Climbing Challenger Point and Kit Carson (almost)

Labor day weekend … the official last of the summer season. School has started, weather begins to cool slightly, and everyone in Colorado heads for the mountains. We did too. We headed out for Challenger Point and Kit Carson, a two-fourteener set in the Sangre de Cristo range. Here are the very basic stats:

  • Trailhead starts at 8,850′ in elevation
  • Willow Lake (where we camped) is at 11,560′
  • Round trip, the trail is over 12 miles.

Total elevation gain start to finish is approximately 5,300′.

We planned to camp at Willow Lake (pictures coming up), climb the peaks the next day, and head home after that. Adding camping to the climb means a lot more gear. For example, we took sleeping bags:

Sleeping bags

… and our day packs with the water reservoirs filled were stuffed into the larger packs and everything else is strapped on the back and top.

Here’s my pack in the Jeep with its seat belt strapped on:

My pack strapped into the Jeep

I finished the second heel of my socks while Mr. Man drove:

Second heel of Nanner socks

From the Willow Lake trail head, we started out to perfectly gorgeous weather:

Gorgeous September Colorado weather

… and more gorgeous weather:

Gorgeous September Colorado weather

… and more gorgeous weather:

Gorgeous September Colorado weather

… can you believe those skies?

September Colorado sky

We passed this scraggly peak as we climbed to the lake:

Scraggly Colorado Mountain on Willow Lake Trail

… and passed these interesting fuzzy weed-flowers:

Fuzzy Colorado weeds on Willow Lake Trail


Colorado Willow Lake Trail

Words cannot do this scenery justice. We continued hiking and got to Willow Lake:

Willow Lake Colorado

… where the water itself is very clear:

Willow Lake water

We had sandwiches while we were sitting on the rock looking at the lake:

Sandwich by Willow Lake Colorado

The setting sun was very bright, and someone stopped by to take our picture (sorry for the funny faces – it was hard to look into the sun like that):

Fourteenergirl and Steve in bright sun by Willow Lake

We headed back to our campsite and saw that someone had left a smoldering campfire. Shame on them! But, instead of wasting it, we gathered up the fallen sticks and blew on the coals:

Build a fire by Willow Lake campgrounds Colorado

and very quickly, we had a lovely little fire:

Build a fire by Willow Lake campgrounds Colorado

Do not worry. We put that fire out completely. The next morning, we checked it and poured a bunch of creek water on it. I can’t believe someone would do that in this lovely forest, but hey, we fixed it. Plus, I got to knit by the fire until it got too dark!

Knitting by Willow Lake campground Colorado

We got up the next morning. Checked our day packs, had a little snack, loaded everything else into the tent, zipped it up and headed out. The trail heads around the lake, so you get a full view of it from all sides. Very thoughtful, I thought. Here is the lake in early morning:

Willow Lake Colorado in the morning

… and as you climb around the other side of the lake, you hop across the streams that feed into the waterfall:

Feeder streams into Willow Lake Colorado

After that, things get very ugly, very quickly. Honestly folks, this hike was brutal. After crossing the feeder streams and wandering through a lovely thicket of tall growth, we popped out into this wide valley:

Climbing Challenger Point - Colorado fourteener

And then we started climbing … I’ll spare you the brutal details and let the pictures speak for themselves:

Climbing Challenger Point - Colorado fourteener

That huge hole you see in the picture above? That’s the walls surrounding the lake.

Climbing Challenger Point - Colorado fourteener

As we climbed higher and higher, the lake got smaller and smaller and then disappeared. We climbed along this ridge:

Challenger point trail ridge

… which looks like this when you look up at it:

Challenger Point climb

As we were climbing, we could see Kit Carson from the trail up Challenger Point:

Kit Carson from Challenger trail

Once we finally topped out on Challenger, it was clear to me that my energy level was not up to the challenge of crossing the dip in between the two peaks and climbing the second. I am not certain if my rough week before had anything to do with it or if I’m just worn out from climbing this summer or what, but I knew in my bones and in my heart I didn’t have it in me.

Mr. Man wanted to hit Kit Carson, and so we parted at the top of Challenger and I headed down. (Later, when he arrived at the campsite, he said I made the right decision.) This was the first time I’ve navigated down on my own, and it was a little terrifying and a little liberating. Equal parts of both, I think. I kept my eyes on the landmarks and watched for the little rock piles that mark the trail. I did have a scree slide once, during which I bashed the hell out of my right knee (later, crossing one of the streams, I fell and bashed it again – just for good measure, you know). Other than that, it was no worse than it would have been with Mr. Man. I rested when I needed to, drank plenty of water, and stopped for food a few times. After all, I got myself up here, I have to get myself back down. You can only save yourself. I was in just as much pain and just as exhausted as I would have been with Mr. Man, so for that, it was a little liberating.

Once I got back to the campsite and had more water and food, I started packing up. I poked and prodded the coals one more time, just to be sure. I rolled up the thermarest pads and unloaded the tent … and about that time Mr. Man came along. He had climbed Kit Carson, but was feeling in serious pain afterward. I knew he would worry about me getting hurt on my own, but he was also glad he did it and he was also glad I turned around because he wasn’t sure he should have done it either.

I knew I had made the right decision to turn back. I’m not the kind of person who wants to say “I can’t do that,” but I had to be smart about it too. The human body is a wonderful, beautiful, well-designed work of art, but it has its limits. Most people take those limits and ride on those as an excuse not to try things. I like to push my body to see it perform and to know that it will be there to support me when I need it to. At the same time, I knew I could not do that second peak. I knew I was facing that brutal climb in reverse PLUS the hike with a 40 pound pack on my back to get to the Jeep. Not worth it. Not this time.

That mountain isn’t going anywhere. I might be back when the memory fades.

P.S. Coming soon … signs of fall!

fourteenergirl Written by:

A mother, sister, wife, and daughter who writes, knits, hikes, and practices yoga on the west coast. Loves a zippy chardonnay or a tart margarita!

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