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Kit Carson Peak
Elevation: 14,165 feet
Climbed: Jul 17, 2007
Mountain Range: Sangre de Cristo Range
Colorado Rank: 23rd
Class Rating: 3
Latitude: 37.979700
Longitude: -105.602000

Trip Report

Jul 17, 2007

Challenger Point / Kit Carson Peak Trip Report - Courtesy of Randy

This July 2007 trip was the third time that Mountain Mike, Wild Mike and Randy have spent time in the Colorado Mountains with the primary focus of ascending a 14er or two. Mountain Mike is the veteran of the group and has lived in Colorado Springs since 1988. Prior to this trip he had already ascended 35 14ers, a handful with Wild Mike and Randy on the previous two trips in 2003 and 2004. In fact, Mountain Mike had already ascended three 14ers earlier in 2007 so he seemed to have his hiking legs ready for the July ascents.

Wild Mike and Randy are neighbors who live in Wildwood, Missouri with an elevation of some 600 feet. Randy is also the younger brother of Mountain Mike. Wild Mikeís main training regiment in anticipation of the summer hike was mountain biking on nature trails in Wildwood. Randy focused on running.

The planning portion for all three of our trips played out the same way. Several months before the trip, someone threw out some potential mountains to climb. Usually this is followed by someone sending Internet pictures of the climb from a precarious angle that drives up the adrenalin and makes us wonder about the selection. In this case, we offered up Longs Peak for a while before we finally agreed on Challenger Peak and Kit Carson in the Sangre de Cristo range.

The Trip

Saturday -

Wild Mike and Randy drove the 800 miles from Wildwood to The Springs on Saturday. They started at 4am and arrived in the late afternoon. They made such good time that they arrived at Mountain Mikeís house before he returned from his overnight campout with his family at Eleven Mile Canyon. Wild Mike and Randy used this time to bike on nearby trails. That night the decision was made to spend the next day acclimating in and around Colorado Springs.

Sunday -

We spent a portion of Sunday mountain biking at Palmer Park along with Mountain Mikeís son, David. David led the way with Wild Mike close behind. We all avoided any major crashes although a protruding branch made a strong attempt to rip into Wild Mikeís arm. At the end of our ride at Palmer Park, Mountain Mike and David headed back to the house while Wild Mike and Randy headed over to the New Santa Fe Trail for a less technical trail on gravel. It resembled the Katy Trail network in Missouri. Once we were all back at the house, plans were made and way points were uploaded into the GPS units. We would be on the road to the Sangre de Cristo range early tomorrow morning.

Monday -

After a stop for a quick meal at Arbyís in Alamosa, we headed to the Willow Lake trailhead at 8,800 feet elevation, which was a few miles past the tiny town of Crestone. Our goal today was to backpack into Willow Lake and set up camp at about 11,500 feet elevation. Our packs weighed from 40-50 pounds each and would cause for a very challenging day of hiking as we would gain 2,700 feet during our 5-mile hike to Willow Lake. The trail had a series of switchbacks and moved in and out of shade. We passed some fellow hikers on the trail and they shared a few stories of what we could expect up the trail. The most vivid parts of the hike had to be the mountain stream crossings. In fact, we encountered one in our first 1/4 mile that could have impacted our entire hike. One misstep on a log or rock could have sent one of us sprawling into the water soaking us and our belongings. Luckily, we survived this one and the others as we worked our way up the trail.

Our hard work was rewarded with the fantastic environs of the Willow Lake area. We camped just below the lake at the edge of a clearing near a stream and a rock face with some of its crevices filled with snow. The banks of the stream were covered with willows with the only access cut by game trails. The woods in the area were fairly dense and provided a canopy thick enough to give sun protection.

Dinner for all of us consisted of freeze dried food packaged in resealable bags. After adding boiling water and resealing the bag for 8-10 minutes you have a calorie-providing, sodium-laden meal. Randy chased his meal down with a freeze-dried ice cream sandwich! After eating dinner, we strung our food up between two trees to ensure wildlife (e.g., black bears) did not wander into camp looking for a tasty snack.

We now prepared ourselves for our nightís sleep in Wild Mikeís 3-man tent in anticipation of a 5:00am start up to Challenger Peak and Kit Carson Peak. When you sleep at 11,500 feet you never expect to have a solid full-night sleep. Lack of oxygen can play tricks on your body and in Randyís case, caused a pounding headache. Even after taking Excedrin in the middle of the night, he had written off the climb the next morning. Luckily, the headache was gone the next morning and we were all ready to begin the ascent.

Tuesday -

Our plan for today would be to ascend Challenger Peak via the North Slopes route. It is a 2.8 mile (round trip) climb that will see us gain about 2,520 feet. We would then work our way over to Kit Carson Peak via the "Avenue", adding another 1,080 feet of elevation gain over 1.4 miles (round trip). After a quick breakfast we were on our way at 5:00am with our headlamps on. Our 15-18 lbs packs seemed light compared to our 40-50 lbs packs the day before. The beginning portion of the climb took us up and around Willow Lake. Much of the trail that circled the lake cut its way through dense willows. When we had worked our way out of the willows, near the waterfall, we had plenty of natural light to see. As this point we could see much of what would consume the next few hours of our day. There was green, grassy-type vegetation that gave way to loose rock as you moved up the mountain. You could see a snow-filled couloir to the left that appeared to stop at a connecting ridge.

At one section fairly early on, there was a small snow field that Randy used to test his new ice axe that he had purchased a couple days before. Since he did not have crampons he was required to "kicked in" snow steps with his boots. The test was successful and Randy felt confident this is the way to move up the mountain if given the opportunity later.

For the most part, Mountain Mike led the way up the trail which traversed both grass and rock.

We came upon another snow field that appeared to lead all the way up to the top of the ridge. Randy opted to take this route to the ridge. He optimistically believed this would be a good way to ascend directly up without having to deal with the sometimes loose gravel and talus. The Mikes continued on the traditional trail.

Randy worked his way up the snow field by kicking into the snow and creating steps as he went. This turned into a fairly aerobic activity that caused him to slump on his ice axe every few "kicks". It soon became clear that this was not the route Randy would take to the ridge and made his way off the snow field to rejoin the Mikes.

The route up the north slope of Challenger became very loose on the upper sections. Stable rock was almost non-existent at times. It was a challenge to avoid dislodging rocks and creating a rock-fall hazard for climbers below. The scrambling could be kept at Class 2+ with some decent route-finding, but it wasn't difficult to venture off-route. The best line up the slope was to start on the right (west) of the long, obvious snow gully, and work your way even closer to the gully near the top of the slope.

We reached the summit of Challenger peak about 9am. The weather did not have a scent of rain or lightning. We took the obligatory summit photo and Randy was able to call his wife from his cell phone. We were the only ones on the summit. The only other hikers on the mountain were a group of two men and a woman who had already reached and left the summit. However, we could hear them talking to each other as they traversed over to Kit Carson.

We had all planned to continue on to Kit Carson Peak. It looked to be a challenging trek that would require a descent, an ascent, another descent before making the final ascent to capture the summit of Kit Carson. The return trip was equally daunting as it would require the retracing of steps back to Challenger before heading back to camp. Wild Mike made the game-time decision to head back to camp and forgo Kit Carson. As Mountain Mike and Randy started the descent to the saddle, Wild Mike lingered on Challenger Peak snapping a few more pictures, then began his solo descent to base camp.

Mountain Mike and Randy started the descent to the saddle that would take us to "Kit Carson Avenue" where we would ascend to the Prow. For virtually the entire climb over to Kit Carson, Mountain Mike would lead the way. He was feeling good and Randy was very comfortable being in the more passive role of follow the leader.

Kit Carson Avenue is a ledge system that is the key to climbing Kit Carson Peak. The ledge sneaks along the cliffs on the west and south sides of the mountain. We were unsure how much snow might linger on Kit Carson Avenue in mid-July, which was the main reason Randy and Mountain Mike had brought ice axes. In the weeks before our climb, we had studied recent photos of Kit Carson Avenue. As late as early July, steep snow covered short sections of the Avenue. By mid-July, however, more snow had melted, leaving one section of snow which we easily crossed and one section which we avoided by stepping gingerly between the snow slope and the lower edge of the ledge.

Kit Carson Avenue climbs to the saddle between the Prow and the upper cliffs, then turns east (left) and descends as it hugs the cliffs. We followed the Avenue as far as we could, until it ended above some significant snow fields. At this point, we began the Class-3 scramble up an east-facing gully to the summit. There were a few slightly loose areas, but solid rock was never far away. The scrambling was never sketchy, with many good route options leading to the top.

Mountain Mike was the first one to summit Kit Carson around 10:30am and he took a few pictures. When Randy reached the summit he assumed a seat on a rock and did not move again until it was time to head back down. He was feeling ill and spent his time on the summit sipping water. He was not able to eat aside from a portion of a cookie and 3 M&Ms. After Mountain Mike took a few summit shots and had a bite to eat, they both descended off the mountain.

Mountain Mike led the way down off the summit, then up to the Prow, then down the Avenue, then up to Challenger and then down, down, down. The climb down was paced by Randy and generally slow.

For much of the climb, Randy had been looking forward to glissading down the long snow gully on Challengerís north slope. As Randy began to feel worse, a quick escape from the mountain began to sound better and better. Snow in the vicinity of Kirk Couloir, just below the Challenger Point - Kit Carson Peak saddle, enticed Randy, who suggested that we may be able to glissade down that route. Mountain Mike wouldn't bite on that suggestion, although we still looked forward to a glissade down the long snow gully.

As we began to descend Challengerís north slope, we watched for a good place to enter the snow gully. The top sections were too steep and narrow for safe glissading, but eventually we began to work our way over to the gully. The rock was treacherously loose, with entire sections of the slope moving under our feet. With difficulty, we managed to arrive at the edge of the snow.

Mountain Mike began to dig into his pack for waterproof snow pants and gaiters for the glissade. Randy, who was running on empty, decided he didn't have the energy it took to even retrieve his ice axe from his pack. We called off the glissade and resumed hoofing it down the mountain.

Reaching the grassy lower slopes was a major milestone and a morale booster. However, small streams fed by snow melt created some wet sections of slippery grass. After successfully navigating all the steep, loose rock higher on the mountain, poor traction on the grass caused Mountain Mike to wipe out a couple of times.

Around 4:15pm, Mountain Mike and Randy arrived back in camp. Randy headed for the tent to lie down for a few hours, nursing an apple as he tried to recover.

Wild Mike filled in Randy and Mountain Mike about his arrival back to camp several hours earlier. Wild Mike had arrived to find a herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep milling about camp, including some young kids. He also encountered some fairly bold marmots. To top it off, a marauding rodent had chewed its way through the tent screen, defecated in all four corners of the tent, and then set up residence. Wild Mike was able to chase the varmint from the tent, clean up the droppings, and shake out our gear.

Dinner consisted of freeze-dried food brought to life by boiling water. Wild Mike got a fire going which was fed by downed wood from the many trees in the area. The warmth was welcomed as the temperature dropped along with the sun. After dousing the fire with stream water we got ready for sleep. This entailed the usual: brush teeth, string the food up on a bear line, etc.

Sleeping in tents can be a challenge for Mountain Mike as he has a sporadic case of claustrophobia. It will occasionally strike when he is tent camping. The previous night there were no issues. However, tonight it struck. Midway through the night Mountain Mike needed to escape from the tent and ended up dragging his sleeping bag onto a tarp that he placed in the clearing. After that move, the night passed uneventfully.

Wednesday -

We spent a portion of the next morning watching a herd of bighorn sheep visit our camp. This was a different herd than the one Wild Mike had seen come through camp the day before. They were very comfortable with us being in the area and grazed on the vegetation without too much anxiety. We broke camp and loaded up our packs which were a few pounds lighter since we had eaten most of our provisions. That coupled with the general loss in altitude made the hike back to the trailhead easier than the hike in. Our pace was good with only a few stops for snacks.

Eventually, our methodical steps brought us back to our car parked at the trailhead. We worked our packs into the car and drove a few miles down the unpaved road until we arrived in the town of Crestone. Although the town is small (population was 73 at the 2000 census), we found a small grocery/hardware store where we found much needed cold drinks. Civilization does have its perks.

On our way back to Mountain Mikeís Colorado Springs home we took a small diversion and headed to the Great Sand Dunes National Park. We ascended about 700 feet to the highest peak on the eastern portion of the dunes while battling fierce winds that would pound sand into your skin. Afterward, we all took mini-baths in the bathroom sinks to wash off as much sand as possible. Now finally we were on our way back home with a lot of unforgettable memories!

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