Trailhead Elevation: 8,876
Willow Lake Camp Elevation: 11,492
Challenger Summit Elevation: 14,080 ft.
Low Point Elevation: 13,613 ft.
Kit Carson Summit Elevation: 14,165 ft.
Total Elevation Gain: 5756 ft.
Round-trip Mileage: 14.84 mi (according to my GPS)
IntroductionKit Carson and Challenger lived up to the namesake of the latter. We'd read quite a few trip reports and were aware of the distance, the elevation, and the intricacies of the Avenue. What we never fully understood is just how long a hike it is, first up to Willow Lake (with 40 lb. packs), and then up the 2000+ feet of Challenger's slopes.
WEATHER:No rain. But thick clouds were rolling through the skies above us the entire hike. On our way up Challenger we couldn't see but more than 100-200 feet ahead of us. This also aided in our underestimating the length of Challenger. While on top of both summits our visibility was < 100 feet. It wasn't until our descent from Challenger that the skies started to open enough for us to see some peaks. We had some concerns of being "whited out" or rained up, but thankfully neither ever became a problem. Only issue we had was having no visibility for photos on top of Kit Carson.
CROWDS:This seems to be a growing trend and perhaps worth mentioning. Ran into perhaps 12 people today, 8 of which were in a group which was camped along the trail to Willow Lake. Interesting stories though. About 5:30am as we were about to ascend Challenger we ran into a guy coming down. Of course we asked first if he had already summited. And his reply was "no, actually, I spent the night up on Challenger." This guy got caught in the dark up on Challenger (presumably hiking way too late in the day) and couldn't find his way down. He was trying to use a Blackberry's screen brightness to find his way around up there but the cliffs kept him from going far. God bless you friend for making it down alive, you are a fortunate soul. We also ran into another gentleman who had missed the turn to ascend up the backside of Kit and instead went almost the whole distance to Columbia. He had to ascend over a difficult rock rib to get into the easier gully ascending to Kit's summit.
TRAIL BETA:No snow to cross from Willow Lake up to Kit's summit. The Avenue is free and clear and a joy. The only snow to speak of is a snow-filled gully on the upper half of Challenger. The standard route however ascends just to the climber's right and so you never need enter it. The trail up Challenger is a bit difficult to find at times but if you follow the route descriptions and know about where you're supposed to end up on the ridge, it isn't a bad climb. Challenger's summit ridge is basically a scramble. The Avenue on Kit is a joy and an ease to follow. The final ascent up Kit was also without a basic route but still an easy ascent to pick your own route if you're know about where to end up at.
TIME:For anyone who is curious about the length of this hike, I would consider ourselves average to just below average speed hikers. It took us 3hrs 19 mins to summit Challenger from just below Willow Lake. It took 1hr 19mins to summit Kit Carson from Challenger. It took us 4hrs 17 mins to descend back to our camp from Kit's summit. In all it took us 9hrs 20 mins to climb Challenger and Kit from our Willow Lake camp. As for the hike up to Willow Lake it took about 3 1/2 hours to reach Willow Lake from the TH and about 2 1/2 to 3 hours to descend.
TRACK:I have three GPX track files from this hike, one for approach to Willow Lake, one for the ascent from Willow Lake to Kit Carson, and one for the descent from Kit Carson. I have put these into a KML for download: