Eccles Pass to Willow Lake


Hiking without a watch allows my body to dictate the structure of a trip; as she is the one doing most of the work, may as well let her lead. So, rather than waking to an alarm and taking breaks and meals at scheduled times, my eyes swing open when everybody inside is ready and I stop for food or rest when it is needed.

The sun was just doing his morning calisthenics when I crawled out of my tent. The bed of pine needles breathed an earthy must, telling of the downpour the night before. The rock faces looked like little kids who had just had their faces washed. The sky was flawlessly blue.
Spreading everything out to dry, I sat in my old Philmont Crazy Creek and surveyed the land. I tried to eat breakfast, but there I ran into a dilemma; see, I bought this stupid Sam’s size bag of granola and raisins for Trail Breakfasts a few months ago. By now, It would appear, I dislike granola. I suspected this when packing for this hike but had figured: “if I was rally hungry, I’d eat it” (thanks, Parent Script). Instead my throat clenched up and threatened repercussions. Great, my gag reflex is still a petulant child. It turns out, you CAN eat too much of certain things. There is this one brand of granola bars I ate all along the PCT and now just seeing the box makes me gag. So anyway, I choked down a pinch of granola and then set to packing.

Finally, out across the sunny mini-tundra and up to Eccles Pass (11950).

Trail atop Eccles

I enjoy passes and peaks for being vantage points, a chance to put everything in perspective. From here I superimpose the map onto the geography spread before me. Something about this makes my soul smile.

It turns out, Eccles Pass is a space fold; I hiked down into a patch of trail which exists in California. It was a strange feeling, I kept looking around for my trail family, wondering if it was also a time warp but whenever and wherever I was, it was just me and the marmots.

The trail sauntered down along the run-off gorge curving around the north side of mighty Buffalo (12777). His I-70 face is wide and open and friendly, but sneak up on him from behind and jagged cliffs jut up defensively.

Rawr.

The thing about hiking along a mountain drainage, is that there is lots of stuff flowing out of the mountains. Factor in these summer afternoon deluges and I spent a fair amount of time schlooping through sloopy, sloppy, cluppy, cluddy, Colorado mud. At one point I stepped forward in all my leather booted confidence and sunk calf deep in a mud hole. Luckily I was wearing gaters.

Then the trail became rocky. As I came between the South Willow Creek Water Falls and the trail heads, I was again in day hiker territory. One girl, I think, was me. We stopped and looked at each other and talked. Our lives were different but it was as if she was another version of me. Or I of her. She was very knowledgeable and cool.

A few minutes further down the trail I came upon a young family. Mom, Dad, big sister (8), little sister (5 1/2). The girls showed me their bathing suits, declaring their intent to swim in the swimming hole.

“20 years ago, I was right where you are,” I said to Little Sister.

“You was getting ready to swim?!”

“Me too, except with an extra decade,” mom giggled.

The trail then wound along the fluted hem of the range before swinging up Willow Creek Trail to, you guessed it, Willow Lake. And Salmon Lake. According to several, they have some of the finest views along the Gore.

I wouldn’t know, because by the time I’d huffed and puffed and regained 1,770 feet in elevation, I turned around to watch a curtain of clouds, rain, and thunder pull across the face of the sunny valley. I was immediately drenched.

Huddled under a tree, I looked up into the pelting hail and asked for a bit of guidance. Do I wait it out, or jump back down to the trail head and try to hitch. I’d made my goal, I was out of water, and I was drenched to the bone.

My answer came in the form a 140 lb Malamute named Massive.His humans are Rod and Sherry. They came to visit Colorado in the ’90s, fell in love with it, moved here in ’96 and started a cleaning business. They work hard all winter, making the dreamy mountain cabins we all rent and move into for a week, clean and dreamy. Then they hike all summer.

I took their appearance as the answer I had been waiting for when Sherry offered me a ride. Back down we went, chatting and each enjoying being in our element, with others of our kind (Massive had Gizmo, a chow).

Turns out, these folks have been logging 850 trail miles every year since 2001. they are section hiking the Colorado portion of the Continental Divide Trail. These people know this dirt.

As we descended, the clouds parted and rainbows dropped from murky skies into the light.

“And that is our house, so you’ll come over for supper some time, and this is where we…,” Sherry narrated as I began to realize the trail had ended and they were driving me back to Frisco!

With many thanks and a brimming heart, I returned to civilization. By the time I was standing at the bottom of the stairs up to my house, the Trail Euphoria had worn off. Suddenly every step hurt and I was hobbling like an old man. I showered, spread gear to dry and doddered down to Breckenridge to watch Anne’s Intramural Soccer team, Moose Jaw, win a game.

We, the Conquerors of the Day, then mowwed into some well earned slices of pizza from Giampietro’s.

And that’s all she wrote.

2 thoughts on “Eccles Pass to Willow Lake

  1. Kendall says:

    Huddeling under a tree in a cold mountain rain and not knowing if it’s going to get dark and cold before you get off the mtn does make for a memorable day. Glad the other hikers came along and you made it down…

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