Tue, Jul 28, 2020
With the weather improving from the past few days, we could finally tackle one of the 14er groups we'd been after. Kit Carson Mtn and Challenger Point are the northernmost CO 14ers in the Sangre de Cristo Range. They are both located west of the range's crest and more easily approached from that side via the Willow Creek TH. We were on the east side of the range because we planned to do Crestone and Crestone Needle the next day. From the South Colony TH, the outing is 8mi one-way, the last mile and half over some involved terrain. This was going to be the toughest day yet on this trip, taking us nearly 12hrs to complete. We had a bunch of bonus peaks enroute that were more or less free, then we added 14,0000-foot Humboldt Peak at the end to save us coming back for a half-day outing from the same TH.
We were up around 4a to breakfast and drive to the 4WD TH, starting out by 4:45a. One used to be able to drive the old road about three miles further from the current TH as a cherry stem cutting into the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness. The road is still outside the Wilderness, but a washout gave the USFS an excuse to curtail vehicles. We plied the old road for more than an hour to reach a trail junction where we turned right soon after sunrise. We followed the South Colony Trail up towards South Colony Lakes, though we didn't see much of the lakes until we had climbed past them. We had mostly blue skies in the morning with fine views of Crestone Needle, Broken Hand Peak and other summits surrounding the basin. The trail continues up to the saddle southwest of Humboldt where it pretends to turn right and follow the ridge up to that summit. Our route lay to the west as our cross-country begins, starting off as a gentle class 1-2 stroll.
Eric had been a bit nervous about the extent of the class 3 scrambling required, and after we finished the initial easy part, his anxiety increased as he imagined spending the next several hours on rough terrain and not being able to make either of the 14ers. Looking back to the east and Humboldt Peak, that seemed a far easier, more straightforward effort. He may also have been concerned that he was going to slow Tom and I down on what we already expected to be a long day, but in any event he decided to turn around. Neither Tom nor I made any real effort to get him to change his mind, knowing that Crestone Peak was the main peak in the area Eric was interested in, and resting up some before tackling it might be the wisest choice. We bade him goodbye and continued on our way. It seemed Eric had picked a good time to retreat, avoiding a lot of rough scrambling along the ridge of the Bear's Playground. Though the going gets easier once this high meadow is reached, it doesn't last long before one begins a steep climb up to Obstruction Peak at nearly 13,800ft. We found that by angling to the left as we ascended, some (but not all) of the large rocks along Obstruction's NE Ridge could be avoided. It was close to 9a by the time we topped out on Obstruction. I had been impressed with the views to our left of Crestone Peak/Needle, but was a little surprised by clouds coming up from the west to begin blocking views in that direction. In only a few minutes our views were obscured and we would have to be more careful in our route-finding. It took another half hour to reach Kitty Cat Carson, the lower of two points on Kit Carson's East Summit. Columbia Point is only a short distance further along the ridge, less than 10min between them. Columbia Point had a plaque honoring the astronauts that had died on that ill-fated space shuttle and included a quote from then-President George W. Bush. The plaque has been subjected to some abuse, probably by bashing it with rocks, likely by non-Bush fans since it was his last name that had been most badly abused. Politics in everything, it would seem. There was also a CMC register which we examined but may not have signed. I was surprised to find the pages mostly dry, unusual for these PVC registers.
That was the end of the easy stuff. We had one GPX track to get to Columbia Pt from the east and another to get to Challenger and Kit Carson from the west, leaving a blank area between the two. Though we were separated from the higher west summit of Kit Carson by only 400yds, we could see nothing of it through the thick soup that enveloped us and it would take us an hour to get to it. We started our descent to the northwest, soon finding ourselves on more difficult terrain, much tougher than the class 3 we expected. We backtracked nearly to Columbia's summit before finding a duck leading down another route to the west. The combination of occasional ducks, a written route description and the GPSr allowed us to work our way across three gullies on the south side of the serrated ridgeline to reach the wide class 3 gully east of the summit that can be followed to the top. We ran into a party of two climbers descending almost as soon as we started up this gully. They had come up the North Ridge to Kit Carson and were looking for the standard route along Kit Carson Avenue, a ledge system that avoids what would be a much harder climb. We pointed down and to the right (west) where our GPX track told us to expect it. They were headed in the right direction but were glad to have us confirm it. It would take us another 20min to climb the chossy gully to the summit of Kit Carson, the thick, soupy clouds continuing to engulf us.
Getting between Kit Carson and Challenger Point would prove easier, still taking the better part of an hour but none of the route-finding difficulties now that we had a GPX track between them. Looking for a little more adventure, I got Tom to deviate from the standard route almost as soon as we left Kit Carson's summit, suggesting what looked like an alternate chute that might shortcut our descent to KC Avenue. The rock quality was far better than the standard route, no more than class 3, and Tom had to agree it was good choice. KC Avenue makes for an oddly easy route to the saddle with Challenger as it cuts through a lot of difficult terrain. We stopped off at The Prow, a short excursion from the highpoint of KC Avenue on the southwest side of Kit Carson. The saddle was only a few minutes further north once back on KC Ave, which is then followed by a class 2 scramble along Challenger's East Ridge to get to its summit. We ran into another pair of climbers along the ducked ridgeline, heading in the opposite direction. Challenger's summit had a plaque similar to that found on Columbia, though minus the abuse the older one had sustained. We sat upon the summit only long enough for Tom to feel somewhat rested, our views continuing to be quite dismal.
Upon starting our return, it was simply a matter of reversing our outbound route, minus the need to reclimb Kit Carson's summit. No easy feat of course, we spent almost two hours to return to Bear's Playground (the weather now deciding to make an improvement), then another 40min to return to Humboldt's SW saddle. We were pretty tired by this time, but we'd already agreed it made better sense to visit Humboldt while we were here. I had expected there to be a use trail all the way to the summit for some reason, but we found this not to be the case. The trail gives out pretty early and though there are ducks and some continuations of the trail, it's mostly a rocky scramble along the ridge, taking us another hour. The summit is found near the east end of a long ridgeline and we ended up going over it without pausing as we investigated what turned out to be a lower point further east. It was now 2:45p and we discussed descent options while Tom snacked. The obvious route, of course, would just reverse what we did back to the trail and follow it back. Looking east and southeast, I wondered if we couldn't descend cross-country in that direction, shortcutting the return to South Colony Trail, closer to the start. Tom commented that this was the standard route to Humboldt for winter ascents, which was a positive data point. The biggest unknown, I thought, was what the brush might be like once we got down to treeline. Tom wasn't terribly excited about the idea, but when I said I'd give it a go regardless of which route he chose, he decided to join me.
The descent off the ENE Ridge starts as a blocky scramble, soon becoming more pleasant as grasses begin making travel easier. After reaching a saddle I began to drop off the ridge, trying my best to tie together the small green patches sprinkled among the immense talus slope off the south side. After 20min or so the talus gave way permanently to grass slopes and then forest as I got closer to the bottom of the drainage. Tom, meanwhile, got further behind and the last I saw of him was when he had finally gotten through the talus slope and onto easier ground. The brush turned out to be no issue at all, but the forest did have a good deal of downfall that had me changing direction right and left to dodge the worst of it. It was nearly 4p by the time I got back to the road with about 40min more to the TH. Eric had been back hours earlier and simply walked the extra mile or so back to our campsite an other vehicles. I hung around the jeep at the TH doing minor chores while I waited for Tom to return about 20min later. It had been a full day, but since we were using the same trailhead for the following day, we had no extra driving to do. We would have plenty of time to shower, make dinner and socialize before dark, and still get lots of sleep tonight. Tomorrow was going to be even more fun and a good rest was on order...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Obstruction Peak - Columbia Point - Kit Carson Mountain - Challenger Point - Humboldt Peak
This page last updated: Sun Sep 6 17:45:54 2020
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