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!


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