August 31, 1989: Challenger Point, 14080'+, and Kit Carson Mountain, 14165'

One of many trip reports by Alan Silverstein.
Last update: January 28, 2017

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Getting There:

It was great returning to Challenger Point 774 days after placing the memorial plaque on its summit. I discovered Kit Carson is much, much easier to climb from the west than the east. And I finally got a chance to ascend Mount Adams, a nearby near-Fourteener and a marvelous mountain. But before I launch into the description of the climbs, there are some stories to tell along the way.

After departing Uncompahgre Peak on Tuesday (August 29), I took the back road (!) east from Lake City, in the heart of the San Juans, to Saguache, on the northwest edge of the huge San Luis Valley. It was 98 miles, about 44 of it on narrow, windy, twisty dirt roads (all different), and took 3:10 with many stops. It was a very pretty drive towards Slumgullion Pass, through the hamlet of Cathedral, and over Los Pinos Pass. As I approached Saguache, the sun set and the Sangre de Cristo Range spread blood-red across the far side of the valley, above the Sand Dunes.

After many more stops, including a pizza in Moffet (not bad for frozen), and an animated conversation with a local in Crestone about the names of the various local summits, I reached the Willow Lake trailhead (~8880') late, at 2230, 36 miles from Saguache. The trailhead is 2.4 miles east of the post office in town; the last 1.1 miles requires high clearance. While in Crestone I met a pair of hikers who missed the return route west off Kit Carson Mountain and wound up descending Spanish Creek with daypacks. Another plot element which entered that night was: After searching around the trailhead area a while to find a flat spot, and pulling into it, I noticed I had parked not far from a tent -- oh well.

Backpacking In:

Wednesday morning very early, about 0500, three day hikers (from the tent) returned the favor by having breakfast and starting up at sunrise. (You'll hear more about them later.) After sleeping in, I spent three hours packing and preparing, and finally set out alone up the trail at 1145. I used an enjoyable pace but, as usual, discovered the trail to be longer than I remembered. The first mile is rather steep and primitive up to Willow Creek Park, a lovely oval meadow. Two years ago in July it sported waving green grass. This time it was a golden brown.

The next two miles meander up the left side of the middle valley along its left wall, with many switchbacks, then switch steeply up the headwall. The view down valley to the meadow and the San Luis Valley is so spectacular that the Baca Grande Corporation used it in a real estate brochure. The final mile, recently improved by the Forest Service, gains just a little more elevation as it approaches the lake.

During the 2700' up to the lake at 11564', I considered the possibility of raising my tent and then climbing another 2400' up Mount Adams that evening. I arrived with just enough time to do it, at 1530, but... A young bighorn sheep stood in my intended camp site, licking something off the ground. Well! That was too neat to casually dismiss. I got out my camera and watched him (and he watched me) for half an hour, from as little as ten feet away. I'm not sure what he found so delectable.

After the sheep left, I pitched my tent on a flat spot by the lake. It had to be the primo campsite in the area -- just down to the right as the trail reached the lake. I had a view across the beautiful blue-green water to the cliffs and the 200' waterfall at the far end. There was no one else in the area. I settled in for a mellow evening listening to more classical music on the radio...

Evening in Camp:

The three day hikers, a guy and a couple, stopped by my tent heading out. They were concerned about the missing pair I'd met the night before in Crestone and again that morning on the trail bringing out their full packs and their (much relieved) companion. After I reassured the threesome, we got to talking. I apologized for waking them up the previous night. I shared with them some aerial photos of the region, told them the story of the memorial plaque on Challenger Point, and mentioned that I was planning to revisit and work on it the next day.

This led to the first of two amazing coincidences. One of the guys in the party had replaced and was carrying out the full peak register that was on Challenger since 1985. I begged to look through it. I enjoyed seeing our entries from two years earlier, and recognized many of the names added since then. No one had written anything derogatory about us desecrating a previously virgin summit by placing the plaque. Indeed, there were several positive notes.

On reaching the name "Mike Garrett" I said, "Here's a famous character. Do you know who he is?" They laughed. "Yes, we do." A thought struck me. "Say... Are you Bob Martin?" I asked the older fellow. It couldn't be. It was. Amazing!

You see, Bob Martin is the co-author with Garrett, who's climbed every peak in Colorado over 13000', of the book "Colorado's High Thirteeners". Furthermore, I have corresponded with Bob for a while about the USGS database of Colorado locations. I've provided him various information from it. But I'd never met him in person. He summers in Buena Vista, so I'd thought about maybe giving him a call on the way home. What were the chances against meeting at Willow Lake the person bringing down the Challenger Point register, and then having it turn out to be Bob Martin?

Bob was equally amazed to discover who I was. Along with him was Maynard Brandsma and his wife. It was also Maynard's birthday... and four days later I ran across their names again in the Crestone Needle register. They went there next. Small world.

After this chance meeting I felt quite excited and happy. On top of that, the sunset on the lake and surrounding ridges at about 1940 was awe inspiring -- the crimson sunlight reached right up the valley. I had a good dinner and a peaceful evening listening to the waterfall and more music.

By dark I'd almost given up on Bruce Tepley of Fort Collins. We'd only met on the phone, and had planned to join up at the lake. His arrival broke the silence; I nearly jumped out of my skin. He set up camp in the dark. We didn't actually meet face to face until the next morning.

Climbing:

Oh yes, at last, the Fourteener climbing. We started up from camp at 0700. I carried 2.5 pounds of extra stuff to work on the plaque. We bush and rock whacked up around the right side of the lake, as last time. We made pretty good time up the northwest flank of the Challenger ridge. It's steep, firm climbing, quite exhilarating -- at least in the uphill direction. The weather was cool, clear, and breezy.

We reached the summit at 0930 (2:30 for 2520'). And there was the plaque, much as I'd left it. Wow, it looked nice. A rectangle of shining bronze, hard lines and raised letters, surrounded by all the irregularity and jaggedness of nature, against a 6000' drop to the San Luis Valley and the Blanca massif 30 miles away. "Seven who died accepting the risk, expanding Mankind's horizons." "Ad Astra Per Aspera" -- to the stars through hardships!

I immediately set to work on replacing the upper right bolt. Unlike the others it is not stainless steel. (We didn't have a 1-3/4" stainless bolt last time. I didn't think to remove the longer one and replace it with a shorter one after the concrete was set.)

We were unable to remove the bolt, but no harm was done. Even with WD 40 and circuit coolant, it was slow to work loose. Then we realized the lead anchor was spinning. It's still very snug, but even lifting and turning with vice grips, all we did was spin the anchor, not the bolt from the nut. And the bolt was rusting a little. Too bad. It will only last 20 years, and it will create a rust stain and an ugly blob as it goes. (Update: A photo from 2016 shows it hasn't decayed much at all!)

I coated the bolt head with silicone, and topped off the Allen holes in the others. Since I had a pound of concrete along, I did a bit of repair work on the old stuff. It was chipping surprisingly much, not enough to loosen the plaque, but it looked bad. I cleaned out the chips and filled and coated most of the cement, which should help it last longer.

After a while, I also found the spot where the crematory token (see the previous report) had been attached. It had fallen loose or been pried off, and was sitting under an overhanging rock. Lots of loose bone chips were still on the summit rock. I poured a small puddle of cement and plopped the token into it along with some of the chips.

I studied the plaque closely with a lens. It's in really fine shape. A couple of scratches where apparently a rock was dragged across some of the letters, is all. No signs of problems from thermal expansion. I was impressed at how well the silicone filling the bolts had weathered the temperatures and UV .

Bruce waited patiently while I messed around for an hour and a half. All the while it was still morning, a tremendous view every time I glanced up, a cold wind blowing. At 1055 we departed Challenger Point down the ridge northeast to the 13800'+ saddle with Kit Carson Mountain. From here a soft red rock layer forms a very nice bench about 100' up and 300' down around the cliffy south face of the mountain. What follows is Joe Hunter's superb description, which I showed to Bruce at just the opportune moment.

"At the notch, continue heading E-SE along the south side of KC. There is a very well defined path/bench along this side. This route will take you down maybe another 150'-200'. There are even a couple of cairns. Along this path there is some air on the south side, but no big deal. You will pass a narrow couloir noted by some water draining out of it. I climbed that once and it leads directly to the summit, but it is wet and slippery in spots. [It was dry; we climbed it.] If this is not your cup of tea, head a little further down the bench until you come to a wide open SE face. This reminds me a little of the home stretch on Longs. It is directly across from the notch between KC and the east false summit crossed from the Colony Lake approach. And, surprise, surprise, just head up this face to the summit. It's very good Sangre-type rock. Just keep climbing to the highest point above you and there you are... Nothing you haven't done before. For me, the hardest part is the walk back down, below Challenger. You'll wish you had one of those new chutes to float down the mountain." [Amen.]

Sure enough, this approach to Kit Carson, while not trivial, was much easier than from Colony Lakes. We took our time, an hour, to reach the neat, tiny little summit at 1155. We were all alone. I saw no one on any surrounding peak, even with binoculars. That was especially surprising considering the wonderful weather.

At 1300 we returned the same way. Downclimbing the couloir was not hard. I found some sheep fur on the bench. Those critters really get around! We passed the saddle at 1340. I figure the round trip cost for KC was 850' gained.

The traverse northwest above Challenger's northeast cliff faces was relatively long and tedious. The descent was also steep enough to require care, and long enough to be tiring. At 1540, almost to the floor of the upper valley, we turned right and proceeded upstream toward the upper lake. Taking separate paths across tundra and rocks, we arrived together at 1620, 12325', with another 400' gain. The lake is quite pretty and pristine at the real headwall of Willow Valley. A nice place to take a break and soak your feet.

Finally we returned to camp, 1640-1755; a 10:55 round trip for the day with about 3800' gained. Given cooperative weather and enough time to spend two nights at Willow Lake, it was fabulous fun. The sunset on the lake and cliff walls was marvelous again. It rained for an hour, but not until we'd crawled in for the night.