| Best Laid Plans...
Partner: Scott Rodgers with an annex of Bobbie Peru, Georgie, BadgerNick
Mountains: Challenger Point/Kit Carson Mountain
South Crestone TH
~15 miles, 6,250 feet elevation gain
Pictures are a combo of mine and Scott's
After leaving the 14ers.com gathering on Culebra – thanks to comin2getcha for putting it together and Rockymtnhigh69 for the ride back to 2WD territory – Scott Rogers and I drove past the UFO crash sites and Alligator Farms to the South Crestone TH. We got our overnight packs situated and we were on the trail around 2:50 pm. Our plan was for Adams that night, the North Ridge on Kit Carson Sunday morning with a stop on Columbia Point's summit before finishing off on Challenger – we would need to adjust those plans and make it up as we went.
That's me... awkward yet nimble.
The hike up to Willow Lake was advertised as a long slog through what seems to be 100 switchbacks and straight up. I found it anything but. Initially, sure, there are several switchbacks, but the grade is gentle and the terrain is soft and sandy which makes for a comfortable hike. Soon thereafter, it opens to a beautiful meadow surrounded by aspens. You then reenter the forest up several more switchbacks hearing the creek roar down the gully to your right. The fun stuff starts few minutes later when you get your first glimpse of the area's many waterfalls.
The wildflowers were present, but should be prime in the next week or so. I joked to Scott that I don't think I've read a trip report on the North Ridge that didn't note a hail storm the previous night. The weather didn't look too bad at all, so I hoped to offer the first TR sans hail – again, I'd be mistaken. After crossing the stream above the first waterfall, the trail steepens for the first headwall. We spotted a couple of hikers making their way up the final switchbacks. CODave and Kate were the most recent entries on the trail register, so I gave a shout, "Dave!" Kate gave a waive of her hiking pole and then Dave's head popped up over the edge, "Scot?" We put our head down in an effort to catch up to them.
I wasn't aware of a second headwall, so I thought were basically at the lake – not so much. Above this first headwall, I agree, the trail seemed to go on forever, but that may have just been a result of my mindset that I just needed to get to the top of what I could see. We caught Dave and Kate a few minutes later and wove through the forest to the final waterfall before the lake.
Dave and Kate went to the lakeshore for some sightseeing, Scott and I went to find a campsite since we were starving at this point and needed to get our legs back if were to try Adams. We followed the trail to the left of the lake when I spotted a use trail that ascended toward a bunch of large rocks. I figured this trail had to be there for a reason, so I headed up to see if there was a viable campsite. When I got about 50-60 feet up Scott yelled "Find anything?" To which I replied "Sure" even though I had no idea where we were going to camp. I just knew I didn't go up that slope for nothing. Pressed for time since I had to come up with something before Scott got up there, luckily, I found a small area with a great view at eye-level with the famous waterfall. There wasn't much more suitable ground other than for my single-person tent and Scott's bivy, but it suited us perfectly. We sat down for dinner at 5:30, set up camp and rested a bit. I figured if we left by 6:30 we could get up Adams by sunset. The weather seemed to be holding off, so I started to get my mind on the next climb.
Thoughts of Adams:
Around 6:15 I felt a rain drop but still didn't see much else threatening. By 6:20 it was a steady rain, so I got into the tent to wait out what I assumed would be a drizzle. Well, it was forming to our north, out of sight, because by 6:25 all hell broke loose. Thunder echoed through the valley and we got our hail storm. When the rain slowed, I poked my head out of the tent to view the damage and saw a good ¼ inch of hail covering the ground - so much for Adams. I put my head back and was asleep around 7:00 pm. I woke up around 9:00 pm, went down to the lake to filter some water for the next day and enjoyed the starry sky for a few minutes before calling it a night.
North Ridge on Kit Carson: (Attempt)
The alarm went off at 4:15 Sunday morning and Scott and I were on the trail around 5:00. We stepped out of our tents into a sea of fog. Anything above 12,000 feet was pea soup. Oh well, always the optimists, Scott and I made our way around the lake and bushwacked through the willows to the entrance of the North Ridge route. By the time we reached the cliff bands our legs were soaked from the knees/thighs down. For those interested, skip the willows and approach the boulderfield/cliff bands closer to Challenger's north face which we would find out shortly is a much drier alternative. We had hoped that the fog would burn off by the time that we would start the ridge, but, again, no such luck.
The North Ridge should be there somewhere
Neither one of us wanted to be on that ridge in those conditions, but we didn't want to call it a day either. We backtracked to Challenger's standard route gradually ascending the north face. We caught onto the standard route just below 13,000 feet and saw 3 climbers coming up below us. We slowed our pace to let them catch up since we still weren't entirely confident in the weather. Visibility was down to about 100 feet up and 300 feet down. There weren't really any signs of danger so we just went up, cautiously. The group caught up to us and it turned out to be Bobbie Peru, Georgie, and BadgerNick that we had met on Culebra the day before. Soon after they joined us we hit a snowfield that was about 40 feet long before the next dry(ish) rock could be found. They were incorrectly advised at the TH to leave all of their snow tools in the car, but, luckily, I had both poles and an axe. I gave Georgie and Bobbie Peru each a pole and I kick stepped up the snow field (My size 14s come in handy for my climbing partners in these cases).
Me... I think
BadgerNick on Challenger's summit ridge
We gained the summit ridge soon thereafter and walking the ridge in these conditions (visibility now below 50') was downright eerie. You could see gullies drop into what seemed to be nothingness as fog/clouds blew up through the cracks. We gained Challenger's summit at around 9:00 am but the views were non-existent. We couldn't even make out a profile of Kit Carson a couple hundred yards away– you wouldn't even know it was there.
Still no real threats with the weather, we made our way down to the avenue. Kit Carson's west face seemed to fade in through the clouds, which was an intimidating sight. The outside 2 feet of the avenue was dry of snow and, again, this portion of the climb is exaggerated by most counts. The "Narrows" on Long's is aptly named, and so is the avenue as it's as wide as some streets. It really is a wonder though, it seemed to be placed there for the sole purpose of climbing this mountain. It could have been made a little flatter if you ask me – you kind of zigzag up and down around the mountain.
Scambling to KC's summit
The visibility (or lack thereof) made finding the correct gully a little tricky and then once up the standard route, we had no idea where the summit was since we still could only see a few feet around us. The sun started to peer through the clouds a little here and there as we were greeted by Kit Carson's summit around 9:45 – but nothing opened up for us. We all had a quick snack and still wondering what was going to come of the weather, only spent a few minutes on the summit before heading down. As for Columbia, my understanding is that the route-finding is not trivial and, heck, we couldn't even see the darn mountain to get a look at it. Columbia, like Adams, would have to wait for another day.
Again, pretty sure it's me.
I found breathing in the humid clouds coupled with the altitude very difficult. I was feeling pretty good but the ups and downs of the avenue and the reascent of Challenger was, well, challenging. We all made our way along the ridge to regain the standard descent but still couldn't see much so picking the time to head down was tricky.
Descending the snowfield on Challenger
We finally found our way and slowly but surely, the clouds began to break up and we were offered glorious views of Adams and the rest of Willow Lake Basin as we descended down the north slope. Unfortunately, it came too late for us to see the famed view of the Crestones but we finally had some photo opps down near the lake. I guess we could have gone for Columbia, but hindsight is everything. At the time, the weather was just too uncertain and I'm glad we made the decision(s) we did.
KC rises above Willow Lake
We all retreated to our camps to pack back up and I found a few big horns snooping around near our campsite.
We packed our bags and were on the trail by 2 pm. Scott and I ran into the other three again at their campsite in the field below the lake. They made their final adjustments and we were off down the trail. The hike out was uneventful and we got to the TH around 4:00 pm.
I've gone on long enough so I won't bore you with the details of the drive home but, I did learn of the absence of gas availability in the San Luis valley and the wonderful surprise that my car can run on fumes for 40+ miles. All in all, we had a wonderful weekend in the Sangres. It was great to meet so many from the site and catch up with a few friends I hadn't seen in a while. Even though I'm left with some unfinished business in the Willow Lake area, there are definitely worse places to go back to. That area is simply breathtaking.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):