Challenger Point, the 14,087-foot west summit of 14,165-foot Kit Carson Peak, is the high point of a long ridge that drops west into the San Luis Valley. The mountain was mostly unknown until 1987 when the U.S. Board of Geographic Names approved an application to name the previously unnamed point Challenger for the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger, which disintegrated on January 18, 1986 after liftoff. Challenger, with a prominence of only 301 feet above the saddle between it and Kit Carson, is one of the easier Fourteeners in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It’s usually climbed by a Class 2 route up its northern flank, passing Willow Lake, waterfalls, and great scenery. Climbers usually pair it with Kit Carson Peak for a long day of hiking, scrambling, and Class 3 climbing.
- The best way to climb Challenger Point is from the town of Crestone in the San Luis Valley. The trailhead is 2.3 miles southeast of Crestone at the end of Galena Street. The hike to the summit is 11.6 miles one-way from the trailhead, gains 5,180 feet, and requires 11 to 24 hours of hiking time round-trip—a big day. Many climbers break the ascent into two days by backpacking to Willow Lake on the first day, then climbing the peak the following morning.
- To climb Challenger, hike up Willow Creek Trail from the 8,850-foot trailhead for 4.2 miles to the west end of Willow Lake at 11,300 feet. The trail traverses north of the lake and enters a high cirque below Kit Carson and Challenger. Good campsites are located past the lake. Continue up the above-timberline trail and begin climbing out of the basin at the five-mile marker. The easy-to-follow trail climbs steep grass and talus slopes to a final loose gully that climbs to Challenger’s 13,890-foot ridge crest at 5.6 miles. Finish by scrambling up the west ridge for a quarter mile to the summit at 5.8 miles. Return by the same route or head east along the ridge to Kit Carson Peak.
- A great alternative route up Challenger in early summer when lots of snow is still on the north slopes is to climb up left in the basin to Kirk Couloir. This obvious narrow gully splits cliffs between the two peaks. Climb to near 13,000 feet below the couloirs, then climb the 50-degree couloirs. Use an ice axe for safety. After a couple hundred feet of fun snow climbing, exit up right and scramble up to the saddle between Kit Carson and Challenger. Finish by climbing the slabby east ridge to Challenger’s summit.
- The Kirk Couloir is the best ski descent off Challenger Peak and the Crestone peaks area in the central Sangres. In a good snow year you can ski almost off the summit, heading down right into the steep couloir. There is usually plenty of skiable snow in the spring ski season in May and June.
Recommended season(s): May through October.
—Stewart M. Green