Date Climbed: 10/13/19
Elevation: 14,165 ft
Climbing Partner: Jennifer
A long couple of days. That was the game plan. Head up to Kit Carson Saturday night, sleep at the trailhead, and bag Kit Carson in one long hike, then return back to Denver, hopefully before work the next morning. I arrived late that night and managed to get a few hours of sleep in the gathering cold. Just before 4:15 AM another car's alarm woke me up. After a 10 minute struggle, they were finally able to shut it off. No point in sleeping in! Morning routine done, I went over to check on whose alarm had gone off, and it just so happened to be the person whom I was supposed to meet up with for our hike that day.
We had met through a website group for hikers and climbers, and she was just crazy enough to join me on this 14 mile, 6000 foot hike (cheers!). We set off a little earlier than I had thought (4:50), but we would need every extra minute we could get. Our pace was decent, averaging about one mile per hour. This may not seem like much, but considering my partner had just recovered from a bout with cancer and had lived out of state most of her life, this was very impressive! Besides, I only had two 14ers left and was in no hurry.
The morning flew by, and by 9 AM we were at Willow Lake. The previous storm had left the Sangre de Cristos untouched, thankfully, making for a much quicker day. I had no desire to cross the Avenue again in snow just to be thwarted for a third time. After a break at the lake, we geared up and made progress toward the inevitable Northwest slopes of Challenger. Knowing we were in for a long day, we refilled our waters at the last stream, took some pictures of the beautiful scenery, and began the ascent.
A few months before, this slope had taken me a good couple of hours to get up, even after being in backcountry ski shape from the previous season. This time, the trail was much easier to follow without snow, but our progress had slowed to a crawl. In a similar fashion to South Maroon, the slope below Challenger is steep and unforgiving (especially on descent as we would find!). A grueling three hours of stopping and going, careful movements across exposed ledges and steep uphill hiking, finally led us to within a couple hundred feet of the ridge and summit. It was at this point Jennifer decided it was time for her to stop, and I couldn't blame her. This was a huge day without a high camp, and it was almost 1 PM.
After making a plan on how to meet back up on the way down, I kicked myself into high gear and made very quick work of the remaining elevation gain. Fifteen minutes later, I was skirting around the summit of Challenger, ignoring it for the true prize: Kit Carson. Ahead lay the blocky peak, the Avenue looking frustratingly low in comparison. This approach to Kit Carson requires a loss of about 400 feet which you then have to regain back to the summit of Kit Carson, and then the same on the return journey, making a total of 800 feet of excess elevation gain. I was impatient, knowing my partner would have to sit in the fading light and the cold wind until I returned, so I pushed through my normal break times.
Fifteen minutes from the summit of Challenger, I was at the bottom of the ramp leading to the summit of Kit Carson. As I fought my way uphill, it became obvious I would be the last one off the mountains today with nobody else in sight since I had left my partner. No mistakes here! Up I went, following the most solid rock I could find, no breaks. a little less than an hour from where I had left my partner, I finally summited my 57th fourteener! The emotions were raw; I had finished the final hurdle to a now five year dream. A journey which had allowed me to see parts of the world I had never even considered before. All that remained was a moderate 14er that I planned on doing with my family as my "finisher". I called my family to let them know I had made the summit (they had not even known I was on a hike this time!).
After a quick call, some water, and food, I sprinted down the mountain. I could feel the cold gathering as the wind picked up and the shadows grew long with the setting sun. It was only just past 2 PM, but it felt much later with the changing season. 45 minutes and a second ascent up and over challenger (this time tagging the summit for bragging rights), I was at the spot I had left my teammate. Far below I could see a person moving, trying to keep up with the sunlight.
The progress downhill was frustratingly painful and slow, my boots were useless having been mutilated by the 14ers over the years. It was more of a tumble down the slope as opposed to a hike but with no snow, there were no options to glissade gently to the bottom. A little over an hour later I finally caught up with Jennifer, just as the sunlight was moving to the opposite side of the valley. We agreed to take an extended break at the next river crossing to soak in the last sunlight and fill up the water bottles.
The scenery was gorgeous, but having been here twice previously, I'd had my fill of pictures and decided just to enjoy the view. The colors were slowly changing to a reddish hue, and we still had a long hike back out to the cars. As we began the uneventful hike back down, darkness descended. It was much warmer below the trees, and the night was cloudless making for a very bright moon. Off in the distance the lights of houses slowly lit up the wide San Luis Valley. By the time we reached our cars, it was already 9 PM. After saying our goodbyes, I hopped in the truck, changed out of my smelly, worthless boots, and began the four hour journey home. Arriving at 1 AM after a day without any sort of lunch or dinner to speak of, I stopped by the first McDonalds I could find and rifled through as many calories as I could handle. By 1:30 I had made it home, and by 2 AM I was in bed. A good day! All I had to do was function on three hours of sleep the next day and hopefully my sleep cycle would be back to normal. At least I had a good story to tell!
In all this was my longest single day in the mountains at 15 hours. With this, I learned that slowing down a little isn't such a bad thing, especially in such a beautiful place like the Rockies! Besides, soon my list would be complete, and I would have nothing left but technical climbs and expeditions to occupy my time, so it was best to enjoy the easy stuff while it lasted. With summer almost at an end, it was time to switch gears back to winter. Next on the list? Kelso Ridge, North Maroon Peak, Capitol Peak, San Luis Peak, and Wetterhorn, hopefully all in winter.