Challenger Point, 2020

  • Date: July 3, 2020
  • Partner: Matt Odierna, Kylee Drugan-Eppich (down)
  • Height: 14,081 feet
  • Range: Sangre de Cristo
  • Route: North Slope (Difficult Class 2)
  • Overall Distance: 12.5 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 5,400 feet (TH to summit)
  • 14ers climbed: 38 separate climbs
  • 14ers remaining: 15
  • Road Condition to Trailhead: Willow Creek Trailhead is 2 miles outside of the artsy town of Crestone. A 2WD vehicle can make it if you take your time.

Having moved to North Carolina at the end of 2019, I was missing the Colorado mountains and made an abrupt decision to fly back to resume my 14er quest, the presence of the pandemic notwithstanding. I flew into Denver on Thursday afternoon (July 2), grabbed a rental car, and drove south several hours to the gorgeous Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Matt Odierna and his girlfriend Kylee Drugan-Eppich met me at the trailhead. It was around 8:00 PM before we geared up and headed off up the trail. I’d say it was around 11:00 before we decided to call it quits. We were slightly below Willow Lake and had hiked roughly 4 miles, gaining 3,000′ of elevation in the process. Now living at sea level, and not being in “mountain shape”, I was slightly tired as I set up my tent in the dark and prepared my sleeping bag. Unfortunately, I was nauseous for a few hours and lucky to grab 3-to-4 hours of sleep.

Around 4:30 AM, I woke up, packed up my gear, and set off for the summit alone. The flat trail wove around Willow Lake and with the sun coming up, it was simply beautiful, especially with the waterfall coming into the lake on its east side. Once to the other side of the lake, the real work began. The ill-defined trail climbs about 2,000′ in the space of one mile across crumbly dirt, lose rock, and is steep as Hell. I took my sweet old time, drank water, and paused regularly when I felt sick from the altitude.

This trail is a bit deceiving. Challenger Point, and its neighbor Kit Carson Peak, have claimed several lives over the past few years. It is not hard to see why. If you were tired and your feet slipped out from underneath you on the smoother areas, you could potentially break out into a long, tumbling fall for 100s of feet. If you do this climb, take it slow, and wear your helmet!

There was one nervous crossing I had of a snow field, but I simply followed gingerly in some well kicked-in steps. Finally, I crested the headwall and could see the summit closely; maybe another 500′ of elevation gain and a quarter-mile away. It was then that I knew I had a great chance to summit. Proceeding east along the spine of the ridge, and with a little boulder hopping, I reached the pinnacle around 11:00 AM. What with the constant daily reminders of COVID-19, and my move away from Colorado, this summit was a bit more special for me than usual, and so I stayed on top for awhile.

Matt and Kylee came up around 11:30 and, after a little celebration and picture taking, we proceeded back down the mountain together. All three of us “sat down” falls, but the bruises to our egos were worse than the bruises to our bodies 😏 After reclaiming our sleeping bags and tents, we hightailed it back to the trailhead, arriving at ~ 3:00 PM. We said our goodbyes, and then I drove to a comfy Holiday Inn up near Denver where I dead for the night 🤪 The next morning, back to the Denver airport I went for a July 4th return to North Carolina.

I feel lucky to have grabbed this summit, but sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. I’ll give Challenger Point a 4 on a 1-to-10 scale of 14er difficulty. Be sure to load up with water at the lake (bring a pump) before tackling the lion’s share of the route. Safe climbing to all of you.