| Seven Winter Days in Chicago Basin- A Mountain Renewal
Seven Winter Days in Chicago Basin- A Mountain Renewal
Morning light on Turret Peak from high on the slopes of Sunlight Peak
A Boy's Mountain Spirit is Filled and Spilled
When I was nine, my mother brought me to Colorado for the first time. She wanted her children to see things. Dad had only two week's vacation and he was obliged to use it fulfilling his annual active duty training for the Naval Reserve. Mother packed eight of her nine children in the station wagon (Jerry, the baby-of-the-day, was packed off to Mother's good friend, Dee McDonald.) Mother and my oldest brother Joe, the only sibling old enough to drive, ferried us all night through 600 miles of Kansas prairie and wheat fields to Colorado Springs. I awoke to an ambrosial sunrise bathing the paladin's of Pike's Peak in coppery, chestnut light. I was enveloped in the Garden of the Gods; I had just been granted my first Colorado moment. I was home.
After moving to Pueblo in 1985, I threw myself into Colorado's favors. I learned to camp in the mountains, backpack, fish the mountain lakes and eventually, I began to work trail crews for the Colorado Trail Foundation. I relished every moment. My skills and comfort level grew and grew. Trail crew friends encouraged me to join the Colorado Mountain Club, and my mountain skills took an exponential leap. I have become an accomplished traveler THROUGH the mountains. However, I've also lost the wonder of a nine-year-old that went to sleep on the plains and awoke in the Garden of the Gods.
Last night I saw a commercial for an energy bar. The scene featured a woman power-hiking through the woods with her hoodie tied around her waist. She looked like she'd be more at home on the asphalt path around the duck pond in her local suburban open-space. Whether she had been hiking in Muir Woods or strutting on a park path, her glazed eyes and I-pod induced oblivion would have illuminated the same purpose. She was out to sweat away her stress; the setting was inconsequential. A hamster wheel would have been as effective.
Several times in my post obesity, Colorado life, I've been chided for doing the same thing the power-walking soccer mom was doing. I was running, chugging, sweating, and pushing myself through the woods, up the trail, and over the mountain as if there was something paramount about leaving the journey behind me; trying to hold power over the experience rather than yielding to its power. Gudy Gaskill, trail builder, mountaineer, skier, and 2002 inductee of the Colorado Women's Hall of fame, was the first to warn me. Walking the Colorado Trail with her in 1988, I was always one of the first into camp at the end of the day; she was one of the last. In the second half of her sixties, she was weathered, gray and skinny. Twenty-five years old and recently shed of 140 pounds of self –loathing, I had a body that, for the first time in my life, could do what I asked of it. I wanted to make it move. I thought Gudy hiked slowly because she was old. I, on the other hand, was ready to conquer the miles of trail and the inconvenient mountain blockades placed to slow my progress.
Gudy coaxed me to stop and smell the flowers. Literally. She reveled in pointing out the Parry's Primrose, Golden Banner, Shooting Star, and the Moss Campion. She tried to get me to stand for thirty minutes and actually watch the opening of the Morning Glory. One day, she lingered by herself at the edge of our chosen alpine knob appearing to enjoy the lunch respite. The watercolor impression she created that day of both Mt. Guyot and the meadow she imagined at its base (unseen from our perch) can be purchased from the Colorado Trail Foundation in the form of notecards. That summer she wrote songs and poetry; she collected twisted pieces of Krumhlotz from which she created centerpieces for our dinner table. She stayed late in the kitchen creating coffee cake in the sheep-herder's oven by using left-over oatmeal from the previous morning's breakfast. I walked harder than her; I walked harder than anyone. She saw the Colorado Trail and its glories. I saw the trailheads and their touchstones. She warned me.
A Mountaineering Goal
In calendar winter, three people have climbed Colorado's Fourteeners (using a count of 59 by Aaron Ralston's recent precedent). A complicated discussion as to what constitutes a winter ascent can be researched and debated on websites like 14erworld.com and 14ers.com, but, by all accounts, only Tom Mereness, Jim Bock, and Aaron Ralston have accomplished the task. In the next few years, the number of claimants is going to shoot up quickly, but be forewarned: debate will ensue. Most recently, a team of nearly twenty climbed Culebra Peak in the San Luis Valley. Pre-summit Snowcat tracking, a caravan of snowmobiles, and admission pricing will cast a penumbra of contention over the day. The "Purists" were forced to climb at the mercy of others ethics, the track having already been laid. However, this sub-group made all efforts to abide by their personal standards to avoid winter vehicles; thereby becoming the last to summit and the last to return to their cars. The extra efforts went un-recognized by all but themselves. For me, the question will be rooted in which participants made the effort to "experience" the mountain as opposed to perfunctorily stepping atop the apex the Spaniards christened "Snake" mountain. The Sherpa people of Tibet and Nepal are the penultimate votaries of this philosophy.
Thinking About Chicago Basin
Those of you who've read this far have some context for the decision to title this trip report, "A Mountain Renewal." Here's the story:
The greatest remaining hurdles before I can count myself amongst the other three winter winners can be found in Chicago Basin, arguably Colorado's most remote "loved-to-death" basin. The alpine valley is extremely difficult to reach and most commonly accessed by the one of the world's most impressive scenic trains, the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (DSNGRR). In spite of the difficult entrance, the basin still gets an exorbitant amount of backcountry traffic, thereby necessitating special localized regulations. Even under strict controls, there are a hundred people camping in the one-mile long, one-quarter mile wide basin on any given summer day; more on weekends. That's not to say the basin doesn't remain magnificent. An enormous alpine meadow is surrounded by dramatic peaks named for a wide variety of the potpourri that is America. Monikers like Mt. Kennedy, Aztec Mountain, Florida (think "Feast of the Flowers, the Spanish Pascal celebration) and Mt. Eolus (Greek and Roman god of the winds) express the same variety of cragged and towering rock faces as they do the array of cultures that influenced their names. It is reasonable to assume miners transplanted from the slaughter houses of "The Windy City" also broached the area.
Chicago Basin contains four of the five Fourteeners that I've never climbed in winter. Mount Eolus, North Eolus, Sunlight and Windom are scattered amongst many more 13,000' peaks in the basin. Most winters, their secluded nature leaves them completely unvisited. I have a cadre of friends and acquaintances who have the proper skills and experience to make a visit to this basin during the Yule-Pascal interval. We would all feel privileged to make a safe winter foray into Chicago Basin. Exiting after having stood on any of these summits would add to the bliss. The assembled team of Ken, Jean, Dominic, Dwight, Sarah, Homie , Kiefer and I offered as much actual Colorado winter mountaineering experience as can be found in any team. The team's resume contains literally thousands of winter ascents in the Centennial State. We had each re-arranged responsibilities and purchased tickets on the shortened, off-season, winter excursion version of the DSNGRR train. We were prepped for the final week of February 2010.
Perhaps to humble the team before Eolus himself, a week before the planned expedition three feet of fresh snow blew in from the west in one 48-hour period. The avalanche potential spiked and the team's desire to breach the basin's gates was quelled . Unfortunately, it is impossible to re-assemble this size and quality group on short notice. Even with conditions improving a week later, the opportunity to launch this particular team for 2010 had passed.
Two weeks passed and with nine days remaining before the vernal equinox, weather and snow conditions seemed as if they may have aligned. Whether or not those conditions are actually favorable is always a subjective decision, especially with conclusions drawn only from remote data. Nobody had been in there in months; actual conditions would have to be determined on site. In the end, I was the only remaining member of the team with opportunity to check out the basin. I announced my intention to go alone to investigate the conditions, plan for a team assault some other year, and respectfully request one or two peaks to grant their permission to ascend. Ken wished me good luck and offered his final advice. "Remember, Steve, this in NOT your last, best opportunity to climb these peaks. You will have other opportunities." I promised to keep his words in mind.
Let Me Go See What I Can See
I boarded the winter train in Durango on a gloriously clear and warm March day, and then chugged up the tracks to the Cascade Wye, where a patroller for the DSNGRR prepared a giant bonfire. At 12:30PM, sightseers disembarked to explore the steam engine, take photos with the engineer, stroll along the riverbank, and enjoy their picnic lunches. Cascade lies seven miles short of Needle Creek, the normal summer drop-off point for adventurers exploring Chicago Basin. To see the basin in winter, a climber must travel seven miles up the tracks to the Nettleton Bridge, then cross the river to begin the trip into the Chicago amphitheatre.
"Come ride the little train that is rolling down the tracks to the junction."
While the train enthusiasts ate their lunches, I prepped my gear for the trip up the tracks. A week-long winter camping trip into the alpine zone requires great deal of bulky gear. In anticipation of a long, flat walk, I had brought a gear sled and a second pair of snowshoes; a set better suited to the deep snow that accumulates on flat terrain.
Bemused and curious tourists snap my photo as I hook up for the rail slog
The conductor tells me that the maintenance-of-way crew finished clearing the path to Needle Creek just yesterday; the efforts involved in this seven mile trek will be exponentially eased. I ask, "Will I be able to use my sled?" He assures me that there will be plenty of snow between the tracks and I'll find it an easy pull. At 1:00PM, I pull out of the station. Well, the conductor was wrong. For a mile-and-a-half, I was continuously switching back-and forth between alternate sides of the track and periodically utilizing the space between rails. Even with all the lane changes, good snow was hard to find. I spent a lot of time dragging the sled across dry road base and scraping the sled's runners along the rock. Eventually, I came to my senses and pulled over at a convenient siding. Changing my gear paradigm, I left behind 10 pounds of extraneous weight; the extra snowshoes and the sled were clipped to a tree 15 feet up a side-hill and adjacent to the tracks.
Beginning my trek anew, a work crew returning to Durango from the up-rail reaches gave me a befuddled side-glance and half-hearted wave as they rode their plowing machine home for the night. The next 4 ½ miles of easy hiking provided the first views of the peaks deep in the Weminuche Wilderness Area. Fortune smiled on my miniature expedition as one of very few snow bridges across the Animas River appeared only 800 yards after I passed the Needle Creek inlet on the river's opposite bank. Crossing the river at this point saved at least 1 ½ miles of round-trip work necessary to hike up to the Needleton bridge, cross the creek, and break trail back downstream to reach this same point.
A convenient truth
As I breached the willows on the opposite bank, an unexpected companion, Ursa americanus, the Black Bear, ran perpendicular to my path yielding only fifteen yards of comfort. Gone from sight in seconds, he lingered in my head for days. By regulation, special precautions are required to avoid bear interactions in the Weminuche Wilderness; a special bear-proof container (no, I don't own one) is mandated. In the summer, I adhere to all the other expert recommendations designed to keep distance between campers and bears. Cook far from your tent, don't wear your cooking clothes into the tent, hang your food high in a tree and away from camp.
In winter, many of these practices become tedious. A camper can not step but a few from the tent without donning snowshoes before he becomes mired in the quicksand the of the mountain winter. It is my practice to cozy myself in my sleeping bag and simply lean out the convenient side-door of the tent to boil water and prepare my meal. Zipped into my warm little home, I satiate myself while tucked up in my down cocoon. In short, my customs are exactly the opposite of bear-avoidance philosophy. Since Camp I still lies a mile of deep snow away, I decide to play the ostrich and ignore the situation.
After crossing the river, the first real trail-breaking begins. A week's store of food, fuel and clothing combine with the necessary tent, sleeping bag, pad, 30m rope, helmet, shovel, ice axe, and crampons to make a pretty hefty pack. I always refuse to weigh my burden; if I think I need it, it goes in. I'll haul what I need. No matter what the gear weighed, the result was the need to create a calf-deep, and sometimes knee-deep, trench stretching five miles and 2800' up un-broken trail to the lower reaches of Chicago Basin. Tonight, I'd accomplish ¾ mile and 600' of that task. There's always tomorrow! At 5:30PM, I dropped the load and declared this flat spot in the middle of the trail, "Camp I."
With a short scramble down from the trail to the north bank of Needle Creek, I reached a small pool of running water. After boiling three quarts for tonight's dinner and tomorrow's trek, I ate and enjoyed a quiet sleep. I fell asleep chanting my new mantra, "No bears, no bears, no bears……."
The next morning again dawned blue and beautiful. By 8:00AM, the burro is re-fitted with panniers, and the same 18" trench-work begins. The next six hours begin my mountain "renewal." The creek below flows clear and peaceful, wending its way over petite falls and through entertainingly placed boulders, each capped with delightfully different umbrellas of snow. On either side of the bank, periodic ice falls glistened on the canyon walls. Without a soul (human, anyway) for miles, I knew these elfin decorations were for my entertainment. What could have been five miles and 2200' of drudgery, became a day of filling of the spirit; a day for feeling the Almighty's presence at your side with every step.
That's no "Glad (Glatt) bach" (consult your German to English dictionary)
About 2:00PM, I broke through the trees at 11000', stepping into a mile-long meadow of white. These are the lowest reaches of Chicago Basin. As I breached the barrier, another medium-sized bear appeared; though still an American Black Bear, this gentleman was a golden blond. He bounded from the open meadow back into the veil of the bordering trees.
Though elated from the day's graces, I was tired and my back had begun to hurt. Fifty yards behind, back into the trees, lay a nice flat spot beckoning my tent. Fifty yards and 50' below the tent-site, an open pool of water fresh bubbled from the slopes of Mt. Kennedy. I had found a home for the next few days. I primped and preened my little tent site until I was proud to call it home. Intent on staying four days or so, I wanted it to be nice. It was. I boiled water, ate my meal, prepped a smaller pack to ready myself for another glorious day whose goal would be to discover safe passage above the headwall at the far end of Chicago Basin. Hurtling that headwall is necessary to reach Twin Lakes and gain access to the climbing routes for all four peaks I was scouting. Closing my eyes, I began my recitation, "No bears, no bears, no bears……………."
"…coming home to a place I've never been before….."
It was probably midnight when I was awakened by the familiar booms and flashes of artillery fire of Forth Carson soldiers conducting training maneuvers. We residents of Pueblo West often have our slumber disturbed by our soldiers' constant preparations for deployment. In a minute, however, my altitude and exhaustion glazed brain cleared sufficiently to look for another reality. The second choice, though ultimately confirmed, seemed equally unlikely. Winter or not, I was in the middle of a typical Colorado alpine thunderstorm. Lightening flashes came one after the other, providing almost constant illumination. Improbable as it is in winter, it is completely familiar to summer Colorado campers. I rolled over, closed my eyes, and mused, "At least there are no bears, at least there are no bears………...."
Next I awoke complaining to Nona, my former wife with whom I've not shared sleeping space in several years, "Move over, you're pushing me out of the bed!" After two or three firm complaints went unheeded, I pushed her over to her side of the bed. Boy, she's heavy tonight! Several hours later, the alarm, which had been set to send me off on an early-morning summit attempt, awakened me with more clarity of thought. I peaked outside to discover 12" of fresh, heavy spring snow covering the and more steadily falling. I shut off the alarm and went back to sleep. Awakening again at 10:30AM, I was still being pushed off the bed. I dressed and clambered outside to assess the situation. The back vestibule had collapsed under the weight of the snow and half the interior space of my one-man tent was buried under the mass. I'm guessing the tent mate I'd tried to push aside the night before was weighing in at about 300 pounds. I spent an hour digging things out, building a better platform and improving the rear wall so that it didn't encourage drifting as had last nights' rear barricade. Snow was still coming down hard, but I felt better fortified.
I remember watching a documentary on Denali which featured an aging Bradford Washburn. Among many other accomplishments, he scouted and proposed a new route on Denali, The West Rib. With his wife (who accomplished what he called "The First Lady Climb"), Washburn led a party to Denali's summit and, at the same time, re-defined the standard route. The West Rib is now considered the safest and easiest route to the summit. In the same documentary, Washburn stressed the importance of not getting lazy while bogged down in a storm. "Get out of the tent, move around, build a throne of a toilet, just move…" Heeding his advice, I set out to break trail across the mile-long Chicago Basin and investigate the complications of the upper headwall. I tracked in a route to timberline and then mentally laid out a route, which if I'm able to find once the storm has ceased, will lead me to Twin Lakes as safely as can be managed. As I made my way back to the tent at 3:30, the storm was just finishing its damage; 20" of heavy powder were left behind. Water, dinner, bed, "No bears, no bears, no bears…"
When traveling on a pleasant day, crossing the Chicago Basin meadow is a joy!
Renewing the Mountain-Filled Spirit
I took my time getting ready the next morning; with so much deep snow to break, a summit didn't seem to be in the cards. Though the snow had tapered off the evening before, the winds kept up until after I'd fallen asleep and, for the second time, hard work was required to cross the basin floor, yesterday's trench having been obliterated. By 7:30AM (after "Springing Ahead"), I was tromping across the basin floor, coldly going where no man had gone since yesterday.
The morning after the storm, dawn light shines again on Mount Kennedy
On the other end of the basin, however, the trench from yesterday afternoon remained pretty much undisturbed. Safe passage around the basin's headwall was discovered with much less effort than I had feared. A snow pit revealed excellent cohesion between yesterday's spring snow and the older layers which, at this elevation and aspect, showed a mature snowpack all the way to the ground. Circuitous, and adding an extra ¾ mile to the Twin Lakes, I found a route at timberline which climbed west toward the Eolus amphitheatre before turning north and east to reach the lakes. Having concentrated on finding minimally sloped ramps to reach the vicinity of the lakes, my route consequently required more elevation gain than dry trail would have required. As a result, I had to drop onto the flats of the lakebed from 150' above. The extra elevation gain had avoided enough steep slopes that the extra work was easily mitigated by the corresponding safety margin.
This sunrise voyage crossed a sea of pristine, pure, and untouched snow. My past meetings with this incomparable amphitheatre have been in the midst of the normal summer hillbilly shindig that somehow detracts from basin's dignity. I never saw it before. I've enjoyed all eight trips I've had into this region, but only today can I see Chicago Basin for the beauty that she is. This time, she is dressed for a ball and I've been blessed with the opportunity to carry her glass slipper. I wish I had photos worthy of my experience; but it would take an exceptional artist to capture what I could feel. In a way I had not experienced since age nine, the wonder of the Colorado Mountains filled my soul. I knew that my trip had been successful; I knew that no matter what happened for the next few days, I could re-visit Chicago Basin over and over again, on my feet or in my mind, and draw on the memories of this day to make my heart sing.
How About a Summit?
Now, every step is a bonus. Still, I must admit, I have a great desire to stand on a summit. Above the lakes, the safest route again proved to be out of sync with the shortest route. This portion of the trek ended with another 150' drop onto the soccer field plateau that lies on the floor of the cirque between Windom and Sunlight. The four hours of work to reach this point had been quite consistent. I had dredged an 18" furrow from my encampment to a field 2200' and three miles above. Unfortunately, the effort deposited me 1000' below these two summits later than is optimal. It was 11:30AM. Encouraged by the results of a second snow pit, I decided to poke around a bit on Sunlight's south face.
From Twin Lakes, many people incorrectly identify these peaks as the Twin Thumbs. The peak on the right is actually Peak 11
In this view, taken higher in the basin, you can see Twin Thumbs Pass, South Thumb, North Thumb (formerly hidden), and Peak 11. North thumb is the higher of the two thumbs.
From the lakes, there are still 1000' to climb in order to reach the plateau below Sunlight's south face.
Rather than ascend the standard Red Couloir route, I decided to start up the face directly under the summit. For the next 500', I was quite proud of my progress. Still clad in snowshoes, I was leaving the same, familiar calf-deep trench that had trailed me from the tent. At about 13,500', however, conditions changed dramatically and immediately. I had been aiming for a series of rock ribs that, though interspersed with significant-sized snow fields, appeared to lead directly to the summit. As I approached the underside of the ribs, I first discovered that the slope angle was considerably higher than it had appeared from below. It is my usual experience that slope inclination is actually more tame than judged by the naked eye. This was one occasion where the opposite was true. As I moved under these rock ribs, the supporting layer that had allowed for steep-slope snowshoe travel suddenly gave way. My body plunged nipple-deep into sugar layers underlying the more soothing supporting crust.
I had not dug a pit since leaving the valley floor and there was no need to dig one here. I knew what I needed to know. At this elevation and aspect, the frightening sugar layer that has plagued the state all winter still dominated the snowpack. I tried for fifteen minutes (about 15 minutes longer than I should have) to make headway toward the ribs which hung 25' above. Scouting left and right provided no more comfort. Quickly realizing that further attempts to climb higher were dangerous and fool-hardy, I turned 180 degrees and carefully re-traced my track to the valley floor. I wasn't certain I'd get another attempt at Sunlight, but I knew today it would not be judicious to climb.
From high on the face of Sunlight, Windom's west ridge is more appealing
It was 1:00PM and I again stood on the 13,000' separating Sunlight and the easier Windom. A 500' climb through deep north facing snow would allow access to Windom's comparatively benign west ridge and a series of convex hillsides led toward the appropriate saddle. Though the snow-breaking efforts refused to give a deliberate line to the col, a little sweat and heavy snowshoe lifting brought me to the curved cup of the Windom /Peak 18 spine. I was Still gullible enough to believe that I was about to enjoy the same pleasant jaunt and scramble that, in summer, wends its way to Windom's summit. I'll never learn. The eastward climb continued to require significant trenching through inconsistent snow and over covert rocks waiting to scrape my shins. Eventually, I abandoned the snowshoes and sought a rock-hopping route to the boulder-strewn summit. Unfortunately, I don't hop like I used to. There was a great deal of knee-deep slogging and shin-scraping still required, but the zenith was in sight and standing on it was a foregone conclusion. Winter snows added excitement to the cleft between the peak and a nearby boulder. Glorious and regenerating.
The view back down Windom's west ridge looks spicier than in the summer. Peak 18 rises on the opposite side of the saddle
Arrow and Vestal as seen from the summit of Windom
Eolus and North Eolus lie across the valley to the west. A goal for tomorrow.
Not in the cards for today, Sunlight and Sunlight Spire are separated by the Red (white??) Couloir. I'll try again in a few days.
The day's wanderings behind, you can view the Delta of the false start on Sunlight, a more satisfying time on Windom, and an attempt to connect the routes for use in a few days
The hike back to the tent was tranquil and satisfying. The tracks that only I'd made through the vanilla bowls and plateaus of the upper basin added a beauty of their own. A living being had been there to revel in God's art and the experience had been integrated into a soul. Food, water, and a renewed quintessence provided a special serenity as I turned off the lamp, ready to slumber. "No bears, no bears, no bears……"
Most snow-sportsmen have encountered the devious "snow snake." But, beware the more treacherous, and very much more elusive, "snow- shark!!"
Could There be More?
A restful sleep kept me in cocooned in my down bag longer than planned, but as I've recounted, every step is now a bonus. I prepped and again left camp about 7:30AM. I was pleasantly optimistic about my opportunities. Having decided to tackle Sunlight by the standard Red Couloir, I made the decision to hold –off and give that gully's south facing snowpack another warm day to mature. Instead, I turned my sights toward Eolus, the most difficult Fourteener in the area. Abundant sunshine and azure skies accompanied me along yesterday's trail as I aimed for the highest possible point which could utilize my previously broken trench. Here, a traverse from my hard-won ditch would deliver me into the bowls of the Eolus/ North Eolus/ Glacier Point basin. This venture quickly covered 2000' of contours, leaving me a reasonable 2000' of new work to sweat fill out the day.
From below, the east-facing, virgin portion of the basin appeared to have settled under yesterday afternoon's warm sunshine. However, three steps off the broken track revealed another story. The spring-like snow was heavy, sticky and still demanding a 20" trench. By 11:00AM, I was beginning to get discouraged.
On each peak, for a full 4000' above camp, the trailbreaking never eased. These are the conditions at 13, 0000' on North Eolus.
Though not in immediate danger, there was plenty of day-old evidence that another hour of sunshine would bring sloughs of snow rolling into the valley. The breadth of the basin and my distance from its sheer walls mitigated the dangers of getting bowled over by a simple slough. None of yesterday's releases had rolled anywhere near the gullet of the valley that I now traveled. However, the day was growing late and there was a myriad of releases crossing the portion of Eolus's east face that I'd need to traverse. Even following the ridge above the face appeared that it would require periodic forays onto the face itself and the prospect looked menacing. At 13,000', I was seriously considering throwing in the towel. However, I was safe for now and the radiant views were sufficient to convince me to press on.
A view from 13,700' to 12'700' showing my efforts wending their way up the southeastern snowfields of North Eolus. Can you pick out my point of despair? Hint: I almost always sit down to cry!
Looking at the Sunlight/ Windom amphitheatre from high on north Eolus
A peek through the correct cleft gives a winter view of Jagged Mountain
I couldn't yet see the Eolus/North Eolus saddle and the Class 3 cleft that reached this landmark of the route. I wanted to at least see that point. Climbing a gully and swinging left around a corner gave me the perspective I desired. Access to the saddle and the summit of North Eolus were both easily manageable and though the snow trenching never relented, I reached the saddle with sufficient aplomb. The snowshoes even managed to negotiate the snow-covered chimney that normally provides a bit of handwork to reach the backbone of the Eolus catwalk. The easy scramble up and back to North Eolus was enjoyable, but the view provided further trepidation about attempting Eolus.
Eolus as seen from North Eolus. The summer traverse route, the ridge route, and the East Couloir route are all visible.
It was now 1:00PM and I was presented with traversing a lengthy, slough and snow-covered rock face with an easterly aspect. I'll scout it again this summer. Both the ridge proper and the east couloir had potential, but I'd never negotiated them; especially in winter, I don't like guessing. Lost nerve or good judgment, I decided not to attempt. Ken Nolan's words echoed, "Remember, Steve, this in NOT your last, best opportunity to climb these peaks. You will have other opportunities." Looking back down valley and over to yesterday's tracks in the Sunlight/ Windom the views assuaged all disappointment. I settled for north eolus and made my way back to camp.
Arriving at cam with warm temperatures and plenty of remaining sunshine, I decided to utilize the time to clean things up a bit. Living in the snow, it is difficult, even with careful efforts, to avoid tracking some into the tent as you retire for the night. Also, each night my respirations fill the tent with enough moisture to form a frost on the inside of the tent's ceiling. When you dress in the morning, frost rains down on the sleeping bag and all the rest of your gear. As the day progresses, a good deal of the moisture will evaporate, but a not-too-insignificant portion melts, seeking the bottom of the tent and underside of the sleeping pad. Here, it re-freezes providing a hard, icy under-layer as a base for what you hope to make into a warm, cozy bed for the night. Today's early return to camp allowed the opportunity to empty all the tent's contents and hang them out for a good airing the chance for to completely dry.
My pinewood closet
I also brushed away the frost and ice that had accumulated on the tent floor. When all was put back together, the gear was as dry as it had been when the trip began. I gathered water, cloaked myself in dry clothes and climbed into bed to prepare a meal and hot drink. I relaxed a while before setting the alarm for a pre-dawn approach to Sunlight's Red Couloir. Content and no longer anxious about anything, I began to drift in and out of an early slumber. Ok, it's not necessary, but just once for good luck, "No bears..."
Do That to Me One More Time
With the dangerous terrain memorized all the critical trail broken, the always prudent pre-dawn start was reasonable. The alarm rang at 3:00AM and by 3:30AM, I was on the trail. Daydreaming of cheeseburgers, I follow my furrow to the 13,000' plateau below Sunshine's summit. The face was just beginning a bath in a minute, but sufficient, light capable of illuminating the route to the top of the saddle. This time, however, the face would be avoided. I made a climbing traverse another ½ mile up-basin until I reached the gut of the Red Couloir at an elevation close to 13,500'. The uncut trail had a mostly frozen crust which provided comparatively easy access to the couloir. The remaining 300' to the saddle wasn't as steep as it had appeared from Windom.
I reached the saddle just as sunshine graced Sunlight.
I strapped on crampons, readied my axe and plotted the traverse to Sunlight. As I had avoided on Eolus, a long traverse across steep exposed snow was the only way to reach the summit. The distance was about ½ of what Eolus would have required and the earlier hour gave more confidence that traverse could be accomplished safely. As I left the saddle, I knew that I needed to locate the Class 4 chimney that would grant access to the "secret hole" just below Sunlight's summit. A few steps later, my confidence waned. The snow was steeper than it appeared and many the steps were all at least knee-deep. Feeling exposed, my motivation to find the chimney rose dramatically. When I wasn't waddling in snow that was too deep, my feet might catch on an barely concealed rock slab that didn't give enough purchase for comfort. Fear sloshing over the brink of my half-full glass, I misidentified the chimney in an effort to het off the traverse and onto the ridge. A still scary scramble brought me quickly to the summit.
Unfortunately, this wasn't THE summit. Actually, it was only half-way across the traverse; the summit was still a long ways off. I sat frustrated for a few minutes and then resolved climb on. Fortunately, the rest of the traverse held no difficulties worse than those I had already put behind. Without recognizing the significance, I did one last steep climbing traverse and peeked around the corner and spy the "secret hole." The difficult chimney I'd been scanning to locate lay blanketed somewhere in the snow I'd been climbing; my steep traverse had taken me to the top of the chimney. The committing move which leads through the hole was no easier in winter than it is in the summer.
On the return, sneaking up on the "rabbit hole"
A peek back down the hole
Popping out the hole, I strolled over to the summit register and stood on Sunlight at 8:15AM. I rigged a belay that gave enough confidence to scramble over to the true summit. I don't know that it really would have done much good. I'd not have fallen to my death from the north face, but rescuers might likely have found a frenetic climber dangling over the lip. I stayed a full 30 minutes and let the views flush any remnants of apprehension left over from the ascent.
A view of Rio Grand Pyramid from the summit of Sunlight Peak
Ready to descend, I dropped back through the rabbit hole and actually enjoyed the trip back to the red couloir and my snowshoe stash. The known is so much easier than the unknown. . Reaching the col, I knew that I'd had enough excitement from this short traverse has been hard enough; passing over the less stable Eolus traverse left no regrets. The glissade of the couloir was not what it could have been; the snow was slow and often it brought me to a dead stop on slopes which were steep enough to provide a much more exciting ride. I took my time leaving this still inspiring paradise before dropping below timberline and traversing the Chicago Basin meadow to reach camp.
I broke camp slowly and deliberately; but eventually I had to sling that full pack back on my shoulders and trek on down the road. I hoed that the effects of the snowstorm had been stilled by three days of sunshine, but that confidence was mostly misplaced. The trail was discernable and, in the shade, I enjoyed trail that only swallowed my snowshoe-clad legs to mid-calf. It was mid-afternoon and the more elevation that was lost, the softer the snow became. I passed my 9000' Camp I at about 5:00PM and really wanted to quit for the day. I feared, however, that stopping here might leave me too far from the Cascade Wye and that I'd have difficulty reaching the train on time in the morning. I decided that a camp at the rail road tracks was the minimum distance I could leave between tonight's rest stop and tomorrow's train home.
Honey, we can get married now. I found us a home and it's in the mountains!
The last mile to the tracks was very difficult. The snow had become so soft that at least 25% of my steps dropped me crotch-deep in slushy snow. I had long since lost any reminders of my route up the valley. I knew, though, that if I didn't quit, I could reach the tracks in time to erect a tent before dark. I'm not certain how it happened, but I broke into the river's flood plain within yards of the snow bridge I'd used to cross the Animas. Thou the first two feet looked much more precarious, the chest of the bridge looked as if it would hold. Leaping as far as my heavy pack and legs would allow, I hurdled the thinnest portion of the bridge and landed on firm snow. Again, I'd saved a good mile-and-a-half of travel to the Needleton Bridge and back. Crossing the river bottom, I wallowed up to the tracks where a clear stream ran down the canyon wall on the opposite side. I filled my bottles and walked 100 yards down the tracks where a suitable tent site presented itself under a tree uncomfortably close to the tracks, a mere 15 feet below the rails. I set a quicker and less permanent camp (though I still took great care to ensure the sleeping area was comfortably flat.) Tucked in and comfortably fed, I shut my eyes for the night, "No trains, no trains, no trains……."
As I packed my gear in the morning, I was greeted by a friendly snort from a diesel vehicle working its way up the tracks to continue readying the route for the summer season. The crewman and I waved at each other and, within the hour, I was walking the line. I had a 5 ½ mile hike to reach the sled and another 1 ½ miles to Cascade. That should pass quickly. As I hiked along, I carved a few smiley-faces in giant snow balls that had been rolled up alongside the tracks by the work-over rigs. I gathered some giant pine cones, a couple rail spikes and a few lumps of coal. My girls are happy to receive trinkets like these from my trips; it makes the shouts of "What did you bring me?" a little more affordable. The tracks and its shoulders were now completely snow-free and upon reaching the sled, I needed some creativity to get all the gear strapped to my back. I reached the train stop about 11:30AM and had a quick visit with the patroller who was lighting the fire before I snuck off a ways to change enough clothes to make myself presentable. Of course, I had no pants on when the first whistles sounded from the train, but I sped things up a bit and was fully dressed when the cars backed into the picnic area.
You're all invited back again to this locality to have a heapin' helpin' of their hospitality…….set a spell, take your shoes off……..
The conductor remembered dropping me off the week before and inquired about the trip. I told him, "No bears, no bears, no bears………"
Now only one decision remained: Which hot springs, Ouray or Orvis!? If only I was a comfortable in my skin as i am in the mountains.
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