| The Kit Carson Challenge
Before trekking deep into the Sangre de Cristo wilderness, Jen and I stopped at K's in Buena Vista for some choice pre-hike food: burgers, fries and chocolate malts. After filling our bellies, we pushed on to the sleepy hippie town of Crestone, which is nestled at the base of the Sangres and just north of the Great Sand Dunes.
At 2:30 p.m. we made it to the trailhead's parking lot but it was completely full. People had parked their cars wherever they could find spots, and many were more than a half-mile down the road. There was one "spot" that I noticed, but no one had attempted to park there. I didn't feel like hiking up that hot, dusty road, so I put 'er in 4WD low and I muscled the Xterra up and over the mound, claiming the last parkable (well, to some) spot. Some guy across the way gave me a "Nice job!"
Just moments after starting up the trail I was already sweating profusely because the air was so muggy. Even Jen was sweating a lot. And when Jen sweats a lot, you know it's hot/muggy out.
Not far up the trail, the typically dry Colorado air just couldn't hold the moisture any more, and it began to rain lightly on us. As the miles passed the rain began to fall heavier and heavier. Then came some occasional rumbles of thunder, which kicked us into overdrive. I don't think I've ever hiked so fast with 35 pounds on my back.
We passed one lady on her way down that told us we had an hour and fifteen minutes to get to the camping areas just below Willow Lake. 40 minutes later, at 5 p.m., we were frantically setting up our tent in the rain. Luckily, we found a pretty good spot near the waterfall that spills from Willow Lake.
We couldn't have been any wetter. My stupid rain jacket was drenched; my shorts and underwear were completely soaked; and my boots were squishy and sopping with water (GoreTex didn't do a damn thing for me).
After setting up our tent and throwing crucial items inside, we stripped down and jumped into our down sleeping bags to warm up. Jen joked about my "shrinkage," but I had to remind her that I was cold and wet, and that it was a normal thing under those circumstances.
We wanted to meet up with the group above Willow Lake at the 7 p.m. meeting time, but the nasty weather thwarted those plans. Instead, when the rain subsided for a bit, we took that window of opportunity to purify water, eat dinner and hang a bear bag (at the trailhead there was a warning about recent bear activity in the area). Just as we hopped back into the tent, the rain started up again. It continued to dump on us for quite some time.
I rigged up a clothesline in our tent for our soaking-wet clothes, but it didn't help. Nothing dried. Ever.
Late in the evening the rain eventually subsided and we got some badly needed shut eye. But, then, at about 1:30 a.m. the rain started up again. The rapping raindrops on our tent was a very disappointing sound. It meant that the odds of a successful summit attempt was slim. And it also meant that, because of limited weekends available, we probably wouldn't be finishing the 14ers this year. Regardless, the sound of that rain was disheartening.
The alarm on my cheap watch did its job and woke us up at 4:30 a.m., but we delayed getting up. Our sleeping bags were so cozy and warm, and I wasn't looking forward to putting on cold, wet clothes and slipping on wet boots to boot.
When I finally got up at 4:55 a.m., the first thing I checked was my underwear. Even after being wrung, spun and hung, they were still just as wet as they were the night before. The air was saturated with moisture and it wasn't ready to take on any more. But, hey, that's what I get for wearing cotton boxer briefs. Luckily, my synthetic zip-off pants were dry, so I decided to suck it up, be a man, and go "commando."
Just outside the tent, under the rainfly, I reached for my boots and noticed a single piece of mouse poop in the left one. It was just a little salt for my wound.
Sometime around 5:30 a.m. we finally started up the trail. We were hoping to find other 14ers.com people. As it turned out, we stumbled across a few above Willow Lake, just as they were starting up the trail. The Jamies were already up the slope a little.
Hiking "commando" wasn't as bad as I expected it to be. It was rather liberating, and it kind of felt like I was wearing a kilt. That said, I don't think I'll make it a habit. Next REI purchase: synthetic wicking underwear.
I regret not having more time to meet and talk with members of the group. I only got to exchange a few quick words with Chicago Transplant, an "old school" member of 14ers.com and someone I've been wanting to meet for a while, but we were all on a mission, and none of us knew how long the weather would hold.
Everyone pushed up the slope, and parties slowly broke apart at different paces. The morning sun cast a warm alpenglow on Kit Carson Mountain, and wispy fog glued it to the sky.
The recent rain cemented the loose dirt, making it easier to ascend, but it also made the grass slippery.
The ascent was steep, loose and long. I briefly chatted with some 14ers.com people, as well as non-14ers.com people, but I wish I had more time to talk.
After gaining the notch in the ridge, Jen and I took the trail around the back side and up to the spine of the ridge.
Here's a shot of Challenger Point's ridge, near the summit:
At around 7:45 a.m. we gained Challenger's summit.
After mealing on some food, we scampered down the ridge toward the Avenue and some other group members ahead of us.
The Avenue wasn't nearly as scary as I thought it would be, but there sure was a lot of air up there. Sheer cliffs descended into unknown depths below dense white fog. The views were beyond words.
Here's a shot of Jen descending the back side of the Avenue:
Somewhere on the Avenue we ran into Jamie (Jamienellis) and Jamie (Shanahan96). It was great to see familiar folks on the side of an unfamiliar mountain.
The four of us started up the wide gully (which was more or less a few small gullies blended together). Multiple cairns were strewn about, designating multiple paths. Shanahan96 started up the right and Jen and Jamie started up a rib of rock. I began climbing some loose scree, but decided to move onto the solid rock behind Jen and Jamie. The rock reminded me of the Crestones – probably because it's similar rock, being in the same area and all. But at the time it seemed like a novel observation.
After scrambling over a couple ribs we gained the summit ridge. This ridge up to Kit Carson Peak narrowed a bit, but it was easy and solid. The drop-offs to the right were exhilarating.
Here's a shot (two photos overlapped), taken near the summit, with Challenger Point in the background on the right:
At about 8:45 a.m. the four of us made the summit of Kit Carson Peak.
Had a great time sharing that small summit with Jen and the Jamies. Couldn't imagine better people to share it with. The views were marvelous.
Around 9 a.m. or so we headed back down, and ended up taking a different route down the gully. Moments later we ran into Steve and some others on their way up. More fine 14ers.com people.
At one point I stepped on large rock that looked like it was locked into the dirt really well – but it wasn't – and set it free. Luckily no one was just below us. I got some ribbing for that move, but it was almost impossible to NOT set rocks free down that gully. Did I mention it's a loose gully?
Here's Crestone Peak trying to hide behind a thin blanket of clouds and fog:
At the base of the gully Shanahan96 took off toward Columbia Point, right on the heels of Chicago Transplant. Jamie climbed back with us.
As we worked our way back to Challenger, we crossed paths with other 14ers.com people as well as non-14ers.com people. All were friendly.
Descending Challenger's slippery and loose slope wasn't so fun. Especially the grassy sections.
I experienced one particularly hairy moment. While walking down the grass "steps" on a steep, grassy slope, I stepped on one tuft of grass that completely gave way under my feet. Instead of just falling on my ass, my left foot slid sideways on slick mud, sending my body forward, down the fall line of the slope. My next body part to connect with the mountain was my right forearm, which hit and then slid like a ski. So there I was, sliding headfirst down a steep slope, with a small cliff of rocks approaching fast. Things happened so quick that I didn't know which way was up or down or backward or forward. But instinct kicked in and I went into self arrest mode. Somehow I managed to flip over like a fish in mid air. My hands and feet dug into the earth and I immediately stopped. This all happened in about 1.8 seconds. Jen witnessed it all and she kind of freaked out.
Here's a picture of the slope, looking back up while Jamie was descending. I slipped somewhere just above one of those small cliff bands.
I may have dramatized the danger a bit, but I've never slipped like that before, so it was kind of disturbing. Kind of like tripping on a sidewalk. Funny enough, just about a minute later Jen slipped and fell on her ass (although, it wasn't above a small cliff band).
Around 11 a.m. we made it back to the tent city above Willow Lake. We said our goodbyes to Jamie (she was a great hiking companion) and we slogged back down through the willows to our campsite, which took about 20 minutes.
Here's a pic of Willow Lake from above:
And here's a shot, through some trees, from below:
I'm getting better at hanging bear bags. This one was a good 15 feet off the ground and about 5 feet from the trunk of the tree:
After breaking down our camp, we started back down the trail at 12:20. My pack felt much, much heavier than on the way up. It was probably because I was carrying a wet tent and a lot of soaking-wet clothes.
More great views on the long hike back down:
Crossing the falls:
Made it back to the parking lot at about 2:20. Man, was I glad to take off that pack and put on a fresh change of clothes (including underwear). Then, about an hour or so later we were quaffing India pale ales and eating tasty pizza at Amica's in Salida.
As we were sipping our beers, Jen and I came to the conclusion that the Sangre de Cristo mountains can be rather brutal. Out of all the 14ers we've climbed (and re-climbed), we've never encountered such extreme weather as we have in the Sangres. I think those mountains have it out for us.
Overall, even though we went through quite a bit of suffering and misery, we had a good time. As I mentioned, I regret not having more time with some of the other 14ers.com people, but I enjoyed the brief encounters I had. Until next time ...
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):