Every good trip needs to have a motto that properly encompasses the mood and direction of the experience, so when my friend Steven and I went on our maiden voyage to the top of a fourteen thousand foot mountain (14,087 ft to be exact) we, more so Steven for the sake of credit where it’s due, decided on a simple phrase; ‘We in this’.
The mountain that we decided to take on was Challenger Point, and potentially Kit Carson if we had the energy and bravery to pull of the double summit. A week or so before taking off from Boulder, Colorado, we conducted thorough research and got all of our gear in order. Luckily, we were in great shape thanks to playing pick-up soccer almost every day, so we were going into the trip confident that out bodies wouldn’t fail us on the way up. The only other consideration was that Steven had a broken finger at the time, so he was wearing a cast. Despite the infringement to his hand movement, we decided to move forward with the plan.
Before our take-off date, Steven came over to my house and we stuffed our backpacking bags full of food and essential gear. Once we had our lists checked off and double checked, we hit the sack with our alarms set for the early, dark hours of the morning.
Reaching the Sangre De Cristos and Basecamp
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the geography of Colorado, there are many ranges that run around the Rocky Mountains. Of these many ranges, only seven of them contain all of the fourteeners in the state. There’s the Front Range, the Sangre De Cristos, the Elk Mountains, the Sawatch Range, Tenmile Range, and the San Juan Mountains, and the Mosquito Range. Technically Tenmile Range and the Mosquito Range are a part of the same continuation of mountains, but the continental divide splits them in half, making them two separate ranges.
Challenger Point is in the Sangre De Cristos so the trip from Boulder took us about four hours in total. The car ride ended up being what seemed like a quick drive filled with Steven explaining why Tool is such a unique band. He’s not wrong.
We arrived in Crestone in the late morning and took our time around town grabbing food and supplies before setting off up the mountains looming in the near distance. The tall earthen behemoths were pretty terrifying and definitely intimidating, but we were up for the challenge. We didn’t drive all the way from Boulder for nothing.
Ascending the mountains to our camping spot took between four and five hours. I don’t recall the exact timeframe because I was on the verge passing out from the heat and overexertion within 10 minutes of beginning the hike. So much for thinking I was in great shape.
The trail that we used to reach Challenger Point – the quickest path to our destination – ran along the Willow Creek and presented incredible views of the San Luis Valley, a vast stretch of land between the San Juan Mountains and Sangre De Cristos. To the east, toward the range into which we had set out to conquer, high peaks rose into the sky, hanging above ominously. That specific day the sun was out and there were only a handful of clouds in the sky, so taking breaks and applying sunscreen was a part of our routine by the time we reached camp.
After hours of sweating and complaining, we made it to our destination; the first of the two Willow Lakes located in the high mountain basin beneath Challenger and Kit Carson. when Steven and I first laid eyes on the pristine lake we instantly decided that the entire trip was a success, even without having yet attempted to summit a fourteener. The lake even had a waterfall.
Once we scouted out the area, Steven and I found the perfect location for our tent, so we quickly set the thing up and went into relaxation mode. We voiced our excitement over some tuna and rice before packing things away for the night and getting inside our sleeping bags.
Heading to the Summit: Attempt #1
Steven and I woke up far too late the next morning. We knew that we had to be up early, so we set our alarms for the early morning and slept right through them. It had rained during our first night there and my mind told me that the weather would be crap all day, so why make the trip? The skies were gray and I thought that all was lost until the following morning, but Steven convinced me otherwise, so we set off up the mountain.
The trail to the summit led us up and around the First Willow Lake into a high tundra plane. From there we hopped across small ponds, following the cairns all around us, and navigated the path to the where the hard rock of the high peaks began. From there, the trail went straight to the top of the ridge to a small notch before taking a sharp left turn down the ridge that led directly to Challenger. We didn’t make it that far, though, for the clouds had consumed us within twenty minutes of starting up the rocky mountain side.
We ended up switching off between stopping to discuss our options and continuing forward at a sluggish pace. At one point a trail runner skipped up to us out of the fog. He stopped and had a quick conversation with Steven and I before returning to the fog. It turns out that he’d parked down below at the parking lot in Crestone and run all the way up to where we were within a few hours. We were amazed at his fitness and tenacity, and a little disappointed with how inexperienced we were.
About fifteen minutes after the runner had moved along, another hike appeared out of nowhere. This guy was wearing light clothing and slip-on shoes. He was from the east coast and was in the state for business and a little bit of pleasure, so he decided to hike up to Challenger and eventually Kit Carson. He stopped with Steven and I and talked with us for a good chunk of before quickening his pace to the summit. He too disappeared into the fog around us.
Something told me that there was going to be nasty weather around us once we reached the top, so I convinced Steven that we should return to camp and try again in the morning. He agreed, and as we reached the top of the lake near our camp the clouds disappeared and the blue sky emerged. We could see the guy wearing the slip-on shoes at the summit of Kit Carson. He was doing yoga. We laughed because we knew we could’ve made it, and we promised each other that we would, in fact, make it up the next day.
Later that afternoon, we sat at our camp hanging out when the runner we’d talk to in the morning jogged past, waving his hand joyously at us. What a beast.
Heading to the Summit: Attempt #2
The saying ‘We in this’ played a major role in getting us to the top on our second attempt. Waking up early and shoving off with confidence proved to help a great deal in terms of our mood and determination. Again, the clouds filled the sky, but we knew that they would eventually clear up once the sun had risen high enough into the sky.
We walked up around the first Willow Lake, just as we did the day before, and found ourselves climbing up the side of Challenger when the clouds cleared out. The day was perfect and so too was our mood.
Steven and I ended up merging with a larger group of around six older, but experienced climbers. These men ended up being incredible people. Each individual was different than the next, all with different temperaments and senses of humor. One of them, in particular, looked a lot like my late uncle with his thick, long beard and boisterous personality. He cracked jokes the entire way up, all the while motivating each and every one of us to keep going, even though he was the one having the hardest time.
Close to the top of the trail, just before the path joined the ridge toward the summit of Challenger Point, our group ran into a large and steep field of loose rock. Steven, with his casted hand and wrist, had to take the incline extra slow as to not slip and fall. If there is one bit of advice that I could dispense upon you readers it’s definitely to avoid climbing a fourteener with any broken bones. Do it when you’re healthy, trust me, it’ll be worth the wait.
Having said that we did get past the loose rock field after a decent amount of time and effort. Reaching the notch at the top of the ridge we hopped onto the final stretch of the path toward the summit, a short and easy walk atop large boulders.
At the summit, Steven and I sat down alongside our fellow hikers and tore into a pack of Salmon, the most high class of our meals that trip. It was about noon and the sun was blaring down from on high. Furthermore, my legs were tired from two days of hiking. From the summit of Challenger, the path went in two directions; back toward the way we had come from and forward onto Kit Carson, a large peak to the south that seemed to taunt us with its sheer northern face.
Steven and I figured we would give it a shot, so we rose with the other hikers and continued on, but two men stayed behind waiting for us to clear out. One of them was the man who reminded me of my uncle.
The bearded man pulled a Bible and vile of water out of his bag, turned to a specific page, and began reciting the verse in a serious, almost possessed tone. Once he was finished, he poured a small bit of water onto the peak and packed everything away. He soon returned to his upbeat self, cracking jokes and speaking words of motivation. I’m not religious, but the spirituality and devotion that I had witnessed – on top of a mountain of all places – proved to be one of my fondest memories of the trip.
From the summit of Challenger Point, there’s a narrow, intimidating section of path called ‘Kit Carson Avenue’ that leads around the back of mountain toward the ascending path. On one side of the trail, you have the steep edge of Kit Carson rising above you and on the other, there is a sheer drop. It’s nothing too hard, but for a first time hiker, it is pretty terrifying.
This is where Steven and I decided to turn around. Looking up at Kit Carson, we decided that it would be best to ascend the mountain on a different day. We made the descent back to our camp in a few hours time, and from there we packed up and returned to Steven’s car within another few hours. By the time we got back to the parking lot we were tired, annoyed, and hungry, so we went to the nearest joint and got some beer and burgers.
For our first fourteener, we felt that we did pretty well considering the fact that we had no idea what we were doing. Thankfully, we motivated each other – both taking turns being the motivator and motivated – throughout the entire journey and continued to push ourselves the limit. Looking back on the trip, it was pretty obvious that we could have done many things better, more efficiently. Despite our downfalls, we were in it. We were in it the whole time.