Kit Carson Peak and Challenger Point (8/7/10)
Two weekends ago, my friend from work, Nick, and I headed down to the Sangre de Christos for a one-day assault of Kit Carson Peak and Challenger Point via Kit Carson’s classic north ridge. My camera batteries died early on in the day, so all of these photo credits belong to Nick, who was generous enough to loan me his excellent pictures from the day.
We both only had one day off from work, so we left Friday afternoon and drove down to the Willow Lake Trailhead, where we slept for a few hours before a super-early alpine start due to the length of the approach. We set our alarms for 1:30 a.m… except I accidentally set mine for p.m., so Nick’s alarm was the only one that went off. It was an obnoxious ringing noise and he didn’t seem to know what was going on, so we were both very confused as we tried to wake up. Naturally, the first thing that popped into my head was a line from the movie Grandma’s Boy, so I half-coherently said, “What is that ringing noise? Do I have a tumor?”. Then I said to Nick, “Dude, are you going to turn that thing off?”, to which he replied, “Oh yeah, I didn’t realize what was happening.”
Otherwise, the morning went smoothly. The temps were comfortable at our 9,000 foot starting elevation, and after breakfast and energy drinks, we were on the trail by about 2:15. Surprisingly, we passed a couple of other parties on the way up who had started hiking even earlier than us. The hike wasn’t bad at all in the dark. The elevation gain was steady, and enough to get us sweating, but it was a good warm-up for what was to come. We made it to Willow Lake (where most people camp, and do these peaks as a multi-day trip) around 4:30 and it was still pitch-black out, so we decided to wait a little while until we had some light and could see the remaining route, as the trail pretty much faded out at the lake.
We hung out near the lake with two other guys we met on the hike up, then once we just began to see a little bit of light, a ton of headlamps started making their way past us. Clearly these mountains were going to be popular today, but we had chosen the lightly-traveled and more challenging north ridge route on Kit Carson, so it wouldn’t be long before we would leave the crowds. We followed some of the groups with headlamps and were eventually able to find a faint trail again that took us around the upper part of the lake, over a creek, and into the alpine basin below Kit Carson and Challenger.
We didn’t cut off for our intended path soon enough and had already started hiking up the route to Challenger when we decided to cut left and continue to the base of the north ridge. We were high enough up, that it involved a bit of boulder-hopping to reach the cliff bands we were aiming to skirt around at the start of the route.
I don’t normally drink energy drinks during day-to-day life, but I’ve actually found that Red Bulls help to wake me up on climbs like this if I’m sleepy, so I guess they’re a replacement for coffee. Definitely not good for you typically, but they help in these situations.
Once we made our way past the aforementioned cliff bands, we begin scrambling up and over some ledges, angling right toward the north ridge. There was one other group in front of us who seemed to be a little in over their heads. One guy got freaked out and turned around, while the other two guys were yelling down to us asking whether or not we knew the route. They were staying left of the actual north ridge, which was the intended route, and eventually went out of view. Fortunately, they ended up making it safely, but later that day a couple of other people told us they had seen these same guys on the way down and that they described their route as “scary”. Glad they were alright, and I in no way mean to insult these guys, but more I want to point out the importance of staying on-route in difficult terrain.
The climb up the north ridge was awesome and exhilarating! The exposure was pretty intense, but the rock was very solid for the most part and the route-finding was very straight-forward. Overall, the north ridge is a blast to climb, but it does require lots of focus and attention on every move as it involves about 1,500 vertical feet of solid class 4 climbing. Toward the very top, on one of the last pitches, a few of the larger rocks were loose, so I found it was better to climb up the right side of the ridge.
We reached the hard-earned summit at 9:30 a.m., with the Crestones staring us right in the face. Unfortunately, cloud cover over the Crestones prevented any good picture taking opportunities of the famous view, but it was still awesome to see nonetheless. We took a well-deserved break on the summit, but eventually had to go because clouds were building very quickly and we still had to drop back down before gaining more elevation to reach Challenger Point. We met a younger dude on the summit, Sam, who was hiking alone so we invited him to hike down with us… we figured we’d both be better off – he wouldn’t have to hike down alone, and he already knew the route down Challenger which would help us out.
The traverse over to Challenger involved more uphill than my legs wanted, but that’s the way it goes when you want multiple summits in one day. I expected to be hiking down Kit Carson Avenue instead of up, but luckily the final climb up to Challenger wasn’t as bad as it looked from Kit Carson Avenue (hey, when you’re tired from climbing one 14er, 500 vertical feet of uphill does look kind of brutal!).
We reached the summit of Challenger around 10:30 a.m. and took another nice break while sharing the summit with several other people. Then it was time for the only part of the day I wasn’t looking forward to – the loose and steep descent down Challenger back into the valley.
The descent down Challenger was, in fact, one of the shittiest of shitty descents of any peak I’ve been on recently… right up there with North Maroon Peak (although, not nearly as long as North Maroon… fortunately I avoided the notorious South Maroon descent, but I’ve heard stories!). Luckily, after we finally reached the valley, the rest of the hike out was actually really nice.
One nice thing about hiking up in the dark, is that you get to see everything for the first time on the way back when it’s light (assuming you’re on a nice trail anyways). Willow Lake and the waterfall flowing into it are simply stunning. We found a nice spot above the lake and near the waterfall where we took a nice break and enjoyed the amazing scenery.
The rest of the hike out was great. Sure we were tired, but the hike was beautiful and it was cool being able to hike through different vegetation zones while looking down into the San Luis Valley. We made it back to the car around 3:00 – a long but awesome day.
The north ridge route on Kit Carson is a great option for those looking for an adventure. The class 4 climbing is serious, though, and the exposure is fairly intense, so I wouldn’t recommend this route to someone with little experience on class 3/4 terrain. That being said, for those who are experienced and looking for a classic route that’s off the beaten path, I highly suggest taking a look at this route.
I have to say that even for those who aren’t into climbing mountains, the hike to Willow Lake is a worthy destination in of itself. I imagine this area is especially beautiful in the fall when the aspens are changing and the peaks are dusted with snow. Looking forward to my next trip to the Sangres as always. Thanks for reading!