Peak(s):  Challenger Point  -  14,081 feet
Date Posted:  05/27/2016
Date Climbed:   05/25/2016
Author:  lodgling
 Spice Guy don't ski   

When I told Carl I had success on Kit Carson, but only Kit Carson, his response was, "too bad, now you'll have to go back."

I'd like to claim that when I'm out alone in the woods in the dark that I'm in a perpetual Zen state of relaxation and peace. But my mind inevitably wanders.

Worries about an unfamiliar way ahead, uncertain snow conditions, that noise right behind me, that pair of floating glowing eyes just ahead For some reason, lucid thought comes easier on the side of a 45 degree snow slope than it does while stumbling up a trail through the dark on short sleep. In the hours before dawn I can't help but run through some ridiculous worst-case scenarios. Pouncing mountain lions, marauding bears, pouncing mountain lions riding in on marauding bears -- not exactly a stronghold on reality.

Recently I've moved on from the scary animal scenarios. A whippet in the hand helps. And the snowpack has been good and the trails familiar. So when I returned to the Willow Lake trail for the second time in ten days with clear skies forecast and a solid plan for my Sangres finisher I felt pretty good on the head games front.

I arrived at the TH just before dark to find four Outward Bound vans parked where one would expect, a jeep parked smack in the middle of the lot and a lone tent in the woods with a fire going beside it. I quickly readied my pack and tried to get a bit of sleep before the 12:30am alarm. The goal was to get above Willow Lake before sunhit in order to take advantage of a good freeze for the climb and get home in time for dinner.

With my fully loaded pack on my back and under the red light of my headlamp, I signed the trail register at 1:15am. My entry from KC was atop the same page and the "Centennial Skier Benchwarmers" appeared a few lines above my new entry. Starting to feel like we own this place. Let's get this train rolling.

I moved on from the register and immediately caught a glimpse of a tall, shadowy figure just steps ahead of me. WTF?!?! As quick as I could manage, I changed my headlamp over to the bright white beam and cast it down the trail -- all the while continuing to stumble forward, one foot in front of the other. By the time the glow of my light found the trail again, the dark figure was at the edge of my light's reach and heading up the trail, fast.

Head to toe in black -- shoes, pants, long sleeve, small school backpack, skull cap -- and all moving with purpose to get out of sight. For an instant it occurred to me that in my confusion I had passed the turnoff, so I spun my light around to double check. Nope. Onward. I returned my focus to the trail ahead and the figure was gone. I increased my pace, found the right turn and headed for the creek crossing. I figured I'd either catch him again there or speed across to the other side. The logs were empty when I arrived, and though wet, I was across in a few brisk steps with the comfort that I was likely now alone on that side of the creek.

But I couldn't shake the bizarre encounter. I know, silly. But what was up with that dude? Who other than ski mountaineers are stumbling around in the dark at remote CO trailheads? At 1:15 in the morning? On a Wednesday?

As I walked on, the worst case scenario mill began to turn. And the worst case scenario for a second encounter with that guy was, of course, also the simplest explanation for why he was out and about -- he was clearly hopped up on goofballs -- synthetic marijuana -- the spice.

That fast and light Spice Guy was certainly going to outpace me, wait in the willows and try to bite my face off.

On the other hand, the reduced likelihood of encountering an insane Spice Guy (google it if you must) is possibly the least acknowledged benefit of Colorado's end to prohibition. Or, if I could just get to snowline without running into him again, I should be safe. Because if there one thing I know about these synthetic marijuana types it is this:

Spice Guy don't ski.

By 4:00 I reached snowline pretty much in the same spot as 10 days ago, stashed my trail runners and some Gatorade, donned boots, snapped on the crampons and put Spice Guy out of my head for good.

The moon was near full enough to hike with the red light and occasionally none at all.


I reached the lake before dawn


and the headwall above as sunhit arrived up high.


Decision time. Should I stick to the standard route, which was likely my preferred descent route to get home for dinner, or climb the Kirk couloir to assess whether that was worth a ski? Given the solar exposure, the standard route was guaranteed to provide fast cramponing on a hard freeze. The Kirk was the unknown and I knew I'd kick myself if I didn't at least have the option of heading down that route from the top. The Kirk it is.


Conditions remained firm until I reached the distinct spot at the base of the Kirk where the incline goes up a notch or two, the aspect turns more northerly and it is hidden from the sun by the real mountain, Kit Carson. Here I found a mish mosh of snow conditions, including two distinct graupel layers (one dirty brown), in places topped by wind slab, in places capped by a breakable ice lens. Not great for hiking, not exactly confidence-inspiring and certainly not even a remotely fun prospect to ski. Oops. I tried a few different techniques to climb through it and quickly began second-guessing myself for passing up the sure thing the standard route would have been. Skins? Ski crampons? They weren't doing much good in my bag.

And just then I noticed a potential ledge system above.


I pulled out my phone to check old photos to see if I could find the ramp. Sure enough. Steep, but snow covered and sunlit. Exposed, but it would go. A ramp of corn might pave the way to the top of this almost-mountain.


Once on the ramp the climbing conditions vastly improved, but the window of safety was closing quickly as the snow cooked in the still air of the morning sun. Lucid thought prevailed as I did my best to cross the ascending traverse over the exposure as quickly as I could. Spice Guy certainly don't do hanging traverse.

Looking back to the entry.

When convinced I was past any remaining cliffs above, I made a direct line against gravity. I hit the ridge just west of the summit, hung a left and carefully found my way along the double-corniced ridge to the cornice-less summit. I could peer over the south face to admire those probably untouched lines. A motivated bushwhacker could notch a first descent there on a unique year like this one, I imagine.

I figure my detour by way of the crappy N facing snow at the bottom of the Kirk, followed by the ledge system, cost me at least an hour, probably more. The route turned out to be cool, but I imagine it is rarely in as a complete snow climb. But if its in, it is a good, though very exposed, bailout from the Kirk couloir.

Time to ski. Could have went back the way I came, but why bother when a long, straight, perfect pitch awaits just down the ridge?

As on 5/14, I was able to ski down to the creek crossing below the headwall. I was amped up to be done with Willow Lake and I jogged my way down the switchbacks. Ran into 14 walkers with heavy pack probably headed for their namesake couloir and likely going to turn around at the graupel. But no sign of Spice Guy in the daylight. And the jeep was gone. Home in time for dinner!

The climb and ski route:

SICK! photo by mtnfiend

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 7 8 9

Comments or Questions

Mind Games
05/27/2016 08:39
Something about hiking in the middle of the woods at 2am really messes with your head! I'm getting better pushing the crazy thoughts out, but it's the random weird things that make them flood right back in! Congrats on finishing the Sangre!


season going strong!
05/27/2016 09:11
Good job on the Grahs. I remember being on that trail at 1am heading to kit carson on a new moon night, turning off my headlamp, and feeling like the trees bent, swayed back and forth in total darkness in the flickering starlight while the mossy oak stump provided me with a plump cushion on which to sit.


The spice!!
05/27/2016 09:40
From weirdos in the woods to sporty exposed climbs to steep descents.....plenty of spice in this outing. Well done rob!!!


05/27/2016 09:42
Enjoyed your creative ascent! My favorite ski for sure.


Mountain lions and bears
05/27/2016 19:40
To assuage your concerns (not!) I saw mountain lion tracks chasing the deer when I was up that way in January. And then deer bones. Ha! Good call on the line and congrats on finishing the Sangres!


Night Hikes and Deer Bones
05/27/2016 21:59
I was on the Spanish Creek trail last Sunday. Hiked up in the early morning. There was absolutely no one else on the trail that day. On the way back down, right after the blow down section, there was a rather fresh (still sticky) deer leg sitting right in the middle of the trail... I've yet to see a mountain lion in my four years of hiking Colorado. But, I do tend to look behind me a bit more when I'm hiking solo in the dark. The truth of it is Spice Guy worries me more.


Spice Guy
05/28/2016 07:48


The spice must flow!
05/28/2016 10:34
Oh the numerous reasons I procrastinate my start times when I'm solo...

The Kirk looked so stellar from Adams! Guess not. Too bad. It's a great line when not lined with graupel death traps.


Deer Legs
05/28/2016 12:17
Yeah, youngk2844 -- I had the same experience a few weeks ago on Como Rd. On the way down I found two fresh deer legs in the middle of the road laying on top of each other. I like to think a little deer looks tastier than me with a ski A-frame.

Thanks for the congrats. Hoping to finish a couple other ranges still this season if conditions hold . . .

05/29/2016 12:11
About high up did the snow start? Looks great up there, definitely creepy Spice Guy...


Know the feeling...
04/28/2017 17:39
I was the first to start up the Longs Peak Trail one fall and I convinced myself a mountain lion was stalking me(there wasn't). So I sat down and waited for the next group. Never have figured out why I thought that was a good idea.

Sorry, I missed this last year. It's a good write up. I had a similar encounter on that trail one July a few years back. Thankfully it was daylight and I was with Chirpich.

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