Challenger Point (14,081 ft) & Kit Carson Peak (14,165 ft), Colorado

28-30 May 2004 - by Bill Stafford

With a bit of trouble in planning, I left Denver much later than I wanted, departing about 3:30 pm on Friday afternoon. I took U.S. 285 to Colorado 17, and found myself at the 8,880 Willow Creek Trailhead east of Crestone, at 7 pm. I started off with a little daylight left, on an excellent trail, eventually being aided by headlamp and GPS. There was a little snow/ice (and wind) starting around 11000 feet, but minimal. I found an excellent spot for camp around 10:30 pm and 11,260 feet. Lights out at midnight.

I awoke about 7 am, took my time with breakfast and packing, and headed out for Challenger Point around 8:30 am. The trail to the Willow Lake is spotty, but as long as you go "up", and stay relatively close to the creek, you can't miss. The lake is simply wonderful... and huge! A high cliff on the east side, with a waterfall, and peaks on the south. A stunning vista. I wished I had had the energy the previous night to make it to 11,600. There are some great campsites here and scant few tents to be seen. I dawdle for awhile, taking pictures and enjoying the view.

It's getting late, 9:30ish, and I push on. I take the traditional approach, up the North Slopes of Challenger Point, avoiding the steep Kirk Couloir. The snow on the ground is intermittent, and semisoft. I am largely able to stay on rocky ground, crossing swaths of snow on occasion, and postholing for small sections. I have left my snowshoes back above the lake, and never really needed them. (It sucks bringing them along and not using them, but its better than the alternative.)

I occasionally glimpse a cairn or a section of trail, but mostly rely on GPS. I think the trail is still under snow. Regardless, the "big picture" is there in front of me and the route fairly clear. The hike on the summit ridge is on hard snow and VERY windy. I arrive at the 14081-foot summit about 1:30 pm. I have hiked this slower than I would have liked, but the clouds are looking okay, and I am determined to knock off Kit Carson. So it is down to the 13780-foot saddle.

From here, I decide to do the Class 5+ climb directly to the Carson's summit. Why? Lack of foresight. But all goes swimmingly, and I find myself on the 14165-foot summit of Kit Carson Peak at about 2:30 pm. I am sitting there eating and just KNOW there has got to be a better route down. I pull from my pack Roach's description of the route, and in my haste to be off yesterday from Denver, discover the much better/safer route to this spot upon which I sit. Glad to forego a downclimb of the northern face of Kit Carson, I head east for a bit, south for bit, west for a bit, north for a bit, and arrive back at the saddle around 3:30 pm, having navigated, at most, some Class 3 terrain. Much better/safer.

I am now in need of my ice axe, which sits in the trunk of my jeep, back at the trailhead. Kirk Couloir is STEEP, and it has been overcast and fairly cold for hours. The quick way down is the couloir, but without an ice axe, a bit too quick for my tastes - a good 1200-foot slide. I should have simply gone the short distance back up to the summit of Challenger and then down the northwest ridge from whence I came. But I go for the short-term pleasure of avoiding any more elevation gain, and decide to do a traverse across Challengers north side and eventually pick up the trail home. Let me say it gets very old walking for an hour at 13,700 feet traversing a steep slope, left leg higher than my right. And now I hear thunder. Yikes! I gotta get down, but feel it best that I continue my traverse until the "trail" I have showing on my GPS unit appears under my feet. Thus I continue my plod, the weather clears slightly, I reach my "trail", and I descend slowly to relatively level ground at about 12200 feet. Anticlimatic from here. I find my snowshoes, and hobble into camp at 6 pm. How on earth did it just take me 10.5 hours to do these two 14'ers from an 11,260-foot camp? I need more gym time.

After another pleasant and quiet night, I awake at 7am, very sore and stiff. A bit of oatmeal and hot coffee goes down well. I pack it up and leave my campsite by 9 am, feeling much more oiled after just a few short minutes of hiking. This trail is REALLY nice, and the views are much better traveled by day. :) :)

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