They’re called the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, or Sangres by us Coloradoans. The name is dramatic, (it means “Blood of Christ” Mountains) but so are these peaks. The Sangres impressively jut 8000 ft from the San Luis valley below, many of them rising to over 14,000 ft in elevation. I’ve flown over them many times on trips to Albuquerque from Denver. I’ve driven by them many times on my way to Pagosa Springs and Durango. Still, I’ve never had the chance to move through them, until now.
It’s been a tough season adventure-wise. What started out great with a descent on Notch Top turned FUBAR on our attempt on Holy Cross. Then, last weekend I met up with Dillon, a friend I met on 14ers.com to attempt Challenger and Kit Carson Peak. I got up at midnight Saturday morning and drove 3 hours to the Willow Creek Trailhead. I met Dillon at 3am and we were soon on our way. With headlamps on, in the dark, we set off at a blistering pace. We devoured 3000 vertical feet on our way to Willow Lake, the approach to Challenger/Kit Carson. 3 hours later, as the sun rose, we reached the lake in excellent time. We were stoked!… that is until we realized… this was NOT Willow Lake. In the dark, 3 hours and 3000 ft below, we had blown right past the turn-off to Willow Lake. By the time we made it back down, weather was moving in and I realized I would not be climbing any mountains that day.
I began to wonder whether this summer was cursed. I’ve had problems before, but not this often, and not this strange. I resolved to come back the next weekend and try one more time to summit some 14ers. I felt like a hitter trying to shake off a slump. This weekend had to be different, right?
I submitted a post to 14ers.com trying to round up a crew for the next weekend. I got a great response from a few soon-to-be friends, Dan, Matt, Blake and Chad. Chad and Blake decided to drive up Friday night and camp at the trailhead, while Dan and Matt decided to join me for another midnight drive to the trailhead, just outside of Crestone, CO. Exactly 7 days after my mishap, I was back on the road at midnight, Friday night/Saturday Morning, heading to Crestone to climb some mountains. I was thrilled to have some company for the ride, and neither of us knew what the day would bring. I at least knew where the turn would be this time, but the weather forecast was iffy, and this was a long day-trip.
The proposed route covers a grueling 6250 vertical feet over 14.5 miles. The route takes hikers from about 8500′ up to 11,500′ to Willow Lake. This portion would be done in the dark. Just as I did the week before, we set out at 3:15am. Chad informed us that he was training for the Pikes Peak Marathon (a marathon up and down a local 14er). So he was going to be running ahead of us. He left us with some walkie talkies and took off. Throughout the trip Chad’s walkie came in handy as he consistently relayed important route info back down to us as he made his way up the mountain. The rest of us set of for Willow Lake, which we reached around daylight. From Willow Lake, the real climbing begins pretty much straight up another 2600′ to the summit of Challenger Point.
Our spirits were high. We had made great time to the lake and this time it was the right lake. I already had some nasty blisters by this time and the assault on Challanger was, well, a challenge. Challenger Point tops out at 14,081′ and from Willow Lake, the route can be described as “2000 feet of suck.” The rock is crumbly, loose and can be a nightmare in places. This part of the climb took some patience.
At this point of the climb I began to separate from our pack but caught up to another climber named Eric and his ultra-marothoner Canadian friend who had just flown in from sea level. This turned out to be the same Eric who had also replied to my post on 14ers.com informing me he’d be up there that weekend. Eric was doing a great job route-finding so I decided to stick with him and his friend. Before long we were at the notch above the snow gully working our way to the Challenger ridge.
Once we passed through the notch we climbed up to our left a bit and gained the ridge to Challenger’s summit. The ridge was pretty solid, however to our right it dropped off about 3000ft in a sheer cliff below. Walking on the crest of the ridge was intimidating (and unnecessary) yet I found myself peering over the edge in awe as we made our way to the summit. Before long we were on top enjoying spectacular views of the Crestones and our 2nd target, Kit Carson Peak, to the southeast.
After a short break on Challenger we set off for our next target, Kit Carson Peak (14,165′.) To get to Kit Carson we would have to continue along the Challenger Ridge and descend to the saddle between Kit Carson and Challenger. Here we would climb a ramp along the massive face of Kit Carson and then descend another ramp which is affectionately called Kit Carson Avenue.
By now we had picked up another climber named Peter, and the four of us were making our way down the avenue. Here we ran into Chad on his way down from Kit Carson’s summit. He had already climbed both peaks and stopped for a moment to chat. He gave us some route info and told us we were close to the summit before he sped off! Once at the end of the avenue, climbers must round a corner to the back side of Kit Carson, and begin the climb up the backside to the summit. This part of the climb was a ton of fun and we made the trip from Challenger’s summit in about 50 minutes.
Once on the summit we were treated to some more spectacular views of the Crestones as the eerie fog came rushing up from the valley below.[vimeo 70264637]
Every now and then it would clear and we’d see the incredible peaks. Despite the iffy weather forecast, everything had gone to plan, and this was shaping up to be an incredible day.
After a break on Kit Carson we all began the downclimb back to Kit Carson Avenue. By now Blake had caught up with us and we ran into Matt and Dan on the way down. They weren’t too far behind. We reached the avenue and now had to start climbing back up the avenue to the saddle between KC and Challenger. This is one of the reasons why this route involves so much vertical gain.
Once we reached the saddle, we then had to climb the ridge back up to the summit of Challenger to regain the trail. Talk about over-achieving!
From here it was basically a backtrack back down the “2000 ft of suck” which was even worse coming down. By now Peter had taken off and it was Eric, his friend, Blake and I heading back down the steep loose rock. It felt like forever but eventually we made it to the top of the waterfall that drops 500 ft into Willow Lake. Eric and his Canadian friend left us there while Blake and I rested and re-fueled while waiting for Matt and Dan to descend.
Before long Matt and Dan met up with us, and we took some pictures around the waterfall and Lake.
As if the day hadn’t been fantastic enough, as we rounded the lake we ran into a herd of Mountain Goats with babies and all. I was able to snap some quick photos. The babies were certainly curious of us!
The entire hike back we were treated to views we couldn’t see in the dark on the hike in. I was snapping pictures like crazy. These are just a few.
Days like this one are the reason we go into the mountains. Everything was perfect. Great people and new friends, perfect weather (the predicted storms never materialized), 2 incredible ascents, amazing views and wildlife. It just doesn’t get any better. Days like this are a celebration of everything that’s wonderful about being alive, physically, emotionally and spiritually. It’s what keeps me coming back even after I feel like my trips have gone to hell. Today was a reminder that even when they do, they can be resurrected. What better place to be resurrected than in the Blood of Christ Mountains?