| Chicago Basin via Purgatory
Chicago Basin via Purgatory
Gerry Roach characterizes the mountains surrounding the Chicago Basin as remote, rugged and wild. They seem even more remote and more wild coming from New York. Some time in the mountains was sorely needed and I felt this would hit the spot.
While this trip was complicated to organize, it was well worth it in the end.
My original plan was to meet up with good buddies Jason (jasayrevt) and Zack (zxbraves) and hike in on Saturday morning and do the four peaks together. After a delayed flight from NY and hours of fire-related detours/traffic delays while driving down, I finally arrived in Durango late on Friday night which unfortunately pushed my planned hike in to Sunday after they had finished. Guys, We'll climb something altogether again soon!!
I had been waffling between taking the train to cut the distance of the approach or just hike in from the Purgatory trailhead. I finally opted for the hike due to its inherent flexibility vs. holding to the schedule of the train. After all, when I come out to this wonderful state, I want to see more wilderness and hike more, not less. I hadn’t been in the hills in a long time and it’s been a stressful early summer in the city, so I was really in the mood for a long hiking trip to burn out my legs and rack up some mileage. This route as it would turn out, was perfect.
Consequently, while there was a lot of smoke in Durango when I arrived from the local fires, there was none the next day and the days I was in the Basin, so I lucked out with clear skies.
Nice quiet aspen grove to walk through to start out the morning
The route from Purgatory is actually very nice, but adds roughly 15 miles onto your trip (using Roach's guide). This approach earns its name on the way out; You lose 1,500+ ft on the approach that needs to be made on the return. In the summer heat after climbing all peaks with only a few gel packs left for fuel, coming back out was particularly tiring.
Unless I wanted to finish off at midnight on my last day, I figured that taking the Purgatory option would preclude me from doing what I thought might be a speed trip, bagging the peaks and then hiking out in only two days. After the hike in, however, I realized what a nice alternative this was and I wanted to relax on the way out and enjoy the walking. The approach passes through nice aspen groves, then travels along the Animas River with stunning views along the way. I stopped and while looking into some quiet pools, saw many trout in the water: fellow fisherman, hint hint...
The trail then goes up through an aromatic pine forest where you'll intersect with the traditional Needleton approach where the train stops. Given the pleasant hike in and the effort it took to get here from NY, I planned on spending my last day hiking out in daylight enjoying the scenery, rather than hoofing it in the dark (though it was very tempting to do it) to speed hike back to my car. I figured hiking out in daylight would reduce the chances of being attacked by any hungry mountain lions, ha!
My plan progressed generally as scheduled as follows:
Day 1 - Approach hike from Purgatory, into my Campsite at ~11,300ft. Camp
Day 2 - Climb Sunlight, Windom, back to Camp
Day 3 - Climb Eolus, North Eolus, back to camp (not including weather delay)
Day 4 - Pack out, and hike back to Purgatory TH
Total mileage was ~42 miles with approx. +13,700ft vertical gain altogether.
Approaching the lower basin was very dramatic and you begin to see the high peaks for the first time somewhere around 10,500ft or so. Windom is just left of center of the pic below.
The hike up to camp was LONG, but otherwise uneventful. I saw three people from Purgatory to the Needleton turn off, then saw a group that had gotten off the train, then basically nobody until 11,000ft where I set up camp. The campsite was great, not too far from the trail but far enough to be away from any foot traffic, with nice views Northeast and Southwest. As I'd learn over the next three nights, a family of mountain goats would call this place their home away from home also.
The view from camp:
Jason and Zack were camped nearby ready to pack out after a long day, so we hung out and chatted a bit before I was ready to collapse into my tent. Worn out from the hike in and wanting to rest for the next day’s planned early start, I quickly setup my tent, ate a bagel and turned in. After that long approach hike in a day after getting here from sea level, my lungs were feeling it.
Sunlight, July 1st, 2013
After a restless night's sleep and not feeling very acclimatized, I awoke at 3:30AM and was on the trail by 4:15AM heading up to the Basin. Skies were clear and I could see every star in the Milky Way. Just awesome. Seemed like I was the only person on the mountain.
No sooner had I started on my first hike in Colorado in 2013, when the eyes of the night were upon me as my headlamp picked up the eye shine of something staring back at me. Luckily it was not the feline predator I feared, nor the last remaining San Juan Grizzly looking for breakfast, but a lone mountain goat which was blocking the trail around 12,500ft. I could take him I thought, as my adrenaline levels dropped…I moved on.
As false dawn started over the horizon and I stopped to take a few photos, I spotted a few other climbers heading up. It was nice to have some company.
Twin Lakes appears soon. I found it hard to rush up these peaks as the sun rose and I looked around at the scenery all around.
This photo I took later in the morning, but this is the entrance into the stunning upper Basin
Moving around the first lake I climbed up the basin towards the gulley that leads to Sunlight Peak. The below shot shows some of the initial route (as viewed from Windom later).
There seemed to be a few ways up, but knowing I was targeting the saddle between Sunlight and the Spire, it wasn't too hard to navigate towards this cleft in the mountain. The gulley was steep and loose in spots, but otherwise manageable.
After the crossover to climbers left under the saddle, some routefinding was needed to ascertain the best way up - there seemed to be two ways; one up the direct rock to the immediate right, or another traversing below the cliffs initially lower down, then climbing up from there. I opted for this route which seemed cleaner. After some climbing, I got cliffed out on a wrong turn, but was able to back up easily and then the first "hole" was seen indicating I was on track; moving past this I saw the second hole that needed to be climbed through. This is where the terrain gets steeper and more exposed, before the summit blocks.
Nearing the top, while there were a few folks at the base of the last pitch, not everyone was going to the true summit up the infamous Sunlight summit block. I contemplated for a few minutes as I looked at the exposure. There was a climber named Shawn there and after seeing him get up there, I thought I could do it. So, with a few moments pause to survey the rock, options to get up and peering at the precipitous drop-offs on the sides, I climbed up and soon was on top! Exposure here was pretty hairy looking down the other sides. Kids don’t try this at home.
Not wanting to tempt fate, I enjoyed the tip of the summit for a minute than came back down, which was easier said than done. I found facing out was easier than down climbing facing in and just sort of jumped off. I moved down and after snapping some photos, a few of us on the top then decided to go for Windom.
Windom, July 1st, 2013
I underestimated Windom Peak. After hearing descriptions of "an easy walk off" after Sunlight, I expected some moderate Class 2/2+ walking and quick scrambling up and down the mountain. This was not the case and it required more effort than I thought.
Picking a line upon coming down from Sunlight, I aimed for a descending traverse from Sunlight’s southeast face across the rock filled gulley to the northwest ridge of Windom. There were still two small snowfields that needed to be crossed in getting over to Windom's Ridge. The snow was fairly solid and not very steep (at least at the crossing point) and thus didn't need traction
or an axe. I estimated a drop of a bit less than a thousand feet, but not all the way back to the ridge route turn off by the large cairns where the Windom/Sunlight trails diverge.
The route up from the ridge/saddle consisted of large blocky talus and boulders, which increased in size, steepness and difficulty as you climb higher.
While there were no exposed spots here where you would fall a thousand feet, there are definitely places where falls would ruin your climb and your day, so travel here with care. As in many scrambling peaks, there is more than one way up that will work. Closer towards the summit, the topmost boulders and rocks become more "Sunlight-like" and top out with summit blocks which require some more exposed moves than any leading up to them.
Descending off Windom was methodical but slower than I anticipated but was filled with great views of Chicago Basin the entire time. You can also see most of the route up Sunlight from Windom very clearly.
Once back at the Saddle between Windom and (I think Jupiter Mountain), the views are spectacular and among the nicest in the Rockies. The clouds now moving in, the lingering blue skies and the light shimmering off the red rocks of the high peaks surrounding the Basin was fantastic. Mountain goats and marmots cavorted about in the alpine meadows, while ravens soared above in an utterly idyllic scene in the American Rockies. I had to sit and have a belated summit Snickers break and take it all in. Sitting here, taking the scene in, goats wondering up to me, pika and marmot scurrying about....this is what it's all about.
Parent and baby mountain goat in an awesome setting high above the Chicago Basin. Wow, what a place.
Upon coming down from Windom, clouds started moving in. Coupled with my tired legs from the climbs today and the 15 mile hike in the day before, I figured that trying for the Eolus pair would not have been the wisest decision under the conditions, so they would have to wait until the next day.
No worries. I filtered some water at the waterfall on the way down and returned to camp, entertained by the goat family that was running around my camp. I filtered some water by the stream, cooked up some mashed potatoes and enjoyed dinner by a setting sun in the company of a pair of deer and a chubby marmot also camped out by my tent.
Mount Eolus and North Eolus
July 2nd, 2013
Waking early again at 3:45AM, I was on the trail by 4:30AM heading up into the darkness.
Sunrise appeared with stunning colors across the sky, though I noticed the heavier cloud cover this morning than the day before. I moved up into the Basin, made the turnoff to Eolus and headed across the grassy slopes up to the base of the peak. The headwall reflected wonderfully in Twin lakes in the morning light.
Mount Eolus illuminated in alpenglow
The area leading up to Eolus is one of the most scenic areas I've ever seen. Fields of wildflowers were in bloom against a green alpine meadow background, towering 13,000ft and 14,000ft peaks on all sides, a lingering snow chute here and there and the early morning light filtering through the clouds made for a surreal scene. I had to stop and get photos and figured it was a good spot to have a snack. The air was crisp and cool. I was alone as far as my eyes could see and I wasn't sure if anyone else was even climbing today.
Clouds continued to build throughout the morning after sunrise. I slowly made my way up the nice trail to the base of Eolus, made the turnoff for “The Ramp” and moved up the shelf-like sections until the top broken trail appeared. I meandered around to the base of the Class 3ish chute that brings you to the Eolus-North Eolus Saddle when the weather finally moved in. I put my shell and warmer hat on and waited before committing to go up any further and hung around here to see what the weather would do. It was around 7:30AM.
After 30 minutes, the skies grew darker, wind picked up and then hail and mixed snow/sleet started coming down. A marmot entertained me while I was waiting; seemed as though I was entertaining him also.
I figured it was not happening today, so I descended down to the base of the ramp at the top of the hill, put some warmer clothes on and sat down, hoping the weather would clear. After coming this far, I didn't want to abandon hope yet and go down until I was confident that conditions would not improve.
Conditions stayed the same for about an hour. I was starting to get very cold just sitting there and put on another insulating layer. I began jogging in place to keep warm. This was when it really hit me I was at 13,000+ft and my heart rate was redlining. I stopped jogging. About 9:15AM, the clouds started to lighten up and soon I saw a hint of blue skies interspersed with lower darker grey clouds. I could see it was precipitating in the distance in some spots. I geared up and climbed back up the ramp to the base of the pitch up to the Eolus-North Eolus saddle where the terrain becomes more interesting.
Putting my helmet back on I moved up slowly, watching the skies with each step and was soon at the saddle. I decided to go for North Eolus first and let the weather settle. I figured I'd at least get one peak if the weather turned thus making an ascent of Eolus not practical, which was a more committing climb and likely very sketchy in a storm.
As the skies cleared, the colors across the valley were magnificent
The climb up North Eolus was quite nice on solid grippy rock; much more pleasant than Sunlight or Windom. I was on the top in no time and my confidence was renewed that I might still be able to get to the top of Eolus!
At this point, I'd yet to see any other people this morning.
Coming down North Eolus, I met at the saddle, three other climbers who were coming up (Paul, Brian and Star). I also was greeted by a marmot at the notch between Mount Eolus and North Eolus who was looking for juicy trekking pole handles for lunch.
Given our coincident timing, we opted to go on to Eolus together. The skies were still somewhat unsettled with low lying darker clouds moving past. Paul and I continued on and agreed to make a quick ascent of Eolus since we both felt the weather would improve.
The intimidating Northeast face of Eolus as viewed from lower down – I took this on the way down; note person in red at start of route towards lower right of photo.
The entire upper face from the Ramp – note person in red higher on the route to the left
True to its name of the Ruler of the Winds in Greek mythology, the wind started to pick up quickly as we approached the Catwalk and the upper route on Aeolus.
With a few snaps of my camera, and a drink we were off. The infamous Catwalk appeared.
The Catwalk was not that bad and I felt was easier than the terrain which followed leading to the summit, most of which was loose and exposed on outward sloping rock and thin ledges. There are several no-fall sections along the way to the summit. Not the place I wanted to be if weather came in and it got wet or icy.
The “route” to use the term loosely beyond the Catwalk consisted of precarious footing the whole way up on moderately exposed rock, slabs and ledges. Carefully we moved up as quickly as we safely could, being aware of the skies, which seemed to be improving.
Paul was timing it. Moving decisively and methodically, we moved up the Northeast face of Eolus and reached the summit from the Saddle in 17 minutes. There were some cairns placed here and there, but again as in most tricky routes, often more than one way to go up with some options more exposed than others. Without much fanfare and after taking a few summit photos, we started our way back down without taking our packs off.
View from the Summit of Eolus
North Eolus as viewed from descending Eolus; note climbers on the route.
Getting back down off Eolus was a bit tricky as down climbing often is, but taking it slow and steady, we made it down and soon were back down off the more troublesome terrain on the easy green slopes of the approach to the Eolus pair.
Due to the additional wait time with the bad weather which cost a good 2-3 hours, I figured I’d just spend another night in the tent. I opted to hang out in the Chicago Basin for the rest of the afternoon, taking some photos and relaxing in the high altitude postcard like views and befriending some marmots and goats.
A family of mountain goats descending Eolus also
Stunning view of the Basin from up high showing Sunlight Peak, Sunlight Spire and Windom; Camp and the exit is down to the right.
Mount Eolus from lower down in the basin
All in all, this turned out to be a great trip.
For those contemplating this trip, go for it! Just do some planning in advance with enough provisions for camping and spending an extra night to account for variable weather. I’d also recommend considering the Purgatory option, despite the added mileage.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):