Challenger Pt. Summit Ski (Kirk Couloir)- Willow Creek TH
Challenger Point Kirk Couloir Summit Ski
Date: Saturday, March 31, 2012 Crew: Bill Middlebrook and myself Route: Kirk Couloir ascent and ski descent from Willow Creek TH Stats: 12.75 miles; 5,400’ climbed; ~1,800' skied; 19 hrs 15 min RT
Topo of the route (red=climb; blue=ski):
About a year ago, we attempted a ski of Challenger but I was forced to turn back due to agonizing back pain – this year, I was ready for a re-match. I met Bill in Breckenridge on Friday and we drove down to camp at the Willow Creek TH. We started on trail at 4:00am in summer hiking shoes and full ski gear on our backs. We made great time through both sets of switchbacks to the upper basin just above the headwall. From here, we found a snowshoe trail; but what is a ski trip without some post-holing? For us, the misery started that morning with post-holing. We crossed Willow Creek and shortly after, switched into ski boots and skins near 11,400’. After a short break for some water-filtering at 11,500’, we left summer hiking boots and continued to skin across the shore of the lake, and re-gained the hillside to reach the cliffs above.
Reaching the top of the cliffs, Kit Carson comes into view:
At 12,200’, we stashed skins, put crampons on, and traversed some easy slopes in the basin below Challenger’s standard route to the apron of Kirk. The slopes to 13,000’, moderate in steepness (low 30’s), were mostly hardpack/sastrugi that gave us minimal ice axe and crampon purchase. We made it work with plenty of front-pointing.
From 12,300’, the slopes leading to the base of the Kirk Couloir:
A closer look at the moderate slopes to the base of the couloir (from 12,900’):
Bill climbs the lower slopes; Mt. Adams distinction is clear:
The slope gradually steepened (higher 30’s) as we veered climbers’ right into the couloir proper. Bill led the booter and I followed. Slope angles were into the lower 40’s. We stayed climbers’ left in the couloir and although there were sections of a crustier layer, we found more pleasant snow conditions (firm and pretty consolidated) allowing for better axe and crampon purchase. We weren’t worried about anything sliding that day. Looking up this couloir, it was narrower than I originally expected. And we didn’t encounter the blown-in powder Sangre powder we were hoping for ;). No wind was present to keep us cool – I was sweating bullets. The whole way up, we could see the couloir “exit”, but little did we know that when we topped out, the couloir rolled over for another few hundred feet.
Bill enters the bottom of Kirk:
Climbing this north-facing line was fun (personally, I felt most comfortable climbing with an ice axe and whippet in hand):
Bill about halfway up, sun hits and we were roasting. Looks can be deceiving in terms of the top of Kirk; it rolls over another few hundred feet above:
Bill near 13,500' - pretty steep!
Bill estimated the steepest portion of Kirk to be slightly under 50 degrees. We “topped out” only to find the couloir rolls over and mellows out for another 300’ to 13,700’. We had a snack and continued on towards the saddle. From here, the snow was not continuous to the saddle nor the summit. As Bill and I neared the saddle at 13,800’, we heard a yell, and it was none other than Kevin Baker’s signature summit yell as his group was cresting Kit Carson via Cole’s (South) Couloir! We stashed crampons at the saddle and climbed west 300’ to reach Challenger’s summit at 1:45pm. Perfect weather!
Leaving the couloir and heading to the saddle:
Bill and I reach the Kit Carson-Challenger saddle (top photo) and climb the ridge (bottom photo) – photos by Kevin Baker:
Challenger summit on a gorgeous Sangre day; Kit Carson, her Avenue, and the Crestones behind:
The Blanca Group:
We re-fueled, took photos, buckled the boots and started the ski at 2:45pm. Patchy snow off the summit, we skied a short strip of snow to 13,900’, removed the skis and climbed back down to the saddle. Another short down climb and we clicked back in at 13,700’. The snow up here to the steeper couloir entrance was the best snow we had all day; some wind-blown powder felt nice to ski.
We skied the obvious patch of snow to just above the couloir: Photo: Kevin Baker
Bill off the summit and down to the couloir entrance:
I come down the summit strip and ski the upper portion of the couloir:
Bill entered the steep upper portion of Kirk and our mindsets immediately switched to safety ski mode; there were no aesthetic turns down this narrow couloir. The middle portion was a little sloughy and each side was flanked with an icier/crustier layer. We had to side-slip down several sections, and cranked turns when we felt comfortable; Bill, of course, made more than I. And there really weren’t and safety zones to ski to either.
Looking down Kirk – conditions were a little worse than they look:
Bill making it work in the couloir:
I was standing in the middle of the couloir watching Bill work his way down to the entrance when a 2-foot small slab of crust gave way from under my uphill ski. It instantly brought me down and I quickly was able to get my skis turned around and dig my whippet in to self-arrest, sliding 5-7 feet. My heart was racing and I was spooked. It happened when I least expected it to just standing there, and even though it was so small, it shed a little light as to how fast an avalanche can happen from right under your feet.
At the bottom of the couloir, we had a “snow rib” that we had to navigate around to get into the apron.
Working my way down the slick snow rib to enter the apron:
We were hoping the apron and basin would have warmed up enough to ski some softer snow; au contraire! We found the snow to be worse than what we climbed earlier that day – bullet-proof and icy the entire way down to where we took them off. Bill was able to crank some more turns, I only made a handful not trusting my edges. I ended up side-slipping a lot of it. We skied different sides of the basin, nothing but bullet-proof snow.
Bill skis the upper apron on the fraction of soft snow we found:
A look back at our ski route:
We popped skis off and walked a short ways back to the skin stash, definitely in agreement that although it was strictly a time-consuming safety ski, the snow climb rocked, and that it’d be a sweet ski line if it was filled with more wind-deposited powder! We made our way back down to the lake and returned to the small waterfall where we left our hiking boots at 11,500’. This is where the major post-holing began and our mood quickly turned to silence. It was brutal and energy-consuming – up to our stomachs. We followed the summer trail, and tried to skin what we could and crawling in other places. No matter how many times you post-hole, it still makes me laugh (probably out of frustration?). We passed Carl’s group who was on their way to camp for a ski of both peaks the next day.
YEEEEEESSSSS! Can’t get enough of this!
Hiking boots went back on at the stream crossing near 10,900’ and our long trek out began with glimpses of another San Luis Valley sunset. The switchbacks seemed to go on forever and eventually we arrived back to the truck at 11:15pm. Always feels great when I set a new PR for hours spent out on a mountain. The Kirk Couloir climb is a sweet climb and we couldn’t have asked for a more gorgeous day in the Sangres!
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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. 14ers.com 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 14ers.com and the report author(s) with respect to any claims and demands against them, including any attorney fees and expenses. Please read the 14ers.com Safety and Disclaimer pages for more information.