The Challenge of Challenger

27-28 May 2005 - by T Colorado

The best laid plans of mice and men ... adaptability ... that's the best plan when climbing in the spring in Colorado. Michael and I and Ron had planned to go to the La Garita Wilderness area to climb the peaks around San Luis Peak. Ron, still working on completing his 14'ers, had to do San Luis, and we were going to tackle the 13'ers around it (i.e., Stewart Peak, Organ Mtn., Baldy Alto, etc.). After a quick call to the area's forest service personnel, it was quite obvious that we would not be going there. The final portion of the forest service road to the trailhead was gated at 7 miles prior to the trailhead due to snow and mud. So, we defaulted to the Sangre de Cristos ... with a western (San Luis Valley) approach. Challenger (14080) and Kit Carson seemed obvious targets as Ron had not yet done either of those peaks. It's probably been at least 12 years since Michael and I have been back to Willow Lake.

We left Denver on Wednesday after work and arrived at the South Crestone Creek/Willow Creek trailhead at about 8:15 p.m. We camped at the trailhead and arose the next morning to a mixture of blue sky and fast moving puffy clouds. We took our snowshoes (and, boy were we glad we did), attached them to our packs, and began the hike up the switchbacking trail to Willow Lake. The first 2 miles of the trail, thankfully, were totally clear of snow until we came to the Willow Creek crossing. Willow Creek, right now, is a raging torrent and the normal crossing on rocks/downed logs was not an option for us. A bit of engineering with a fallen tree aided in our adept, and dry, crossing of the creek. The trail, from that point on to Willow Lake, was covered with deep snow and patches of tundra from time to time. We must have taken off (and put back on) our snowshoes about 8 times until we reached the lake. Willow Lake is still iced over except for the outlet. We hiked around the north side of the lake and camped in the only place that was dry enough for two tents (though we were prepared to camp on snow ... it was not necessary). The waterfall(s) were beautiful and the main one still had ice hanging from the rock cliffs.

After a pleasant sleep, we left camp at 5:30 a.m. and ascended to the left of the waterfall and up to the higher basin where beautiful views of Challenger and Kit Carson were unending. We followed the rock rib to the left of the main snow couloir, hit the ridge and hiked south to the summit (which we arrived at before 9:00 a.m.). The plaque is still in pristine condition and we were the first group to sign into the register this year (though there were obvious foot holes in the snow from someone who must have been up to the top in the past week). The option of climbing Kit Carson was out of the question. Steep and slanted snow is packed on the ramp on Kit Carson and we did not bring crampons. Ron will have to save that summit for another day. Michael and I have done it both ways (from South Colony and from Challenger) and we were looking forward to the traverse over and back to Challenger. Oh well.

The views were fantastic ... the northwest couloir route on Crestone Peak looks terrifying from Challenger (hehe ... I still remember that descent ... some things stick in your memory), Crestone Needle, Humboldt, Colony Baldy ... you could see Pikes Peak to the east ... and, to the north, the remaining Sangre de Cristo range (Electric Peak, Cottonwood Peak, Rito Alto, etc.). The dunes were picturesque and the Blanca massif was stunning. It was still going to be a long day for us as we needed to descend back to camp, pack up and backpack back out to the parking area as Ron had to be back to work by Saturday morning. The glissades down were a kick! We got in a long one in the main couloir that cuts the summit ridge (be sure to stop before the cliffs ... haha) and then moved to our left and got in another great slide that put us right at the rock island where we had stashed our snowshoes on the way up. We got down to camp, munched on some salami, cheese and crackers, and then donned the snowshoes for the backpack out. We stayed true to the summer trail (for the most part) and soon were back to the Willow Creek crossing and dry trail the rest of the way to the parking area. We got back at 5:00 p.m. What a great trip! Happy Trails!

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