With my climbing partner out of the game for 6-8 weeks due to a less-than-talented driver hitting him on Lincoln Street in Denver, I met up with some 14ers.com members for a fun climb of Kit Carson and Challenger this weekend. I had been to the Sangres twice before, and this trip only increased my fascination and respect for this wild range - the North Ridge of Kit Carson and it's fine scrambling terrain blew away all of my expectations, and at this point it might be my favorite route on a 14er.
I met up with Boyd (formyers b) Saturday morning in Denver and we drove down to the Willow Lake trailhead on the west side of the Sangres. Coming into the San Luis Valley from Poncha Pass, the peaks towered over us and Challenger, Kit Carson and the rest of the Crestone group only grew more and more intimidating as we approached. We grabbed some sandwiches in the town of Crestone, drove up to the trailhead, and began the pack up to the lake.
Challenger looming as we drive toward Crestone
Boyd and I met up with other 14ers.com members at the trailhead, including wildlobo71 and thevagabond, and we all caravaned it up to the lake together in just under three hours. It was a beautiful, yet hot approach, typical for the Sangres, with towering rock walls around and a very dry, dusty trail underfoot.
Everyone please store your food properly!
Looking toward Challenger and Willow Lake
Part of the 14ers.com group
A nice waterfall is encountered just below the lake
That evening after dinner, we were treated to a beautiful display of color as the sun filtered through the clouds on the western horizon. This is an absolutely spectacular place to camp, and a worthy hike in its own right.
Spectacular alpenglow below the lake
It lasted about 10 minutes, and the evolution of the colors was incredible!
We awoke at 4am to a pair of deer running around our campsite, and the group of six set off at 4:45am. Navigating the trails around the lake was quite the challenge in the dark, and it is certainly a good idea to scout these in the daylight if possible, especially if you don't have a route description! We managed to navigate toward the cliffs, and followed cairns and broken trail segments up toward the base of Challenger Point.
Once we reached an area at the base of Challenger, four members of our group decided to bail off of the North Ridge idea and take the standard route. I was tempted to join them, and had some concerns regarding the weather forecast, as the North Ridge is not a place to be in bad weather and cannot be downclimbed by someone like myself without a rope. Despite this, Boyd reassured me that we would climb it quickly, and after weighing the options I felt it was still okay to attempt the ridge. Boy am I glad we did it!
We traversed toward the cliff bands at the base of Kit Carson and eventually scrambled up solid class 3 toward the ridgeline itself. The route description on this site is very accurate.
Climbing class 3 to gain the ridge proper
Boyd coming up the fun class 3 terrain
Shortly after reaching the class 4, we had an audience!
There is not much to say about this ridge other than the following:
-Solid conglomerate rock, though be sure to test every hold
-Sustained 4th class (about 45 minutes of it for us)
-Serious exposure, a fall would not end well
Scrambling up the ridge - note the abundant holds
Boyd enjoying the climb
The exposure is there, and a fall would not end well
We eventually reached a ledge on the right and scrambled back to the ridge
From here, it was an easy stroll to the summit
We scurried up to the summit, arriving at 7:45am, three hours after leaving the lake. I think Boyd and I were both riding a natural high after climbing this route, the exposure is exhilarating and the climbing was some of the best and most sustained I've ever experienced.
Boyd on the fun ridge
We spent maybe fifteen minutes on top of KC, and then started down towards the Avenue. There was a good trail most of the way as well as cairns, and as long as you look toward your right on the descent you shouldn't miss the turn.
On the summit, with the Crestones watching
Looking at the downclimb off of KC
After climbing the North Ridge, walking on the avenue was like walking around in DIA!
Up the Avenue
The view of Challenger from near the saddle
After the spectacular rock of the North Ridge, descending the standard route of Challenger was an absolute junkfest. Okay, it wasn't quite as challenging as walking on a 45 degree slope covered in tennis balls, but you get the idea. If I hadn't had my trekking poles my bathing suite would have a hole in its behind!
On Challenger looking back at KC and the Crestones
Boyd along the Challenger summit ridge
The junky descent off of Challenger
Looking back at KC
Boyd and Marissa near the bottom
Once we got back to camp, we packed up quickly and rolled out to the car to beat the coming rain. I could not stop thinking about the spectacular route we had just ascended!
Looking down the falls
Boyd on the pack out
I love driving in the San Luis
The North Ridge of KC will certainly remain in my mind as a fun scrambling route, and I'm sure I'll return to it again soon. For anyone with solid class 4 experience and the ability to deal with exposure, I highly recommend this climb. Do be careful though, as it certainly earns its reputation.
All in all this was a fantastic trip with a group of great partners. I would gladly climb with any of them again, and hope to do so in the future. This site is full of great people and I've been fortunate enough to meet members on almost every 14er I've climbed this summer. Thanks everyone!
If anyone has any questions about this route or the trip in general, feel free to PM me.
Thanks for reading!