Kit Carson Peak and Challenger Point

Trail: Outward Bound Couloir, Class 3, ~ 12 miles, 5600 ft elevation gain

Jen, myself, and Ryan Mishmash had attempted the North Ridge on Kit Carson a year ago only to be stymied by fog and clouds so intense that visibility above 11,000 feet was nill.  While we didn't get Ryan along for the climb this time Jen and I had decided to go out and give it a go again over Memorial Day Weekend. Our plan was to backpack in to Willow Lake Saturday, May 27th, 2006 and then to climb the North Ridge on Kit Carson the next day, head over to Challenger, then hike out in time to make the Boulder Creek Festival on Monday.  

We left the house around 11:00 AM on Saturday and had packed with luxury in mind: pillows, stove, multiple freeze dried meals, inflatable mats, etc. We also figured a set of axes, crampons, and helmets would be in order.  While I skipped rope I d did bring four full length runners along.  Dave Pneuman showed me how useful  these are.  Four runners, girth hitched together, gives you more than 12 feet of a rope ladder and I have found them to be indispensable.  

The drive to the town of Crestone went smoothly and we arrived at the trailhead around 3:30.  I should point out that nothing  past Salida takes check cards or credit cards so bring cash.  Jen and I threw our packs on and headed out. Along the way we ran into Dave Hale, Joey Luther, Bob Callahan, and Brian Frieberger. They had climbed snow up to Challenger and then crossed over to Kit Carson and were headed out to climb Lindsey the following day.  We chatted briefly and headed up.  

Starting Out

The trail to Willow Lakes Breaks down into approximately three sections and is around 3 miles long and 2500 feet in gain.  The first section consists of an annoying series of switch backs right from the parking lot and tops out above the valley pictured above.  The second section follows alongside the valley before switchbacking up to and past a few waterfalls, crosses over a stream, switchbacks through a rocky section, and tops out in a break in cliffs before entering a forested area.  The third and final section runs through a forested area and ends at Willow Lake.  Taking the hike in leisurely, with full packs, the first two sections are about an hour long each and the third is around 30 minutes.  YMMV


We arrived at camp around 7:30 at which point I set the tent and bags up and made dinner while Jen filtered about ten liters of water.  After a hot dinner we went to sleep.  I had originally set the alarm for 3:00 AM for a true alpine start but as the night progressed it became apparent that this was pointless.  During the night the wind grew progressively stronger and stronger until it was so loud that I decided that climbing the North Ridge might not happen.  I reset the alarm for 4:00 AM and we took a leisurely hour and a half cooking breakfast and lounging in the tent hoping the wind would die away.  It didn't.  

Willow Lake In The Morning

I figured we might as well gear up and head up to he base of the climb and see what to do from there.  We left around 5:30 and arrived at the huge boulders below the North Ridge around 6:00-6:30.  The wind was still really howling and gusting hard enough to push me back and knock Jen over so we decided to hang a round for more than an hour, eat a sandwich, and see if it calmed down.  It still didn't so we decided to skip an exposed 4th class climb.  This turned out to be a good idea because the wind picked up ALLOT over the course of the day.  I'd guess the wind was averaging 60 mph with 80 mph gusts but this could be wrong.  It was certainly the strongest wind I've suffered through when hitting a peak.  

Kit Carson In The Morning

Although we had abandoned the ridge climb for safety reasons we were fortunate enough to be standing at the base of the Outward Bound Couloir which was completely shielded from the wind so we decided to climb this instead.  This turned out to be a fun alternative so the day was hardly wasted.  We also spent awhile scrambling around on rocks at the base of the North Ridge for no real good reason other than to kill time.

The Outward Bound Couloir

Another Shot, Courtesy Of Jeff Valliere (Our Route Is In Yellow)

I don't remember how long the climb in the couloir took but I am guessing it was around an hour and a half.  It was the longest snow climb for Jen so far so I went slow and made sure she was comfortable.  The snow in the couloir was in great shape and, while the bottom  two thirds was sunhit, the top part was not. This was fortunate in that the places where rockfall would be likely to happen due to warming temperatures remained frozen.

The couloir itself was pretty easy for three quarters of the way.  I'd say the angle started around 20 degrees and ramped up to around 40 or so.  Past the constriction the angle steepened to around 45 degrees before ramping up to (maybe) 50 degrees during a portion where I angled up and left to a rock band. At the rock band I traversed horizontally to the base of the final wall which exits the couloir.  There were frozen foot steps here which I can only assume belonged to George Barnes who descended this route a couple weeks before.  Once at the base of the final 20-30 foot exit, the snow steepened to 60 degrees. Overall the snow in the couloir tended to be very good although some sections were icing up and hard to find decent axe belays in.  For the most part,  even the icier sections took crampons quite well and the steep portions of the couloir allowed absolutely bomber axe belays and kick steps.   I have to highly recommend Omega Pacific's Ice Axes, I bought one when I decided that I hated my Black Diamond Raven Pro axe.  The old axe was just too light and narrow to work well in steeper snow and was very difficult, with it's tiny spike and low weight, to get decent belays with.  The Omega Pacific is heavy, solid, and cheap.  I've now used it on 60 and 70 degree slopes and will never go back to a lightweight axe again.  Other than that the main injury of the day came from hammering the axe in to the icier spots to provide Jen with good belays.  Apparently the hand is not meant to be used as a hammer and my left hand had muscle spasms during the ride home.

Jen Starting The Couloir

I made my way up and over the exit only to be hit by wind so strong it almost (literally) blew me back into the couloir.  I hunched down and yelled a warning about the wind to Jen.  I was very proud to see how easily she handled the steep part with absolutely no fear.  She kicked right up the steep section and was happy with it until she noticed how far Kit Carson still was.  She seems to gain comfort in snow and rock much more quickly than I did.  One of the funny things about mountaineering is that it is the only discipline where an you are always getting both smarter and dumber as your experience increases.  The picture below shows Jen at the 'headwall' of the couloir.  You can get an idea of the steepness by noting her aspect with respect to the slope.

Jen Finishing The Couloir

The hike over to Kit Carson was straightforward and followed a gully up to the ridge before summiting out.  There was a modicum of 3rd class scrambling punctuated by some icy areas but nothing very difficult or exposed.  The views from the summit on the other hand were magnificent and one side of Kit Carson was a sheer cliff.  I would have admired the views longer but the wind was so horrendous that standing was difficult.  

Crestone Peak and Needle 

Just before summiting we ran into two guys who were just coming off.  I regret not remembering both their names as we descended the whole way together but I do remember one was named Brian.  These two guys had apparently paired up by chance when their respective significant others bailed on them.  I asked them if they would mind holding off for a minute to show us the right way down to Kit Carson Avenue.  They were both very gracious and said no problem.  As it turned out we decided to hang out the entire way down to camp.  If either of you guys read this thanks for the good company.

Jen Topping Out on Kit Carson

After summiting we all descended a 2nd/3rd class gully to the first half of the Avenue.  The wind was really fierce here and was knocking everyone around. Fortunately, the wind was blowing towards the rock so it actually pushed us in the direction we wanted to fall.  If it had been blowing another direction the descent would have been scary. Finding the avenue is really easy.  Drop down three or four hundred feet and look for the obvious ledge system to the right. With any visibility it would be hard to miss, it is the first place you can traverse right out of the gully.  (Note, by right I mean facing outward, if you are downclimbing facing inwards it would be left)

The 1st half of the avenue was completely straightforward with an axe and at no time did it feel exposed or nerve wracking.  There was always a little bit of rock or solid enough axe belays in snow that it went quickly.

Kit Carson Avenue, Part 1

The second half of the avenue sloped downward and had one section where there was some ice which couldn't be walked across.  We had two options: either cross the snow above it or sit on a rock and kind of jump (scoot) over the ice.  We all choose to jump over it.  While the area was exposed it wasn't too bad (not like Broadway on Long's) and should be straight forward for people with some prior exposure experience.  If you haven't been in exposed areas then expect this section to be scary.

Kit Carson Avenue, Part 2

The guys we went with knew we hadn't been up Challenger yet so we all headed over the top.  The view looking back at Kit Carson was fabulous and the avenue looked totally hostile from a distance.  It's amazing how bad things look from farther away, note the NW couloir on Crestone Peak.

After the Avenue, Heading Up To Challenger

We all made quick time up Challenger but only stopped briefly as the wind was unrelenting in its fury.  After Challenger we scrambled down a ways before jumping into a huge snow slope at which point we plunge stepped and glissaded down about a thousand feet.  The trek out of the upper basin was absolutely miserable as the wind only gained in strength and made each step a battle.  Jen was literally blown over three times, once badly enough to crack her elbow severely.  After descending to the lower basin we said our goodbyes, packed up and headed out.  We made it back to the car around 5:00 and made it home around 10:00.  It was a long and windy day but the area is beautiful and Kit Carson is a peak not to be missed.  I still hope to hit the North Ridge one day.  

Challenger Point

These peaks were numbers 22 and 23 for Jen, next week we are going to beat ourselves on some arbitrary Sawatch slog and then the following week I will take Jen to the Elk range for the first time where we will hit the Bell Cord and the traverse between the Bells.  

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