| Kit Carson's Classy North Ridge
Climbing Crestone Conglomerate:
Kit Carson's Classy North Ridge
Peaks: Kit Carson, Challenger Point
Routes: Kit Carson North ridge ascent, descent via Challenger
Date: August 21, 2010
Length: 14 miles
Vertical: 6200 feet
Ascent Party: Dancesatmoonrise
Kit Carson, North Ridge
"A thousand vertical feet of solid free-soloing bliss to a 14er summit." That pretty much describes my feeling about climbing Kit Carson's very classy north ridge.
Ken Nolan regards this as one of his favorite 14er routes, since ascending it back in 1981. He cautions that the exposure can be "interesting," and that at least one person has perished falling off it. He provided some useful information about the descent, as did Joe Winters. Thanks to both gentlemen for their help in researching this route.
I got up early Friday morning in anticipation of doing the route, but circumstances required postponing by one day, so by Saturday morning's wake-up call, I'm a little beat. I manage getting to the TH at the tardy hour of 8:30 am with some doubts about actually being able to pull this off, being way behind schedule. A solitary whiff of cotton hangs over the Crestones, adding to those doubts. I hustle. By 10:30, I'm at Willow Lake, where grey-bottom cotton candy spreads out across the sky over the objective peaks. Once on the ridge, it's a commitment, downclimbing being a poor option. Like a steep snow couloir, this is something of a one-way street to Kit Carson Avenue and the descent off Challenger. Good weather is requisite. All three forecast offices are calling for low pops– but even rain without lightning could make this route "overly" interesting, to borrow Ken's classification system. I decide there's no harm to at least push on to the base of the route to see how things look, but the going is much slower than I'd have expected, in part because I'm feeling a bit tentative.
It's also a bit rough getting over to the base of the ridge for the following reasons:
1. The manzanita bushes. Consider long pants or zip-offs. I stayed on the Challenger trail and cut in high. Staying in the basin could be better – or not. My route traversed into the area between the large boulders on the left and the cliff bands on the right.
2. The boulders. Some of them are the size of a living room. Those are stable. Some of the TV size boulders are not. It didn't help at all reading Teresa Gergen's harrowing report the night before the climb. I kept looking at my shins and hoping they would not develop an extra knee.
3. Loose scree covering anything close to the Outward Bound Couloir (OBC.) Once past the boulders, trying to find the best place to start the ridge is a little tricky. To the left is the OBC, with lots of loose scree on a steepening slope. To the right is either cliffs, or a steep beginning to the objective ridge. Straight ahead, the NE face is third class scrambling on solid rock and grassy ledges, except for the scree and debris littering every flat spot intended for hands or feet.
According to the map, it looked like the ridge should bifurcate near its base, and it does. The northwestern aspects of both lower ridges cliff-out, especially the right (west) one, but it may not be unreasonable to consider a direct approach up either of these two ridges on their N or NE aspects; probably the left (east) would be the better, in the notch between them. I stopped to take some photos of this area for future reference, because it would be a more direct route and would circumvent the loose scree on the third class climbing just right of the OBC.
Back to my morning: Standing on ever-steepening dirty slopes, now getting some air off the deck as I look back into the basin, my objective, this elusive ridge, still seems remote, while the cruel clock ticks off yet another hour. I'm still in the game, but doubts are beginning to solidify, thicker than the clouds above. I'm at about 12,700, and it's nearly 12:30 in the afternoon. Three options for forward progress present themselves.
First, a look left to the OBC. It's loose, but it looks like it would "go." A poor option, since I haven't studied what lies ahead, and not sure what I'd be signing up for. Option two would be to zig-zag up the lowest angle weaknesses on the face, to gain the ridge on skyline, above. Option three would be to take one of these sweet looking, grass-covered Kit Carson alleys directly right (NW) to the ridge. The only problem with this option is that the north ridge appears to steepen considerably at this level, and it's not till higher up on the ridge that the pitch appears to relax.
OK, time for a pulse check. There's still some blue sky. The puff-balls look like clouds seen on days that turn out fine. All three forecast offices are in agreement on low pops. The cloud tops appear to remain flat and not growing. While an incorrect decision on this committing route could be ugly, I'm fairly confident that once the ridge is gained, it's going to be a quick thirty minutes of bliss to the summit. This area, the third class ledges between the OBC and the ridge, are the pivotal point of the route, and the last decision point for the go/no-go determination.
Considering the options, the grassy ledges over to the steep section of the ridge look like an easy walk. So I decide to stroll over to the ridge on the little alleyway and have a closer look, and maybe peer around the corner. This turns out to be the pivotal point of the day, cinching that moment of absolute assurance, when all doubts are dismissed. To my pleasant surprise, the litter and debris on the class 3 ledges leading up to the face are gone. I find impeccably solid rock, presenting numerous weaknesses for feet and hands, both on the spine, as well as a few feet to either side, particularly the right side. OK, we're here. This is it. All systems go. Nirvana! Time: 1:00 pm. Altimeter: 12,900. Sky: broken, but holding. Pulse: Ready to rock!
Brad Snider's route description on 14ers.com says, "The exposure here can be daunting for the uninitiated." I would call that assessment accurate. I would further caution that climbing this route could induce that serious alpine condition known as "Rapture of the Steep."
The next 1200 verts fly by too fast. There are two or three places where, fifty feet ahead, the ridge appears to go dead vertical. The key is not to panic, because once there, weaknesses and broken sections allow low fifth class passage up the spine proper, and a move 10-15 feet right allows an easy fourth class work-around, if on slightly lower quality rock. I stick to the most solid rock the whole way, as the tip of the blade is clearly the cat's meow, the raptor's perch, the climber's sharp end, the hour of power.
At the top there's a small false summit with a connecting cat walk of sorts. An easy walk across, and I'm on the summit at 1:30 pm under calm, partly cloudy skies. I spend a long time on the summit, where three gents arrive to celebrate their comrade's completion of the 14ers. The views are outstanding.
Having never seen the famed Kit Carson Avenue, I'm excited to travel on. Following the route description backwards is mildly interesting. One descends to the east or slightly southeast, till a grassy area is reached. Cairns (what a concept) can be found marking the start of the avenue, which is followed to the right, or roughly southwest, and up. One of my favorite photos of this area is the Britt Jones photo of a snow-filled avenue in springtime. It's amazing to be on a fifteen foot wide, grassy ledge bridging such a steep pitched slope. It should be called Kit Carson Boulevard. You could parade your Jeep down this boulevard. Curiously, there are many minor such avenues or ledges over most of the alpine terrain. One of these yields the start of the ridge at 12,900. A more major one comes off the north ridge, mid-way up, and goes across the NW face. Yet another near the top of the ridge goes left and down into the OBC or the saddle area of Columbia. Most of these minor Kit Carson alleys are in great repair: meticulously groomed lawns lined with manicured cobblestone curbs. I long to journey down a few of these just to see where they go in this vertical sea of wonder. But I stay the course.
Off the Avenue proper, a couple of fellows are doing the prow route to the summit. The second is on belay about thirty feet off the Avenue. There are some nice lines in here, for future reference; one in particular offers some decent prospects for hand-sized and larger pro, while numerous face holds provide easy fifth class climbing.
At the prow saddle, SW of the KC summit, the Avenue continues north or north west as it descends from here to the Challenger saddle with KC. A walk-up to the SW on easy talus yields the Challenger summit, where the views are similarly astounding. To the west I spy the saddle Ken seeks to recon for a winter trip. I had considered it as a descent route, to help with the recon, but a glance up on the approach nixed the idea for me this go-round. I'm more inclined to explore the scree in December when it's frozen in place.
An hour later, at the lake, I find the stashed flyrod, gear, and water. It's 4:00 pm, and I'm pretty beat. Walking down to the rocks I check out the water: no fish and no rises. If there were, I'd probably have taken the time to relax and fly the line a bit. I suspect the fish are hanging out near the falls but don't have the energy to hunt them at the moment. Some climbers are sprawled out on the rocks further down the shoreline, minimally clad, in solar recharge. It's a heavenly afternoon. I enjoy some time in the sun, water, and on the warm rock before starting the long journey home. This is an incredible place, and well worth a couple days' camp. Next trip up I plan to do a little first-hand aquatic research. Till then, I'll just have to wonder what resides in the deep end.
The hike in is easy and pleasant. A large meadow is encountered about 1/3 the way to the lake.
Willow Lake is incredibly beautiful, with a waterfall at the inlet.
The boulders below the start of the ridge can be loose.
The base of the north ridge bifurcates into two ridges. This is the notch between them. In retrospect, either of these may offer a more solid, direct route to the upper north ridge.
A closer look at the notch between the two ridges that comprise the base of the north ridge area.
The NE face is composed of solid rock, but is littered with debris from the Outward Bound Couloir to the left (east.)
Climbing the ridge: views to the left.
A thousand feet below, the alpine tarn at 12,400. Subsurface life, I wonder?
Climbing the ridge: views to the right, the Challenger north slopes.
Yes, it's that steep. That's my foot at bottom center. You can see the drainage 1500 feet below. Exhilarating.
Well on the way to the summit, a steeper section is encountered. It can be turned a few feet to the right at fourth class, or surmounted directly on solid rock at very low fifth class.
The valley floor during the ridge climb. Note Willow lake near top right in the photo.
Another steep section. Again, surmount directly on solid rock, or move right to find slightly easier climbing.
Ooh La La! Above the vertical section. Easier to snap a pic here than in the middle of that! : )
A look straight up. The rock can have fissures but is generally solid. Still worth testing every hold, always.
Nearing the summit: Views to the south.
Last steeper section. It's all solid, and it's all there the whole way on this route. Nothing tricky.
The notch between KC and Challenger, with the SLV below.
The northern Sangre in the distance.
Kit Carson Avenue, with a climber seen seconding the prow route (5.8r.)
Kit Carson Avenue near the saddle with Challenger Point.
Note climbers on KC.
Southern Sangre and Sand Dunes!
A look back at this fine route.
Mom is out with the kids on a warm summer afternoon.
One last view of this beautiful alpine lake.
PostScript – I'm impressed with the huge differences between this sustained fourth class route and other routes rated at fourth class, such as Pyramid's standard route. This classy route is in a class by itself. Give it a shot, you won't be disappointed.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):