| Eolus: A Stone Too Far
The more 14ers we climb, the more we are struck by how many different hazards there are in the mountains. Dangerous weather in so many different forms. Injury. Illness. Off-route. Falls and rockfall. Disorientation and high elevation leading to Bad decision-making. Dehydration. The list goes on and on.
“These mountains,” my brother Mark often commented, “can get you in so many different ways … “
And as we pondered our September 2012 Chicago Basin trip, on top of all the thing that could go wrong was the fact that getting any help would require a long hike out to catch a train that only comes by a few times a day.
Despite our keen awareness of the risks, and a sense of caution that grows every year, we got blindsided by a totally unanticipated and random hazard on the final day of our Chicago Basin trip. Adding to the irony was the fact that, amid tons of spectacular rock, it was a tiny pebble that precipitated the crisis.
Our first two days in the basin had gone swimmingly well – a great ride/hike in, and a fabulous experience on Sunlight and Windom. At 5:44 a.m. on Day 3, our foursome set off from our high camp for Eolus and, we hoped, North Eolus: Big Brother Mark (Lucky), Dear Daughter Maryjane, boyfriend Dennis, and me.
The day took an unexpected and unwelcome turn right off the bat. Very early in the hike, Mark and I pulled far ahead of Maryjane and Dennis the opposite of our typical experience. At first we weren’t concerned, thinking they were just fiddling around with something and would soon catch up. But as the minutes ticked away in the pre-dawn trail up to Twin Lakes, my concern grew.
As the day broke, Mark and I stopped at the second stream crossing. Much of the trail up from our campsite was visible from this perch, but our partners were not. Then Dennis appeared, moving quickly up the trail with no pack on his back. We immediately realized that meant Maryjane would not be following.
When Dennis reached us he confirmed: Dear Daughter had struggled from the moment she awoke with pain in a hip that she couldn’t overcome. She had gamely tried to walk it off, but it wasn’t happening. Dennis would return to camp with her, and Mark and I would pursue the summit of Eolus alone.
It was tough on her, and therefore on me. Our summits together are the most precious father-daughter experience one could ever hope for. I knew she would not forego that experience if there was any way at all she could make it, but clearly there was not.
Nevertheless, Mark and I didn’t even consider turning back this day. We had come too far and invested too much time and energy to call it off unless weather or physical problems forced us to. And the dawn was bringing us another fine weather day. We sent our sympathies with Dennis and pressed on.
On the trail from Twin Lakes to Eolus. A switchback on the trail below Twin Lakes is visible in the far right background.
We arrived at the Twin Lakes vicinity at the exact same time as the day before, 6:53 a.m. We had scouted the turnoff to Eolus the preceding day, easy to spot across large slabs accented with a few small boulders, just below the point where the lakes actually come into view. The dry summer made the stream crossing easy, and the trail was clearly visible on the other side.
There follows a westward trail hike that starts out fairly level, then gradually increases in elevation. Eolus towered in front of us the entire time, with its south ridge extending far to the left. It reminded us of Charley Adams, a new friend we had made on the trip, camped not far from the base of that ridge with his wife Evelyn. As Mark and I hiked the trail, we knew there was a good chance Charley was out ahead of us pursuing an early summit of Eolus, as they planned to hike out to catch the train that afternoon.
Eolus looms large on the approach. The approach ramp is somewhere in those sloping fracture lines at far right.
This section of the trail seems long when you’re on it, until it ends, when you realize it isn’t long at all. The “end,” in our minds anyway, comes at about 13,400 feet when you turn sharply north to ascend a ramp in front of a steep cliffy slope. At the top of that slope is the famous “catwalk,” but the route winds quite some way to the north to gain access to the catwalk at the saddle between Eolus and North Eolus.
Getting close to the ramp, with the lower basin behind Mark.
We ended up blowing past the "standard route" ramp and instead taking a higher ledge system that also ramped up to the north. It was a kind of silly mistake, for had we simply looked up the correct ramp when we went by, we surely would have seen cairns. But it turned out to be a harmless error. The upper ledge provided a perfectly fine ramp itself, running parallel to the standard trail perhaps 30 feet above it. Eventually the two merge.
Our "alternate" ramp.
After passing through some rubble, we soon stood at a point of decision for how to gain the ridge that is the catwalk. A relaxed trail wandered right across sloping slabs, or a more direct route led up a short, steep gully to a notch in the ridge. We knew we were going for the direct route up that gully.
Heading for the gully - tougher than it looks from this angle.
Mark scrambled up first, making short work of the challenge as he typically does. As he topped out and I followed, Charley Adams indeed appeared on his descent from the summit. Eolus was his next-to-last 14er, with Pikes Peak reserved for his finale, where friends and family could join.
I found the gully to be tougher than I expected. The steep part is short, maybe 50 feet, but plenty far enough to make a fall catastrophic. And believe me, it is steep. And, being obviously water-washed at times, the steepest, narrowest spot is notably lacking in the easy positive handholds that this class 3 climber relies upon.
I struggled through that crux for what seemed like a long time, but probably was a minute or so. Looking back on it, I realize my lack of experience and training in rock climbing cost me there. One really simple thing I failed to do was get my helmet off my pack and onto my head where it belonged. When good holds didn’t make themselves available at the crux, I believe one or two basic chimney moves would have gotten me through it. But I didn’t know, or have the instinct, to use that technique at the time.
Working up the gully.
The crux. The shadows reveal lots of fractures and fissures, but not one good grip within reach!
I'm okay ... I think.
Whew! Now let's pretend that was fun.
I managed, but was definitely out of my comfort zone for that minute – or to put it more bluntly, scared. I found it took something out of me. The rest of the ascent was, I believe, far more challenging for me after that experience than it would have been without it. A slight wobble lingered in my legs. Exposure that normally doesn’t faze me brought a sense of fear and morbid thoughts about what it would be like for my family if I fell.
I had read others’ accounts of occasionally “losing it” on the mountain, but had never experienced it. The closest thing I had known came earlier that summer in Illinois, of all places, when we climbed up a little gully at Starved Rock State Park. I slipped trying to climb a short water-worn rock wall, and slid down about five feet to a wide, flat landing spot. That little slip turned my legs to jelly, and re-climbing that little wall became physically impossible.
Here on Eolus, I was facing the catwalk and several hundred feet of steep class 3. I resolved to be willing to turn around if I couldn’t get a grip on my mind, even though all other conditions – weather, my body, the terrain – were stellar. I expressed clearly to Mark how I felt, and we proceeded together.
Early section of the catwalk, on the ascent
Amusing cairn. You're walking a 10-foot wide ridge with the summit looming in front of you - need a cairn to tell you you're on route?
Most of the catwalk is pretty wide, but at one point the ridge shrinks to a single fin-shaped rock for about 10 feet. No human in their right mind would walk atop that fin, although I suppose someone probably has. A few feet below the fin to climber’s left (east) a flat section provides an easy walk across, but with significant exposure immediately left. That exposure normally wouldn’t faze me, but this day it churned my stomach, especially when a stepping-stone rock at the far end moved as I tested it.
Once across the catwalk, we traversed below vertical rocks large enough to be called small cliffs, knowing a steep ascent lay ahead. When we reached the obvious point to turn and begin heading up, the first few moves were not particularly easy, and laced with exposure. If it’s like this all the way up, I thought, I’m not going to make it.
It wasn’t. Steep, to be sure, but not especially difficult. The exposure is more mental than physical – big air out east over the basin, but not the kind of open runout where a fall would turn into a long tumble. (Although to be realistic, even a short fall can be catastrophic.) Crisscrossing ledges intermixed with brief scrambles: walk a ledge, turn and climb a few feet, switchback and walk another ledge the other direction, repeat. And repeat, and repeat again, and again.
Steep, but generally not difficult climbing.
On scrambling terrain like this, Mark has a tendancy to take off ahead of the group and sometimes wander off into more difficult terrain – he had done just that the day before on Sunlight. But this day he took my degraded condition to heart and played the big brother role to perfection. The main routefinding decisions centered on when to stop walking a ledge in one direction and climb/switchback. Continuing to traverse further was often an option, but the route description and other sources advised that the further you go, the harder the terrain tends to get. So we talked out the decisions, often moving up a ledge just because we had walked far enough one direction and saw a plausible route upward.
We went at it like this for some time, with little sense of how close we were to the summit, not visible due to the steepness. Looking upward, I saw a young man relaxing on a rock about 40-50 feet above me. “Are you on the summit?” I called up, and he answered in the affirmative. It was very welcome news.
The angle of incline relents at the top, and we thoroughly enjoyed the last few feet of scrambling. At 9:40 a.m. we stood atop a mountain I had coveted since Christmastime of 2007. I distinctly remember ogling photos of the summit pitch that holiday, showing them to visiting family members who didn’t quite get what I was so excited about. Our third Chicago Basin peak and 20th Fourteener together was quite a satisfying experience.
The young man at the summit was 14ers.com member Monterado. He graciously snapped a summit photo that I thought turned out pretty good.
Summit, with Arrow and Vestal flanking Mark.
Views were stellar: yesterday’s twin summits of Sunlight and Windom to the east, flanking Sunlight Spire, the summit of which we will never visit, a stark symbol of our age and limitations. Wilson group to the northwest, ominous even in the distance. And the near north dominated by the classic lines of Arrow and Vestal reigning over the Grenadiers.
North ridge of Eolus, and North Eolus.
South ridge of Eolus
By the time we descended, 15 minutes later, I was fully “me” again. Don’t know how much was rest, summit adrenaline, or just passage of time, but it felt really good to be back. I had made a point to be fully self-aware of my state of mind, and to ponder the experience. It was a fascinating study in climbing psychology, with yours truly starring as both the subject and observer.
We descended together with Monterado, following the same principle of traversing not-too-far in either direction. Soon we were once again crossing the catwalk, where I found that narrowest section bothered me not in the slightest.
Catwalk on the return.
Catwalk close-up. Red rock behind Mark is the narrowest section. Just to the right of Mark is the spot that gave me some willies on the ascent.
Back at the saddle at 10:34 a.m., we made a quick go/no-go decision regarding North Eolus. It was an easy “go,” with nice weather and our bodies and minds holding up well. Furthermore, it sidestepped a decision I wasn’t relishing, whether to go back down the steep gully or take the scenic route around.
Ascending the North Eolus ridge - fun and easy.
It was a fun and easy walk up the ridge. The ridge drops precipitously on both sides, but is plenty wide and features easy rounded but grippy boulders to scamper up. Twelve minutes later we were stood on the summit of North Eolus.
Is this the kind of "hero shot" we're not supposed to post?
More tasteful shot of Mark on the North Eolus summit.
Catwalk and Eolus from North Eolus.
We didn’t stay long, wanting to get back to rejoin Maryjane and Dennis. As we neared the saddle on our descent, I thought the sloping green slabs offered an inviting route down off the ridge. Mark wasn’t so sure, worrying about getting off-route on something he thought might cliff out. The decision was answered moments later when a couple of girls came strolling up the same way. It was the standard route to the ridge, and they were headed for the summit of Eolus.
The classic Sunlight - Sunlight Spire - Windom view, from North Eolus.
We headed on down, taking the lower “standard” ramp to the basin on the descent. We were back at Twin Lakes at 12:30 p.m., and to camp an hour after that. We took our time on that final stretch, but overall were pleased with how good we felt after four summits in two days, with the long hike in the day before that. The relaxed afternoon back at camp was most notable for the hordes of goats visiting in search of food (none gained) and human urine (some success there).
After dinner, as darkness enveloped our final night in this magical place, I pulled out the Three Musketeers bar that we normally share on the summit. A hush fell over us as at least Maryjane and I choked back tears, of sorrow at not being able to share the summit, yet joy at sharing an overall wonderful experience.
After a third straight night of mild, dry weather, we awoke to another beautiful day for what we expected to be a relaxed stroll out to catch the afternoon train. That changed right off the bat when Mark let the rest of us know he was feeling ill, with intense pain in his intestinal area. We wondered if the prolonged stay at high elevation had caught up to him – something like that had happened several years prior at South Colony Lakes. But the intestinal pain seemed too strong to pass off as indigestion. Something was seriously wrong.
Mark headed out while the rest of us broke camp, anticipating he would need more time. We started down 20 minutes behind him, around 8:40 a.m. Imagine our alarm when just a few minutes down the trail we found him lying alongside the trail, curled up in a fetal position, retching and barely able to lift his head or open his eyes. Clearly this was not just a case of altitude sickness. All sorts of scary scenarios started to race through our minds, one of the worst being appendicitis.
After a few minutes Mark was able to drag himself up for another attempt at walking. He was clearly not carrying his 40-pound pack in this state. He said to leave it, but the three of us managed to distributed it all amongst ourselves as Mark staggered down the trail with a light day pack consisting mainly of three liters of water. I got off easiest, adding a tent and a couple other items to my pack. Maryjane took up the remainder of Mark’s pack, and Dennis slung Maryjane’s pack atop his already massive load.
Dennis hiked 3+ miles with this ridiculously large load.
Mark lasted maybe a half-mile before collapsing again to another round of nausea, pain, cold sweats and general misery. This repeated several more times, with the distance traveled between collapses seeming to shorten.
We had precious little medical knowledge among us, with most of what we did have belonging to Dennis. He was studying health care administration, but all the emphasis was on the administration part, not practice. He had what he’d picked up from being around it, especially that South American trip. Some of the improvising his group had done in the deep backwaters of the Amazon River seemed appropriate for our situation. But there seemed little we could do beyond pushing fluids (water and Gatorade) with the maximum safe dosage of pain reliever.
Hanging over the situation was the knowledge that we had to catch the train – something that was looking harder every minute. I began to comprise in my mind the best emergency plan I could think of: a stretcher, carried by Dennis and me, and a runner to catch the train if necessary – Maryjane.
I began to rehearse what I would tell Maryjane if it came to that: “Go straight to the conductor of the train. Do not let anyone stop you from talking to the person at the switch. Tell him we have a medical emergency. This is not a worn-out hiker needing a lift; this could be a life-threatening situation. Do not let that train leave without us. Do whatever is necessary to make sure they wait for us.”
Meanwhile I started scanning the forest for stretcher poles every time Mark collapsed. Amazing how a forest with endless trees could lack the right material for a stretcher. Healthy branches large enough to carry Mark’s 170-some pounds were too strong to break, and would take too long to cut off with a jacknife. Branches which could be broken off and stripped down to poles were all too small or too rotted to carry the weight.
I had heard of people using trekking poles to make stretchers, and that was a last option here. I didn’t know if they would hold his weight, even using several together; and it seemed gripping a three- or four-pole bundle on each side would be very dificult. The right branches would definitely be preferred if they could be found.
After three or four attempts, Mark got up from a particularly long time of laying on the ground, only to walk maybe 200 feet before going down again. All of us, including Mark, thought he was at the absolute end of his rope for walking.
It happened to be a good place for my pole search, with lots of relatively recent deadfall. I shared my plan with Dennis, and while Maryjane listened to Mark moan in agony, Dennis and I started snapping off the largest branches we could break to see what would work for a stretcher.
“I can’t go on,” Mark told Maryjane. Eyes closed laying in the dirt, he heard us snapping branches. “What are they doing?” he asked, lacking the strength to open his eyes and lift his head to see for himself. Maryjane told him the plan.
“Ohhhh, nooooo,” he moaned. “That would be worse than dying here. They’ll drop me down into a ravine or something.”
“Well then,” Maryjane responded, “I guess you’d better get back up and start walking.”
So he did.
He also figured out the key to making it more than 200 feet: walk very, very slowly. He commanded us to stay back, “don’t push me.” He didn’t want to feel us behind him, or even hear us, which he felt would push him to move faster than he should, and go down again prematurely.
And so we watched Mark stagger down the trail like a drunkard, as we tiptoed along behind at a grandmotherly pace, whispering to each other about how we thought it was going and what to do if he went down again. I carried two seven-foot relatively straight pine branches, about an inch around, dead enough to snap off a fallen trunk but fresh enough to retain their strength. With a fleece or two, maybe some duct tape and/or a couple carabiners, we had our stretcher at the ready if necessary.
It was not. The super-slow plod worked. A few feet stretched into yards, then fractions of a mile, then a full mile and more. We were losing elevation, which helped whatever part of Mark’s ordeal was altitude-related. I knew we were going to be okay when I saw him come to a fallen tree across the trail, a little higher than knee-high. I hung back the designated distance and watched as he snapped off a small branch to make room to step over, then hoisted one leg over the tree and then another. An hour earlier that would have been an insurmountable obstacle. Relief flooded through me.
But I hung onto the stretcher branches just in case – the largest hiking poles I’ve ever used.
The pace picked up a little as Mark’s condition improved. By the time we reached the New York Creek bridge, he felt good enough to carry a small pack and allow us to join him again. Dennis gained a little relief from the huge load he had shouldered, truly a heroic effort. It was 11:55 a.m.
Relief at the NY Creek bridge.
The final miles were covered at a brisk pace, and we arrived at the Needleton train stop with hours to spare despite the ordeal.
Mark, Dennis and Maryjane demonstrate the proper form for sleeping on a bed of rock.
I went down to the Animas River to soak my feet in the ice-cold water. As I thought about the countless generations that the mountain snowmelt has rushed down this stream toward the Pacific Ocean, all the emotions of the week came pouring out. Stress from the hike out. Disappointment of not being able to summit with my daughter, but far outweighed by the joy of the summits we stood on and the precious experiences shared. The bittersweet feeling at the end of a time you wish would never end. Above all, thankfulness for wonder of that place, and for the Creator who must be infinitely more wonderful than this tiny corner of the universe that I have been privileged to see. It was a soul-cleansing moment, as precious a part of the experience as all that preceded it.
Ahhh ... Animas River
The middle of the three Silverton-to-Durango trains is the one designated for hikers to ride, but when the first one came by at around 3:15, a smartly uniformed man announced that there was room to get on that one “if you don’t mind riding coach.” We would have been glad to ride atop the coal car by that point.
The ride back was a great time of recounting experiences and basking in what we had lived. Mark’s symptoms remained in their reduced state for the train ride, but returned that evening and stayed. At that point they were a little easier to deal with, since he could lay in a bed and moan softly instead of being forced to hike six miles. He persevered in a sickened state through the long drive to Denver the next day, and flight to Illinois the following.
After returning home, when he capitulated to a trip to the Emergency Room, Mark learned his body had picked a very inconvenient time to try to pass a 7.0 kidney stone. A tiny pebble, in a very bad place at a very bad time.
Relief and recovery came fairly quickly with treatment, leaving him, and us, with only the vivid memories. Doubtless influenced by the experience, Mark once again announced his retirement from climbing mountains. That’s something he’s done every year since 2008, but he was more serious about it this time. I’m pretty sure I’ve baited him out of it, with the help of a particularly fabulous photo of Maroon Lake. We’ve got the Elks on our mind for this summer – but no remote campsites six mile into the middle of nowhere.
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