Peak(s):  Challenger Point  -  14,081 feet
Post Date:  06/16/2011
Date Climbed:   06/10/2011
Posted By:  Exiled Michigander

 Challenger Point-North Slopes/Pencil Couloir   

After failed attempts on Little Bear in April (poor snow conditions) and Humboldt in May (high winds), I was determined to break the Sangre de Cristo curse that had befallen me. I left Denver with a favorable weather forecast at about 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 8th and headed toward Crestone. My little Chevy Cobalt made it 1/10 of a mile from the 4wd trailhead by midnight; it likely could have made it all the way to the trailhead if I had attempted the last steep hill. After sleeping in my car for a few hours, I set out at 4:30 a.m.

The Willow Creek approach was fairly strenuous, but certainly paid off in terms of solitude and beauty. I saw 3 deer, a number of cascades and waterfalls, some nice wildflowers, and not a single person. The hike up felt like I was assaulting some heavily-fortified medieval stronghold. Surrounded by steep, rocky cliffs, passing through the exit of the initial headwall seemed like finding a secret passageway into Mordor.

One of the first glimpses of Challenger on the approach.

One of several Willow Creek waterfalls.

The headwall.

I made it to the top of the headwall by 7:45 and then stopped for breakfast: salami, Leicester cheese, some French bread, and a Guinness—the original energy drink. By 9:45 I was standing above the waterfall on lower Willow Creek Lake. By then it was too late in the day to attempt a snow climb up the Pencil Couloir, and I kicked myself for not waking up earlier. Instead I resigned to take a brief nap and then reconnoiter the Willow Creek Basin for the rest of the afternoon. I examined the Pencil, Kirk, and Outward Bound Couloirs, then trekked to the upper lake and climbed up the ridge directly east of it to take some photos of Humboldt Peak and Colony Baldy.

(Lower) Willow Creek Lake.

From left to right: Obstruction Peak, Columbia Point, Kit Carson Peak, and the north slopes of Challenger Point.

Columbia Point, Kit Carson Peak, and the Kirk Couloir

The Outward Bound Couloir between Columbia Point and Kit Carson Peak.

The ridge directly east of upper Willow Creek Lake.

Humboldt Peak from the ridge.

Columbia Point, Kit Carson Peak, and upper Willow Creek Lake from the ridge. Challenger's summit is hidden behind Kit Carson.

The Pencil Couloir.

Willow Creek meandering toward the waterfall on the lower lake.

After hiking back down to the lower lake, I made dinner and set up my bivy sack. I then sat just above the waterfall with a flask of bourbon to enjoy the sunset and twilight for a while before going to bed.

The setting sun shining on Obstruction Peak.

Twilight in the mountains.

I was up by 4:00 a.m. the next morning (Friday, June 10th). After coffee and a light breakfast, I set out for the base of Challenger Point a bit before 5:30. I scrambled up some distance of rock before putting on my crampons and helmet and pulling out my ice axe to start up the Pencil Couloir. Snow conditions were initially favorable: about 4 inches of nice, firm snow on top of an impenetrable layer of ice. Although the thick layer of ice prevented me from being able to self-belay with my ice axe from cane position, I was still able to get a solid hold by switching to low dagger position. Things seemed to be going pretty well. But by about 7:45, the snow conditions were quickly starting to deteriorate. The previously solid snow transformed into wet, sloppy slush. My crampons and ice axe were no longer getting any “bite” into the surface, and conditions were becoming unsafe. I therefore begrudgingly abandoned my hopes to climb up to the notch via the Pencil Couloir and instead scrambled up the steep rock on its east side (Class 3). Given the patches of snow on its west side (along the standard route), this seemed a better option. By 8:40 I was at the top of the notch, and by 9:20 I was on Challenger’s summit. The views of Crestone Peak were amazing (and a bit intimidating!).

This is roughly the route I took up the north slopes of Challenger. I was only briefly on the Pencil Couloir due to deteriorating snow conditions.

Climibing up the Pencil Couloir.

Switching to rock on the east side of the couloir.

Challenger's summit.

Kit Carson and Creststone Peak from Challenger's summit.

A close-up of Creststone Peak.

From Challenger’s summit I could see that snow conditions on the west end of the “Kit Carson Avenue” ledge were going to prevent me from continuing on to the summit of Carson. I dropped down to the Challenger-Carson saddle anyway to take a few photos of the Avenue. At this point, I should have returned back over Challenger’s summit and descended via my ascent route. Instead, I started descending down the Kirk Couloir. Although the snow conditions were a bit better than those I had left on the Pencil Couloir, I still didn’t feel comfortable, especially given the Kirk Couloir’s steepness. I instead did a descending traverse across Challenger’s north slopes. In hindsight, this was a very stupid decision. I had to cross a few small but extremely slushy snowfields as well as several rivulets of melt, which put me in some rather unsafe situations. I thankfully made it down without incident, but I still regretted the poor decision I had made regarding my descent route.

Snow obstructing the west end of the "Kit Carson Avenue" ledge.

A poor decision: traversing across Challenger's north slopes rather than descending the way I had ascended.

I wasn’t able to spend another day at Willow Lake to attempt Kit Carson via Outward Bound, so when I returned to the lake I slowly packed up my gear and started heading back down to the trailhead. I passed about 15 people heading up while I was heading down; I was glad I was able to enjoy a few days alone before the weekend rush.

I had finally broken the Sangre de Cristo curse, and had enjoyed a few days basking in the magnificent beauty of the Willow Creek Basin. I am looking forward to returning to this area—certainly some of the finest 14er scenery I’ve experienced.

Next time, Kit Carson!

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

  • Comments or Questions

stunning     06/17/2011 01:01
Even on my phone! Nice work.


Outstanding report     06/17/2011 13:12
Congratulations on a great climb and great report.

I have just one question. Is the snow on KC Avenue negotiable with crampons and an ice ax? It isn't far and I thought I actually saw boot tracks in an earlier report.

In any case, thanks for the great beta.



Beautiful Report!     06/17/2011 16:54
Awesome pictures. This is one of the peaks on my list for this Summer season. Thanks for building my anticipation.

Dr. Dave

Exiled Michigander

Kit Carson Avenue     06/17/2011 19:13

Even with crampons and an ice axe, I didn't feel safe attempting Kit Carson Avenue. The snowy section isn't very long, but the slope of the snow makes it look precarious. I'm not certain if you'd be able to get a safe self-belay on the snow either, given how warm conditions have been. Then again, there are a lot of folks on this website with bigger cajones for exposure than I have--you might not find it so bad. Regardless, approach it with extreme caution; it certainly isn't a place you'd want to fall.


Kit Carson Avenue     06/18/2011 14:08

I have another week at least before I'll be up there. If I don't like (I too have a lower tolerance for risk than most) I'll make a two day trip of it and do KC via the Outward Bound couloir.

Thanks again for the beta.



DWS     06/20/2011 18:17
I wonder how deep that lake is in the last picture? Possibly some deep water solo potential on that big rock come August?

   Using your forum id/password. Not registered? Click Here

Caution: The information contained in this report may not be accurate and should not be the only resource used in preparation for your climb. Failure to have the necessary experience, physical conditioning, supplies or equipment can result in injury or death. and the author(s) of this report provide no warranties, either express or implied, that the information provided is accurate or reliable. By using the information provided, you agree to indemnify and hold harmless and the report author(s) with respect to any claims and demands against them, including any attorney fees and expenses. Please read the Safety and Disclaimer pages for more information.

© 2016®, 14ers Inc.