Willow Lake

This week has been challenging 14er wise.  I’m working from home all week, so basically
I could’ve hiked any day I wished.  I’d
planned on hiking Monday, but we had a big storm roll in and blanket all of
Colorado with snow.  That meant I couldn’t
hike Tuesday either.  I made an awesome
choice and hiked Uncompaghre Wednesday.
I was quite pleased with myself, and wanted a similar success today.  Most of the peaks I still have left to hike
were too snow covered to hike this week, so I went online last night and tried
once again to get information on the Crestones.
The webcams made it look like they were pretty devoid of snow, but I
wanted to make sure before heading out there.
The forecast said it would be clear, with temperatures in the 50s with
25mph winds.  The winds were higher than
I’d have liked, but in the past the wind speeds have been overrated, so I didn’t
pay much attention to them.  

I checked my schedule for today and cleared it a bit (my son
would pick up my daughter from school) and tried to get to be early.  That didn’t work, but I did manage to get in
3 hours of sleep before waking up at 1am to head to the trail.  

This is where my bad luck began.  I’d copied and pasted the GPS coordinates
into my phone, and when they pulled up they looked like what I’d printed out
from my research:  same mileage, cities,
highways, etc.  So I just followed the
directions on my phone and arrived at what I’d thought was the trailhead.  It was kind of weird I’d gone through a
residential area, but it was on an unpaved road and we were backing up to the
forest, so I figured this was the trailhead.
But when I started on the “trail” (no sign, which is a pet peeve of
mine) I realized I was at a water treatment plant?  I pulled out my GPS and I was right where I
was supposed to be, but when I zoomed in I realized I was about 15 yards off
from the exact trailhead, and since I was in the middle of nowhere it would
take me 20 miles to go around on the roads and park in the proper spot. I
briefly considered just hiking towards the trailhead but thought better of it
and drove around.  The lady who’s house I’d
parked in front of would appreciate I’d moved my truck from her front lawn.

This meant I’d arrived at the trailhead 30 minutes later
than my intended time.  I was already
cutting it close (I know, I know, it’s a bad idea to put time limits on hikes,
but I’m a single mom and have a lot of other responsibilities too: If I’m going
to hike I have to accept these time restrictions, summit or no).  30 minutes can equal 2 miles if I book
it.  I seriously hoped I didn’t just
endanger my ability to summit because of this stupid mistake.

The drive in was 2WD all the way.

And there was ample parking at the trailhead

Woohoo!  A trail
sign!  I LOVE these things!  This meant I was on the right trail.  

I grabbed my stuff and was off at 5:30am.  Right away I had difficulty.  The trail obviously went to the right, but
there were several social trails.  

And it was dark.  GPS
is great, but it’s off a few feet in every direction, and I couldn’t really
tell which way to go.  There was a stream
to the right, and I figured that was where I was supposed to go, but there didn’t
seem to be a way to cross it?  

In the dark (even with a great flashlight) I couldn’t see
across the stream, and it didn’t look like the trees made a bridge across.  I spent another 5 minutes looking at my GPS
and going in circles before taking the plunge and just walking across the
stream, not knowing how deep it was.  My
feet and legs were wet because the water was about a foot and a half deep, but
there was an obvious trail when I made it to the other side.  

Woot!  I was on my
way!  The first 4.5 miles was
switchbacks.  Lots and lots of
switchbacks.  I didn’t mind much, because
I was working out the elevation gain in my head and this was an easy way to get
in those 4.75 miles to Willow Lake.

I crossed several smaller streams in the dark and saw
numerous waterfalls.  I’d be getting
pictures of them later!  (here they are)

Side note:  water at
this altitude/temperature means ice.  If
it looks wet, assume it’s slippery and unstable.  I know this from experience.  

Especially on those log “bridges”.

The last quarter mile before the lake was where the trail
got rough.  Well, not rough, but
messy.  Lots of ice and snow and mud on
the trail.  Yuck!

The view was great though!
The only downside from this route was I wouldn’t be seeing a sunrise (it
was on the other side of the mountain).  It
looked like I’d picked a great peak to climb today.  There was minimal snow when compared with
other 14ers and no clouds!

Just before reaching the lake I was watching my feet as I
was hiking (ice, remember?) and I saw what looked like toes in the mud.  I briefly thought it was a print from someone
wearing those shoes with the individual toes, but quickly realized it was a
(small) bear print!  Woot!  Awesome!
That meant there was a bear in the area!
It looked bigger than a cub print, but not big enough to be a full grown
bear, and the prints were heading away from me (back where I’d came from) so we’d
missed each other.  Oh well, maybe I’d
see it on the way down?

I pressed onward, over what looked like it was a waterfall
at various points during the winter

And arrived at the lake!

It was now 7:40am.  I’d
hiked 4.75 miles in 2 hours 20 minutes. Uphill.
Immediately the weather
changed.  The wind picked up
dramatically, and there was no sun?  The
temperature dropped as I looked for the correct trail.   I knew it went left behind the waterfall on
the other side of the lake.

My GPS told me to go one way, but that way was now “closed
for restoration” so I did my best to look for the proper trail.  No dice.
I ended up kind of bushwhacking my way through some willows (there had
been a trail there previously that was not too overgrown) and up some rocks to
where I saw a sign indicating the trail.
I checked my GPS:  success!

I kept trudging, admiring the view

As soon as I made my way over the waterfall area I got a good
look at the Crestones:  This view offered
a stark contrast to their backsides!  I
was amazed at how much snow there was here in the middle compared to the east!  No worries though, snow was easy enough to

I crossed a few very slippery half-frozen streams and made
it to a large basin.  

The wind was howling at this point.  I looked up at the intended route and sighed
inwardly:  a gully.  A BIG gully.
I hate gullies!  The first part
didn’t look too bad though, and it looked like the sun was coming out?

Nope, it went right back behind the only cloud in the
sky:  the one very similar to the one I’d
encountered on Blanca Peak last month.  UGH!  The weather was supposed to be sunny, clear,
warm, and windy?  When will I learn 14ers
create their own weather?  It WAS sunny,
clear, warm, and windy everywhere except in the basin I was in.

Here is was cloudy, cold, and very, very windy.  I rounded some large boulders and looked at
the hike in front of me.  Lots of snow
covered the trail, with no footprints.  I
was probably the first to take this route since before Monday’s storm.  No worries though, I liked hiking in the
snow.  I put on my microspikes and headed

I made my way to the gully.
It’s actually much bigger than this picture indicates.  I looked at my watch.  I had exactly 2 hours to summit both
peaks.  In normal conditions, even with a
little snow, this was doable.  Today
however was another story.  I decided to
start climbing and see how far I could make it, then adjust my goals.  

The gully sucked.
There wasn’t enough snow to make it easy to climb, but there was a lot
of ice.  And wind.  Lots and lots of wind.  Bitter, cold, snow-filled wind.  I picked a ledge and followed it, which was
much easier than hiking up the scree/snow.
I gained the first ridge and looked at the rest of the route.  It went to the right of the gully.  Right where the wind was swirling snow into
the air.  

The weather kept getting worse.

The wind picked up and knocked me into the side of the
mountain, hard.  It pressed and held me
there as ice crystals swirled up and around me and gave me an unwanted
dermabrasion on the only exposed surface of my body:  my face.
I stood back up and got my bearings, but another gust of wind did the
same thing all over again.  This was not
going well.  I got out my map, and looked
at the ‘easy’ ridge I’d get to summit after making it up the side of the
gully.  Ugh!  It was covered in snow!  (and most likely ice) And that wind!  Down here it had to be at least 65+MPH.  Up there?
Probably worse.  I did some mental
calculations, and figured it wasn’t safe for me to try to cross that snow/ice
covered ridge in this wind.  It was
knocking me around like a doll down here:  I didn’t stand a chance on the exposed
ridge.  Maybe I could wait the weather
out and see if the sun re-emerged and the wind died down?  It was early yet, but how long would that
take?  Even now I wasn’t sure I’d be able
to summit one, let alone both of the peaks I’d wanted before I had to turn back
around to make it home on time, help from the sun or not.  How far could I make it if the sun was
out?  Was it worth the wait?

Take a look at this video.
See where that snow is circling to the right of the snow filled gully?  That’s the route I needed to take, and then
across the ridge to the left.  

Then I really got to thinking.  If I wasn’t going to summit today, what was I
doing mentally calculating how much further I could go?  Here I was, cold, on top of a gully, halfway
up the side of a huge mountain, trying to gauge how much farther up I could
safely climb, when I had no intention anymore of summiting.  The wind was knocking me around, the ice was
terrible, and my fingers were numb.  The
climb up the gully had been difficult and slow, and I knew from experience the
hike down would be worse (center of gravity problems mixed with ice means slow
going and causes slips and falls).  And
here I was, mentally calculating how much further I could go before I absolutely
must turn back because of TIME.  To make
it to a class I was teaching on outdoor survival skills.  Wouldn’t it be ironic if the reason I didn’t
make it to the meeting was because I needed to be rescued?  

Good point.  I turned
around and headed back.   Summiting was optional, but making it down was
mandatory.  The gully down was indeed
worse than the way up, and took me twice as long.  By the time I’d made it to the bottom my
fingers were turning white and I couldn’t feel them anymore (they kept gripping
snow for traction, and I don’t do well in the cold).  The look back was beautiful though!

I re-crossed over the waterfall and looked at Willow Lake
from above

I probably should have noted the ice hanging from the
waterfalls earlier.  It was cold here,
and had been for a few days.  

There were tons of waterfalls on the way down, and lots of
mud/ice to trudge through.  No sign of
that bear though.

Oh, but the birds were ‘singing’

What really hurt was turning back and looking on the mountain I hadn’t climbed.  It looked warm and inviting on this side, yet I knew once I rounded the back it was a bitterly cold snow-globe of ice, wind, and snow.   What’s worse is turning back today meant I might not get to hike another 14er this year:  I don’t have many more available days so this might be it.   I took a good look at all the mountain ranges on my way in.  They’re socked with snow, and all are getting wind this weekend.  Snow I can handle, but this kind of wind? Not fun.

It ended up being an 11 mile hike, I’m not sure about the elevation gain, but 3500’+

I’ve hiked 43 14ers and this is the first time I’ve had to turn back due to weather.  And what’s worse, it was due to the wind and ice, not snow, rain, lightning, etc.  Oh well, the mountain will still be there next year.  I’ll try again!

Author: Laura M Clark

Laura has summited over 500 peaks above 13,000' solo, including being the first woman to solo summit all of the Colorado 14ers, as well as the centennials. After each hike, she writes trip reports for each one and publishes them on her blog, which is read by fans all over the world. Author of Wild Wanderer: Summiting Colorado’s 200 Highest Peaks, which is available to purchase on Amazon.

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