Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Longs Peak (14,261 ft.),
Mt. Meeker (13,917 ft.)

26 August, 2007: Monsoon season in Colorado is finally over—or at least on the wane. I knew that the last weekend in August was going to offer better weather than we’d seen for some time, so it was obviously time to bag another fourteener. Then the bad logistic news hit: Trisha’s work schedule had been inconsiderately re-arranged on her, leaving her with no consecutive pairs of days off for the entire rest of the month.
With only four new fourteeners under my belt, despite a good start and against a plan of nine for this year, I decided to explore other alternatives. I turned to the Climber’s Connection section of 14ers dot com. I hoped to find someone in the Springs area who was after one of the same peaks I’m still chasing, with whom I could share the ride. I put out feelers on the forum, listing all the peaks I thought might be suitable, mainly those to the south, in the Sangres.
But I also included Longs Peak, the northernmost fourteener. And what I ended up with was a connection with Marcia, an avid peakbagger from Denver, who also wanted to do Longs, but definitely wanted a partner. All I had to do was get myself to Denver, and we could share the ride from there to RMNP. So I drove up there Saturday afternoon; we would catch a few hours’ sleep in the car at the trailhead, then get a pre-dawn start on Sunday. The plan was to climb both Longs and Mt. Meeker, its southeast buttress peak.
Longs is a huge mountain with four buttress peaks, arrayed around it with amazing symmetry in the northwest (Storm Mtns.), northeast (Mt. Lady Washington), southeast (Mt. Meeker), and southwest (Pagoda Mtn.) directions. Meeker is both the highest (69th highest in Colorado) and the closest to Longs (less than a mile as the crow flies). Since every route to the summit of Longs is long, both horizontally and vertically, I figured I might as well take the opportunity to summit a ranked thirteener on the same trip.
One last note about Longs: This is the only fourteener I’ve ever climbed that has a paved parking lot at the trailhead. You don’t need a four wheel drive vehicle. You could get there on roller skates. For some reason, despite its very real difficulty, this peak attracts thousands of people every year, many of whom, IMHO, really have no business trying to climb it. But they come all the same, and the Park Service tries to accommodate them. We pulled into one of the very last open spaces in this parking lot, which holds about 50 cars, and hit the trail at 2:45 am MDT.
Naturally, we started out with headlamps blazing. The moon was two days from full and still in the sky, but it didn’t help us much down in the trees. (The trailhead is at about 9,400 feet.) By the time we had covered the roughly three miles of very well worn trail to timberline, the moon had set. Thus, our trek across the next section of the trail, which is not very steep, was under stunning, starry skies with only hints of light pollution on the eastern horizon.
About four miles from the trailhead, we came to the trail junction where our route diverged from the standard peakbagger’s route on Longs. We had already passed, or been passed by, several parties of hikers, but once we took that turn-off south toward Chasm Lake, we were by ourselves except for one other pair we occasionally spotted climbing half a mile or so ahead of us.
The trail actually drops slightly from the junction to skirt the lake, before entering the steep approach gully above the lake, which leads to the Loft, the broad saddle between Longs and Meeker. The western side of this gully is a soaring outcrop of nearly vertical rock called the Ships Prow, and our route passed right under the base of it, before going to the left to the other side of the drainage. We got there just after dawn, so there was already plenty of light, and we were treated to ever-changing views of this immense wall as we climbed--that is, whenever we could take our eyes off the rock in front of us.
The climb up this gully might be the most challenging part of this route. Together with the traverse we would do later, it is one reason why the Loft route is not the standard way to climb Longs, even though it is actually shorter than the standard Keyhole route. It is probable that the difficulty can be held to Class 3 with good enough route finding. The cairns which mark the route, however, are sparse, and the gully steepens as one climbs, often making it hard to see very far ahead. As a result, we ended up doing occasional moves, or stretches, of Class 4 climbing. Some of the moves were exposed enough that, even though the rocks were still cold to the touch, I finally took off my gloves for a while, because I needed the best grip I could possibly get on the rock.
Near the top, you are necessarily funneled toward the center of the drainage, just to the right of a large headwall, and there was still a small amount of water flowing here. It had to be crossed twice, once in each direction. I was a little concerned about this, but, fortunately, we had no real problem with slippery rocks, as we found surprisingly level places to get across.
What we had more problem with was finding the ledge which leads out of the center of the gully and off to the left, the only safe way to traverse the headwall. It’s actually about ten feet wide, but amazingly hard to see from below. We actually missed it to begin with, then had to scramble back to the right to intersect it.
After that, route finding problems were over for a while. A couple of (relatively) easy climbing moves got us off that ledge’s top end and up onto the beginning of the second ledge, which heads back to the right, and which was not at all hard to find. After that, all the steep stuff is over, and we had only a modest hike on much more level, rounded ground to reach the Loft at about 13,460 ft.
We could already see the summit of Longs, complete with people. It looks at a casual glance as if one could simply walk northwest right up to that summit, but it isn’t so. A huge gash called, straightforwardly enough, The Notch slices into the slope. Not only is it deep and steep, it is actually overhung on one side. That is not the finish to the Loft route.
First, however, we had the side trip to Mt. Meeker to complete. From the Loft, a clear climber’s trail leads up Meeker’s slopes, fading out only when it finally comes to the narrow and steep summit ridge. The ridge contains several high points, all with very nearly the same elevation, spread out along a quarter of a mile or more. From the direction of our approach, the true summit is the second major point.
The summit register for Meeker is actually located on the first ridge point. That it is a couple of feet (literally) lower than the true summit is not really as important as the fact that it is several dozen yards away from the true summit. Those yards of traverse to get between the two points are amazingly exposed. The ridge is sharply edged, and very steep on both sides. I went across a good deal of it on all fours, rather than trusting my balance on only two feet on the slanted rock. It wasn’t really technically difficult at all, but any slip could easily be fatal, because there is absolutely nothing to grab to slow or stop a fall on either side, should one start sliding. Still, I got to the small boulder at the true summit, and photographed my foot dangling over several hundred feet of unbroken air on the north side before retracing my steps. The views, in all directions, were astounding, and all the more stunning in the horizontal light of early morning.
Marcia had proved to be faster on the climb than me, had summitted before me, and was waiting for me back at the Loft. Now it was time for the traverse over to Longs.
From the Loft, one must give up about 150 feet of elevation on the west side, in order to detour below the huge wall called the Palisades. (You might have noticed that I’m using lots of adjectives like “huge,” “soaring,” “sweeping,” and the like. It’s for good reason. Longs is a BIG mountain and, like Kit Carson, is mostly guarded from casual climbers by imposing cliff faces. Only a few lucky accidents of topography enable one to squeak around these imposing barriers.)
After finding the right place to descend from the loft—which some have failed to do—one then follows an undulating path, up and down while traversing generally north, through the rocks. All the while, there is a stunning drop-off on one’s left. There are occasional cairns to show the approximate route, but a lot depends on the climber’s ability to find, or intuit, a good route through the jumble of boulders, across rock ribs, and through gullies. This is the major reason why not only is Longs not a good “beginner” peak, this route in particular is really no place for a novice. You often can’t see where you’re going for very far, and the exposure is constant.
The rock, however, is quite good, at least until you actually pass north of the Palisades. Then, it is necessary to climb up and across a broad gully, which terminates in the dramatic gap of the Notch above, and which is filled with loose rock. Again, any slip could be catastrophic. This goes on for quite a ways.
Finally, after re-gaining about the same amount of elevation we had given up from the Loft, we came to a place where the rock surface turned to convex under us, and, looking over, we could see the place where our route would rejoin the standard one: the base of the rock face climb called the Homestretch.
It was a two-way highway of people. Most were on all fours, whether going up or down, but a few brave (or foolhardy!) climbers were striding over this steep surface with nothing but the traction of their boot soles to hold them on the mountain. I have no reluctance to acknowledge that I joined the all-fours group. There are only the smallest of ledges or cracks to grab or stand on. In a few places, there is really nothing, and one is forced to trust to boot sole traction for a step or two, no matter what. But mostly, I scrambled the entire way up the 300 feet or so to the big cairn which marks the top using all four limbs.
Then, finally, nearly eight hours after leaving the trailhead, I stepped out onto the immense, flat summit of Longs Peak. It is literally big enough to contain a football field. And, except for two piles of boulders six to eight feet high—one of which is the actual high point and contains the register—the elevation probably doesn’t vary by more than two or three feet over the entire area.
Marcia had gotten there ahead of me again, but we both took a rest on the summit. I was there for forty or forty-five minutes. Thankfully, the weather was just about as good as I had been hoping for. The sky was mostly cloudless, the sunlight bright and unbroken, and there was not a hint of rain. The temperature must have been around 50 or 55—warm for that altitude—and only the persistent breeze made me retain my long sleeves. I had dispensed with my long pants before starting up the Homestretch.
After taking a brace of pictures and signing the register, it was finally to leave the summit. I was much faster on the descent, but the work was definitely not over. From the bottom of the Homestretch, there is another so-called traverse to the north, to get to the gap in the mountain’s northwest ridge called the Keyhole. But, just like the traverse below the Palisades, this one does not go steadily either up or down on an even slope. It involves going down and back up several times by varying amounts, as it winds through the jumbled rocks.
Seeing where to go, however is easy. There are red and yellow “bullseyes” painted on the rock all along the route. The going is still rather slow, however, as it involves more scrambling than walking. You definitely use your hands. And, as this is a continuation of the traverse along the northwestern face of the peak, there is that awesome drop-off into the Glacier Gorge valley below you on the left almost the whole time.
Not long after passing through the Keyhole, though, things finally get easier. One has to descend a few hundred feet through boulders at first, but, though the boulders continue, the ground levels out quite a bit. There, one is presented with the dramatic, more familiar, views of Longs from the north, northeast, and east. As the need for hand use passes, the dramatic Diamond Face on the east side—with its many challenging technical routes—comes into view. So did never-melted snow fields north of the summit.
We finished the hike down in the company of another group who happened to be from Colorado Springs, including a chemistry professor at UCCS. We all hoofed it down in pretty good time, anxious to finish this arduous climb with some sun left in the sky. It took us only an hour and ten minutes to drop the last 3½ miles—pretty good, considering the efforts we had already put out.
Less than a mile from the parking lot, we did actually finally get rained on. It was just a passing sprinkle, for which I didn’t even put on my windbreaker. The temperature was in the mid-seventies when we finally got back to the trailhead at 4 pm. Pictures are at:

Long life and many peaks!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Quandary Peak (14,270 ft.)

11 August, 2007: I finally accomplished a goal I had been pursuing for some time: I saw the sun rise from the summit of a fourteener.

The Plan

“I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky”

—John Denver

The words are almost universally familiar. What is perhaps less well known is that these words are a reference to viewing the annual Perseid meteor shower from the dark skies of a site high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. I had wanted to duplicate this experience for myself for many years, but one circumstance or another (the phase of the moon, rainy weather, expenses, or inability to schedule around the vicissitudes of life) ruled it out, one August after another.
With both Trisha and I putting renewed energy into trying to finish off our fourteeners as quickly as possible, however, I thought the year might finally have come. The moon couldn’t be behaving better: The new moon in August would come on the exact date of the shower’s peak, the 12th of August. The weather forecast was dry and clear. And the 12th was a Sunday, so it was reasonable to think of hiking up on Saturday night.
All we needed to do was select a mountain. It needs to be fairly easy, with no route finding difficulties, to facilitate climbing in the dark. A short route would be good too, as well as proximity to the Front Range to make a short drive to the trailhead. Finally, a route on the east side, so that we’d be coming down in the morning sunshine, would be ideal. The obvious choice was Quandary. It would be new peak for trishapajean, and I didn’t mind the repeat, since my real goal was the meteor shower.
Reality did intervene a little, though, and Sunday obligations forced us to substitute Friday night/Saturday morning for Saturday/Sunday. Still OK.

Getting There

Starting off in our usual late fashion, we picked up the third member of our party, Jim, on our way out of Colorado Springs at about 10:30 Friday night. We tried for 10, but just couldn’t get everything together quite that fast. Jim is an experienced runner and climber, who has climbed all of the fourteeners except the privately-owned Culebra, but he had never done a night climb, so he was as psyched as I was for this new take on an old mountain.
As we made our way over Wilkerson Pass and across South Park, we could see, even from the car, a sprinkling of Perseids in the moonless sky. With minimal traffic, we made it up over Hoosier Pass and down to the Summit County 850 turn-off in just about the two-and-a-half hours I had expected. When we pulled into the tiny parking area, we found only two other cars there. We were able to hit the trail at about 1:00 am.

Horton Hears a Hiker

Immediately upon getting out of the car, we encountered the famous Horton, the Quandary dog. Horton is very quiet and quite friendly. With no one else around at that hour, we weren’t surprised that he took off up the trail with us. Later on, we began to be surprised at how consistently he stuck with us.
Somehow mistaking the road for the trail, we quickly made our first mistake. Instead of taking the well-worn and well-signed standard trail, we went north on the road to the second of three trailheads, adding some unnecessary distance to our route. We also added a little route finding difficulty, as the maze of old mining roads is a bit more confusing on this route.
Nevertheless, we made decent progress and re-joined the main route below timberline.
Horton was still with us, mostly running ahead, and often my headlamp picked up just the twin dots of his eyes many yards above me. As everyone who has been there knows, the well-worn trail is easy to see and to follow, but I was a bit surprised by how much more difficult the flat light of the headlamps made staying on-route. We were never in any danger of really getting lost, but the details were actually harder to see, and we wandered off the ends of small switchbacks here and there.
Whenever we stopped briefly, whether to adjust clothing or simply to rest, I turned off my headlamp and paid as much attention as I could to the dark, dark sky overhead. Most of these breaks were rewarded with a meteor or two. We also saw numerous meteors just by happenstance while hiking. How I wish we hadn’t had to keep our attention mostly on the ground in front of us; we would have seen so many more!
Naturally, there are no pictures from this segment of the climb, although I wish I had the ability to bring back such images. Maybe sometime in the future. I’m really getting to like night hikes!


After we started up the steep, upper portion of the ridge, three things happened in fairly rapid succession. First, we saw two headlamps coming up the trail below us. Up until this time, we had been alone on the mountain, and it looked like we would be the first group to summit that day. The two young men wearing those headlamps did, however, pass us a few minutes later, while we were stopped to rest. Well, I was resting; this climb was inexplicably wearing on me, much to my chagrin.
Second, I turned around to look out to the east. I saw that, contrary to my hopes, the first light of dawn had crept into the sky, and we were still short of the summit. The disappointment of this was somewhat mitigated by the sight of the very thin crescent moon--barely 24 hours from being new--which hung just barely above the distant horizon. I wish I could have captured that sight on film. But I knew from experience that capturing the delicate shades of azure, yellow, and orange I was seeing, and the dim Earthlight on most of the moon, would require a very long exposure, long enough to be totally impossible without a tripod. So I just let it register as firmly as I could on my senses, to be recalled fondly later. Due to the low horizon, it was definitely one of the slimmest crescent moons I have ever seen.
Thirdly, when I turned back around to begin climbing again, I realized that I didn’t need to turn my headlamp back on. Actual sunrise was probably still most of an hour away, but even the faint sunlight refracting over the horizon was lighting up the east-facing rocks of Quandary better--qualitatively--than the headlamp had.
Watching Horton cavorting up ahead, I pressed on, hoping, at least, to make the summit without any more stops, and before the sun actually rose.

Sunrise: A First

That secondary goal was met. The four of us finally made it up the last slope, and out onto the long, thin, and nearly flat summit area. A quick look behind confirmed that sunrise was still at least several minutes off. I couldn’t read my watch, with its failing LCD face, but when I got the GPS up and running, its clock showed a time of 6:55 MDT, which knew to be 13 or 14 minutes before sunrise.
Twice before over the previous 14 months, I had set out for peaks in the dead of night, but had never managed to make the summit by sunrise. I was very happy finally to be able to see the sun come up from the actual summit of a fourteener.
A little breeze had come up, though, and this, plus the fact that we were no longer expending energy by climbing, made putting on more insulation priority number one. Trisha and I had packed sleeping bags although, through a misunderstanding of the plan for the hike, Jim hadn’t. I immediately pulled mine out and began crawling into it, propped up against the inside of one of the three stone windbreaks which grace this summit. I then serenaded/abused my climbing companions with an a capella rendition of Paul Kantner's "Sunrise."
I also took my camera off the belt of my pack, and pulled it into the bag with me, since I knew from experience that, if the batteries were cold, it might not function properly. After a few minutes, as I began to warm up, I reached out and took the stove out of my pack and set it up. Something warm to drink was the next priority, for all of us. Horton was still energetically running around, but he did settle down briefly when Trisha used her sleeping bag for a lap blanket, and he tucked himself in between the two of us for some temporary warmth.
Having not brought a sleeping bag, Jim decided to keep himself warm by going for a little run along the ridge west of the summit.

Going Down: Solitude Ends

After just over an hour on the summit—a luxury we’ve rarely enjoyed—we packed up, signed the register, and prepared to head down. It was so much easier to see the trail in the morning light.
Only half an hour or so off the summit, we began to encounter the first of the day’s climbers on a more “normal” schedule, coming up as we were going down. Still Horton stayed right with us, looking especially protective of Trisha.
For all our slowness on the way up, we had no trouble maintaining a good pace going down. Somewhere around 13,000 feet, we got so hot that we had to remove some layers. In fact, in one fell swoop, we changed completely from “winter” type dress (basically wearing everything we’d brought) to light summer clothes. It was glorious. The only hitch was that, since I had started out wearing long pants and sleeves, I had to try to stuff more clothing back into my pack than it had contained to begin with. I ended up strapping the last couple of items to the outside. With every passing minute, it seemed, the number of people coming up continued to increase.
It was about this time that we saw the only mountain goats of the day.
Back below timberline, we tried to follow the same route we had taken up. Despite our best efforts, however, we took a different turn somewhere low down, and finally ended up on the bottom portion of the standard trail--the one we had missed starting out. And when we got back to the trailhead, we found, of course, cars parked all up and down the road in great numbers.

Horton seemed sad to see us go.

My photos are at:

Long life and many peaks!

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Kit Carson Peak (14,169 ft), Challenger Point (14,084 ft.)

29 July, 2007
Exactly one year after climbing Crestone Needle, we finally returned to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and to the Crestone Group, to climb Kit Carson Peak. This is a semi-technical peak. Ropes are not required, but the use of one’s hands is. Some people rate it as a Class 3 climb, some as only a “2+.” Either way, it’s not an easy walk-up, and sees many fewer visitors each year than the relatively easy peaks of the Sawatch and the Front Range.
We went not only to do the climb, but also to meet some of the other climbers from; this was the official Summer Gathering. Unfortunately, Trisha and I both had to work into Friday evening, so we had to abandon any hope of getting down there for the whole weekend, and climbing some of the many nearby lower peaks on Saturday. Instead, we got a good night’s sleep Friday night, and headed out as early as we could on Saturday, planning to camp out Saturday night and climb on Sunday.
“There” is near the tiny town of Crestone, CO, on the east edge of the San Luis Valley. We reached it by taking US 24 across South Park, US285 south through Poncha Springs and over Poncha Pass (where we crossed over the crest of the Sangres), Colorado Highway 17 south to Moffatt, and, finally, Saguache County Road “T” east to Crestone. From there, a dirt road leads a mere 2 miles or so east and up into the Sangres to the Willow Creek trailhead. The drive took us about 3½ hours.
From the trailhead, at about 8,900 ft., the Willow Creek Trail begins climbing immediately as it closes in on the actual creek, which it roughly follows. It was 79°F when we left the car, and about an hour of hiking up switchbacks in humidity of the unbelieveably lush forest had convinced us that it was time to start removing clothes. So, wouldn’t you know it, just as we stopped for this purpose, the pervasive cloud cover opened up with rain. First it was a sprinkle, and soon a steady downpour. We not only needed to put on more clothing, we were obliged to put our ponchos over ourselves and our packs in an attempt to stay mostly dry. And to think--we almost didn’t bring those ponchos!
Continuing up the trail in the rain, we met several parties of people coming down. Some had climbed Kit Carson that day; some had merely camped along the trail. One guy we chatted with had a small dog with him (breed uncertain), who had climbed the peak with him. I couldn’t help but remember my own canine 14er companion, Daisyette...
We knew that Willow Lake was only 4½ miles up the trail, and that we would certainly make it before sunset. Still, the rain slowed us down physically as well as psychologically. It made the trail muddy and the rocks a little slippery. (Actually, we were both pleasantly surprised by just how little the wetness degraded the traction we were able to get on that marvelous, conglomerate Crestone rock, but we let this realization sink in slowly, rather than acting cavalierly and risking a fall.
Perhaps two-thirds of the way up, the trail crosses from the north side to the south side of Willow Creek, at the base of a very impressive waterfall. We crossed the improvised log bridge very carefully, on all fours, since we didn’t know how slippery the wood would be, and because a fall would have dumped us five feet or so into a very powerful current. After crossing, a series of rugged switchbacks with some big steps leads up a steep, rocky face to the lip at the top of that waterfall. By this time, we were nearly soaked, ponchos notwithstanding. It is a good thing that it wasn’t really cold at all, since we needed to leave our hands bare.
Once over the lip, the trail levels out, the valley takes a turn to the climber’s right, and there is soon a crossing back over to the north side of the creek. There were some very interesting muddy sections here, but we managed to get through all of them without getting really mud-caked.
Finally, rain still pouring down, we came upon the sign informing us that camping was prohibited within 300 feet of Willow Lake, so we knew it must be just ahead. Just as it came into view, we met the first of our fellow climbers, Chris P. He had managed to ride out the storm there, just below the lake, with just clothing for protection, as he had not brought a tent, expecting just to bivy! To our pleasure, he informed us that the bulk of the group was, indeed, not far away, on the rock shelf overlooking the upper end of the lake. See some of the pictures in my photo album for an idea of the visual awesomeness of the lake and that campsite. And take my word for it: For all my photographic efforts, the pictures simply cannot do justice to the real place!
That was the good news. The bad news was that that remaining ½ mile of trail involved a very steep climb, with many even bigger steps than what we had already seen, to circle the north end of the lake and top out above it. Worse, the riotous vegetation--all manner of grasses, flowers, and bushes--were overgrowing the trail, nearly hiding it in places, and two hours or so of steady rain had left them utterly, utterly soaked. We thought we were already wet, but pushing aside all those bushes with our legs must have doubled or tripled the amount of water our poor boots, socks, and pant legs were carrying! So that last half-mile took a while.
But we made it. The sun actually peeked through the clouds a little, the rain finally stopped, and by the time we got up on top of the cliff, we didn’t even need to care if our boots shipped a little more water in negotiating the stepping stones via which we had to cross back over the stream one more time to reach the campsite.
Unsurprisingly, the weather had reduced the attendance somewhat. In fact, those there had concluded that we, ourselves, were going to be no-shows. (It was now well past 7 pm.) But they hadn’t counted on how much we wanted this peak! We introduced ourselves to “the Jamies” (Nellis and Princo), the organizers, Steve (a very young guy with whom I had corresponded earlier in the year, “Chicago Transplant” Mike (whom we had briefly met on our attempt on Mt. Harvard the previous September, and two or three others. With daylight fading, however, there was no time for extended socializing.
We threw up the tent, put on basically all the clothes we had brought to get warm, and did the fastest job we could (much credit to Trisha for being very organized about having what I needed ready when I needed it as got the stove going and dinner cooking), and prepared to crawl into our sleeping bags. Even those bags, deep in our packs, hadn’t completely escaped getting wet, but it wasn’t bad. By the time we finished and had the dishes rinsed off, everybody else had already gotten a half-hour to one-hour head start on us sawing those logs. Trish set the alarm on her cell phone for 4:15, and we nodded off to what turned out to be a surprisingly good night’s sleep.
I heard light rain hitting the tent’s rainfly a couple of times during the night, but nothing serious. Near midnight, I also saw lights darting around (headlamps). At first I wondered if a group of night hikers was passing by, on their way to a summit sunrise, but, as it turns out, it was more of the folks coming in very late. Apparently, they were going to be content with just a few hours sleep, but the weather hadn’t depressed attendance as much as it originally seemed. Sure enough, the wan light of morning revealed several new tents when I poked my head out.
When I poked my head out turned out to be about 3 am. Why, you ask? Good question! Here’s the answer: One of the vagaries of cell phones seems to be that going into certain areas causes them to lose some of their electronic marbles and louse up their internal clocks! This had happened to Trisha’s phone somewhere on the trip up. We know this because we later learned that the same thing had also happened to the phones of several other people there. Since there was no hint of dawn, I finally turned on my GPS, which also has a clock, and discovered the true time. That being the case, with clouds still covering the sky, we both decided to go back to sleep (or at least to dozing) for a while. We did brew up some hot coffee first, though, to help keep us warm more than to wake us up.
When the real get-up time of 5 am did roll around, and everybody started stumbling out of their tents, the cloud cover had actually gotten even heavier. The full moon could not be seen at all and all activity more detailed than just walking around was still being guided by headlamps.
A general air of uncertain gloom hung over the gathering, as no one was sure whether or not it would really be safe to attempt an exposed peak like Kit Carson that day. Still, most people were in the same position we were: This was the one day we had, the one we’d carved out of our schedules, and we weren’t going to abandon our hopes of summitting until and unless it was certain that we had to. So we waited. And talked. And sipped more coffee. And waited.
Finally, a consensus began to emerge among the more experienced climbers that, although the clouds weren’t nicely just going away, they weren’t consolidating into a real storm either. In the end, we all decided that we might as well give the mountain our best try, and see how the morning weather developed. Trisha and I were basically the last ones to set off up the valley, at about 5:30. MDT
A clear trail leads perhaps a quarter of a mile east from the campsite, but from that point, our route called for striking out sharply uphill to the south, up the steep north slopes of Challenger Point. It starts out steep, and it gets steeper. It’s also loose in places, muddy in others, and we had to deal with wet, slippery vegetation in still other places.
We quickly got to where we couldn’t see the ridge top toward which we were proceeding. We just had to trust that the route descriptions we’d read, and the experience of those in the group who had made this climb before, would guide us up the most practical route. Actually, it wasn’t that hard, since we could see other climbers above us almost the whole way.
But it was slow, hard going. We climbed roughly 2,000 feet of steep, rough rock to reach the short, broad gully that finally gave out onto the top.
The “top” wasn’t, of course, the actual summit of Challenger, but merely the top of the ridge. Challenger Point is the high point on a long, gently sloped ridge running down to the west from up against the flanks of Kit Carson Peak. But at the top of the gully, we found a clear climber’s trail which led out just below the crest on the other (south) side, and then quickly up onto the ridge crest proper. We could now see the actual summit, perhaps half a mile away, but only a couple of hundred feet up. The rock was now solid, too, so, despite the rather impressive exposure on the narrow ridge, our pace picked up quite a bit. Our first summit was within reach, and there was neither rain nor wind. Yay!
We finished the easy and enjoyable scramble to the summit about 8:30. Many others had gotten there faster, but we didn’t feel too bad with our net climb rate of 1,100 feet per hour. But we didn’t linger. This was only our subsidiary goal, and we still didn’t know what the weather would do. As the crow flies, the summit of Kit Carson is barely a quarter of a mile away, but we’re not crows. As the peakbagger hikes, we still had to travel about a mile, plus give up and regain 700 feet or so of elevation. So we set off on the steep, 300-foot descent to the Challenger/Kit Carson saddle.
At the saddle, we picked up the great little piece of topographic luck that keeps Kit Carson from being the most difficult fourteener in the Crestone Group: Kit Carson Avenue. This amazing little ledge system leads first up and southeast, into the saddle between the summit and the massive fin of rock known as the Prow. Then it turns a sharp corner, and heads east and down, across the south face of the mountain, around a second, more gentle, corner, and still further down to the bottom of to adjacent gullies, both of which lead rather easily to within a stone’s throw of the summit on its north side.
The first gully is steeper, but more solid. It sports definite Class 3 scrambling. The second one, at the absolute end of the Avenue, is less steep, but looser, and generally rated Class 2+. In gorgeous weather, or alone, I might well have chosen the first gully, since it means a shorter route. But I didn’t want to be caught on that sort of rock face if it got wet, and I had Trisha’s welfare to consider, too. So it was a no-brainer to take the more annoying, longer, but really safer scramble up the second gully.
Going up this gully, you still can’t really see the summit--which is so in-your-face visible from just about anywhere on the other side. But we met people descending who assured us that it was just barely out of sight, and only minutes away. It was.
At about 10:30, the top came into view very suddenly, along with Challenger and many miles of the San Luis Valley below. Especially after having been so close to having to decide to abandon this climb, we were very happy and satisfied to pull out and sign the register, and look around at the fantastic views available from the top of this block of Crestone rock. On a summit like this, the register doesn’t fill up in a few weeks, or even one season, like they do on some fourteeners closer to Denver.
They would have been more fantastic, of course, had it not been for the lingering clouds and drifting mists all around. We could see Crestone Peak most of the time, but Crestone Needle only some of the time, and Humboldt Peak, really not at all. So, once again, we didn’t linger. We drank a little, but didn’t haul out our traditional mountain lunch of pita sandwiches. We took a few pictures and headed down.
The trip down was largely anticlimactic, being just the reverse of what I’ve already described. I took some more pictures along the way, including one looking up at the “back” side of the Prow. (I later learned that climbing to its top from the saddle is easier than I had imagined, causing me to regret that I hadn’t given it a try--but I might have decided that it wasn’t a wise investment of time, anyway. Well, another day...)
Naturally, the return involved another summitting of Challenger Point, this time up the steep side and down the gentle side, but that, too, was mainly just another point on the way down. The best part of that segment was that, just as we were dropping off the ridge into the steep slog down, the sun did finally come out and treat us to mostly clear light. And rapidly rising temperatures. We could finally get rid of some clothes, and I finally needed my sunglasses!
It had taken us five hours to make our ascent, but we got back to camp in about three and a quarter--just after 2 pm. With the sun still out--what a relief!--we still had to break camp and pack up our gear for the last leg of our trip.
To tell the truth, I was sort of dreading having to hoist that heavy expedition pack again--including some still-wet gear--for the 4½ miles of trial below us. Sure enough, before we got all the way back, my shoulders were complaining rather loudly, and I had to stop a couple of times to give them some relief.
The first stop we made, however, was to get some pictures of the lake and the waterfall, which I had not done on the slog in. Between being tired, and in a hurry, and having everything covered by my poncho, it just hadn’t seemed practical. The light was much better on Sunday afternoon, too! You can judge whether my efforts paid off or not.
In retrospect, I wish we could have had more time to take that trail in a more leisurely fashion. It’s incredibly beautiful, and the ever-changing views of the spectacular rocks that tower over it are truly impressive. But we only had so much time, and there was three hours or more of road ahead even after we got back to the car, so we hurried on as best we could. It took us just about another three and a quarter hours.
We came through several spotty rainstorms on the way back, and we had to divert ourselves onto US 50 through Salida and Cañon city, because flooding seemed to have totally blocked US 285 south of Buena Vista. Still, we made it home before 10 pm. We were tired but happy, and not nearly as tired as our previous mountain had left us. To top it off, Suzanne had a big spaghetti dinner waiting for us! Pictures are at:

Long life and many peaks!