Peak(s):  Challenger Point  -  14,081 feet
Date Posted:  04/03/2012
Modified:  05/07/2014
Date Climbed:   03/31/2012
Author:  USAKeller
Additional Members:   BillMiddlebrook
 Challenger Pt. Summit Ski (Kirk Couloir)- Willow Creek TH   

Challenger Point Kirk Couloir Summit Ski

Date: Saturday, March 31, 2012
Crew: Bill Middlebrook and myself
Route: Kirk Couloir ascent and ski descent from Willow Creek TH
Stats: 12.75 miles; 5,400' climbed; ~1,800' skied; 19 hrs 15 min RT

Topo of the route (red=climb; blue=ski):

About a year ago, we attempted a ski of Challenger but I was forced to turn back due to agonizing back pain - this year, I was ready for a re-match. I met Bill in Breckenridge on Friday and we drove down to camp at the Willow Creek TH. We started on trail at 4:00am in summer hiking shoes and full ski gear on our backs. We made great time through both sets of switchbacks to the upper basin just above the headwall. From here, we found a snowshoe trail; but what is a ski trip without some post-holing? For us, the misery started that morning with post-holing. We crossed Willow Creek and shortly after, switched into ski boots and skins near 11,400'. After a short break for some water-filtering at 11,500', we left summer hiking boots and continued to skin across the shore of the lake, and re-gained the hillside to reach the cliffs above.

Reaching the top of the cliffs, Kit Carson comes into view:

At 12,200', we stashed skins, put crampons on, and traversed some easy slopes in the basin below Challenger's standard route to the apron of Kirk. The slopes to 13,000', moderate in steepness (low 30's), were mostly hardpack/sastrugi that gave us minimal ice axe and crampon purchase. We made it work with plenty of front-pointing.

From 12,300', the slopes leading to the base of the Kirk Couloir:

A closer look at the moderate slopes to the base of the couloir (from 12,900'):

Bill climbs the lower slopes; Mt. Adams distinction is clear:

The slope gradually steepened (higher 30's) as we veered climbers' right into the couloir proper. Bill led the booter and I followed. Slope angles were into the lower 40's. We stayed climbers' left in the couloir and although there were sections of a crustier layer, we found more pleasant snow conditions (firm and pretty consolidated) allowing for better axe and crampon purchase. We weren't worried about anything sliding that day. Looking up this couloir, it was narrower than I originally expected. And we didn't encounter the blown-in powder Sangre powder we were hoping for ;). No wind was present to keep us cool - I was sweating bullets. The whole way up, we could see the couloir "exit", but little did we know that when we topped out, the couloir rolled over for another few hundred feet.

Bill enters the bottom of Kirk:

Climbing this north-facing line was fun (personally, I felt most comfortable climbing with an ice axe and whippet in hand):

Bill about halfway up, sun hits and we were roasting. Looks can be deceiving in terms of the top of Kirk; it rolls over another few hundred feet above:

Bill near 13,500' - pretty steep!

Bill estimated the steepest portion of Kirk to be slightly under 50 degrees. We "topped out" only to find the couloir rolls over and mellows out for another 300' to 13,700'. We had a snack and continued on towards the saddle. From here, the snow was not continuous to the saddle nor the summit. As Bill and I neared the saddle at 13,800', we heard a yell, and it was none other than Kevin Baker's signature summit yell as his group was cresting Kit Carson via Cole's (South) Couloir! We stashed crampons at the saddle and climbed west 300' to reach Challenger's summit at 1:45pm. Perfect weather!

Leaving the couloir and heading to the saddle:

Bill and I reach the Kit Carson-Challenger saddle (top photo) and climb the ridge (bottom photo) - photos by Kevin Baker:

Challenger summit on a gorgeous Sangre day; Kit Carson, her Avenue, and the Crestones behind:

The Blanca Group:

We re-fueled, took photos, buckled the boots and started the ski at 2:45pm. Patchy snow off the summit, we skied a short strip of snow to 13,900', removed the skis and climbed back down to the saddle. Another short down climb and we clicked back in at 13,700'. The snow up here to the steeper couloir entrance was the best snow we had all day; some wind-blown powder felt nice to ski.

We skied the obvious patch of snow to just above the couloir:
Photo: Kevin Baker

Bill off the summit and down to the couloir entrance:

I come down the summit strip and ski the upper portion of the couloir:

Bill entered the steep upper portion of Kirk and our mindsets immediately switched to safety ski mode; there were no aesthetic turns down this narrow couloir. The middle portion was a little sloughy and each side was flanked with an icier/crustier layer. We had to side-slip down several sections, and cranked turns when we felt comfortable; Bill, of course, made more than I. And there really weren't and safety zones to ski to either.

Looking down Kirk - conditions were a little worse than they look:

Bill making it work in the couloir:

My turn:

I was standing in the middle of the couloir watching Bill work his way down to the entrance when a 2-foot small slab of crust gave way from under my uphill ski. It instantly brought me down and I quickly was able to get my skis turned around and dig my whippet in to self-arrest, sliding 5-7 feet. My heart was racing and I was spooked. It happened when I least expected it to just standing there, and even though it was so small, it shed a little light as to how fast an avalanche can happen from right under your feet.

At the bottom of the couloir, we had a "snow rib" that we had to navigate around to get into the apron.

Working my way down the slick snow rib to enter the apron:

We were hoping the apron and basin would have warmed up enough to ski some softer snow; au contraire! We found the snow to be worse than what we climbed earlier that day - bullet-proof and icy the entire way down to where we took them off. Bill was able to crank some more turns, I only made a handful not trusting my edges. I ended up side-slipping a lot of it. We skied different sides of the basin, nothing but bullet-proof snow.

Bill skis the upper apron on the fraction of soft snow we found:

A look back at our ski route:

We popped skis off and walked a short ways back to the skin stash, definitely in agreement that although it was strictly a time-consuming safety ski, the snow climb rocked, and that it'd be a sweet ski line if it was filled with more wind-deposited powder! We made our way back down to the lake and returned to the small waterfall where we left our hiking boots at 11,500'. This is where the major post-holing began and our mood quickly turned to silence. It was brutal and energy-consuming - up to our stomachs. We followed the summer trail, and tried to skin what we could and crawling in other places. No matter how many times you post-hole, it still makes me laugh (probably out of frustration?). We passed Carl's group who was on their way to camp for a ski of both peaks the next day.

YEEEEEESSSSS! Can't get enough of this!

Hiking boots went back on at the stream crossing near 10,900' and our long trek out began with glimpses of another San Luis Valley sunset. The switchbacks seemed to go on forever and eventually we arrived back to the truck at 11:15pm. Always feels great when I set a new PR for hours spent out on a mountain. The Kirk Couloir climb is a sweet climb and we couldn't have asked for a more gorgeous day in the Sangres!

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

19 hours
04/03/2012 19:34
Wow, that's a long day! I've had a few 17-hour days, so I know how grueling those kind of days are. If you ever do the SW Ridge of Little Bear, I'm sure you'll set a new PR. That route ruins everyone's times!

Wow, there is less snow up there now than there was a year ago when I ran into you guys. It's going to be a dry summer in the Sangres.

Congrats on getting the ski descent!


YEEEEEESSSSS! Canít get enough of this!
04/03/2012 19:43
^^^^ this caption and that last photo are awesome! You know it's bad when you have to put skins on and break trail downhill. Way to earn it you two! Bummer that our schedules didn't work out to get them together.


Yikes, that's narrow!
04/03/2012 19:57
And double yikes on the mini avy fall part. Hurray for whippets! I think I convinced my partners from this weekend to get them too.

Congrats on getting a tough ski in tough conditions!


Holy Crap
04/03/2012 20:14
(no message)


04/03/2012 21:18
That is such a cool line, especially with Kit Carson towering above. Indeed hurray for whippets!


you did a great job
04/02/2015 19:45
p.s. I am buying whippets too


Whippets rock!
04/04/2012 21:00
To clarify: there was no avy that happened; nothing was going to slide. It was just my body weight that broke off a very small 1'x2' piece and stopped. I just slid out from under it. I've never had to use my whippet like that so in a way I'm glad I got to 'test' it ha!

I just felt that it was important enough to include, not because of it being in a known bad situation, but to remind people that no matter how big or small, things can happen any time when you're not expecting it!

Terry: Thank you! It was a night and day difference than last year for sure. I kept asking Bill where he stopped when he was with you...

Carl: I assume y'all had a similar experience with the post-holing, no?

Brian: Holy crap as in thin?!

Otina, Chinook, and Natalie: Thank you! Whippets are legit for both climbing and skiing IMO!


04/03/2012 22:22


04/03/2012 22:37
Even though I know how degrading it is from experience last week, I'm finding more and more humor in the laborious conclusions to everyone's ski excursions. It takes a strong person to pull out the camera in between all of the expletives!


04/03/2012 23:33
I'm looking at your postholing picture and laughing out loud. Over the weekend, my buddy and I were coming down Boreas Mountain late in the afternoon. On one of my MANY postholes, I resorted to crawling. Put too much weight on my hands and postholed HEAD FIRST and got stuck.


A hard-earned descent!
04/03/2012 23:43
Well done, and thanks for not holding anything back on the TR!


Still lots of fun!
04/04/2012 00:57
”Is that all you got!?!?!?” became my battle cry once the post-hole fest started.

Caroline forgot to mention that I went for a swim in Willow Lake with my skis on! Well, only up to my knees. In the morning we skinned on the ice along a good portion of the lake, which saved us some time. When we reached the lake in the afternoon, I figured I'd ski (no skins) along the ice to avoid some of the inevitable post-holing. WELL, I went about 150 yards on the firm ice until KER-PLUNK, the top layer of ice collapsed and I dropped about 16 inches into ice slurry. Awesome-O! There was an area where the top of the lake iced over an interesting slurry layer. I knew the ice was thick on the lake but I didn't expect to find a shallow pond between the lower ice and top layer. I yelled back to Caroline so she too wouldn't take a dip. I was only a short distance from the shore but it took a few minutes for me to fight my way back to shore as each step (with skis) through the slurry didn't disappoint. Try post-holing in a slushy with skis on.

So, then it was another hour+ of post-holing fun with water-filled ski boots. ”Hey Bill, did you have spare socks?” Negative, Nancy. When we finally got back to our shoes stash, I used a couple of thin headsocks for socks. Not the first time I've worn headsocks on my feet.

Good times

Caroline, thanks for a great day and nice write-up.


Nice seeing you up there!
04/04/2012 00:55
Great write up Caroline! Gotta love the submarine fest on the way out.

Kevin Baker

wow, 19 hours
04/04/2012 03:24
Way to hang in there, guys. I knew those north facing slopes were bullet proof when climbing Cole's as it was pretty firm as well in the morning. Glad you were able to scoot down the Kirk safely! It sure was cool to pop out on the n.e. ridge of KC and chat with you clearly right out over the north face! Looks like snowshoes were the most efficient mode of travel on this day!


ADDENDUM to Bill's report:
04/04/2012 11:39
Bill, I wasn't sure of how high of a disclosure level you have (mine is full!) so I hadn't posted that pertinent piece of information. So now that's cleared up, let me describe this situation pictorally. I shot this image T minus 2.7 seconds before Bill went for his swim!


Good on you
04/04/2012 13:50
for going to take a look. When Carl proposed I head up there with his group I just couldn't quite bring myself to pull the trigger. Not sure if seeing conditions up close confirms that decision, but it's good to see some of us haven't given up on the Sangres yet. Great effort, and great TR, Caroline!

P.s. Are we ever gonna ski together again?


Where Bill stopped
04/04/2012 14:11
If I remember correctly -- if you count dots on this photo, I think it was around #10:

It was interesting soloing the the rest of the Kirk. I descended the standard route on Bill's suggestion. I think the day ended up being like 13 hours for me. I remember watching the sun set as I walked down the final set of switchbacks to the trailhead.


Fun times
04/04/2012 14:44
Good to see you on it, C. Great report, too! : )


04/04/2012 18:54
I added Kirk Couloir to the Route pages: Kit Carson + Challenger Routes

And here's a GE tour which will be accessible from the Route/Map page:


Last Year
04/04/2012 15:25
When I climbed up to Kirk with Terry last year, I turned around at the last rock patch before the couloir. Looking at the photo, I'm reminded how much better the snow was last year (4/16/2011):


Thank you all for your comments!
04/04/2012 21:01
As always, I really appreciate it.

Vicki, kenny, and Eric: yep, there's just something that brings endless humor to post-holing. I couldn't stop laughing, especially when we'd be crawling on all fours and face-plant post-hole! I guess no matter how much you suffer, it's about being out; good times with good friends in the mountains!

Matt: Thank you! Haven't seen much from you by way of skiing this year...?

Kevin: Instead of looking at the 19 hours as ”wow!” (like it took long), look at it as ”dang, I'm envious you both spent more time at altutide stimulating red blood cell production than I did!” Aaaaaaand, skis are still/will always be superior to slowshoes!

Jim: Thank you sir!

Ben: Thanks so much! And I've been talking to Brian about some plans you have coming up, and YES, we will ski! It's been far too long.

Bill: Dang, you got that RD up fast! I'm glad you didn't have to put up with my tears this year. And thank you for another great day, for being an awesome ski partner, for the horror story on the hike up, pointing out the ”eyes”, etc. etc.! MUST. SKI. AGAIN. SOON.


Great Job
04/05/2012 04:35
Nothing is as miserable while doing, and as perfect for story telling later than postholing. Great job you guys.


Swimming in good times
04/06/2012 03:18
Postholes and all. It's a lot of work this time of year but the reward is well worth it. Always. Looks like a great trip filled with a little bit of everything. Like life.

   Using your forum id/password. Not registered? Click Here

Caution: The information contained in this report may not be accurate and should not be the only resource used in preparation for your climb. Failure to have the necessary experience, physical conditioning, supplies or equipment can result in injury or death. and the author(s) of this report provide no warranties, either express or implied, that the information provided is accurate or reliable. By using the information provided, you agree to indemnify and hold harmless and the report author(s) with respect to any claims and demands against them, including any attorney fees and expenses. Please read the Safety and Disclaimer pages for more information.

© 2017®, 14ers Inc.