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Boulder, CO

A guide to the wilderness of the West.

Sleep on a Hill


Sleep on a Hill

Derek Bartz

Cowboy camp on top Kit Carson Peak

Choose a peak/hill, and sleep on the summit.  A simple challenge that one of my favorite adventurers, Alastair Humphreys, often encourages. I have practically lived by his MicroAdventure philosophy the past couple years, finding a balance between work & play; taking advantage of my 5-to-9 and not being confined by my 9-to-5 (even though my work day is 8-5, not sure where that saying came from!). 

Our chosen hill was Kit Carson Peak, somewhere I had been meaning to get to for some time now.  We would tag Challenger Pt along the way.  Located adjacent to the Crestones and within sight of the sand dunes, I knew the views from the top in the late afternoon light would be phenomenal.  Climb high, camp low is the old saying, but we prefer alpine views and the windy, exposed nature of these camps is almost always worth it.  This would also be our first time sleeping on top of a 14,000' peak, which I have always wanted to do.  

Autumn in Colorado has been miraculous this year.  Blue bird days, mild temps, and no early season storms have allowed some later than usual light weight excursions into the high country.  It was getting late in the season (September 26th), but the forecast was perfect, 10% chance of rain with lows in the 30's at 13,000'.  I figured it would be windy and cold at night, but we would bring extra layers and the tent just in case.  

Approaching the Crestones is always a treat, and the view from the west has to be one of the more inspiring mountain scenes in Colorado.  The peaks rise over 6,000' from the San Luis Valley floor with no real foothills blocking their prominence.  I had never been to the town of Crestone itself, but was quite impressed.  San Isabel National Forest surrounds the community, and the North & South Crestone Trailheads are just a couple miles from downtown.

The Crestones

We left the van around 11:30am, oh the joys of hiking in the Fall (no thunderstorms to worry about).  The hike up to Willow Lake was easy going, the views continuing to get better the higher the trail took us.  Michele hadn't been to the Sangres in almost 3 years, far too long, and she was immediately reminded why I consistently call it my favorite place in Colorado.  We ate lunch at Willow Lake, it was so hot I nearly took a swim.  Once above the lake the real work begins.  The north slope of Challenger Pt is deceivingly steep, a 2,000' climb in less than a mile and a quarter.  Soon enough though we were on the summit, with the evening light beginning to settle in over the San Luis Valley.  From here we accessed the situation.  It was almost 5:00pm and there was nothing but blue skies overhead, so we had no reason not to stick with the plan and head over to Kit Carson for the night.  

Willow Lake Trail

Willow Lake

The north slope of Challenger follows the talus on the right and continues out of view.  Kit Carson Peak's North Ridge looks like an awesome route we will have to come back too.

Gaining the ridge of Challenger Pt after the steep slog up the north slope 

Beautiful ridge walking leading up to Challenger Pt

From Challenger Pt the terrain over to Kit Carson looks a bit intimidating.  But once at the Challenger-Kit Carson saddle, you see there is actually a sidewalk sized ledge (Kit Carson Avenue) leading the way over to the southern aspect of the mountain and the 3rd class gully leading to the top.  Thirty minutes later we were standing on the summit.  The conditions were some of the best I have ever had above 14,000'; shorts and no shirt weather and hardly a hint of wind.  We started looking around for a spot to pitch the tent, but quickly realized that wasn't going to happen.  From a far the summit of Kit Carson looks fairly broad and level. Turns out it is actually more of a ridge, with no flat spots to speak of.  No big deal, we were hoping to cowboy camp anyways and this made the decision real easy.  We laid down the sleeping pads head to head right next to the summit cairn.  I tested out my position, my feet hung below me a bit and a couple boulders jabbed at my hips and back but all in all not too shabby.  Michele had similar sleeping arrangements, but packed in her plush sleeping pad which hid the rocks a bit better.  The views over to the Crestones, Great Sand Dunes, Blanca, and beyond were just as I had imagined; what a place to sleep under the stars.  

Kit Carson Avenue

It was reaaaally nice out.

A closer look at camp.  We packed in pulled BBQ pork sandwiches for dinner, and even brought Honnold's Alone on the Wall for some after dark entertainment.

Sleep on a it!

As night fell, the full moon continued to illuminate the mountains.  We stayed up a bit enjoying the scene, eventually going to bed around 9:00pm (hiker midnight).  The conditions held most of the night,  with only a handful of breezy gusts, and the temperatures never dropping below freezing.  Waking up to Kit Carson's shadow cast across the San Luis Valley was a treat.  We packed up our things and headed down, just another morning jaunt down from 14,000'.  Sleep on a hill...done.

Moon rising & sun setting.  Left to Right: Humboldt Peak, Marble Mtn, Crestone Needle, Crestone Peak.  We missed the Lunar Eclipse by one night, had I know we may have just stayed another night.  

Sunrise on Challnger Pt, Mt Adams, and the northern Sangres