| Ditching the Outside World
Ditching the Outside World: A Needle Creek Fourth of July Weekend Trip
Climbing Team: Chicago Transplant, Jamie Nellis
Base Camp: 11,000' at the west end of Chicago Basin
July 5th - Sunlight Peak A (14,059') and Windom Peak (14,082')
July 6th – Mount Eolus (14,083'), North Eolus (14,039') and Glacier Point (13,704')
July 7th – Jupiter Mountain (13,830')
Total Mileage Hiked: Approximately 31 miles
Total Elevation Gain Climbed: Approximately 13,500'
Number of other climbers we shared the summits with: ZERO!
As I am sure you all know; the Chicago Basin area fourteeners are a unique breed among this state's mountains. Trailheads are far from roads, and the best way to access them is considered to be via train on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. This means that they are not peaks you can just wake up and say "hey, I think I'll climb Eolus today". Advanced planning is a must, and it is difficult to tell in advance what weekend the peaks and weather will cooperate and allow you safe passage.
As such, these peaks have always been a great sense of anxiety for myself; and for my climbing partner Jamie. We booked our tickets for the Fourth of July weekend over a month ago knowing time off from work would not be an issue, but still not knowing anything about forecasts for weather or what to expect from snow conditions. As the weekend got closer, weather forecasts looked promising, but with a lack of current conditions beta, we decided to pack the ice axe, crampons, winter mountaineering boots and gaitors to cover our bases.
Day 1: The Approach (appx. 5 2/3 miles – 2800' vertical)
The approach started with us changing our train reservations from the 8.15am train to the 9am train, because the website for the train was not clear enough for us to know that the 9am train was the only one that would stop at Needleton. Lucky for us, there was plenty of space. The train ride was quite pleasant, especially once in the Animas River Gorge and at a little after 11.30am we arrived at the Needleton stop with several other backpackers and started our approach. We made excellent time on the very well maintained trail and would hike for about an hour between our short breaks. At around 3pm we arrived at the west end of Chicago Basin and started considering where we should camp. We hiked a little farther where we found 2 tents and about 8 mountain goats milling about and decided it was best to retreat to the mountain goat-free end of the basin. We set up camp here in a great spot with easy water access and a great flat dirt area to set up the tents. Our home for the next 3 plus days was set, and we started planning our climbs.
Day 2: Sunlight and Windom (appx. 7 miles – 4000' vertical)
Our plan for each day was to wake up at 5am to maximize our chances for success. The light at this time of day was just reaching the point of not requiring headlamps, especially as we hit the trail at 5.45am. The early meadow went quickly as it only gained about 250' in the first mile to the Columbine Pass/Twin Lakes trail turnoff. The Twin Lakes trail started out pleasant to the first creek crossing, but quickly steepened as it climbs along the first waterfall. After a few mellow switchback sections and another creek crossing the second waterfall was even steeper to climb along and when we reached the base of the lakes we needed a quick break. Around the lake there was a good deal of snow, but the trail to this point had been otherwise in "summer" conditions. Beyond the lake a climbers trail led us to the upper basin below our objectives for the day. This section was surprisingly dry considering the amount of snow around it, I guess the trail planners did a good job of routing it through the area that melts first!
Once in the upper basin we started to plan our ascent to the Sunlight – "Sunlight Spire" saddle. There was patchy snow, but aside for some wider patches near the bottom, they were avoidable and the crampons, axes and gaitors all stayed in the packs. Helmets did go on of course, as near the saddle the rock and dirt got steeper and looser. The weather was looking good, and even beginning to clear some of the high thin clouds that had been hanging around all morning.
We continued on through the broken ledges below the ridge crest and picked our way back up the ridge. The route was dry and the routefinding fairly straightforward. You basically follow the path of least resistance up and over to avoid the towers on the ridge crest. We scrambled up the final section to the ridge through a large "hole" in the rocks and crossed easier terrain to the summit area.
The register and summit marker are not on the summit, instead they are at the staging area for the final exposed blocks. I went first, scrambling up to the famed gap and peered down. I started to commit to the move, but I just wasn't feeling comfortable about the amount of traction I was getting. Those stiff mountaineering boots were not flexing much either, and I had visions of my boot slipping and decided to try another way. The alternate route is technically harder and is considered to be low 5th class, but for some reason it looked easier to us. The holds are small, especially for the feet considering the footwear, but this block is less exposed. I dusted the mud of my boots to get a better footing and smeared and pinched my way up the 12 foot block. The top of the block is perfect for pulling yourself up and from there it is just an airy walk to the second and highest block.
I took the "leap of faith" over the standard finish back to the summit area and then it was Jamie's turn. She too took the "technical" block and then descended that same block. The descent of that block is tricky as there is a bit of a gap if you are too far to the right so I helped coach her to the safe landing zone. We then hung out in the summit area for a little while and then followed a friendly marmot guide back to the hole.
We also got some nice views of the upper section of "Sunlight Spire", the crack is the route (5.10):
We descended most of the way back down to the upper basin, but as we were headed to Windom stayed high in the basin and traversed across snow around 13,200'. We took out the axes here as we were traversing the snow filled Northwest Face of Windom. At this point a climber called to us from above who was doing our route in reverse, we had met him on the trail in yesterday. We reached the ridge slightly above the saddle with Peak 18 and continued up the ridge.
Windom from Sunlight:
The easiest route is not always obvious, but if you are off route is not too bad as it just slightly increases the difficulty to class 3.
As we neared the summit the weather was starting to show signs of turning and there was even thunder off towards Rio Grande Pyramid. For now, we were going to be good as the sun was just dancing along the edge of some clouds over the summit. We didn't stay long on top and started our descent as the clouds continued to build. We passed a couple and their dogs that had hiked in from Lime Mesa (no dogs allowed on the train) and then as we got to the saddle met another group that was ascending. 11am, building clouds, thunder in the distance… They asked us about the weather and when I said it was building from behind the summit and getting worse they wisely turned around. Another group was just visible coming off the summit block of Sunlight. We talked to them later on the trail and found out that their original plan was to combo with Windom as well, but of course bailed from the weather. It seemed our 5.45am start was looking a lot nicer than it had when the alarm went off! We still got wet as the rain started as we hit the Peak 18 saddle and continued much of the way back to treeline.
We hung around camp, ate dinner and went to bed early to get another 5am start the next day. So far the only animal that had visited our camp was one lone deer snacking on the nearby grass.
Day 3: Eolus, N Eolus and Glacier Point (appx. 7 1/4 miles – 3700' vertical)
The 5am wake up call was even easier the second day, as was the hike to Twin Lakes. Somehow this day we managed to shave almost a half hour off our time from the day before. The weather today was perfect so far, not a cloud in site. The trail from here was easy to follow and had only patchy snow most of the way to the upper part of the basin below Eolus' impressive east face.
Eolus viewed from Windom the day before:
Right below the ramp that bypasses the lower difficulties there was some snow, but the old kick steps were so good that again crampons were not needed. The ramp itself was wet from all the melting snow around which made it a little more difficult due to lowered traction.
Careful climbing safely deposited us in the high basin between North Eolus and Glacier Point and another short snowfield above us led us to the ridge. Here an icy patch was bypassed on rocks to the side and we were safely on the ridge crest.
The catwalk turned out to be a lot wider than we expected, we never could figure out where the 2 foot wide section was, everything seemed much wider and the one short area that was a little narrower, surprisingly had the least exposure. Now that may not make much sense, but for some reason where the ridge narrowed, there was a second wide ledge below us a few feet so the drop offs at this point were actually minimal.
At the backside of the catwalk we crossed an easy, flat snow drift and started traversing the ledges of the summit pitch. Here we crossed paths with the same climber a third time; he started even earlier as he was catching the train out that afternoon. There are many cairns here and we marveled at the beaten path through the grass. You know you are on a fourteener when even a class 3 route has a trail!
Of course the cairns led to multiple routes, but a grassy gully caught my eye and I decided to follow the left trending cairns and ascended this gully.
Jamie descending this gully on the way back down:
At the top a class 3 move led us to another gully that was a little muddy but led us to a notch on the ridge just south of the summit. A few brief easy class 3 moves and we were on the summit ridge aiming for the highest point. It was our third fourteener in two days over a holiday weekend that we had the summit all to ourselves. I was having fun with the zoom feature on this trip and took several zoomed images of the surrounding rugged peaks.
and Arrow (l) and Vestal (r):
We descended the way we came which was surprisingly easy to retrace. As we reached the catwalk we could see some groups coming up to the ramp. What is with these people starting 2 hours later than us? Are we just paranoid about the weather, or really good planners? We decided on the latter… We then ascended some cool slabby third class rock along the ridge to North Eolus. This was Jamie's San Juan finisher! Congrats! 57 down and one more to go…
We hung out up there for a while as we watched all three of the other groups navigate their way to the ridge crest and across the catwalk before traversing over to Glacier Point. For this we decided to retrace our route back to the saddle with Eolus and traverse the gentle slopes across the basin. Some loose scree/dirt was kind of annoying as were wrapped around to the far ridge and ascended class 2 terrain to the summit of Glacier Point. This is a "soft" ranked thirteener with 284' of prominence and incredible panoramic views of the local fourteeners.
We worked our way back to the top of the ramp and back out to camp as the afternoon storms started to roll in. Our early starts were proving to be useful.
Day 4: Jupiter Mountain (appx. 5 1/2 miles – 2,850' vertical) and hike out (another 5 2/3 miles downhill)
Due to the train, we started planning out Monday in reverse order. We wanted to be at the train by 3pm, so figuring it took us 3hrs to get in, we decided we had to leave camp by noon, time to pack up – so we would need to be back at camp by 11am if we tried to climb anything. This pushed up our projected start time to 4.30am. Unfortunately Jamie's legs decided they needed to conserve energy for the hike out and I was going to be solo today. As was the case on Saturday, a think blanket of clouds covered the basin. I made incredible time and left the Columbine Pass trail at the base of the Southwest Slopes route on Jupiter by 5.15am. Still being dark out, I took a breakfast break here. The route is easy to follow, just go straight up, and I do mean up.
Overview of route from Columbine Pass trail turn off, image taken on descent:
The route is essentially 1200' of 30 plus degree grass to get to the ridge. With the weather uncertain, I just put my head down and went up. I took no more breaks until the summit, which I even surprised myself by reaching at 6.30am. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise though as the last 100' the fog started to roll in around the summit area. The final ridge to the summit is a complicated mess of blocks that in order to keep at class 2+ you have to drop to the left at a false summit and stay below the crest. I didn't know that at the time and stuck to the crest which was class 3 and had a 4th class move to gain the actual summit block. I took some quick photos and enjoyed a snack before starting the very steep descent. The view of Windom is incredible, and the ridge connecting to it is a monster! Windom may have the easiest standard route on the fourteeners in the area, but it is still one heck of a rugged peak:
This time I followed the class 2+ route and soon was back atop the grassy slopes. In the daylight the slopes were actually quite pleasant, not because they somehow felt less steep, but because the green grass was covered in tons of yellow wildflowers, it is really a beautiful slope.
Image taken on descent:
As I was just getting back to the trail the rain started and I quickly hiked back down the trail to camp. Along the way I saw two herds of goats, one of about 20 milling near a camp site and another that had to be at least 40 just above the trail. I got back to camp so much earlier than I had expected, I had originally figured I would be back at camp at 9.30 but I arrived at 8.30. It was Monday; I would be just barely starting to work if I was home! The rain started to let up and the sun came out at 9am. We waited for our tents to dry and packed up camp just as a slew of mountain goats, I mean seriously 2 dozen of them, came trouncing trough to eat in the meadow. Perfect timing, we were just leaving! Luckily they seemed content with the grass and flowers and left our stuff alone.
Needless to say, we left a lot earlier than the noon time we had given for ourselves and were on the trail by 10.30. The descent only took us 2 hours, this trip had gone exceptionally well for us. We made good time all weekend, from starting early to hiking quickly we were able to summit everything we planned on and had all the summits to ourselves despite the daily showers and thunderstorms. I add that bit not to brag, but to help others in their planning - there was another group of hikers that got weathered off of Windom twice in three days! After all that anxiety before the trip over whether or not everything would cooperate, it all went quire smooth. If only my trips to Washington would go so well!
We spent about 3 hours at the train station waiting, having lunch, and hearing the life story of a 12 year old girl who decided we were her new best friends. I guess she was just sick of hanging out with her uncles and cousins (all boys) all weekend! The train ride was again a great time, but it was just the start of a very long return home. I got home at 1am, and Jamie still had another 100 miles to go. It was all worth it though!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):