Sunlight Peak - 14,059 feet
Mt. Eolus - 14,083 feet
North Eolus - 14,039 feet
Windom Peak - 14,087 feet
Sunlight Peak - 14,059 feet
Mt. Eolus - 14,083 feet
North Eolus - 14,039 feet
Windom Peak - 14,087 feet
|Chicago Basin Come-Back|
My son and I first visited Chicago Basin last summer in September. It was his 16th birthday and he wanted to go on an epic backpacking trip and summit some 14ers. We had only done one other 14er prior to that trip (Mount Sneffels). From that first trip we were both bitten by the bug to return for more and pursue the goal of accomplishing all 58.
Last summer was somewhat of a failure, however. We had a great time riding the train in from Silverton and hiking into Chicago Basin, all under excellent weather. But the morning we pressed out to conquer our quest, an early winter storm rolls in with high winds and dumps hail and freezing rain on us just as we approached the Twin Lakes area at 5am. We were neither expecting nor prepared for this kind of event, which resulted in us running back to the shelter of our tents and the warmth of our sleeping bags. We only had this one day to attempt the summits, and we got beat down. I gained a whole new respect for just how harsh the conditions can become in the San Juans. We left Chicago Basin the next morning defeated.
All year we've been planning to come back and redeem ourselves. We up-ed our ambition to hike in this time from the Purgatory Trail head, adding an additional 10 miles of hiking on to front and back end of our trip. We also planned to accomplish all four 14ers in just one day, no matter what Mother Nature threw at us.
Day 1 (Drive to Purgatory and partial hike-in)
We drove from Flagstaff, AZ roughly around 10am on Thursday morning, arriving at the Purgatory Creek Trailhead around 4pm. The weather was perfect, just a little cloudy and you could tell it had just rained prior to us getting there. From here we have a 10-mile hike ahead of us to Needle Creek, the site where most backpackers get dropped off by the train on their pursuit to Chicago Basin.
The first mile of the Purgatory Creek Trail is a down-hill plunge until you hit the flats and the terrain opens up into large green meadows and a smooth trail for about half mile. There are some trails that branch off to the left, so be sure to stick to the right. The next mile and half is up and down rocky and cliffy terrain along the slopes. The trail parallels the Cascade creek which makes this hike all the more scenic and enjoyable. After about three miles the trail dumps you off at the Animas River. Here we found picnic tables and suitable camping sites, a great place to rest.
From this point we had 7 more miles to go to meet up with Needle Creek. Our goal was to set up camp as close to this site as possible before sunset. So after a quick break at the picnic table, we crossed the Animas River on a nice bridge and crossed the railroad tracks to get onto the Animas River Trail. We hiked another 5.5 miles on this trail before deciding to stop and set up came, as sunlight was quickly diminishing. We thoroughly enjoyed hiking along this trail, which parallels the Animas River and is well maintained. We noticed many areas along the river that made for decent camp sites. The scenery and experience made us both appreciate the decision of hiking in from Purgatory verses taking the train again.
Day 2 (Hike to Chicago Basin base camp)
We woke up Friday morning to blue skies, things were looking great for our hike into Chicago Basin. After a little breakfast we packed up and pressed on to Needle Creek, only 1.5 miles away at this point. Before we knew it we had reached the bridge crossing Needle Creek and took a right-hand turn onto the trail leading into Chicago Basin, only 6 more miles to go.
This is where things start to get difficult due to the elevation, pack weight and trail conditions. You have about 3,000 vertical feet of climbing to do within this 6-mile stretch. With many small breaks along the way, we soon reached the basin around 1pm and noticed the clouds were well-built by then and rain was soon to come. There are many locations within a 1-mile stretch of the trail you can choose to pull off and set up camp. We chose to pull off somewhere in the middle. A group of mountain goats came to great us
Just as we set up our hammocks and rain covers, the hail and rain started to come down. We were relieved to have just finished and able to rest peacefully and dry under our canopy. After about 30-40 minutes, the rains stopped and the sun came out again. We took this opportunity to hike up to the intersection of the Columbine Pass and Twin Lakes trails, just to become further oriented with the part of the trail since the next morning we would be hiking under moonlight and headlamps. We ventured onto the Columbine Pass trail just to check out an old mining site the trail passes through, and then we returned back to camp for dinner and an early shut-eye.
Day 3 (Summiting Eolus, N.Eolus, Sunlight Peak and Windom Peak)
We awoke to our alarm clocks at 3am, quickly gathered our gear and set out from camp around 3:20am. The air was brisk and the sky was a bit cloudy, as we couldn't see the stars very well. We passed a few hikers taking a break on the steep incline, and then it became apparent by the headlights that we were leading the pack up to Twin Lakes. One of the most beautiful sites was looking back at the 15-20 headlamps twinkling their way up the trail after us. The lights reminded me of Christmas tree lights stretching from one side of the tree to the other, and then back again.
We reached the Twin Lakes area about 5:30am and then decided to head towards Eolus and N. Eolus first, thinking it wouldn't be a problem finding the trail. Well, just about that time some heavy fog rolled in, making it very difficult to even see five feet in front of you with the headlights on. We proceeded west hoping to stumble upon the trail, but after a while to no avail, I pulled out the GPS and found we had been paralleling the trail about 100ft. south. We scrambled north for a bit and found the well-maintained trail, what a relief.
Soon after we look back and see one solitary headlamp making its way behind us. We took a small break to let him pass, but then we ended up sticking together, utilizing both of our GPS routes to help find the route through fields of boulders, snow and fog. He wanted to attempt all four summits as well, so we decided to team up for the day. We reached the saddle around 7am and decided to hit N. Eolus first, since it was only a few hundred feed of climbing from this point. As the sun lit up the fog around us, it made for a very eerie feeling, only seeing 20-30ft away from you at times and knowing there's a sheer drop-off below you, you just can't see it.
After a quick pic and a snack, we make our way down to the catwalk. We encounter a couple who was just turning back from the catwalk, saying, It's WAY TOO SKETCHY. In deed it was, but all the more thrilling! Other hikers just approaching the notch of the catwalk decided they were willing to commit to battling the eerie catwalk. My son and I ended up leading the group, which was kind of funny because we had only done one other 14er before‚¶and here we are leading a dozen people on a path I wasn't certain myself would be the right way. But I did a lot of research on this site and studied the trip reports, so I felt like I had already done this route in my mind a thousand times. We found many different paths taking you up the summit. I just remembered reading stay to the left as much as possible to get to the notch on the south side of the summit. I was relieved when I finally saw the notch and then the summit blocks, relieved that I didn't lead this group astray. We reached the summit around 9am and took a longer break, time for a 5hr. Energy!
It's all downhill from here! My son and I brought our ice axes with us just in case we needed to cross through an icy field. Although the trail pretty much stayed out of the few snowfields left, we really wanted to glissade down one or two. Just below the catwalk notch on the east side there is one such snowfield where the trail crosses back underneath it, so glissading down would be a ‚shortcut‚Ě. We broke out our ice axes and experienced a safe glissade down the snow field, only about 100 feet, but it was fun!
On our way down the fog began to lift and for the first time that morning we started to see the surrounding terrain. The beauty of Chicago Basin began to open up before our eyes. It made for an amazing and enjoyable hike down to Twin Lakes. We got to Twin Lakes around 11am and rested for lunch. The weather seemed to be holding out for us. Even though we experienced a lit bit of rain, we didn't hear any thunder so far. So we decided to go for the other two 14ers, Sunlight Peak and Windom Peak.
We set out for Sunlight Peak first. The trail was easy to follow heading out of Twin Lakes and the gigantic cairns on the rock flats above were really impressive. By this time the clouds had lifted completely and the sun was shining on us. As we crossed the upper basin and approached the head-wall below Sunlight saddle, we all started to feel fatigued and spent, just after a small trek of climbing this section, which by far was the steepest and less stable. By the time we reached the saddle, we were almost crawling our way across to the summit. The approach to the summt was definitely more Class 3 climbing than the two previous peaks, but nothing too difficult. Climbing through the chimney hole was exciting! The time was now about 2:30pm and we felt like we could really use a nap! Our last destination, Windom Peak, looked so far away and daunting, but we were determined!
The traverse down from Sunlight Peak was met with some difficulty. The slope is steep and the ground is very loose with scree. In addition, the clouds quickly built up around us and now it started to rain, making the rocks slippery. We found a little bit of solace under a large builder, trying to keep our feet dry and re-evaluate the whole situation. The rain was cold and consistently coming down for about 40min. We heard NO thunder, so our plan was to wait out the storm and let it pass. We had talked about scrapping Windom at this point and just heading back to camp in the rain‚¶but we were determined! Sure enough, just as we got up and put our packs on, the rains stopped and soon after the clouds lifted and the sun came out again. We were so excited!
We pressed on across the upper basin and up to the saddle, picking up the trail taking us to the top of Windom Peak.
Again, it seemed like a very slow trek to get to the top. But at the top, the weather opened up to a 360 degree view of the Weminuche wilderness. We were in disbelief of where we had just been. Up Chicago Basin to Twin Lakes, climbed both N. Eolus and Eolus, back down to Twin Lakes and scrambled over to the top of Sunlight Peak, overcame the elements to cross the upper basin and climb to the top of Windom Peak, our 4th 14er in ONE day! The legs felt like jello and I wished I had a hang-glider to get me back to camp! Time for another 5hr. Energy!
We slithered back down the trail to Twin Lakes, where again we took another opportunity to glissade down a snowy field‚¶Awesome! We found a small heard of mountain goats at the lakes and my son wanted to see if the rumor was true, Do mountain goats really like human pee? Well, the test passed with flying colors. My son took a leak and soon one of the goats perked up, obviously getting a strong whiff, and made a bee-line run over to where my son was urinating! Soon the whole heard was there trying to fight for a position to lick the pee-soaked ground. It was hilarious!
It was about 6pm when we finally made it back to camp‚¶15 hours of hiking and climbing! We were spent. We had just enough energy to whip up a dinner and then it was bed-time for us.
Day 4 (16-mile hike to Purgatory TH)
Another big day of hiking is in store for us. At least it's mostly down-hill from here. We woke up around 7am, ate breakfast and packed up‚¶hitting the trail around 8:30am. The mountain goats camp back to bid us farewell and to thank my son for the urine-treat. We reached the Animas River TH around 10:30am‚¶we were moving! The 7-mile stretch from this point to Cascade creek is just beautiful and well-maintained. We reached the Animas River crossing around 1pm and stopped at the picnic tables to have lunch.
Around 2pm we set out for the final 3-mile push up hill to Purgatory. The last mile from Purgatory Flats is the steepest and most rugged. But knowing this is your last mile helps conjure up any remaining energy to make the final push. Well left the TH around 4pm for our drive back to Flagstaff, AZ.
This was the greatest trip of our lives! I can't see how we will ever top this experience. Thank you, Chicago Basin, the Weminuche Wilderness and 14ers.com for everything you offer!
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