Escaping the Labor Day crowds on Mount Adams
Before climbing the Crestone Needle, we wanted to spend some time in the mountains acclimating so we wouldn't have to worry so much about AMS while climbing a 5.7 route. We decided that climbing another easier mountain would be the way to go, but because of the way our trip worked out this was going to happen on labor day, 2003. Now we've never been to fond of crowds (unless you count the days back when we were in a rock band), so we decided to do a high thirteener instead of one of the more popular fourteeners.
After scouring guidebooks we decided on the West Ridge of Mount Adams. At 13,931 feet it was plenty tall for our purposes (we're not ones to really count numbers anyway), only rated at class 2+, and has an approach that is relatively short. Perfect!
The approach began a couple miles outside of Crestone, Colorado, a very small town nestled right up to the base of the Sangre de Cristo's west side. It was a cute town, but it didn't seem like there was much going on there. We often wonder what people do in a place like that to make a living.
We headed out of town on a gravel road and were rather abruptly stopped by a sign urging all but 4x4's to stop and park. So we parked about a mile sooner than we would have liked even though the road didn't look all that bad. As we hiked up the road there were cars parked everywhere! There was certainly going to be a crowd around Willow Lake where we planned on camping.
Once we made it to the official trailhead and got off the 4x4 road our feet really started to complain. Apparently we hadn't washed our feet good enough when we left the Sand Dunes and a small amount of sand between our toes was abrading our skin away. A couple of duct tape foot patches later we were on our way. Most of the trail was well constructed and easy to follow. There were a couple of long climbs along the way (a total of 2500 feet up) but we'd packed pretty light so it wasn't all that bad.
The last big climb before the lake climbs out of the trees and passes through a talus field letting the views really open up. There were incredible peaks and minarets sticking up all around formed from the amazing conglomerate rock of the Sangre de Cristo's. Behind us the very flat San Luis Valley stretched out to infinity. From our vantage point high above it felt as if we were orbiting above Mars. The San Luis Valley definitely looked other-worldly. It was a stark contrast in color, texture, and form from the fascinating mountains we were immersed in.
When we reached Willow lake there were people camping everywhere! We could only hope that they would be hiking out in the morning (Monday) or climbing fourteeners. Luckily we didn't require a lot of space since we'd only brought a tarp for shelter and we were able to find a site without too much trouble. We cooked up some dinner and kicked back to take in the incredible light show as the sun put it's finishing touch on the day.
We rose early the next morning, packed our camelbacks with a few essentials, and headed up the steep, grassy hill north of Willow Lake. And just that easily, we left the crowd behind. There was no discernable trail along this route--just bits and pieces here and there where you could tell other people might have passed. We were on our own, just like we like it.
As the sun rose over the ridge to the east, low clouds pushed up from the San Luis Valley in the west. This made for a spectacular show as the sun lit the clouds from above. This is the first time we had ever climbed above clouds (as opposed to in them).
Just after ooing and awing over the sun and clouds we were entertained by a small flock of bighorn sheep up ahead. They were working their way around the perimeter of the large grassy slope which we were traversing across. We watched them as long as we could, amazed by their sure-footedness on the rough terrain.
After surmounting a nasty talus/scree slope, the rest of the climb up Mt. Adams was mostly a pleasant hike up grassy slopes with occasional scrambling on solid rock. Our ever-improving route finding skills led us right to the weakness on the south side of the summit block. The final 200 feet or so involved some easy third class scrambling.
The views from the top were outstanding! Though it was cool, blue skys were all around us. The only clouds in the sky were well below us sitting in the valleys. Directly to the south was an commanding view of Kit Carson and Challenger Peak, two fourteeners which were most likely the objective of most of the other people camping around Willow lake. Beyond these two peaks were the twin summits of Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle where we hoped to be sitting in a couple of days.
Since we were planning on hiking in to Crestone Needle the next day, we kept ourselves busy the rest of the day. When we made it back to camp and started to pack up our tarp we discovered that I had driven one of the tent stakes into a tree root. That was an interesting situation! Eventually the stake just broke off--the tree just wouldn't let go. Meanwhile there were Bighorn sheep and lambs all around the campsites along Willow Creek. Before we headed down the trail I had to snap a few more pictures of the incredible Willow Lake and it's waterfalls. Even with the crowd it is one of the most beautiful mountain lakes we have visited.
About a third of the way down the trail Angela realized that her fancy collapsible sunhat was no longer on her head. Apparently her backpack had knocked it off and she just didn't notice. We turned back up the trail thinking it was not too far behind us. Soon we met some others coming down the trail. We inquired if they had seen it and they said they had passed two guys headed up the trail who had picked it up and were carrying it along with them. They thought they were doing someone a favor, but they failed to consider that perhaps the individual who had dropped it was headed in the opposite direction! Angela and I recognized the description of the two older men and remembered that they weren't moving to fast when we had passed them, so I began jogging up the trail after them. They must have gotten their second wind because it took a while before I could even see them. As soon as I could, I yelled at them to hold up and recovered the hat. I was breathing pretty hard at this point but I was pretty impressed that I could jog at all at 10,500 feet!!
After saving the day (at least in Angela's eyes), the rest of the hike was a breeze. Once back to our car we headed for Salida. We had heard of a brewpub there and wanted to check it out. We had great difficulty finding it as it had recently changed names. At any rate, it was worth the hunt. The food and beer at Amicas was outstanding!! If you're ever in Salida check it out.
Though we didn't have time to check out any of the hot springs in Salida, we did finish out our long day be soaking in the pool at the Cotopaxi KOA along the Arkansas river. Not quite the same as a hot spring but relaxing nonetheless. As we went to bed we both hoped our bodies had enough left in them to make it up Crestone Needle where we were headed the next day.