Kit Carson Peak, South Prow
By: Gary Clark | Climbers: Mark Schraad, Gary & Lynn Clark |Trip Dates: July 7-8, 2001
Photo: Gary Clark
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How Now, Brown Prow?
I first heard of this route shortly after arriving in New Mexico 15 years ago. A respected local climber, now retired from the sport, spoke highly of it, causing a few neurons to rearrange in that area of my brain reserved for my climbing "To-do" list. The years went by, but we never got around to it, perhaps because he also spoke of a hellish approach up Spanish Creek. In 1999 we were forced into this approach because of another goal - trying to finish the "Colorado 14ers". Crestone Peak was still unchecked on that particular "To-do" list, and the logical approach was up Spanish Creek from the west. There was also a feeling of inevitability about it; sooner or later I knew I'd have to put this on my resume, if for no other reason than the fact that I could then regale younger climbers in the future; "Spanish Creek, eh? Yep, that's the kind of approach we used do all the time in the old days - yep, you gotta do that the old-fashioned way - you gotta EARN it!"
From our camp at the base of Crestone Peak in '99, the South Prow of Kit Carson was prominently visible across the valley. It looked impressive - a soaring sharp ridge that led directly to the summit of the peak, with few visible features other than one pointy gendarme and a few small notches. Still, it hadn't gotten very high on my list, so we only glanced at it casually.
In 2000 a close friend climbed it, and came back raving. There were two things about his report that impressed me; first, he is a very good rock climber, consistently leading several grades above my best efforts, and yet he loved the route. Second, he seemed to have great respect for the first technical pitch, which starts with gymnastic moves over an overhang. Above this he apparently got into a little difficulty, finding poor quality rock and long run-outs. He came back a bit chagrined by that misadventure, but still highly recommending the route. Upon hearing this, I assumed he had made a mistake in route finding, as he should not have missed a beat on any 5.8 pitch anywhere.
The final straw that figuratively broke the camel's back was receiving an e-mail from Todd Bauck nominating the route for the North American Classics collection. His e-mail and trip report claimed that this was a much better route than the Ellingwood Ledges on Crestone Needle, and went so far as to call it the "best alpine rock route in Colorado." Pretty lofty claims, I thought - this is worth checking out. We recruited Mark Schraad to make a threesome, and headed for the Spanish Creek trailhead una vez mas. We pulled off the dirt road at a wide spot within earshot of the Creek just at dusk, and settled in for the night after waging chemical warfare on the mosquitoes.
At first light we were off up the trail. We chose the North Ridge alternative I had explored in 1999 for the ascent (see the route description in the NAC collection for technical details on the approaches and the route). We eventually ground into camp around noon, glad to find a flat spot directly below the approach to the route and next to a gigantic cube-shaped boulder that offered some shade. I was a little troubled to immediately spot a marmot, but didn't give it too much thought as I set up our tent within 25 feet of his burrow. Little did I know. We repaired to the shade of the boulder for a nap, but Lynn soon grew suspicious and walked back over to the tent when she saw the marmot too close to it for comfort.
"You turkey, you left your rock shoes out, and the marmot has been chewing on them!!"
"Hmmm . . .", I thought, "I don't remember leaving shoes out . . . oh well, anything is possible."
Back to sleep. The marmot scuttled down his hole, we secured the shoes in the tent again, and all was well for a while. After a bit I tried napping in the tent to get away from the copious flies, but the afternoon sun was by now turning it into a sauna. Soon I was back to the shade, now making it's way around to the east side of the towering boulder. Within an hour, the debacle was repeated - Lynn was casting aspersions on my mental capabilities as she discovered the marmot again chewing up my Mythos. I was still too tired from the approach to care much, but this time I made sure the shoes were inside the tent before resuming my nap. The afternoon wore on, notable mostly for it's length and lack of entertainment possibilities. In retrospect, we should have dawdled along the trail as long as possible rather than flogging ourselves upward at warp speed, but we couldn't have known that this afternoon would not bring the typical thundershower.
Amazingly, the shoes scenario was repeated a third time, and this time I was positive it wasn't my fault. I went to do some detective work, and soon found that, not only had our little adversary left a good pair of rock shoes a tattered, slobbery mess, but he had been dragging them out of the tent through a hole he had chewed for that purpose. With about $700 in gear compromised, I lost all sympathy for him, and Mark and I spent the next hour dumping rocks in the entrance to his burrow. I knew this would only slow him down, but hopefully enough that we'd get through the rest of the day with enough gear left to continue our climbing careers without a second mortgage on the house. Marmots are good diggers: he was out and about within an hour, and we finally had to seek alternative defenses, which included constant vigilance at the tent and putting all our gear atop a small but steep-sided boulder when we left camp for the climb the next day. Although there were many other marmots in the area, this was the only one who caused us grief - we rather suspect he has been fed by previous visitors to the area, who, although unknown to us, soon came to receive as much verbal grief from us as the actual perpetrator.
With boredom pressing heavily, I finally decided to go for a hike. Somewhat irrationally, I decided it would be a good idea to carry the climbing gear up to the base of the route and get a closer look at it. We were having trouble reconciling the printed route descriptions with what we could see from camp, so a closer look might make me sleep easier. My legs were still tired from the enervating approach, so I took a very long time to reach the base. I looked for the "huge cairn" that was supposed to mark the start, but found nothing. Indeed, I could find no trace of humanity at all; no chalk, no trampled ground, not even a boot print. I scrambled upward on the initial slabs until I concluded I wouldn't be happy reversing my next moves, but still couldn't see much. Worse, the major pillar that I knew signaled the first serious pitch loomed above, and it looked impregnable. Imposingly steep, it presented no cracks visible to the unaided eye from my vantage point a few hundred feet below. We had no concerns over the difficulty of the route, but I've always been fond of protection, and would have been happy to spot a crack or two. I headed back to camp with no good news for the rest of the team. "Well, I didn't find a cairn, and the overhang pitch looks like a mind-blower for the leader. Not only that, but I couldn't find anything resembling the 'bulge' that the first two pitches are supposed to traverse around. We'll just have to put our noses against it tomorrow and see what develops."
I had been developing a stomachache on the hike up that became acute as I retraced my steps. By the time I reached camp I was doubled over in pain. I slumped on the ground and waited for the pain to recede. An hour later I was still there, having thoughts of emergency self-appendectomies with a Swiss Army knife. I could not eat dinner, and thoughts of possible failure were beginning to impose themselves on my subconscious. I could only hope that a good night's sleep would put me in a better physical and mental state. A good night's sleep was not to be had; my stomachache persisted, it was far too hot to get in our bags, and I woke at every tiny noise, suspecting it was the marmot trying to gain access to the tent again. Still, when the alarm rang at 5:00, I decided to give it a go. This is often the crux of the trip for me; sleepy, leg-sore and smelly from the day before, I want nothing more than to find an excuse to stay in bed. "Why did we want to come up here anyway? The route can't be that great! Why can't we take up golf like normal people who get to sleep in, have decent food and regular showers?"
I can't eat before a climb, so I stuffed the pathetic little plastic wrapped "food items" into my pack and started up the approach, a little wiser in the correct path to take from yesterday's reconnaissance. My stomach felt OK - not great, but I was on my feet. I was aware that our pace was at least twice that of my hike the day before; the night's rest, even as inadequate as it had been, was amazing in its restorative powers. Within about 30 minutes we were at the base. I grabbed the gear rack, which was abundant due to the fact that we hoped to simul-climb much of the upper route. The more gear you have, the farther you can go before needing to stop and replenish the rack. It turns out I went way too far with this; by the time the simul-climbing starts, the difficulty is so low that the need for protection almost vanishes. I carried most of the rack to the top without ever using more than a third of it (see route description for gear recommendations).
The first slabs presented no problems - where I had backed down the day before, I scrambled easily up today without bothering with protection. It might be 5.0, but no more. At about 100 feet I was at a definite notch. I brought the others with the time-honored alpine belay of just standing behind a big flake rather than setting a gear anchor, to save time. The next section was a broad monolithic ridge that looked pretty reasonable, but showed no opportunity for protection. Out of curiosity I went looking around the corner to the left. Sure enough, there was a good bypass here - a series of short ledges had me on a short steep wall that was just difficult enough to call for a belay and put in a single piece (5.3). Shortly I was at the official beginning of the route - everything so far was considered part of the "approach". As I brought the others up, I studied the overhang that dominates everyone's description of the route. It was shorter and less committing than the image I had in my mind, and the rating was comforting - how hard can it be at 5.8? The catch is, of course, that there is absolutely no protection for the crux moves. Still, the exposure is modest at this point, with a reasonably flat slab just below. By ignoring my peripheral vision, I could convince myself that this was just a big boulder sitting on flat ground, rather than a feature 12000' up a narrow mountain ridge.
I rehearsed the first moves a few times while we set a good anchor and discussed strategy. I could easily get off the ground on a pair of excellent opposing "bucket" handholds, but couldn't find a handhold that would allow me to get my feet above the overhanging section so I could be back in balance. The last thing I wanted was to carry my pack up this section, so I decided to leave it on the ground, and lower a cordalette to drag it up as soon as I had a piece in. Thus unencumbered, I committed to the move. I immediately wondered about the wisdom of this - with my feet above the overhang, I was still not quite in balance, and there was no pro in sight. Moving slowly to the left on small holds, I was aware of the consequences of a fall as I focused entirely on opportunities for a piece of protection - any piece; I had them all on my rack! Nothing. My mind focused on the quote from the route description; "above the 5.8 move, the rest of the pitch is 5.6". Surely I could complete a 5.6 pitch without pro if I kept my cool. The moves went slowly, but I had to admit they weren't hard once I committed. Finally at about 20 feet, I plugged in a good piece. Now what to do about the pack? Although I had protection, I was still on very steep rock, without the good foot ledge I had hoped for that would allow me to turn around and mess with the pack hauling routine. I decided to continue, hoping that a better spot would soon present itself. At 100', I realized the pack was now my partners' problem. At 150', I was still on steep rock with no prospect of an anchor, but it looked promising just ahead. I was starting to enjoy the climbing - although improbably steep for mere 5.6, the holds were plentiful and the moves routine - step up, grab some good handholds, steep on small but very positive footholds, repeat. This is what we came for. Now nearing the end of my 60m ropes, a small but excellent ledge appeared directly on the Prow, which had been getting ever narrower. I stuffed a cam and a chock under a detached but huge boulder, and wondered how my partners would solve the pack problem.
Surprisingly, the rope soon began moving upwards; somehow they had figured out how to get two climbers and three packs over a strenuous overhang. When Lynn finally came into view, I was surprised to see her carrying her pack while dragging mine on a long sling! She was not having a good time, rendered even less enjoyable by the fact that we both had ski poles extending out the tops of our packs. My ski pole constantly either hung up on the rock as she tried to move, or jabbed her in the butt, since the sling wasn't quite long enough. Although it clearly wasn't an ideal solution, she dispatched the pitch quickly. Mark was simul-climbing on the same pair of ropes just 15 feet below; the maximum I had been able to provide after extending my anchor with slings and a cordalette.
OK, the worst was over - the climb was not supposed to exceed 5.6 until the final pitch to the summit ridge. We had wasted a lot of time with the first pitch, but we figured we had all day if yesterday's weather persisted. However, as Mark racked to lead the next pitch, we noted clouds beginning to form. As the guidebook made very clear, the only reasonable way off this thing is up.
Pitch two was similar to the first, even with a short bouldery (but much easier) first move. Up a largely featureless slab, it presented only a couple spots for protection in the 100 feet that Mark ran out before grabbing an opportune ledge for a belay. We had hoped to climb as much of the remaining ridge as possible without belays, and this looked like a good place to begin. This was an excellent pitch, with some thought-provoking moves due to lack of protection. I arrived last on the rope, and quickly racked to begin the simul-climb. Up over an easy slabby tower, I arrived at the summit of the gendarme. This gendarme is the most prominent feature on the route, being clearly visible from highway 17 some 15 miles to the West. The drop into the deep notch behind it was easier than it appeared from above, especially as I essentially had an upper belay. I continued across the gap and started up the next section. The climbing was becoming more and more enjoyable as I relaxed and got into the rhythm. About 50' up the next section, I could see that protection was to be very scarce. I decided to look around the corner to the right, and discovered a line of good holds leading across a very exposed wall to an excellent crack system. Soon I had all the protection I could eat as I led up the well-featured steep crack on perfect holds. I looked back to see Lynn cresting the gendarme, and we took pictures of each other in classic situations - her on a needle-tip with exposure to infinity, and me on a vertical wall in profile. This was starting to be some serious fun.
The crack led straight up to the ridge, and this was to be the last time we would detour from it. From this point on the climbing was easy enough that we all sought out the very crest of the ridge rather than abundant alternatives that might have been slightly easier. One could have climbed almost any line on this upper section, and indeed in retrospect, I wished we had simply unroped to avoid rope-tending hassles.
Simul-climbing like this is limited mostly by aerobic capabilities, so the rock moves by very quickly underneath. I was a little surprised to reach the official top of the Prow after only a few (4-6?) more rope lengths. Here the ridge levels out, then drops 30 feet to a saddle. This saddle is where the regular route from the north crosses the Prow, en route to the south side of the peak and a narrow "sidewalk in the sky" across the south face. From the end of this "sidewalk," rough scrambling leads to the final ridge and the summit. The Prow route, however, has one more pitch that is not to be missed. We were frankly concerned about the weather, as the clouds had by now moved in to cover the tops of the surrounding peaks. While we munched on our miserable rations we could hear thunder in the far distance. Prudence probably dictated descending, but the final pitch loomed tantalizingly directly above. After gagging down a few bites of some kind of inedible energy bar, I first went down the trail to the left of the saddle to take a look at an alternate (5.6)finish to the summit. I could clearly see a route, but I could also see that the actual Prow route looked shorter than I had guessed, hurried back up the trail to encourage the rest of the team to continue directly up so we'd have no later regrets about wimping out via an easier variation.
I led straight up, then slightly right to a crack. Below, Mark and Lynn were wondering "When is he going to get to the 5.7?" The answer was, "Never." Although steeper than the 5.6 pitches we had done lower on the route, the climbing was even easier - 5.4 to 5.5 maximum. Protection opportunities were abundant, but I placed only 3 pieces because of the lack of difficulty and the need for speed. At about 120' the angle eased noticeably, and a nice belay ledge presented itself. I brought the team up and suggested unroping for the final summit ridge. In the end we decided to just continue dragging the ropes. About 200 ft later I walked a final knife-edge to the summit. The route had, as classic routes often do, taken us directly to the summit.
We descended the South Couloir, having determined from below that it did not look steep enough to pose a problem. Still, even with good snow conditions, we faced in and kicked steps for part of it because of the obvious potential for injury or death if someone should slip without an axe for self-arrest. I would bring a light axe in the future if planning a descent of this gully. Fortunately we found an exit to the west within a few hundred feet of entering the couloir, and had easy scrambling back to the slopes we had climbed in the morning to reach the base of the route.
By the time the hail and rain materialized several hours later, we were well below the downfall section of the trail, within an hour of the car. We arrived wet but very happy to be back to civilization. It may have its shortcomings; but mosquitoes, bad food, wet feet, and especially predator marmots are not among them.
On the long drive homeward we shared our impressions of the route. Our consensus conclusions were: