| Chicago Basin 14ers in a day
August 30th-September 1st, 2013
Start Time on Summit Day : 4:15 am
Sequence of Peaks: Eolus>N. Eolus>Sunlight>Windom
Back at Camp : 2:15 pm
488,000 acres of Wilderness
The 14ers that remained on our "list" at the beginning of the year mainly consisted of peaks with poor reputations. Little Bear sounded horrid with the rock fall, the large moving boulders on Snowmass freaked me out, Culebra because of the pre-scheduling thing, and 2800 feet of suck on Maroon were all unappealing. The Chicago Basin peaks did not fit into this category as it has simply eluded us because of the logistical planning it required. A minimum of three days off if doing it by train and the longer drive down to Durango delayed this trip 4 years too long. Similar to the Wilsons, we were really excited about climbing these peaks. We elected to go in from Durango because we wanted to arrive at the basin earlier and to have the option to take the last train out if we needed that morning to climb. We left Durango on the 8:45 am train bound for Needleton.
"Where we're going, we don't need roads"
The train ride up to Needlton was quite enjoyable and really felt like a vacation just relaxing on the train with other climbers and tourists. Our conductor rivaled Tom Hanks in the Polar Express at his hole punching speed. It was pure bliss relaxing on the train to the views of the Animas River while finishing my morning coffee.
Entering the Weminuche
We arrived at Needleton at 11:30 am and after putting a few Dale’s Pale Ale in the river we began the hike to Chicago Basin. The trail follows Needle Creek the whole way and shows instantly why the Weimiche wildnerness is one of the more prestine areas in the state.
New York Creek
We arrived at the basin just after 2 pm and found a great campsite at about 11,000 feet secluded by spruce trees. I had read that rain and goats are the main issue with camping in the basin, so picking a heavily forested site that was lower in the basin was the goal.
Heavily forrested campsite helped keep us dry
We lounged and read through the afternoon in our new Helinox camp chairs. Even though it was a holiday weekend, the basin did not seem crowded. It is large, and there were only 1 or 2 other groups within eyesight of our camp. I walked up the though the trees and caught my first glimpse of the peaks of Chicago Basin.
View of the basin at 11,000 ft
Our plan had been to climb all 4 on Saturday if the weather cooperated, but we had Sunday and Monday as potential weather days. Alarms set for 4 am, we were in bed by 8:30 pm. After being woken up at 10 pm by late arriving backpackers who were yelling back and forth about potential campsites, flashing their hand lamps across our tent, then proceeded to hammer tent spikes 12 feet into the ground, we finally fell back asleep an hour later.
We set off the following morning and arrived at Twin Lakes at 6:30 am, the sun had not yet risen and the quick arrival of Fall was apparent waiting for day break. We turned left before the lake and caught the trail that quickly ascended to the saddle between Eolus and North Eolus. We went across the catwalk electing to do Eolus and knock out the more difficult climbing first. The sunrise over the catwalk was serene.
Sunrise on the catwalk
The rock was quite slick from overnight rains and the exposure on the catwalk and Eolus is no joke. We carefully crossed the catwalk and then ascended ledge after ledge and after 10 minutes I felt like we had covered little elevation gain on the northeast ridge of Eolus, at that point I started climbing directly up the ridge, which was a mistake. I quickly got into More difficult terrain and backtracked to the ledge system. After a few more grass ledges, we reached a small gully that led us to the summit.
Vestal, Arrow, Trinities
North Eolus Summit
We sat on the summit for 10 minutes to allow the sun to dry out the rock and our wet soles. The downclimb was much better and the catwalk crossing over to the saddle was much drier. We then turned up toward North Eolus and started scrambling up the ridge. This was pure fun, as the rock was solid, and after 15 minutes we were standing on summit #2 for the morning. The rock on North Eolus reminded me of the great hike Rock Ocean in Arizona, just fun slabby, solid rock scrambling. The downclimb back to Twin Lakes went quickly and we were back at the lakes at 9:30 am. The skies were still clear, legs felt great, so we filtered some water and then headed up for Sunlight.
Refueling at Twin Lakes
I haven’t done more than 2 14ers in a day since DeCalibron back in 2009 and wasn’t sure how my legs would react to this attempt at four. At first, the fatigue was evident by my slow pace ascending above Twin Lakes, but after a few minutes I was able to regain my normal stride. The trail was nice up to the Windom/Sunlight basin and quickly you enter the scree field that leads up to ridge between Sunlight Spire and Peak. The scree field leading up to Sunlight reminds me of Columbia and Challenger Point. Steep and loose. After reaching the saddle, the climbing is fun again and similar to North Eolus. Super stable, there was more Class 3/4 Climbing from the saddle to the summit block than I was expecting, but not much exposure and the holds were evident and plenty. After climbing through the window and reaching the summit block at 10:45 am, I dropped my pack, walked up the block and stepped over the gap to reach the summit block.
"Hanging on to solid rock"
Sweating up a storm
The gap is only a 10-15 foot drop and not too exposed. After a quick summit shot, the clouds were building and we immediately set off for Windom. The descent down Sunlight went quick as we slid down the scree to the bottom of the basin. We angled toward the main saddle/tail up Windom and the route was nicely cairned. We reached Windom’s West ridge and began the fun ascent. We got off route and climbed right of the ridge and did a lot of Class III scrambling, we soon met back up with the standard trail. The clouds at this point were building fast and we made the decision to drop our packs to finish the last stretch. The summit block was tiny and just big enough for two people. We reached the summit of Windom at 12:15 pm.
Final scrambling to Windom's summit
We descended back to our packs and saw 3 other climbers still ascending which always makes you feel better about your decision not to turn around because of weather. We descended back to the saddle and down to Twin Lakes where we encountered our first goats of the weekend.
The clouds at this point were about to let loose and soon after starting the descent down from Twin Lakes, it started to storm. The descent down the new CFI trail from Twin Lakes was very pleasant and the rain, combined with the greenery of the basin, made Chicago Basin feel like an oasis in the middle of Colorado. We soon arrived back at camp and the backpackers from the night before were already gone. We made some instant soup and hot tea to celebrate #55.
It rained off and on all afternoon, and we took some small excursions to explore the basin and check out future campsites. We enjoyed our last backcountry meals for a while and went to bed early tired from the days' summits. The next day we had several different options. We could sleep in and take the 11:15 train to Silverton, then catch the bus back to Durango; stay in the basin another day and night as our train ticket was scheduled on Monday; or sleep in, enjoy the morning in the basin and take the 3:30 pm train back to Durango. We elected option #1 because of the rainy forecast, and we wanted to explore Silverton and Durango a little. We slept in until 8 am and soon after packing up, we were on our way back to Needleton.
Surprisingly it took almost the same time descending back to Needleton as it did on the approach to Chicago Basin, a little over two hours. We arrived back at Needleton, fished out our Dale’s Pale Ale and celebrated a successful trip to Chicago Basin.
Once the train arrived, the conductor said it was no problem heading up to Silverton, even though our ticket was for Needleton to Durango. The hour train ride to Silverton was very scenic and we sat in an open air car, which resulted in lots of ash but a nice ride.
Upon arriving in Silverton, like the train ride up to Needleton, I felt as if we were back in time. The train pulls right up to main street in Silverton and lots of people were out enjoying the sunny warm Colorado weather. After gathering our pack, I walked over to the bus driver (white bus) and asked if we could ride back on the bus to Durango after lunch and he said absolutely and even let us store our packs on the bus while we ate lunch in Silverton.
We had lunch at the Bent Elbow, and the fountain drinks tasted perfect after a few days of filtered water in the basin. We walked around Silverton and it was nice to be back here after spending many days coming over Ophir Pass in Telluride to visit Silverton. We bought the obligatory touristy fudge and then took the 2 pm bus back to Durango. The bus ride back was very informational as the bus driver goes into the history of the area with Chief Ourary, talks about Silverton Ski Area, and the different races that take place in the area. He even points out some intreging hikes in the area. We arrived back in Durango at 3 pm and gathered our packs. We then found a room at the Strater Hotel, which reminded me of the Peabody Hotel back in Memphis. Very historic, and the grand lobby with classic bar were a great way to relax. After checking in we went to Carver’s for a few beers and then dinner on the rooftop patio of Cosmo, get the coffee and donuts dessert!
Overall a wonderful trip to Chicago Basin some things I brought that might be helpful are bug spray, the black flies were bad each night. Rain gear, bring an outer rain layer as my synthetic climbing pants got soaked each rain storm. Also bring more food than you think you’ll need and put some beer in the river at Needleton. Just stack some rocks by the nearest tree so you can find it upon return and put some heavy rocks on top so they don’t float away. If the weather holds out and you feel good, try for all 4, the elevation of Twin Lakes is 12,500 ft, so the gain to Sunlight and Windom is only 2000 ft or so. I am not an ultra runner and I felt fine physically doing all 4 in a day. If you finish all 4 in day, consider the early train back to Silverton and bus back to Durango, as you get the full loop. Great Labor Day 2013 that really felt like an escape with the charm of the train, the isolation of the Chicago Basin, and beautiful towns of Durango and Silverton.
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