..So, it went something like this…(Written by Carrie)..
9/4–We left Denver around 9 am, headed for the San Luis Valley and the west
side of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Our goal: to climb two 14K ft
mountains, Challenger and Kit Carson. Challenger Point was named in recent
years to honor the 1986 shuttle disaster and is considered by some an
“official” 14er and not by others as it is connected to Kit Carson by a
saddle and the two are relatively close together. [see photo #1: Challenger
approach in right foreground (actual summit not visible), Kit Carson in
center, taken from upper Willow Lake]*
After a few stops along the way, we started up the scenic Willow Creek trail
at about 3 o’clock–the aspen leaves just starting to turn, a fall briskness
in the air.
Our destination–a camp site at the west end of Willow Lake. This steep
switchback-heavy section was just under four miles and about 3000 ft in
elevation. We arrived as the drizzle and cold started to settle in, had a
quick dinner, and dove into the tent and our down bags for a long chilly
9/5–After a hot backpackers breakfast, we spent about an hour fighting with
our water purification device, only to give up and barrow a filter from
another hiker (bless him!). We left camp around 9, later than preferred,
but bound for the upper lake followed by the two peaks.
Willow Lake is a spectacular setting fed by a huge waterfall (see photo #2,
with permission from Alan Ellis, www.jackieandalan.com/kitchallenger.html).
The lake itself is almost crater-like–deep and surrounded by huge
mountains. From the lake, we had an arduous climb up another ~2000 feet of
nearly vertical scree (frustrating loose rock/little-to-no trail). Reaching
the final approach to Challenger’s summit, we were already in
decision-making mode, the weather coming in quickly, all around us. We
opted to press on to Challenger and then decide from there.
In a light snowy hail, we reached the summit (14,080 ft) around noon, Kit
Carson nearby, shrouded in mist.
Imbedded in a big flat rock at the top, a small plaque commemorates the
Shuttle’s crew (see photo #3)*. The Latin transition for Ad Astra Per
Aspera means “To the stars through adversity.” At that spot, Jeff asked me
to sit down and said:
“It is not coincidental that we’re climbing Challenger Peak first. As you
probably know by now, spending time with me is challenging (said with his
wonderful sense of humor). So, what I’d like to ask–are you up for a
lifetime of challenges? Will you marry me?”
Out of his pocket came a little box which he asked me to open. As I pulled
out the ring, he told me it was his mother’s (who passed away in 2005).
Before even looking at it, I said yes and burst into tears, at the sentiment
and thoughtfulness. Jeff did too, remembering his mother.
The lovely ring has a 12-stone setting, for the birthstones of her 11
children, plus her own. Knowing I’m not a diamond girl and with one stone
missing, Jeff explained that we can pick the gems and colors we like, have
the ring re-set and sized for me. It was a beautiful moment and a wonderful
surprise. Truly perfect.
There were two other guys on the summit, about ten feet from us. Having
forgotten a camera (duh!), we asked if they would take our photo using my
blackberry (attached). Previously unaware of our private moment, they were
excited to learn of our news and offered to take additional photos with
their cameras and email them to us. One was our water filter savior.
Deciding that we needed to head down and forego Kit Carson due to the
weather (a decision we did not regret) Jeff explained that had it just been
a “peak bagging” adventure, we’d have focused on Kit Carson. But,
Challenger held much more meaning given his plans for the day (he had called
my parents earlier in the week to ask for their blessing).
The descent was nearly as difficult as it was going up. After 6 hours of
hiking, we made it back to camp just as the sleet, rain, and thunder came in
at full force. We huddled in the tent for a few hours, snow collecting
outside, everything wet and muddy.
The weather let up just long enough for us to cook dinner and re-cap our
special day together.
9/6–Packed and on the trail by 8:30, we arrived back at the truck around 11
am. We stopped briefly in the funky little town of Crestone, and then had a
big lunch in Salida.
An engaged couple, we headed back to Denver for the next chapters to unfold.
…To be continued…
*(note: Photos “barrowed” from 14ers.com with thanks to the photographers)