| A Journey To The Heartland
Climbers: Zambo, John, our lovely ladies, and about a hundred thirsty mountain goats.
Total Distance: 23 miles
Vertical Feet: 9,800
Summary: Three days and two nights in the absolute best that Colorado has to offer.
The Needle Mountains, Weminuche Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, Colorado…Gerry Roach refers to these 20 square miles as ‘The Heartland’. I now know why. Nestled in the heart of the finest wilderness area, in the most spectacular range, in the best state on earth, this place is like few others. I have always said that the 14ers project is a means to an end, and there are few ends better than this place.
Our journey began with the expected grumbling, complaining, and bitterness aimed towards the Durango-Silverton train. While it is unquestionably a very unique thing to be dropped in the middle of the wilderness by a 130 year old steam engine, it was difficult to remember that when booking the ridiculously over-priced tickets the week prior to the trip. My bitterness only grew as we were peddled to for the first 30 minutes of the train ride. Ah well…all annoyances and expenses aside, there is no denying the train is pretty cool.
BELOW: It also helps to have friends who think it is TOTALLY awesome!
Landing at Needleton, we embarked with another twenty five-ish fellow hikers and headed up to the peaks. Although it was not yet noon, dark clouds were already brewing as a light rain fall descended upon us. The higher we went, the greater the storms became. After grinding out some three hours up the approach, we were halted by one violent hail storm in particular. As we scrambled for shelter and waited for the clouds to move on, I kept thinking about our prospects and hoping for good weather. To this point we had seen none of the basin, but we had a very good idea what makes this approach one of the lushest drainages I have encountered in Colorado.
Our efforts to be one of the first into the basin paid off. Soon we left the trees and the storms behind us and found one the choicest campsites in the basin. As the clouds thinned, we enjoyed the blessing and warmth of the sun as we set up camp. Finally seeing the heights of Chicago Basin for the first time, I was already in awe of this special place. There was much left to be seen, but the previews from the tent were a good foreshadowing of what was to come.
BELOW: Rainy days make for green valleys.
BELOW: View from our front door.
Pizza! Girls are much better about doing camping food right.
BELOW: “Where ya goin there???” I was worried about camp feeling overcrowded from other hikers up there, but it was the goats that were the major annoyance. We hardly saw any other people once set up, but the goats were everywhere. Don’t let them see you walk off alone!
As our first night fell in the basin and we prepared for Eolus in the morning, I was very excited to get higher up into the peaks.
The all too familiar beeping of my watch alarm roused us the next morning as we set off in the dark. Although we were only shooting for two peaks the first day, the weather had spooked us into as early a start as possible. As the sun rose on the jaunt to Twin Lakes, so did the excitement of what was to come.
BELOW: Sunrise and early morning clouds over Sunlight.
There is just something about this spot…
Despite it being only 6:30, dark clouds were already menacing as we surveyed Eolus ahead. Kaitlin opted to descend as she was feeling the altitude and was in no hurry to be sick the rest of the trip. With clouds brewing, this was no time to mess around. We tightened our straps and pressed on.
Leaving the lakes and chasing the sun.
BELOW: The basin can get crowded in the summertime. We had our very own welcoming party!
Passing the catwalk and moving onto the final East Face pitch, we found the climbing to be beyond excellent. The solid rock, bountiful ledges, trustworthy holds, stunning views, and moderate scrambling made for a delightful ascent. This is one of the finest class 3 routes I have done. It has all the joys you want in a scramble route, without quite holding your attention like many of the more involved scrambles out there. Simply, I felt it was involved enough to be fun, yet easy enough to be relaxed.
BELOW: Final scrambles to the top
BELOW: The freedom of the hills.
Reaching the top we found a summit like few others. In the heart of the absolute best that Colorado has to offer, it is no wonder why this place has captured the imaginations and wonder of so many. Yet try as I might, I will never be able to describe the summit like the images can. I will let them speak for themselves.
BELOW: Vestal & Arrow
BELOW: A bachelor party, 12 men strong, crosses the catwalk en-route to become the second ascent party of the day.
Taking it all in.....
The descent was equally enjoyable to the way up, and we quickly found ourselves back at the catwalk. Looking at North Eolus, we both thought, “There is no way the summit it is as close as it looks.” Not five minutes later, we were proven happily wrong after the easy scramble.
Making our way back to camp, the early showers came as expected. But, a few chapters from ‘Game of Thrones’ & many games of ‘Nines’ later, evening and the sun came again.
Day two of our adventure began even earlier than the first. With two peaks to climb, the weather to beat, and a train to catch, we were up and moving by 4:30. The familiar sight of Twin Lakes welcomed us again as we passed to the East this time, in search of two new summits.
I think my whole mountaineering mindset got off-kilter from our trip to the Wilsons a few weeks prior. Reaching the base of the Red Gulley I was expecting a loose, nasty, nightmare. I had been dreading this all day. However, much to my surprise and satisfaction, the rock up the gulley was not too bad. Loose yes, but not even close to the minefield that is the North Face of El Diente.
BELOW: Moving up the gulley, with everyone feeling strong.
BELOW: Passing Sunlight Spire at the saddle. That crack looks like it would be worth the trip back alone.
BELOW: Some moderate moves along the ridge. Again, we found this rock (comparatively speaking) to be wonderfully solid and a fun scramble. We probably could have gone lower past the saddle to decrease the difficulty, but staying high made for more interesting and fun moves. The girls cruised on this stuff no problem, and I contemplated how there are few things better than a lovely lady who also climbs!
BELOW: Passing through the hole and nearing the top. Once through, the views did not disappoint.
As had been a theme on this trip, we were closely watching the weather as we all drank in the summit block. John and I had little time to waste in getting over to Windom, so we acted fast to get everyone onto the true summit. As I suspected it might be, I found the final moves to be quite manageable. There is no denying it is tricky coming back down and that the top is wildly exposed. However, the exposure is certainly not as bad as other places on the peaks as it can be more or less controlled. Also the rock in wonderfully grippy and leaves room for plenty of spotters. With a spotter below and using slow & careful movements, this block was easily navigated. The finish is an excellent climax to this wonderful peak.
BELOW: Who wouldn’t be proud of these two girls? They got up and down that thing like champs!
John making it look awesome.
Moving back off the summit block, we quickly descended back to the top of the red gulley. From here, we knew it would be safe to let the girls descend on their own as John and I could blitz over to Windom and down to camp in time to catch the 3:45 train out. Leaving one pack behind, we made a point to make this one of the more epic climbs we had yet done. The combination of a slower morning warm-up, multiple days at altitude, and the pressure of beating the rain made for one of the fastest ascents I have ever done. We essentially ran the entire way down Sunlight, across the valley, and kept up the all-out blitz up Windom’s entire ridge. I was glad we decided to bring the girls up Sunlight, as Windom is easily the biggest yawner of all the peaks. Although, the views and final moves to the summit are still pretty incredible. When it was all said and done, we had gone summit to summit in 1:10.
BELOW: Time to ski some skree!
BELOW: Moving high and fast past the Windom-Peak 18 saddle.
Topping out over Windom, the low morning clouds didn’t offer quite the views off the top as the day prior. However, the effect was almost greater as we got to experience the true character of this range. Sweeping faces, soaring clouds, beautiful colors, sheets of rain in the distance, and lonely peaks stretching away as far as the yes can see....after experiencing the fullness of the Chicago Basin and its mountains, I was inspired by the San Juans like never before. You are correct Mr. Roach, this truly is the heartland, and some of the best Colorado has to offer.
Our trip out was uneventful, yet rich. We all were joyful about our various achievements and took delight in just being with each other. It's hard to not get too happy after spending so much time up there, and the good company makes it all the better. There are many, many joys in the pursuit of the 14ers, but getting to take this trip and experience it with close friends is about as good as it gets. I look forward to making it back someday soon.
Hope some of you out there enjoyed the report. Happy climbing!
BELOW: One of the best parts about climbing.