Part 2: Challenger Point (14,081’), and Kit Carson Peak (14,165’)
By Joshua Mendrala
Crestone, Colorado sits at a benign 7,923 feet above sea level, the last development on a stretch of plains before the Sangre de Cristo mountain range obliterates the skyline. From the end of a timid dirt road, you can see the tips of Challenger Point and Kit Carson Peak miles in the distance, threatening to pierce any clouds which dare approach them. This is where the journey up my final mountains began.
Myself and my two companions began the first day of hiking at 1 PM on Saturday, backpacking packs hunching us over the dirt and sand which began the trail. Carried with us were tents, instruments, food, daypacks, water, filtration systems, clothes, hammocks, and any possible gear we might need. With different weights between us, we each carried between 40-60 pounds on our backs. This only made the first day more brutal. We had just over five miles to our base camp, with an elevation gain of between 3,000 and 4,000 feet, to be done under the brutal 90-degree heat of a cloudless sky.
An idiosyncratic emotion occurs when the top of your forehead is the tallest thing within 100 miles and your feet are rooted on broken rock and you can say, “This is me. I am here.”
The hike to base camp was exhausting, but worth every step, every strain, and every breath. We found ourselves just below the beautiful Willow Lake, the view of Challenger Point and Kit Carson Peak now immensely closer, now frightened by us after their five miles of playful taunting. The sound of stream and waterfall caressed our ears while we set up our camp, a calming reminder that a clean water source also lingered nearby. With each of us suffering from the heat, we made the short hike to the lake, jumping in for a quick and refreshing dip that drained the exhaustion away in its cool mountain waters. The afternoon quickly faded into night, lulling us to sleep with only the worry of the bear which roamed the campsite to bring us fright (Hang your food! We hung ours and still had to scare it off twice!).
Fear and anxiety exist only in the future, climbing a mountain demands you exist in the present, and as such, frees you from yourself.
We awoke Sunday morning and promptly packed up our gear into our day packs, carefully packing up and bear-preparing the rest which we left at our campsite. After a short, but hearty breakfast, we began the brutally beautiful climb. Once breaking the ridge above Willow Lake, we were left looking out over the glacial valley, a perfect U that stretched out until abruptly dropping into the plains. It was this beauty that helped us push through the difficult climb.
Challenger Point provides an onslaught of loose rock, mud, snowmelt, shale, and conglomerate that gives it its fierceness. The mountain quickly communicates that neither itself nor its neighbor is for the faint of heart. This mountain provided my party with challenges of mild altitude sickness, hunger, and tiredness that added to our summit time as we had to break for water frequently, and stop once for food. However, our stubborn nature allowed us to summit in fair time. After a quick snack at the top, we moved on to Kit Carson Peak.
At the base of a mountain you think to yourself that you must conquer it, the only way to reach the summit is to realize you must learn to coexist with it.
A narrow trail winds around Kit Carson, drop-offs and cliffs forcing you to hug the mountain for fear that you will fall to oblivion. Yet, the first step forces the fear from your heart and provides you only the energy to think about the next step. This was the pattern as we circled around the mountain to the option of two final ascents; one a steep and direct hard class 3 scramble, the other an easier mess of dirt and pebbles that haphazardly winds to the peak. We chose the more challenging, to make the climb up the wall of the mountain. Though technical, we found it incredibly fun and rewarding, a feat that didn’t give us a fright until we reached the top and found a moment to reflect on it. At the instant we reached the top, we collapsed in smiles, gazing out at the drop-offs to either side, the valley, and the plains that stretched out below. The Great Sand Dunes decorated the distant earth to the south, and farm circles to the west. The moment was indescribable, so much so that the gruelingly long descent nearly faded away. Nothing could compare to that moment, that feeling, that indescribable understanding of why we climb mountains.
The reason to climb a mountain cannot be put into words. We climb them because we can, and because we do. We climb them because it makes us human and so much more. Or perhaps we climb them simply because they are there. The question of why can only be answered at the peak, at the moment of summit; the answer exists in that single moment, and nowhere else.