August 22nd, 2003
Having to work late Friday night Amy and I weren't able to leave for the Sangre De Cristos until Saturday. Knowing that Kit Carson Peak is only a mile away from the Crestones we headed down I-25 towards Colorado Springs. We thought the Willow Lake Trailhead would be close to the South Colony Lake Trailhead, not quite. It wasn't until Pueblo that we finally looked at the map and realized we had to go around the Sangres and headed towards Salida. We would have been much better off just taking highway 285 to Buena Vista, then heading south. Oh well, we had the time and I had never been to the Canon City area. As we approached the Sangre De Cristos the mountains were getting blasted by a storm. We were glad not to be on the peaks today. We proceeded up highway 50 that divides the Sangre De Cristos from the Sawatch Range and then turned south on highway 17. In the center of the town of Crestone we turned right on Gelena Street and followed the road a couple miles to the trailhead. The last mile or so has some pretty big ruts and obstacles that low clearance vehicles would have trouble getting over. We arrived at the trailhead around 7 p.m. and didn't waste anytime getting to sleep since we would be departing for the summit at 3:30 a.m.
August 23rd, 2003
The alarm sounded at 3:00 a.m. and it was hard to crawl out of my warm sleeping bag. Sometime during the night the clouds lifted and the stars were out as we began our hike up the road to the trailhead. There was only a sliver of a moon, so the forest remained quite dark except for the light of our headlamps. From the trailhead the route crosses South Crestone Creek after about 100 yards. We signed into the trail register and began hiking around 4 a.m. We proceeded up the good trail through the forest hoping a creature of the night wouldn't jump out and scare us half to death. I thought this was a good time to tell Amy about all my grizzly bear encounters when I was living in Cody, WY and other bear tales I've heard from people through the years. The trail switchbacks several times before climbing over a hill and proceeding up the Willow Creek drainage passing by a large meadow. Not much further the trail begins to a series of endless switchbacks that are almost too gradual. After about 20 switchbacks we commented that it seems as if we were only gaining about 5 feet of elevation from one end to the other. Probably 2.5 miles into the hike the trail crosses Willow Creek and climbs up the south side of the drainage. Coming to another stream crossing we thought the lake had to surely be right around the corner. Wrong, after about another 1/2 mile we finally came to a waterfall right before the lake. We took a moment to admire the waterfall before climbing up on a bench and finally reaching the lake. we arrived at the lake at 6:30 a.m. taking about 2.5 hours to get there. We had climbed almost 2,900 vertical feet so far and Willow Lake sits at 11,564 feet. The skies were lightening and we stopped at the lake to eat a Clif Bar and enjoy the scenery. The lake was surrounded by the peaks of the Sangre De Cristos and the east end had a waterfall. This would be a very nice backpacking destination.
The trail proceeds around the north end of the lake and some bushwhacking begins. We took the trail staying low towards the lake and realized on the return trip we could have avoided thrashing through the willows if we would have stayed high. Climbing some grassy benches the trail progresses to the east end of the lake over the waterfall. From here you get a view of the route up Challenger Point's west slopes. Kit Carson is the bulky summit towards the left side of the photo below.
From this point the trail steepens as it climbs up towards Challenger's west ridge. The trail remained good for the lower portion of the slopes but faded in and out of the boulders the higher we climbed. We passed a CMC group of about 10 resting midway up the slopes and then shortly after that passed another group of 4 older guys. As the slope neared the ridge some minor scrambling was involved to cross over to the east side of the ridge.
The book noted to follow the easy ridge to the summit. We must have been off-route because this was the most challenging part of the day. On the east side of the ridge several couloirs had to be traversed and although the climbing was easy, care had to be taken not to slip since you would be hard pressed to stop yourself from tumbling several hundred feet down the mountain.
After passing through all of the couloirs on the east side of the ridge, we gained the top of the ridge, and from this point it was an easy boulder hop over to the summit.
We arrived on the summit at 9 a.m. taking us just over 5 hours from the trailhead. There was a plaque mounted on top honoring the astronauts who died in the Challenger shuttle explosion back in 1986.
The 4 older gentelmen joined us on the summit and we chatted with them for a couple minutes and exchanged summit photos. They were very nice guys, even though later in the day they would almost take me out twice by knocking rocks loose on the descent.
They took off for the summit of Kit Carson and we were right behind them. A dark colored slanting ledge called Kit Carson Avenue can be seen from Challenger's summit and is the key to gaining Kit Carson's summit. Kit Carson Avenue looks very narrow and intimidating from this angle but is actually about 5 to 10 feet wide. We descended down to the saddle between the two peaks and made our way up the ledge.
The route climbs up the ledge and heads around the corner where The Prow meets Kit Carson's summit block. Once around the corner Kit Carson Avenue descends along the south side of the summit. The guide book noted not to head upward to the summit too early so we bypassed one gully that seemed climbable.
We came to a larger gully and we proceeded up from this point. The climbing was rated class 3 but was really easy and probably more like class 2. The rock was a little loose so we proceeded up with caution.
The gully meets the summit ridge and from this point we proceeded west to Kit Carson's summit arriving at 10:20 a.m., just over an hour from departing Challenger's summit. We signed the register, took some summit photos, and sat down to enjoy a turkey sandwich and a Snicker's bar, my personal bar of preference. The Crestones looked incredible from this vantage point and the Northwest Couloir on Crestone Peak looked downright frightening. The Crestones are the peaks behind us in the photo below. We chatted with the older guys again for awhile, it was one guy's last 14er besides Culebra.
Some clouds began to roll in so we departed from the summit after about 30 minutes. While we were descending the gully back to Kit Carson Avenue we ran into John, who we met climbing Mt. Lindsey about a month ago. He gave us some gasoline to get our fire going and then took our group summit photos for us. Such a small climbing community. As we neared the bottom of the gully the CMC party was beginning their ascent. They were moving really slowly and we were glad we weren't leading them. Heading back up Kit Carson Avenue we talked to a charming older lady that was probably in her sixties. When we told her we had started from the trailhead at 4 a.m., she said we were an inspiration, it was much more the other way around. There was a party of two just finishing their climb of the prow and they were heading directly up the south face towards the summit.
Reaching the end of the Kit Carson Avenue we stayed a couple hundred vertical feet below Challenger's summit and headed directly towards the west ridge. We made our way through the couloirs and only had a slight incident with one guy's dog. As Amy was traversing the couloirs, the dog would run up behind her and she would almost step on it. After the dog not listening on several occasions the guy finally got a clue and held him back as Amy skirted the last couple couloirs. Crossing over the ridge we proceeded down Challenger's west slopes and decided to leave our helmets on until we were back to the lake. This was a wise decision since towards the bottom of the slopes the party of older guys sent rocks flying towards me on 2 different occasions. The first time they didn't even yell "rock" and Amy had to as the boulder cruised by her. Luckily the rock landed on a ledge and stopped about 10 feet in front of me. The second time was a much smaller rock and the guys yelled out this time, guess they learned something.
We finally reached the lake and had to take off some layers for the hike back to the trailhead. We made our way down the endless gradual switchbacks and reached the large meadow about midway back to the car. The photo below is looking back up the drainage and Willow Lake is pearched right under the ridge in the center of the photo.
We finally arrived back at the trailhead at 3:30 p.m. almost a full 12 hours from when we departed. We were completely wiped out and my feet were killing me, this route is a really long day. As we departed from the trailhead the rain began and we were glad we had left as early as we did. This was our 16th fourteener of the summer(18 if you count Conundrum and Challenger) and finished the Crestone group. This group of 14ers have become some of my favorites and the Sangre De Cristos have become a special place for me. My total now stands at 40 and like I said after the Crestones the previous week, they definitely aren't getting any easier, just more rewarding.