My love for the Kit Carson Massif began on September 28, 2002, when my father, brother, and I had planned a quick weekend trip to Willow Lake for the sake of the lake itself. At that point I wasn't very interested in mountain climbing, but my views were subject to very rapid change. We drove from Oklahoma in one day, and upon arrival, gasping for air already, dragged ourselves up the 10-15 switchbacks to the meadow that is about halfway to the lake. Coupled with the exhaustion of a 10 hour car trip, the short jaunt to the meadow wiped us out. We set up camp and slept very soundly until the next morning.
We awoke feeling much more energized after giving our tired bodies some time to acclimatize to the altitude, and ate breakfast and filtered some water. As we filtered the water, clouds rolled in from the San Luis Valley, an omen of things to come. It began to snow, and we commented on how cool it was that we were able to see a little bit of snow so much earlier than the average Oklahoman, and again hit the trail.
The past 24 hours began to catch up with our tired, out of shape bodies, and we made very slow progress. The snow stopped within 10 minutes of its start, but within an hour another line of snow passed through. By the time we had made it to the rocky section at the top of the headwall, we decided that we were going to take the first campsite we could find, as more snow was on the horizon. We struggled up to the next creek crossing. Within an eighth of a mile, we found a fairly flat spot where we set up camp. My brother had run ahead to find the campsite, as he was least affected by the altitude, and while crossing the creek in high winds had fallen in. We slept until the next, and by far the heaviest line of storms had passed through, and made a small campfire in order to dry off. We sat and discussed our next course of action, eventually deciding that my father would go ahead now and see how far we were to the lake, and if it was only a short hike, we would continue on while the weather held.
45 minutes later, he returned with news that it was only a short hike, and that he had seen the waterfall but not the lake. In an exhausted daze, I found it odd that he had said that, as I had always thought that the waterfall was across the lake from the trail. Without another thought, however, we hiked to the campsites below the lake and began to cook dinner. We arrived at these campsites at 5:30-6:00, over 24 hours after leaving the trailhead.
While boiling water, another line of storms moved through, and, keeping with the recent trends, was even more severe than the previous lines. While attempting to get water boiling on a small stove, rain, snow, sleet, and hail fell on us, and the temperature dropped 10-15 degrees. After eating crunchy freeze dried food that had been prepared with "boiling" water rather than boiling water, we crawled into the tent for another night. It rained and hailed most of the night, and there was 2-3 inches of accumulation on the ground. By this point in time, we realized that we were in over our heads for this time of year to stay much longer, and, still suffering from altitude sickness, returned to our car for a steak dinner and hotel in Alamosa and a relaxing trip home. My dad had seen the waterfall, but nobody had seen the lake.
I promised myself that that wasn't the last that trail would see of me, and that I would see the lake before another year passed.
Fast forwarding a year, I have become quite interested in mountaineering, and reaffirmed my promise to see the lake, but this time added the summits of Kit Carson and Challenger Point to my list. Over the past year, the three members of our expedition made an effort to be in much better shape the next time we attempted the mountains, and this effort paid off.
We left Oklahoma City at about 8:00, and drove to Alamosa. The next day, we did short trips to Zapata Falls and the Great Sand Dunes to adjust to the thinner air. These side trips were wonderful, and if I had not been deadset on Willow Lake, would have made a terrific vacation in and of themselves, but this time I desired much more.
We stood at the trailhead at about 7:30 or 8:00 the following morning, and within 4 hours had arrived at the lake. We set up camp again, at almost exactly the same place as we had the year before, and hiked over to the waterfall that my father had seen the year before. I would guess it was 25-30 feet tall, and was most definitely not THE Willow Lake waterfall, but rather a lesser fall leading into the creek that flows alongside the trail for much of the hike in. A short walk above it revealed the true prize, Willow Lake. We spent that afternoon and evening relaxing and discussing our plans for an attempt on Challenger and Kit Carson.
The next day, we hiked above the lake and a short way up Challenger. We had started late for a serious attempt, and wanted to see what we were doing more than actually climb them at that point in time. The clouds began to darken, and we decided to return to camp to make lunch, and that we would do some more exploring in the afternoon. [Side note--we hiked back to camp on the east side of the lake,. It was mostly a scramble over boulders. I would recommend hiking along the left, or west, side of the lake on the way up for time purposes. Also, on the way up, we found a cave on the northwest side of the lake approximately 75 vertical feet above the trail. In an emergency, it looked like it would provide good shelter from the elements. It had been inhabited, as was evidenced by a rock wall used to block the wind, rain, and snow.]
As we ate, it began to rain. As the rain increased in fury, our worst nightmares became reality as white began to fall. Pea sized sleet began to layer the ground, and we scrambled into our tent and settled in for a long storm. Two hours later, the rain began to slack off a little bit. An eighth of an inch of water had seeped through the bottom of our 20 year old Eureka tent, 4 inches of hail covered the ground, and a 150-250 foot waterfall had formed on the northwest face of Challenger. Reluctantly, we packed up and returned home. Being a novice flatlander, I didn't go into this trip expecting a summit, only hoping for it. Because of this, I was able to enjoy the trip as a wonderful time spent in isolation with those I love, while being surrounded by some of the most beautiful mountains in the world.
That's not to say I wasn't disappointed.
I will return.
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