| Crestone Needle-Kit Carson-Challenger
Peaks Climbed: Kit Carson, Challenger, Crestone Needle
Partners in Crime: Dan, Eric, Jonathan
We left Fort Collins late on Friday morning and arrived at the Willow Lake Trailhead (at the base of Kit Carson and Challenger) around 5:30 pm. We got our packs organized and headed on up the trail to Willow Lake, arriving at the lake around 7:45 pm. Just to note, the best campsites are before you get to a sign that states "No Camping within 300 feet of Willow Lake".
We were up early on Saturday morning (around 5:30 am) and headed up the trail to climb Challenger and Kit Carson by 6:30. The primary route (North Slopes II - Roach‘s book) is clear of snow, and we made good progress up to the ridgeline. We found that staying to the right as you head up the long slope leading to the ridgeline avoided most of the loose scree and allowed us to climb on more solid rock.
Challenger‘s ridgeline is somewhat longer and more exposed than would seem from reading the description in Roach‘s book; however, the ridgeline is fun walking, and the rock is solid. We all arrived at the summit about two hours after leaving camp.
The big question that followed was... would Kit Carson Avenue be free of snow? According to trip reports from the previous weekend, most of the avenue was free of snow; however, there were still some icy patches. Thankfully, for us, those icy patches had melted enough that we were able to traverse the avenue on solid rock. From the avenue, we ascended a gully to the summit. In case you are planning on traversing the avenue, it takes approximately 45-75 minutes to traverse from Challenger to Kit Carson or vice versa.
The traverse back across from Kit Carson to Challenger went smoothly, and after a steep descent from Challenger down to Willow Lake, we packed up the remainder of our camping gear and descended back to the car.
After a two-hour break for lunch in Crestone, we drove to the Cottonwood Creek trailhead and began the hike in to Cottonwood Lake, which was our goal for the evening. There are "no trespassing" signs at the trailhead, however, we were able to park near the trailhead and hike in, and according to a Park Service official that we talked to who was hiking on the trail, it is legal to use the Cottonwood Creek Trail at this time. We parked just downhill from the water tower and were given no trouble.
I would concur with Roach‘s description that the Cottonwood Creek Approach to Cottonwood Lake is arduous. After already climbing Kit Carson and Challenger on Saturday, the hike into the lake seemed quite challenging! We
started hiking in around 4:45 pm and finally arrived at the lake around 8 pm. The trail starts out quite clearly; however, I‘m pretty sure there has not been trail maintenance in awhile, as we encountered numerous blow-downs on our ascent. Also, it is a bit of a challenge to find the trail as you continue to ascend above about 11,000 feet. There is a faded trail that leads to the right of a creek that feeds out of Cottonwood Lake, and if you can find this trail, it makes the hike into the lake somewhat easier. Even though the hike was a challenge, the views from the lake are spectacular. Crestone Peak, Crestone Needle, and Broken Hand Peak dominate the landscape immediately above the lake. It was certainly an awesome spot to spend a night camping!
After another night in the wonderful Colorado mountains, we were on the trail around 6:30 am and headed towards Broken Hand Pass and then on to Crestone Needle. The route to the pass appears to have been recently reconstructed, and the trail is excellent, although somewhat steep. The snow is completely melted out throughout this stretch.
We soon reached the east couloir on Crestone Needle‘s south face and began the steep climb. This couloir is 99% free of snow, and you do not need to worry about snow when climbing this couloir. However, if you wish to traverse to the west gully (to keep the climbing to Class 3), there is still a bit of snow in the gully between the two couloirs, and it looked like a fairly treacherous crossing to traverse to the other couloir. We decided to remain in the east couloir and ascend it to the ridgeline, and after a couple of Class 4 moves near some chimneys at around 13,600 feet, the rest of the climb was quite enjoyable. Although it is fairly exposed climbing, the rock was very solid, and we all reached the summit safely.
The views from the top of Crestone Needle are some of the greatest from any 14er. The weather was beautiful, so we spent about 30 minutes on the summit. We took our time descending the east gully, but taking it slow and easy, the descent was fairly straightforward, and we were soon back at Broken Hand Pass. The hike down to the campsite at Cottonwood Lake went quickly, and after filtering some water for the descent back to the Cottonwood Creek Trailhead, we were off down the mountain. After some initial navigational challenges descending the valley, we were able to find a faint trail that led us back to the main Cottonwood Creek Trail, and a little after 1pm, we arrived back at the car. A few hours of driving put us back in Fort Collins, tired but happy!