Challenger Peak & Kit Carson Peak
14,081 feet, 4269 meter and 14,165 feet 4317 meter
The Sangre de Cristo mountains are known for being rugged and tough
to get to. But in my experience they are also known for rain! On August
6 and 7, Patrick, my regular climbing partner, and I took on Challenger
Peak and Kit Carson Peak. In summary, this was one of the most scenic
climbs I have been on in Colorado - a definite thumbs up!
We left Patrick's home in Colorado Springs and spent three hours getting to the small town of Creston on the west side of the Sangre de Cristo range. It was a beautiful weekend with blue skies and the occasional white fluffy cloud. We found the trailhead to Willow Lake at the end of a 2 mile dirt road. The parking lot was crowded this summer afternoon. Our plan was to camp at Willow Lake then get an early start, bag both peaks and return to the Springs late Monday night.
The trail starts off smooth through an incredible pine forest. Soon
the dark side of the trail emerges: switchbacks. Yes, 56 of them by one
report. Somewhere around number 27 the trail flattened out and we
were rewarded with a view of a football field size green marsh surrounded
by lush aspens. The only thing missing were the moose.
The trail soon continued the switchbacks until I lost count around 47
- I think I was dizzy! Somewhere between miles three and four, the rumble
of thunder began. Soon the dark clouds formed directly above and it
started to pelt us with marble sized hail. Patrick I huddled under a
narrow rock outcropping while donning our rain jackets. After 20 minutes
it passed leaving an inch of hail on the trail. We crested a small hill
and WIllow Lake appeared. More specifically, the waterfall into Willow
Lake appeared. The 100' of falling water reflected on the still lake
after the hail storm and painted a great view.
We scouted for a flat spot to camp on the north side of the lake bypassing the sites just bellow the lake. We found a nice one with easy access to the lake for fresh water, which we filtered. Given it was late Sunday night, there was only a father-son camping nearby with fishing on their agenda - they were not having a lot of luck with the fish. Patrick boiled some water with his JetBoil and we quickly ate our dinner and retired for the night anticipating a nice rest after the hail filled afternoon. No sooner than we were in our bags about to doze off when the skies reopen with loud thunder, bright lightning and a torrential downpour. Honestly, I am not sure how long it lasted but long enough to create a soaked ground and slick rocks the next morning.
We left camp around six for Challenger. The route is spectactular taking
us above Willow Lake and the waterfall. But the one mile slope to Challenger
looked steep and it was. The route starts with a gentle angle directly
towards the notch in the ridge with a well worn path. Soon it enters
into loose rock and then to large boulders before returning to loose
scree. All in all, a straight forward route rising about 2,000 feet.
Once on the ridge we followed the direct line to Challenger's summit.
This peak was renamed Challenger in 1987 after the space shuttle disaster and a nice plaque on the summit commemorates the event. We paused long enough to read the plaque and immediately descended 300' along the ridge to the saddle between Challenger and Kit Carson. Here we connected with the Kit Carson Avenue, a nice wide ramp covered with alpine grass. The avenue rises about 160' and turns sharply east - no stop sign - before descending 225'. After this roller coaster we were left with a 450' climb up a wide gully to the summit of Kit Carson.
Once again the route finding was straight forward with many choices
and too many carins marking favorite routes. We just took a direct line
and soon gained the ridge and then the summit. Once again we spent little
time on top, just enough to take a video and
some water before retracing our steps to Challenger and then to camp.
It took 3 hours to reach Challenger, another two for the round trip to
Kit Carson and then 2.5 back to camp for a total of 7.5 hours - not the
fastest but not the slowest. The biggest time sink involved the scree
below Challenger Peak.
Once back at Willow Lake we broke camp and returned to the car. Just as we approached the trailhead, the afternoon thunder boom show started up. Nice timing on our part!
This was a great climb. The camping was peaceful and relaxing even with the light show. The climb had enough variety to keep it interesting. The Kit Carson Avenue was an amazing sight and the summit views stunning. The views of Creston Peak and Crestone Needle were inspiring as were the views of the Blanca Group further south. I really liked this climb and would suggest to it anyone looking for something different than the normal 14er walkup. It can be done in one long day ~ 14 hours?~ but it would be a shame to rush this climb and miss a night by Willow Lake.