I'm taking some time off work this week and next, partly because I was due for a vacation, but mainly so I could finally do a decent amount of peak bagging. Unfortunately, I got "slimed" by the weather on Mount Adams. Everything was fine as I drove through Crestone and up toward the trailhead. I knew from a short aborted hike last year that I couldn't get my car up to the real trailhead, but this time I had to stop even earlier. I think the road has become much worse in just a year, and after driving down after the hike, I think I must have been on crack to have driven as far up as I did in a normal car. The biggest problem is big erosion ruts cut through the road in various directions. Some parts of the road are super smooth and others are quite bad. I'd like to blame heavy SUVs and their drivers for tearing up the road, but in this case it seems to mostly be Mother Nature, and just a poor surface for a road. In any case, the smart place to park a car is at the Forest boundary, more than a mile and 600-700 feet below the trailhead. I made it up about 3/4 of a mile of the rough road, about a half-mile short of the trailhead. I started hiking under mostly cloudy skies at 0446.
After 11 minutes and 280 feet of gain, I reached the trailhead. Just above the trailhead you have to decide which side of Adams you want to approach. Taking the left branch goes around to the north side of the peak to South Crestone Lake. The much more popular option branches off the right to go to Willow Lake, which also gives access to Challenger Point and Kit Carson Mountain. Willow Lake itself is probably a much more popular destination hike than South Crestone Lake, beyond the crowds of peak baggers.
The trail passes through a small open meadow before switchbacking up a forested hillside. The Gerry/Jennifer Roach guidebook gives a 3.7 mile one-way distance to the lake. I suspect it is somewhat longer. There are a large number of switchbacks not depicted on the map. My new altimeter watch gives real-time climbing rates and I'm not sure there were enough steep parts to balance out all the flat parts to give an overall 750 ft/mile grade. It took me more than 2 hours from the trailhead and I was moving very well with only one short break. There was also a small metal marker just below the lake with the label "Mile 4". Without wheeling off the trail, it is hard to be sure about the length, so I have accepted the guidebook distance.
Surprisingly, it was sprinkling during much of the approach above about 10000 feet. There had clearly been some significant rain within the previous 12-24 hours, but the forecast for today was the usual partly cloudy in the morning and a chance of afternoon thunderstorms. I assumed the rain was not going to last, and it wasn't heavy enough for me to need my rain jacket. It did mean that I couldn't pack my headlamp until after 6am.
I reached Willow Lake after 7am and was a little confused about where to go. I ended up continuing too far east before heading up a steep grassy slope above the lake. The terrain to the north of the lake isn't obvious here when comparing it to the topo map in this area. Still a little confused, I figured out that I needed to stay to the left of a steep rock buttress directly north of the lake, working my way up and to the left on steep grass. The grass was wet, and it didn't take long before I was squishing in my shoes. Hiking boots would have been the ticket today, but I had my high-topped hiking shoes instead, which are not waterproof. You have to get partway up the slope to get a good look at the lake, which is one of the better high lakes in the state, complete with a 150-foot waterfall at the far end. [Part of the route-finding problem at the lake is that you are still in substantial tree cover when you arrive.]
The terrain flattens out for a while above this. I worked my way across grass and through a few patches of very wet thigh-high willows, adding to the slime-ing I was already receiving. The rainfall was still just occasional sprinkles at this point, but the ragged cloud deck was extending down to the summits at times.
After the flat part, you have to hike steeply up grass and/or dirt to a 12900ft saddle between Adams and an unnamed high point. I felt like I was moving rather slowly by this time and couldn't seem to get into a good rhythm in the steeper areas, probably because the footing wasn't all that great. I actually started to angle to the right a little before I reached the saddle, which caused me to miss the climbers trail that remains near the ridge. I did finally hit this and was able to follow it back to the saddle on the way down. The saddle itself is a little rugged, but it is worth it to catch the trail as soon as possible on the way up.
Anyway, as I was making my way up the ridge, it began to rain hard enough to need my rain jacket. Unfortunately, the upper part of the route requires some rock scrambling. I made my way up the ridge to something like 13500 feet and ran into some 30-45 degree angle rock slabs. Unfortunately, these were slicker than snot by this point - wet enough to soak my gloves after putting my hands on them a few times. I could see that the Sun was shining on a few areas of the San Luis valley, but that didn't help me up here. I worked my way up maybe 40 feet of slick rock as it kept raining and decided that this just wasn't going to work out, especially because the rest of the route wasn't supposed to be any easier. With the increase in rain intensity I also thought maybe a thunderstorm could be developing. It took me a few minutes to inch down the rock that I had climbed, and there were some other slick spots before I caught the trail again.
The rain slacked off a bit, but I still needed my rain jacket as I followed the trail into the saddle and then down the steep slope to the high flat area. The temperature was around 45F near my high point and down to treeline and there never was much wind the entire day. I could see that the summit of Adams was still in the clouds most of the time. I stayed as far west as possible without dropping into the obvious gully, and that is the optimal route. The idea is that shortly after you reach the lake, there is a climbers trail branching off up the hill, but it is not obvious. You want to stay to the left side of the grassy slope north of the lake when you are ascending, and continue to stay as far left as possible when you reach the flatter part. (If you do this route, my instructions will make a lot more sense when you get there.)
I ran into a couple of hikers at the lake who were mainly just wanting to see the lake, and maybe scope out the "peak" (Challenger, I guess). It started raining a bit harder again here (just hard enough to make an annoying noise hitting my hood). I didn't pack my rain jacket until I was below 10500 feet, althought I dropped the hood well above that. Mostly, I just continued banging down the trail without a whole lot of enthusiasm, taking one short sit-down break during the nearly two-hour hike from the lake to my car. By the time I reached my car, there was an occasional bit of sunlight sneaking through the clouds and I used my sunglasses the last half-hour or so. (It's weird not to need sunblock for a 7.5 hour hike in August!)
Rather disappointing on several levels. First, obviously, I did a pretty significant hike without getting a summit, nor particularly great views. At least I have great beta on the route if I try again. Unfortunately, with the road the way it is, I'm not sure how soon that attempt my be. Worse, I have had a long-standing goal to do Challenger and Kit Carson in a day, which is already almost 12 miles and 6300 feet of total gain from the 4WD trailhead. But, from the Forest boundary it is close to 7000 feet! That might even be a worse day than doing Kit Carson from car parking on the other side of the range.
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File last modified: 01 January 2005