14 September 2009

Challenger Point

Kit Carson Mountain from Humboldt Peak

If at First You Don't Succeed...
...use up all that film you toted up the mountain on the waterfall!

27 July 2003

I reached the South Crestone trailhead at about 5 p.m. Saturday and hiked uphill to the camping area east of Willow Lake. The spot I chose to set up my tent was relatively flat, far enough from the lake that I hoped mosquitoes would not be a problem, and just near enough the waterfall to hopefully be lulled to sleep by the dull roar. Unfortunately, lightning flashes and crashes throughout the night sparked the pitter pat of rain that turned my leaky tent into a sleeping bag float pool. All night I worried the steepest parts of Challenger Point might be slippery.

I left camp at 5 a.m. and was able to put away my flashlight by the time I got around the lake. The sky never turned pink but stayed mostly gray most of the day. Leftover bug lotion from my parenting days came in handy; mosquitoes were particularly thick in the humid air.

Challenger Peak is the most difficult 14er I've attempted so far, and my confidence level was not where it needed to be. Fortunately, the trail was not wet or slippery, but I did not enjoy the scree-laced gully leading up to the west ridge. In order to escape the loose rocks, I moved far left from the trail proper to climb solid rock and got stuck a couple of times due to fear factor. The gully, similar to the Trough on Longs, is rated at Class 2+, but I think the rock walls I climbed off route were more like the Homestretch on Longs, just without the degree of exposure.

Every handhold I reached for had to be checked for stability. Every rock protruding from the mountain had more colors than a box of crayons. The conglomerate treasure chests of pink, yellow and gray-green rocks couldn't hold my attention long enough to get me to the memorial plaque I so desperately longed to see in person. My knees were shaking, and I wasn't sure my bad knee would survive the downclimb, particularly if I stayed on solid rock, which would require more stability and strength than the talus-in-motion gully. Because my adrenaline flow was rising simultaneously with the altitude, I opted to turn back at the top of the west ridge at 13,300.

During a breather, I heard what I initially thought was the roar of a jet engine to my right, near Kit Carson Peak. I looked at the sky, only to have my attention riveted immediately downward at the sound of boulders crashing in the snowfield below. My mouth and eyes stood agape as I watched a ledge break free from the northeast side of a cliff and tumble down the steep slopes, gaining speed and bouncing and setting off other rockfalls along the talus slope.

Back at my campsite, I took down my tent, drank my sports drink and tried to pack all the wet things so they would not damage any dry things. I then headed back down the lengthy trail to my car.

About 10 minutes from my car, the sky dumped, and by the time I headed out of the parking lot, completely drenched, the already rough dirt road was bed to at least six new raging rivers from the runoff. Maneuvering across the chewed-up road for the next mile and a half turned out to be the most difficult part of my entire trip. Well, except for waiting until 11:30 that night to find out who won the Tour de France.

Crestone Peak

At one point, the landscape was coated with two inches of pea-sized hail. In Crestone, where the dirt road turned to pavement, villagers were out in mass with shovels trying to clear the culverts that had clogged with debris washing down the steep Sangres. The front yards of the eight or so residences along the main road looked like floating kelp on the ocean, buried by approximately eight inches of foaming muddy water. I anxiously awaited news of how many people were stranded at the trailhead due to the flash flood and if climbers headed up the mountain as I came down got off in time. I was mildly shocked to see the fresh dusting of snow on Ouray on my way back to Denver.

Monday morning I read the tiny town of Crestone received 18% of its annual rainfall in 20 minutes.

This hike was yet another learning experience for me. I learned I can do hard stuff when I need to, and I learned I need to get more experience under my belt and build my confidence before I try another Class 3. Both Columbia Point and Challenger Point, both of which bear plaques in memory of our lost shuttle crews, continue to call out to me. Here's to successful second attempts.

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