| Kit Carson Peak and Challenger Point
Kit Carson and Challenger Point
Peaks: Kit Carson Peak, Challenger Point
Date: February 3, 2013
Routes: Kit Carson via SE Gully. Challenger Point via Kit Carson Avenue.
Approach: Spanish Creek from Camino Baca Grande
Length: ~11 miles RT
Vertical: ~6700 feet
Total time: 14 hours
Ascent Party: Jeff, Chris, Matt, Jim
"Cresting the saddle to look across at the Avenue, we stop dead in our tracks.
An immediate visual understanding envelopes us, as we suddenly realize why this section has earned its reputation.."
Kit Carson's SE gully is seen at right; the saddle at center must be crossed to gain "Kit Carson Avenue," and the route to Challenger Point, at left.
North Ridge in Winter?
August 21, 2010. I'm astounded by the summer beauty of Willow Lake, Kit Carson, and Challenger Point. Rather than the standard route, I opt for Kit
Carson's North Ridge, a stellar fourth class climb reaching nearly 1200 vertical feet from the upper Willow Creek basin to the summit. It's my first time
on Crestone conglomerate rock; I'm smitten. I plan to come back and attempt the route in winter. I'm fairly certain the north ridge is steep enough,
and windblown enough, to have minimal snow cover in winter. The main concern is how to get back down off the mountain in winter.
Willow Lake, along the way to Kit Carson's summer route.
In summer, Kit Carson Avenue is a unique sloping rock feature as wide as an asphalt driveway, wrapping around the south side of Kit Carson. It is used
to attain the notch between Kit Carson and Challenger Point, thus allowing an ascent of both peaks, and more importantly, a way back down if one has
climbed the north ridge. But in winter, the Avenue is reputed to be filled in with snow, thereby assuming the steep grade of the terrain above and below
the ledge which lies beneath the snow. At many times in winter it has been regarded as impassible.
Kit Carson Avenue in summer. The climber seen at skyline is on the upper Prow, 5.8.
So the N Ridge winter descent plan calls for a series of rappels down the W/SW face of KC, to get to the Challenger notch, seen above. The back-up
plan is downclimbing much of the north ridge. Ultimately, the project is shelved for the right partner, the right winter, and the right conditions. Last Fall,
Matt expresses interest, so we talk about a recon to place soft rap anchors for the 2013 winter, but never get to it.
Kit Carson's north ridge - the basin floor is about 1500 vertical feet below in this photo.
Please, God, anything but the Spanish Creek
With no recon, and no prior information that the north ridge has even been done in winter, we have many unanswered questions. So Matt suggests we
join Jeff and Chris for the Spanish Creek approach. I'd hoped to avoid Spanish Creek altogether, given it's reputation for extremely rough terrain and
downed timber, but it's the "standard" winter route and generally reputed to be safer than the summer route in snow conditions. Matt explains that Jeff
and Chris want to camp overnight at treeline on Saturday; he's attempting Culebra on Saturday, so wants to go in Sunday as a daytrip to join them.
Sarah, Pete, and Abe are going in ahead of Jeff and Chris for a daytrip on Saturday. I'm not sure I want to do either day, given the recent windslabbed
snow in my driveway, usually an uncanny indicator of snowpack in the Sangres. But Matt doesn't have a partner for Sunday and doesn't want to go in
alone. We've talked for a while about climbing together, and these two are on my winter list. Besides, it will be a festive multidenominational affair. A
nice Jewish kid and a recovering Catholic, traipsing across hindu temple gardens, alongside the Spanish Inquisition. I mean, the Spanish Creek.
May it have mercy on our wicked knees.
Will someone please get the comfy chair?
There is no trailhead for this route, which follows the Spanish Creek drainage. If you see this sign in the first 200 yards, you're in the right place.
The NFS boundary is quite a ways in.
Perfect moon for morning travel.
The Camino Baca Grande Road, south of the little town of Crestone, Colorado, is a hopping place on a Saturday night. All night, actually. One wouldn't
think. The original plan is to sleep in the cars at the new, tiny Cottonwood trailhead for the Crestones, just two miles further south. I poke around that
evening while waiting for my partner to arrive from Culebra. No idea it would be packed full. Matt's a little held up, so I explore some trails by headlamp
and figure out where we want to start in the morning. When he arrives, we decide to sleep in the cars right across from where the trail starts. There's
a partially plowed pullout on the west side of the road, where another road branches off to the west, just south of the ashram. Originally we were going
to sleep elsewhere, out of respect for the locals; I think we pissed off the gods because there was no sleep for this wicked soul, with cars coming and
going all night. Is the standard Willow Creek TH plowed in winter? If so, that may be a quieter place to nap. Needless to say, I'm not off to a great
start this morning. Though my cheerful partner apparently enjoys the sleep of the just and the innocent.
The San Luis Valley.
The striking rock feature at top center is known as the Prow. It bisects the two 14ers on their south flank. We are aiming for the drainage
on the far side of the Prow, staying at or near treeline till in the correct drainage.
Much more new snow than anticipated, though it helps with travel over the down timber in the burn area.
Kit Carson Avenue skirts across the upper end of this gully, which is what you'd fall into if you fell off the Ave. We'll worry about it later, if we get that far.
The Prow is often climbed in summer. I wonder if it's been done in winter?
Chris readies for the day's effort.
"Working our way over to the saddle, I'm dubious, playing the voice of reason.
Matt is pushing hard with all the arguments as to why getting Challenger now would make perfect sense."
The Business District
The Spanish Creek route actually has a lightly cairned trail. It doesn't seem so bad getting to the burn area, and the burn area seems much easier than
its reputation would lead us to believe. It may be that all the new snow has helped bury a lot of down timber. Soon we arrive at Jeff and Chris' camp.
A tidy affair, Jeff has constructed a beautiful flat snow platform in a most unlikely tucked-in area of steeper trees.
The trees get a tad steep in places, but soon we're in the alpine where we stash snowshoes and discuss whether to take the south couloir, or the rock
to the left of it.
Nice! Does he use a slope meter?
Matt traverses below the Prow, making way for the drainage below the south couloir.
The south couloir is just around the corner.
The Prow is now up and to our left, the south couloir is up ahead, just right of center.
I'm always a fan of taking the driest line as the most avy-safe route, and would prefer to climb the rock to the left of the couloir. Matt feels the snow
in the couloir is safe, and certainly, it would be easier to take the snow. While not 100% convinced, it would be best to stick together, so I concede.
The snow in the coilour is better than expected, with the exception of one section in the middle, where we bypass on rock to our left. Though Jeff and
Chris are ahead, and we're in the direct line of fire, they are nearly ready to exit at the top.
Matt entering the couloir.
Jeff and Chris nearing the upper couloir.
Most of the snowclimbing in the couloir is at a moderate angle, though there are a few sections where the pitch steepens briefly. There are also several
places where the snow is thin and unsupportive. Overall, though, the climbing is pleasant.
We emerge near, but below, the top of the couloir, to angle up and left, across the snow apron, to get into the SE gully leading to Kit Carson's short NE
summit ridge. The climbing here is challenging at times, where the snow becomes too thin to be as supportive as we would like.
Our route up Kit Carson's SE gully.
At left is the saddle over which we will later cross to attempt Kit Carson Avenue, en route to Challenger Point. For now, the plan is to try to get Kit Carson Peak first, and see where we stand on daylight.
The SE gully.
We came up from the V at the bottom of the frame. In the distance is the Blanca group, beyond the Sand Dunes.
Nearing the summit of Kit Carson.
Coming out of the exit from the south couloir and entering the base of Kit Carson's SE gully.
Views of the Crestone group from high on Kit Carson: Needle at left, Peak at right.
Kit Carson's compact summit presides over the San Luis Valley to the west.
Chris is amazing. Here he is on the summit of Kit Carson. He will be going in for hip replacement next week. One tough hombre!
Some shots from the summit of Kit Carson:
Matt got this nice shot of the Crestones and Humbolt Peak, to our south.
Willow Lake, far below on the north side.
A closer view of the lake.
Willow Lake in summer.
Willow Lake this afternoon.
Challenger's north face.
The north face in winter is reputed to be riskier than it looks.
Matt got this nice zoom shot of the Blanca group to the south.
Lindsey, California, Ellingwood Point, Blanca, and Little Bear, above the Sand Dunes.
A recon view of the north ridge, looking roughly east. I'd like to come back for it.
I'm only 1% disappointed that we didn't get this one via the north ridge - but there will be other times, and today answers some important questions
about this exciting, prospective winter route. In the photo below, the north side does appear to be fairly dry. Still, I'm guessing it would probably be
a first winter ascent.
The Kit Carson summit is seen at left in this view of the south side; Kit Carson's North Ridge, at the arrow, looks to be fairly negotiable in winter.
Jeff and Chris are headed down, while Matt and I ponder our near-term future.
What it looks like when a couple guys are on a summit they haven't quite realized yet they have attained. Or, perhaps, this is the look of men who whimsically wonder
where they shall be when the sun chooses to set on their bold day?.
Chris and Jeff are content, having stood atop the summit of Kit Carson in February. Matt still wants to attempt Challenger Point this afternoon.
Certainly, if conditions are not too risky, it would make sense to make the attempt today while we're here. We decide to go have a look.
Heading up to the saddle to have a look at the Avenue and size up the possibility of summiting Challenger Point on this trip.
Matt starts to cross over the saddle and stops, looking back to me. "If I go across this, you're coming, right?"
"Well, I don't know. Let's see how you do, first."
We're heading across the snow apron to the saddle to have a look at Kit Carson Avenue. From the view in the photo, it looks nuts. Good thing we never saw this photo beforehand.
For my non-technical friends, here's the Alpine Anatomy lesson. We're nearing that saddle to Kit Carson Avenue.
Working our way over to the saddle, I'm dubious, playing the voice of reason. Matt is pushing hard with all the arguments as to why getting Challenger
now would make perfect sense.
Cresting the saddle, we stop dead in our tracks. An immediate visual understanding envelopes us; we suddenly realize why this section has earned its
reputation. The first moves rounding the corner of the saddle and onto the avenue are steep, and hang over exposure into a long, deep gulley. There is
likely no successful self-arrest in the event of a fall here.
Matt starts to cross over the saddle and stops, looking back to me. "If I go across this, you're coming, right?" "Well, I don't know. Let's see how you do,
first." The humor is tacitly acknowledged, as Matt wrestles with the idea of going across. Finally, I"m surprised to hear him say, "Let's go down."
"What, you mean turn back?"
"OK, let's think this through. How's the snow? Do we have good axe placements? Can we kick good steps? It appears high risk, and certainly it's a no-fall
zone, but let's look at the real risks facing us here." It's a turning point in our partnership. For the first time, I see fear in Matt's eyes, and suddenly realize
my younger partner is wiser than his youthful enthusiasm would hide. We each gain a huge leap in mutual respect. Together we take full responsibility,
individually, and as a team, for the consequences of our decision to push forward.
It looks steep, but there are reasonable axe placements 90% of the way. This is the top of the gully seen in image 11, near the beginning of the report.
I've just come across the saddle and am past the scariest part, but there is still exposure over the steep, narrow gully.
A little out of my comfort zone.
The Avenue relents as we gain the notch.
Careful foot placements are backed up by the axe.
Hey, don't look down right now.
Finally can relax.
Blessed deliverance - for now.
We're both a bit beat. The kick-stepping, and over 6000 vertical feet today so far, have taken their toll on our legs. It's getting late. Matt, the consummate
expert in assessing temporal waypoints, figures we can make Challenger Point and still be back down to treeline by dark. I shrug my shoulders. We're here,
it's now, and we have several headlamps between us. We push on the additional 300 or so vertical feet to gain our second peak of the day, Challenger point.
Climbing Challenger's west ridge gives us a nice break from the intense concentration required on the Avenue.
It seems to take every last ounce of energy, but somehow we've made it.
The views from Challenger Point are incredible. Here we're looking east, back to Kit Carson Peak. A portion of the Avenue can be seen at its base.
Sober moment: What it looks like when a couple guys are on a summit they know they have pushed too hard to attain and are now thinking about what lies ahead on the descent..
We don't stay long on the summit. The day has been intermittently breezy and much of our track has blown in. Just this morning, we were surprised to find
Jeff and Chris' steps already blown in on the south couloir, even though they were only 30-45 minutes ahead. Now, at this late hour, we're grateful that the
track across the Avenue remains in very good condition for our return. We think we can make treeline by last light.
Back across the Avenue.
Starting back across the sketchy section.
And back down into the south couloir....
A look back at the south couloir.
The burn area is not too bad to negotiate with headlamps, but the poor trail below is much longer on the way back, with obstacles I had not remembered
from the way in. My legs are hurting from all the plunge-stepping on the descent above us. We're all used to this in winter. Nothing to do for it but keep
going. About now I'm wishing I had a bike and a road, or a pair of skis waiting - or the simple pleasures in life, like a pizza and a beer.
"What's the elevation now?" "9800." "Two hundred feet lower than the last time we checked." You guys all know the drill...
We catch up to Chris and Jeff and enjoy some good camaraderie. Getting the legs going again hurts more than ever. Better to just keep mushing.
Eventually we get to the road and the cars. Matt stays all of two minutes at the TH; he has to get up early for work and it's already quite late. But
before he goes he looks at me and smiles; it's been a milestone trip: he's crested the one-third mark in the winter fourteeners today in just a season
and a half. A moment later, my young partner is on his way down the road. Jeff and Chris are organizing for the drive home, looking better than I feel.
All in all, we've had an incredible trip. Thanks, guys!
Thanks to Otina (Bergsteigen) for the beautiful recon photo of Kit Carson and Challenger Point, taken from Crestone Peak, the same weekend.
Thanks to Sarah Thompson Meiser, Pete K, and Abe, who went in ahead of Jeff and Chris on Saturday. We owe our success to their generous legwork.
And thanks to all of you who enjoyed reading!
"Through the fire, to the limit, to the wall
For a chance to be with You
I'd gladly risk it all
Through the fire
Through whatever, come what may
For a chance at loving You
I'd take it all the way
Right down to the wire
Even through the fire"
-Chaka Khan, "Through the Fire"