Sunday, July 5, 2009

Kit Carson Mountain - 14,165

Nearly three years elapsed between the time I climbed El Diente with Jeff Blagg and my ascent of Kit Carson Peak. That's not very efficient peak-bagging from the current project's perspective. All the same, that is not as long as between some 14ers I have climbed.

It was Wayne Taylor who alerted me, at the end of the first semester of my junior year, to a possible trip into the Crestones before the spring term began at the University of New Mexico. I can remember skiing Pandemonium at Purgatory just around New Year's when I heard my name called from the lift. It was my mom. She had a message for me from Wayne, and as she dug it out of her pocket the lift kept carrying her farther away. At last the scrap of paper came fluttering down, I skied over to it, saw Wayne's phone number, and back in Farmington made the call.

It was arranged for them to meet me in Farmington and then head up into Colorado. I had a pair of skinny skis I'd rented at Johnson Gym prior to the winter break which pretty well matched what everyone else had, and proved a priceless piece of equipment in any case. Crammed into Doug Bridgers' VW Type III Fastback, the four of us reached the trailhead that evening, camping in the snow above the Baca Grande subdivision before heading out at first light. Our goal was Willow Lake high above the San Luis plain, all new territory for me. I was nursing a head cold that got worse over the two days it took to reach the lake where, after pitching out two tents just below, we spent the next day digging a combination igloo/snow cave in a huge drift on the east side of the lake. We were planning to move in to it, but the igloo proved to be too small. It was only large enough, in fact, for the four of us to squat inside and smoke a doobie. (In those days smoking dope was almost a pre-requisite, or at least a co-requisite to climbing).

On day four we finally began climbing. There were some spectacular frozen falls dropping from the 150-foot bench above straight into Willow Lake which were bypassed on the left. I know this height is accurate because, two days later, we would be top-roping these waterfalls using two tied-together 150-foot goldline ropes. For now, though, Challenger was the goal and here is as good a place as any to talk a bit about what makes a fourteener a fourteener as opposed to, say, a mere satellite or sub-peak, such as Challenger is. It all comes down to horizontal and/or vertical separation. Only the Colorado Mountain Club knows for sure, but there is a kind of "golden mean" whereby closely adjacent peaks may still count separately as long as the drop between them is substantial enough. Conversely, two peaks with no significant drop between them may still stand as individual 14ers provided there is enough horizontal distance between them. As usual, though, there is a good deal of subjectivity involved. In the case of the Crestone Peak and Needle, for example, two peaks in very close proximity, it is not so much the vertical drop between them as their "incommunicability" that qualifies them as individuals: getting from one point to the other is quite an undertaking. While ongoing debate over these standards has resulted in Ellingwood Peak, formerly regarded as a satellite of Blanca, being upgraded to an official 14er, Challenger for whatever reason has remained a sub-peak of Kit Carson.

We did not climb it because it was a sub-peak. On our fourth day out we climbed Challenger because we thought it was Kit Carson. Be that as it may, we enjoyed a nice climb of the frozen neve of the Kirk Couloir before topping out on Challenger, from which Kit Carson could be plainly seen rearing its blocky head to the south. An attempt by Davey Hammack to find a way over from Challenger ended in failure (although the current Dawson guidebook indicates such a traverse is indeed possible), so we slid down the northeast face of Challenger on our butts and made our way back to camp, our sights set on the real peak tomorrow.

To say that I enjoyed the Kirk Couloir is surely exaggerating a bit. I was fighting that cold, remember. It being all I could do to keep standing, I was secretly glad Davey had not managed to forge a route to the true summit. Back at camp I fell exhausted into my bag. By next morning, however, I awoke feeling stronger than I had in days. My cold having vanished, I found myself in the lead most of that day, second only to Davey Hammack whose energy no one could beat. I followed his bucket steps up the Outward Bound Couloir, donning crampons at midway to finish at the col in the south ridge which was followed to the summit. The photo above taken by Wayne Taylor shows me standing on this ridge somewhere near the summit of Kit Carson, against a backdrop of Crestone Peak and Needle. Yes, and the picture I took of him looking back hung for years in the Wilderness Centre in Albuquerque.

My energy continued through the fifth day which was spent, as I mentioned, top-roping the frozen falls above the lake, and on the sixth day we skied out. To this day our Willow Lake trip remains my longest time spent out-of-doors in winter. Youth is not wasted on the young, after all, as evidenced by the fact that when we got down, Doug's VW had a flat tire. He had a spare but no lug wrench, as I recall, and I was elected to go door to door among the widely spaced cabins of the Baca Grande in quest of one, it being the consensus of my partners that I looked the most "presentable." I can remember being vaguely puzzled by this, maybe even insulted, and I'm still not sure what they meant, unless the photo above provides any clues.

Incidentally, this photograph is a kind of time capsule of its own. It started out as Wayne Taylor's Ektachrome transparency. This was duplicated and the duplicate transparency made into a print. The image above, a digital scan of this print, is thus thrice removed from the original. Visible in the far right distance is Mount Blanca, my third fourteener which I will be climbing one year later, in the halcyon winter of 1977.

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