| Over the Hills and Far Away, December on the West Ridge of Adams A
Mt Adams (13,931ft)
West Ridge from Willow Lake (Class 3)
RT (guess): 10 miles and 5000’ Gain
Car to Car in 12 hours (7a-7p)
Climbers: Sarah (sstratta) & Matt (I Man)
7am: leave Car
11am: Arrive at Willow Lake
2pm: Summit Mt Adams
5pm: Return to Willow Lake
7pm: Back at car
Colorful sky suggests a special day ahead.
The Crestone Group 14ers, all five, display their fully glory.
A small lake in this serene basin, Challenger's face in the distance
By now you think I would have figured out that the weather, not the climber, make the final call on plans for the weekend, but there I was, sending e-mails, doing research and scheming for what I hoped would finally be the weekend we made an attempt on a certain peak in the San Jauns. Alas, for the 17th time, the weather had other ideas and by mid-week we were scrambling to find other options and not “waste” a precious fully open weekend. We knew we wanted to drive far and we wanted some sort of acceptable weather. After flirting with some other peaks in the San Juans, we settled on the Sangres as they had the best (ha!) forecast in the State.
Mt Adams was the goal, from Willow Lake. This would allow us some good winter recon on the 14ers in the area as well as provide a fun and rarely travelled route up a Class 3 ridge. The forecast called for wind, and lots of it, but we were confident in our decision and knew we’d regret staying home. I met Sarah in Vail around 7 and we were on our way to the Willow Lake TH. My low clearance Imrpeza was able to make it 1.7 miles down the road (TH is 2 miles in) and we set up camp for the night. We slept pretty comfortably and started to let hopes of improving weather creep in. There was no snow to be seen anywhere along the road at night.
The alarm went off at 6am and we were on our way by 7am as planned (neither of us felt like using headlamps on the approach). The road goes by quickly and we were at the TH within 10 minutes and, as expected, there was not a car in site. Though the road to our campsite was mellow, there was a tremendous obstacle just past where we pulled off that would have made my car explode had we pressed our luck. Anyway, we signed the register and began the long trek up to Willow Lake.
View of the conditions on the Willow Creek Trail
At first the going was quick and we were surprised by how quickly we topped out on the first ridge and made the crossover, but before too long, our memories snapped back and we realized how far we still had left to go. Also, even as low as 10,000ft, snow was starting to show itself. We both had gaiters in our packs and had left the snowshoes in the car. We hoped we had made the right call. It had been almost 1.5 years since my first trip to this area, and now despite a much different mindset, I was once again lost in the wild and rugged grandeur of this area of the Sangres. Water fall ice, rock walls and evergreens seem to purposely work together to recreate the scenes of dreams.
Challenger's impressive face. Does anyone know anything about this?!?!
Looking out over Willow Lake
The hike up was enjoyable and the trees blocked the wind which made for a pleasant trek. With a few breaks and lots of talking, we casually made our way up to Willow Lake by 11am. At this point it was time to figure out where to go. With the obvious change in conditions (clouds all around, wind, some snow) we quickly abandoned our plan to tack on the surrounding 13ers, and discussed possible ways onto Adams West Ridge. Of course, we had to find the mountain first! Being the geniuses that we are, neither of us had brought a map and we would have to rely fully on our memory of the maps to make our way. We took a hard left from the lake and made our way up a mellow slope. Having read NKan02’s report, I knew that it would be easy to fall into the trap of ascending 13,580 A’s slopes, and since we were pressed for time, we were grateful to have this knowledge and traversed across the ridge and into a small and high basin below Mt Adams.
Climbing up from Willow Lake into the upper basin
Sarah gets hungry and snacks on a rock
Conditions in the upper basin below Adams
From here, we finally took comfort in our route finding as we agreed Adams was in fact the peak in front of us. This was also the time when we had to accept the type of climb we were in for. Though not yet reaching biblical status, the wind had started to pick up and the temperature had certainly dropped. This seldom visited basin rests at 12,500ft and sports a few small lakes and 3 high 13ers on its flanks. Every time I turned my head, I was in awe of the tremendous faces of Kit Carson and Challenger directly behind us. This area is truly one of the most magnificent places I’ve ever had the privilege to visit.
The gully that provides easy access to the West Ridge
Sarah mid way up the gully
Making my way across the basin towards the gully (center)
Halfway up the gully
Once in the Basin, we continued to have small areas of post holing, but it never got out of control. With a little effort we found ourselves at the base of the gully that we had chosen for our ascent onto the ridge. As usual, the apparent angle of the slope lessened as we approach the gully and to our surprise we were able to ascend the several hundred foot gully in about 10 minutes. However, once on top of the ridge the real fun began as we came face to face with our friend, 50+ mph winds.
Sarah scrambling out of the gully and onto the ridge
Taking a cold rest, but enjoying the views
Early goings on the ridge
"Why did we do this again?"
The early goings had some snow but it was mostly just a class 2 ridge walk. The summit block and upper difficulties loomed above, but the main focus was how darn cold and windy it was. After taking about 10 steps I firmly declared that it was Puffy time and put on my space suit. One plus of the wind is it’s so cold and miserable that you forget how hard to breathe it is. Other than hardly being able to see, we were able to make pretty quick progress up the initial ridge as we had motivation to keep moving. The ridge starts to narrow and steepen as you gain altitude and eventually we were face to face with the first scrambling section, a low angle slab with a lot of knobby holds. The snow and wind made it a little spicier than usual, but this section is really just 2+ and is shallow enough that it can be walked up. The ridge alternated between this type of climbing and class 2 ridge walking for a bit, before entering the real class 3 sections above 13,600ft.
Scrambling on Adams lower West Ridge
Class 2+/3 slabs
The ridge is fairly mellow, even high up, the was one section with a 10ft climb onto a block and then a 10ft down climb with some respectable exposure, but nothing too gnarly or as bad as the other peaks in the area. With some shivering, some cold hands and some effort, we were roughly 100ft below the summit and discussing options. Sarah asked me what the best way to the summit was and I laughed and admitted that I hadn’t actually read past the approach on any of the TR’s and that I had no idea. Sarah admitted that she also had not done her research. “Great”, I though, “time for some fun.”
Scrambling up the gully that access the final pitch onto the summit block
Sarah suggested we drop down on the right of the ridge (which was the only option) and then attempt to cross it a few dozen yards ahead and climb steeply up the North face on loose snow and rock. I did not like this option as the words ‘steep’ and ‘loose;’ typically make me go in my pants. I suggested we duck down and right instead of crossing the ridge and look for a way behind the tower that was blocking our view. We agreed and Sarah headed out first. It was quickly apparent that we had made the right calla and narrow gully with a large crack running down the center showed itself and brought us back onto the ridge crest. From behind I liked a ledge that angled up and right, but as Sarah topped out she could tell the moves were likely 5.17d and we would not be tackling them. In a pleasant surprise, we were able to walk/scramble about 30 feet up a slab to the summit area and walk 20 or so feet to the wooden cross (that has been blown over).
Sarah scrambles up to the summit
The Peak and The Needle
Kit's North Ridge
'Enjoying' the summit. Looks like I am about to be down 1 nose.
The summit views were incredible, truly mesmerizing. The entire Crestone Group, from Humboldt to The Needle, The Peak, Kitty Kat Carson, Columbia Point, Kit Carson and Challenger were visible in a row, covered in snow and cloud, isolated….it was one of those rare moments in the mountains when the entire universe seems to make sense. All of this distracted my mind for a moment and Sarah quickly brought me back to reality saying “your nose is completely white!!” I reached to touch it and felt nothing. I quickly covered it and hoped for the best while we took some summit shots, but we were quickly on our way down as we were both freezing.
Stumbling down the south face
Looking down the descent gully on the South Face
The original plan was to down climb the ridge and possibly bag the 13er to the East of Adams, but it was cold and after 2pm and with my new found affinity for frost bite, we decided to bail down the “standard” descent route for the West ridge, a large and mellow gully on the South Face (this would be a good Class 2/2+ ascent route from Willow Lake). The descent went by fairly easily as the slope was mellow and provided for some good scree skiing or sporadic plunge stepping and we were soon back in the basin and making our way towards the lake. We arrived back at the lake in time to eat a snack and enjoy the sun set over the basin before settling in for the dark and lonely trek out. I put on some tunes and zoned out. Sarah enjoyed the serene silence of the woods. We arrived back at the car around 7pm feeling quite lucky. We had just experienced a perfect day in the far away hills.
Our shadows enjoy sunset over Adams
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