| Challenger Point
We grabbed a bite to eat and headed out from Colorado Springs at 7:20 a.m. on Saturday, May 24. Plugged in the iPod, cranked up some U2 and made good time to the town of Crestone. Driving time was right at 3 and a half hours as we drove through Crestone using Gerry Roach's 14'er guide for directions. I was concerned about making it up the 4x4 portion of the road to the trailhead but it was a breeze in my Toyota Camry. No worries there, it almost seemed groomed.
We quickly assembled all gear and headed up the trail. Immediately you are faced with a fork so stay to the RIGHT if you are heading to Kit Carson, Challenger, Columbia, Adams or Willow Lake. No snow in sight as we started hiking up the many switchbacks that seem to start immediately. Trail was in great shape and we passed probably 5 parties coming down the trail including a guy from Aspen who was celebrating his 60th birthday after quitting 40 yrs of smoking.
We paused for a few pics along the hike in but were surprised not seeing any wildlife except for one ptarmigan (small grouse). We brought along our snowshoes at the last minute as the ranger station in Saguache said the area had received snow 2 days before. We didn't really want to carry the extra weight along with our crampons, ice axes, tent, water filter, sleeping bags, food, etc. but we decided to play it safe and so glad we did. We encountered our first significant amount of snow just below the lake in a long flat section. As soon as we saw the postholes of earlier hikers we knew it was time to put them on. The standard trail was buried under 2 ft of snow so we just followed the footsteps and they eventually led us to the lake.
We dropped our packs, set up camp, ate, snapped some pics at sunset and started a fire before heading off to sleep. It was fairly cold and windy, around 55 F on the hike in and probably around 30 F overnight. Not cold enough to freeze our water solid but definitely cold. The wind kicked up fairly good at night so got little sleep that night. Took a while to boil water at that temp and elevation as well.
The Ascent and the Ridge
My Timex IRONMAN watch wasn't so tough as I awoke at 5:50 a.m. a bit confounded as I had set the alarm to go off at 5 a.m. The LCD display was frozen. I rustled the guys awake and we quickly choked down some oatmeal and coffee, packed our summit bags with crampons, grabbed our ice axes and set out north around the lake at 6:10 a.m. You have to gain some elevation to get above the lake and we eventually found the trail marked by cairns along the scree as you leave the trees. We saw a guy crossing the frozen lake almost immediately and wondered which peak he would be doing.
Above the frozen waterfall we walked through an eerie section of frozen tundra that looked like oversize ice lightbulbs. Crazy! After rounding the lake we got a good look at our two routes we had talked about doing‚ the Kirk Couloir or the North Slopes (standard route). Again, we referenced Gerry Roach's route description and map.
We had really wanted to do a snow climb as it would be a first for 2 of us at least on any peak of note. As we were putting on our crampons in the benches above the lake the guy that crossed the lake caught up to us. He was heading towards Kit Carson for a 3rd attempt. We told him we were heading thinking of doing the Kirk Couloir and pointed to where we thought it was. He corrected us and pointed all the way to the left as we looked up (south) towards the peak just to the right of the North Ridge. It looked a bit steeper (Gerry Roach says 48 degrees for the last 800 ft) than we had thought so we thanked him, wished him luck and started heading up a line just left (east) of the standard North Slopes route.
The climbing started in earnest now and the slope steepened it seemed very early. The snow felt great and our crampons bit in quite nicely as we watched the gray clouds send spindrift flying up above us higher on the mountain. It weather was very ominous with freezing temperatures and low dark clouds but it served to keep the snow nice and cold until we reached the ridge. Taking the advice of our friend, we stayed just to the left of a massive fin of rock about 30 feet tall and several hundred yards long and then angled towards the right towards a ridge line.
We took turns breaking trail up the slope and jumping to more consolidated icy snow patches between long stretches of 12-18 inch deep powder. Soon we got into a rhythm—plant the ice axe, left, right . . . over and over again. I stopped at a rock for a breather around 13,000 ft and snapped a pic of my buddies coming up. We zig-zagged up the slope until near the top I finally had to just kickstep into the snow with my crampons and ascend vertically like climbing a ladder. That was tiring but we finally got to the rocky ridge and took off our crampons and grabbed a bite to eat. It was 11 a.m.
A guy from behind us had been moving fast all morning and finally caught us. He was from Ft. Collins and his climbing buddy was taking a line just to our left (east) and was going to meet him on the ridge below the summit. We followed him onto the rock and started along the ridge. Almost immediately we encountered a problem—a tricky notch we had to descend and then ascend the other side and the rock was partially covered in snow. This would have been a fun class 3 scramble in warm weather but in the snow while carrying an ice axe it was no easy feat. I would rate it as a 10-12 ft section of near vertical class 4/5 climbing. This was too much for one of my buddies and after studying it he decided to head back to camp down the slope we just ascended.
My buddy and I took our time and made it past this notch and onto the ridge. The wind was howling up from the south side something fierce and I thought I would get blown off the peak several times so I hugged the mountain at times. The ridge rock was solid but icy and other than a fin of snow that we had to inch around on the south side it was a clear shot to the summit. We were on top by 12 a.m. The notch in the ridge slowed us down and what should have taken 15 mins. to the summit took us an hour.
On the Summit
Finally we were on the top. We joined the guy from Ft. Collins and his buddy. The view was absolutely breathtaking.
I enjoy climbing in the summer but the pictures you get in the winter with the snow defining every nuance of the terrain are spectacular. We were particularly interested in getting a pic of the NW Couloir route on Crestone Peak that we had ascended in July 2007. We also wanted to take a look at the Kit Carson Ave as we had thought of attempting it as well. One look and we knew the answer. It appeared to be totally filled in with snow and impassable. At that point we decided to find the quickest way down and looked forward to a LONG glissade down to the valley.
The Descent and walk back to camp
We descended the ridge from the summit to the Kit Carson-Challenger Point saddle that sits at 13,780 ft. We took one last look at the Kit Carson Avenue and decided we'd definitely be back to get that peak. The obvious choice for the descent line was the Kirk Couloir that is the fall line from the saddle. We had considered ascending this route and decided against it mainly due to it's steep angle. I walked down as the ever-steepening slope until I felt uneasy standing and dropped on the snow slowly inching forward with my ice axe at the ready. Chunks of snow I kicked up were gaining speed as they slid down over the lip and out of site of the 48 degree slope. I descended sitting as far as I felt comfortable and studied the slope for a minute or two as Rick and the other 2 guys watched. It didn't feel right to me and I had decided we should try a traverse descent when one of the other 2 guys agreed that he would try the slope first. I was thrilled. I wouldn't break my neck but if this guy wanted to try and made it I would follow.
He dug his heels in and started a slow slide down the steep slope and his buddy followed. Soon they were disappearing over the edge and out of sight. I yelled down and asked if it was safe and when they said it was I decided I would give it a try. Soon Rick and I were nervously descending the steepest slope we had ever been on a few feet at a time sending down snowballs on the guys below. Our fear slowly turned into excitement as we became more comfortable and picked up speed. Soon we were flying down 1500 ft of snow and even stopped to snap a few pics and video. This was definitely a quick way off the mountain.
We slid as far as we could and then started walking. The snow was warming up pretty good at this point and we were glad we were glad to be heading down and not up in these conditions. Rick brought a mini U.S. flag to plant on the summit but in our excitement forgot all about it. He now remembered it and as we shedder some layers and grabbed a bite to eat he got it out and we took a few pics feeling proud to live in such a beatiful and free country.
We continued back around the lake and quickly reached our camp where our buddy was waiting. He told us that he came back to find the tent had been blown about 20 ft and into the trees. We had staked the tent down in snow but as it warmed up and thawed the wind was too much for it. We broke down camp, put on the snowshoes and started the hike out. Within 5 minutes a robot popped on my Tubbs snowshoes. Luckily Rick had brought some extra straps (always prepared) and after rigging it up we were moving again. We were able to find the real trail in the melting snow and stayed closer to the stream. The hike out was fairly uneventful and we reached the trailhead at 6:45 pm. On the drive out we were already making plans for a return trip in late summer to bag Kit Carson and Columbia Point.
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