Peak(s):  Mt. Eolus  -  14,083 feet
North Eolus  -  14,039 feet
Windom Peak  -  14,087 feet
Sunlight Peak  -  14,059 feet
"Sunlight Spire" - 14,000 feet
Jupiter Mtn  -  13,830 feet
Date Posted:  09/05/2018
Modified:  09/10/2018
Date Climbed:   08/17/2018
Author:  jknappe17
 Chicago Basin Grand Tour - Purgatory TH - Sunlight Spire   

My hope for the following trip report is that it can provide some guidance in preparing for the Chicago Basin, via the Purgatory Creek TH, and all that this wonderful area has to offer. Though I consider the 14ers, centennial 13er Jupiter, and Sunlight Spire the "classics" of the area, there is much more terrain that deserves to be explored, and MUCH more rock to be climbed should I make it back there again with a rope and a rack.

Disclaimer: I will be providing specific beta on sunlight spire (including free-climbing beta and the specifics of the trad rack I packed up) and Jupiter mountain for those that like to be prepared with details beforehand; however, if you enjoy the adventure of being surprised you may want to shield your eyes during the potential spoilers.

Day 1 (Friday): Chicago Basin Approach from Purgatory Creek TH to Camp @ 11,040ft
Purgatory Creek TH: 12:00pm
Chicago Basin Camp: 5:45pm
(we hammered it without any breaks to get a full night of sleep)

Driving over Red mountain pass outside of Ouray en route to the TH

Purgatory Creek TH sign as you begin your descent into purgatory flats.

For starters, the approach is absolutely wonderful and I would recommend it for those wanting to have the freedom of arriving/leaving whenever you want (unlike the $70.00 train ride on a schedule), and the bonus of enjoying more Aspen groves and steep canyon rock walls along cascade creek. The TH is located directly across from the Purgatory ski resort north of Durango. According to Roach's guide, this is approximately 16 miles one way with ~2,900 feet of elevation gain to get into the basin. It takes you through purgatory flats, along cascade creek, and the Animas river prior to reaching the Needle Creek TH. Despite making the approach in under 6 hours, I would allow 6-10 hours depending on your normal pace.

Crossing over the Animas river bridge

Another shot of the journey along the Animas river

We arrived, eagerly dropped our packs, and setup camp prior to soaking up the spectacular views. The train was still under repair due to the mudslide damage, so the basin was relatively quiet. There are many campsites to choose from prior to the trail split leading up to twin lakes and columbine pass.


Day 2 (Saturday): Mt. Eolus, North Eolus, and Windom

The weather was looking more promising for Sunday, so we opted to save the Spire for that day while planning an early start on Eolus for Saturday. As it turned out, it was a beautiful and unique morning with low hanging clouds and swirling fog. The weather allowed us the opportunity to attempt Windom as well. The twin lakes area has to be one of the most awe-inspiring locations I have had the chance to visit. Truly blessed.

Twin lakes at dawn

Mount Eolus reminded me of large stack of lego blocks. The catwalk is especially heroic with fog rolling up the valley.18989_07

Looking back at the catwalk


We strolled back to twin lakes, assessed the weather, and decided to continue up to gain the saddle b/w Windom and Peak 18. The final scramble to the summit offered spectacular views of numerous mountain lakes and spires, just waiting to be climbed. We were greeted with a brief rainstorm on our way back down to camp, and some mountain goats.

Filtering water back at camp, Peak 18 in the background.

Day 3 (Sunday): Sunlight peak, Sunlight Spire, and Jupiter Mountain
Jupiter Mtn: Southeast slopes. Split off Columbine Pass trail (described below).

The psyche was tangible as we scurried back up the hill towards twin lakes in the dark. Perfectly clear and starry skies for an alpine start is always comforting and I was looking forward to some high-altitude crack climbing; I focused on keeping my hands warm. The real fun began at the saddle between Sunlight and the Spire, where we ditched the rope and trad rack while we hopped up to the summit of the Peak. The summit block on Sunlight peak certainly did not disappoint. The Class 4 "gap" may be more difficult for those who are shorter, but this should not deter you if you have the experience.

Sunlight peak and the Spire at dawn.


We returned to the saddle, gathered the gear, and started the Class 3 approach ledges towards the Spire. Below is our approximate route through this section.18989_41
Our route through the ledges. The end of the line designates the 5.4 downclimb to a grassy ledge mentioned in Roach's guide, and we felt adequately protected and secure to remain ropeless through this section. It is not overly exposed. This spits you out at the beginning of the 5.6 approach pitch where we roped up. I opted to split it into two pitches to manage rope drag, which I couldn't afford to have if I wanted to send this thing clean.

My rack consisted of the following:
Camelot C4 #0.5 - 3 with doubles of 0.75 - 2
Camelot X4 #0.4
BD Larger Stoppers #8-12
8 Alpine draws
2 double length slings

This rack was more than adequate to sew up the whole spire which is exactly what I needed to boost my confidence. There were 3 pieces of fixed gear when I led the spire. The freeclimbing is stout without a doubt. I have read anywhere from 5.9 - 5.10c for the spire proper, and I now understand the discrepancy. I have to agree that no move on the climb is harder than 10a; however, be prepared for a solid 60 feet of it without much of a rest until the crack becomes more vertical. The leftward leaning nature of the first half of the climb makes for difficult feet, insecure smears with the left, and increased weight hanging down on your hands. Overall, this climb was INCREDIBLE. So pure, exposed, sustained, and beautiful. The elevation makes it hard to catch your breath.

Beginning of the approach pitch. No harder than 5.6

On top of the spire looking toward Sunlight Peak


Victory shadow!!

The anchor up top is bomber. Consists of a brand new bolt w/ chain, which I equalized to an old tricam, hex, and ratty bolt that was already up there. I removed the above pictured UV damaged webbing and replaced it with my own making for a solid 4-piece anchor to rappel off.


Cleaning the route

For whatever reason, I carried my 70m rope for a total of 40+ miles, but it was actually nice to be able to rappel the whole spire back to the grassy ledge in one solid rap. A 60m MIGHT make it down, but I would do two raps just in case. KNOT YOUR ENDS!

We returned to twin lakes to start the climb up to Jupiter mountain, our final objective for the basin.

Back at twin lakes. We returned to our camp in the basin, ditched the climbing gear, and geared up for some trail running. We had an alpine day of dreams with nothing threatening developing, but we still wanted to achieve the summit quickly. We started up the Columbine Pass trail, hoping to find a cairn marking the split off to Jupiter. Below are the waypoints for our journey, with coordinates, and the trail junction which could be easy to miss if you aren't scouring carefully.

(Left): Southeast slopes route. (Right): Cairned trail junction

Jupiter mountain to the left (shadow pointing) and Columbine pass trail continues right.

As a whole, this route is not overly enthralling. There is a lot of steep grassy slope traversing that can be hard on the ole ankles. However, in my opinion, the views are some of the best in the basin once you gain the upper ridge-line, and the summit scramble (Class 3) is a blast! Check your footholds carefully.

Summit scramble.

Windom in the background. The connecting ridge-line looks SICK. But pretty involved especially the backside of Windom. Would love to hear if anyone has done this traverse.

Quote of the day: "Be your own freakin train." Yes...

We returned to camp and for our final evening just soaked in the views that we would be sure to miss. Incredible place....


Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed it. Get out there and have some fun! Definitely recommend the Purgatory approach, as it adds more beautiful scenery, and saves you $75.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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