Kit Carson and Challenger Peaks

Last Friday, Aug. 09, we headed down to the psychedelic town of Crestone (go there and you will know what I mean) to set out for two 14ers: Challenger Point (14,081′) and Kit Carson Peak (14,165′). After all the wet weather we decided that the Sangres were our best bet. Arriving in Crestone a little after 10p, we had to find a dumpster to trash our pizza box, since I had heard bears were breaking into cars at the trailhead. We met Bruce at the trailhead too, a friend from HAMS, who would join us for the climb. At 2a the alarm clock went off and somehow we were hiking by 2:30. Most people chose to backpack these peaks and camp up near Willow lake, but we wanted the option to climb Crestone Peak the next day, so 14.5 miles round-trip it was.

At about 4:30a we made it up to the Willow lake. My stomach wasn’t feeling all too great from getting up so early and all the switchbacks. I knew we were on a 14er trail because people were camped and sprawled out all over. One guy was sleeping on a rock, another in hammock. I think we woke up a few. After stumbling around the lake in the dark, we managed to the find the trail up the rocks, and finally the real climb was about to begin.

Challenger Point was first on the docket, and if the long hike hadn’t woke us up yet, the steep scramble up loose rocks did. Things were a little slick from the frost the night before. Finally, a little bit before 8a and just about 5k’ up, we made it to the ridge, and the summit was close. We also enjoyed some nice views of the nearby Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak.


At the top of Challenger, we took a quick break, fueled up, but didn’t relax too long, since it wasn’t clear yet what the weather would do. The journey off to Kit Carson would include a downclimb, traverse over a wide ledge call Kit Carson Avenue, and then a climb back up a gulley to the top.



From the top of Challenger, we made our way down and then around to a point where the Avenue began along the South side of Kit Carson. Looking back at Challenger, the sun had come out and really lit it up.


Onward to the Avenue, the ledge was much wider than I expected, and we had no problems making our way around the mountain.


From there, our last obstacle was in sight, and we climbed up the semi-steep gully to the summit. We ran into two other climbers coming down who probably started the same time as, but from the lake.


At the top, it finally was clear that the weather was holding, and it was time to relax. As usual, Bruce pulled out a bag of Cheetos. I enjoyed some trail mix and string cheese, while Linnea at a piece of meat-lovers pizza hut left over from last night. The Crestones just to the South looked like they were calling us for tomorrow, and we even saw the silhouette of someone on the Needle.



Further South, we also had nice views of the Great Sand Dunes and the Blanca Massive. After a long break sitting in the sun, it was was time to head back down. By now, other groups were starting to make their way up.


We descended the same route and went back around the Avenue. We were reminded of the dangers of the route by a sign warning about the steep cliffs below. This route has seen a number of accidents, mainly I think from either shortcuts, bad weather, and or slick conditions.


The last part of the descent was the most gruesome, down-climbing the gully off Challenger. By this point, I think we were all feeling it from the early start. Near the bottom, Willow lake came into view. It is pretty scenic as it sits under a shelf and has a big waterfall flowing into it from cliffs above. We also saw some mountain goats.


The lake did look like a pretty nice place to camp and there were no shortage of backpackers up there. I wouldn’t mind going back some day for a nice weekend of fishing. On our way out, the sun came out and it was pretty hot going down all the switchbacks. At least all the scenery was new and the trail was pretty impressive as it meandered through a big canyon. Near the bottom, we ran into a couple of our senior instructors from our HAMS class. Pretty random. Back at the parking lot, it was decision time: to continue on to Crestone Peak or not. This would mean another 4 mile, 2K’ hike/bushwhack up to Cottonwood Lake. We decided to wait another day, which turned out to be wise since bad weather latter that night put down a layer of ice over the peaks. So, instead, we braved Crestone, and got some grub. On the drive home, of course we had to stop in Buena Vista for some Blue Bell ice-cream. We didn’t make it much further and crashed on some Forest Service for a nice 14 hour rest!