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Sunrise from Kit Carson Peak

Sunrise from Kit Carson Peak, Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, Colorado

Sunrise from Kit Carson Peak, Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, Colorado

The Sangre de Cristo range is unique in Colorado. The Colorado portion runs for about 120 miles north to south but is only ten to 12 miles wide through much of its length. The broad, flat Wet and San Luis Valleys flank the range to the east and west. The Sangres, as they are affectionately known, are home to eight Fourteeners that rise more than 6,000 feet above the surrounding plains. This abrupt change in elevation means that everything about the Sangres is steep: roads, trails, and, most particularly, the routes. Climbing some of the Sangres' Fourteeners, like Humboldt, Blanca, and Ellingwood, requires little more than strenuous talus-bashing. Others, like Crestone Needle, Crestone Peak, and Little Bear, are on everyone's list of the hardest Fourteeners in the state. I had already shot sunrise from Humboldt Peak twice. In June 2012 I set out to shoot sunrise from the summit of the remaining seven Sangres Fourteeners.

I decided to break the shoots into two week-long segments with a week of recovery in between. I launched the first segment with a three-day shoot on Kit Carson. The trip began with a four-hour hike to my basecamp at Willow Lake at 11,600 feet. I knew that there was no straightforward route beyond that. In fact, the easiest route goes over the summit of a 14,081-foot shoulder of Kit Carson called Challenger Point. It then descends to a notch on the west side of Kit Carson, traverses one third of the way around the mountain on a steep ledge called Kit Carson Avenue and finally leads up class 3 slabs on the southeast side of the peak to the summit. With all the extra elevation gain and loss, I knew I needed to allow plenty of time, and did so, or so I thought. The twin alarms Velcroed inside my fleece hat jarred me from my nap (you couldn't call it a night's sleep) at 11:30 p.m. I was on the trail 50 minutes later.

Although it had been a very dry winter and spring, extensive snow fields still covered the north face of Challenger Point. Repeatedly, I plunged knee-deep into rotten snow. The steep slabs in between the snowfields were wet with snowmelt, some of which had frozen into verglas during the night. By headlamp, it was hard to tell the difference between wet rock, which was slick but manageable, and treacherous pure ice. Finally I traversed into the snow-filled gully left of the standard line and discovered better-consolidated snow. I put on my crampons, got out my ice axe, and finally began to make efficient progress.

I reached the summit of Challenger Point at 4:15 a.m., about 15 minutes later than I planned but still an hour and 25 minutes before sunrise, then quickly descended to the notch at the beginning of Kit Carson Avenue. In my planning, I had assumed that the Avenue would be dry, since it had been an exceptionally lean winter and spring and the Avenue faces roughly south. If it was dry, I would still have enough time, barely, to reach the summit before sunrise. But it was not. Steep, hard snow covered the Avenue, and there was no way to traverse below it. A slip not checked immediately would have sent me hurtling over a cliff. I got out my crampons and ice axe again and realized I was in serious danger of not making the summit in time for sunrise for only the second time in my six-year Fourteener project.

There's no rushing on steep snow. I finished traversing the first band of snow, yanked off my crampons and hurried up to the notch between the Prow and the summit of Kit Carson. The Avenue continued beyond the notch, but the next part of the ledge faced due south, so I hoped it would be dry. I turned the corner and groaned. Another steep snowfield covered the Avenue. I lashed on the crampons again and methodically worked my way across the steep, hard snowfield. Finally I could begin scrambling up dry, easy slabs. I sprinted for the summit, still 450 feet above me. Already I could see pink sunrise light starting to caress the clouds. I summited at 5:37 a.m., four minutes before the almanac time of sunrise and frantically started setting up the camera without bothering to pull on any warm clothes. The sun rose into a gap between the horizon and a cloud bank and I snatched a few frames from imminent defeat. Then the light went dull and lifeless as the sun vanished behind the clouds. After an hour on the summit, I headed down. It took almost as long to descend as it did to climb the peak, and there was no time, food, or energy on this trip to try again. Fortunately, I discovered upon my return home that my very first shot had captured something of the feeling of sunrise on the summit of Kit Carson.

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