Monday, August 25, 2008

Friday-Saturday, August 22/23 Challenger, Kit Carson, Columbia Point

Challenger Pt. (14,080), Kit Carson (14,165) Columbia Pt. (13,980)
From Willow Creek TH
Jeff and Allison Valliere, Dave and Emily Hale, Kevin Lund, Sierra and Shep

Allison, Kevin and I had Friday off from work, so we headed down to the Willow Creek TH in hopes of getting ahead of the weekend crowds and securing a campsite roomy enough for the 6 of us (Dave’s sister Sharon was also joining just for the camping trip).

We arrived to a nearly full parking lot around 3pm and began readying ourselves and our packs. Soon after, 2 vehicles pull up and out hop 9 guys with overnight packs and I knew it could get competitive to secure a camp spot, as options up at the lake are somewhat limited.

Started on the trail at 3:35 and I was itching to speed up the trail and stay ahead of the other group. I ran my idea by Kevin and Allison and they both encouraged me to go ahead, so off Sierra and I went, up the endless low grade switchbacks through the woods. I was really feeling the heat, the 40lbs on my back and the previous day’s run up Pikes Peak. It seemed that no matter how fast I tried to move my legs, I was going nowhere fast and it seemed as though I was unable to put any distance on Kevin and Allison as I could hear them for what seemed like a long time.

Sierra was feeling the heat too and was going even slower than me, so I stopped often to let her drink from the numerous side creeks and main creek. We finally reached the lake after 1:45 of hiking and began looking for Sharon who I erroneously believed to already be up there. I could not find her, so I backtracked a short ways down from the lake (can’t camp near it anyways) and found a great spot on the South side of the trail next to a large open meadow with plenty of room for all of us.

Allison arrived about 20 minutes later, as she was feeling a bit competitive after being caught by two of the guys from the group of 9 (they said something to her that she interpreted as a bit sexist), so she felt the need to dust them. Kevin arrived not long after and we spent the evening eating and taking things easy while waiting for Sharon, Dave and Emily to show up.

After a miserable night in the tent (hardly any sleep due to my gastrointestinal distress and Allison’s throwing up due to a touch of food poisoning from her former favorite restaurant in Buena Vista), we were on the trail by 6:45am. Surprisingly, even at this “late” hour and considering how crowded it was with people camping, there was only one person ahead of us on the standard route on Challenger and we were playing leap frog with 3 others.

Allison was still feeling a bit under the weather and was having a tough time trying to keep up and not hurl. She hung in there though and we were able to make slow and steady progress up the increasingly steepening slopes. Dave, Emily and Kevin opted to take a slightly different variation to climbers left of the “standard” route on the other side of the snow gulley. From below, it looked a bit steeper, so I opted to stick to the main trail since Allison was not feeling so well.

This turned out to be a HUGE mistake, as the trail and surrounding terrain got loose and crappy. It was not too difficult, but was very dangerous, compounded by the fact that we opted to leave our helmets at home. The one guy ahead of us at this point, managed to knock a few large rocks. He yelled and I was looking up trying to pinpoint their location and trajectory, yet could not see the falling rocks. I kept thinking that they were coming to a halt, then would hear them again and I was searching for a place to take cover. Suddenly, I see several rocks, one larger than a basketball come whipping around the corner down the gulley I was in and I had no place to hide. They were skipping this way and that, so I sprinted across the slope as fast as I could, narrowly avoiding certain death by mere feet. Fortunately, Sierra and Allison were far enough out of the way of the rocks, that they had no chance of being hit.

My heart was nearly pounding out through my head as I screamed a loud “WHAT THE F…!!”. The guy (Steve) stopped and waited for us to catch up to him and I sped past on pure adrenaline to the ridge. Not sure if a helmet would have saved me in this instance had I got hit, but I really admit that it was a huge mistake not taking them on this route, what were we thinking?

Once on the ridge, we all regrouped and were soon on the summit, 9:09am I think Dave said. It was an easy cruise around Kit Carson on the avenue and just prior to reaching the ascent gulley that most people follow, we ascended a steeper, but more solid gulley. In my opinion, this is the best way to go, as the climbing was very easy and enjoyable class 3. Using our hands were hardly even necessary going up and down, super fun!

By the time we had reached the summit of Kit Carson, we had befriended (and forgiven) Steve, as he turned out to be a pretty nice guy. Ironically, he and I decided to team up for the trip over to Columbia Pt., as we both felt it would be good to have company. Dave led the rest of the group back toward camp, while Steve and I descended toward the Kit Carson/Columbia saddle.

I had read up on the route and got a great picture from Ryan Kowalski where he outlined where he and Pete had climbed earlier in the month, but of course I forgot the picture back in camp and we had to just wing it. As it turns out, we went a completely different way that started lower in the gulley (the large cairn and obvious ledge caught our attention), which was not too difficult and quite easy to navigate.

Sooner than anticipated, we reached the summit of Columbia and for good measure went to the East summit also. I contemplated heading over to Obstruction, but I could tell Steve was feeling uncomfortable about finding his way back through the difficulties (he admitted that he is the “worlds worst route finder”) and I was feeling less than stellar after not sleeping the previous night and was eager to try and catch back up to the group.

We headed back down through the class 3 (me always above) without any problems and once back onto the avenue, bid my adieu. I power hiked/ran the avenue and made quick work of Challenger, staying on the ridge crest all the way to the notch above the snow gulley. Instead of taking any risks on the now crowded slopes, I opted to descend the way Dave went up on the East side of the snow gulley. Although steep, it was mostly solid and much less travelled. Going fast but safe, I quickly caught the group taking a break near the bottom of the steep slope and we all hiked back to camp together.

All in all a great day, despite the near death experience with the rock. As always, it was great getting out with Dave, Emily and Kevin and the weather was perfect. Allison is now just 6 peaks away from finishing the 14ers and I was quite impressed that she pushed on despite feeling so sick at the start.

It has been nearly 10 years since I have climbed these peaks, where my hiking partner and I did not see another person all day. We also took a slightly different route that avoided the loose slopes that are part of the standard route and these factors led me to underestimate the danger and leave our helmets at home. Stupid mistake on my part that I really regret, I just feel lucky that we avoided that rock, as things could have been a lot worse.


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