Challenger Peak
(via Kirk Couloir)

6 Jun 2001 - by Rob Mullen

Leaving Denver around 6pm we headed south on U.S. 285, a 4-hour drive highlighted by Pokey's BBQ sandwiches and 99 cent beers, beef jerky by the pound, and a Chewbacca sighting. Arriving at the trailhead around 11pm, we threw our bags on the ground and slept underneath a star littered sky.

The trailhead is located on the west side of the Sangres at 9,070 feet, just outside the town of Crestone. The trail was beautiful. Aspens, with their budding leaves phosphorescent in the brilliant sunshine, lined the trail. In a grassy meadow a family of mule deer snack on sunny leaves, enjoying the warm sun they so eagerly await the return of each spring. Self-propelled transportation provides rewards that are too quickly forgotten once removed from the mind. Stopping along the side of the trail at an overlook the first magnificent vista greets us; to the west a peak over 13,000 feet rises from the meadow below, a sheer rock mass, formidable from all sides, with narrow chutes of rock and ice, excitement brewing, I turn and look the other way. Too often we look where others think we should look. To view a spring ski mountaineering weekend based solely on the skiing is to miss the Golden Aster standing proud in an open meadow, all it's strength and beauty radiating forth to those willing to stop and glance upon it.

Several hours later we reached our campsite. A magnificent site near a stream in a sunny meadow below Willow Lake, across the stream a 1500 foot rock wall with two snow chutes, the chute that rose to the south looked like a great snow climb and ski, 600 vertical feet, steep and narrow, reminiscent of the 2nd chute at A-Basin. To the north, a waterfall 500 feet upstream roared with vicious beauty; past the waterfall above the lake a 1000-foot high cliff system extended to the south until broken from sight by the northern cliffs of Challenger. Energy glowing from the high ridges, pine trees radiating in the sun, the river dancing with sparkles of sunshine. A magical and spiritual place, the Spirit was indeed there and flowing through it all.

Waking up around 4:30am, on the trail at 5, a hint of morning looming on the horizon. As we rounded the north shore of Willow Lake, the Kirk came into view, magical in the early morning light. Eternally grateful for being able to witness this magnificent creation sculpted by the forces of nature. We reached the base of the snow bowl, 11,700 feet, at 5:50am, 10 minutes ahead of schedule. Donning crampons and ice axes we began the hike up the snow bowl. The Kirk is a straightforward climb, a large low angle snow bowl at the bottom, around 25 degrees, narrowing to a 45-degree chute that leads to the saddle between Challenger and Kit Carson.

The snow in the bowl was absolutely perfect, frozen and crunchy, accepting crampon points like an invitation to a wedding with an open bar. Using a variety of snow climbing techniques: traversing, duck steps, kick steps, we made good progress up the snow slope. With the angle increasing we resorted to kicking steps into the frozen snow, three good kicks would make a nice foot hold. Taking turns leading, we climbed for an hour using this technique. As we made our way to the saddle, nothing could have prepared us for the beauty that we were about to see.

What a sight!!!! The most pristine pure white snowfield, running 400 vertical feet at 30 degrees for a half a mile to the summit of Challenger. The snow was still frozen in the main chute, but up on top this summit faces east and the snow was softening, one step and about a quarter boot depth would sink in, velvety corn just waiting to be had. Continuing west toward the summit of Challenger, dancing along a corniced ridge, Kit Carson and Crestone Peak looming behind us. 6,000 feet below the reddish brown Great Sand Dunes National Park juxtaposed to the rocky Sangres and the flat and expansive San Luis Valley initiated thoughts of awe and amazement. This is why we do what we do, why you do what you do.

We reached the summit of Challenger just after 9am. Lounging about on the summit, the weather could not have been more perfect, sunny skies, no wind, temperature around 60 degrees. Immersing ourselves in the environment, excitement reaching a fever pitch, pure velvet corn waiting, we wasted no motions, but rushed neither. We heard the call of the snow, so many lines awaited it mattered not who went first, but I was given the honor. Time to ski!!!!

As I began my descent from 14,080 feet, the velvety smooth corn snow schussing below my skis, a rhythm of turns resulting from effortless snow, pure bliss. Reaching the bottom of the snowfield below I awaited Mike and Gabe. Mike was first over the ridge, making turns with total confidence and good speed. Gabe was next, his snowboard in perfect harmony with the mountain. However, he traversed too far with too much speed into the chute, from the crunching sound I knew that the snow in the chute was still firm. Mike traversed over and handed Gabe my ice axe for the descent down the steep, still hard chute. Dropping into the chute first the snow was still hard but an edge would hold, all those days learning to ski New England ice were certainly paying off. Able to link turns with great success through the chute and thoroughly enjoying myself, 700 vertical feet later I was at the top of the bowl skiers left of the chute, standing and awaiting Mike and Gabe. Mike was the second down negotiating the slope with ease. Next was Gabe, with varying degrees of gracefulness but ultimately successful, he was able to essentially sideslip down the slippery slope. He was a little jittery from the experience but happy to be back on the soft snow in the lower angled bowl.

The turns in the bowl were quite enjoyable, soft snow along the base of a 500-foot high, quarter mile long cliff band. Absolute joy and exhilaration, this is great skiing in magnificent surroundings. Linking turns and negotiating a boulder field we made our way to the end of the snowfield at 11,700 feet, 2,380 vertical feet and 45 minutes later.

Removing our boots we lounged in the meadow. Letting our gear dry, soaking up the unparalled views and reeling in what was a wonderful snow climb and beautiful and challenging ski descent.

Awaking the next morning and rising out of the bag around 8am, the chute that stared at us all weekend, pleasantly invited me to climb and ski it. As I was packing Mike and Gabe felt the pull too, and within an hour we were at the base of the chute. With the approval of an audience of backpackers from the river below we made our way up the chute in 45 minutes. Luckily, I had the honor of first tracks. 5 turns at the top around 45 degrees, the rest around 35-40 degrees, about 6 feet wide at the top and 50 feet wide towards the bottom as it ran out into a snow field, an aesthetically pleasing run. The snow was perfect for skiing, smooth and soft. Beautiful turns at a consistent pitch, a thoroughly enjoyable ski descent. We named it Chewbacca.

Back in camp gazing upon our tracks in the chute above, we packed up at a leisurely pace for the hike out. It had been challenging and rewarding weekend filled with warm sunny days, cobalt blue skies, raging rivers, high rocky peaks, and velvety corn snow. What more could you ask for?

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