Date Climbed: June 12, 2019
Elevation: 14,081 ft
The winter of 2019 was a winter to end all winters here in Colorado. Just able to slip in Culebra Peak in February, all 14ers were shut down after the gang of monster storms assailed Colorado. An avalanche cycle only seen once every 300 years or so struck Colorado this winter, leaving snow that still lingers in massive quantities even now (July 13). Conundrum near Aspen was hit by an official D4.5 (on a scale of 5) avalanche, although several retired CAIC officials believe it to be the first D5 to hit the lower 48. Hwy 550 was taken out by an avalanche over a mile wide. I70 and Hwy 24 were struck by a very large avalanches that buried multiple cars. Once it was all said and done, there had been multiple deaths, buildings destroyed, and more than 15 feet of snow in some of the highest remote basins which house the 14ers.
As the spring season continued to be cool and snowy, conditions refused to transition, and winter held on, leading to even more difficult terrain. By the time summer began for most of us, Colorado was still stuck with a winter snowpack, and some roads buried in over 100 feet of snow (see Animas Forks)! It is within this context that the summer of 2019 is taking place. Many 14ers are still considered inaccessible save for those with the gear and experience (Capitol has yet to see a summit. Here's to my buddy and I being the first in a few days!).
My first attempt on Challenger and Kit Carson came late in May. Hucking skis to the lake, I was turned away by a series of electric snow storms. It was not until June 11 & 12 I would have a real opportunity. This time, I decided I would leave the skis at home, and go as fast and light as I could.
I was among the first few to summit this season, having the entire basin to myself the night before. Infamous for bears, I decided to get a slightly late start to my hike, starting just as the sun began to bring light to the night sky around 4:30 AM.
There's not much to say other than nothing will come easy this summer. Peaks that should have been melted out months ago are still difficult and dangerous at best. A quick hike around the lake led to what should have been an easy trail, turned steep snow gulley. Ice axe in hand and crampons locked, I pushed hard up the steep slope, hoping to descend before the risk of avalanches became too high for a safe descent.
Challenger is an interesting peak on snow. It is benign in the summer, but a real mountaineering experience with enough snow. After a long ascent, the ridge felt distinctly alpine, although not particularly dangerous. Once on the summit, it was Kit Carson that would be the real challenge. A descent to the saddle and a few hundred feet along the famous Avenue told me all I needed to know: it was impossible (and still is very risky even today!). Avalanche was almost certain given the snow conditions I encountered, and immediately below lay a 1000 foot cliff. I turned around frustrated such an obstacle had stopped me. Technically speaking, it could be climbed in stable conditions, but the risk it posed was suicidal to attempt given the exposure and unstable snow.
I would later document my findings on 14ers.com, warning everyone to stay away until the snow had shed and to wait at least two weeks before taking another look. I had taken an AIARE 1 class several years ago and knew from experience that this would slide should someone attempt it. Unfortunately, a few weeks later, someone did try, and they were killed. Climbing mountains is dangerous, and it requires experience, patience, and a willingness to turn around when you're facing an unknown risk, which I have done multiple times, always frustrated but alive. I have already seen three deaths of people climbing on terrain I chose to turn around on. Two were of people I specifically warned to turn around, but who did not listen. I have seen three rescues and participated in one where others had climbed beyond their ability and did not turn around. I am a very far cry from the bravest and best climbers I know, but it needs to be well known that alpine climbing is the most dangerous sport and requires the ability to know when to turn around. That said, I did turn around and decided to save Kit Carson for another day. It is my prayer that I will continue to turn around when conditions warrant and I hope you will too if you decide to pursue this sport.