| Kit Carson & Challenger via Willow Creek
Participants: cftbq & trishapajean
Dates: 28 and 29 July, 2007
Start: Willow Creek TH, east of Crestone
Distance: 11˝ mi. RT (from TH); ~4 mi. RT from camp
Vertical: 6,300 ft. from TH; ~3,600 from camp
We couldn't free up enough time to join the 14ers.com summer gathering at Willow Lake Friday night or early Saturday, to climb any of the 13ers and ridge points near Kit Carson Peak, but we got to the Willow Creek TH by mid-afternoon on Saturday. It would be no trouble to pack in the 4˝ miles or so to the lake that evening and get a decent night's sleep before an early start on KC and Challenger Sunday morning.
Not far up the trail (which is beautiful), however, the skies opened up on us, first with a sprinkle, and then with sustained rain. We quickly threw on ponchos and continued on up the many switchbacks, still confident of getting to the lake with some sunlight left. We did make it, but the rain slowed us down. It made the multiple stream crossings--on log bridges--considerably dicier than they might otherwise have been, so we slowed down accordingly.
Perhaps worst of all, the last section of the trail involves some climbing on big rock steps, followed by a section of trail wildly overgrown with vegetation. Said vegetation was now very wet, and it completed the job of thoroughly soaking our feet, socks, and boots. Thus, we arrived quite late in the day to find just a few people already camped. In fact, everyone had given up on us, and they were surprised to see us pull in so late. When we found out that the weather had been dismal most of the day, we felt less bad about about not getting to climb on Saturday.
And we weren't even the last arrivals! At nearly midnight, several more gluttons for punishment showed up, navigating by headlamps.
After taking the time to make some attempt to dry out our wet clothes and gear, and hastily cooking up some dinner, we finally settled in to about one hour's less sleep than most of the others. Still, there was enough time for a good night's sleep before a planned 5 am start.
Early morning, however, featured dense cloud cover which didn't look to be burning off. Looking at the possibility of even more rain, most everyone delayed somewhat, trying to decide whether to go for it or not. Finally, though, virtually everyone decided to give it a try. Although we were the last ones to leave the campsite, we agreed that it would be silly to be the only ones who bailed--although we had been seriously considering it just a few minutes before. Even the small contingent that was headed for the more technical northeast ridge route set off that way, although we learned later that they changed their minds before committing to the more exposed route.
It was slow going up the steep north face of Challenger; it's relentless, and loose in places. This is what it looks like starting up, not far above the lake:
Near the top, the steepness increases to where I would have to rate some of it as Class 3. The reward for persevering, however, is a suddenly dramatic view of the San Luis Valley to the south and, shortly thereafter, sight of the summit not too far ahead.
The walk along the ridge crest up to the summit has some real exposure. It's narrow, the north side is steep, and the south side is steeper still. Still, there's an obvious path on or near the crest the whole way, though some people might not want to do too much looking down. It was on this stretch that we met up with Jeff_F, with whom we hiked most of the rest of the day.
After crossing over, briefly, to the south side of the ridge, a nice long-distance view of the Blanca group presents itself:
Shortly before reaching the summit, Crestone Peak pops into view:
The sky was still 90% overcast when we got to the summit of Challenger, sometime around 8:30. Thankfully, though, there was virtually no wind, and there had been no rain. After a few pictures, we set off down to the saddle to begin the actual climb of Kit Carson.
Kit Carson Avenue is truly amazing. It's easy to find, easy to follow, and easy to hike. It turns what would otherwise be a mind-numbingly difficult scramble or roped climb into a laid-back tour of spectacular scenery all around. As we started giving up altitude on the second section of the Avenue, we encountered jamienellis, Aubrey and Jen coming the other way, having already hit the summit. They cleared up the last uncertainty we had about route finding by outlining the two basic options for exiting the avenue: Go all the way to the end to enter the looser but easier gully (Class 2+), or turn left a little sooner for the more solid but steeper (Class 3) gully. Especially in view of the continuing uncertainty about weather, we chose the easier route without hesitation. On our way by, we saw some other climbers descending the Class 3 gully. It looked perfectly doable, but I wouldn't want to take it on if those rocks were wet.
This is looking up the easier gully:
Either way, the gully scramble is a short finish, and the top is only a few yards (northeast?) of the summit. We got there around 10:30. It was only then that the sun finally began to do some peeking out of the clouds for brief moments. As the clouds and mists came and went, we got a constantly changing view of Crestone Peak and Needle. The best part was, there was still no rain, nor any indication that any was imminent. We spent about 15 minutes on the summit, which is small, but not so exposed as to be really scary. We were very glad we hadn't had to abandon the climb that morning, and savored 14er number 28 (for trishapajean) and 31 (for me).
The rest was fairly anti-climactic, other than having met up with old acquaintance Doug Hatfield and his climbing partner, Susie, with whom we leap-frogged most of the way back down. After re-summitting Challenger, the descent of the north side didn't take nearly as long as the ascent had--but I could feel the strain of its steepness the next day in my hips!
As we began that descent, the sun finally came out more-or-less fully, and it finally warmed up enough to let us start shedding clothing. We realized that, finally, our socks and boots had actually dried out, and we got at least a brief taste of a gorgeous summer day in the mountains!
We were nearly the last ones back to the campsite, however, and we were the last to leave, since I hadn't really done much packing up in the morning. That's a mistake I don't plan to repeat. The gear we had left in the tent was all still wet to some extent, but we couldn't take the time to attempt to dry it completely. We simply packed up as quickly as we could, knowing that we still had 4˝ miles of trail and a 3,000-foot descent, now with full packs again, before we could really rest.
The creek crossings on the way down were all considerably easier than they had been the day before, not least because the logs weren't wet and slippery this time. Thus, we made better time, even though the weight of our packs was beginning to cause some shoulder discomfort. There was only the slightest sprinkle of rain before the last turn of the trail revealed the trailhead parking lot; we were very glad of that.
Kit Carson is a fabulous mountain, and an exhilirating climb, one I'm happy to have completed, but which I actually wouldn't mind repeating at some point. Also, we enjoyed meeting so many others in person for the first time. Pictures are at:
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):