Peak(s):  Sunlight Peak  -  14,059 feet
Windom Peak  -  14,087 feet
Hunchback Mtn  -  13,136 feet
North Eolus  -  14,039 feet
Mt. Eolus  -  14,083 feet
Date Posted:  12/12/2020
Date Climbed:   06/24/2017
Author:  Mitchman98
Additional Members:   jryor121, MttMzz
 Unforgettable times in Chicago Basin   

I've neglected to write this trip report for over 3 years, and after going back to Chicago Basin earlier this year, and finishing up school for the semester, I decided it was finally time to write this!

Part 1: Backpacking the Molas Pass to Purgatory Loop, June 2017

After graduating from high school in the spring of 2017, thee five of us - Ben, Matt, McKinley, Oleg, and I - wanted to do a backpacking trip that hit some 14ers before we headed off for college and beyond-high-school life. In 2016, we did an overnight trip to Crater Lake below Lone Eagle Peak in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. In 2014, I did a two-week, 70 mile trek at Philmont. I had read of the Elk Park to Needleton loop in the Weminuche Wilderness, 35 miles long and passing through Chicago Basin and by 14ers Eolus, North Eolus, Sunlight, and Windom. Most people do this loop in just under a week, with a day in the middle to climb the peaks. This seemed like the perfect summer backpacking trip!

Logistically, we weren't psyched about paying nearly $100 for a train ride to the Elk Park stop, and didn't want to be rushed because of the train schedule, so we instead extended the loop, starting at Molas Pass and ending at Purgatory, a 50 mile trek, plus the 14ers, in seven days. We decided to start the trip on June 20th, hoping to start late enough that enough snow would have melted to not be much of an issue.

Caltopo map of our route

The week before the trip, I was bike riding through the area while on Ride the Rockies, and noted from Molas Pass that while there was a bit of snow up high, it didn't look like there was very much snow up the valley we were going up, so it should be manageable, right?

View up the Elk Creek valley from Molas Pass. Not too snowy looking, right?

Day 1, June 20th, 2017:

June 20th came, and we met up at the gas station outside Eldorado Springs off of highway 93 in the morning, and carpooled down to Durango. We dropped off one vehicle at Purgatory, then crammed everything and ourselves into the remaining car, and headed up the road to Molas Pass. We got a little confused on where exactly to start. Hint: it's not the viewing area at the top of the pass, or the campground at Molas Lake a little ways down, but a very large pullout in between them, with a trail info sign there, too. After loading up all the food and gear we'd need for seven days onto our backs, we were ready to go. It was about 2:30pm, and I had planned on us doing 8 miles that day, to about 2 miles past the beaver ponds. It was time to get moving!

Beginning the hike!

Views of Mt. Garfield and various other peaks as we descended to the Animas

The first few miles went quickly and with ease despite the heavy packs as we dropped down to the Animas and the train tracks. The mountains definitely had less snow on them than a week ago, which was good for us, but was it enough? Once we crossed the train tracks and started heading uphill for real, the full weight on our backs became apparent, and our pace slowed dramatically. Hopping over downed trees was exciting, and our packs swayed and teetered as we tried awkwardly to step over the obstacles. Then came our first challenge. The creek was running so high, that it was going down thee trail before us, and the cliff up. to the left provided no easy or practical way with packs on to go around the creek. The rocks along the inside edge of the trail were still sticking out of the creek though, and looked like with some creative hopping and pole planting, we could cross over the flooded trail back to dry ground, maybe 50ft away. It may have been faster to just take our shoes off rather than parkour over the rocks, but we just wanted to get across dry and not take the time to dry off; it was getting late anyway. We made it across without too much drama, and continued up to the beaver ponds.

The flooded trail parkour challenge

We decided to stop there for the night, 6 miles in. A long day of driving and hiking with heavy packs does that to you. As we made dinner and filtered water, another group of backpackers near us let us know that the stream crossing about 2 miles or so up ahead was nearly impassible, with high water and slick logs. That made for some nervousness; would we get turned around 8 miles into our trip by a stream crossing? It wouldn't be the end of the world to have to turn around, but we decided we should at least go up to it and see if we could get across it ourselves. Ben, Matt, and Oleg are good climbers, surely they should be able to get across and help McKinley and I and maybe our gear across too.

Day 2, June 21st, 2017

Sunrise was very neat, with the light hitting Vestal and Arrow peaks, up the drainage to the south from us. However, the sun hid behind the mountains, and the valley stayed cold for a long time, making us sluggish to get ready to go, and we finally left camp at 10am. Todays goal was to get to the Vallecito and Nebo creek trail junction, about 10 miles away. It was going to be a tough day, with many thousand feet of climbing to go still to get up to the continental divide and over and down Hunchback Pass.

Sure enough, the creek crossing mentioned by the party the night before was rather nasty. A beautiful, raging waterfall up a gorge stood above a mess of roiling water and wet logs to cross. Ben and Oleg made it across pretty easily, but Matt, McKinley, and I were a little more stymied, uncomfortable with the wet logs. Even after they took our packs across, we were still apprehensive to cross. We then began reconstructing the logs, restacking them in the creek to make them stable and level enough for us to cross comfortably. This took about an hour to do. We celebrated with many pictures with the waterfall on the other side, then shouldered our packs and continued up the trail. If we had to turn back further up ahead, it would take a while, but we knew it could be done.

Matt, Oleg, and Ben after we crossed the creek, with the waterfall behind them

Just a little further up the trail, a stream that must normally be a trickle later in summer was just a little wide to jump across with packs on. We took our packs off, slung them over to the other side, almost lost one of Ben's water bottles going down the stream, then hopped over the stream ourself. Another stream crossed!

Waterfalls across the valley from us

The views began to open up as we got higher and higher. Waterfalls streamed down from basins all around us! We went through the rock cut, which was super cool, straight up the hill on snow, then stopped for slightly late lunch at an old mining structure. I went up the hill to try and see the hanging lake on the plateau above us, but it was farther away than I realized. After lunch, we cruised up the grassy switchbacks up to the divide! The views looking back down from whence we came were amazing, with the hanging lakes, deep valleys, and a sea of. mountains and valleys all around us.

Hiking up the rock cut

Lunch spot at an old cabin

Looking back down where we came from

Views from the divide, with the grassy switchbacks below

In our planning for this trip, I mapped it out and realized we could cut off some distance and elevation gain if we went directly over Hunchback Mountain, a 13er, instead of dropping elevation to Kite Lake and regaining it going over Hunchback Pass. Why go down and back up if you could keep going up and then go back down? You see, consistency is key. I don't like rolling terrain when hiking, running, biking, or doing anything really. I like going alllll the way up in one go, and then alllll the way down in one go. I didn't officially have us going over Hunchback Mountain in our plan, since everyone else wasn't very interested in hiking a 13er in addition to the 14ers. However, on the divide, I convinced everyone we should follow it over to Hunchback Pass instead of dropping into the valley and back up, everyone else unaware that Hunchback Mountain was in the way. We hiked over gentle terrain to the base of the mountain, then went up the class 2 northwest ridge to the summit of Hunchback Mountain, avoiding difficulties on the ridge by staying on the right (south) side. Once on top, I revealed we were, in fact, on a 13er. A moment of drama later, we forgot it and took in the views of the mountains all around us.

Hiking the divide towards Hunchback Mountain

Summit views!

I originally intended to follow the ridge from the summit down to Hunchback Pass, but Ben managed to convince us to take the face down the mountain, directly to thee trail below. The snow was soft and punchy, and the willows near the trail were, well, willows, but we made it down without too much trouble, though I would still rather take the ridge than bushwack a bit. The trail through the willows was a bit of a mess and muddy, and we were tired and hungry. We made it down to a nice campsite just south of the Vallecito and Nebo creek trail junction. The bugs were annoying that evening, so we were all layered up while waiting for dinner to cook, which worked out fine since it was getting dark and cold anyway. Collecting water to filter was a little bit of a hassle, being down a steep slope to Nebo Creek, but doable as long as you have the energy to make that trek. We settled in for a long night of sleep after a long day.

The Guardian and Mount Silex as we descended back into the trees

Day 3, June 22nd, 2017

We all woke up late. We were all sore from the last two days. The sleep was well deserved. We had a very leisurely morning, and set off at a very leisurely 11am. The plan was to follow the Vallecito creek trail down 9 miles to the Johnson creek trail junction. We generally cruised down the valley all day, taking in the view of the mountains up the drainages around us. The only difficult creek crossing was of Rock Creek, which I think was the most difficult of all of them that we encountered. The water was nearly waist deep, swift, very cold from snowmelt, and the rocks were slippery. There was no way we were constructing a bridge over this one either. It took us all a while, but we made it across, making it out wet and having to dry off for a little.

Rock Creek crossing

Typical views for the day

We continued down the valley for a few more miles to the junction with the Johnston creek trail, and set up camp in the edge of the meadow west of the Vallecito. We went down to the creek to wash off and mess around for a bit, since this was the first day we'd finished hiking before 6pm. Later that evening, a backpacker from Austin, Texas, joined us for dinner. He had many interesting stories to tell about Austin, and I partook in a challenge to eat an entire scoop of protein powder, without water, in one gulp, similar to the cinnamon challenge, if you've seen that. (You may ask, why did I bring protein powder on this hike? Well, back when I did Philmont, I ended up losing nearly 10 lbs over the course of the two weeks I was there. I'm basically all skin and bones, so losing that much weight is not good for me. One of my friends on that hike brought several pounds of protein powder with him to keep up his weight and strength. Inspired by that, I did something similar, and definitely did not lose as much weight this trip as I did over Philmont)

Day 4, June 23rd, 2017

The day started with an unwelcome crossing of Johnston creek just minutes from camp. With little to no sun yet early in the morning, it was tough to not say "screw this" and wait an hour or more for the sun to rise more and warm up things more. We toughed it out, and grinded up towards Columbine Pass. The trail up to the treeline was gnarly though! Steep with giant downed trees everywhere! It was tough and slow going. Once we finally got high enough and the trees thinned, the view looking back down the valley was amazing, and the gorge below us was very cool too. McKinley dunked her foot on a minor stream crossing a little higher up, one of the first accidental dunks, surprisingly.

After a thousand switchbacks, we made it to this cool gorge!

McKinley crossing the millionth frigid stream of the trip

We arrived at Columbine Lake to find it almost completely iced over still. There were several social trails leading up the slope, so I took some time to consult the GPS on what the actual trail was. After a nice, relaxing break there, we made the last push up to Columbine Pass, and finally set our eyes on Chicago Basin. What a cool place! Eolus towered over the entire valley as a giant, hulking mass, centered over it.

Chilling by Columbine Lake

Columbine Lake and Johnston Creek drainage from the pass

Ben, of course, scrambled up to a point above the pass

Descending Columbine Pass was probably the sketchiest snow crossing part of the main trail on this trip. There was a steep snowfield to cross, and in the afternoon sun, it was very soft and punchy. I was a bit on edge about crossing steep snow due to a near-accident on Longs Peak the year prior, and even using my ice axe for support, it took a lot of support from everyone else to make it across. The rest of the trail going down was cruiser, and Ben, Matt, and Oleg checked out the old mine just off the trail. We set up camp near the Twin Lakes trail junction. And then our problem with mountain goats began.

Eolus as we descended into Chicago Basin. What a massive mountain!

I've heard that mountain goats like the salt in urine, and that they will do whatever they can to get it. I found this out in a scary, but later funny, way, when I had to use the bathroom. I went up the hill from camp to a boulder to do my business, checking around to make sure there were no goats nearby. I didn't see any. While I'm in the middle of this, everyone at camp sees a pack of goats emerge from the trees next to camp and head up the hill towards me! "Mitch! Watch out! The goats are coming for you!" By the time I look behind me, the goats are already just feet away from me, and are looking at me like, "hey, uh, are you gonna move? Because you should move." I panicked and sprint down the hill back to camp, hoping the goats aren't following me, and somehow not tripping until I got back into camp and trip on a guywire. Looking back up, the goats are licking the rock I was just at, not caring about where I was currently, only about where I had been. For the rest of the evening though, we had to continually chase away goats from getting too close to us. We made sure to place our bear cans far away from us this night for sure.

Day 5, June 24th, 2017

Today was the 14er day! The plan was to climb Sunlight first, since that was rated the most difficult at class 4, then Windom, right next to it, at difficult class 2, then the Eoluses, at class 3. We hit the trail somewhat early and were at Twin Lakes at some point in the early morning. We found that most of the upper basins were still covered in snow, which was a little difficult to kick steps into in the morning, heading up the steep south slopes of Sunlight.

Making my way by Twin Lakes

Snow! Sunlight on the right

Oleg and Ben taking a break just below the saddle

Once at the Sunlight-Sunlight Spire saddle, we went up the ridge to the summit. We had to make some deviations to the standard route due to steep, slick snow covering the route in places. Matt lost a water bottle while traversing above one of these snow slopes. Ben and Oleg led the way up, finding the easiest ways up the blocky ridgeline. We soon arrived at the summit area. Ben, Oleg, and Matt made it all the way to the top, while McKinley and I were perfectly fine with waiting at the summit marker and taking their pictures for them. The summit block was way bigger and scarier than it looked in pictures!

A neat window in the ridge. Rio Grande Pyramid and THE Window visible on the right side

Oleg, Ben, and Matt on the summit block

The boyz

After the summit rest, we made our way over to Windom. The snow was softer, and was much easier to kick steps into. The west ridge of Windom was generally dry, with a few tricky spots due to snow, but those might have been avoidable. We made it up to the summit in the early afternoon.

Stay hydrated

After some more summit shenanigans, we began making our way down towards Eolus. The snow was getting very soft and punchy now, and we were postholing up to waist deep. We did manage to get in some sweet glissades from the shoulder of Windom though! At about 13,000ft, I realized my phone wasn't in my pockets anymore! All the pictures I had taken, missing! I wanted Eolus, but dang it, I wanted those pictures more. I could always go back later for Eolus, but the scenery and the experiences will be different in some way every time. I left my ice axe with everyone else, and I began searching the slope, digging into every posthole, looking into every nook and cranny I could, all the way back up to the Windom summit, but I could not find it. Saddened, I made my way back towards camp. I met up with everyone else below Twin Lakes. They made it up to the ramp below the Eoluses, but turned around due to concerns about the snow refreezing before they got back to it if they summited.

I think this was taken near their turnaround point. The summit of Eolus is just out of the frame to the upper right, they were pretty close!

We made it back to camp to find that a marmot had chewed on all of our camp shoes and my socks! What a way to end the day. We were glad to still have summited two 14ers, but were a little disappointed we couldn't get Eolus right then. We probably all needed more snow equipment to summit Eolus safely then anyway, no matter the time of day and consistency of the snow. We spent the rest of the evening chasing away more mountain goats and making dinner.

We usually leave our hiking shoes outside the tents, since we don't want stinky and dirty shoes inside our tents. However, just past midnight, I heard some munching and nibbling outside the tent. Oh no, I thought, that dang marmot is back! I pulled all the shoes into our tents and surveyed the damage. Matt's hiking boots got munched on a little, and that was it, but we were frustrated that that dang marmot decided to come by, in the middle of the night, and help itself to a second serving of shoes!

Day 6, June 25th, 2017

The plan for today was to hike out of Chicago Basin and down somewhere along the Animas, at least 8 miles down, or about halfway back to the car. We had a leisurely morning, and took it easy going down the trail. We took several photo ops as we exited the basin. The trail was clear of fallen trees, so I suppose this trail has some sort of priority for getting fallen trees out of the way first before the lesser travelled trails we had been on along the loop.

Matt, McKinley, Ben, and I. Windom is just left of center, Sunlight is just peaking out to the left of Peak Eighteen

Soon, we were at the Animas river trail junction. I finally caved and taped up my sore feet, everyone else had already been taping their feet for a couple days now. The trail along the river was flat with some unexpected steep rollers, which were not welcome at all. Our lunch stop was short, since the bugs were vicious today, and we had to keep moving or they'd catch up to us. Somewhere along the way, at a snack stop, I left my trekking poles behind, and had to run back a quarter mile to retrieve them. Soon, we passed 8 miles, and decided to keep going all the way to Cascade Wye, leaving us with just over 4 miles on the last day. We happened to see the train pass by as we crossed the tracks at Cascade!

Typical Animas views. Not pictured: the rollers of pain

The train!

Camp was chill that night. We hung out by the river, waded in, washed off, had dinner, all the usual camp stuff, but couldn't believe this was already our last night on the trail.

Day 7, June 26th, 2017

The final day. Just 4 miles, but nearly all flat or uphill. Thankfully, our packs didn't weigh as much as they had before, but they were still heavy, and we were tired, so we took our time hiking through Purgatory Flats. I saw my first Mountain Chicken here! I think it's actually a grouse or ptarmigan or some related bird. Purgatory Flats was nice, flat, and scenic with Engineer Mountain in the background. We managed to stay on trail here by staying left at all junctions.

Moseying through the flats

The last mile or so up to the parking lot was a tough grind, and soon enough, we made it back to the cars! The transition from trail to civilization was a little sudden, but all the more welcome, for now there was no more freeze-dried food to make, or burned spaghetti in jet boils, marmots eating shoes, mountain goats following us, or chilly creek crossings!

Hey we finished!

We all crammed into the car and drove back to Molas Pass, picking up the other car, then driving back to Boulder, making a stop in Grand Junction for food while probably looking like the grossest people in the restaurant. It had been an incredible trip, we had perfect weather the whole time, great company, and I hope to repeat this trip or do a similar loop in the area soon.

The Return of the Phone

3 months after I lost my phone on Windom, I got a phone call from a phone store in Superior, saying someone had found my phone on a mountain and turned it in to them.

No way!

The next day, after classes, I drove up from Golden to Superior to pick it up. Somehow, the phone was able to turn on and worked perfectly, meaning it survived 3 months of snow, rain, hail, lightning, marmots, and mountain goats, at over 13,000ft! If that's not a stellar review for OtterBox phone cases, then I don't know what one would be. Unfortunately, its memory had been wiped, so all the pictures I'd taken were gone. To whoever found my phone, thank you so much!

Even better though, the next summer, I lost it forever when it slid out of my pocket, down a crack in a boulder, into Crater Lake by Lone Eagle Peak. If anyone ever finds an iPhone in a lego case in a boulder at Crater Lake, it may be mine, though I wonder how many freeze-thaw cycles it'll take for that boulder to split apart enough to grab it out of there.

Part 2: Return to Chicago Basin, August 14-16th, 2020

All summer long, I planned on my last weekend before classes began again to be my return trip to Chicago Basin to get the Eoluses, and if I felt good, get Sunlight and Windom, too. Everyone from the backpacking trip in 2017 ended up not being able to go, but Matt's friend Jake was interested in getting down to Chicago Basin. After my last day at my summer job was over at 9am on Friday, August 14th, the clock was going. I had to be back in Golden for virtual class by 9am on Monday the 17th. I picked up Jake, and we were on our way to Purgatory. We hit the trail at about 5:30pm, and set a quick pace, making it to the Needle Creek and Animas River trail junction, 10 miles in, by 8:30pm. We set up camp in a small spot off the trail near the river, just uphill from the junction, with just enough space for the both of our tents. We packed very light coming in, myself with my tent, sleeping pad, and a cloth liner instead of a sleeping bag, and enough food in Clif protein bars to last the weekend.

Pigeon and Turret on the hike in

The morning of Saturday the 15th, we were up and going up the trail at 2:30am! We cruised on up to the Twin Lakes trail junction at some absurdly early time in the morning. The reflection of our headlamps reflected off the eyes of someone's horses, spooking us for a moment. We continued grinding up to Twin Lakes, then went for the Eoluses.

There was both more and less to this trail than I was expecting. The lower half of the trail from Twin Lakes starts off as a gentle incline to the west, then steepens considerably as it approaches the ramp that goes back east. At the top of the ramp is a shorter than I expected scramble up to the saddle between North Eolus and Eolus. We made the quick trip out to North Eolus, summiting just after sunrise, watching the red sun rise through the thick haze and smoke layer from the wildfires.

Smoky sunrise and a very dim and red sun

Jake coming up on the summit of North Eolus with Eolus behind him

Decent sunlight finally lighting up Turret and Pigeon

The route up Eolus from the saddle was longer than expected, with a lot more care and routefinding being needed to keep the route up Eolus from reaching class 4 - not that we couldn't climb that, but there are several cairned lines going all over the final climb to the summit. On the summit, we came across the same couple guys we saw descending the Lake Como road at the same time we did the weekend prior. Small world.

Looking north from Eolus

Wanting to stay ahead of any potential thunderstorms, we soon made our way back down to Twin Likes, passing a few groups of people on their way up Eolus. The climb up to Sunlight was pretty much completely dry this time, which made the route a little more involved than just "aim for the saddle". The junky gully up to the Sunlight-Sunlight Spire saddle was as junky and loose as a gully could be, and I was glad to be on solid rocks after it. We scrambled our way up to the summit marker, this time going through the tunnel I believe we missed last time due to snow blocking the traverse over to there. Jake was soon standing atop the summit block, and several minutes later, I was up there too, though very terrified of the exposure. The jump you have to make to get back down ended up taking me several minutes to finally build up enough confidence to make the jump.

Great reflection at Twin Lakes

Freaking out on the summit block. Get me down!

We made our way back down to the saddle, picked our way down the gully back into the basin, and contoured over to Windom. A thunderstorm was storming to the south, and looked to be heading east and away from us, so we continued on up to the summit as quickly as we could. All the vertical gain from the day was getting to us, approaching 8,500ft of gain since 2:30 in the morning! We topped out on the summit of Windom just before noon.

Jake downclimbing through a window just below the summit

Slogging our way up Windom with the Eoluses behind us. Much drier in August than the first time back in June 2017!

We didn't spend long on the summit, as clouds continued building around us, and we picked our way back down to Twin Lakes, then made our way back to camp, running the downhills when we felt like it, reaching it at just after 3:30pm. We may have even seen member CaptCO making his way up to Chicago Basin for his peaks that weekend as we made our way down the Needle Creek trail. A 20 mile day in 13 hours! And 30 miles in about 22 hours! My feet were very sore, and I iced them in the creek.

We took a nap for a couple hours, then decided that 20 miles wasn't enough for the day, that we need to make this a marathon of a day. So just before 6pm, we broke down camp, and added on 6 more miles to our day, hiking back to Cascade Wye, shortening our last day to just 4 miles once again, just like in 2017.

Relaxing by the river and icing my feet in it

We woke up the next morning, finished off the last of our food, and were heading back up to Purgatory just after 8am. Despite the huge day the day before, I felt pretty good on the uphills, and was able to grind our way to the top by 9:30, meaning we had finished 40 miles of hiking in 40 hours! I was definitely going to make it back in time for class on Monday. I made it back to Golden later that evening, sore, but happy.

You know, Purgatory Flats is a pretty nice place

Chicago Basin is one of my most favorite places in Colorado (despite that marmot eating my shoes and the mountain goats). Next time I go back, after Covid, I will definitely make sure to spend more than 40 hours there, and hopefully with the full squad of Ben, Matt, Mckinley, and Oleg!

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
Excellent report
12/12/2020 17:30
That was a great report with wonderful photographs.
I was there in 1998. We went the much shorter way taking the train to needleton.
It is a delightful place to spend some time.


Nice report & photos
12/12/2020 18:32
Sounds like a fun trip. BTW, what you called a mountain chicken is most likely a ptarmigan.

Great way to end high school
12/12/2020 20:07
looks like a fun trip and a fun group


12/13/2020 18:22
Looks fun! That's a great way to do chi basin

Great Pics
12/15/2020 21:24
These are the times to remember. You will all take different paths but I hope you remember these moments, and build upon them. Never forget your friends. Life gets so busy and it's easy to forget what's really important. Keep in touch with each other, make annual trips. Keep loving life. Although glorious, a summit is a moment. A journey is a lifetime.

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