| The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
The objective for this trip was to climb both Challenger and Kit Carson Peaks.
Day One: Parked about a mile below formal trailhead, (didn't want a flat on the rental car) though this added 700+ feet to the climb, hiked in to set up camp
Day Two: Summit Challenger, Kit Carson, long hike out
Day Three: Tent Retrieval (see below)
(Click above right "View with Large Photos" to see more detailed pictures)
For those unfamiliar with these peaks, hopefully this will provide you some insight before you go, particularly the latter portion of the report.
We had been up the Willow Creek trail a month earlier in May when half of the route was covered by snow but for a variety of reasons, didn’t plan on summiting then. That trip was more about seeing the Great Sand Dunes and enjoying a more relaxing few days in the area and attempting a couple of 14ers if possible.
This time, I would be more focused on the peaks and devote the necessary time to climb them. I’d be starting from the Willow and South Crestone trailhead, located in Crestone, a small mountain town situated in the shadow of the Crestone Group of mountains, which included Challenger and Kit Carson Peaks, within the Sangre De Cristo Mountains.
This first shot shows the drive into the town of Crestone. Challenger is the peak just right of center of this photo. Kit Carson right next to it partially obscured from view.
I got started on Sunday morning and essentially had the beginning of the trail to myself as most people had camped the night before and would later return that evening. The hike for the first couple of miles climbs through several switchbacks through a nice mixed forest of pine, fir and aspen. I saw two deer in the forest while climbing up. Although I had seen many fresh bear tracks last month, I didn't see any today.
The weather was fairly stable, though it would start to drizzle later in the afternoon. I’d take shelter under a Colorado Spruce to wait out the rain. No sense in getting to camp all wet and set up in the rain. I had plenty of time, so I’d just wait out the weather. The trail soons opens up to reveal a stunning meadow to the right and a glimpse of some higher peaks in the distance framing your postcard views along the route. This is a really nice approach hike in.
Once returning to the forest, there are a few waterfalls surrounded by wildflowers which appeared to be near their peak blooming periods. Wild Columbine abounds near the stream outlets. Thistles, milkweeds, fireweeds, asters, lupines, paintbrush, yarrows, trumpetflowers among others were all in full flower, which made portions of the hike feel as though I was walking through a garden center. Crossing all of these streams was easier now and much less water was flowing compared to in May when they were swollen with snowmelt.
The area around the Sangre De Cristo Range, similar to some other wilderness areas in the state was rich in wildlife. Along the hike up, I ran into a myriad of birds, insects, rodents and signs of some larger mammals; deer, coyotes, bighorn sheep and mountain goats included. I also ran into a nice set of what appeared to be female mountain lion tracks.
The hike up to the basin, above Willow Lake was beautiful though fairly uneventful (which is always good). Navigating through the willows was a bit challenging, but pretty easy as you see your target across the lake to shoot for - there was one main way up, though a couple routes could have gotten you there. If you're hiking this early in the morning, you will get wet from the willows here, so be prepared. I got to the top of the waterfall, moved through another short section of willows and I set up my tent in short order right where I planned to.
As I had the benefit of knowing the approach section of the trail well, I knew exactly where I wanted to camp and that was my goal for day one. I looked at the slopes and picked a spot away from the main fall lines of potential rocks. The hike from below the trailhead to this spot at ~12,000ft above the waterfall took about 4hrs.
My plan was to set up camp right underneath the northeast slopes of Challenger and go for both summits the following morning, trying to beat the expected thunderstorms, normal for the monsoonal season (now) in Colorado. The alpine basin underneath these two peaks was spectacular. I could feel the tremendous energy that this area emanated and I wanted to spend time there again. If there was one place with strong positive Feng Shui, this was it.
For those who are not familiar with the size and scope of the basin, look in the next two photos, my tent appears in the right hand side of both as a red dot on the breathtaking landscape. (to see it more clearly, either click photo to enlarge or click the above "View with Large Photos" on top of page). Kit Carson is the prominent peak right of the photos, the slopes of Challenger leading up to the far right of the photo, with its summit not visible here.
A lone bighorn sheep was watching me from its perch high on the slopes of a peak across the basin to the east. Ravens periodically circled overhead, diving and soaring across the valley. I wish I had this view from my apartment!
There was plenty of ice cold, fresh running water nearby and I refilled all my water bottles before turning in for the night. The water coming off this flow was very clear and had no sediment. The alpine air grew quiet. From what I could tell, I hadn’t seen anyone else on the mountain that evening.
I had the wide open basin to myself. It was breathtaking to be there in absolute silence as the sun went down, the only noise being the breeze rustling through the stunted alpine vegetation. The slight wind helped keep the mosquitoes at bay and although there was some drizzle, the rain soon stopped and clouds started to clear for the night.
I set my alarm on my phone for 4:00AM and turned in. Unfortunately, I discovered my sleeping pad was leaking and was soon flat as a piece of loose leaf paper, leaving me to rest on the cold rocks under the tent. (patch kit at home) I didn’t sleep much that night, after not sleeping much the night before when I arrived so I felt pretty burned out in the morning.
I "woke up" before 4 and started to get ready. The temperature was hovering just north of freezing. The clouds covering the area the night before had dissipated leaving a crystal clear night sky filled with a billion stars above. I could clearly see the Orion arm of the Milky Way Galaxy, something one doesn't see in NYC. Under the starlit sky, I started making my way up the north slope of Challenger, targeting the the rock on the right side of the couloir still holding some late season snow.
A thin sliver of a crescent moon provided only meager light with which to navigate by, so a headlamp was essential. On account of having nearly no sleep and only having flown in a day and half before, I initially moved like a two-toed sloth up the mountain. I rested a few times and then a bit longer at close to 13,000ft, when I spotted another person climbing up. I thought it would be nice to have someone nearby to climb, particularly to take my mind off my tired body and subsequent weakness.
I waited for him to catch up, then we started climbing up together, the conversation taking my mind off my earlier fatigue and I soon felt stronger. Ed and I were climbing quicker now and soon we were at the notch with a view towards the last section to the summit. He was a good guy and had climbed several other 14ers also.
I was surprised at some of the airy drop-offs along Challenger’s western ridge on the last section to the summit. Although it was possible to remain insulated from any significant exposure along a route tighter to the mountain, any fall here would have been a game-over fall. For those looking for a more exposed approach, there is that option to follow along the ridgeline. I played it conservative and stayed closer in and on more stable rock. The route from the notch was pretty easy to follow.
After an uneventful short climb up, we were on top and were met with splendid views of the valley below. Nobody else was on the mountain this morning. As the summit plaque reads, this peak is a memorial dedicated in Memory of the Crew of Shuttle Challenger which perished on Jan. 28, 1986. Summit time from camp was roughly 3hrs.
I was feeling stronger, though lacking sleep, still felt like I could have taken a nap right there. The huge mass of Kit Carson dominated the view to the south. I looked over at Kit Carson and contemplated the descent needed to gain Kit Carson Avenue and the ensuing climb back up and return back over Challenger to finish. Time was on our side, the weather was good and I was feeling stronger now. I decided to go for it.
I traversed down the slopes of Challenger to pick up the “Avenue” leading up the north face of Kit Carson, which ended at the saddle between the peak and the “Prow”. The Avenue was a peculiar geological feature carved into the mountain, which in summer, allowed an unroped ascent up an otherwise steep face. I would later see that this formation was not quite that unique, however on this mountain.
I felt solid and moved quickly up to a notch and then the longer section of the Avenue on the southern flanks of the mountain. There were steep drop-offs to the south side along this section, though enough space to navigate them in the dry conditions to not worry about plummeting over them. If covered in ice and snow, I imagine care would be needed here to cross safely. No snow this time around.
I took this to the notch and then picked a gulley to ascend the final 400-500ft or up to the summit. This is where the climbing really begins.
There were a couple options here consisting of mixed difficulty of Class 2+ to Class 5 depending on your route selection. I tried to keep it at Class ~3, though there was really no defined route and I just picked a line here and there to make my way up, aiming to the left where the true summit was.
This section up Kit Carson had the feel of the Homestretch on Longs, even the same dynamic of turning into the last portion by making a left then up steeper terrain like on the Keyhole Route on Longs. In hindsight, I should have taken more time to enjoy the views on the climb up and note exactly where the turnoff was as one exits off the Avenue (more on that later).
I was pleasantly surprised at the stability of the rock here on this last pitch up and though there were some loose sections, it was a solid climb up and I moved pretty quickly up, my earlier fatigue seeming to disappear.
Soon I was on top enjoying simply awe inspiring views of the Crestones and Sangre De Cristo Range. It took about 55 minutes to get to the summit from Challenger's summit (as seen above from the south from Kit Carson's summit).
The Blanca Massif and Great Sand Dunes were visible to the southeast as was the San Luis Valley.
With the exception of Crestone Peak and Needle, I wasn’t able to identify all the named peaks around me, but it was wonderful being right there. I quickly downed the obligatory summit Snickers and soaked in the views.
As I am always too cognizant of the elapsed time when I climb, I wanted to get down quickly to help mitigate the risk of being caught if weather suddenly moved in. Without further ado, I started making my way down the gulley.
This is where my trip becomes *more interesting*
What began as an expectedly simple climb up and down, soon would take on proportions of a new adventure. While there was no real reason to hurry down (the weather was holding, skies clear, winds calm, I felt strong and time was still early (10AM)), for whatever reason, I usually feel unnecessarily paranoid that whenever I am up high, that weather will move in quickly and cause problems. I’ve been rushed off summits in the past at 9:00AM from lightning, so this partially explains my thought process. I like to minimize my time on summits, particularly when the descent is time consuming, like this one would normally be as one would have to re-summit Challenger before getting down.
As the descent off Kit Carson would entail being exposed to the weather until the point where one is actually heading down off of Challenger’s summit, I was thinking we needed to get started on this descent sooner rather than later. My hastiness was really not warranted and was likely the cause of the events that followed.
On the descent off the summit, I missed the turn off for Kit Carson Avenue. In hindsight, I was so unnecessarily focused on getting down, I went down too far. When I realized this, I climbed back up, admittedly on somewhat more difficult terrain to regain what I had lost, though I found my self on the other side of the ridge/rock rib I needed to be on.
The frustration started to set in, as I was watching my time, there was a way to get over there, but it involved steep downclimbing Class 5 rock and with no rope to do that, I wasn’t going to try. It seemed simple, but from where I was it would seem a bit too tricky to go back up and around to the turnoff. I was trying to avoid having to reclimb to the summit and restart back down for fear or wasting precious time and energy, as I just climbed both, was a bit tired and was operating on little sleep. Reclimbing to the top probably would have worked, but using up the energy if it didn't caused me to pause on this option.
I then thought I could continue down and pick up the Avenue that way. So, I moved down lower, though this was not happening and I would then discover that there was more than one geologic feature that looked like “The Avenue” when viewed from the other side; at least three to be exact. My altimeter alslo seemed to be off, so I was hesitant to trust it now to gauge which one was the correct one.
I was contemplating just downclimbing into the basin to get low and figuring out the next step from there. I looked over at what appeared to be the Avenue and moved up to get to the start of the opening. However, upon getting to this formation, it may have been ‘an’ Avenue, but was not “The” Avenue. Each climb up took another few hundred feet and was becoming tiring. Frustrated, I sat down, opened up my map took out my compass and planned my next steps. Time was ticking away.
I figured getting upset would not solve anything so I weighed my options and looked at the facts.
I looked at the situation: I was on a ridge high up on the mountain, potentially exposed to weather and the elements should weather move in. I was uninjured and wanted to keep it that way, felt strong, had ample food, water and water tablets/filter and foul weather gear with me. I was also still high up, over 13,000ft, so I was aware that the altitude could start to negatively impact me or my judgment. This is one of those times I was happy I usually carry additional gear in my day packs.
I looked at my location and the surroundings: my electronic communications had no signal. There were several options: (i) I could continue to climb up and downclimb until I could reach it or reclimb to the summit (however, this would burn energy and likely bring about fatigue sooner leaving me on a ridge, worn out, prone to mistakes and injury, and possibly cliffed out if I made the wrong turn (ii) stay there and do nothing, hope someone comes along (not a good choice given the ridge location, elevation and being on the wrong side of the mountain from where others climb and being away from a water source and being a Monday (iii) downclimb into the basin giving me two more options; go east or west; east was uncertain from both physically looking at it and viewing the terrain on a topo map, plus the Crestones were right there and I wasn’t sure if there was a headwall blocking access; west seemed the best option as eventually it would lead to the desert/valley and worse case scenario, there was a creek to follow, providing water or (iv) downclimb and climb my way around the mountain to try and intercept Willow Creek Trail (which I thought had a low probability attached to it).
I thought about all the options and looked at the pros and cons of each, but in the end, one was clear. I took this last option to hike out following the western drainage into the valley, thinking at the end there might be a trailhead, campsite, or at least would lead me along better terrain into the valley that I could see from where I sat and eventually I'd run into a road.
I carefully downclimbed from where I was, taking great care not to twist an ankle or take a simple fall, which would turn an otherwise inconvenient event into a nightmare. I made it down the Class 3 and 4 rock into a boulder field and then loose talus, which led into flatter terrain, though choked with willows (I would later label this section "Willow Hell"). No trail was here obviously, nary a cairn to be seen; this was all cross country tracking and bushwhacking, dead reckoning to go from point A to point B.
I took out my map again, set my compass and would aim to follow a west/southwest bearing out paralleling the creek shooting for the valley. I filled up all the bottles in the creek and ventured down. I had never contemplating being in this basin so was not too familiar with the terrain here, but looking at the map, I thought this creek either was Copper Gulch, Spanish Creek or possibly Cottonwood Creek or that I would eventually intercept one of them walking down.
The terrain was rough, thick, overgrown, filled with gaps and gulleys, marshy bottoms and soaked from recent rains. I’d try to literally walk in the creek, hopping on rocks though this only worked until the waterfalls started to appear. I’d then try and stick to one side of the creek bed, alternating as I made my way down, but as I descended the sides of the creek would steepen, making this very difficult. I was getting pretty waterlogged at this point, as it was virtually impossible to keep crossing the creek without getting wet. I was able to avoid getting mosquito bites though. My altimeter was showing I was steadily losing altitude, which was a good thing I hoped. Barometer indicated that the weather was stable, another good sign. I was so wet, I felt like I was in the Adirondacks, where this is almost normal.
Walking through this lush, verdant valley filled with fresh vegetation I had one main concern: bears. Although it was the middle of the day, I made myself known yelling to the invisible bears quite loudly: “hey bear, yo bear”! Although I enjoy seeing bears, right now, I did not want to see a mother and her cubs. No bears came. No moose either, though I did see some deer which scared the daylights out of me jumping out of a willow patch I was entering. I also must have disturbed a mockingbird nest as two mockingbirds started dive bombing me as I neared a small fir tree.
If I was in a rush before, now I was really in a rush. I was on the clock, figuring I needed to find some civilization by darkness otherwise, I was going to be sleeping in my raingear in the woods that night, which in the back of my mind had already prepared to do. I had extra food and water and the right clothes, it just would have been uncomfortable. This is the reason I usually always carry extra food and clothes, and water treatment tablets. You never know when you might need them. I also saw the desert from where I was, though it was probably 20+ miles away. The question was how fast could I walk and what terrain lay ahead.
After navigating Willow Hell, I soon encountered a burned out forested hillside, filled with downed trees of all sizes crisscrossing every which way, that I’d have to climb over to continue moving forward. This slowed me considerably and with each tree I climbed over, the insides of my legs turned a deeper black from the charred bark that I rubbed against. Coupled with the scrapes and cuts from the willows and occasional stream dunking, my wet clothes and overall sweatiness, I was starting to look like I’d been living in the woods for weeks.
As if to remind me of the beauty of the area, a Garter snake appeared, looked at me and slowly slithered into the brush. As I looked around, the area was filled with columbines and other wildflowers. Marmots ran back and forth in the still-alpine meadows around me. Looking back behind me, the backdrop of the Crestones and Kit Carson made the setting postcard like. However, given the situation, I was not entirely able to enjoy this moment, though I was feeling better I’d be getting out soon. I took no photos here and focused on route finding. I used to spend hours of my childhood bushwhacking in the forests in NY searching for red tailed hawks - this brought back those memories...good and bad, particularly the dozens of perpendicular scratches up and down my forearms from defending against the branches of the willow and spruce.
After a few hours of walking, I soon started seeing faint segments of a crude trail here and there. I followed them when I could, though the downed timber made it tough to keep track of. After another mile or so, an actual faint trail appeared as I started to descend into a now predominantly aspen forest. The trail seemed to be heading down in the direction I was aiming for. I followed it, keeping my eye out for something better. Creek crossings increased here.
In short, slowly but surely, I continued to lose elevation and made my way down lower, thinking I’d soon be near civilization. After I made roughly 25 stream crossings, the creek I had been following had disappeared into the woods. I saw a real dirt road, open clearings and after walking down a couple more miles, finally hit pavement. I ended up hitching a ride back to the trailhead where I had parked the day before and luckily kept my car keys in my pack with me. I am not sure how many miles I put in on the descent, but it certainly felt longer than the Willow Creek Approach, which I had done a few times up and down. It took about 7 hours to get down from that ridge where I made the decision to go. Add another 30-45min from the summit.
I would hike in the following morning to retrieve my tent and gear still stored inside. Fortunately no goats or marmots made a meal of my tent and belongings…
In the end, it turned out being a good, if not a bit stressful day after two great climbs with some lessons learned. Of course, one cannot discount the element of good luck in my trip. This could have turned out worse, had it started raining hard, making the descent off KC more tricky and the exit into the valley more unpleasant, or worse if I stumbled and turned an ankle. I was thinking this whole time I need to get some better form of electronic communication, though I am not sure if I would have used it, as I never felt I was in an emergency which would have warranted making such a call. I had looked over the map and route in the days ahead of my climb so I knew where escape routes might exist and where water was, but as many of you know, what appears on a two dimensional map is usually different in reality. Also, I was able to put in some good training in the days leading up the trip, so climbing both peaks plus the additional ups and downs over the two days didn't wear me out.
Moral of the Story
- Be aware of time, but don’t RUSH when you don’t need to, pay attention to terrain features
- Be prepared for the unexpected.
- Make sure you have an appropriate map and compass (and become familiar with the map
before the trip)
- Bring extra food, clothing and water treatment even if it weighs another pound or two.
- Hiking with a partner might have helped here, but only if one knew the route
for sure and one stayed behind on known terrain while the other explored. If we both
stayed together, then we’d both still be in the same position.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):