| Perfect Weekend in Chicago Basin
Summit: Sunlight Peak (14, 059ft)
Total hiking time: 3 hours to the summit
Distance: ~2 miles from Chicago Basin
Elevation gain: 2, 860 ft
Trailhead: Needleton Trailhead
Summit: Windom Peak (14, 082ft)
Total hiking time: 1 hours from Sunlight Peak
Summit: Mount Eolus (14, 083ft)
Total hiking time: 3 hours to the summit (including N. Eolus)
Distance: ~2.3 miles from Chicago Basin
Elevation gain: 2, 900 ft
Trailhead: Needleton Trailhead
Date: August 24, 2008
Overall impression: Eolus is the most challenging of the area peaks. Sunlight is a fun climb. Once you reach the saddle the class 3 fun begins and then ends with the infamous summit block. Windom is no slouch but not as challenging as Sunlight or Eolus.
Description: Chris and I drove met in south Denver Thursday afternoon to tackle the Eolus group. I met Chris from my trip earlier this year on Kit Carson. We talked about the few 14ers we both had left to do and found we both needed the Needle group. We had planned to go with the Gazelle but she couldn't make it, too many commitments. There was still room for one more so Chris' friend joined us at Poncha Springs. After 6 hours of driving we arrived at the United Campground in Durango at 10pm. We just threw our bags out under the starry sky and went to sleep.
We woke early to get one last good meal before the trip, a Denny's Grand Slam. Haven't eaten at a Denny's in years but it was nice to fill up on a traditional breakfast before a few days of instant oatmeal and freeze dried dinners. We got to the train station at 8:15 and loaded our packs into the cargo car. We took our seats and then sat through the long 2.5 hour train ride. The train is cool and the scenery is gorgeous; but after a while you just want to get there. It seems like the train goes between 5-15 mph up to Needleton. Beats walking.
Traditional Train Shot Climbing up the Canyon
Animas River at Needleton
Once at Needleton, ~11am, 30 other backpackers hopped off the train. I was shocked that there were so many people coming to tackle these 14ers. I thought this area being so remote would make it less crowded but that sure wasn't the case. We took a few pictures marking the beginning of the adventure and then started up the trail. The 1st ˝ mile is private property on level ground. Once you leave the private property you enter Weimenuche Wilderness and begin to climb. One thing about the climb up Chicago Basin, and all the trails up the peaks in this area, there are little to no switchbacks. The climb up Chicago Basin is a gentle climb up 3,000 ft over 6.8 miles. The day we hiked was pretty hot and dry so the gentle climb turned into a moderate sweaty grunt to the end of the basin.
Chris and Tom at Needleton
Suspension Bridge Across the Animas River
There aren't many places to camp until you get to the last 1 mile or less of the trail. There are plenty of camp sites in this area but with 30 people getting off the train in a single day the sites fill up. That leaves the sites farthest from the end of the basin to the slower hikers.
Chris and Tom Hiking up the Needle Creek Approach
We found a site on the far side of Needle Creek just before the trail splits for Twin Lakes. The site was nice and secluded from the main trail and offered excellent views of the valley. The two pictures below are taken from out camp, Peak 18 is to the NW and the other is view is toward the NE.
Peak 18 Viewed at Twilight From Camp
More Mountain Candy
We slept in a little on Saturday and got on the trail at 7:20. We quickly hiked to the signed Twin Lakes Trail turn off and started up the headwall to the upper basin that holds Twin Lakes. Before it got to steep we encountered the 1st mountain goat sighting. I've read many reports of the mountain goats in the area but we hadn't seen any yet. They were molting as can be seen in the picture below. After taking a few pics we continued up the headwall which is a grunt. The climb up is loose dirt and rock trail that is basically straight up, there are no switchbacks, well maybe one or two. For quite a bit of the trail you climb right next to a waterfall and that is exactly what the trail feels like. Hiking directly up a waterfall. After 1 hour we crested the headwall and stopped to shed some clothing at the lake. What a spectacular place. The Needle Ridge is awesome as well as all the surrounding peaks. I'm guessing Sunlight got it's name because if you are hiking early in the morning the sun rises almost directly behind Sunlight when viewed from Twin Lakes. So no pictures of Sunlight.
Goats at 11,200 Near Someone's Camp
After a quick drink and shedding some clothes we pressed on. The directions on www.14ers.com are impeccable as always. The trail up to this point is very well marked and well worn. We followed the trail and a few cairns into the drainage between Windom and Sunlight and then headed up the Couloir to Sunlight's ridge. The climb up to the ridge is loose dirt, ball bearing size crushed granite with some rocks thrown in for good measure. An easy place to slip and fall on the way down. We quickly gained the ridge and then headed through the notch that is marked with a cairn. In fact the route from here on out is marked very well with cairns all the way to the summit.
This part of the climb was the most fun. There were several sections of class 3 climbing up large grippy granite blocks. Very enjoyable climbing if you are comfortable with exposure. The cairns directed us right to the gap in the rocks you need to climb through. I squeezed through the gap and a few minutes later was at the summit (~9:30). I quickly surveyed the infamous summit block and was surprised how narrow the gap was. I'm only 5' 7" (when my hair is poofy) and was able to stride across the gap, grab the rock and pull myself up to the summit block. I sat atop the highest point and must admit I definitely felt the heebie geebies on the summit block. There was a party of four on the summit when we got there and one of them was belaying the others up to the summit. One of the four had just had a double hip-replacement. Here that professor?
Kzar and Tom on the Summit Block
Chris on the Summit Block
Belay on the Summit Block
We hung out on the summit for a while admiring the view. The weather was absolutely gorgeous, comfortable temps, no wind and just a few clouds. A picture perfect Colorado day. After a ˝ hour on the summit we started down to tackle Windom. On the way down we somehow followed the wrong set of cairns which put us down lower than the trail we took to the summit. At one point Chris stepped on a large rock that must have been resting on ball bearings. It quickly gave way and Chris was on his butt instantly. Chris slid down and was being pinned by the rock. He wiggled free of the rock as it wedged against him. He jumped up and complained about pain in his arm. Chris couldn't move his arm up to high but otherwise seemed ok. We continued to traverse to the notch but his pain continued to get worse. He downed the traditional medical dose of ibuprofen and started the down climb from the ridge. Tom and I made good time down and cruised part way up Windom's ridge waiting for Chris. Chris yelled over to us that he was heading back to camp. His arm was really bothering him.
Tom and I set into a steady pace and marched up to Windom's summit. The climb up the ridge is pleasant with mostly granite boulders and some light class 3 climbing. The summit is small and pretty exposed. We shared the summit with the party of 4 from Sunlight. Windom was way cooler than I expected, beats the heck out of the Sawatch range. It was getting a little cool so we headed down after a quick snack to go check on Chris. We followed the ridge down to one of the many sets of cairns that puts you in the drainage between Sunlight and Windom. As we were leaving the drainage we heard Chris yelling at us form the ridge. He was signaling to us that he was going to head up Windom. We headed down to the lakes while Chris headed up Windom. We laid on the rocks staring at the clouds. They were forming all around us but didn't look really threatening. The sky was a brilliant blue and the sun was shinning down on us. This would have been a perfect time except for the damn flies. They got so nasty that I broke down and sprayed some deet to keep those buggers off me. After a while we got up and hiked back down to camp. The climbing down the headwall was worse than going up. The trail was dry, loose and steep. We headed into camp at 2 and took a short nap.
More Goats at Twin Lakes
Goat Posing for the Photo Op
Chris rolled into camp around 4 pretty excited to have bagged both Sunlight and Windom. Apparently he had separated his shoulder on his fall coming down Sunlight. The pain got pretty severe on his hike out so he tried to remove his pack to ease his pain. When he was twisting to remove his pack his shoulder popped back into place. Within moments the pain subsided and he decided to head up Windom.
As we were making dinner we were greeted by some local wildlife. Our camp had mountain goat fur hanging in the willows but we never saw them in our camp. Just this one deer that would skirt the camp chewing on flowers that were growing around our camp. This doe visited our camp both nights.
Wildlife, well kinda wild
We rose earlier on Sunday in hopes of summiting both North Eolus and Mount Eolus and then making the 3:45 train. We left camp around 6:20 and reached the lakes in 1 hour. We looked to the east and found the Eolus trail under a cliff band. We made our way to the trail and climbed up the basin that holds Eolus. The summit of Mount Eolus does not stand out from the basin. Mount Eolus is the highest point on the ridge but it is hard to make out. Mount Eolus, the highest point along the ridge, is just to the right of the large notch. The trail is well cairned through the basin, up the rock slabs and then finally pointing you to the narrow gulley/crack to reach the ridge between North Eolus and Eolus. Chris decided the day before that he wasn't going to summit North Eolus. So Tom and I hiked the ridge quickly so we could bag North Eolus before Chris made the ridge. We took off our packs and headed up North Eolus. This is a quick jaunt and definitely worth the time. The rock is extremely grippy and it's a fun short climb to the summit. We searched the horizon for a few of the area's 14ers and found Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre. After a few minutes on the summit we headed down and found Chris on the ridge enjoying a snack.
Mount Eolus When Viewed at the Start of the Cat Walk
We started climbing the ridge to Mount Eolus and quickly encountered the cat walk. It took me a while to get use to the exposure on the cat walk but there is really plenty of room to walk the connecting ridge to the summit of Mount Eolus. The climb up to the summit is well cairned although there is more than one route cairned. The climb is mostly class 3 but there may have been a few class 4 moves thrown in. The entire climb is very exposed. I always kept a hand on the rock for balance just in case. Eolus is the most technical sustained climb I've done to date. Chris and Tom thought it was hands down the hardest of the three in the Eolus group. The summit is small but awesome. We were on the summit by 9:30 and again greeted by gorgeous Colorado weather. I ate my jerky stash and took a few photos of people coming across the ridge to Eolus. We then headed down to camp so we could make the train.
Tom and Chris on the Catwalk with Mount Eolus in the Background
Other Climbers on the Catwalk
We got to camp at noon, packed up in 30 minutes and quickly hit the trail. As we were packing up a light rain started and continued until we reached the Needleton Trailhead. We pushed ourselves to hike down in 2.5 hours to ensure we made the train. We had plenty of time to spare and share with the other peak baggers waiting for the train. Picked up a tip from one of the Needleton backpacking repeaters, cash beer here at the trailhead. The river makes a great refrigerator.
Over 30 People Waiting for a Pickup at Needleton
The train was a welcome sight. We loaded up our packs, hopped on the train, grabbed a brew or two, and passed the 2.5 hour train ride with memories of the trip. After a quick dinner at Tequilas we drove back home. We dropped Tom off at Poncha Springs and headed on into Denver. I made it home at 2am, exhausted and happy. This was a great trip with good friends.
Train Approaching Needleton
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