Objective: Challenger Pt (14,081’) – CO Rank 34
Kit Carson Peak (14,165) – CO Rank 23
Date Climbed: July 7, 2007
Route: Northwest slope from Willow Creek
Elevation Gain: 6250’
Total Distance: 13.50 miles
Participants: Jim & Karen Ohl, Tony Strayer
Karen and I were looking forward to the conglomerate rock on Kit Carson Peak, hoping it would be as enjoyable as the Crestones. Our chosen route would allow us to hit Challenger Pt as well, and we were prepared to pay our dues (at least on the way up) as we were told it was a loose mess. Karen had been gracious enough to repeat 5 summits for me this year and now it was time for her to make her first new summits of the year. Kevin Baker would accompany us to camp at Willow Lake on Friday night and continue on to climb a series of 13ers Saturday, while Tony Strayer joined us for both Challenger and Kit Carson as a dayhike from the trailhead.
Hike to Willow Lake
It’s possible to reach the summit of Kit Carson as a dayhike, but those who do so are in for a long day. We opted to backpack in the 3.7 miles and 2900’ to camp at Willow Lake. Tony wasn’t able to leave Denver early enough to join us, so we made plans to meet him at our campsite Saturday morning at 5am. We got a late start, leaving the trailhead at 8pm, so much of the hike was done in the dark. I was disappointed as I could tell the views along the way were awesome, but at least I would get some nice pictures on the way our, right? Hold that thought. I was surprised how much more treacherous crossing fast water at night seemed, but then again we were crossing it via a makeshift bridge of downed trees. The last crossing before the headwall was especially violent and falling in would have been disastrous, so we made sure to take our time, but it definitely got my adrenaline going. We reached the lake at around 11pm, quickly found a place to setup camp, and I was sound asleep by midnight.
The 4am wake-up call came early, but we were soon up and ready to go. We questioned whether Tony would be able to find us, but to our surprise he showed up right on time. He had driven in from Denver Friday night and started hiking at 1:30am to meet us, with no sleep…this was shaping up to be a huge endurance test for him. At 5:15am we started hiking around Willow Lake, possibly one of the most beautiful spots I have seen in Colorado – the views were breathtaking.
Beautiful Willow Lake
Just past the lake we parted ways with Kevin as he was headed for a long ridge traverse to Mt Adams, over a few unnamed 13ers along the way. We started heading up a 2000’ gulley toward Challenger’s northwest ridge. The grassy slopes leading up to the gulley were soft underfoot, but I found the trail difficult to follow the further up we went.
Jim and Tony climbing the grassy entrance to the gulley
Beyond the grass, the gulley was most definitely a loose mess of rubble. Karen did a great job of route finding along the way keeping it to mostly class 2+ with a couple of class 3 sections. Overall, the climbing was easy, but our concern was kicking loose rocks down on each other or climbers further below us – in my opinion, a helmet is a must here.
Karen towards the top of the gulley
At the top of the gulley we came to a notch and crossed through to the south side of Challenger, where we found an easy route back up to gain the northwest ridge. The remaining ¼ mile ridge traverse was a piece of cake, and I enjoyed the views down Challenger’s wickedly steep south face.
Jim and Karen on Challenger Pt's northwest ridge
The point is named after the courageous crew that died aboard the Challenger in 1987, and we stopped to read a plaque placed on the summit in their honor. We reached the summit at 8:45am, celebrated briefly, refueled, and got ready to head on to Kit Carson Peak.
The summit of Challenger Pt!
Kit Carson Peak
The route to Kit Carson from Challenger Pt involves following a fun ledge, known as Kit Carson Avenue, around to the south side of the peak.
Kit Carson Peak and the avenue as seen from Challenger
I am normally sensitive to exposure, but the ledge is so wide that I had no problem at all. Our biggest concern was any lingering snow patches that might make the avenue impassable, so we brought our ice axes along just in case. The initial section of the avenue climbs slightly and the remaining snow was of no consequence and easily avoided.
The ledge is wide enough to avoid snow lingering at the start of the avenue
The avenue continues around a corner to the south side of Kit Carson and descends a few hundred feet. We found this section to be completely devoid of snow, except for 2 spots. A fall on either of these two spots would have been bad news but likely just scrapes and bruises.
There were two snow patches on the backside of the avenue that still posed a hazard
In the heaviest section of snow there were solid footholds cut by previous hikers. Most climbers that day did not have or feel the need for an ice ax here and just used trekking poles for balance. We went ahead and used our ice axes, and were glad to have the added feeling of security they offered.
Karen crossing a snow patch with dramatic views of the Crestones ahead!
The next step was finding a gulley to climb up to the summit. There are multiple gullies that we could have taken, and we were able to find the recommended and most gentle gulley easily at the end of the avenue. The climbing here reminded me of the South Couloir on nearby Crestone Peak, although a bit looser. I tried to stay toward the right and found the rock to be more solid.
Jim scrambling up the gulley toward Kit Carson's summit
Tony scrambling up the gulley with an awesome view of centennial Columbia Pt commanding the background
Hand and foot holds were plentiful along the way and we were on the summit in no time, topping out at 10:30am.
The summit of Kit Carson Peak!
The views from the summit were nothing short of spectacular and I couldn’t take my eyes off of the Crestones to our south.
Kit Carson offered a prime spot to view the Crestones!
We had been keeping radio contact with Kevin across the valley all day and signaled our success. The weather had been in our favor all day and we hoped it would continue that way. Tony was feeling the effects of such a long climb from the trailhead on no sleep, so we had lunch, chatted with some nice folks on the summit, and prepared to descend.
The descent to Willow Lake
Finding our way back down the gulley from Kit Carson’s summit was easy as we followed markers placed by a thoughtful climber we met earlier that day on the avenue. The snow on the avenue had softened a bit, but we still crossed easily. Clouds were starting to form around us as the moisture condensed in the air rising from the valleys below. There wasn’t a threat of storms, but it had started to fog out the avenue.
Erie views of the avenue starting to get fogged in
We quickly made our way to its end and prepared to traverse across Challenger Pt back to its gulley. Guidebooks say that you can skirt the summit en route back to the gulley, but I think it would have been faster to re-summit and follow along the ridge as traversing the talus of Challenger’s north face was slow going and treacherous in spots. I ended up making an ascending traverse and regaining the ridge about halfway from the summit of Challenger and then downclimbed a short section back into the gulley. It was after this point that I thanked my lucky stars that we were able to summit both peaks that day and wouldn’t have to return. The descent of Challenger’s gulley was absolutely heinous. Snow in the gulley was too steep to glissade, so we resigned to carefully downclimb this garbage chute. The hazard increased greatly as several other climbers entered the loose gulley above us. If there was a trail through the gulley I certainly had a tough time following it and just tried to stay on as much solid rock as possible. By the time we reached the grassy slopes at the bottom of the gulley, my knees were toast and I couldn’t wait to get back to the lake. Already planning to stay the night, we took our time and stopped at the lake to admire the views and rest our legs.
Another shot of beautiful Willow Lake
We staggered back into camp at 4:00pm and found Kevin resting in his tent. Shortly thereafter, Kevin suggested we go ahead back down to the trailhead and go into town for a hot meal rather than camp another night. My knees boldly said “no way, no how” until I head someone say Pizza Hut, and I caved.
Swimming back to the trailhead
As we packed up camp we heard a couple rumbles of thunder. No big deal, a quick afternoon rain, typical Colorado weather…maybe I won’t even need my raincoat. 3 minutes down the trail from camp we felt the first drops of rain. Okay, enough to put on my coat and cover my pack. No sooner had we donned raincoats we found ourselves in an all-out deluge of rain and dime to nickel size hail…and we were facing a 4-mile hike out. Our rain gear was no match for this violent storm and we quickly realized our only option was to hike out as quickly as possible to avoid hypothermia. The storm was amazingly powerful and our trail quickly turned into a creek. Waterproof boots became useless as giant puddles filling the trail were easily up to our ankles. We moved as quickly as possible hoping the storm would quit, but the hail continued to pelt us for the next 30 minutes! So much for a quick afternoon thunderstorm! Crossing the treacherous stream on down trees as we did the previous night was out of the question and we found ourselves leaping over a raging creek onto an angled and wet rock on the other side. Thankfully we made it without issue as a slip there would have been disastrous. We continued down the flooded trail and the hail eventually subsided, but the rain continued all the way back to the trailhead.
I'd call this section of trail "bone dry" compared to the creek we'd been hiking in before the headwall.
I was surprised to see several hikers on their way up to the lake as we neared the trailhead…they had no idea what they were walking into. We reached the trailhead around 7:30 and quickly changed into whatever dry clothes we had. Thankfully we didn’t have to endure that storm somewhere high on Kit Carson or Challenger, but those mountains sure gave us a swift kick in the pants on the way out!
4 drowned rats back at the trailhead.