Mission: Climb Challenger Point (elevation 14,081 ft.) and Kit Carson Peak (elevation 14,165 ft)
Length: 15.5 miles
Elevation gain: 6500 ft.
The climb up Kit Carson is a tough physical challenge, at least it is for this 37 year old with bad knees. Apparently there are people capable of climbing Challenger Point and Kit Carson in 1 day. I am not one of those people. Doing this climb in 2 days is challenge enough. Day 2 alone was a 13 hour day for me, with little time for breaks.
For those that know me, they know I like to play many variations of the game of poker. Poker is a game of incomplete information where the object of the game is to make the best decisions based on this incomplete information. Mountaineering is not much different.
I think Gerry Roach references decision making at one of the key points in his "Colorado's Fourteeners" book when he wrote: "...so make your own best microdecisions." This is a story of my microdecisions and the grade I give myself for those decisions in hindsight.
Decision # 1
I left my house in the Jeep around 7:45am, and arrived at the Willow Creek trailhead around 12:15pm. I had made the decision to skip the short detour to Salida in hopes that there would be somewhere to eat in the town of Crestone. There was a small cafe, but at this point it looked like clouds were beginning to build, and I knew I had a 5 mile hike with all my camping gear up 3000 ft. or so ahead of me. So, I made the decision to skip lunch. Skipping a lunch is normally not such a big deal, but it is a very poor choice on a day before a 2 day grueling hike. Grade = D
Once you drive through the tiny town of Crestone, you navigate a dirt road to within about a 1/2 mile of the trail head. Here the road has a nasty section which is probably the only section that 4-wheel drive and decent clearance is needed. A mere .5 miles after this section you are at the trailhead.
Decision # 2
Put the top up on the Jeep, but let's leave the windows off since there's nothing for anyone to steal inside anyway. Upon returning to my Jeep on Sunday I realized I had left a sealed container of cereal on my passenger seat, which it appears that some critter had a field day trying to open. Racoons? Either way, no damage to the Jeep. Grade = C-
The trail starts from an elevation of 8800'. I throw the 30 lb pack on my back and get on my way at about 12:40pm on Saturday. The views along this slog up through the forest are beautiful.
|A meadow off to the right about 1.25 miles in.
|Above the meadow, looking west.
|Gaining elevation, the meadow seen before is now much smaller.
Decision # 3
Reviewing the map, I realize that the camping area is around 11,400 which is just prior to Willow Lake. I decide that I am going to stop at the stream at 11,250 about a 1/2 a mile short of the camping area to filter some water with my brand new Sawyer water filter. When I purchased this filter the guy at REI told me that the bags that come with the filter were weak and I should by a platypus bag for it instead, so I did. I fill up the bag with the water from the stream, go to screw the filter onto the top of the platypus bag and it won't seal. In order for this filter to work, a seal is crucial. So I spend about 20 minutes messing around with it and realize it's just not going to work. I am reciting my rant for the REI folks when I return this piece of crap filter as I briefly think I am going to have to just turn around and go home. It's then I realize that I do still have iodine tablets in my backpack and I decide to treat the water with those. This was a decision I made on Friday night during preparation, to keep the iodine tablets in my gear even though I had a new water filter. Without these tablets, my hike would've ended at 11,250'. Grade = A+
I continue along the trail and as I am entering the camping area, I look up expecting to see a person, and instead I am greeted by some big horn sheep.
|First time I've ever seen these guys up close.
|There was about 8 of them here, but the cameraman is only so fast.
|You could actually see the waterfall from the front door of the tent.
After I set up camp, I decide to hike up Willow Lake to take a look at the route I have ahead of me tomorrow. I figured I'd also cook myself dinner while I am away from camp.
As soon as I reach Willow Lake, I am in awe. The pictures will not do this place justice. It literally looks like paradise.
|Paradise - a.k.a Willow Lake
|Just done eating dinner above Willow Lake.
Decision # 4
I hiked all the way around the lake and decided that going solo up the steep class 4 north ridge might be a bit risky, so I decided in the morning I would take the class 3 standard route which goes to the summit of Challenger Point first, and then onto Kit Carson. Although not taking the class 4 north ridge might've been safer, I'm pretty sure I missed a fun route with this decision. But in mountaineering safety > fun, but only barely in this adrenaline junkie's mind. Grade = B-
Returning to camp, I was truly in awe at the beauty in this area. I had visions of Willow Lake floating around in my head as I fell asleep by 9pm.
Decision # 5
|Morning light above Willow Lake.
I awoke at 4:25am when my alarm went off. I promptly decided another hour is needed due to the awesome weather forecast tomorrow. I set the alarm for 5:25am and fell back asleep. Grade = A-
I made my way around the lake in the dark, navigating talus and dense willows. Around the back side of the lake I started to see the morning light.
|Kit Carson Peak looming in the morning sun.
It's here on the ascent that I was making a pretty slow pace utilizing the rest step a lot.
I made my way up to about 12,500 or so, and the higher I went the more breathtaking the views below became.
|Views of the valley.
Decision # 6
It's right about here that I realize I am off route. Since I seem to be surrounded on 3 sides by walls. I see about 200 ft. in elevation below me the place I was supposed to cross this gully. I take a look at the wall next to me and decide that I can free climb it. This not only saves myself some backtracking but it'll be fun too. Here's a video of where I was and where I went. I cannot give myself an A here even though I obviously made it up this 25 ft of climbing. It proved to be more difficult than it looked from below. Therefore I underestimated the short climb, even though I did make it. Grade = B
|Only about 15ft. above the ground below.
|More amazing views.
|I still remember that day.
|View looking east. Crestone Peak (left of center) is begging me to come visit.
|A view looking west where if you look close enough you can see the shape of the Earth on the horizon.
|Chilling on the summit of Challenger before heading over to Kit Carson Peak (left).
|On Kit Carson Avenue looking back north.
As I am making my way up the last 100 ft. towards Kit Carson's summit, I see a familiar face. I quickly recognize Natalie from our climb together back in March when I injured my knee.
Who would've thought that at 14,000' and 15 miles from the nearest vehicle and probably 50 miles from the nearest pizza joint (yes I was thinking about food a lot at this point) that I'd run into a person I knew.
Natalie and I exchanged brief conversation as she was on her way over to a 13er Columbia Point after having ascended the north ridge of Kit Carson with her climbing partner.
I continued to the summit and took it all in.
|Looking back on the summit of Challenger Point from Kit Carson Peak. There are people on the summit if you look close.
|Leaving the summit of Kit Carson and my last awesome view of Crestone Peak.
Once back down the class 3 route and onto Kit Carson Avenue again, I look towards Columbia Point and see Natalie (at least I think it's her) in action with a couple others.
|3 climbers are seen ascending Columbia Point. Looks pretty bad-ass from here.
Back to where Kit Carson Avenue and Challenger Point meet, I ask myself how it is ever possible to "miss" this. But apparently there are reports of people missing this exit back over to Challenger. I find this hard to believe. It's 100% obvious.
|This means re-ascend Challenger!
Decision # 7
So, I decide to re-ascend Challenger, since doing anything else is stupid in my opinion. Grade = A+
Upon the summit, I offer encouragement to people on top who are contemplating a Kit Carson attempt.
I then move down to the notch at 13,800 and here's where hell begins. The descent from 13,800 to 12,000 or so is ridiculous. The scree and loose rock is horrid. I think it's worse that the cursed Columbia descent in the Sawatch range. I fell on my ass at least 3 times, I heard people descending far above me yell "ROCK!" at least 4 times each time causing me to stop in my tracks and look up to see if I need to take cover.
Once back down to Willow Lake, I again am just overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of this place. Willow lake is a destination by itself in my opinion.
|Willow Lake in all it's glory.
Once back at camp, it was already 3pm and I still had a 5 mile hike back to the trailhead. I pack quickly and make my way down the trail as fast as my old knees will take me.
Somewhere around 10,500' or so along some rocky switchbacks I plant my left leg and trekking pole at the same time only to have a portion of the hillside give way and I promptly end up on my face. In the process, I sent a ton of rocks down to the switchback below (about 20ft). Thankfully nobody was below. I was maybe 6 inches away from tumbling down this 20' myself.
I gathered myself and realized my right hand was bleeding from some minor cuts. I then looked at where I fell and realized the trail there is eroded from people short-cutting the switchbacks. This is why you don't shortcut switchbacks people.
The next 3 miles to the trailhead, all I could think of was beer and pizza. By 8pm I was sitting in Amica's Pizza in Salida with my vision come true a microbrew and a 12 inch pizza.
Kit Carson offers a taste of Colorado 14ers all in one. It's got the things we love like great views, fun class 3 scrambles, beautiful waterfalls, a gorgeous alpine lake, beautiful meadows, wildlife, and even challenging class 4 and 5 routes. It's also got the things we don't like as much like long approaches, a ton of elevation gain, dense willows, loose scree, loose rock, a dangerous descent, and a ton of time above the treeline leaving one exposed to lightning and weather for that much longer. That being said, I wouldn't go back in time and change anything about this trip, except for the mice eating my sunflower seeds in the trunk of my Jeep.