| Oh, for the love of the Colorado mountain tops!
Oh, for the love of the Colorado Mountain tops!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So...get on your way!”
I’ve lived here my entire life but I haven’t truly lived until I started mountaineering last year and so far, Chicago Basin; an amazing remote landscape in Colorado is the most beautiful place I’ve ever set my eyes upon. Located in the heart of the San Juan’s in Southwest Colorado are the majestic Needle mountains, which seem impossible to access without the famous sightseeing Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The train is a sweet symbiosis involving a 6 mile hike along the Animas River and a golden ticket into Chicago Basin to access a feast of 14ers for the peak bagger in you. However after pouring over maps and endless trip reports, the pressure of relying on a train seemed implausible to me. It took little convincing to entice my new hiking buddy Joe on a journey of a lifetime. The planning was a bit time consuming but our conversation simple. “Hey Joe, wanna hike into Chicago Basin via Purgatory and bypass the train?” His response, “I’m in”. And so we go….
Friday July 12th at 0300 we drove from Aurora, CO to the Purgatory trail head located on Highway 550 on the East side across from Durango Mountain Resort. By 1000 we donned our trekking poles and hoofed it down Cascade Creek 4.2 miles to the Animas Bridge. What a beautiful trail with knee high vegetation and wildflowers galore. Even though Joe had no idea that this would be my first ever overnight backpacking adventure, I felt prepared with my 35 pound pack containing many essentials including a one man bivy, rain gear, puffy, bug spray, Jet Boil, turkey jerky and marshmallow sandwich. Hey, what more does a girl need? We soon found the Animas Bridge, snapped some pictures and waited a while to see if a train was a comin’ but clouds were thickening and the sky blackening so we scurried swiftly 6 miles up the Animas River to the Chicago Basin Trail Head. Rain drops started to fall but we managed not to get soaked. We filtered some water and made our final ascent to camp. Shortly after 4pm we found a sweet camping spot nestled in the trees about 1 mile from the Twin Forks trail head and hastily set up our sleeping arrangement; Joe in his two man North Face tent and I in my one man bivy. He taught me a few rules for camping in the woods. Hang everything in the trees 100 yards from camp; backpack, trekking poles and food for the hungry curious bears and brazen goats will eat pretty much everything you own. No food in the tent . Pee 50 yards away from camp on a smooth flat rock so it doesn't soak into the ground. Also, he wasn’t too impressed with my bivy and offered his tent if I were to get soaked.
After a light dinner the forbidding clouds built quickly. Joe went to sleep and I continued with some final housekeeping chores when heavy raindrops started to fall. I shoved everything into my backpack and ran for my bivy anticipating that in Colorado weather fashion the rain would come and go. Instead, the clouds opened up and with all its monsoonal might poured all night long. By 1800 I could feel wetness at my heels and right shoulder where I left a tiny opening in the bivy so I could breathe. I can actually sit up in the bivy so I inspected to see why there was so much water in my “waterproof” bivy. When I shoved everything into my backpack I discovered I had a leaking water bottle, dang it. By the time I noticed everything and considered my options I decided to curl up into the only dry top part of the bivy and sleep with a knife in my right hand and an air horn in the left since I was doing everything I was warned not to. I figured all the bears and goats had somewhere else dry to sleep vs. trampling my head to get my marshmallow sandwich, right? I’m not sure I slept and by 0230 it was time to get ready to climb. At least I found a smooth flat rock to pee on, one point for Amy. I managed to keep myself and all my day use equipment dry but all my overnight gear was drenched including bivy, sleeping bag and backpack. My rationale was; I’m already wet so why ruin Joe’s night of sleep and also potentially get all his stuff wet too. Suffer now, climb later. We hung everything hoping it would dry by the time we got back from climbing. No reason to pout, “Now let’s go climb,” I shouted! A whisper actually because it’s 3 o’clock in the morning, shhhh.
And so with headlamps and thankfully dry, light day packs we’re on our way up to the Twin Forks trail to access the Needle Junction. It was pitch black; a sense of urgency is present with the looming weather. The air felt heavy and moist. You must step with great care and tact while hiking by headlamp. My trusty GPS kept us on track and soon we find the Needle Junction. We decide to tackle the Eolus’ first, perhaps see the sunrise from the top. We see two headlamps at least 30 minutes ahead of us with what appears to be the same plan. Daybreak slowly approaches and the first bit of natural light touches the East face of Sunlight Peak as we ascend the shallow ramp to the Eolus saddle. I can see the color of the rock now pretty in pink. Last night’s rain had saturated everything. From the knee down we are soaked. Slippery shoes are no help on the angled slabs. By 0600 we are at the Eolus-North Eolus ridge at 13,700’. Voluminous puffy clouds are fire red from the rising sun. Once on the saddle we aim for Mt. Eolus first but made a mistake and traversed to the right and found ourselves on unstable rock. We clamber up and over to the left to get back on track to find the fun class 3 scramble to the top. Just as we approach the top, the two climbers ahead are descending; they tell us they made the same mistake and that they already tackled North Eolus.
The eerie summit photos appear as if we’re at the edge of the world. We waste little time and yearn for the sun to show its face, oh how I long to spread my wings and bask in it. Onward. Bone chilling cold now, we descend back to the Cat Walk. Fifteen minutes down and fifteen minutes up atop a measly 200' to North Eolus now , we have completed two of our four peaks for the day. Have we bit off more than we can chew? The North view from here is breathtaking and I daydream about an up close visit with Graystone, Vestal and the Grenadiers in the distance. Descending back to the Neddle Junction we can see all that was missed in the morning blackness.
Despite the atmospheric instability, the birds chirp, vile goats stare and day hikers lounge at the awe inspiring Twin Lakes. The fog rolls in as quickly as it vaporizes then rolls in again limiting visiblitly of our next challenge. Sunlights classic South face route is a Class IV blast climb on clean, highly aesthetic large boulders that faintly remind me of Pikes Peaks devils’ playground. After a long descent all the way back down from the Eolus' we look at the map then begin our long haul up the headwall toward the boilerplate rock. I feel a sense of calm and clarity and with open eyes and deep breathing I envision the route before us. The sun has yet to warm everything so our shoes are still wet. We find the notch in the ridge and are now on the Sunlight Spire ridge. The remaining route to the top is a rock climbers paradise. Grippy slightly porous rock with stable hand holds only my wet shoes are essentially useless and so I must question every move. Route finding was effortless and soon we found the hole atop the small chimney. A quick left and upward turn led to the summit. The two early bird Eolus summiteers were also there but again took a wrong turn, completely missed the hole and instead ascended straight up from the saddle. Wildman Joe was eager to conquer the summit block and with his cat like reflexes successfully stood atop the highest boulder. Good job Joe! His slight hesitation told me I may not be so lucky and with wet slippery shoes and others watching I chickened out. Yes, I am disappointed. Guess I'll have to go back...We enjoy our summit traditions and decide to descend together for Windoms West ridge for about as much fun as a mountaineer can have in a single day and to of course score the highest of bragging rights.
We see a large group high and left on the ridge just like the trail description reads however, they had been there a while and appeared as though they were struggling so we decide to angle straight South from the Sunlight saddle, which looks like you'll cliff out but as you approach the edge the downward slope shallows allowing safe passage down the ledge for another straight shot toward Windoms West ridge. This proves successful and within thirty minutes we four are beginning our fourth and final ascent of the day.
Windom looks like a measly choss pile but it is deceptively challenging. If Sunlight were Cinderella, Windom would be her glass slipper; dainty and delicate. Who knew I was powerful enough to move mountains but I am sending large loose rocks downward as we ascend the final 800' on this crumbly rock. A couple false summits and 35 minutes later we reach our fourth destination. We spend some deserved time atop Windom. Again we enjoy our summit traditions, snap pictures and relish in our accomplishments. The clouds tease while allowing the occasional view of Sunlight and the Eolus'. We are dumbfounded. Did we really just do all this? 11 o'clock now, finally the sun peaks it's nose through the low clouds and remains. The loose and slippery 800' descent down the saddle goes without a hitch and soon we four are all safely back at the Twin Lakes. We spend some time here soaking in the sun and landscape. My eyes beseech me for I want to linger but the matter of my useless gear at camp is calling my attention.
Exhausted, we reach camp by 1330 and as predicted, my gear is still wet. We both knew it would be a looooooong 15 mile hike back out. Joe prepares some Stove Top stuffing and we devour it like pilgrims on Thanksgiving day. Casually we pack our gear, filter some water and saunter down. Spirits are high for what we've accomplished today but energy low for what is ahead. Who's crazy idea was this anyhow? We take just two breaks on the way. One at the Chicago Basin bridge and the final at the Animas bridge. Night falls and the final hour is brutal. Unbelievably, by 2200 we complete this journey of a lifetime.
Two days, 42 miles, four fourteeners and 13,700 feet of vertical.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):