Saturday, July 14, 2012

The land of Rock and Fog

Challenger Point 14,081'

Kit Carson Peak 14,165'

Route: West Willow Creek
15.25 miles 6,500' of elevation gain

Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle are famously known for their dramatic exposure, jagged spires, and conglomerate rock. Conglomerate is various types of rocks cemented in sedimentary rock creating natures version of concrete (concrete is cement + aggregates). Kit Carson Mountain is a nearby massif made of the same type of conglomerate rock and feels like a sibling to these legendary peaks. The KC massif includes Kit Carson Peak (14,165'), Challenger Point (14,081'), and Columbia Point (13,980').  Because of our prominance rules, each of these high points counts as a seperate mountain. Kit Carson Peak itself is a very steep and rugged peak with a small weakness on one side called "Kit Carson Avenue", that allows access to the vulnerable SE face, allowing class 2 access to an otherwise class 4 mountain.

The Willow lakes approach leaves from the small mountain town of Crestone, who's most famous resident is a Llama named Jimi Hendrix. This approach has to be in the top 10 best hikes in the state. It's a tantalizing combo of an easy trail, great views, and a fantastic reward at the end.

Anyway, we arrived just below the TH on Saturday at 4:40 PM in heavy rains. Should we venture into the unknown with questionable weather? After debating our options, we decided to set out in the rain, which was beginning to slow.

The approach to the lake is roughly 5 miles- well marked, wide, smooth class I hiking. The grade is very mellow, never getting very steep, but at times the views are tremendous. At 9,900' you come to a storybook view of a grassy meadow lined with big aspen trees, framed by huge, steep, rocky peaks. Further up you see tons of wildflowers, several waterfalls, and the reverse of the previous view looking out. Eventually you traverse below and then up the right side of a large headwall with huge stone cliffs. Finally, at the end you come to another waterfall, a small scramble, and you are at Willow Lake. We made good time (2.5 hours) with the rain eventually ceasing. Everything was wet, but the trail wasn't slippery or steep so that didn't hinder us, and everything was clean and fresh.

Starting out  (Photo by SZL)

Big Panorama of the view at 9,900'

The trail as it approaches the headwall
Hiking up the wet but wonderful trail (Photo by SZL)
In the above photo you can see all the gear I took with me on this overnight adventure. I'm fortunate to have some good lightweight gear so I can pack light. It doesn't feel so bad backpacking when your bag is "only" 20 lbs.

Through the trees, another waterfall can be seen
Love this scene
The aliens are making crop circles down on the plains
Fog and Rock  high above
This scene was a few feet from our tent

Best campsite ever

Quick peek at Willow Lake / the waterfall

Scott gets savage with some Subway. You can't imagine how delicious this tastes after 5 miles of approach hiking

We set up our tent, ate some delicious Subway, and got ready for the night. It was cool and damp, with clouds keeping the sun away from us. We planned to set off in the morning at 5AM.

Since we didn't sleep much, we woke without an alarm at 4:35AM and were off by 5:05 AM. The trail immediately climbs a steep rocky section and you are at the lake. From here it's braided social trails around the lake until you finally hit the consolidated trail. We quickly worked over to the base of the slope and realized the enormity of the task in front of us. This trail climbs 2100' in 0.75 miles. Coming up was OK, but a little sketchy. You are wedged between a snow-filled coulior and a large rock rib as you climb. There are many trail branches and there are occasional sections of very loose rock/scree. I thought coming up was OK compared to other things I've done.
Sunrise over the Sangres (Photo by SZL)

I think this is Mount Adams

"Obstruction Peak" center and Kit Carson Peak (right)

About 1/2 way up, looking ahead. We don't cross that couloir until the top of the ridge
Once the ridge was gained, it was smooth sailing but with some exposure
Me near the same point (photo by SZL)

Once the ridge was gained, there was a very stiff and cold wind at the notch. We briefly flirted with the idea of turning back, but we pressed on, quickly gaining the ridge. In the fog, the ridge was kind of eerie- lots of exposure but limited views. This is good stuff, and one of the highlights of the route. The trail takes longer than you think to work over some small false summits. Before long, you see the obvious plaque and know that you stand on the summit of Challenger Point. Astronaughts are like 14er climbers- they accept the risks and press forth exploring new and interesting places. It's quite a stretch, but it makes sense to me. We spent only 4 minutes on this summit and moved on.

Pretty cool historical landmark here

On the summit of Challenger Point, full dork mode

The notch between Kit Carson and Challenger was easily reached from the summit, it seemed to only take 5 minutes. When we reached the Avenue it was exciting. I'd seen it so many times, but now it was real- and wide. We did an uncessary class 3 scramble to gain the avenue, and started up. It was really wide- much safer than it looks. Soon we gained "the prow" where our co-worked had ascended last year- impressive!

The entrance to Kit Carson Avenue

Looking back at Challenger Point. We came down that?

There's "the prow" on Kit Carson
Fun little detour (Photo by SZL)

Coming down "the Avenue" or "Crestone Boulevard".
Before too long, we were at the base of the class 3 variation to the summit of KC. It felt a little wild not knowing where we were headed, but we rolled with it. This route varied between class 2 and class 3, on solid, mildly sloping rock. At no point did we feel overly challenged, and it gained elevation neatly. We skirted to the right of a small prow, and then left of a "nipple". One class 3 "crux" move up to a small grassy ledge, and the ridge proper loomed ahead. Angling slightly left, we reached the normal trail about 100' from the true summit.

Class 3 Variation

I think this was my favorite part... (photo by SZL)

Slope not exaggerated. If you slipped and fell, you wouldn't fall far.

The "crux" move was an easy and unexposed class 3 move that could have been circumvented

Looking up from the same point; the trail is about 30' above us, and we are near the summit

Kit Carson makes 40 unique 14er summits for me (hence the sign)
The real summit was small and encased in dense fog. I had fun reading the summit register, ate my "Summit Snickers", took some silly pics, and we headed down the standard route.

Speaking of the normal way down, there is a deceptive social trail that heads down to the KC/Columbia Point saddle. It would be easy to follow that trail and end up on the wrong side of the rock rib. From here it was smooth sailing, although it seemed like there was a lot more uphill coming back up the prow, and then back up to the summit of Challenger Point. The ridge scramble on Challenger also seemed to take a long time. I guess it's just the way it goes.
Coming down
Coming back up KC Avenue
We have to go back UP Kit Carson Avenue? (Photo by SZL)
Scott screwing around on some overhanging rocks by the trail.. his other foot is NOT on the ground, I was just too close to get a wide enough shot

Looking down the descent rate from near the top
Mr. Marmot

Panorama looking East from Challenger Point (photos and stitching by SZL)

The descent of Challenger point was challenging (ironic, huh?). It was still wet and muddy, and it was incredibly steep. We both fell down a few times, and tried to find solid ground as rocks fell and tumbled at our passing. Scott told me this was his least favorite part. We found a couple groups that had aborted their attempt at Challenger point due to questionable weather.

At the top of the cliffs, I did a small scramble to obtain a little perch to take some photos, including Panoramas. There's a nice little spot near the waterfall, but don't slip!

Panorama from the cliffs above Willow Lake
Mega Panorama from the cliffs above the lake- 9 shot composite

Panorama from the other side of the lake

Relaxing, Colorado Style

Packing up was a pain, but we were on a mission- to get back to the Springs before Sunday had passed away. We started off quick, but I had to take a bunch of wildflower pictures and play with the waterfalls. Oh well. In under 2 hours we were back to the car and starting down the road.

(photo by SZL)

Fireweed, I think


Scott crossing the river

One last parting look before we slog down the final 20 switchbacks (Photo by SZL)

We ate a satisfying lunch at "Fiesta Mexicana" in Salida and headed back to the Springs. When we finally arrived at my house, it was dumping rain. At least we had managed to hike 2 interesting and challenging mountains in a nice little weather window. You never know unless you try.

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