CHALLENGER POINT – 14,081' / KIT CARSON PEAK – 14,165'

So my intention was to climb San Luis this morning. I set out last night hoping to car camp at the trailhead. Though the road to the trailhead was rated as “Rough 2WD” on 14ers.com, I found it to be too sketchy for my little Camry. The road was awesome until about 10 miles beyond Dome Lakes. I was cruising along and making great time when I cruised right into a stretch of soft mud. I was already committed before I realized my predicament. I knew I couldn’t take my foot off the gas without getting stuck, so I just kept moving, all the while crossing my fingers that the mud wouldn’t go on for miles.

I had no way of knowing whether it would get worse before it got better or whether I would have an out. I did know that I was miles from cell service or any kind of support, and furthermore that it was a weeknight and that there probably wouldn’t be a ton of people with their eye on San Luis.

I was keenly aware that every foot I drove was a foot I’d have to drive again on my way out, whether I bagged San Luis this trip or not. I was sliding all over the road as traction came and went sporadically. More than once, I almost slipped off the road. I felt like a freakin’ stunt driver. At one point, I was drifting toward the right-side ditch and had the wheel turned all the way to the left fighting the car’s momentum. As soon as I felt the tires start to gain traction, I had to start straightening out the wheel to avoid over-correcting and ending up in the left-side ditch. And on like that for about a half mile. Talk about an anxiety-provoking experience. I was shocked and relieved when I finally made it through, so much so that I had to stop and get out of the car. My heart was racing; I was shaking.

Despite having 10 miles to go – and knowing that a lot could happen in 10 miles – I resolved to go on. Turning around and leaving right then wouldn’t have made re-crossing that section any easier. May as well see what lay ahead. The next few miles were pretty easy, then I came to a creek crossing. It wasn’t that deep, but the opposite bank was a little steep, and I wasn’t sure that I could keep the exhaust pipe out of the water. At that point, I just figured it wasn’t meant to be, so I called it. Driving back through the mud was unpleasant, but it was my only option, so there was no way around it. I was either gonna make it, or I wasn’t. Thankfully, I did.

It was getting late, and I seriously considered just driving back to Durango and calling it a day. Instead, I convinced myself to go and have a look at the Challenger / Kit Carson trailhead. The road is rated “Easy 4WD,” but it was only a mile of rough road, so even if I couldn’t make it, I’d just add the extra two miles to my climb. In reality, the road was actually pretty manageable. I got to within a quarter mile of the trailhead before playing it safe and parking along the road, though I probably could’ve made it the whole way.

I finally arrived at midnight and got three hours of sleep before my alarm went off. For a moment, I was tempted to turn it off and roll over. But I was already there, so I willed myself up. Exhausted and excited, I was finally inching toward the summit around 330a, the start of a 9-hour day.

The approach to Willow Lake was awesome, a total cruiser. And the lake, beautiful. I began carefully picking my way up the steep gully on Challenger’s north slope around 530a. Progress was slow, tedious. Though it’s only class II, it would’ve been easy to slip and twist an ankle or break a wrist.

I rolled right over Challenger and as I began the traverse along The Avenue toward Kit Carson, I ran into a few gentlemen who greeted me and said, “Boy, if you had been here about 20 minutes earlier, we would’ve been calling for help.” Turns out these guys had missed a turn when they were descending Kit Carson yesterday. They ended up way down below The Avenue and tried to climb up an adjacent gully to regain the route. Apparently they cliffed out on the ascent and had to spend the night up there. Geez, I wasn’t the only one who had a rough time last night.

I’m already careful when I’m on a route that involves exiting a gully at a specific point, but after hearing their story, I was on high alert. I turned around frequently and even took photos as I climbed toward Kit Carson. On the way down, despite my careful attention to detail, I made the same mistake. Fortunately, I was more aware and realized after only a few hundred feet. Rather than try to short-cut back to the route, I simply took a few moments to orient myself, then turned back the way I’d come. There were multiple features that looked almost identical. It was easy to get turned around coming back. To make things more complicated, there are cairns marking a route all the way down the gully, probably an alternate of some kind or the route up neighboring Columbia point. Who knows. If I hadn’t run into those guys this morning, I probably wouldn’t have realized my mistake as quickly as I did.

The climb took a lot longer than I expected. I had budgeted seven hours for the nearly 15 mile roundtrip, an ambitious itin, especially given the 6,200+ feet of elevation gain. I lost a lot of time in the loose gully, both on the way up and on the way down. That and getting lost put me way behind “schedule” – like there is such a thing in the wilderness. When I finally reached Willow Lake, I picked up the pace. I was barreling down the trail clumsily and awkwardly in a hopeless attempt to make up lost time. I imagine it was quite a sight; glad no one saw me.

With a mile or two to go, I mis-stepped and rolled my ankle onto a pointed rock. Gah, that hurt. My ankle is fine, but I have a big lump and substantial bruising about midway up the outside of my right foot. Each step from there to the trailhead was labored and painful. That’s what I get for hurrying.

My experience the last 24 hours, while stressful, hasn’t been a bust by any stretch. In addition to tagging both Challenger and Kit Carson, both beautiful, I got to see some pretty rad wildlife: 3 dozen bighorn sheep, 2 owls, and a dozen ptarmigans. As if any experience in the outdoors could be a total bust. What a life I’m livin’.