With an entire Wednesday off, Molly and I decided to head south to the Sangre de Cristo mountains and attempt two 14er’s. In preparing for the climb I didn’t do a ton of research, but noticed the mileage at 14.5 and an elevation gain of 6,000 ft. I figured it would be a more difficult climb than anything I had done yet, but I was not expecting to feel the way I did when it was over.
Molly and I pulled into a camp spot a quarter mile from the trailhead around 11 pm. The weather looked like it was going to be perfect for our summit the next day, but we still wanted to get an early start. We set our alarm for 5:30 and passed out immediately.
It was warmer in the morning than either of us expected it to be at 8,000 ft., but we still got our base layers on as we began a gradual uphill towards the trailhead. The trail was smooth and sandy covered by a canopy of aspen and conifer. With the morning light rising on the high peaks to the west of us we were given gorgeous color as we climbed.
The trail switch-backed up the north side of this range and kept a very steady incline for about five miles. Eventually we made it up to Willow Lake, which is backed up by huge cliffs with a narrow waterfall. We skirted the west side of the lake and came around to where the trail began to get incredibly steep up Challenger.
We couldn’t see the top of Challenger down in the valley, but we could see the ridgeline that led towards it. It was intimidating to look at and with Kit Carson covering the Northeast view we knew we were in for a challenge.
The climb up was slow, but steady. We stopped almost every ten feet to catch our breath. The ground was covered in scree and loose rock making every step a challenge. After almost an hour we were near the ridgeline where we could see the other side of mountains down toward the plains far below. Looking east along the ridge we could see Challenger and the dominating Kit Carson beyond it.
- Kit Carson, Crestone Needle and Challenger from left to right.
The ridgeline was covered with big rocks. We tiptoed across the line with wind smacking us from the north coming over the ridge. We had every layer on with the sun shining unhindered by clouds. Slowly we made our way up to Challenger for a beautiful view down the valley we came from and the mountains beyond the mountains that enclosed us below.
Once we were on Challenger we noticed how far down we had to go to begin climbing again up Kit Carson. We were both feeling pretty worked from already gaining 5,000+ ft., but decided to push on. Once you leave Challenger you hit a small saddle between the two peaks where the trail veers off Southeast up along an incredibly steep and narrow track. You come around the side of Kit Carson and begin heading East again going down the backside of the mountain. It all feels very counter intuitive like you’re just passing the mountain, but eventually the trail turns North and then West as you begin the final climb up to the summit.
- Looking Southeast down to the plains. The lighter brown on the left before the rest of the Sangre Mountains begins is the Great Sand Dunes.
- Narrow track going around to the back side of Kit Carson.
This final push was pretty damn challenging. We were both exhausted and near the end of our water. The trail disappeared a few times so we had to do the best we could to make our own path. Kit Carson is a Massif and once you’re at the top you have a ton of space to walk around and enjoy the view. We were at the top a little after 2 pm and ate lunch taking in the grandeur of the Crestone’s to the East and the rest of the Sangre De Cristo’s to the Southeast.
After about half an hour on the peak we decided to turn back and hopefully make it to the car by 6 pm. We knew we had two small climbs left that kept nagging at us until they were finished. Going back down Kit Carson and up Challenger took us some time, but eventually we were along the ridgeline again and headed West to begin a long decent down to the valley.
The way back was quick and steady. We made a few stops along the way to rest from the never ending downhill and also stopped to enjoy the lake and the huge cliffs on the north side with the narrow waterfall. We made it back to the car a bit after 6 and immediately threw our tent in the car to get water and food as quickly as possible. We stopped in Crestone for burgers and drinks before our long four hour drive back to Boulder. Another successful trip up some 14ers!
- The West face of Challenger and the plains below.