Mt. Eolus - 14,083 feet
North Eolus - 14,039 feet
Sunlight Peak - 14,059 feet
Windom Peak - 14,087 feet
Mt. Sneffels - 14,150 feet
Mt. Eolus - 14,083 feet
North Eolus - 14,039 feet
Sunlight Peak - 14,059 feet
Windom Peak - 14,087 feet
Mt. Sneffels - 14,150 feet
|Chicago Basin - Pushing Through the Night (+ Mt. Sneffels)|
The Crazy Plan
With a ticket already purchased and rental reserved, while this may complicate things a bit, this was still no where near a definitive enough forecast for me to consider cancelling. If anything, I decided to bring my full 70L pack with a tent and full size sleeping bag as well just to have in the trunk so I can reassess the forecast once I got to Durango. If the forecast got worse, I was content giving up both Mt. Sneffels and Wilson Peak in favor of taking the extra time to finish out Chicago Basin (but I kept my fingers crossed).
I must say the train is an experience in itself and well worth the $117 for the open air gondola. I thought I could take a nap at some point on the 2.5 ride to Needleton but with such iconic views along the Animas River, how could I sleep!
Eventually the train pulled into Needleton and the reality of the task ahead began to settle in.
I actually held a fairly good pace for the first 5 miles or so, but fatigue was definitely beginning to settle in--not necessarily hiking fatigue but lack of sleep. From then on out I was alternating between stopping to take in the scenery and taking a 5 minute nap here and 20 minute nap there.
Lol one of those naps got the best of me right before the Twin Lakes ascent--thought I'd just dose off and next thing I realize an hour's passed and combined with my slow going up to this point I realized I was thoroughly behind schedule for my "plan."
I pushed forward and got to Twin Lakes around 5:20pm. While I generally always target the hardest peak first, with sunset looming I had to consider whether I really wanted to be dealing with any class 4 in darkness if I pushed forward because ANY peak I attempted at that point would almost certainly be summited in darkness. I decided against it and directed my attention toward the Eoluses figuring I'd rather do class 3 in the dark and risk some class 4 (that I'm still extremely comfortable with) if I get off route than do class 4 in the dark and risk class 5.
I began the ascent to the catwalk, hoping I could at least make the ridgeline with some light and to catch the sunset. Somehow I was able to pull it off, but I knew from then on out it's game on.
Weather was in the back of my mind as well but based on multiple sources, if I did encounter anything it would be light. I don't know if it was adrenaline or if all those naps actually chipped away at my fatigue, but I don't think I could have been more alert the entire time I was up there. My original plan was to do North Eolus at night anyway, but I decided to get Mt. Eolus out the way first as it would clearly be the greater challenge.
I was certainly prepared for this though with my full Sam's Club pack of lithium batteries and my two Coast 300 lumen lights. Normally I get about two hours of of them on the brightest setting when just hiking but for up here, the moment I noticed the brightness dimming from the highest possible illumination, I would change them out which was pretty much every 50-70 minutes.
Lol yeah these batteries are a bit expensive at ~$24, but after that time on Capitol when I just made it back from K2 as the sun was setting and had to navigate the entire boulder field and approach to the trailhead in darkness, you will NEVER catch me without batteries again!
Definitely some moves to pay attention to particularly when the path veers off to the right, but actually wasn't too bad overall and was pretty much able to follow it all the way to the summit!
Couple firsts here: first night summit and being pretty much a weekend warrior, I realized this was my first non-weekend summit as well. Couldn't stay up there long though, I began noticing flurries and realized I needed to get back to the catwalk quickly. I still wasn't able to see a path directly off the summit to the east face so I just followed the ridge back down. There was a clear point where the ridge appeared to cliff out so I could see why it's not the preferred option, but at that point I was at least able to see cairns going down the east face and was able to follow them to the catwalk. The wind started picking up a bit along with the flurries and I began to get concerned that it might graduate to snow. Fortunately it was just coming and going and with the temperature in the low 30s but not really freezing, nothing stuck and I was able to push onward.
Summiting at night was actually a pretty cool experience, though my only regret was not being able to see the view of the San Juans from either of the Eoluses. This is definitely an area I look forward to visiting again and I'll make sure when I return to summit them during the day.
I scrambled back down to my pack on the catwalk which had been collecting flurries and there I was faced with perhaps the scariest, most uncertain hurdle of the entire time in Chicago Basin: getting off the catwalk. When I came up, I still had enough light to find green gully route and the notch I was supposed to be aiming for but finding the path back down was a lot more difficult. It was beginning to fog up on the catwalk as well:
I had passed a cairn on the catwalk but didn't immediately see a notch so I figured I needed to go further. I came across a notch feature with what appeared to be a gully beneath it and assuming I'd found the way down began descending. I got down about 60 ft and I began to suspect I wasn't in the right gully as the slope wasn't beginning to ease. I remember the gully coming up was fairly short and even in darkness the light should have been able to illuminate the boulders below, but all I could see beneath me was yet another black abyss. The silver lining here was that the gully was solid so I could easily climb back up if need be. Just to be sure, I kicked a rock down (lol it's pushing midnight and I'm quite positive there's not another soul on this mountain) and after disappearing into the darkness I heard it continuing to tumble for another 25 seconds at least which gave me all the confirmation I needed to know I WAS IN THE WRONG GULLY! I immediately began climbing back up to the catwalk and decided to go back to that cairn I passed and look around that area more closely. Sure enough there was a notch there and I could even see the green coloration in the gully. I forgot I had loaded gpx files on my watch as well and decided now would be a good time to use them. The gpx route lined up with the cairn as well so I knew I had found the way to go.
I had expected sunrise just after 6am but it seemed to be taking its own sweet time. I continued up the orange gully and finally the sun began to rise when I topped out around 13,800'.
Made the Sunlight summit at 7:40am and figured I was in decent shape to make Windom, but perhaps I was looking too far ahead. Lol all my devices started dying at this point: both phones, my watch, and my camera was on its last life as well. Felt the only true class 4 section was that depicted in Photo #19 of the route descrription (I took the left line, lol didn't even realize the right was an option). The summit block is definitely not for the faint of heart. Getting up is fairly straight forward but once there, there’s such a sheer dropoff that I was quite comfortable just sitting on the summit. Then descending, the way that second rock slopes I felt I couldn’t just step across. Lol forget Pyramid's leap of faith, this was an actual “jump” of faith! Knowing I had to get a picture on the summit block, I had gotten a wireless receiver for my camera. I tested it at Rocky Mountain (near the Incline) so it should have been good, but now when I needed it most it wasn't working :(.
Only when I got home did I realize that I somehow forgot the small cable connecting the wireless receiver to the camera body so that just made my day :/. Furthermore, I had tried to get my summit sign onto the summit block but it was so exposed I couldn't carry it and climb safely so I balanced it on top thinking it'd be fine for when I got up there but a gust a wind came and this happened:
Fortunately it landed where I could go down and get it, but it was pretty much done :/. Still trying to figure out how I could get a picture on the summit block, I saw two of the five people I got off at Needleton with coming up and I figured I'd wait and ask them for a picture. Thanks to Nick for taking this for me:
Well now it had passed 8am and I was beginning to get concerned about being able to get over to Windom in time. I thought I was keeping a good pace on the way down but when I got back to the orange gully, fatigue began to creep back up and moreso than anything I'd felt up until that point.
I arduously slogged down the gully and made it up to the Windom saddle at 10:30am at which point I knew definitively I wouldn't be able to summit and make it back to Needleton by 3:15pm for the Friday train. I began to weigh my options: abandon Windom and shoot straight for Needleton or sacrifice either Wilson Peak or Mt. Sneffels. Abandoning Windom made no sense as I was literally right there and coming back for it would require another train trip and when I go for Wilson Peak I'd like to finish out the group and get Gladstone too (plus I had laid it out for Saturday to allow more time as whatever I did on Sunday had to be relatively short seeing that I had to drive back to Colorado Springs afterward), so Mt. Sneffels it would be for my trip's finale.
So after just under two hours to do 0.3 miles (lol I'm embarrassed to even write that but it's a testament to how I felt and how slow I was moving), I topped out at the summit in probably one of the most miserable 14er experiences I’ve had. Keep in mind that as crazy as everything's been so far, I've actually been thoroughly enjoying myself but as far as Windom's concerned, all I gotta say is this mountain sucks and I never want to do it again! If there's any silver lining though it was that I could finally take in the views from the summit without having to worry about the next peak or sticking to a timeline.
So now came the journey back. It took me an hour to make it down that 0.3 miles to my pack (lol still so exhausted that I couldn't even descend quickly) where I took the first of what would be many naps. When I awoke, I decided as much as I've enjoyed the scenery of Chicago Basin there was no reason for me to spend another night there and pushing out to Needleton Friday night would be my best bet. There appeared to be storm clouds brewing in the distance and from what I remember of Friday's forecast (with everything dead but my camera, I couldn't attempt to check), I knew there was a possibility of afternoon/evening thunderstorms. Plus I figured if I can lose a couple thousand feet in elevation, it would likely be a much warmer and more comfortable bivying experience.
One step at a time, alternating between napping, snacking on Chex mix, and rationing out the last of my bottled water, I slowly but surely made my way to Needleton (I had a Sawyer Mini I'd eventually use once at the Animas River though I prefer to use all my bottled water first). It rained sporadically, but nothing to pose too much of an inconvenience. Lol I honestly have no idea how many naps I took or how long on average each of them were, all I knew was that after leaving the Windom saddle around 2pm I finally completed the slog out to Needleton around 9:30pm which actually took me longer going out than coming in. Looking around for a place to bivy for the night, I came across the most perfect concrete slab on the other side of the tracks. Honestly given where I slept the night before, that slab might as well have been a bed of silk and roses (not to mention that it was at least 10º warmer).
Eventually the other two pairs I got off with originally made it back as well and informed me that we could actually catch the 11:15am train that dropped us off originally and get a free ride to Silverton, explore the town during the ~1:45 layover, and then just ride back rather than waiting all day at Needleton for the 3:15pm return train. One thing I forgot to mention was that they are very flexible with your return day if you decide you need more or less time in the basin. My ticket was for a Friday return but when I was purchasing it over the phone, they told me that if I needed an extra day or something I could just let the conductor know and I'd be guaranteed a ride out (though I may have to stand if it's full or something). The Silverton train was actually about 15 minutes late but finally it arrived and so concluded my wilderness adventure, at least in Chicago Basin.
Basic timeline of Chicago Basin:
The ride to Silverton further cemented my love for the train, an absolute gem of an experience. I walked around a bit during the layover, grabbed an elk burger at Handlebars that I thoroughly enjoyed (lol though living on beef jerky, Welch's gummies, and Chex Mix for the past couple days, I think I'd have enjoyed any warm food). I'd hoped to get a seat on the east side because that overall has the better views, but the only vacancies were on the west (if I actually made Friday's train, my seat would have been on the east side going back). Lol honestly I was too tired to be bothered and with all my devices dead, I didn't mind spending a significant portion of the ride sleeping.
My plan was to take the ridge route up and the slopes down and there was nothing I saw upon arriving at the trail junction that would lead me to change anything. As the sun continued to rise and more of the Mt. Sneffels Wilderness came into view as I ascended Blue Lakes Pass, no picture I've seen does it justice.
The ridge route was surprisingly easy to follow as it was mainly just connecting trail segments through fairly stable boulders. I'd say the crux of the route is when you have to cross over the ridge and lose elevation to enter a loose gully. The route after that was obvious and once to the final push, I could see multiple paths to the summit. I saw several people on the slopes route but no one on the ridge, at least at the time I was doing it. I kept close to the ridge proper and made the summit at 9:15am.
I normally like spending half an hour on summits at least, but given the wind and the ominous clouds that seemed to be approaching, I knew I couldn't be up there long. I hadn't replaced my sign yet so I just took a selfie (it was so windy, I was afraid to use my camera timer and tripod) with the iconic Mt. Sneffels summit log box and began heading down:
Even though I didn't come up the slopes route, it seemed like the faster and easier option going down. I double checked the route description just to be sure, but it's basically two moves you can see clear as day: take the gully down to the “Lavender Col” saddle and follow the slopes down to the trail. The wind was finally beginning to die down but at this point it wasn't even bothering me, I was just trying to take in the surrounding peaks as I knew my journey was nearing its end.
I had regained enough of my energy that I was even able to pick up a light jog and at 11:47am, I made it back down to the Governor's Basin junction. At a 5:52 RT, this was actually the shortest amount of time I've ever spent on a 14er (Bierstadt would have been shorter, but I ended up continuing on to the Sawtooth). With such richness in scenery from Yankee Boy Basin up through the ridge and down the slopes, it's hard to fathom how so much can be packed into what was seemingly a fairly short hike. Honestly if I lived on the Western Slope, I'd go back to Mt. Sneffels and the whole area in general as often as possible!
Wrapping Things Up
Anyway it was time to head back to Colorado Springs because I had work in the morning, but rather than head up to Montrose to catch US50 which would be the fastest, seeing that I came that way last year for the Wilson/El Diente traverse and that I'm not on this side of the state that often, I needed to experience the Million Dollar Highway in its full daytime glory! I opted to go back down to Durango and back the way I came via US160 (which I also drove in darkness coming in and wanted to see). With this trip I'm now half finished with the San Juans and can't wait to come back and tackle the Lake City 14ers next September! As for Wilson Peak, lol I'll get it when I get it at this point :).
Not only a PR but first sub 30 (it was actually 29:40 but the watch adds 3 seconds while saving for some reason :/), a goal I've been chasing for years! I normally use the Incline to try to keep conditioned for the 14ers and in general, but this time the 14ers returned the favor and made this trip even more worth it :).
(Didn’t have a continuous gpx track for Chicago Basin, just Needleton to the beginning of Twin Lakes approach and the segment leading to the catwalk and the Eolus summits—I did track all of Mt. Sneffels though, so I’ll include that one below)
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
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