Mount Adams, Challenger Point, Kit Carson Peak
November 13, 1999
By Steve Bremner and Sam the Wolfdog
Following our ascent of Crestone Peak on the previous day, Sam and I left Cottonwood Trailhead, drove about ten miles, through the town of Crestone and then east into the National Forest and to the Willow Creek trailhead.Though I didn’t have enough daylight (sun now sets at 5 P.M.) to reach Willow Lake, I was able to assemble my pack and gear to hike for half an hour up the trail where I established camp at 4:40 P.M. on the Willow Creek Trail.
After setting up my tent, Sam took off to who knows where. I cooked up some "Lucky seven couscous", knocked off a 200ml flask of canadian whiskey I’d purchased in Crestone and after reading an article in a recent New Yorker by John McPhee on the "undamming" of a dam built in the 1800’s in New England (a good thing!!! Damn those dams!) I conked out around 7:30 P.M. (!) Not to awaken until 5:00 A.M. the next morning—the longest continuous segment of sleep I’ve had in years—not to mention the only time I’ve remembered my dreams in years as well—and they were not bad!
On the trail shortly before 6 A.M. I didn’t bother with a headlamp. Though the moon was only a sliver, the trail was wide and easy to follow in the starlight. I had a full agenda on my plate for this day. The trail climbed steadily by easy switchbacks up and up to Willow Lake. Towering rocks on the periphery soon became eye level, and higher faces loomed above.
Once upon Willow Lake I smelt a campfire, though I didn’t spot the camp site from which it emanated. To ascend Adams I proceeded up a climber’s spur trail south up the grassy slope to the basin below Admas and point 13,564’. The old guide book I’d checked out from the library ("Colorado’s other mountains") warns about straying into the drainage. I don’t know why because I was perfectly content to follow the creek up and into the basin before aiming for the saddle between the point 13,564 and Adams. It is all very obvious. From the saddle I stuck to the ridge until the final summit block where I traversed right—too far right as it turned out—I did some class 3 climbing to reach the easy gully to my left—Sam the Wolfdog refused to follow my folly, taking the correct course to the summit.
The summit was magnificent. The views of Kit Carson, the Crestones, and north to Horn Lakes, Horn Peak, Little Horn Peak, Fluted Peak, simply unspeakable. Studying the topo map I identified all the lakes and peaks in view.
Leaving the summit we retraced our steps to the saddle. About to plunge down to the basin I was startled to hear a human voice call out "Hello!" Looking down towards the basin expecting someone coming up I was again startled to hear "Hello" again—this time clearly from behind me. A rosy cheeked, bearded, blond haired man smiled from the very saddle just above me. I asked him if he had come from the other side (the frozen north side). No, he had come up from Willow Lake—it was his camp fire I had smelled earlier. A fisherman, he was only out for a morning hike. No, he was not going to climb Mount Adams. As we hiked together back into the basin I learned he farms fruit in a small Colorado town called Paonia, northwest of Gunnison. He told me he was hiking out that day because he had four kids "begging him to take them to Sunday school" the next day. Though I didn’t let on, I had a hard time believing him with my childhood memories of loathsome Sundays in "Sunday school".
We parted ways where the upper basin ended. My course was to traverse left above the waterfalls leading into Willow Lake. Near the falls I found the climber’s spur trail leading around and into the basin below Challenger Point. From the basin below Mount Adams the route was apparent, but now once below Challenger the course was not so clear. Following cairns I found myself going left and towards the couloir route, though I had intended to do the south face. Wearing only running shoes and ill-equipped for a snow route, we ended up climbing class 3 rock just to the right of the couloir up to the summit ridge.
From there it was an easy walk to Challenger’s summit. Though there was no Summit register, the plaque memorializing the victims of the Space Shuttle’s demise in 1986 that was placed this year was a remarkable sight.
Looking to Kit Carson Peak I spied a lone climber atop its summit. When I yelled to him, saying I would be coming his way he waved back.
With the limited daylight at this time of year I had put myself on a time schedule. Reaching Challenger’s summit around noon I gave myself an hour to ascend Kit Carson. The route to Kit Carson from Challenger proceeds east to the saddle between the two peaks. Then you follow the amazing "Kit Carson Avenue" all the way around Kit Carson to the east side of the summit.
This ledge system, wide enough on which to drive a fork lift, leaves one feeling "I am not worthy to be here!" as one gazes on sheer faces above and below. This is magnificent rock country! The gulley is an easy class three climb to the summit. I met the climber I’d seen on the summit from Challenger as he came down. His partner had apparently given up—likely before Kat Carson—they had approached from the east. On the summit I walked from the summit apex west to an airy viewpoint and returned. My fisherman friend, Chris later said he’d spotted me from way below on Willow Lake. With little time in the time schedule to linger we began the trek back shortly after 1 P.M.
By this time we’d been at altitude for a considerable part of the day and I noticed myself making missteps and catching myself occasionally off balance. Up and over Challenger, and not wanting to go back down the "couloir" route, I continued along Challenger’s ridgeline, following a cairned route—not an easy route at all—some of which was rather exposed along the left side of the summit ridge. When the cairned route dropped over the the other side and down the south face it soon disappeared, and we were on our own concentrating on our goal of dropping elevation. Only once did we come down above cliffs, forcing us to backtrack to higher ground.
Above the waterfalls I met a couple who were planning their route for the next day up the icy couloir to the saddle between Challenger and Kit Carson Peak. I had to keep to my time schedule so I quickly continued down the trail past Willow Lake. Once on the main trail Sam and I broke into a run. It was a long ways, but with our steady pace the miles went by quickly. Adjacent to a meadow before the final set of switchbacks I spotted a flash crossing the trail. Soon afterwards Sam picked up the scent and dashed ahead. Above the trail I spotted the cow elk, nose high, sniffing the air for our presence. She didn’t spot us. Sam had dropped below the trail, picking up her scent down there. I, because of my superior eyesight was the only critter aware of the whereabouts of those other critters reliant on smell. Fortunately, Sam was plenty tuckered out from our day’s endeavours and gave up the chase readily. To be sure of no more shenanigans, he was back on the leash for the duration of the trip.
By 10 minutes to 5—shortly before sunset—I had reached my campsite. It took only ten minutes to break camp and resume my outward bound march. Who should I next see but Chris the bible-reading fisherman cutting switchbacks as he also tried to make trailhead before dark.
We hiked the last few minutes together as the light faded. As I quickly threw my gear into the truck, Chris brought over a copy of the New Testament in case I didn’t have one. Yes I had one, and yes I was a "believer". I didn’t elaborate on exactly what I believe, but I didn’t want to engage in theosophical debate at that point!