We left on Friday afternoon, and to save some money we took my Honda Civic instead of our Jeep. Everyone I had talked to said they saw passenger cars at the trailhead so I felt relatively confident in taking the civic up.
If I didn't like my car, it would not have been a problem. The biggest problem was I liked my car quite a bit so it was slow going. I was sure there were some near misses on my undercarriage, but we managed to crawl slowly up an almost all the way to the end of the road before I decided to park about a tenth of a mile from the trailhead. I have to say, if I had it all to do over again, I would have taken the Jeep.
We pulled on our packs and headed out at about 5:30pm. Seemingly endless switchbacks led us along the well kept trail. The heat of the day was sinking in as we plodded on, but were graced with sunset as we approached
the water falls below Willow Lake. We got to Willow lake around 9pm, and crawled into our sleeping bags right away. I pulled out my hardcover book and took a ribbing from Jason for packing something so heavy in, and in retrospect, I think I'll pick a paperback next time.
As always, the alarm clock starting beeping too soon. Pulling ourselves out of our cozy bags, we looked at each other blankly, wondering if getting up at 4am was really necessary. It turned out it would be.
The trail greeted us with heavy fog, slowing our progress and making what should have been straightforward route finding complicated. We listened for the sound of flowing water to guide us to the far end of the lake. Once we were on the far side of the lake, a trail led us to the base of the gully we had both ready about. First light illuminated the fog as we slogged slowly upward. Periodic Breaks in the fog gave us a sense of direction, and hope that we were actually making progress. The route up Challenger was also a bit steeper than I had imagined, so we moved a bit slower than I had hoped, but were rewarded when the sun broke the fog in its hurry to breach the ridge that sits west of Challenger. The sky lit up like someone poured fire in the fog, lighting it with glee. This view would be the balm that made us feel like the slog was worth it as we transitioned onto ever looser scree.
This was one of those places where there were more loose rocks then solid.
No matter how many mountains I climb, I never feel particularly comfortable with boulders that move when you touch them. I don't know why, but it's just, well, disconcerting. The gully was peppered with these superbly loose boulders, and never ending scree. It was here that I realized I had forgotten my helmut at home. The last 100 feet of the gully presented us with a the first real trail we had seen in some time. That trail was covered in ball bearing size rocks though, so we ended up sticking to the wall, where we could at least get our hands on the solid rock that formed the wall.
The top of the gully presented us with an amazing view. There was still quite a bit of fog below us, but the way above us was clear. We could see the summit of Mt. Adams sticking out of the clouds like the peak at the beginning of all the Paramount Pictures movies. This gave me a great opportunity to play with the D50 I had just bought for my wife, and taken with me on this trip.
The trip up to the summit of challenger was smooth sailing on solid rock. When we arrived at the summit of Challenger, the way to Kit Carson can clear before us. The fog below had even let up more, though you could still see it flowing like water breaching a dam over the ridge line to the West. I took this amazing photo that I will always consider one of my best from there.
As we reached the saddle between Challenger and Kit Carson, we realized that our day was about to get fun. Kit Carson Avenue is a great trail, leading around the massif that makes up Kit Carson's summit. We kept looking up, imagining ourselves trying to rock climb to the summit, always knowing how crazy that would be. The Avenue ended too quickly and revealed the scramble up to the summit. The rock was solid, and the route obvious. This was some of the most solid scrambling I had ever done, and reminded me of the trough on Long's Peak, but more scenic. We were able to make the trip from Challenger to Kit Carson's summit in an hour thanks to the incredible rock.
From the summit we could clearly see the Crestones not far away, as well as Little Bear far to the South. We were the second group to the summit for the day, so we had a moment to enjoy our sandwiches on the summit, liberally taking photos of the amazing rock formations that surrounded us. We headed down after about half an hour, and in our excitement overshot Kit Carson Avenue by at least 100ft. We scrambled back up to find that the route back to the saddle was an uphill trek.
When we reached the saddle, we though we would try to skirt below Challenger's summit, which did not work out all that well for us. We wasted more engery negotiating the loose rock then we would have spent heading up the ridge to Challenger. In the end we found our way back to the ridge on the other side of the summit, and shortly thereafter to the top of the gully.
This is where I wished I had brought my helmet with me. There were still people heading up, and even though I am sure they were being careful, they were sending rocks down, just as I am sure we had. This led to us spending an inordinate amount of time listening for rocks that might be rocketing towards our heads. After what seemed like forever, we came to the lake, and followed the now obvious trail back to our camp. We were greeted by a large herd of goats that clearly felt as though we were invaders. We saw several males fighting as we broke camp, and refilled out water bottles.
I really wanted to spend the night at the lake and hike out the next day, but Jason had prior plans he needed to keep, so we went ahead and hit the trail. As we switchbacked down, my feet felt ever footfall with my pack sitting heavily on my shoulders after our already long day scrambling on the mountain. Despite this, I could not help but marvel at the beauty of the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness.
My little silver Civic was a welcome sight and we excitedly opened th cooler we had left in the trunk with ice and Gatorade. The drive down the road was uneventful, but I knew we reached the bottom just in time when the rain began to fall as we passed under the "caution: 4 Wheel Drive Vehicle Only" sign that marked the beginning of the normal road and the little town of Crestone, Colorado.