Peak(s):  Kit Carson Peak  -  14,165 feet
Challenger Point  -  14,081 feet
Date Posted:  07/27/2020
Date Climbed:   07/23/2020
Author:  gecko
Additional Members:   Gubber13
 North Ridge of Kit Carson - A New Favorite   

Kit Carson via North Ridge - 7/23/2020

Hi all, I've lurked on this site for a long time, and get a ton out of reading people's trip reports (especially for non-standard or more challenging routes,) so I figured it was time to contribute. So here goes my first trip report!

The route for the North Ridge of Kit Carson has been very well described between the main route description and many trip reports. I don't necessarily have any unique perspective on it, but knowing how much I pore over reports before a climb, hopefully this will be interesting to someone out there. I can also write this from the perspective of an exposure weenie. This was my first Class 4 route on a 14er, and historically I've struggled with exposure. I want to get more comfortable with it, which is why I'm actively seeking out routes like this to build up my tolerance. I'll comment on that element of it for those of us who get sweaty hands watching videos of the Knife Edge on Capitol (there are dozens of us! DOZENS!)

I'll get some stats out of the way for those who like to see the numbers up front.

Stats (per Garmin):
Total mileage: 14.5mi
Elevation gain: 6,151'
Round trip time: 11:15

Splits (roughly):
0310 - Willow Lake TH
0615 - Junction with Challenger Point standard route (3:05/3:05 total)
0735 - Base of N. Ridge of Kit Carson (1:20/4:35 total)
0850 - Summit of Kit Carson (1:15/5:50 total)
0950 - Summit of Challenger Point (1:00/6:50 total)
1130 - Back to junction with Challenger standard route (1:40/8:20 total)
1425 - Willow Lake TH (2:55/11:15 total)

For what it's worth, we don't tend to take many breaks, so most of our time between landmarks reflects hiking/climbing/route finding/occasionally getting lost.

And big thanks to JQDivide, whose awesome trip report we used extensively to help with route finding through the basin before getting to the ridge. I highly recommend checking it out:

Matt (Gubber13) and I drove to Crestone from Denver on Wednesday afternoon with a plan to camp near the Willow Lake Trailhead. We were keeping a close eye on the weather, as we’re firmly in monsoon season which has forced a last-minute change of plans several times in the last few weeks. The main weather considerations were obviously to be well out of the way before any risk of lightning, but also that rain overnight might leave the ridge itself too wet to be climbed safely. The forecast settled at predicting rain before 11pm and then clear for the rest of the night. We agreed that that might be enough time for the rock to dry out, always with the understanding that we would bail if we got to the base of the ridge and the rock was slippery.

Challenger Point from the road to Crestone, complete with not-at-all forbidding clouds.

We camped in one of the many sandy camping spots along the rough 2WD road up to Willow Lake TH. We set up camp, had dinner, and were in our sleeping bags for 8:30pm, ready for the 2:30am wake-up call. I slept off and on, waking up a few times to the sound of heavy rain hitting the tent. Looks like the weather forecast was accurate so far.

We were both awake just before the alarm went off at 2:30am, so got the tent packed up (including a still sopping-wet rain fly,) but noted that it was surprisingly warm for so early in the morning, and drove to the trailhead. We started hiking at 3:10am from Willow Lake TH, and were able to keep up a reasonable pace to the lake. I kept an eye on the trail on the way up: the ground was still wet and all the plants were soaked, but somehow the rocks embedded in the trail seemed dry and grippy. I started to feel a little more hopeful about the day.

We got to Willow Lake at dawn, and were able to see our route for the first time. My stomach dropped a little. Seeing it in pictures is one thing, but the North Ridge looks like a beast when seen from the lake. I was trusting in the principle that this kind of scramble usually looks less plausible the further away you are. The other concern was that there was cloud lingering over the upper part of the ridge and the summit of Kit Carson. Hoping that the cloud would burn off when the sun was up properly, we hiked around Willow Lake and made our way to the junction with the standard route of Challenger Point, getting there around 6:15am.

North Ridge of Kit Carson as seen from Willow Lake

From the junction with Challenger’s trail, we followed the faint trail towards Upper Willow Lake until it petered out. From there we skirted just around the edge of the willows without gaining more altitude until reaching the obvious, massive boulders in the basin. This strategy kept us out of any willow-whacking, while also avoiding off-camber talus/boulder-hopping. As we picked our way through the basin, the cloud sitting on the North Ridge seemed to be getting lighter.

Retreating clouds! We kept just to the right of the willows seen here, while staying well below the black-streaked cliffs below the base of the ridge.

From the boulders we could look right to see the base of Outward Bound Couloir and chose a line up the scree to reach the more solid Class 3 ledges below the ridge. We tended to angle toward the right of the scree to stay on more solid rock when possible, and made our way up toward the base of the NE face of Kit Carson before turning right toward the ridge.

Outward Bound Couloir to the left, base of the North Ridge to the right. We skirted under the snowfield in the middle, and made our way up the fun Class 3 ledges. Note the lack of clouds on the ridge!

Looking back at me crossing some of the ledges. The entry to OBC is at the uppermost snowfield in this picture.

Last stretch from the ledges to the base of the ridge. The angle in this picture is pretty true to life, I'd say.

We reached the base of the North Ridge at 7:35am. The clouds had parted, the sun was out, and the rock was dry. The universe was giving us the go ahead!

Another group gaining the ridge from the base.

There was one other couple climbing the route that day (we chatted for a while, but I didn’t catch your names if you happen to see this,) and we all reached the base of the ridge at about the same time. They were quicker than us, so we let them start up the ridge and gave them about 15 minutes so there would be a safe amount of space between our groups. We didn’t have any issues with rockfall.

(Apologies, but some of the photos from here on out are screenshots from a GoPro. I didn’t get my camera out much on the ridge.)

Looking up at one of the Class 3 sections.

I wanted to “lead” the ridge, which Matt was gracious enough to let me do. We started up, and from there enjoyed 1,000ft of amazing scrambling. Believe the hype on this route. We started off to the right of the ridge (within 10-15 feet,) which had a reasonable angle and class 3 scrambling between slabs and ledges, and then got onto the spine as the ridge narrowed and the terrain to the right got steeper. We spent the rest of the climb either on the ridge or immediately to the right of it, but were always in a spot where we could easily tack back to the ridge if needed. I have a little bit of climbing experience (mostly in a gym, once or twice on sport routes outdoors,) and thought that the climbing component of the ridge was an absolute blast. The thing I love about scrambling is that the second you get on the route, everything else melts away. It is pure exhilaration and flat out fun! You get to focus on finding the best line and the best moves to get up, and nothing else matters.

A steeper section with fewer features
Columbia Point peeking over the North Ridge.

Except maybe the exposure. Exposure is a weird thing: absolutely paralyzing for some people (and has been for me sometimes,) and some people seem not to notice it at all (or actively enjoy it.) I definitely had a few moments on the ridge when I would look down to make sure Matt was doing ok, and get that horrible vertiginous feeling in the pit of my stomach. When that happens I can get a little panicky, and it can set off a cycle that’s hard to interrupt. It’s entirely a mental game. I focused on breathing and reminding myself that every move had felt completely comfortable so far. It helps that the exposure isn’t too sheer. It is still high consequence, but the ridge slopes away rather than dropping off abruptly, making it feel a little gentler. Turning back to concentrate on the climbing was also an excellent distraction, and refocused my brain on the fun stuff. I got spooked by the exposure a couple of times over the course of the ridge, but was able to redirect my attention. It constantly tugged at the periphery of my awareness, but never got to the point of interfering with the climb or my overall enjoyment of it.

Looking down.

The gorgeous Sangres conglomerate rock also went a long way toward my feeling comfortable on this route. Almost every hold is bomber, but when they’re not it grabs your attention. We only had one sketchy moment when Matt went to start up a section, grabbed a handhold, and stepped back holding an 8lb rock with a nonplussed look on his face. It goes without saying, but just keep testing everything.

Matt finding a place to set his new Pet Rock.

And before you know it, you’re almost there! There is an obvious notch after which the difficulty eases off a bit, and shortly thereafter (I’d say around 13,900’ maybe?) there’s a cairned avenue that takes off to the right. If so inclined, you can take the avenue for an easy 2nd-3rdclass scramble to the summit that meets up with the standard route. We took that variation at the time, but now I’m itching to go back to get that last bit of the ridge.

Climbing a section to the right of the ridge just before the notch.

We made the summit an hour after leaving the base of the ridge. I felt more proud at this summit than I have of any mountain I’ve done so far. We also met up with a Texan trio, one of whom was summiting Kit Carson on his 4thattempt. Much respect for the commitment!

We made it!

We descended the standard route down the gully and around to the Avenue. Clouds were starting to roll up from the basin, so we missed the turn to the right and were slightly below the Avenue before we realized our mistake. It was obvious pretty quickly that we'd descended too low (despite some deceptive cairns,) and we were able to climb back up without any difficulty.

We dubbed this view Mordor.

Kit Carson and the Crestones from Challenger Point.

From there it was an easy hike around to the summit of Challenger Point, getting there at 9:50am. We started across the ridge and descended the gully on the standard route, which was definitely the worst part of the whole day. Fortunately there’s an RMFI team doing amazing trail work up there. We thanked them profusely as we passed, and it was smooth sailing from there on out. We got back to the trail junction of Challenger Point and the takeoff for the North Ridge at 11:30am, and cruised back to the Willow Lake TH by 2:25pm for a door-to-door time of 11h15m.

Your favorite 14er is always a combination of the route, the scenery, the people you’re with and how you feel on the day. This is my new favorite based on all of those things. I was apprehensive at the start of the day, but as we climbed the ridge, it just got more and more fun. Highly recommend this route to anyone that enjoys scrambling, and would also tell fellow exposure weenies not to let it deter them from at least having a look at it. Once you’re on the ridge you’re committed, but every time it felt like things started to get really intense there was a break to catch your breath. And accomplishing something you weren’t sure you could do makes it all the more rewarding, right?

If nothing else, you get to hang out at Willow Lake for a while, which doesn't suck.

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

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Comments or Questions

07/28/2020 08:31
Nice work and a really good time on that route.
It really is a great route/scramble to the summit.
Thanks for the shout out.


re: Thanks
07/28/2020 10:41
Thanks for reading! This is such a fantastic route.


Great Timing!
07/28/2020 15:51
We have about the same number of peaks and experience so I find your perspective really helpful. I have had this route on my radar for sometime in August or September and I am really looking forward to it! Have you done the Freeway on the 2nd Flatiron at all? Interested if you could compare the angle as the Freeway is one of my favorite scrambles.


07/28/2020 19:16
Unfortunately I haven't spent a lot of time at the Flatirons (beyond hiking around the base of them,) but just checked out the the Freeway and it looks awesome! My guess is if you're comfortable with that you'll have no problem with the North Ridge and will probably love it. Enjoy!


07/30/2020 20:51
This makes me want to return to KC and go up North Ridge, I might have to schedule a trip down there soon!


08/03/2020 09:12
Awesome trip report!! Totally loved the write up and the pics!! What a route and way to crush it!! That's great how you were able to harness your mental strength at exactly the right time to turn the focus back into fun! Hope to see you guys soon!!


Encouraging Report
09/03/2020 11:43
I'll be trying this route on 9/6/2020. I noticed I'm not far off your peak number and your trip report was very encouraging. Thanks for sharing!

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