| Fall Legends
‘Approach’ - 9/19 - 9/20; Crestone 9/20-9/23; Lake City 9/23-9/28; Return 9/28-9/30.
3,153 miles driven. 60 total round trip trail miles hiked. 19,460 vertical feet. Two summits.
I always have hopes for a trip west and with the approach of my 50th. birthday nothing could be better. My Brother would come along, we would stay at Mill Creek down Lake San Cristobal road from Lake City. Since my brother had not camped since he was young and has never hiked in the mountains, we would do whatever felt OK and just enjoy the trip.
As August waned, my brother reconsidered; the trip turned solo, and planning re-commenced. Now where would I go? I had a great desire to continue to stretch my abilities and skills. I had been training hard, had shed 18 lbs to a 170 target weight, and needed to try something a step up from prior summits. I even started to envision a peak-bagging extravaganza. 9/23 would also mark a 35th anniversary of sorts for me - so I decided to pick by the numbers. Certainly a natural was Challenger (#35) and Kit Carson (#23). Roaches #50 - Wetterhorn - also sounded very interesting for an attempt. I contemplated #15 - Longs; success would only be likely with a clear route and a bluebird fall day. A backcountry request was submitted for Goblins. Soon a confirmation returned with my desired dates. Longs would be plan A, and I’d move on from there. The plan was deep with many other options considered.
Then the rains came and tragedy struck the northern Front Range. For a moment I vainly took it personally; “If I wasn’t supposed to summit Longs on 9/23 - couldn’t I just have not received my BC reservations? Did roads have to wash out and lives be destroyed?” Reality of course is my plans were but a droplet in the flood. Plan A was scratched; B, C, D and beyond moved up.
Thursday 9/19 - Travel - car camp.
Friday - 9/20 - arrival at Willow Lake Trailhead.
Saturday - 9/21 - into Willow Lake.
Sunday - 9/22 - Explore Challenger / KC / Adams – Fish – Photo - Relax.
Monday - 9/23 - early start Challenger Point 2.8 mi. 2520’ c2.
Kit Carson from Challenger + 1.4 mi. +1080’ c3.
Return / optional break camp / out.
Tuesday - 9/24 - Out - Travel to Lake City - Henson Creek Rd. - Camp
Wednesday - 9/25 Early start - Wetterhorn - 8.09 Mi. 3,600’ c3
Thursday - 9/26 Uncompahgre - 15.25 mi. 5,505’ c2. To Mill Creek CG.
Friday 9/27 - Look at Redcloud / Sunshine / Handies
Saturday 9/28 - (Possible extend / delay / extra day)
I’ve got my ticket for the long way ‘round
The one with the prettiest of views
It’s got mountains, it’s got rivers, it’s got sights to give you shivers - “Cups” Anna Kendrick
Soon the Honda Element was packed and headed down the road. A leisurely solo pace was established. The first destination was Harlan CO, NE. My stepfather ‘Red’ grew up in Alma, and I had visited the area several times with him. Coincidence would find me “toast” in Goblins Point at The Harlan County Reservoir on my first night - I would stay at Goblins after all! These types of connections fascinate and amuse me.
My Mom has graciously and gracefully lived her life. She even managed to find love twice. God rest, Red. You were a great blessing to our family.
I dropped down to I-70. I’ve always enjoyed the vistas and stark beauty of the high plains. This day would be no exception.
I picked up US24 and soon was through Colorado Springs and headed for the San Luis basin. I see beauty everywhere I look, and the flat, straight 17 south to Moffat was awesome. Then I turned east and couldn’t close my jaw with the Crestones looming large, basked in alpenglow.
“I’m parked at about 8,400’ along the road into Willow Lake, just east of Crestone. Its about 11:30 PM and I’m writing this by the light of the full moon. Today I became someone else. That other lifetime - I’m there. The Sangres - the view of the dunes, then the turn towards Crestone. The Crestone Group simply dominates all of the southwestern-feeling basin. I have a country station on the radio now. I fell asleep to Buena Vista blowing out someone else in Friday Night HS football. At the moment I simply can’t comprehend the enormity of the task ahead. But with all projects, break ‘em down to one step at a time and soon you’ve accomplished amazing things….. I can sense the entirety of who I am coming together for this moment moving me far beyond anything I’ve ever imagined.” (Trip notes 9/20)
Saturday 9/21- a warm-up.
6 miles - 2000’ S. Crestone Creek Trail from Willow Creek Trailhead.
The immediate plan for Saturday morning, after the camp routine, was to warm up with a day hike. I had understood the forecast to include a minor disturbance for Sunday afternoon, then clearing and beautiful. The day was fine, I was winded and unaccalimated, but still really excited about my arrival at the start of a much dreamed about trip. I hiked under a beautiful sky with views of the rugged upper reaches of the Crestones
On the return I contemplated my camping pack. It weighed in at 62 lbs. dry when I left home. There would be no way I would make Willow Lake with the camping pack I had organized - certainly not on day 2. It had to shed weight. A later stop at the Crestone Mercantile would make for a treat of fresh hamburger with mashed potatoes for dinner. Tomorrow I would leave the stove and have no hot meals. I would leave the bear container and use a hang bag. I would leave the snowshoes, but bring microspikes and the ice axe. Out with the GPS - extra headlamps, the map, the route descriptions, and the SPOT were on board. The pack sufficiently lightened, I was excited and ready.
I had already mentioned to several strangers how I was on a trip west for my birthday. But I had not told anyone the rest of the story … yet.
A high camp at Willow Lake would be a new experience - I’ve never hiked and camped in the mountains. It would also be a big day for me physically, but I thought I was ready. All my life I’ve had to push myself outside of my range of comfort into the unexperienced - rarely did I go willingly.
9/22 - Sunday at Willow Lake.
Willow Lake Approach: 7.4 miles – 2,884’ - 6 ¼ hours (in) with camp pack.
Red sky in morning …. How does that go?
There would be no need for an early start, so the morning routine did not change. Coffee and oatmeal, clean up and head to the trailhead. The pack felt good as I moved under the broken overcast; it looked as if the forecast was spot on with clouds building a bit earlier than expected but weather moving in. I’d camp and be in place for a bluebird Monday!
A couple from Denver passed me on a dayhike to Willow Lake. The clouds were thicker, and the peaks were disapearing. Then a woman passed me on the way out. They had plans for a summit Monday or Tuesday, but were pulling the plug. She had heard 50-60% storms, and they started earlier than expected. I chugged my way up - the view to the west was stunning! It held some concern about the weather as it was moving in earlier than I expected. There were rumbles. And a climber who pulled the plug on Challenger. It was unloading up high. There were 3 more ahead of him. The dayhike couple passed me - they had enough. Then two more guys who scrambled. I was approaching the headwall, and was blessed with broken clouds as I crossed the creek and worked up the open switchbacks. Then it started to close in again, and the final climber passed me on the way out. It was nasty up high, but I might as well go to the lake at this point; it was beautiful.
And I did, and it was. The weather was still not enough to bring me to my senses. After all, I am an experienced Midwestern camper. And I was fully equipped to stay for several days if necessary. I pitched the tent and rested. The weather moved in. Clouds, high winds and rain / hail / gorp fell. It rained hard.
I just rested. It passed, and I contemplated my position. I might be stuck several days. I likely would not summit or perhaps even climb - I did not bring snowshoes - conditions would likely exceed my experience base. Ideally I wanted to be out and moving on Monday. Tuesday at the latest if Monday was a successful climbing day. The creek crossings had been tricky - how much would the water go up? The critical question. The worst case would be a Monday mess and a decision to bail after a cold night, then finding out the creek crossing was difficult. If I was leaving, I must be back over the headwall before dark. After that I wasn’t concerned. 5 PM was drop-dead time.
When I was 10 or 11 years old, I had been playing wagon train with the neighbor boys. We were all crossing the post-rain high waters of the Black River. I was nearly swept off my feet, but regained my footing, carefully turned and regained the safety of where I started. The neighbor boys made it across. I looked up to see my Dad upstream on the riverbank watching me. I had been warned to stay out of the high water. I ran home, shed my wet clothes and jumped in bed ‘sick’. Soon my Dad was next to my bed; I was terrified. He asked me if I was OK - I was. He asked me what I was doing. I told him. He said “Sometimes you have to make your own decisions” and he left the room.
I’ve always greatly valued these out of the ordinary experiences. The rawness of weather with the rugged beauty of the mountains was certainly one of these. It takes preparation and personal confidence in your skills, abilities and judgment to all come together. Then moments like the riveulette flowing over the cliff and blowing vertical can be absorbed by your soul.
Monday 9/23 Happy Birthday!
I rolled over and smiled right to my toes. It had been a FANTASTIC day yesterday. I made all the right decisions. Prepped, pushed, experienced the might of nature, pulled the plug and had the stuff to get it back out. Willow Lake was white with fresh snow, and I would not be killing a day or two in the cold with little pleasure to show. I’d move on to plan C and today would be a leisurely driving day.
A stop at 'My Sister’s Place' in Hooper allowed me to clean up and I was soon presentable for Breakfast. No steak and eggs, but biscuits and gravy would be OK if the waitress would promise to take some pictures. It was my birthday.
After breakfast the drive towards Lake City brought stunning fall views around every corner. It also delivered a surprise snowy view of another target from Slumgullion Pass.
Uncompahgre from Slumgullion Pass
The day had passed with relatively little reflection though I could recall at will the details of 35 years ago. It was a glorious fall day in Wisconsin and my 15th birthday. I had plans to walk with the shotgun - though it wasn’t yet partridge season - with my friend Jeff. Mom and Dad were going to town to the hardware store - “ do you want to come along?” I thought awhile, and said “naaw, I think I’ll stay home”. It was the last time I would see my Dad alive.
A bad week.
It was a clear, open intersection. The driver of the car eastbound on CTH A was already dead of a heart attack. His wife would die seconds later, as would my Dad as the other car went through the stop sign with pinpoint timing and collided with our truck. We could only deduce that the pickup truck mirrors, set at 45 degrees to the truck, blocked the view of the car. There were no brake skid marks. My Mom, surviving, was hospitalized for 3 months.
For a number of years I would celebrate my birthday on 9/22 or 9/24. This trip was about honoring life in all its possibilities, recognizing that I would never have made it without what quite simply must have been intervention not of this time and space.
Rarely did what was essentially a fail make me feel so good. I had proven myself capable of a long alpine pack. I had made all the right decisions - positioning for success while dodging failure. And now I was enjoying the fruits of great decisions with a drive through fall in the mountains. After a beautiful day I was looking for some chow in Lake City. It was late, so I just wound my way up Henson Creek road and parked at the confluence of Nellie and Henson. I prepped my camping pack as a daypack with what I though may be needed, sparing little. I decided not to cook a hot meal - snacked and set aside an AM snack and cold coffee. I knew I’d be eager to get under way in the AM.
Tuesday 9/24 - Uncompahgre.
12.5 miles - 3,400’ - 7 ½ hours - upper basin @ 12,700’.
The excitement continued to build, and soon I was awake in the early AM under the post-full ‘climbing’ moon. A cold camp breakfast and soon I was moving up Nellie Creek Road. The waterfall along Nellie Creek, in the moonlight with the starry sky was surreal. I was moving OK, and made the upper Trailhead before 6 AM - about 3 ¼ hrs. for the 2 miles and 2140 ‘, despite the heavy daypack. I was feeling worn down, and with the observation of my surroundings, decided to stash the snowshoes and one Nalgene at the trailhead for the return.
A bit up the trail, with snow mid-calf, I realized the folly of this action. Just before the trail leaves the creek and climbs to the basin, I dropped my pack and returned for my snowshoes. The day was not going well in the climbing department. I was worn. Still, I would at least return with snowshoes and see what the day would hold.
On the return along the creek, the sun lit Uncompahgre. Nellie Creek offered glimpses of the reflected alpenglow. I was in another lifetime; flashes of my youth when I snowshoed searching for the swift open water of the Black River where the ice columns would build over the swift water. The beauty of the moment brought me to tears. I was snowshoeing in pristine snow along a mountain stream in unspeakable beauty.
Moments such as those along Nellie Creek this morning transcend time.
Indeed poor diet meant that the day did not hold much more progress. By the time I had returned to Nellie and Henson, it was late afternoon, and I was totally worn down. It was a great day in stunning beauty.
but not a successful day. I didn’t feel good. The weather had not helped. In passing though Lake City I hadn’t noticed many options to eat or recover, and I didn’t cook. I decided to pull the plug and head to Gunnison for a hotel room, shower, weather report and a solid meal.
The wind will blow into your face,
As the years pass you by. Scorpions “Send me an Angel” (Rudolf Schenker, Klaus Meine)
The meal was good, the shower hot and the TV flat. The word was High Wind Warnings starting at Noon on Wednesday. Gusts in excess of 60 MPH possible in the passes. I was discouraged as I talked with home. It was beautiful, but the weather was wearing on me, and I just wasn’t sure about anything. It was clear from today that IF I was to summit any mountain, I would have to drive to the trailhead. Perhaps Silver Creek. I did want to look at Wetterhorn, but with the snow I expected that the c3 climb would be beyond my abilities and there would be no summit. My woman (...I am out west…) sounded discouraged.
Wednesday 9/25 - Redcloud
4.5 mi - 3,700’ - 4 hrs. to summit. (9 Miles RT - 7 hrs. inc. leisurely return)
After a solid night’s sleep, I was up early and the only car on 149 to Lake City. It felt good to be headed for an attempt to reach Silver Creek - Grizzly Gulch and try Redcloud; possibly Sunshine. The plan was to hike and deal with the wind as need be. The road was .. interesting .. but not impassable for my ‘toaster’. At the trailhead I talked briefly with a duo who planned to loop Redcloud and Sunshine per Roaches’ route 28.4 or 28.5. They shared a picture from a push on Handies where they were thigh-deep in snow. Curiously one of them used to live just 12 miles from where I now live. Wisconsinites abound everywhere it seems. Soon I was moving quickly up the lower trailhead, feeling good. There is snow, and some gusts, but in general it’s a blue bird day. The loop intrigued me - counterclockwise sounded like the wind would help out; I kept an eye on those ahead of me - everyone stayed on the standard route with no signs of an alternate.
At the saddle about 13k I caught up with one couple. She was slow but steady and enjoying the day. The other pair was moving quickly, and were almost over to Sunshine when I summited Redcloud. On top at last!! The first summit of the trip was earned. A beautiful, though windy day. A great pace for me with a summit in 4 hrs.- 925’ /hr. It was noon, and the forecast was for the winds to pick up all afternoon, though the gusts had been strong already. On the final grade, I had several gusts which forced me low for comfort. The spindrift off the east face was fascinating.
Uncompahgre from Redcloud
I only briefly considered venturing over to Sunshine. The unknown for the day was how the gusts would affect me on the downslope, and I wasn’t willing to gain the experience on anything but a successful return to the trailhead. I had worn the microspikes from the lower basin, and they performed fantastic. Just the same, if the wind would continue to pick up, I wanted nothing to do with being exposed above 13k. I managed to secure the camera enough to take some low summit pics, looked about and then headed down. After dropping a ways, I stopped for some camera play - an activity which continued all the way out. While along Silver Creek, the pair out ahead passed me on their way out. I would pause in the trees for pictures and trail notes.
They were hanging out at the trailhead. Soon we were sharing company, trailhead Coors in hand (thanks!). They had returned over Redcloud; there was a sign on Sunshine advising against any deviation. It was windy, with probably 70 MPH gusts. I shared the entirety of the story of my journey.
It was a GOOD day and clearly marked success for the trip!
The loss of my father 35 years ago was an event which ripped the heart out of a good, normal Midwestern family. My father was an honorable man and a great Dad. In the months and years immediately after I struggled to subdue the pain of a gaping hole in my soul. There would be many days when all I wanted was the pain to stop. In later years - time healed the pain, but there were always new twists - like the underlying fear that through some cruel twist my two sons would suffer the same fate. Or the deeper understanding gained with maturity of the idealized view of my Dad I lived with all my life, and how I could never possibly attain the status a Dad has to a boy.
“On Redcloud’s summit I was brought to tears of exhilaration. To have made it - in a flash the entrety of a lifetime was distilled to a moment. Surrounded by stunning beauty; not untouched by nature’s wild side.” (Trip notes)
Thursday and Friday 9/26 and 9/27.
Thursday would be a mandatory rest day. The forecast said another disturbance Friday, then blue bird late fall clearing overnight into Saturday. Thursday AM was spent in Lake City with laundry, postcards and a breakfast burrito from Lake City Bakery. A visit to the FS office and Visitors bureau suggested a hike up Cataract Gulch for a chance to find Aspen leaves flying in the wind and the beauty of a mountain stream. The day was glorious, and I added considerably to the photo accumulation which will keep me busy into the deep of this winter.
Friday found the predicted weather moving in, so another day just bumming with the camera was in order. I’d venture up to Matterhorn Creek Road, taking many pictures and expanding my photographic skills. A hike up the road to the upper trailhead offered many more Canon moments.
I could stretch the trip into Saturday without much difficulty, and so the only question is - to do what? Though the Sunday snow had melted some, Friday had brought an unknown additional amount up high. Wetterhorn may simply be an experience - building scout outing. I could choose to move up the ridge until I was not comfortable; gain experience and enjoy the day. I could drive to the trailhead, saving me from a hike of more significance.
Here I am ….
…. Will you send me an angel? Scorpions “Send me an Angel” (Rudolf Schenker, Klaus Meine)
Or I could go back to Uncompahgre. Except for the upper ramparts, it was now a known entity. Still, it’s a big day. Nellie Creek Road is 4 miles and 2,140’ before the day starts. Tuesday had involved extensive trail breaking without and then with snowshoes. The decision wasn’t difficult. The trip needed another summit, and even better if it is on the second attempt.
Saturday 9/28 - Uncompahgre
7.6 miles - 5,505’ - 9 hours to summit (15.25 mi. RT – 13 ¼ hrs RT)
I ate, prepped breakfast, dodged rain and was asleep early. About 9:20 PM I awoke to some sort of commotion on the road. There was a truck maneuvering - was that another vehicle behind it? Did they run off the road? Was there wind mixed with the creek noise? The windows were covered in snow, and in my sleepy haze I wasn’t sure what was going on. I went back to sleep.
“As I dozed off, I found myself taken across that great divide of my life. I was 10 or 11 again, on a pair of 10x56’s. I could go ANYWHERE there was snow. I was along my favorite creek in the north 40, just above where it emptied into the Black, and I had found a snow bridge and crossed it.” 9/28 Trip notes.
Awake and excited to go – by 4 AM I was again moving up Nellie Creek Road. There was a light snow cover on the road all the way with some frozen spots. I put on microspikes before the first creek crossing and they made the ice and snow covered log crossing easy, and just before 6 AM I crossed the creek for the second time, and one hour later I arrived at the upper trailhead. I was moving much quicker than on Tuesday and I struggled to keep optimism in check and stay focused on each step.
I was once again working along the creek. There was a pair ahead of me; a truck had passed me on Nellie Creek Road. As I approached the switchbacks out of the creek drainage, I could see that the pair was a bowhunter and guide. I also hunt, and I could tell they were using my expected movements to set themselves up for a chance at what I may push. On Tuesday I had moved several deer in this area. Today I had already watched them pass me near the trailhead. At the juncture they went right towards the north side of the basin and I was back to breaking trial. The snow which I had found on Tuesday was mostly melted out and a fresh dusting filled in the trail trench.
At about 12,600 - a bit lower than Tuesday’s turn point, I opted for snowshoes. I would have them on and off a couple of times as I moved across the upper basin and onto the south ridge. I noticed that there were first two, then 3 people moving behind me. I would later find out that there was also 3 people on the trail from the Matterhorn Creek TH.
Matterhorn Creek TH is upper center.
I took an extended rest at about 13, 500 - just below the switchbacks which take you to the bottom of the upper ramparts. Two people caught up to me. This was OK - it was time for someone else to lay in steps for a while. I did have to take the chance to play a bit with a direct route up the slope with the MSR’s. Its not every day I get the chance to chug away up a snow slope. The snow seemed solid, but I did have to get used to driving the toes in to get enough bite.
After a brief rest at a large rock before the traverse to the base of the gully, I moved forward now following the other 3. The gully was loose and wet with a chance for handholds on the right, but careful placement kept me moving OK, and soon I was finishing to the upper plateau and at the summit.
Crux of route
Nellie Creek Drainage
With the Uncompahgre summit, the trip was complete. It felt complete. I was out of time if I wanted to still maintain a leisurely pace, and I did. Fact is, I needed to start back right away. Saturday night found me toasty along the roadside east of Gunnison. Sunday AM found me playing in a mountain sunrise with the camera once again.
Later in the day I stopped for breakfast at the Country Restaurant in Calhan, CO. There I had the best flat-iron steak and eggs I’ve ever had. I also met a waitress, to whom I related the story of my journey. She told me how she hadn’t been to the mountains in years, but she always went as a kid. She also shared a similar story of tragedy in her life. More recent, and with different details, but just as tragic. I recounted some of the details. I was just a “sure” away from being with my Mom and Dad. Would I have died too? Or perhaps I’d have been the eyes to notice and saved two families death and devastation. Questions from which only the solitude of the mountains bring peace.
Could I have saved him? Flashes of scenes from Legends of the Fall crossed through my mind.
We all have crosses to bear. Through sharing the burden we live.
Dad - early 70's
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):