From Willow Creek TH
Monday August 1, 2006
I arrived at the trailhead rather late (11:30PM) after driving through one thunderstorm after another all across South Park to Johnson’s Village and the weather finally settled down by the time I got over Poncha Pass. There were still plenty of lightning strikes in the distant surroundings but the rain stopped and some stars were beginning to show as I bedded-down in the back of my truck. There were two other cars at the trailhead and one had people spending the night inside.
My watch alarm sounded at 3:30AM and I had some juice and a couple of donuts for a quick breakfast. The people in the other car were also up and started up the trail ahead of me by about 20 mins. Wearing my headlamp I readied my pack and stowed my helmet as I wasn’t really sure what to expect; these Sangre De Cristo peaks can have a bit of everything and I wanted to be prepared for loose rock if necessary. The morning was very dark and the skies filled with endless stars as I started up the trail at 4:15AM. Really beautiful.
I soon came to the registry, signed-in, and started up the good trail with noticeably soft ground under foot; sandy soil for the first few hundred feet. The trail soon firms-up and begins climbing with several switchbacks with wooden rails at the first five, as I climbed higher I could see the street lights of Crestone down below towards the west. Elevation on the initial ascent begins very gradually and even dips down in a few places along the way as I climbed deeper into the heavy forest. After about 30 mins I passed the young guy and girl who had started up before me, we exchanged pleasantries as I rested briefly and then started back up the trail.
I could hear the rushing water of Willow Creek the entire way off to my right as I climbed up the countless switchbacks and the terrain was becoming much rockier as I progressed. Daylight was breaking and before long I was packing away my headlamp, and removing my leggings as it was already starting to get warm and somewhat humid as well. Willow Creek was now right next to the trail and I climbed up to where it appeared that the trail broke to the left and so I went; I soon realized this was the wrong way as I climbed up to a rock wall dead end. I backtracked about 100+ yards ‘til I was back at the creek, here I crossed the creek on a big log with a waterfall above to my left and found the good trail again.
The switchbacks became more numerous and shorter as I climbed up out of the forest on the very rocky trail with gigantic rock walls and boulders as it winds up and around until I crossed the creek again where the trail leads back into the woods and starts to level-out as it straightens a bit heading east. Here there is a fairly lush and very green little valley with lots of huge trees with openings and little meadows all along the creek, rather enchanting. Wildflowers added to the splendor, and chipmunks chased and chattered around the rocks and boulders as I continued to where I saw a tent pitched in an idyllic location. Nice.
I soon came to a sign stating that camping and livestock were prohibited within 300’ of the lake. Through the trees I could see the peaks rising high above and all around as the trail skirts to the left and opens to reveal Willow Lake right at tree line. The far eastern end of this surprisingly large lake has a shear rock cliff with a waterfall splitting the very center of the wall. As I climbed up higher on the left side of the lake the trail rises above the trees and winds through chest high willows leading around and up to the very top of the cliffs overlooking the entire length of the lake, awesome sight. I’d been on the trail 3 hours to reach this point.
The trail took me back across the creek above the lake, up and over a red rock ledge, and then back into some more willows before breaking-out at the base of a steep, rocky gully leading to a notch at the top high above. Kit Carson’s huge rounded peak dominates the view on the left and directly behind me was Mt Adams with its pointy peak silhouetted by the rising sun. Before me was the task at hand………climb the slope and gully to where the notch splits the ridge, there was a large patch of snow near the very top just below the notch.
I’m not quite sure just how I got going in the wrong direction, but it must have been right as I started the ascent up the slope. After about 40 mins of following cairns with red ribbons I realized I was too far right and although I was heading up the slope I wasn’t where I should be to ascend the gully to the notch. I stopped to rest and ponder my plight; I either had to head back down, or traverse the rocky slope far left and get to the gully. I happened to spot a green grassy space in the rocks a couple hundred yards to my left and slightly below and proceeded to slowly make my way to that spot scrambling across loose rocks all the way, quite exhausting.
By the time I reached the grassy spot I had easily wasted an hour or more navigating and crossing very unstable rocks and grabbing a hand hold wherever I could; to stumble or fall in this section would have resulted in a serious injury for certain. The sun was making things warm and I was pretty tired as I stopped for a good rest before proceeding over the top of the grassy hump. As I cleared the top of the grassy hump I found myself on a ledge just above the gully and directly in the middle of the gully was the young couple I had passed earlier. My choice to seek this spot was fortuitous as I was now able to climb down an angled ledge and with one last 6’ leap on to a grass and dirt path leading right to the center of the gully. Way lucky.
I paused, watched, and kept my distance as I now followed the couple as they lead the way through a very steep, loose, scree-filled section just below the notch. To our left was another narrow gully that held the snow, here I saw several rocks break loose and ricochet down the gully as they hurtled down the sharp crack of them hitting the sides filled the air. The couple and I looked at each other with amazement; I stopped and found a large boulder to sit behind as I waited for them to reach the top of the notch. I waited about 5 mins then proceeded up the final approach to the notch, this section was very loose and grabbing-on where I could was most essential; I reached the top of the notch in about 15 mins.
Passing through the notch and looking down on the San Luis Valley and back down the gully was quite impressive; the trail dips down a little and then I followed the cairns to the left leading to the summit ridge. As I climbed on to the ridge I could now see the couple as they were nearing the summit. I found the best line to be just slightly to the left of the ridge as I advanced with Kit Carson and the summit appearing almost as one mountain. It took about another 15-20 mins for me to finally reach the summit, I arrived at 10:15 just as the couple was leaving and I was certainly ready for a rest; my crummy route finding was catching-up with me. I signed the summit log, took some photos, and enjoyed just looking at the tall peaks all-around from North-East-South, and the flat valley to the West. I found the memorial plaque on the summit to be most interesting as I did not know that this peak was named after the space shuttle Challenger and its lost crew…..........a humbling experience, in more ways than one.
The clouds were building and the wind was out of the east, I added another layer as things were cooling-off. My original plan called for me to also do Kit Carson, I was too spent to even consider it, and started back down at 10:27 after grabbing a bite and a long drink of water. The trek down the gully was very difficult for me as there are no switchbacks and the trail simply goes straight down, the loose scree was dangerous in several places and I was very glad to get back down to the willows. I reached the west end of Willow Lake where I stopped to rest, take some aspirin, peel back down to short sleeves & shorts, and remove my boots for a brief while; I could have easily dosed-off into a deep sleep right there and then.
I pulled myself back together and covered the final descent uneventfully down through the rocks, trees, and seemingly endless switchbacks as the weather was now very warm and a hot sun beating down. I signed-out at the registry and got back to the trailhead at 2:37PM, I was exhausted. My 26th 14’er and another long day in the Sangre De Cristo range. Sweet!!
It rained most of the way home across South Park as well.