Kit Carson: North Ridge from Willow Lake

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Peaks: Kit Carson Peak (14,165′) and Challenger Point (14,081′) near Crestone, Colorado (Sangre de Cristo Range)
Route: Kit Carson’s N Ridge, Kit Carson Avenue to Challenger
Stats: 13 miles, 5,900 Feet, 11 Hours

Before yestarday I had been eying the North Ridge route on Kit Carson for some time. After a few experienced climbers claimed it as their favorite route on any 14er, I felt like I had to climb it and see for myself. It did not disappoint. Ryan and I set off from Westminster at 11:40pm and arrived at the Willow Lake TH at 3:00am. We started up the trail at 3:45 and were able to hike at a consistently good pace, reaching Willow Lake in 2 hours. We rounded the lake to the north and passed underneath the standard route up Challenger as faint morning light began to fill the sky. We had not read up on the North ridge route as much we would have liked, but we had a general concept of the route.

We rounded a field of very large boulders and scrambled up and around the left side of the water-marked cliff bands below Kit Carson‘s North Ridge. We continued to traverse around the base of the cliffs hoping to spot the Outward Bound couloir but it never came into view. We ended up just picking a line and climbing up a 40 or so foot tall section of the cliff band in an attempt to gain a better perspective. The cliff ended up being steeper and taller than we had anticipated, possibly even low class 5 towards the top, but it made for a good warmup.

Above the cliff band we found the OB couloir as well as the rock/grass ledge face we thought we were supposed to climb before traversing east to the start of the North Ridge. We began climbing directly up the face and it did not take long for the terrain and fall danger to become unrealistically high. Realizing we were off route, we looked down and were easily able to identify a ledge heading east. After a stiff downclimb we headed across the ledge and ran into the first cairn of the day.

Looking down the route.

We traversed across the ledge and found ourselves directly underneath the North Ridge, the terrain looked steep from our vantage point. The climbing started off at class 3. The scrambling was a blast, the rock was very solid and our position was spectacular. We were having a good day.

After a few hundred feet the terrain steepened and we got into some of the class 4 stuff, a few sections were a little spooky because of the enormous fall potential. The steepness of the ridge never really subsided and there weren‘t many ledges to grant mental comfort, it was just good old sustained class 4 for a few hundred feet. We were about 2/3 of the way up the ridge when we heard a group of coyotes howling in the valley far below.

Good fun scrambling high on the route.

We topped out underneath a large spire and found a nice, wide ledge which cut across the last section of the rock face. After a hundred yards of ledge walking we were on the summit ridge. We topped out on Kit Carson at 8:50am and had the summit to ourselves.

On the summit.

We hung out for 20 minutes and headed down towards Kit Carson Avenue. There was a group of about 12 heading across the avenue from Challenger. What little snow I heard was on Kit Carson is now completely gone.  We summited Challenger at 10:15am and met another large group of about 10 who were on a work retreat. We made our way down the standard route of Challenger and took a quick look at the Willow Lake waterfall from above. We also felt it necessary to jump in the lake before heading down. The hike back went quickly, we arrived at the car around 3:00pm and found ourselves drinking a beer and watching the olympic marathon at CB and Potts about 5 hours later. The North Ridge is an awesome route, the only real advice I have is to make sure to cut right at the correct time near the OB couloir.

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