The National Weather Service struck out on their forecast. The only thing they got right was the part about "very windy." And I'm pretty sure they underestimated the wind speed. Ray and I chose Mount Adams as our destination because its forecast was much better than the weather forecast for the Front Range (our first choice).
Early Snow on Adams
We made the trip down to Horn Creek Trailhead west of Westcliffe in 3 hours driving time, with smooth roads all the way. As we drove west we had a beautiful sunrise view of the Sangre de Cristo Range, or at least the northern half of it. The Sangre de Cristo Range (Spanish for ‘blood of Christ’) got its name from the mountains' red color on mornings such as this.
I wasn't expecting appreciable snow on the ground, but there was plenty of that above 12,000', along with ice on exposed rock surfaces where it had apparently melted the day before. It was dark and cloudy over the Sangre de Cristo Range, until mid afternoon, and about 15 degrees colder than predicted on the mountain. The only good thing about the weather was virtually no precipitation, and no thunder. There was plenty of blowing snow and ice that scoured our faces however. Despite the conditions, we forged ahead. My cautious older brother would not have approved, but I know he once did the north side of Crestone Peak in similar conditions… in his younger years.
The northern Sangre de Cristo mountains
Speaking of Crestone Peak, the views of the Crestones were out of this world. In fact the views both north and south were stupendous with the abundant fall colors and sharp, snow capped mountain peaks all up and down the range. Even Humboldt Peak looked majestic. The sun did come out, by mid afternoon.
Clouds and Wind
We reached the ridge at 13,400', after 5 hours of tough climbing. On the ridge, the wind sometimes roared and shrieked through the rocks. There was 1 inch of rime ice along most of the ridge. Under good conditions, it would have been a fun, 20-minute scramble to the summit, but it took us a good hour. At one point, a couple hundred yards below the summit, we had trouble getting through a particularly smooth, snow-covered, steep pitch, and we seriously considered giving up. We weren’t well equipped for the snow. After deliberating for a few minutes, I said, "We can do this, but if we come to anything harder than this, we will turn back." Ray agreed. We came that close to not making it.
I'm sure the gusts of wind exceeded the predicted 50 mph, maybe 80 in the afternoon. We clicked a few pictures on the summit, and headed down. The wind gusts were even worse on the way down. We spent another hour meticulously descending the quarter mile of icy ridge in the wind, and then almost 2 hours down the steep slope to Horn Lake. The difficulty of the slippery slope was greatly compounded by overpowering wind gusts which repeatedly knocked us off balance and to the ground. It was really frustrating, and actually made me upset. I have never climbed in such horrible wind conditions before. “Harrowing” is the word Ray used to describe it.
The wind made for some spectacular cloud displays. Clouds rushing 1000 feet downslope in seconds, before dissolving into thin air. It was an incredible show.
When we were near the bottom of the slope, I stopped for a bite to eat since I hadn't eaten anything in about 7 hours. A gust of wind blew my hat right out of my backpack and down the hill, lost forever. My glasses case also blew out somewhere along the way.
Ray got a rude introduction to mountain climbing on this, his second climb ever. It was a bit more of a challenge than Pikes Peak in July! After this experience, I told him he should be ready for most reasonable climbing in Colorado. From now on, when the forecast says “very windy,” we will both think of Mount Adams on that September day, the very definition of windy.