| Challenger/KC Avenue was the real challenge!
Sangre de Cristo Mountains: Challenger Point & Kit Carson.
sgaladbach, globreal, bigtrout, zeekzilch, sstrauss, lostsheep5, paulperea
Saturday, May 30th
Looking up to where we are heading.
It was a nice looking day down in the San Luis valley, just west of Crestone, CO. The mountains looked beautiful from here. Colorado has been heavily soaked with rain and snow for the past two weeks non-stop. As you can see, the atmosphere still has high humidity.
Our team of 7 assembled at the trail head parking lot.
Our group of 7 consisted of 3 from the Denver area, 2 from Colorado Springs area, and 2 from the Pueblo area. We arrived at the trailhead shortly after 2:30pm on Saturday. The sign a mile or so beyond Crestone says "4-wheeled" drive only." Don't believe it. The last 2 miles are easily driveable in a 2-wheeled drive, low-clearance vehicle this time of year now that the snow is all gone.
By 3:15pm, we were heading in.
The sun was shining and warm, and the aspens were looking great back in their green leaves. It was a great day to be on a trail heading into God's creation once again! You can't tell from above picture as pictures flatten everything, but there is a good amount of elevation to gain from TH to Willow Lake. Someone said 58 switchbacks! Holy Cow! It's hard to believe how much weight some of us carry for just one night out. (What was I thinking?)
We only passed four other people (day hikers) on the trail. A nice young couple probably in their mid-twenties, and a couple of earthy-type guys who appeared to me to possibly be some Crestone residents who may have been up in the hills tending to a "herb" garden. ☺ Aside from those we saw in the first 2 miles, we didn't see anyone else the rest of the weekend.
We are quickly high above the San Luis Valley.
And Doug Shaw was right in his May 24, 2009 post, there are a lot of downed trees along the trail, from treeline (at the the lake, to about a 1/2 mile below, which means a lot of climbing over and around the pesky trail interferences.
We got to the open meadow camping area just about ¼ mile before Willow Lake in about 3 ¾ hours. It had been a rain free afternoon and we were able to set up our tents on dry ground with dry weather. Then after every ate a quick dinner, we were able to spend a short time around a campfire that evening. What a blessing!
Sunday, May 31th
With the high humidity in the atmosphere the dry few hours were short lived. It proceeded to rain on and off all night. The plan was to wake at 3am, hit the trail at 4am. However, at 3:30am it was still raining. However, at 3:45, zeeklich was out of his tent surveying the skies and telling those of us that didn't want to get out of our sleeping bags, that "the sky was clear!" At 4:31am we were on the trail.
While we couldn't see it at this time in the morning, Willow Lake is still somewhat frozen over.
The Willow Lake Waterfalls.
The northern-most waterfall is still an ice sculpture that is intriguing to gaze at.
From all the rain and snow Colorado received for an entire week, we were concerned the snow above the lake might be a hiking issue. As it turned out, it was pretty clear until we started the steep climbing. We ended up stashing our snow shoes at the bottom of our climb, even though there were times I wished I had them with me.
Looking up at the summits in the first light of dawn, I was a bit worried as there were those wispy clouds rolling over the peaks and I was fearful they might lead to early thunderstorms. However, that didn't happen….and the skies actually cleared.
The first light at daybreak on Kit Carson and Challenger, made for beautiful and inviting targets.
At first, we stayed on rock for our climb, but it soon turned out to covered with verglas. So we dawned crampons and moved over into the couloir.
The snow climb straight up Challenger.
This was a pretty good work-out with all of the postholing in the soft spring snow.
Thanks sgladbach for breaking trail. You are a hiking machine!
Looking west through a small saddle into the San Luis valley.
This view was actually breath-taking seeing this first view over the top. And as many of you know, pictures can never do it justice.
Looking south at the sand dunes and the Blanca Massif.
What a view!
It was amazing to see how the wind had formed the snow into this acute, angle on top of this ridgeline.
While summit still looked like a long ways off, it was an easy hike to the top.
The first of us to reach the summit of Challenger Point.
I believe we summited around 8am which means it took us around 3 ½ hours after leaving camp. It was slow going since we were post holing up that that steep gulley. But it was totally worth the effort!
All 7 of us in the tradition summit photo with Kit Carson in the background.
Even sgladbach's dog, Cooper wouldn't miss out being in the notorious summit shot.
You can see our tracks coming off of Challenger Point.
For some reason it looked a whole lot steeper than the photos I'd seen online!
The uphill portion of KIT CARSON AVENUE.
From seeing the trip report on 14ers.com, I wasn't expect this : Kit Carson Avenue totally snowed in! This section was not for the faint-at-heart. However, sgladbach brought ropes, lostsheep5 brought snow pickets, and we all brought harnesses. I am so glad we did. I wouldn't have tried this without them.
sgladbach was the lead.
This is the long, downhill section of KIT CARSON AVENUE.
There was no semblance of a catwalk in here!
Maybe you can notice the slope angle?
When turned into the mountain, the snow was right in you face!
The snow was quit soft and so there was a lot of postholing. In fact, due to the slope angle and the deep snow, we had to face into the mountain, push our ice axes all the way into the snow until your hands stopped it, and then push your body up to take the next step. I think sgaldbach said there is a term for this technique called "self-belay."
It was exhausting and time consuming to say the least. Even though we made it to within 100 yards shy of the final couloir to the summit of Kit Carson, several of us voted to make the tough decision to turn around. We guessed it would take us another two hours of hard work to finish KIT CARSON AVENUE, climb the last couloir, summit, and return to where we were at the time. And we felt we needed that energy just to return back up KIT CARSON AVENUE, hike back to Willow Lake, and then backpack out all of our overnight gear all the way back down to the trailhead.
On the way heading back up KIT CARSON AVENUE, one of our team actually slipped and fell. As he was sliding down the hill, he started yelling, 'FALLING, FALLING! which is what we were instructed to do. We all braced ourselves and jammed our ice axes deep into the snow just waiting for the rope to jerk! Since he was on one of the end positions of the rope, like a yo-yo at the end of the string doing the "Around the World" trick, he started to smoothly arc. In a short time he was able to self-arrest and come to a stop. Praise God we were all roped in and he didn't go to the bottom of the mountain! (Now that I think about it, what a breaking-in to my first-ever, roped-in experience.)
Instead of going back up and over Challenger, we decided to descend the Kirk Couloir. We just down stepped the steeper upper section without crampons since the snow was so soft.
Glissading Kirk Couloir.
Then once the slope angle seemed about right to hold an ice axe enough to self arrest, we were able to glissade and stay in control. It was a great, fun ride and a wonderful way to quickly descend about a 1000 feet of verticle. Nice!
We got back to camp about 2:30pm and I was just looking to crawl back into my tent and take a nap! However, the sky unleashed on us with a pretty hearty graupel storm. Have you experience those pea-sized, styrofoam pellets that can bombard you in the mountains?
Instant graupel waterfall!
It came down so hard, within 20 minutes we were to witness this instant flash-flood/water fall which last for about 10 minutes. All this unloading on us caused us all to pack up camp as quickly as possible and just get the heck out of there. In 45 minutes we were all heading back to the TH. After 2 ½ hours of painful hiking with our heavy backpacks, we were gratefully, safely back at the car.
While it's disappointing not to get both summits, I was grateful to get one more successful climb and happy to have all 7 of our team safely out of the mountains heading back to home and family.
Thank you sgaldbach for organizing and leading this trip. It was great to have an experience climber as yourself at the lead.
Thank you Bill Middlebrook for 14ers.com all you do where we can easily find others to get out and climb these Colorado mountains with.
Thank you God for another safe 14er summit. I am grateful to live in this awesome, mountain-filled state, and for mone more backcountry adventure!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):