| Challenger Point: North Slopes Variation
North Slopes/NW Ridge (Class 3)
Saturday we hiked up to near Willow Lake and camped just below. The hike up is amazing, several beautiful waterfalls and an increasing panorama of the San Luis valley below. It took us a long time to leave camp Sunday morning, I was hoping to leave by 7, but after an extended breakfast we didn't leave camp until 8.15. The hike around the lake was pretty straightforward and there is a good trail to the top of the falls, it gets a little tough to follow sometimes in the willows though. Great views from the top of the falls, peer over them, its incredible!
From here we planned our ascent. The standard route (also the one on this site) looked intimidating to some in my group when viewed from below, and we opted to head more to the right. We also believed that the summit was on the right judging by the looks of the ridge, this is not the case! The summit is hard to pick out from below, and is closer to Kit Carson than it looks. For our ascent we followed a large talus gully that heads up to the right and angles towards the northwest ridge on Challenger. We ascended this gully, which is mostly class 2 with several short class 3 sections directly. The rock here is much better than that in the standard gully (which we later descended). We hit the ridge and had a view to the campsite 2000‘ straight down below us. From here there is great rock, and it is mostly class 2 all the way to a large tundra ledge.
Typical terrain on NW Ridge:
My vote would be to make this the new standard route as the tundra ledge leads all the way to the notch at the top of the standard route, and this approach had more stable rock. We of course did not follow the tundra bench, as we were duped into believing the summit was directly above us. I chose to directly ascend the face which was class 4 at the bottom. It eased up into the most wonderful knobby class 3 pitch above. In fact the rock on this face was some of the best I have climbed, solid and knobby. This put me directly on what was now evident was a false summit.
At the base of the class 4 headwall:
My friends thought the class 4 was too much and traversed a class 3 route on the south face of Challenger and eventually ended up at the famous notch. This is one of their photos of this alternate (and very exposed!) route:
I was surprised they went this way, they later told me that they had trouble finding the tundra bench, which is how they had wanted to go. I followed the ridge crest from the top of the headwall, which was mostly class 2, but did have a couple of class 3 notches. After rejoining the standard route, we climbed to the summit. Along the way the view of Crestone Peak from in-between Challenger and Kit Carson is quite inspiring, one of my climbing partners remarked "how do you climb that?", when I told him up the gully in the middle, he confessed that he no longer believed he would be completing the 14ers.
After summiting we descended the standard route, but to us it was a nightmare of loose dirt and scree. It took a lot of time and care to descend, and we often left the dirt trail for more solid rock. I personally would not recommend climbing the dirt trail at all all as I prefer class 3 climbing on good solid rock to class 2 on loose dirt any day. I think the overuse of this steep trail has caused a lot of erosion problems, and a more sustainable route is definitely more "green".
See the below link for a visual description of this alternate route in red, the "standard" route is highlighted in yellow:
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):