- Date Hiked: June 11, 2004
- Miles Hiked: 11.4
- Elevation Gain: 6,000'
- Hiking Partner(s): None
Bush gave Federal Government employees Friday off for former President
Reagan's funeral, so I decided to honor him by trying to climb a
mountain. I left Denver around 3:40 pm and was at the Willow Lake
Trailhead shortly before 8:00 pm. I was initially going to day
hike these peaks, but at the last second, I thought I would try and
break up the trip and backpack into Willow Lake. In hindsight, I
think this actually hurt me more than help me. I am certain that
my 150 pound frame wasn't designed to carry a 45+ pound backpack.
- After rearranging all of my gear, I left the
trailhead at 8:20 pm and was able to avoid using a headlamp for
almost an hour. The
approach to Willow Lake is on a well maintained trail with a relatively
gentle grade of 15 percent. There
are numerous switchbacks and I found the path easy to follow.
Despite this, the weight of my pack slowed me considerably.
I am much more used to a 20 - 30 pound daypack, so my pace was
automatically adjusted quite a bit.
I took a 20 minute break at 10:10 pm to take my final insulin
shot for the day, get a drink of water, and put on my soft shell. The wind had picked up and the temperature had dropped to the
point where I was getting slightly chilled.
- I had determined that I was approximately 600
vertical feet from the lake, so I pressed on.
More switchbacks, more wind, and more darkness.
By 11:20 pm, I crossed a sign that stated there is no camping
within 300 yards of the lake, so I figured that I had arrived.
I hiked for another 15 minutes and then set up my bivy, sleeping
pad, and sleeping bag. I
fell asleep around 12:15 am to a starry sky.
- Although my alarm was set for 4:00 am, I sharply
awoke at 3:45 am only three and a half hours after falling asleep. It was
still dark and the wind was blowing loudly.
Not wanting to fall back into a deep slumber, I lightly dosed off
as my alarms systematically woke me over the next 45 minutes. I was hoping the sun would come up and wind would die down.
Finally at 4:35, I organized my daypack and grabbed a quick bite
to eat. Even though it
wasn’t very light out yet and the wind was still blowing, I figured it
was now or never, so at 5:05 am I started to climb to the benches above
Willow Lake. This didn’t
take me long as I had unknowingly hiked to the northeast corner of the
lake the night before.
- By the time I was above Willow Lake, I was able
to see the route ahead and look back to the approach from which I had
just come. Willow Lake and
the basin below Kit and Challenger are truly amazing and beautiful
areas. After surveying the
mountain, I determined that the Kirk Couloir appeared to have sufficient
snow for a safe climb. I
began traversing below the northeast side of Challenger to reach a large
snowfield at the base of the couloir.
The snow conditions were favorable and my crampons bit into the
snow perfectly. The
climbing was straightforward until around 13,000’ where the Kirk
Couloir becomes steeper and narrow.
- Roach’s guidebook states that the final 800’
of this couloir is 48 degrees. When
I reached this section, I changed my climbing technique to
front-pointing with my ice axe in a high-dagger or low-dagger position. This was the first time I had used the pick of my axe for
climbing in this manner. I
enjoyed this portion of the climb a lot, but am fairly certain that I
wouldn’t want to be on terrain much steeper than this without
protection. The couloir eased up as you approached the top and was also
melted out near the 13,780’ saddle between Kit and Challenger.
- I removed my crampons and took a break as I
caught my first glimpses of the mountains to the south. I didn’t cache any gear, because I wasn’t sure what the
remaining route looked like. After
reaching the 13,940’ saddle between Kit and the Prow, it became
obvious that I was going to be able to negotiate Kit Carson Avenue
without crampons. I
utilized the ledge to the southeast side of the mountain and gained the
east ridge in relatively short order.
It wasn’t long before I was on the summit enjoying the views of
Willow Lake, the Crestones, and Challenger Point.
It was cold, so I didn’t stay long and started my descent.
I circled back around the peak and unfortunately missed Kit
Carson Avenue on the way back. After
getting hung up on some nasty cliffs, I looked up and saw my error.
I regained the ledge and was back at the 13,780’ saddle after
crossing a few small snow bridges.
- With only 300’ to go to get to Challenger, I
felt satisfied with my hike and progress for the day. I took a few more photos on top of the point and started down
the north slopes. I stayed
on the ridge until I came across another snow-filled gully to the west
that I decided to descend. This
ended up being a mistake. I
hit a wall physically, the snow was too sun cupped for a glissade, and
also too soft for my crampons which immediately began balling up.
I struggled down the snowfield and finally made it back to Willow
- I took some photos of the large waterfall at the
east end of the lake, repacked all of my gear, shouldered my somewhat
lighter backpack, and headed out. The
hike out was arduous and my knees took a beating.
Despite this, I enjoyed the scenery which I was unable to view
the previous evening because of my late night hike in. I drove back to Denver and began packing for the weekend
which I spent in Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park hiking with
- Additional Statistics: I simply used the statistics from Roach's
guide book for the west ridge route on Kit Carson Peak (6,300'/11.6
miles) with two adjustments. I deducted 300' that I avoided
climbing twice by ascending the Kirk Couloir directly to the Challenger
Kit Carson Saddle (13,780') rather than going over Challenger Point on
the way in and out. In addition, since the Kirk Couloir is a more
direct route, I reduced the distance by a couple of tenths of a mile.
Since I was able to gain 6,000' for these two peaks on one outing, a
return trip is not required because my 3,000' rule per 14er was
accomplished. See the "Colorado 14ers" page for further
- Click here
to view a 2D
map of the area where this hike is located.