Colorado 14'ers: Challenger Point and Kit Carson

KIT CARSON PEAK VIA CHALLENGER POINT:

ACCORDING TO 14’ers.com:

CHALLENGER POINT NORTH SLOPE: DIFFICULT CLASS 2, 14,081’, 5,400’ OF GAIN, 12.5 MILES RT

KIT CARSON VIA CHALLENGER POINT: EASY CLASS 3, ADDITIONAL 2 MILES, 14,165’ AND AN ADDITION 1,100’ OF VERT

I left work in a hurry this past Friday. I hopped in the Sentra, stopped at the King Sooper to resupply, changed my clothes, and hit the road. I had a 4.5 hour drive ahead of me.

I made my way through the Friday traffic in Denver, and eventually as I headed out towards the mountains on 24, the traffic slowly thinned. Kenosha Pass, a point on the CO trail, zoomed by in an instant. I thought about stopping and just running and camping for the weekend, but I pressed on.  

My destination for the weekend was The Sangre De Cristo Range; one of the less traveled mountain ranges in Colorado. Just South West of Salida and Buena Vista, the Sangres hold some of the toughest peaks in the state.  

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The drive took me directly through some of the most beautiful places I’ve been in Colorado. The view driving into Crestone might be one of my favorites I’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing. I watched sun drop slowly towards the horizon and saw the Collegiates, the Sawatch, and everything in between come to life with light as the drive went on. Into Crestone I went, and the sun disappeared behind the peaks I was there to climb. It was an incredible feeling being alone, entering such a mountain range, and getting ready for such a task.

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My plan was to get into town, make a quick stop at the general store for some water and head to the trailhead to park and sleep for the night. I did just that. The road leading up to the trailhead was a bit rocky to say the least. With a small, and I mean incredibly small car, with not the most supple of tires, it made for a bumpy ride. I eventually made it and immediately set up my cowboy camp at the flat spot right at the end of the parking lot. I cooked some ramen and took some night shots as the Milky Way rose and the clouds swirled above; lost in the endless sky. The universe seems to go on forever out here in the Rockies.  

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I fell asleep; cowboy camped under the great expanse of the galaxy.

My alarm buzzed next to my ear at 4:30; I wanted to wake up early to get a good start on the day, but alas, I snoozed the alarm and fell back asleep until about 5:30. I woke up in a hurry at this point, packing my things into my Ultimate Direction Fastpack. I had everything from leggings, to a base layer, to a headlamp, and my camera. I threw it over my shoulder and hit the trail around 6:00 AM.

The first 4.75 miles or so of the trail leading up to the Slopes of Challenger are quite nice. Plenty of vertical gain with some truthfully really beautiful trails. A few rocks here and there to make it a bit technical, but all in all, a very gradual, switchbacked, not so often trafficked trail that I was a big fan of. It snakes and twists it’s way all the way up to about 11,200’ or so before Tree Line hits and you really get to see some of the beauty the Sangre De Cristo’s have to offer.

I eventually hit the lake and took my first break. Roughly 4.75 miles in about 1:15 or so. I was pushing to see if I could hold a steady pace on the ascent up to the lake and basin, and I was feeling good. I sat by the lake for about a half hour enjoying my time in the early morning. A few minutes later as I was getting ready to pack up, a couple of guys came trotting up the trail. I had taken about a 30 minute break, so I figured that there would be a few people behind me at some point. They sat down and we got to chatting about life in Colorado. They were perplexed by the idea of me climbing these two mountains solo, and not a moment later they asked if I wanted to join their group for the day on the summits. I happily obliged and we took off again up the mountain.

The route snakes above the lake and cuts across the wide open basin where it becomes apparent that the Slopes of Challenger are no joke. The trail quickly turns into a scree and talus field and heads directly up to the notch at the saddle right before the summit ridge. The field of loose, broken, ankle twisting rock heads straight up and slows down even the quickest of hikers and runners. As I put one foot in front of the other, i began to use my hands to pull myself up further once in awhile. My feet slid out from under me; one after the other as the scree slid down the slope. We slowly made our way to notch as the route led closer and closer to the snow gulley.

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I was no more than 50 feet away from the notch when I got the first gust of wind over the ridge against my exposed skin. I immediately put a layer on and continued on to the Summit Ridge. The clouds began to roll in and swirl overhead as I navigated the talus and hopped from rock to rock. Through the clouds and wind I made it to the summit moments later and took it all in.

Challenger Point was done and now it was time for the traverse to Kit Carson.

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We descended the ridge behind a group of climbers that seemed much more ‘geared up’ for the trip. They had helmets on, much larger backpacks, and had camped at the lake the night before. It made me a bit concerned at first, thinking that the class 3 ridge was going to be much harder than it should be, but as we traversed the descent and then the avenue, I realized I had made the right decisions. Sure, it was a bit technical and exposed at times, but the Avenue is a beautifully carved route. It follows the side of the mountain and provides excellent views of the Crestone Needle and Peak as plenty of sharp, exposed spires spike from the ridge.

The fog began to move out quicker than expected, and before we knew it there were peaks all around, eluding to the sheer beauty tucked in the range. Being among the giant peaks instills such a diminishing and small feeling to most people, myself included. From the moment I saw the Crestone’s, I felt small. The beauty is everywhere as you climb the last gulley to get to the summit. Once again; incredibly steep and loose, it requires every last bit of energy at mile 7 for the day to push to the summit after nearly 7,000’ of elevation gain. I watched as a few other climbers ahead of us and behind us struggled up the slope, endlessly reaching for anything solid to hold onto. It’s a grueling last summit push to the peak, but its hard not to enjoy every second of it when the beauty is astounding. I took 30 second break after one another every few minutes or so; stopping to catch my breath and give it another push for a few minutes shortly after.

After a 10:00 AM summit of Challenger Point, I arrived at the summit of Kit Carson a mere hour or so later. An unreal summit view awaited me and I basked in it for probably longer than I should have. Maybe a half hour or so passed before I realized it was getting a bit chilly at the top. I ended my celebration early and headed back down.

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Little did I realize that the traverse back down to Challenger would be the tricky part, followed by the hardest and slowest descent of my life to date. A few small 3-400’ climbs separate the two peaks, but they’re steep, exposed, and tricky and technical. The avenue coming back is a bit confusing although it just happened an hour ago, but from the opposite side. It looks the same, but not exactly.

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The two miles from the snow gulley to the summit of Challenger then KC, and back down the snow gulley were traveled at roughly 1.2mph. This is an unusually slow pace for me, so I was quite surprised to see that pace as I checked the tracker, but eventually, a long four hours later, I found myself at the lake once again. The descent down the snow gully was one of the most grueling, time consuming, technical, absolutely maddening descents i’ve ever done. I couldn’t move fast enough, otherwise i would begin to slide down the scree, and with talus and smaller rocks scattered everywhere, a broken ankle was possible at any moment. We eventually passed the trail crew again, and slowly but surely, dirt trail became something I could see. We pushed to the bottom as quickly as possible, descending well over 1,500’ in less than a mile. After so much time at altitude, I was beginning to get a headache and become very fatigued. I ate enough food and drank as much water as I could at the lake. Repacked my bag, got up, and began the gentle cruise back down to the car.

Downhill running is something I’ve been working on since moving out here, so I kicked it into low gear and started running. I wanted to average about 13 minute miles on the descent, so a nice jog was in order. I cruised on through the switchbacks and eventually made my way back to the car.

Roughly 14 miles, 7,000’ of vertical climbing, around 8 hours, a lot of effort, and two summits. My first trip in the Sangre’s was a success and I truly felt like I accomplished something. I was exhausted, hungry, tired, thirsty, and most importantly; absolutely and overwhelmed with the stoke. I hopped in the car after taking the shoes off and pouring some water over me, and cruised back down into town to gets some food and to make a decision for the following day.

What a day indeed.

fINAL THOUGHTS ON THE ROUTE:

Overall, it was an absolutely gorgeous route, through an incredibly appealing landscape, with some truly technical, rugged, exposed terrain. It was an ungodly steep climb to the notch, and an even more painful descent to get back to tree line. I loved it, though. I worked for every bit of freedom, joy, and bliss that day. Combine the beauty of the route with the landscape surrounding it, and you’re surely to be in a good mood. Although a hard and technical route, it is quite easy to follow, well maintained up to gulley, and the Trail Maintenance Crews are currently doing some gnarly work on the mountain to get a more forgiving trail up to the saddle. Everything about the route was what I wanted, and although an ass kicker of an ascent and descent, it was challenging, fun, and no, I’d never do it again…ha.