| Dancing on Sunlight at 14,000 feet
The Chicago Basin 14ers had always been “someday” peaks for us. The remote location and long camp required to access them made them seem out of reach. Going a full day’s hike-and-train-ride from civilization. Acclimating our Midwestern bodies to camp three nights at 11,000 feet. Attempting to summit three fourteeners (four if you count North Eolus) on back-to-back climbing days from a high camp. And that little detail of rock-hopping at 14,000 feet to Sunlight’s summit …
Last spring my brother decided “someday” had arrived. We were planning our sixth year of traveling to Colorado to climb 14ers. It was time to take on the Chicago Basin experience, he said. Nobody disagreed.
So, the day after Labor Day, four of us waited nervously at the Durango train station to ride the rails into the wilderness. Brother Mark and I had flown in from Illinois. Dear Daughter Maryjane was now a Denverite, having moved there from Illinois in March. We had climbed 15 Colorado 14ers together (16 if you count Longs Peak twice), plus a few separately.
Our fourth was Dennis, Dear Daughter’s boyfriend. His joining us on this trip was a bit of a step of faith for everyone. Dennis clearly had the mettle to take on the challenge – he had just spent two months on a medical mission in remote South American villages, and gutted his way to a 15,000 sub-peak in the Andes with almost no acclimation. But his 14er experience consisted of three walk-ups: Humboldt with Maryjane a couple weeks prior, and a Sunshine-Redcloud loop with us two days earlier. How he would handle that summit block of Sunlight was anybody’s guess.
As we waited for the train, an outgoing couple who were also headed for the basin made acquaintance with us. Charley Adams had fiftysome 14er summits under his belt, many with his wife, Evelynn. Sunlight-Windom-Eolus would be Charley’s “almost finishers.” His final would be Pike’s Peak, where friends and family could join him.
Charley and Lynn had gone to Chicago Basin the year before, one week later on that year’s calendar than this trip. A snowstorm had prevented him from reaching any summits that trip.
The train takes quite a while to clear Durango and the surrounding communities of the valley. But once it begins to climb, the views were indeed spectacular on a brilliant sunny day. As we approached the Needleton stop, the butterflies began for me. “We don’t have to do this,” I thought.
My favorite pastor used to often cite John F. Kennedy’s admonishment to “throw your hat over the wall”: when faced with a challenge (wall) that seems too high to surmount, throw your hat over it so that you must scale the wall to retrieve it. Getting off that train with our packs, and watching it chug away without us, was such a moment for me.
Also disembarking at Needleton were Charlie and Lynn, and a group of four older men with 14er goals of their own. I have no idea if their sense of drama approached mine.
Last chance to change your mind
We hit the trail first. A short hike took us to the Needle Creek turnoff, well signed and sporting a register book. From there, the next landmark was the New York Creek bridge, almost three miles in. We felt we were making good time by our standards, and our packs, while heavy, weren’t torturing anyone too severely. That included Dear Daughter, finally forced by this undertaking to carry a heavy camp pack, something she had always managed to avoid previously.
From there the challenge was to enjoy the moment without getting impatient to arrive. We had considered taking the shorter train ride from Silverton, but decided we didn’t want to face that long hike under time pressure to reach and set up camp before nightfall. As the hike stretched on this day, we were glad for that decision.
After progressing consistently east-southeast from the time you turn at the register, the trail teases with a turn to the north a little over a mile past the New York Creek bridge. The forest takes on some alpine features, and peaks which I could not identify begin to show themselves through the trees. I resisted the temptation to declare one of them to be Jupiter Mountain, the one non-fourteener I knew to be the landmark of our arrival in the basin.
We found no “here we are” moment of entry into the basin. Rather, a series of intermittent meadows and forest stands, with ever-clearer views of mountains whose identities were were unsure, until finally we grew certain we were indeed looking at Jupiter, Windom, and Eolus.
On a still-beautiful day, Chicago Basin might well have been named Shangri-La as far as we were concerned. We hiked all the way to the point where the Twin Lakes trail splits from the Columbine Pass trail, finding good campsites just beyond that intersection, at 11,200 feet.
By Jupiter, we're here!
After setting up camp, Mark and I walked pack-free up the trail a little more, and there found Charley and Lynn camped higher, where the trail breaks the last stand of trees and is visible all the way up to the headwall that retains Twin Lakes.
Don't play Robin Hood - Little John with this guy. You'll lose.
After a short but beautiful evening accented by multiple goat visits, we settled into a restless night’s sleep. At 5:45 a.m., after a breakfast of oatmeal and Starbucks instant coffee, we hit the trail. Dawn broke beautifully on the slope as we ascended toward Twin Lakes. We crested the headwall at 6:53, finding another climber there to take our picture.
Twin Lakes, 7 a.m.
Ascending east-northeast from the Twin Lakes area we found a beautifully constructed trail, a veritable Highway to Heaven. It took us up a series of slopes and flat areas into the Sunlight-Windom basin. From there we followed it leftward toward Sunlight, while eyeballing the Windom trail to the right, which we hoped to be descending later that day.
Basin above Twin Lakes - from left: Sunlight, Sunlight Spire, Windom
The trail led up through talus toward the “red gully” on Sunlight. The four of us generally stuck pretty close together, but at one point on that talus I noticed Maryjane had dropped behind. Looking back to check on her, I saw why: she had broken a nail on a rock, and had borrowed Dennis’s multi-tool to make repairs on the go. I admit to holding some absurd (and possibly obnoxious) pride in having a daughter who can climb a mountain and manicure her nails with a Leatherman at the same time.
The trail eventually seemed to evaporate into the rubble of the gully. We spread out in search of our personal preferences for terrain – the lower part of the gully wasn’t so steep as to make rockfall much concern. Maryjane scooted way ahead of the rest of us. I ended up working toward climber’s left in search of larger, more stable rock. There may have been some semblance of trail to my right, but I didn’t know or really care.
Old Flatlander's view of the red gully. Dear Daughter is visible at the horizon.
Young Coloradan's view of the red gully. Yep, that's Yours Truly plodding along down there.
We reached the top of the gully – the Sunlight-Sunlight Spire saddle – around 8:32 a.m. Maryjane had removed her pack and stretched out on a flat rock for a tortoise-and-hare nap. After a short break for the rest of us, it was left out of the gully through a notch, the gateway to a summit push that we knew would hold some challenges.
Exiting the gully. Let the fun begin!
Mark’s climbing instincts kick in when the terrain hits class 3, and he scrambled up on some large rounded rocks that were clearly above the standard route. The rest of us stuck to the clearly-traveled way. I don’t really recall what there were for cairns along here, but the way to go was obvious for the most part.
We alternately worked up and left toward the summit pyramid. We passed what I would call the “window” in the rock at a notch in the southeast ridge. “No need to go through it,” advises the route description (photo 18). Maryjane, Dennis and I took that advice and worked left/west. Mark, who had continued on his own route above the standard route, ended up passing right over the window along the ridge.
Wonder why they call it Sunlight?
Soon a relatively long traverse to the left put the three of us in a place of uncertainty. A path left around a large rock outcropping appeared to hold promise, but cliffed out into dramatic and dangerous territory. We backtracked a few feet and examined a couple of options for going up from there. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were at the spot captured in photo 19 of the route description.
It looked a lot harder in person than in that photo. There were two choices to climb upward a short distance, maybe 20’ or so, to a relatively flat spot. The rightward one was shorter but looked like tougher climbing to me. The leftward route also looked dicey, especially the first few moves. Maryjane and Dennis gathered themselves to assault the rightward climb while I hemmed and hawed.
As I pondered my options, another climber appeared as if from nowhere. Distinctive in a brilliant white shirt, khaki pants and a blue brimmed hat, he swept by me and scrambled up the climb without hesitation, making it literally look easier than most people walking a flight of stairs. Following him seemed like a good idea, so I did, although he was long gone by the time I reached the top of that little scramble.
Dennis and Maryjane arrived at the flat spot above that climb shortly behind me. We thought we must be nearing the summit, but it wasn’t visible, so we didn’t know how close we were – until a loud “woohoo!” from not far above us told us Mark had reached the summit.
A very short walk revealed another noted feature of this climb, the chimney ascent to the summit ridge. That was a fun, tight but easy little scramble, and when we popped up out of that chimney, there before us was a short ridge walk and the famous summit block.
Mark stood triumphantly on the summit boulder, alongside the other climber who had passed me. He turned out to be 14ers.com member Traveling Matt, summiting the first of his final three 14ers. It was 9:02 a.m.
Summit ridge walk, from on top
There followed an unforgettable half-hour on arguably the most spectacular summit of any 14er. One by one, we took turns climbing up the (relatively easy!) airy three-boulder progression to the summit. And then the hard part, back down. Charley Adams came along soon after us, and joined in the festivities. With ideal weather yet again this day, the experience and camradarie were as close to perfect as you could possibly ask.
Me joining Matt
As many others have observed, if you put the three boulders that comprise the summit in a parking lot, it would be an easy climb. Funny how seeing a thousand feet of air alongside them changes things. It’s the classic low probability – high consequences equation.
If you number the boulders that most people take one through three, with one being the summit boulder, two being the smallest rock just below the summit and three being the lowest, it’s coming down from two to three that’s the most challenging. The gap between the two is far enough to require thrusting your weight across – forget about three points of contact unless you’re about six-foot-eight. The orientation of the boulders provides a pretty decent landing pad going up, but the descent is a different matter.
Dear Daughter, with friend approaching
Mark, Dennis and I all had our “stop to re-set” moments coming down. Dennis took a while. He had some rock-climbing experience and the tallest body to help, but he’d never done anything with this kind of exposure, nor at this elevation, which can be disorienting in itself. He later admitted to suppressing a panic that could have been debilitating.
Maryjane was last in our group to descend. I worried because she’s the shortest in the group, not to mention a father’s obvious concern for helping put his daughter in such a place. Where Dennis and I could cross with a long step-lunge, Maryjane had to make a true “leap of faith.” But she’s also lightest on her feet, and she gracefully hopped across and stuck the landing like a cat. Only after that, standing securely on boulder three, did a flushed “oh my God I can’t believe I just did that” look come over her.
Dennis - boulder #3
It doesn't hurt to stand around 6'3"
We could have stayed at that summit much longer, but Windom was calling our names from across the basin. It was a hard place to leave.
A never-to-be-forgotten time
We strayed off course not far below the summit, and had to choose between a sketchy exposed down-climb and backtracking. Mark went on down; the other three of us followed my urging to back-track and find the route we ascended. With that delay, the climb down from the summit to the Sunlight-Sunlight Spire saddle took the same time as the climb up from there – pretty much exactly 30 minutes both ways.
Santa Claus: down through the chimney
Descent from the summit
In the gully, we worked toward descender’s left, as we wanted to exit the gully to the left at first opportunity, to strike out across the basin toward Windom. That worked out well, and we soon were crossing the basin a little above 13,000 feet, skirting right of some huge boulders in the bottom of the basin.
From there we saw Charley ahead, as he had descended faster than us and then circled left around the basin to avoid losing and re-gaining elevation. From our vantage point Mark and I could see what looked like a solid slope up the north flank of Windom’s west ridge. We called across to encourage Charley to ascend there, after traversing below some unfriendly-looking slabs, rather than continuing further right to join the standard route at the saddle. Charley followed our prompts, and he indeed made short work of that slope.
We took the same slope a few minutes later. It was a fun class 3 scramble, providing a direct, solid climb in lieu of a fairly long traverse to the saddle and switchback up the ridge on the standard route. We gained the ridge at 11 a.m., just about 90 minutes after departing Sunlight’s summit.
Then it was up Windom’s west ridge on a trail wandering through a sea of talus. It wound right (south) a while, then back left/north around a point on the ridge, to a small saddle/notch on the other side of that point, at 13,800 feet. It was almost all large, stable talus up to that point.
Just above that notch we took a wrong turn. A cairn on a diving-board rock pointed left, and another one further left invited us on. The trail took us into terrain that was mediocre at first, deteriorating gradually into a loose mixture of sand and scree, piled steeply and sometimes precariously on the north side of the ridge.
Cairns kept appearing before us, telling us we were on a trail, but was it the right trail? The steep loose rubble, often with nasty runouts below, and with the threat of a rockslide an almost constant worry, made me feel like I was back on El Diente. Windom had no such reputation that I knew of.
Negotiating a corner on the north side of Windom's ridge
It felt wrong, but continuing to follow that trail seemed the thing to do. The ridge was up to our right, but heading off-trail up the loose debris slope would not be wise. Back-tracking was worth considering, but it would be a long retreat on a nasty trail at this point, and we kept seeing hints that led us to think the trail would improve as we worked higher. It really didn’t.
We paused to rest, three of us sitting on what we thought was a stable rock the size of a picnic table. When Dennis and Maryjane stood up to continue, the rock shifted several inches with an alarming thunk. I didn’t think that much of it, because it seemed obvious it would move no further, but then we hadn’t expected it to move at all. Dennis and Maryjane were shaken by the experience. Still more wrestling with steep, loose, exposed rubble beyond that point didn’t help their state of mind.
Typical terrain on our route ... not especially fun. The runout is hard to see in this shot, but it was very serious in spots.
Mark forged ahead, seemingly unconcerned about the conditions. Alarm and frustration were brewing in the rest of us, but there was nothing to do but press onward, carefully and persistently. Finally we gained the ridge proper, just below the summit. The ordeal was over, and another beautiful blocky summit beckoned. Relief from what we had gone through to reach it made it all the more lovely. Matt and Charley had lingered there and greeted us. It was 11 a.m.
Windom’s summit, like Sunlight’s, consists of huge boulders perched above 14,000 feet. But Windom’s are mostly rectangularized blocks sitting quite level, providing ample space for all of us to sit and enjoy the day’s experience. And what an experience it had been!
Another sublime summit experience
After a hearty meal (by our summit standards anyway), Matt scurried off, thinking to add Eolus to his day’s summit list. The ridiculously perfect weather was showing no sign of changing this day. Feeling pumped, I floated the idea of us going for Eolus as well. Nobody else thought it was a good idea, and they were right. Adding that trek to this day’s summits would have been too much for us – we probably would have just burned ourselves out without gaining the summit. But to be able to even contemplate trying it felt like a great victory to me.
Nice view of Twin Lakes from high on Windom's west ridge
We left the summit at 12:15 p.m. Charley and Matt had confirmed that our ascent route was off the standard route, and our descent demonstrated that point dramatically. We walked fun, solid blocks down, with none of the sketchy loose exposure of the ascent.
As we approached the saddle at 13,800 feet, Maryjane pointed to a small cairn on a rock that projects out like a diving board. “There’s the cairn that led us into that nasty trail,” she said, obliterating it with a disgusted sweep of her arm. I approved – hopefully it would help keep someone else from going that wrong way.
Looking up from the notch on Windom. The diving board cairn in front of me disappeared moments after this photo was taken.
Later, discussing our experience, I wondered if we had taken too lightly the act of knocking down a cairn. But I truly felt that that cairn, and the several more beyond it that reinforced the notion of following that trail, had done us no favor. We are each responsible for finding our own way safely on the mountain, but we don’t need signs pointing the wrong direction.
We would pass a number of other climbers, including the group of older men who had disembarked from the train with us, as we descended from the notch. Our advice was the same to all of them: From that notch up, stick to the ridge.
The knee pain which had dogged both Mark and me on our descent from Redcloud two days prior was blessedly absent this day. Just as the body acclimates to the high elevation, it seems some type of adaptation takes place in the knees after the initial pounding of a long descent. I realized I had experienced this before without recognizing the pattern – knee pain on the first descent of a trip, going mostly away on ensuing climbs.
Sunlight from Windom's west ridge
By 1 p.m. we were at the saddle that marks the beginning of Windom’s west ridge route. We reachedTwin Lakes around 2:15, lingered a little while there, and headed down. When we reached Charley and Lynn’s campsite, they graciously invited us over to visit and share in some especially delicious snacks they had brought. The weather remained beautiful as we lingered and chatted about that day’s climbs, and our plans for Eolus the next day. It was as perfect a day in the mountains as you could ever hope for in this life.
Contemplating tomorrow's goal: Eolus
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