14ers, The Wilsons are regarded as some of the toughest and most technical.
Intrigued? I was too. So much so that I signed up for a package that would take me to the top with a guide, without any mountaineering experience and without researching the finer points like, say, the climb’s difficulty. Maybe that explains why my first Wilson Peak attempt in the summer of 2015 ended at 13,500 feet with my head throbbing from altitude sickness and a thunderstorm brewing in the distance. I’m not normally a quitter, and that failure had been haunting me all year.
So when I got an email from Coors Brewing Company inviting me to give my climb another shot, I didn’t hesitate. And this time—I would crack a Coors at the top.
Coors Light gathered a diverse set of folks for our climb, running the gamut from urbanites new to hiking, to bloggers, to expert mountain conqueror, Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind climber to summit Mount Everest.
Together we drove in darkness to the Rock of Ages Trailhead with our Telluride Adventures guides, getting outfitted with trekking poles, climbing helmets, and packs stuffed with layers before finally hitting the trail (late) at 5 a.m.
(Thunderstorms roll in nearly every summer afternoon on Colorado’s high peaks, and on top of a peak is not where you want to be when they do.)
Donning headlamps, we began at 10,383 feet, hiking in near-silence through aspens and pines, watching as the sun rose brilliantly beside us. The only sound the clomp of trekking poles as we walked on into the wilderness.
Into Thin Air
Soon above treeline, the soft dirt gave way to scree and talus fields. Wilson Peak loomed ominously ahead, and unsurprisingly, it looks a lot smaller on the beer cans than in real life. Relics of the 1880's silver mining boom lay scattered—discarded cables, cans, and tools—all that remain of this bygone era.
Beyond, the rocky trail steepened, the air thinned, and our 20-person group spread out along the route. Stephanie, a Seattle food writer, and I pushed on faster to catch the lead group.
A stormy forecast meant our summit window was small, and Carl, the front-of-the-pack guide and mountaineering veteran, insisted on a breakneck pace that left us breathless, but promised we’d get there if we kept up.
Hours in, we reached the Rock of Ages Saddle at 13,400 feet, and just seven remained in our motley crew: a couple planning to sail around the world, the professional photographer, a Chicagoan who’d never climbed a mountain, Stephanie the food writer, our guide Carl, and me.
“Two-minute break,” Carl shouted. Though good-natured and relaxed, he’d been the drill sergeant we needed all morning, “Make sure you keep eating. Thirty more seconds, then we go,” he said. Standing on the saddle, I peered into two different worlds on each side: civilization and farms on one and the wild peaks of El Diente and Mount Wilson on the other.
From here, we pushed for the false summit, our breaks few, our pace fast.
Trouble On Top
Atop the false summit, the climb gets very real, very fast. At 13,900 feet, the summit seems close, but reaching it requires tricky Class III downclimbing, with frightening consequences if you trust the wrong rock to hold you.
Seeing this sent Stephanie into a panic, “I can’t do this. No way,” she said, a litany of four-letter words filling the spaces between her doubt. The others climbed down and back up easily like the rock piles were playground equipment, gaining the summit fast. I stayed with her, determined we’d finish together.
“I’ll rope you in,” Carl added, and I joined their rope line down the false summit and back up the loose rocks to the real one, Stephanie roped between us to calm her nerves (which didn’t really work).
I couldn’t think enough to worry, my brain numb as I looked at the perilous drop below. I panic at heights, but the reality of all the things that could go wrong made me laser focused on the top.
After all, there are few things as rewarding as standing on top of a 14er, so I kept grasping at rock after rock until I reached the top, where the dramatic 360-degree landscape took my breath away. We high-fived, snapped selfies, and posed for endless photos with Coors Light cans until Carl focused on the clouds in the distance, and suddenly got serious, “No more pictures. We need to go—NOW.”
When your guide says those words in THAT tone of voice on top of one of the tallest peaks in the area, you get moving. Being on top of a mountain affords the best views, but also the most danger.
In minutes, dark clouds covered the sky, the wind picked up, and hail started to fall. I downclimbed as fast as I could, skipping ropes in favor of speed. I caught up to the second set of our group on the false summit, but their summit window had closed. They turned back in tears, not knowing the danger of continuing on.
The Forest Service says it best: "nowhere is safe outside during a thunderstorm." As if on cue, thunder clapped in the distance, lightning lit up the sky, and the rain poured down. Even Carl seemed unhinged by the storm, which was fair—we were completely and dangerously exposed. There were no trees or cover to hide in, and the danger was real as we crossed the saddle, still far above treeline, the peak now shrouded in storm clouds.
I put on a confident face, but my stomach was knotted as I led a small group down toward the safety of the trees, where the relentless rain and thunder abated. Those ahead of us later regaled us with terrifying tales of watching lightning strike near them, and Telluride locals were shocked to hear we’d made it to the top in the weather. I then realized how lucky we were to have safely made it up...and down that day.
Cracking A Coors
National Forest regulations prohibited us from cracking our Coors atop the mountain, but that didn’t stop us from toasting to Wilson in the parking lot down below, and raising our cans to the wild places, the ones we’re lucky enough to visit—if just for a moment—before Mother Nature thrusts us back to civilization with a mighty storm.
And while summiting any peak is unforgettable, Wilson is particularly special. Wilson changes you and pushes you beyond what you may have thought possible. And even though we were the only group to reach the top, we all accomplished something big.
But the raddest part of climbing Wilson? Now every time someone pulls out a Coors Light at a party, I have a story to tell. It starts like this, “See that peak? I climbed to the top of it.”