| 5 Days, 5 Summits, 5 Great Snow Climbs in Chicago Basin
May 13th-17th, 2010
Climbers: Carson Black & Darin Baker
San Juan Range
Mount Eolus (14,083')
North Eolus (14,039'/unranked)
Sunlight Peak (14,059')
Windom Peak (14,082')
-NW Face, a.k.a., Widowmaker, w/descent of West Ridge
Jupiter Mountain (13,830')
-Io Couloir, w/descent of N face (a.k.a., Europa couloir)
Trailhead: Needleton (off of the Durango/Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad)
Approach: Needle Creek to Chicago Basin base-camp
Route(s): see above under each peak
Additional stats (e.g., times, mileage, elevation gain) can be found in the report, under the heading for each climb, in the order they were climbed.
Gear: Ospry Exposure 66 backpack, two-man tent, two sleeping pads (closed cell foam & insulated air pad), 15 degree down bag, Jetboil stove, Aquamira water purification, a lot of food, ice axe, crampons, mountaineering boots, helmet, avalanche gear (beacon, probe, shovel), Essentials, snowshoes, trekking poles, down booties, coyote urine (please don't ask how I had to get this)
Resources Used for Trip Planning: Roachs' 13er & 14er guidebooks; 14ers.com & 14erWorld for trip reports from this time of year (for an "idea" of past conditions); SNOTEL sites for daily hi-lo temp's, etc. (locations used: Stumps Lake & Vallecito sites); NOAA weather forecast accessed from 14ers.com
In my quest to climb/hike the High 100 in Colorado, Chicago Basin and its' area peaks were targets that I always looked forward to climb. The remoteness of these peaks, in addition to other rugged peaks in the Weminuche Wilderness, become topics of conversation amongst those of us that aim to reach their heights.
However, because of their remoteness and the long 5+ hour drive from Manitou Springs, they were a bit of a logistical problem for me.
Time off from work in the past has not been easy to come by, and for these peaks I wanted to allot myself enough time in the basin so I wouldn't have to go in with the "mad rush" method to complete this part of the "list."
But now, with the economic times and the decline of the printing industry, my employers have had to cut my hours to 24 a week, giving me 4 day weekends. The paycheck sucks, but the weekends are awesome! Since I have longer weekends now, I want to take advantage of them and try to get to the San Juan's to finish off the high 100 peaks I have left in the Weminuche.
Originally, late June was marked for this trip and my friends Mike & Dani Silvestro were interested in joining me. But then I saw a trip report from Steve Gladbach of his winter climbs in Chicago Basin. His report and pictures inspired me to go in to climb these peaks as snow climbs.
Mike was very interested in this change of plans, but he was unsure of his work schedule, so he could not commit right away.
I sent out a few invites, and Carson, always game for adventure, was all for it! He's climbed these peaks several times before, but not at this time of year and not quite the same routes. So now I definitely had a partner to climb with.
As it turned out, Mike & Dani would still come, but they would be doing the "mad rush" method, as it is Mike's way! I think that's why his user-name on 14ers is Mad Mike. ;-)
Their accomplishments and routes they did in two days make me tired just thinking about it!
Anyway, on with the show….
Thursday, Day 1
The Approach to Chicago Basin
~6mi (one way)
Carson and I drove to Durango Wednesday afternoon, arriving at 9pm-ish and van-camped in his Westfalia on a side street in town.
In the morning, we caught the 8:15am, $90+ (WTF?) train ride to the Needleton trailhead. It was my first time on the train, and it was okay. I hope not to pay that fee again though! The train cuts off about 16 miles (round-trip), so with the weight we were carrying, the fee was worth it, this time.
On the train, we met fellow 14ers.com members Wesley (Carl), pioletski (Matt), Benners (Ben), and their friend Marc. They were going in to ski the 14ers!
I was hoping to see them accomplish this, but as it turned out, we climbed the peaks on different days. They were successful, and I congratulate them for doing so, especially on the ski descent off of Sunlight (but more on that later).
The train dropped us off at 10:45am, we grabbed our packs, and headed up the trail for the ~6 mile hike to our camp.
Carson and I opted for a campsite on the SW end of the first big opening in lower Chicago Basin.
It was an awful neighborhood…
Picture taken on Sunday
We set up our tent, hung our food, and went to bed early for our intended 4am start the next day.
Friday, Day 2
Eolus & N Eolus
~5mi RT (roundtrip)
~3500' (total for both peaks)
We set out from camp by headlamp at 4:15am, walking on firm snow on our approach to Eolus. We got above the headwall and headed toward the basin below Eolus' east face. Ahead of us were two people (1 skier, 1 split-boarder) skinning up toward the base of the east couloir, which was our planned route as well.
Carson coming up the slope with Jupiter in the background.
A little bit of "Sunlight" this morning….
We eventually got in the boot track the two in front of us started to put in, saving us some energy. (Thanks Chris & Alex!)
I put my crampons & helmet on below the apron of the couloir, and headed up into the steep & aesthetic line of the east couloir.
Carson at the start of the couloir….
The couloir was wind loaded a little bit, but it was bonded to the icy surface of the slab underneath.
The climbing was fun, and the higher I got, the better the views became. I was also glad for the extra traction provided by my crampons.
It was 8am when I topped out, and I waited for Carson to arrive before heading around the west side of the peak for the short vertical distance to the summit.
Carson near the top; Jagged Mountain in the distance.
Couple of other Weminuche greats…
The weather was so fantastic, it was hard to leave. But we wanted to watch the skier and boarder start their descent.
Chris working the slough….
We waited for Chris and Alex to reach the base, and then we down climbed the couloir. At times I would face out, but other times it was more comfortable to face in, depending on the snow surface of where I was.
We started our traverse over to North Eolus sometime around 9:25, with Carson out in lead this time, and he was kind of enough to find holes that I should avoid…
Carson extricated himself, and carried on.
Sunlight and Windom, targets for the next day.
We reached the saddle between Eolus and North Eolus around 10:10, and took a look at the traverse.
How many people are daring enough to descend the face and traverse the ridge at this time of year?
There's probably at least a "couple" that are mad enough to do it. ;-)
New York Basin…
Ruby Creek drainage…
Our mostly plunge-stepping descent went without incident, and we were back to our snowshoe stash for the rest of our descent back to camp.
Saturday, Day 3
Sunlight & Windom
Out of camp at 4am, we headed up the now familiar "trail" through the basin. We ran into the 14ers ski crew near the far end of the lower basin; they were on their way to ski the Eolus group, and we were off to climb what they had skied the day before.
A couloir on the far right side of the upper headwall made for easy progress up into the Twin Lakes basin. The 14ers ski crew skied this same couloir the day before, wiping it clean and leaving an icy surface. Crampons were strapped on, the helmet became the hat, and up we went with ice axe in hand. The climbing was good, the ascent went quick, and we were soon above the headwall.
First look at the south face of Sunlight…
And here's a look at Windom, sort of…
Carson was climbing strong on this morning, and he lead the way up the south face…
We were on the ridge sometime around 7:30am, following the boot track of the 14er ski crew that was left the day before.
Soon we were heading through one of the keyholes below the summit block….
Next up was the summit block itself…
(Ahem…not a good representation of the summit block, but most of you have seen pictures of it already….)
This summit is notorious for its exposed move to reach the real top. Some make it, some don't.
As I planned for this trip, it was on my mind as to whether I would actually do it.
Generally, I'm comfortable with exposure.
However there have been times when I've said, "Nope, not going to make that move!"
I'm ok with backing off of something that just doesn't feel right to me. In other words, sometimes a move will scare the hell out of me so I won't do it!
Mostly though, I don't like moves that require jumping over gaps.
The common way to hit the top of Sunlight requires stepping up and pulling over an exposed gap (with an ~8' drop below), and then a jump on the return. Ugh.
I took my crampons off, walked up to the block that leads to the gap, looked, didn't see the moves to pull it off, and said, "Nope, not going to make that move."
Instead, I climbed the low 5th class slab that Roach talks about in his guidebook.
Good, thin knobby granite to gain the summit!
Photo by Carson
I of course took the offered spot by Carson for this short climb. The down climb was spicier than the ascent (duh), especially when my glasses fogged up when I was looking down for my next foot placement. That raised the pucker factor.
In retrospect, it would have been easier with crampons on. Seriously.
We didn't stay long once I was off the block. Crampons came back on and we descended the skiers' descent route off the west side. Now I know what they talk about when they say it's one of the most exposed skis off of a 14er! Nice work to those that have the guts to do it on ski's, or boards.
Below this slope and out of sight, you would become out of sight if you don't quite make it.
And now the other keyhole/window on Sunlight…
Photo by Carson
The "circumnavigation" of the upper part of Sunlight was unintentional, but I'm glad we did it. I'm not sure if that's the normal way or not, but it was cool to do it, and it doesn't take much time if you're on foot.
Now off to Windom and the Widowmaker route…
Carson took the blue line so as not to lose elevation; I opted to descend to the basin floor and start from the bottom (at the orange line). Hmm….I thought only climbing gyms marked routes.
The climbing had variable conditions; I went into deep but bonded wind loaded areas, and then into skied clean areas (where it was icy). Front pointing was common on this climb, as was using the dagger position with my axe.
Carson entering the Widowmaker from his traversing route off of Sunlight…
On top at 9:50am.
Chicago Basin down below…
Tomorrow's route up Jupiter….
Io Couloir, named after one of the moon's of Jupiter
Carson on our west ridge descent route…
The west ridge route brought us down to the saddle between Peak 18 and Windom, where we descended off the north side to retrace our earlier ascent line.
Maybe we took the wrong turn.
Am I at "Monarch?"
That evening back in camp, Mike and Dani showed up from their approach off of the train. We talked for a while, told them what we had already climbed, the conditions, etc.
They were planning on Sunlight & Windom the next day, and maybe something else at the end too. Carson and I would be going for Jupiter.
I was a little bummed that I wouldn't be climbing with them, but with Mike's overachieving strong climbing attitude, he would probably have driven me into the ground anyway!
Sunday, Day 4
-The Best for Last-
I have dubbed this "the best for last" for several reasons.
The Io couloir, in my opinion, was the best climb of the trip. It was the best for its aesthetic qualities, the finishing moves and where it finishes, and, the views from the top are the best from any of the high points out of Chicago Basin that we climbed. Plus, it was the first day of clear blue skies!
With a shorter approach, and only one peak to climb, we left camp at 4:30am. The going was slow, at least it felt slower. But maybe it felt that way because of the deceptively long approach to the base of the couloir.
Taken from our Eolus climb
First light on Eolus…
Carson traversing the northern slopes of Jupiter, with Chicago Basin below…
Me out leading the way…
Photo by Carson
A look at the north face, and our descent line…
Can you see the entrance to the couloir?
The northern slopes were loaded, boot deep, but bonded. There wasn't any sloughing, collapsing, or propagating. Carson and I talked about the conditions, and he was confident with us going on, but he also stressed we get off it before the sun warmed it up too much. I concurred, but I paid attention to every step I took and to what I was feeling.
Luckily it's north facing, so there's plenty of time, and it's still cold.
Tough going up steep slopes….
Photo by Carson
The start of the Io….
And we're in it!
Once we entered the deeply inset couloir, I was ready for a break from lead.
The ole' mountain goat from way back (Carson) takes it, and finishes it!
Looking to what's next….
In the above picture, Carson is looking at a pinch in the route. This turned out to be a short mixed section, due to the unsupportable, unconsolidated snow below the pinch. Made things interesting.
Me below the short mixed section….
Photo by Carson
After the pinch and mixed section, the snow was still a bit loose. There was about 2-3' of powder on top of a slab, seemed to be bonded at the surface, but there was a fair bit of sloughing as we tried to plow our way up this steep and final section of the climb.
At first, we tried to stay left, but it wasn't happening.
Carson moved out in the center and found better footing underneath.
This section was the steepest, maybe approaching 50 degrees.
At times, I would punch my fist in the snow for a "second tool" while in my other hand my axe was plunged deep into the powder, providing an effective self-belay.
Plus, at this point my front points were getting good purchase into the hard slab underneath.
The upper part of this couloir is a headwall of corniced snow that leads into a rock move, an exposed rock move. Roach calls it an exposed class 2+ move, so I'm wondering if we were on the route described in the guidebook.
It was more like a class 3-4 exposed move! But fun! (And I should have taken a picture of Carson pulling over the crux.)
Looking down the top, for which this angle doesn't do it justice
Here's the rock move, which is also a poor representative of the move…
The finish on this line is absolutely fantastic! The rock move wasn't hard, but it does require a bit of care while doing it in crampons.
The finish is also only ~20' (of distance) from the summit, with maybe a few feet of elevation to gain for the tippy top! Sweet!!
Oh how Grande….
Unfortunately, we didn't stay long due to the concern of warming snow. Our original plan was to descend the SW slopes route, but the north face was looking inviting sitting there in the shade.
We descended part of the ridge to the saddle, with a few interesting moves along the way.
Carson negotiating some rock…
We hit the saddle and started down. We encountered the same snow conditions as we did with the approach to the couloir itself. Loaded, on a slab, but bonded, and still cold; but let's get down.
Later that day, this section would be skied, and it would provide a ~60 second glissade ride!
We returned to camp and took advantage of the sun and started to dry stuff out. This was the best weather day since arriving on Thursday, and it was such a treat to sit around in shorts and enjoy the scenery.
Monday, Day 5
Packing Out of Chicago Basin
~3hrs to TH
~2900' (of elevation loss)
After a good night's sleep, we were up and at it by 7am, having our last breakfast in the basin. We started tearing down, packing up, and were on the trail by 9:15.
Carson and I before leaving Chicago Basin...
And down the trail we go….
Hindsight & Personal Notes
The planning for this trip reminded me a lot of my last big trip, which was in '06 to Rainier. Weather, snow conditions, what's needed for the trip, etc. were all considerations and the days leading up to our departure, Carson and I would be on the phone with one another, comparing "notes."
It all worked out, the snow was in better shape than expected, and our planning paid off.
I feel fortunate to have gone at this time of year, and have the conditions we did in addition to the weather to cooperate for safe and great climbs! To leave with all goals achieved is great!
In our 5 days in the basin, we didn't have problems with animals. I did use some coyote urine around our site (which I thought I had lost at the TH, but found it later), and that may have helped.
The snowmelt in the days we were in there, at least in the lower basin and on the trail, could be measured in feet!
It's going quick down low.
Lastly, I would like to thank Carson for going with me. He's been a great friend over the years, and a fun climbing partner to share these experiences with. Thank you Carson!
You're an inspiration and a good role model; and I hope I'm still climbing peaks and doing trips like this when I'm 69.
Thanks for reading,