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The race starts at the Willow Creek trailhead, 2.2. mi. east of Crestone on road 949 (rough dirt) at 8880 ft. altitude. Proceed east up Willow Creek Trail to Willow Lake (11,564 ft) and around the left side above the cliffs. Fill your water bottles here, as there won't be any more for awhile. Proceed south up the ridge of Challenger Point on tundra at 50% grade and cross the ridge, then turn left and traverse east along a mostly 1 ft. wide ledge (3 inches and broken in some spots) along the 50-60 deg. conglomerate slopes (class 2+) and to the summit of Challenger Point, 14,081 ft, at mile 4.6.
Kit Carson Mountain seen from the north (Willow Lake)
Kit Carson is 1/4 mile east, but to get there you have to descend east to the 13,780 ft. saddle and circle the mountain on the south side on Kit Carson Avenue, a spectacular 6 ft. wide ledge, to the far side, then up a 45 deg. gully (class 3) to the summit at 14,165 ft. (mile 5.8).
Descend the way you came up and then continue east down to the 13,620 ft. saddle and up very steep slabs (class 3) to Columbia Point (a.k.a. Kat Carson) at 13,980 ft. (mile 6.1). There is no easy way around this summit, with cliffs on all sides. Once you descend this, the climbing becomes easier for awhile. Pass below point 13799 on the right (or climb it if you want) and continue east to the Bear's Playground, a broad saddle at 13,140 ft. This is your first escape point. If you have had enough, then descend WSW and pick up the Spanish Creek trail at treeline and return to Crestone. Be sure to radio any other runners in the area to let them know you quit.
If you continue, then run east up the gentle slope along the ridge, over a hump, through another saddle at 12,860 ft, and up to Humboldt (class 2, 14,064 ft, mile 8.7). Return the same way to the Bear's Playground at mile 10.4. You have one more chance to quit before climbing the Crestones. Look carefully at the route you will take.
Crestone Peak seen from the northwest (Kit Carson)
If you decide to continue, proceed SW along the ridge and around to the right side of Crestone Peak and up the north couloir up to the Red Notch (class 3). This is often filled with snow, ice, and rubble. Depending on conditions, crampons, an ice axe, and a helmet may be recommended. From the notch at the top of the couloir, climb to the west summit at 14,294 ft (mile 11.0). There is an alternate route up the ridge on the left side of the couloir that avoids the ice and rubble, but it leaves you with a difficult class 4 descent from the isolated northeast summit, and a class 4 traverse across exposed slabs to get to the notch and west summit. Take your choice.
Peak to Needle Traverse seen from the south (Cottonwood Lake).
From Crestone Peak you have two choices to get to the Needle (14,197 ft., mile 11.5). You can either take the traverse, about 0.5 miles southeast, or descend the south slope to the easier terrain above Cottonwood Lake and climb the Needle from the opposite (southeast) ridge, about 1.5 miles. The more direct route, shown above, requires a class 4 climb just before the summit of the Needle. Stay on the right side until you are below the 200 ft. high "Black Gendarme", the first and largest of 4 pillars going left to right before the summit in the photo below. Here the climbing gets hard.
Approaching Crestone Needle from the traverse.
Climb the chimney to the right of the Black Gendarme, where easy progress is blocked by a boulder wedged in the middle (class 4). Climb up the second pillar and straddle a short but exposed knife ridge that curves around to the right until you reach a steep gully. Climb a 7 foot wall (V0), then pass below the two upper gendarmes on class 3 terrain up to the ridge. The crux is in front of you. The last 50 vertical feet is a solid conglomerate wall at a 73 degree angle with big knobby handholds and footholds. It is officially rated class 4 but I think it feels more like 5.5-5.6. A slip here means a 1000 foot fall. You will probably find rappel slings at the top. In this photo from a Camp 4 article, "rap" indicates the bottom of the crux.
Left: Mike Bur climbs the crux to Crestone Needle. Right: Descent to Cottonwood Lake.
If you don't like this route, then the alternative is an easier, class 3 downclimb and a class 3 climb back to the Needle on the southeast ridge, using the same route by which you will descend. Most of the climbing is on 45 degree slopes with good handholds and footholds. You also have one more opportunity to quit at the lake before climbing the Needle.
From Crestone Needle, descend the south couloir following the cairns (class 3) onto the southeast ridge and follow it until you are able to descend to Cottonwood Lake (12,310 ft) and fill your water bottles. Record your half marathon time at the lake's edge.
If you are only running the half marathon, then bushwack southwest following the "escape route" down the right side of the drainage to the Cottonwood Creek trail (5 miles to the trailhead). If you didn't arrange for a car shuttle, then walk or run 5.4 miles north on flat road to Crestone, then 2.2 miles east back to your car at the Willow Creek trailhead.
If you are running the marathon, then return the way you came tagging each of the 5 14,000 ft summits again. Record your time at the Willow Creek trailhead. If you are running the fun run, then repeat 3 more times.
Kat Carson trip report by Tim Briese. Good photos of the run course.
Alan Ralston's route photos, including a solo up Kit Carson's Prow, 5.8 (Ofoto registration required)
Trip report by Bill Wright - Ellingwood ledges, traverse Needle to Peak, descend N Buttress, Kit Carson Prow, Challenger in 15 hours
Photos by Clyde Lovett - Crestone Peak, Kit Carson