A Journey Up Challenger PointPosted by David Young, Contributor | 08.15.2022
Summer in Colorado means different things to different people. For some it’s a great time to barbecue, hang with friends, and lounge by the pool. But for many, it means that Fourteener season is in full force. For those unfamiliar, Colorado is home to 58 rugged peaks that exceed 14,000 feet in elevation. These majestic peaks dot the Colorado high country and call to adventurers looking to test their lungs and legs to make it to the top of these peaks.
Some people are happy to climb just one of these behemoth mountains, while others have the drive to summit all of them. Regardless, once you stand atop a fourteener, the expansive view of the clouds, valleys, forests, and plains stretching to the horizon gets in your blood.
I’ve been climbing these peaks for years now and have summited more than 40 of these massive mountains. I typically try to climb at least one each summer to get a little altitude beneath my boots and drink in some stunning views. With that, I set my sights on Challenger Point for this season. With that in mind, I filled up my backpack with all the essentials for a long weekend in the backcountry and headed out to see what this fourteener had in store for me.
Challenger Point is located deep in the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range in southern Colorado. The trailhead is located near the town of Crestone, which is close to the Great Sand Dunes. A buddy and I hopped in his truck and headed out. The road to the trailhead from Crestone was rough dirt, but it posed no problem for us. We soon started hiking up the steep trail with our packs on our backs through a light rain on a pleasant Sunday afternoon.
The approach to this peak is long and arduous — it is tucked back high in the mountain range. With a nearly 14-mile round-trip ahead of us and 5,500 feet in elevation gain, we opted to camp at Willow Lake near the peak rather than attempt it all in one day. We arrived at the lake just as the sun was setting. Tired and ready for some sleep, we set up our tents and ate some freeze-dried backpacker meals before turning in for the night. As the orangish reddish sun settled into the horizon, we nestled into our sleeping bags to the sound of a waterfall coming off the lake.
Summiting the Peak
The next morning, we were up bright and early at 5 a.m. ready to eat some breakfast, down a little coffee, and tackle the summit. As the warm sun rose, we started ascending the trail around Willow Lake. Willow Lake is a large high alpine lake with a waterfall on the far side guarded by steep cliffs — an amazing scene that could easily be mistaken for the Alps in Switzerland.
We made our way around the lake and the trail rose to a point where we encountered our first fork in the trail. Here we turned right and started straight up the mountain, aiming for a ridge adjacent to some snow in a couloir that offers safe passage to the ridge line. At first, the going was steep and steady. However, soon the clear trail splintered into an array of paths leading up a steep scree field. Scree is loose rock that is akin to a steep pile of table dishes that keep sliding off each other with each step. As the rocks kept sliding, we kept slipping and decided to try a different way.
After several hours of route-finding and gaining nearly 1,000 feet of elevation in less than a mile, we were at the top of the notch ready to tackle the ridge to the peak’s summit. Fat marmots darted around the rocky ridge line, squeaking at us. We stepped through the notch and were greeted with an amazing view of the Great Sand Dunes that looked like white waves on the valley floor thousands of feet below us.
We skirted the side of the ridge for a few hundred feet before climbing straight up to the top of the ridge line. There we had a clear view of the summit some several hundred yards ahead of us. We carefully picked our route across the rocky ridge, avoiding the steep drops on each side. While the exposure was greater here, the rocks were solid and held strong as we made our way towards the top.
Soon we reached our objective, stepping onto the highest point of the 14,081-foot peak. With hardly a cloud in the sky, we enjoyed a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains and peaks from the top. Kit Carson hovered next to us, another fourteener that you can tandem from Challenger, and the Crestones, two fourteener peaks, were visible just beyond that. We snapped a few photos, high-fived, and ate a quick snack before turning to head back to camp.
The Hike Back Out
Reaching the summit of a fourteener always feels like a win, but it is important to remember that you are only halfway there. Already exhausted, we carefully made our way back along the ridge to the notch where we started back down the steep scree field. The afternoon sky was clear and sunny.
The loose rock and dirt were just as hard to descend as it was to climb up. The loose rock kept sliding as we tried to carefully make our way down. We took a bit of a different route down and stuck close to the cliff walls that offered a bit of support. About halfway down a mother and baby bighorn sheep ran across the mountain right in front of us. It’s amazing to see these animals in the wild as they traverse their natural terrain with ease.
After a slow tedious couple of hours, we were happy to have solid ground under our feet again as we made our way back around the lake towards camp. Soon we were down safely and soaking our sore feet in the ice-cold waters of Willow Lake. We filtered water and tried our hand (unsuccessfully) at fly fishing in the lake before returning to camp for a nice evening fire with some well-deserved dinner.
The next day we packed up and headed back down to the trailhead with sore feet and a head full of fun memories and scenic images from another of Colorado’s great fourteeners. If you are interested in climbing a fourteener this season, be it your first or your 50th, talk to the experts at JAX who can get you outfitted and ready for a successful climb.