| Seven Days in the Weminuche with an ascent of Sunlight Spire
A seven day trip through the Needles
Day 1: 8/31/09 - Chicago Basin
I was going in to Chi Basin early to take care of some unfinished business in and around the basin. Later in the week I would meet up with some friends for some climbing and then continue into Noname Basin for Jagged, and possibly more. In May of this year, two of these friends and I attempted to ski all three fourteeners in this basin. We were mostly successful, with two of our group nabbing a true summit descent of Windom via the Widowmaker (I summited, but hiked back to the notch in the ridge to ski down). On Sunlight we were able to get to the summit block, but it was snowing, and the summit boulder was covered in a thin sheet of verglass. Unfortunately it was not safe to climb in telemark boots. I would have to come back. A similar situation occurred on Eolus, where unusually warm conditions early in the morning made an ascent of the East Couloir unsafe, as it was sloughing big time by 7 a.m. By the time we diverted over to the standard route, we felt the only safe option left was an ascent/ski of North Eolus. While the trip was sweet, it left me hungry for those peaks I didn't truly summit.
The one-hour train ride from Silverton went quickly, and I was the only person to get off the train at Needleton at 3:45 that afternoon. I punched out the approach and made camp at 10,900 ft. I ate several cups of ripe salmon berries on the approach, plucking them off the plants without stopping. As I began cooking dinner at camp, it turned 7:00, and I was asleep in my bivy sack by 8:00, ready for the next day.
Day 2: 9/1/09 – Jupiter Mountain and Grizzly Peak "C"
I slept in late, and by the time I dried out my gear and hung it safely from the salt-hungry rodents in the basin and hit the trail, it was 8:20 in the morning. So much for an alpine start. I blasted up the trail to the Columbine Pass trail junction and followed that trail as it switch backed up the shoulder of Jupiter. I passed two very cool old mine shafts on the trail.
Just before an enormous CFI trail worker camp on Jupiter's shoulder, I left the trail at 11,700 ft. and headed up the southwest slopes of Jupiter. As I ascended the grassy path between rock outcroppings, I noticed some skittish mountain goats off to the west, "hanging ten" off of Jupiter's steep ridge. As I arrived at the summit area of Jupiter, I was surprised that the ascent was not over, and that I was at a false summit.
Fifty yards of 3rd class scrambling across and to the east of a rocky ridge to the true summit quickly deposited me on the top.
While on the summit of Jupiter, I got out Garret and Martin's description of how to climb Grizzly from Jupiter. From the summit, the key ramp up Grizzly was obvious.
The weather was holding, so I decided to look for the way through Jupiter's eastern cliff bands, so that I could traverse over to Grizzly. As I descended south along the cliffs, an obvious weakness appeared, and I quickly descended into the Hazel Lake Basin, traversing east across the northern edge of the basin beneath steep cliffs. I arrived at the ramp, and quickly ascended it to the coulior that splits the south face of Grizzly. From the notch at the top of that couloir, I picked my way northeast across easy and obvious ledges as I ascended toward the summit tower. Some easy scrambling near the top deposited me on the summit. There were two precariously balanced boulders on the summit.
I touched the top of each one with my hand to make sure I summited, and quickly reversed my ascent, as the clouds were building quickly and I could hear the rumbles of thunder distantly to the south/southeast. I was surprised at how little time it took to add Grizzly to an ascent of Jupiter. It was definitely easier than it looked!
Once back at the base of the Grizzly ramp, I quickly traversed southwest past Hazel Lake toward the saddle just north of Hope Mountain. Once at the Hope saddle, I could see a climber's trail that side-hilled over to Columbine Pass.
The traverse to Columbine Pass went quickly, and after coming down the Columbine pass trail back to camp, I ate a quick lunch and then napped from 1:30 to about 4:30. It was nice to be warm and still in my bag, and to rest my body while listening to the babbling noise of Needle Creek. That evening, I met up with some friends who had hiked over from New York Basin that same day, after climbing Peak 15 the day before. We chatted and had dinner, but had different plans/itinerary for the following day. I slept well that night.
Day 3: 9/2/09 – Sunlight and possibly Eolus?
This day started out with a similar late start, and I had big plans. I was going to try to climb Sunlight and Eolus. I ascended the trail to Twin Lakes, and was amazed by, and pleased with, the newly constructed CFI trail to the lakes. I believe that the new trail cut 15-20 minutes off of the old bush-wack, and saved my body a lot of energy in the process. I quickly retraced my May steps to the summit block of Sunlight, and opted to climb the slab to the climber's left of the summit. It went at very easy fifth class, or hard 4th class. It was a strange day in the Basin, as the only folks that I saw were the CFI trail crew below Twin Lakes. No one had even signed the summit register the day before! I tried my best to photograph myself on the precarious summit, and then descended the standard ascent route.
The lower "hop" to the big boulder was exhilarating. Apparently hurricane Jimena off of Baja was messing with the weather, which was deteriorating even more quickly than the day before. As I headed over towards Eolus, I realized that Eolus would have to be done the next day, on what was supposed to be a rest day in anticipation of climbing Sunlight Spire on Friday. I was back in camp at 11:30 and napped and read The Monkey Wrench Gang for several hours.
Day 4: 9/3/09 – Eolus and the rest of my group arrives.
I got a much earlier start this day, and thoroughly enjoyed doing the standard route on Eolus. The catwalk is cool, and the ledges up the east face beneath the summit were fun and straightforward. 95% of the upper ascent route can be seen clearly from the catwalk. Again I had the summit and mountain completely to myself, an increasingly rare occurrence on these peaks.
I couldn't tell when the last ascent was, as the summit register was missing, and the tube only contained a train ticket stub that was covered in other's random scribbles. I spent an hour on the summit, and then descended down towards Glacier Point. I was going to make a quick ascent of Glacier Point to scout out the next day's trip over Twin Thumbs Pass after the Spire, but first I thought of how refreshing it would be to take a quick bath in the high hanging lake just beneath Glacier Point. I splashed some water on myself, and soaped up with some Doc Bronner's. I then counted down from 10, forcing myself to jump in the lake to rinse the soap off.
I was in for less than 20 seconds, as the water was about 35 degrees. There was still a bank of snow about 50 yards away that had a stream of snowmelt running directly into the lake. I later learned that this lake is the second highest lake/tarn in the 48 states, at 13,390 feet. Pretty cool to bathe there…….literally.
After drying off with my small pack towel, the weather once again began to rapidly deteriorate. I decided that the unranked peak of Glacier Point wasn't worth the extra effort with such a big day ahead, and the risk of the approaching weather. I headed back to camp, seeing only goats on the way there.
It was a good thing that I left for camp when I did, as it began to rain when I got to camp. It rained hard, and several hours later when the clouds broke, there were a couple of inches of sleet starting at about 13,000 feet visible on the surrounding mountains. My buddies arrived at about 7:00 that evening, and we organized gear and made plans for the next day. I ate a huge dinner of chicken and Stove Top Stuffing. Dinner alone had 100 grams of protein in it.
Day 5: 9/4/09 – Sunlight Spire, Twin Thumbs Pass into upper Noname Basin.
This peak had been in the works since a plan was hatched to climb it in January of this year - over beers and tequila in Mexico after a successful blitz on Orizaba. Our group quickly hiked up to the Twin Lakes with our full packs on. The marmots were chirping with anticipation of chewing up our gear. I had thought a lot about this problem over the past couple of days, and had come up with a plan that I thought would save our gear. I had never heard of marmots swimming, and there were several islands in Twin Lakes. We decided to stash our full packs on an island and take light day-packs up for the Spire. I was elected to be the "jumper", and following a sketchy running double-jump, I was on the island, feet still dry. My buddies threw over our packs and I stacked them on the island, rain flies on.
We arrived at the saddle of Sunlight and Sunlight Spire a little after 8:00, after crunching though some of the sleet left over from the day before. We basked in the sun there, ate some food, and geared up. The route up the Spire doesn't see the sun until later in the day, and it was cold. We descended from the saddle, and began traversing across 3rd, then 4th class ledges to the base of the true climbing on the Spire.
I was leading, so I decided to link the 5.7 pitch with the 5.10 splitter up the Spire. I quickly dispatched the short 5.7 pitch and clipped the intermediate anchor at the base of the business. I paused there to catch my breath, and once I was ready, I launched into the overhanging, and severely left-angling crack.
Photo by Mark Milburn.
It began with solid cups, and then went to hands. I placed a few cams, clipped a fixed nut, and then things began to become difficult with a section of thin hands, followed by some flaring pockets in the crack and finger locks. My lungs started to burn, and I hung on long enough to get a good piece of gear in. The severe left-angling nature of the crack made the feet difficult, and the route took on a very powerful feel, as it was necessary to make big powerful moves off of crappy or awkward feet. I was not up to the callenge, and ended up hanging a lot and pulling on gear frequently. (See my other abbreviated trip report on what I believe to be sandbagging of the route.) I topped out in a light snowstorm, sweating my ass off, and puffing harder than the D&S narrow gauge train. Off to the north, about a mile away, Jagged Peak was enveloped in a dark gray storm, as was Eolus off to the west. I could barely see Twin Lakes through the rain/snow, and was worried that lightning was eminent. There were rumblings of thunder that could be heard off in the distance. I was stressed, even though I was on top and could hear other people in the basin giving me victory "whoops".
Photo by Mark Milburn.
The plan had originally been for me to fix a rope on the top of the Spire, and the rest of our group would jug the fixed line to the summit. I have a healthy respect for lightning, and as soon as I got to the base of the Spire, told the group of the weather I had seen to the north, and announced my intentions of getting much lower on the mountain as quickly as I could. I began descending shortly after changing out of my climbing shoes and back into my running shoes.
The other group members reluctantly agreed that descending was probably prudent, and joined me several minutes later. It really sucked to not get all of the group up there, but it just wasn't in the cards weather-wise. The toughest 14,000 foot summit in the 48 states consequently left a bitter taste in my mouth. Maybe next time.
We converged at the island in Twin Lakes, retrieved our packs, and waited for the weather to change. We were lucky to be able to ditch a rope and our climbing gear with others who were taking the train out. A blue sucker-hole appeared above Twin Thumbs Pass, and we loaded our pigs-of-packs on our backs and trudged the 700 vertical feet to the summit of the pass. For those looking for beta on this pass from Chicago Basin, take the climbers right of the two notches in the pass as seen from Twin Lakes. There is a hard, but short, class 3 down climb on the north side of the pass. I can't imaging what climbing this pass from the Noname side with a full pack would be like.
From the pass, we descended what felt like never-ending scree to an incredible mushroom-shaped green lake. One of the coolest lakes (top 5) I have ever seen in Colorado.
We continued down this branch of Noname bushwacking on the west side of the valley. It was a long and beautiful way down into Noname Basin proper. I was stunned by the east face of Monitor as it passed – it called to me loudly.
We set up camp at the confluence of the two drainages at 10,780 ft.. We sipped single malt whiskey and slept like the dead.
Day 6: 9/5/09 – Jagged Mountain and Leviathan?
We awoke early, and set out for Jagged. We made quick work of the approach, and were at the base of the hard climbing by 8:20. The hardest part of the whole ascent was locating the beginning of the climb.
One member of the group was nervous, as we had ditched the rope and gear back at Twin Lakes with friends. Nerves were jittery as we picked our way up the intimidating north face of Jagged, and calmed once we made it to the notch near the summit. We summited after winding our way around to the south side of the summit tower. There was no pen in the summit register.
We took summit shots and quickly reversed the route. Jagged is a strange mountain, as it the only peak that I believe is easier to down climb, than ascend.
We made it back to camp in deteriorating weather before noon, and chose not to climb Leviathan Mountain due to hurricane moisture-laden weather nipping at our heels again. It began to rain that afternoon and didn't stop until about 7:00 the next morning.
Day 7: 9/6/09 – Peak 6, Peak 5, Peak 4? – Nope!
As we poked our heads out of our wet tents this morning, our eyes were quickly drawn to the snow on the high peaks that had fallen last night. There appeared to be quite a bit of it, and we decided as a group that we should throw in the proverbial towel. Peaks 4, 5 and 6 would have to be visited another time.
The race was now on to break camp, hike down the Noname drainage to the Animas, and then over to Needleton to catch the 11:30 train out to Silverton. Sunlight appeared to have 6-10 inches of snow on its north side as we walked down the Noname drainage. The last kick in the gut was the short but steep ascent over Watertank Hill. It is not as bad as Garret and Martin make it out to be, but we did feel it in our legs with our packs on. We made it down to Needleton with about 50 minutes to spare. The cheeseburgers and beer at Handlbars in Silverton on the way out were divine. Feel free to contact me if you have questions on Sunlight Spire. I would be happy to give you my 2 cents anytime.
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