| Challenger, 14er Number One
It was nice to see my sister again. Kim had been working in the Czech Republic as an English teacher for a year or more. And what better way to spend quality family time than go and climb a certain 14er that I've been living under for years. Ever since I moved to the San Luis Valley, I had looked up at the long, flat-looking ridge which crests at around 14,081 feet as the summit of Challenger Point. Having moved here when I was almost five, in 1994, I barely connect this summit with the shuttle disaster that it was named after. Rather, I had always thought of it as a challenge to me. Well, finally, after years of not being able to find partners to go with or other annoying logistical problems, I got my chance when Kim proposed to climb it Saturday, August 12th.
The planning started the Wednesday before. During a visit to my brother, Josh's house where Kim was staying for the summer, she brought up the idea of backpacking to Willow Lake on Friday and hitting a peak the next day. The first proposition was to climb Mt. Adams (13,931ft.), but I had already climbed that earlier in the summer. I then asked about Challenger and maybe even Kit Carson. This raised some red flags. Kim was worried about Kit Carson Mountain because of the horror stories she had been hearing about experienced climbers who had died on the mountain recently. After some coaxing from Josh and I, however, she decided that we would be ok so long as we stuck to the route and retraced our steps to go down. It seemed like a good agreement at the time.
The next day consisted in packing, studying the route for all its worth, and buying some good camp food. I returned to my brother's house for one more evening, and neither of us could sleep well. We got up nice and late, around eight or so, knowing we only had to make it as far as Willow Lake that day. We nabbed some good protein rich breakfast, finished packing our food and water, and drove the few miles up to the trailhead (isn't Josh lucky?). The packs weren't that heavy, and we found ourselves quickly moving up the trail. We registered, counted the 12 switchbacks up to Willow Park, and cruised on further. We stopped only to eat lunch on a nice rock overlooking the valley and Willow Park.
After about three and a half hours of hiking, we reached the lake. We took a few minutes to rest and take some pictures of the pristine mountain lake with Kim's classic "geek roll" makeshift shorts. Even though this was my fifth time in three years making it to this lake, I was still amazed at its beauty. After our rest, we then continued to my trademark camping spot, just a little ways up the hill to the north from the lake and completely out of site from below. We set up camp, took some things out of our packs, and decided to do some recon above the cliffs behind the lake. We got slightly farther than the stream crossing above the falls, and decided that we had had enough for one day. We took a good look up the slope that was the next day's route, took some more photos, and went back to camp.
After dinner, conversation, more pictures and nice red clouds after the sun set, we crawled into the tent and played rummy until around nine, when we both decided we were too tired for cards. We shut off our headlamps and lay down, but despite our mild fatigue neither of us slept well. For me, it wasn't so much anticipation as simple discomfort. The night passed slowly, and I was actually quite relieved when my watch alarm went off at 4:45 am. Kim, not one to wake up easily, stayed in her sleeping bag as I got out of the tent to start some water for coffee and oatmeal. I woke Kim up at 5:00, again at 5:05, and we had our almost relaxing morning as light slowly emerged, seemingly out of nowhere. After some last minute decisions on what to pack for the summit, we were off again, down the hill to the lake, then up above the falls again.
As we made our way over the creek and across the flat, conglomerate rock, the sun began to strike the tops of Kit Carson, Columbia, and Challenger. Columbia Point looked particularly dazzling, its North Face pronounced in the deep morning red of alpenglow. We brushed through the willows passed the creek, skirting mud when it came up, and I finally began to realize how close I was already to achieving my goal. I was farther up the mountain than ever, the weather looked beautiful, and I had my marathon-training sister for a climbing partner.
Then we came out of the willows, and really saw our route. Even though the summit is only about a mile and 2000 feet of elevation gain from here, it is only the beginning of the route. I could see the slope increase in gradient gradually, becoming very steep near the top of the ridge. The obvious gully that runs the length of the slope still had some remnant snow near its top, as did the Kirk Coliour. But I didn't pay particular attention to either of these; rather, I looked further to the right, along a grassy ramp that leads to the far north edge of the slope. Further up, the route turned to rocks, and finally at the top of the slope is a headwall, under which an easy tundra ledge is supposed to traverse over to the notch at the top of the main route. Taking a mental picture (as well as a digital one), I started the lengthy ascent, Kim right behind me.
We quickly found that, though we weren't on what was technically the standard route, we were on a well trafficked one. In the grassy tundra, it was as if there were steps chopped out, almost like a staircase. Perhaps this was, in fact, the case. There were also cairns periodically when the route passed over rocks and boulders. The route gradually steepened, though it remained quite solid. Eventually, we found ourselves turning left slightly, and then we were paralleling the edge of the slope. In places we could look down the north cliffs all the way to the woods. There are dramatic rock towers on this incredibly steep face, and at times Kim (who was now leading) called for me to move away from the edge. We were moving with decent speed, only stopping occasionally for water or snacks.
Soon we were looking at the towering headwall, now standing very close to where we where. I kept my eyes peeled for the supposed tundra bench that was to wrap under the wall, but the only thing I saw that remotely resembled this was a rather slanted ledge about 15 feet up the wall. Though this ledge could be reached, neither Kim nor I thought that this was our route. We elected to continue following the cairns and trail segments.
Before we knew it, our route led us to the base of an easy class 3 rock face, atop which was another cairn. I knew that there was supposed to be an overlook up here somewhere, sidetracking from the route, and wondered if that was what we were looking at. However, neither of us spotted anything else that looked like a tundra bench. I also knew that there was a route that wraps around to the west side of the headwall, crossing exposed gullies and leading to the notch in the ridge above the standard route. This in mind, our choices were to go back and look for the tundra bench which we had certainly missed by then, or continue up, looking for the gully traverse. Looking up the small face, I knew that it was not far to the cairn. I offered to scramble up to the top and see what there was to see. I asked Kim if she would be comfortable going up this face, she answered yes, and I began ascending it.
A short scramble later I was on the end of a sharp ridge standing next to the cairn. The views were astounding, but unfortunately I didn't take them in as much as I should have. This was due to the fact that the first thing I saw upon cresting the face was the proposed gully traverse route. Sure enough, the gully I was looking at was very steep and exposed, with the unrelenting slope dropping all the way to timber. Leading across the gully to a notch on its far side was a narrow ledge, I'd guess a foot in diameter or so. I described what I was seeing to Kim, and asked what she thought. She yelled that she was coming up to look. While she scrambled up, I looked for other options. I looked along the ridge crest, but quickly dismissed it, knowing my parents would probably freak if they knew I was even considering this sharp, precipitous route. I looked back down along the side of the headwall, looking for the tundra bench, but saw nothing but the sloped ledge. Soon Kim was standing next to me, and after looking around a bit, she and I agreed that we could handle the gully before us. I mentally noted the fact that we were deviating from our route, breaking our agreement we made before commencing. I convinced myself it was for the better.
Leading again, I slowly made my steps along the narrow ledge, using my hands against the mountain for balance. A cold breeze blew up the slope, chilling my hands and face. It didn't take long to traverse the first gully, and Kim and I proceeded to examine the next gully. It seemed that the ledge was narrower, but still passable. Once again I lead the way across, every now and then looking down the incredible slope to our right. Standing on the rib separating this gully from the next, my heart skipped a beat. The next gully seemed steeper, though that may have been my imagination playing with me. What wasn't imagined, however, was the next ledge, or lack thereof. In fact, the next ledge wasn't much of a ledge at all, but rather spaced platforms about twice as large as a foot. Though a slip on any of these gullies could result in an unstoppable fall, the odds of this were definitely increased here. Kim arrived next to me, and showed a similar expression of surprised fear. We talked it over, and decided that as long as we had already traversed two gullies we would try this one.
I slowly, methodically made my steps along the slope, grabbing the rock whenever I could find a place to do so. The only thought going through my mind was the placement of my next step, and the next, and the next. At one point, I found myself above the route by a bit, and had to make a big stretch with a leg to get down where I needed to be again. But soon we were halfway across. Three quarters of the way. The slope increased up to the next rib, and before I knew it there were hand and foot holds everywhere, aiding my movement to the rib. With a huge sense of relief, I found myself on the next rib, looking back, knowing that I had made it across. I watched Kim as she caught up to me, looked at the next gully, and saw that the ledge had returned.
A short while later, we had crossed another gully and made it to the top of the standard route. Looking down it, Kim and I both quickly decided that we would take this way as our decent route, breaking our other agreement of descending the way we had come up. Considering the circumstances, we really didn't care. Looking up again, I knew that all that lay between us and the summit was a quick scramble out of the notch and a high-altitude jaunt. I picked a line up the notch that pretty much followed the ridge crest; Kim selected a lower route. We were shortly reunited on the ridge proper and continued along the boulder strewn slope to the left of the ridge crest. The drop to the right was impressive, but it didn't bother me much considering that I didn't have to be right next to it. Despite the gradual slope, my heart was pounding, my breathing coming with difficulty. "Welcome to 14,000 feet" I thought to myself. In about 15 minutes, at 9:30 am, we made our last steps towards the end of the slope, a final cairn, the commemorative plaque, and the summit of Challenger Point.
Breaking my visualizations I had had before, the first thing I did upon reaching the top was sit down, leaning against a rock, my head hung, my body forcing me to breath huge breaths to regain the oxygen I was lacking. I felt slightly sick to my stomach, but that passed quickly. In a few minutes, I started to feel somewhat normal again and stood up. Now I started to see how incredible the view was. To the north, the Sangre De Cristo Range continued for miles of "13ers". Mt. Adams looks quite impressive from here, but I laughed at how it seemed so much easier than this peak. To the east, the range crest barred easy passage to the Wet Mountain Valley, and humble Humboldt Peak sat brooding a mile or so away. To the west, the incredible expanse of the San Luis Valley sprawled out, filling my vision. Looking down, the sharp drop to Copper Gulch slowly graduated out to the Baca Grande subdivision in which Josh lives. My house is further out in the valley, towards the middle.
Finally, I looked south. 200 yards away, I could actually see and hear a couple people summiting Kit Carson Peak. This block seemed so temptingly close that I almost completely forgot about Crestone Peak further behind and to the right of Kit. I looked at the base of Kit Carson's summit knob and saw Kit Carson Avenue, a very broad ledge that was the only easy passage around and up the peak. I knew quite well that it would add another two hours just to summit Kit and get back to Challenger. We probably had enough time, but both Kim and I agreed that we were too tired to do that, hike down to camp, pack up, and get out. Blocking the thought of summiting Kit from my mind, I got out my cell phone and gave my best friend Abe and my dad surprise two minute calls. After hanging up, I pulled out the summit register, marking under the comments section "First 14er." I handed it to Kim to sign, and pulled out my camera. I took as many shots as I could think of, and then noticed that to the west where only five minutes ago the sky had been relatively clear, there were clouds forming. Even as I watched, the clouds swelled and blew our direction. Kim and I decided we had been on the summit long enough and started heading back along the ridge.
Before we knew it, a cold wind was blowing wispy clouds up and over the mountain from the west. We found ourselves in a thin fog, able to see only 100 yards ahead. The illusion this created was very interesting, as we could no longer see how high we were. It felt like an alien world. We caught up with the top of the notch, climbed into it, and began the decent of the incredibly loose gully. Nearly any pile of rocks you could touch was just waiting to slide. Neither Kim nor I started any slides that would danger others, but there were a few others descending the route above us who were knocking rocks down on occasion. It felt good to get to the left and out of this bowling ally later on. We eventually got below the cloud level and marveled at how far we still had to go. The going was no longer so loose, but it was still steep. We made little quick steps down the rocks and found a grassy area after a while of descending. There were little bits of trail here and there, and we continued to go down. Upper Willow basin seemed to grow no nearer, even though we could see that we were farther and farther from the summit ridge. Finally, the slope began to ease; we intercepted our ascent route, and found ourselves at the willows once again.
I was surprised at the distance around the lake, which had seemed to only take a few minutes in the morning. Sore and tired, we made our way back to the lake and up the hill to our camping spot. We took a few minutes of rest, made some mac and cheese, and packed up our stuff. As we were packing, a group of guys came up to our site and asked if we were leaving soon. We responded that we would be out of there within ten minutes, so they stuck around, photographing a herd of bighorn sheep that decided to go past about 100 feet from the site. We finished packing and set off once more.
The walk out was fairly uneventful. It seemed that a storm was coming in, as we heard some thunder, but we only felt the occasional raindrop. Once we were far enough to look back up to the area where the lake was, it was obvious that a storm was in fact building. It looked to be raining on the ridges already. Of course, we passed a few crazy souls who were just beginning their hike to the lake once we were close to the trailhead. It was approaching four pm, and I couldn't help but pity those people who should've known they were about to get poured on. Maybe rain doesn't bother others like it does me. At any rate, we got back to the trail register, signed out, and got back to the car. By that time, it was beginning to rain, exactly as I had predicted from the last set of switchbacks. It seems that it has become routine to rain right when I get back to that trailhead.
As Kim drove back to Josh's house, I couldn't help but stare at the massif that is Kit Carson Mountain, which was dark under the storm. "We were standing on the top of that ridge, only hours ago." It seemed like an odd thought. Had we really gone that far? Indeed, we had, my knees and thighs were continuously reminding me of that. I sat back in the seat, closed my eyes, and made a silent "thank you" to whatever it is that made these mountains, be it God, some other great creator, or plate tectonics. The challenge that was Challenger Point had been met. Remembering my passion for the Colorado Mountains and the 14ers, one last thought went through my mind before we arrived at Josh's house: "One down… 57 left to go."
To see more pictures from this climb, visit
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