It was really just a continuation of my “day-hike is better than overnight backpack hike” theory - that we would attempt to summit both Challenger Point and Kit Carson Peak in our quest to climb all 58 of Colorado’s 14,000’ peaks. Although my theory had suffered a hard blow 2 days before, climbing Blanca Peak but abandoning an attempt at Ellingwood Point, I still felt that we could ascend the 14 miles round trip required to do both Challenger and Kit Carson. By the end of this day, however, the realization of why an overnight base camp at Willow Lake is necessary would be all too apparent.
We left our hotel in Alamosa at 3am, and arrived at the trailhead shortly after 4am. The road to the Willow Lake/South Crestone trailhead is a piece of cake compared to Lake Como, but there are more than a few unmarked side roads that make the journey a bit of a maze. I just stayed to the right the whole way, on what I was thinking was the main road, and luckily I turned out to be right. By 4:40 we were hiking the well-defined trail.
Just like the road to Blanca, the elevation gain is pretty extreme on this trail, starting out at the floor of the San Luis Valley and rising to 14er height. This trail is not a road like that one is, though, and the switchbacks start right away and sharply. We were feeling a little bit drained from the marathon up Blanca just 2 days earlier, and our progress was somewhat slow to Willow Lake, arriving there after approximately 3 1/2 hours of hiking. We were treated to an appearance by some bighorn sheep, but thankfully no bears.
The sun was shining straight onto the lake, making photo taking a little problematic – too much brightness, but the lake is surely a strikingly beautiful spot. We made the short hike up to above the waterfall, where we stopped and had a snack and surveyed the route ahead. The route calls to ascend to the right of the obvious couloir on Challenger – but sitting there we were shocked just how much more steep the couloir was in real life than in the route photos. The upper part of the slope was also enveloped in a good deal of snow still, from the storm a few days before.
Through the lower half of the slope, we could still follow the trail and cairns fairly well, but as we gained altitude, the snow obscured what signs of a trail we could find, and the puzzle solving began. Most route descriptions I’ve read rate this route as “difficult class 2” but we found the climbing we were doing as solid class 3 climbing. The going was slow – from Willow Lake to the summit is about 3,000’, and the steepness was much more than I expected. Were we off route? I’m not sure. We did see footprints here and there, what looked like a party of two that had probably climbed the day before. We could follow them for a few minutes, than rock outcropping s would appear and the steps we were following would seem to disintegrate before our eyes. The maze of the 4wd road this morning had carried over to the climb, and the enigma had our feet crawling through molasses.
Finally, we popped up on the top of the couloir. From here, the actual summit could finally be seen. Gina remarked to me that it was still far away. Ever the optimist, I told her “Don’t worry, I’m sure it’s closer than it appears”. We got ourselves up onto the ridge and began the rock hop to the top. As I was all too much lately, my instinct was completely off. The summit did not get any closer very fast. Just after 12:35pm, we reached the summit of Challenger Point, our 38th Colorado 14er summit.
The summit of Challenger is one of the most emotional summits I’ve ever been on. I still remember walking into Mrs. Bartley’s 11th grade journalism class, as she told us the news that the space shuttle Challenger had just blown up. Challenger Point, which was once considered a “non-official” 14er, was only given its name in 1987 in honor of the fallen shuttle crew. In that same year, a climbing party placed the plaque on top. The Latin phrase included translates to "To the stars through adversity."
We surveyed the scene in front of us. To climb Kit Carson, we would have to descend to the sac between the two mountains, walk up then down the section known as Kit Carson Avenue before reaching the gully we could ascend to the summit, which is class 3 climbing. (This gully cannot be seen from the summit of Challenger) By the time we had finished our summit photos, the time was well past 1pm. After much discussion, we reluctantly reached the conclusion that a summit attempt at Kit Carson would be unwise, considering we still had to descend back to the truck today. I had wanted to push on, to avoid returning someday to re-climb Challenger. It turned out that Gina overruling me was the best decision we could make that day.
The weather soon turned windy and cold as we descended. Coming down that couloir a few hours later, as we would have had we continued, would have been a nightmare. It was bad enough with the energy reserves we still had, and a class 3 climb to the top of Carson would have exacerbated our condition to the point of danger. Exhausted, we trudged down the trail back to our truck. On the way down, we passed a group of 4 with loaded backpacks. Definitely they had the right idea, to camp overnight at the splendid Willow Lake, then climb the peaks in the morning. I did think they were headed up to the lake rather late, if it were me I’d want to get up earlier in the day and set up, giving us enough time to recuperate before the climbing begins. Maybe 20 minutes after we passed them, we also discovered a major problem for them. We found their cord for hanging food away from bears and marmots, left carelessly along the trail. We could only imagine the trouble this must have caused them.
And so we arrived back at the 4-Runner just before dark, about an hour less than what it took us to climb Blanca. My day-hike theory in ruins, we will return to Willow Lake in years to come, so that we may check Kit Carson off our list. With just a few exceptions, most of the climbs left on our list require camping, and in the future we will come more prepared for this contingency. Our original plan had been to climb these peaks, then round the Sangre de Cristo range to climb Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle. After viewing the Crestones from the summit of Challenger, and seeing the significant snow and ice still on the summits, we had to change our plans and head to Aspen. Definitely we will end up with less summit climbs this year than previous years, but we still had Castle Peak and Conundrum left to climb, as well as some valuable reconnaissance for future years and future climbs in the Elks. Chalk some of this year up to experience, I guess.