Climbers: Zambo, Josh Schmidt & Adam Renfrow Summits: The Prow, Challenger, Columbia (Kat Carson), Kitty Kat Carson Distance: Approx 10.5 miles Vert: 6,500 feet Pitches: 7 Round Trip Time: 13 hours
The Prow on Kit Carson
"I just wish I had time for one more bowl of chili." - Last words of Kit Carson
Kit Carson is easily be one of the most fascinating and legendary figures in Colorado history. From fur trapper, to frontiersman, to soldier, to all around mountain man, he led the sort of life which has been a favorite of historians, novelists, and biographers for over 150 years. While his exploits with the Navajo may cast an unavoidable and tragic shadow on his legacy, there is no denying that Kit Carson led a pretty amazing, adventure-filled life. It seems only fitting that his namesake peak should have an alpine rock route which is as badass as he was: The Prow.
There are a lot of demanding and incredible routes up the 14ers and The Prow fits in quite nicely with some of the very best. This thin, sloping spine of conglomerate rock ascends some 1,600 ft up from Spanish Creek all the way to The Avenue on Kit Carson Peak. Steep, imposing, and incredibly exposed, this route has a way of capturing your attention like few others.
Like so many of the more demanding rock routes in Colorado, the planning for this trip was a long time coming. By his own admission, my good friend Josh had been pondering and studying it for many, many years. To look at it from pictures does little to calm the nerves. As Josh noted, "You look at it and think, 'People just shouldn't be able to climb that.'" Adding to the challenge of the route is the fact that the entire climb in incredibly run-out. In prepping for our trip, we read report after report which spoke not only of the quality of climbing on the route, but also the minimal protection of any kind. As awesome as it looks, we knew this was not one to be taken lightly.
All that said, last weekend our schedules and planning finally came to a point as we found ourselves taking the familiar drive into the San Luis Valley on our way to Crestone.
Spanish Creek Approach
I mentioned planning, and there was a whole lot of it which went into this trip. Between an obscure approach, a committing route, a tricky descent, and the ever-present threat of the monsoon season, we knew this was one to get the details right. A significant part of that happened before even hitting the approach.
The Spanish Creek 'Trailhead' really isn't one at all. In fact, after reading a number of reports on it, the trailhead (and first quarter mile of the approach itself) are unmarked and on private property. I am not 100% sure of the current status, but I believe CMC and other have worked to gain access up the drainage in the past. Regardless of the current situation, we knew it would be a good idea to tread lightly, silently, and respectfully right out of the gate.
From reading other trip reports, we gathered a fairly 'standard' time to get up Spanish Creek was somewhere around 4-4.5 hours. Although it is really only 3.5 miles to the base of The Prow, the TH starts low at a mere 8,200 feet, and we knew it would be somewhat of a bushwhack the first mile or so. Our other concern was weather. We are right in the middle of monsoon season and the day's forecast was calling for a 60% chance of rain in the afternoon, which, if you have ever used NOAA even once, you know that means there is more like a 100% chance of thunderstorms. All of this added up to an agreed upon early start time.
Lying in our bags that night, the tension and nerves were real. It has been a long time since I got the yips before a climb, but this one had me on edge. As much fun as hanging off a 1,000+ft rock fact at altitude can be, the thinking of it beforehand can really stir the nerves. What about the 5.8 start...what if weather moves in on us...how long will it take...how exposed and difficult will the climbing be? Further, the realization that once we were on the route we were 100% committed was not a relaxing feeling. I think these sort of questions and thoughts raced through all our heads and we lay in the dark, trying to enjoy the scant four hours of sleep we had provided ourselves. And of course, as anxious as I was, I can only imagine the added layer of consideration Josh and Adam were carrying, as they would be leading the whole thing.
The familiar yet unpleasant beeping of watch alarms roused us at 2:30. Fully packed and geared up from the night before, we hastily took apart the tent, wolfed down some breakfast, and were moving into the Spanish Creek darkness just before 3:00, the waxing crescent of the super moon adding a feint glow against the lights of our headlamps.
As for route finding, getting up the creek proved to be fairly straightforward, even in the dark. Although, it was certainly trickier the lower we were. We started some 50 feet north of Spanish Creek, looking for an old jeep road for the first few hundred yards. A sign from the nearby Buddhist monastery marks the beginnings of a feint trail leading up into the valley. As I noted, the lower sections are, by far, the trickiest to follow. Thick undergrowth and generous tree-fall make it imperative to pay close attention. We heard conflicting reports about the number of creek crossings, but after descending in the daylight, I am convinced now of the true way. Essentially, from starting on the north side of the creek, the trail crosses back and forth over the creek a total of six times, with all of these being within the first mile (ish). The crossings are all relatively easy and straightforward, with good logs making for useful bridges. The path is less obvious as there is a lot of undergrowth, but it is not impossible to follow either. We made a conscious choice to backtrack and try again any time that we found ourselves bushwhacking in the woods. Thankfully, this only happened a few times and we were able to keep to the path and (mostly) out of the thorn bushes.
Rising higher up Spanish Creek, the trail eventually crosses over to the north side of the creek (perhaps a mile in) and stays on that side. Soon after this it also abruptly steepens as it begins to really make you work for it. Of course, having a very experienced, very fit, semi-masochistic, safety-conscious guide doesn't do anything to ease the pain. With the threat of weather hanging over all day, Josh knew full well the need to move as quickly and deliberately as possible. And that he did. I have the sore calves and tired lungs to prove just how quick we hoofed it up in the predawn hours. But like I said, the effort was well worth it as we knew the payoff would come later. Besides, sometimes it just kinda feels good to be pushed to the edge.
Moving quickly and directly up and up, the next noticeable feature is a large burn area somewhere past 10,000 ft. As first light crept up over the Crestones, we finally reached treeline and took a well need, yet short lived first break of the day. All told, we had made it to tree line some 2:15 after setting out. At this point, we stopped to ditch a pack and all the unnecessary gear for the day. The M.O. for this climb was to be light and fast. As such, we left all but the absolute essentials behind. We also took the chance to put on harnesses, get the rack ready, take in some last minute hydration, and do a final check of all gear before heading further up.
Beyond this point, there was maybe another 1,000 feet or so of easy climbing up the lower flank of KC on the way to the base of the Prow.
BELOW: The Prow, easily visible from the summit of Crestone Peak - the second ridge from the left in this shot. (Zambo)
Moving light and fast beyond our drop point up to the base. (Zambo)
Psyched Up! (Josh)
BELOW: Climbing higher and with the sun rising, the views of Crestone Peak only becoming better and better. (Zambo)
Climbing the Spine
The technical climbing aspects of The Prow are not overwhelmingly challenging. Overall, it is rated a 5.8 R climb. However, practically speaking it climbs quite a bit easier than this. Essentially it is made up of 7 pitches to reach the top of the avenue. The crux is unquestionably the overhanging 5.8 move at the very bottom of the second pitch. To that point, the climbing is pretty straightforward, safe, and escape is still absolutely possible. However, this crux move is when it all changes. From here, the options are to either go up, or, well, go up. As the ascent continues, each pitch becomes easier than the last as not only the climbing difficulty eases, but also the angle of the rock relents. While pitch #2 had more than its fair share of 5.7 moves, the remainder of the climb was probably much closer to a 5.6 average with the occasional spicy move thrown in to keep things interesting. By pitches 6 & 7, the rock angle was mellow enough that simul-climbing became very practical and much safer.
Of course, before you can get to all of that, you need to begin the route itself. Pitch 1 is actually a choice between a few options. A low class 5 gully (maybe 150ish feet) tops out at the spine of the Prow. A 5.6 ascent will take you right up to the crux move, or a traverse to the west avoids these difficulties by keeping to a low class 5 climb out on the face, before swinging back onto the spine. In the interest of time, we opted to traverse around in order to set up the crux with as much ease as possible.
Josh looking back down the first lead up this low class 5 grassy gully. (Josh)
Beyond the gully, climbing out on the face now for more easy class 5. (Josh)
Many parties choose to climb this unroped. We opted to simul-climb just to keep things a bit on the safer side. (Josh)
Now is when things begin to get serious. As I mentioned, this is the decision point. From here, joining the route is pretty much a 100% commitment to the top. Standing at the base of the crux we took a quick moment to survey the weather, double check gear, and make sure we were all good to go. All signs pointed to yes, and with that we set about building the anchor for the first moves.
Really enough credit can't be given to anybody who leads this one. The 5.8 overhang is incredibly exposed to the left and pretty much completely unprotected until some 15-20 feet off the deck. Major props go out to Josh who gracefully got up to the first piece of pro without a hitch - frozen feet and all.
BELOW: Setting up and pulling the crux moves. (Zambo)
BELOW: Video of the start, capturing the sequence.
Josh pulled that thing off masterfully and cruised up the rest of the second pitch. As for myself, well, the first moves proved to be a bit trickier - I've never been any good at overhangs. But hey, what are partners for, right? Adam was able to lend a leg up which eased the burden on cold fingers immensely and I soon had it. He himself nailed it no problem. From there, this pitch was definitely the most interesting climbing. Plenty of 5.7 moves were mixed into an abundance of 5.6. This was also the steepest pitch by a long shot, running just below vertical for the first few hundred feet. However, the rock was excellent - super solid Crestone Conglomerate offering (usually) a wide array of options and solid holds.
But of far more note than any of that is the run-outs. This thing is pretty much exactly as advertised: while the climbing is straightforward and fun, the run outs are ridiculous. We were working a 70m rope and the first two pitches got maybe 3-5 pieces of pro apiece. At times the leader would easily be some 50+ feet ahead of the last piece of gear, making concentration and focus paramount.
Josh near the top of pitch #2. (Josh)
Adam coming along just beyond the start. (Zambo)
Adam and I nearing the top of the second pitch. (Josh)
Rounding out the top of the first pitch, Adam and I met Josh at the excellent belay station. This would be a trend which continued throughout this climb. I obviously am not 100% sure how it would shake out with a 60m, but with my 70m the belay spots were pretty much a dream. For virtually the entirety of the route there just so happened to be perfect spots at the end of each pitch to belay. Each was relatively flat, provided a good anchor, has plenty of room to move around, and offered a convenient spot to begin the next pitch. Like I said, time and time again I found myself shaking my head in disbelief at just how nice they were.
Anyways, getting to the first of these was a big relief for all of us I think. We knew now that the hardest and most dangerous climbing of the day was now behind us, and there was also some sense of relief I think at being fully committed to the route. And what a route it is.
The whole climb stays directly on the spine of the Prow, which is a wild, wild place. The exposure is relentless, thrilling, and sheer on both sides. While wide enough to offer some relief from direct exposure, you certainly feel just how out there you are. As we smoothly and quickly set up for the third pitch, I think we all got a just a bit giddy at how much fun this was. The climbing was excellent, the greatest difficulties were behind us, the position was spectacular, the sun was out, the Crestones were looming keeping a watchful eye. This is why you do stuff like this. This is why you venture out into the hills. This is where friendships are truly forged. We were eating it up.
BELOW: Josh leading pitch 3.
Topped out, with the next set of difficulties ahead. (Josh)
Rock on, brah! (Josh)
The third pitch eased slightly from the second, offering better holds and a reduced angle - a pattern which would continue throughout the day. Another trend which marked the climb was concerns for the weather. It was still very early at this point, but already clouds were beginning to brew over KC. Being so early, they tended to cycle through rather quickly, but we still knew that time was of the essence. Transitions at the anchors were smooth and flawless as we continued onwards and upwards.
BELOW: Finished with pitch #3; a short down climb awaits before setting up the belay for the next pitch.
BELOW: Photos from pitch #4.
Again, pitch #5 become only more enjoyable and relaxed climbing. The other advantage to going higher was more readily available options for protection. Still run-out by just about any standard, at least gear placements higher up were becoming somewhat better and more closely spaced. By pitch #6 it was time to let Adam have a go on lead. We also suspected that at this point we would be able to switch over to simul-climbing if the next roll-over point looked good to Adam. This ended up being the case which was a major time-saver. By pitch #6 the angle had dramatically relented compared to earlier in the day. As such, it was much easier to just go all tied together, which resulted in probably doubling the length of our previous lengths before Adam found a great anchor just a hundred feet or so below the summit.
BELOW: Adam on lead.
BELOW: Topping out on pitch #5. (Josh)
From here, all that remainded was one final Class 4/5 scramble to the top of the avenue, which we made without any real issues. For this last section we were again able to simul-climb which became even more convenient as there is actually a bit of a descent off the top of the Prow in order to reach KC Avenue.
Reaching the crest. (Zambo)
Final stretch to the Avenue. (Zambo)
Reaching the Avenue was a pretty big relief. After 4 1/2 hours on the crest, to finally be on solid ground was the first real chance we'd had to relax since the day had started many hours before. It was a cool moment to know that we had pulled it off. The whole route is nothing short of spectacular. It easily had some of the most incredible positions and mind-blowing spots of any 14er I have been on. The thrill of just being on top of that spine with nothing but air all around you is pretty awesome. It was obvious just how much Adam and Josh were loving it as well. They had waited a long time to go for this route, and it was a job well done.
But of course, the climb doesn't end at the top of The Prow...
Thunderstorms, a Centennial, and the Road Home
From the Avenue the route actually continues up the KC summit block via a nice crack system to the top. This is supposed to be some of the best, and certainly most well protected, climbing of the entire route. It was 11:00 exactly when we topped out. The weather seemed to be holding to this point, and we actually had blue skies above us. Keeping this in mind, we all had a pretty big interest in zipping over to Challenger to grab one more summit on the day. With a favorable weather outlook, we quickly stashed gear, swapped out shoes, and booked it over to Challenger. We found the avenue to be almost completely free of snow, and the going was fast.
Summit of Challenger, as the clouds just begin to build over Kit Carson.
When it was all said and done, we had made it to Challenger and back 25 minutes after departing, and only a half hour after we had ended the Prow. But sadly, this was all it took. The heat of the day had cooked the San Luis Valley and the Sangres to the point of no return. It is amazing how fast this stuff builds. When we left Challenger there was almost no threat. But by the time we got back, a significant thunderhead was building directly on top of us.
At this point we had to make a decision. On the one hand, it was still early, we were oh-so-close, and there was probably a decent chance we could squeak it out. But on the other hand, we had just ascended an amazing route, the clouds didn't seem to be getting any better, and dangling off the side of KC is no place to be in a thunderstorm. To top it all off, we knew our best and safest chance for a descent was to roll over Columbia. That meant more time way up high and exposed on ridges and summits.
In the end, we debated for a minute or so, weighing all the options, before the storm made the decision for us. By the time we heard the third or fourth rumble directly overhead, we knew we had over stayed our welcome. Time to get down.
Stowing the gear and moving fast to get over to Columbia, things got a little hairy for a few minutes. As we descended to the saddle between the peaks we had another decision: risk going over Columbia, or descend Cole's coulior between the two peaks? Peering down the coulior, it looked to be the stuff of nightmares. Loose boulders abounded, with a not insignificant amount of snow mixed in. Apparently there may be a descent route on the rocks to one of the sides, but we did not feel we knew enough to take it. Class 4 climbing on unknown terrain in a loose gully with bullet-proof snow at the bottom just didn't sound like a good time or a good idea. In the end, we decided our best shot was to get over Columbia and then down.
And of course, as we moved, the weather did too - but in a good way. We ended up getting a pretty amazing window. Just as quickly as the storm had built, it moved off and sat on top of the Crestones instead. But we still felt like it was a good decision. Who knew what it was going to do and we all agreed it smart to get down ASAP. Adam also brought up a good point when he noted that it is sometimes a very good thing to "practice" making conservative choices in the mountains. It is important to know that you don't need to get the summit. Consciously choosing from time to time to abandon dreams of the top helps to remind us that we never have to force it or put ourselves in a dangerous situation just to "bag" a peak. And on a related note, I was also extremely thankful for good, wise, and experienced partners in that moment. It is a tough step to abandon the summit when you are that close, but the ability to do so is incredibly important. These are the kind of people I want to venture out into the mountains with.
All that preaching aside, the scramble up to Columbia was a nice class 4 finish to the day, and the view from there over to the Crestones are nothing short of spectacular. On our descent we were able to roll off of the summit easily enough and get down a thousand feet or so. Josh had done his homework and at this point we were keen to find a route down which didn't end up getting cliffed-out. It looked like the western side of Columbia's lower face offered a way through. We followed a feint climber's trail down and eventually did make it out without having to set up a rappel. From there, it was just a straight and easy shot home to the car, made much easier this time around by the visible cairns.
Final look at The Prow, as seen from atop Columbia. (Josh)
A good beta shot of the top of pitch #1, the crux move, and the lower half of pitch #2. (Josh)
The Crestones loom from across the valley. (Zambo)
Obstruction Peak as seen on the descent. (Zambo)
One last look - this time from the more familiar Eastern aspect. (Josh)
Driving home and reflecting, I think one of the overwhelming feelings all of us had after a day like that was gratitude. We had been incredibly blessed to have so many things line up in the right spots in order for us to make it to the top. Schedules, weather, planning, safety....the list goes on and on. Rather than having any sort of feelings of "conquering" the Prow, I think we were all quite humbled and thankful just at the chance to be out there. The opportunities to climb a route like this tend to be few and far between. Add in having all the external factors working out as well, and we knew this one was special. We were beyond blessed to have gotten to do this, and much of the conversation on the ride home was simply reflecting and being thankful for the chance to do so.
We also took the time to reflect on our day in light of the recent passing of Steve Gladbach. None of us ever got the chance to meet him, but we all knew the legend of who he was, and how that extended well beyond mountain climbing. People who live lives that that are inspiring. Not just because they do something we admire, but because they have a character we can aspire to. Like I said, I never met Steve, but nevertheless, his legacy has impacted the way I think and climb mountains in a very positive way.
Finally, just want to say a big thank you to these two guys for getting out there with me. I can't say enough how important having good partners are in the hills, and these two are easily some of the best around. We need more people like Josh and Adam in the mountains. I cannot wait to climb with them again.
Thanks for reading if you did - much appreciated. Happy climbing!
I thought I might also add in a bit of info for anyone considering this route. We were able to take some very detailed split times, which hopefully sheds some light on that aspect of this climb. Of course, as always, times can vary dramatically depending on a number of factors. Overall I would say we were moving about as fast as possible for the majority of the route. Two leaders could obviously cover the rock portion a bit faster than our three man team, but the hiking times were pretty quick. I'd probably recommend allocating at least 4 - 5 hours for the climb itself. Anyway, here are our splits:
Spanish Creek Trailhead: 2:55am
Pack drop spot at treeline: 5:15am
Base of Prow: 6:00am
Start up Prow: 6:20am
Top of Prow-KC Avenue: 11:00am
Summit of Challenger: 11:25am
Summit of Columbia: 12:15am
Back to pack drop: 1:15pm
Spanish Creek Trlhd: 4:00pm
As for the rack, here is that list:
6 shoulder length slings
2 double-shoulder length slings
2 22-foot cordelletes (for anchors)
a full rack of BD stoppers (#3-#13)
1 green BD C3, 3 finger-sized (small) Aliens
BD Camalots #0.5 through #2 (1 each)
We felt that was plenty considering the run-out nature of the climb. No need for knifeblades or other “aid” gear. Josh thought the lead had a free-solo feel to it, especially on the first two pitches. That’s why optimal conditions are so helpful as we had virtually no wind and the fairly warm temps.
BELOW: Layout of the pitches which we climbed on a 70m rope. We simul-climbed #'s 1, 6, & 7. Also, on pitch #1 we went onto the west face rather than rolling over the crest proper. The crux is at the base of pitch #2.
BELOW: Full map of the day. On our descent off of Columbia we were able to find a way off without getting cliffed-out - a common occurrence it seems. We did so by descending some 1,500 feet before heading west on the face before heading down into the valley. A direct descent off of Columbia looks like it would cliff out just before the valley floor.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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