Willow Lake

Adventures2 Comments

Distance 13.87 miles
Time 8 hr 50 min
Elevation Gain 6,230 feet

After a year off, Becky AKA B2 has returned to the mountains. So we planned a trip a few weeks ago for today. The plan was to travel south to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Southern Colorado. I haven’t been down there but Becky has just started working through this range. The problem is that the mountains are getting further from home — about a 4+ hour drive. So we decided to drive down the night before and camp out at the trailhead.

Prior to leaving we decided that we would go for Kit Carson Peak and its neighbor Challenger Point. Both 14ers. A 2-fer! However, days later, B2 informed me that my route choice was for “tards” and she wanted to attempt the Class 4 north ridge on Kit Carson instead of my Class 2 and 3 route. I wasn’t too sure. I am comfortable running on class 2. Class 3 gets sketchier with the loose rock but you generally can save yourself. Class 4 requires some serious attention to where you are climbing. All hands and feet, testing holds, some basic climbing maneuvers, etc. I am not really ready for that but figured we MIGHT give it a try.

We hit the road around 7 PM last night and had a chatty drive down to the trail head. We went through the small town of Crestone and then took a dirt road out of town and into the forest for about 2 miles. When we arrived at the trailhead, there were a dozen empty cars. Seems like everyone came and headed up to Willow Lake for the night. Willow Lake is 4 miles up and in on the trail. From there, the real rocky climbs begin. Anyway, I had planned on just crashing in the drivers seat and letting B2 spread out in back. So I just brought my pillow. However, B2 decided to camp outside the car in her tent. I kinda like sleeping in the car for some comfort, heat, and security. But it never turns out that way. I slept OK but was awoken by rain several times. Hoped it would pass by morning. Meanwhile outside, B2 was visited by a variety of creatures including mice and deer trying to poke into her tent.

We decided to wake up at 5 AM and be off by 5:30. There is enough light at 5:30 to travel without headlamps so we figured sleep the extra hour or so and then just get cracking. We were up and off and headed to Willow Lake. The trail climbed out and up from the trailhead via a set of switchbacks. We eventually gained over a small ridge and then could see Willow Creek down below. We had to follow the trail along it until hitting Willow Lake. We thought we were progressing but the GPS showed that we were slower than we planned. Both of us felt queasy for some reason. My feet were killing me from the weekend — I have a big blister on the heel of each foot. They are oozing blood and pus as I type this entry. So every step up would put pressure on them during the hike. I wasn’t 100%.

Willow Lake

We eventually made it to the start of Willow Lake and took a short break. From there the valley opened up and we could see our target peaks. However, there was a lot of overcast clouds and it started to lightly rain. We were wondering if the weather would hold.

Willow Lake

From there, we proceeded around the lake and came to a decision point. Should we head for the Class 4 route or bail on that and go for the Class 2/3? It was getting later in the day. The weather didn’t look that good but we did see some clearing. We were both feeling a bit better after our break where we ate some. Normal common sense probably said bail on the 4 and do the other. However, B2 was pretty excited about the other route so we decided together to just go for it. I had a feeling that this route would be difficult. We had a sketchy description of how to find the route. I think the route itself is a general guide, not a specific path. As we heading around the north side of the peak to find the route, we were too high on the side of the peak and it caused us to burn a lot of time traversing across boulder fields. We should have been lower and been able to cross the meadow more quickly but we thought it was just around the corner and we didn’t want to loose the elevation gain. Bad call in retrospect. So we burnt a lot more time traversing. We finally found something that we thought resembled the description of the route so we put on our helmets and started ascending. We probably climbed about 500 vertical feet over some pretty loose rock. At one point, I stood on a rock as big as a car engine and the whole side I was standing on just sheered off. Whoa! Anyone below would have been toast. We continued but it started raining and the rocks were wet and slippery instantly. We had almost gained a key ridge but we were faced with a small ledge that neither of us felt comfortable trying to climb up. It was a 45 degree angle face and it was wet. There wasn’t much below you. We tried some alternative routes but no dice. The rain poured harder and we called it. Let’s descend to the valley before it gets too nasty up here.

Willow Lake

As we walked through the valley, we tried to evaluate whether we could go back and hit the Class 2/3 route and save it. We were thinking we might be able to and then THUNDER! It was like somebody sent us a message – GO HOME! So we opted to heed the warning and we started back to Willow Lake for tree cover. B2 spotted some lightening and that sealed the deal. These storms seem to be magnetically attracted to the peaks. Minutes later, our target peak was engulfed in clouds. It didn’t look good in there. We proceeded to descend to the lake.

Willow Lake

The rain came down even harder. Soaking us from head to toe. We kept the conversation going and just kept moving. The plains to the west were dry and clear. All the weather seemed to be back in the climbing zone. We passed along the huge meadow where B2 plans to build her next home.

Willow Lake

In no time, we were back down and at the car. Oddly, it was sunny and hot at the car. You could still see the storms back on the peak pelting it with weather. So no summit pics — but we thought a group smile shoot was in order because it turned out OK.

Willow Lake

That was my first DNF for a summit attempt. Everybody has one or more but I — until now. So it was almost fitting. A few things that I thought we could have improved on:

1) The weather forecast had 20% chance of thunderstorms. If I am by myself, I just don’t go on those days. I look for total sunny skies. We had the trip planned so it was worth a shot.

2) We probably should have left the trailhead a bit earlier. Both of us got a bit cocky and thought we would just sail up there. But it took longer than we both expected and that killed the time. Leaving earlier we might have beat the storm.

3) We should have went on the Class 2/3 route when we were late on our time target. That’s a key rule but we broke it. However, we both agreed that if we would have done that, we probably would have been on top during that lightening. Instead we were struggling down lower. Not sure we would have been better off.

4) Waypoints! We spent a lot of time trying to find the Class 4 route. B2 believes thats part of the experience. I am more pragmatic and just want big flashing lights that say go this way. I am not into route finding — maybe later but not now. Not sure we could have gotten any good waypoints given the difficulty of the route but I think it would have saved time.

5) Maybe not a good idea to try 4 peaks in 4 days. I was tired but running on adrenaline. Plus, my 2 weekends peaks were easy so I was spoiled and thought this would be easy too. I forgot what 6,000+ feet meant and what bad weather does. I didn’t even take my rain jacket! I was used to trail shoes and shorts over the weekend. Oh well, those 2 were special — I will go back to being overprepared.

In any case, I really was after more high altitude time as I prepare for the Pikes Peak Marathon in less than 2 weeks. I got that done. The summits would have been nice but they will still be there later. I won’t return for a while though. Will try other ones before returning to these now that I know the deal on them. On the way back to civilization, we turned around and saw a great shot of where we had been all day. We drove in the prior night in the dark so you kinda wake up not knowing exactly what you are into.

Willow Lake

I wanted to title this entry after the summits but the DNFs caused me to call this the Willow Lake hike. Someday I hope to return and try these again and be successful.

But I have a special surprise! I decided to take my video camera along and capture the action. It was supposed to be a cool view of the summits via video instead of the usual photo but it didn’t work out that way. But I think you might find it entertaining anyway. Its broken into 2 parts because of length. One note — I somehow turned on the backlight option and a lot of the background in the video is washed out. I kept thinking it was because of the overcast weather. Doh! I will do better next time. Look at the pictures for clear shots and just enjoy our banter I guess. Let me know if you like the video and I can try to continue to document the trips that way as well.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Sat Map:

Speed and elevation:


View all photos from this event.