| Chicago Basin - 3 of 4 14ers
This is the first TR that I've written....if you can call it such. There really is no pertinent information to help you in your quest to climb in Chicago Basin...but more a reflection of my hiking experience there this past July 2013.
Three years ago, when I first pulled on a pair of hiking boots to take my first hike, I could never have even begun to imagine I would, one day, be on a train riding to a stop in the middle of a forest with a 35 lb pack on my back to hike 3000 vertical feet to camp and climb 14,000+ foot mountains.
However, with 34 unique 14ers under my belt and 61 14ers overall in those three years, I figured it was time to see what this place called the Chicago Basin was all about. I was looking forward to climbing my first class 4 mountain and hoping to climb the four 14ers out there...Sunlight Peak, Windom Peak, Mt. Eolus, and North Eolus. There had been recent talk amongst some of my hiking friends that they may be interested in climbing the peaks there, so I started a group message to see the interest in going with me. And so it became that we had a group of eleven hiking on Friday, July 12 and another part of the group consisting of four coming the following day. Members of the eleven count group: Noel, Chuck, Darrin, Keri, Dave, Bill, Jenny, Tyler, Justin, Dillon, and Emily. Members of the four count group: Laura, Mike, Charlotte, and Christian.
After a night in hotels and hostels, our group, minus Dillon (the wonder boy who ran from the Purgatory TH and met us at the Needleton TH), gathered at the train station for the pleasant morning train ride out to Needleton – a small stop at a bridge over the Animas River that would be the beginning of our adventure into Chicago Basin.
With a group our size, there were, of course, different strengths and speeds. The young, quick hikers went up the 3000 vertical feet and nearly 6 miles like it was a walk in the park. I am no snail, mind you, but my first time with a 35 lb pack on my back and hiking with what was to sustain me for the following four days, it took me a tad longer than the speedy bunch. When we got to one of the most perfect camp sites I could imagine (kudos to Darrin for finding that gem of a spot), I was ever so glad to finally drop my pack and set up tent and relax with a good hot meal from the JetBoil!
It was decided that due to it being 'monsoon season' in Colorado, that hike start time would be 3:45am the following morning. I was plenty agreeable to that and fell asleep in my cozy sleeping bag as the rain steadily lulled me off to sleep. At 2am, I was up like a flash and started up the JetBoil in the tent's vestibule and warmed up with oatmeal and was ready to go at 3:45am!
The two 14ers of choice for that morning were to be Windom Peak and Sunlight Peak, in that order. Windom Peak was originally chosen as the first one to summit due to the rocks being wet with rain from the night prior and deemed more treacherous on Sunlight Peak than on Windom Peak. I don't know how, but I was able to keep pace with the speedy hikers that morning and didn't seem to tire on the approach to the base of the mountains. Three hikers of our group that had fallen back on the approach, but knew of the peak plans....or, well, what the initial plans were. We began climbing and I thought, 'Wait a second, I know I can pretty much get lost in a paper bag, but I DID do some research on this hike and this was NOT Windom Peak we were climbing first!' Our fearless leader, Darrin, had made a last minute decision that we could make it up Sunlight Peak first as the rocks looked as if they may be dry enough to make a safe ascent. Well, rather than be left on the side of an unfamiliar mountain side, up I followed as quickly and safely as my legs would allow. I was, at this point, no match for the young whippersnappers ahead of me and was grateful that Chuck had graciously stayed with me as I watched the others get smaller above me. I understood that the group needed to ascend at their pace to give a group that size opportunity to climb the summit block and not be held back by the granny of the group. With the combined efforts of another climber, named Ethan, who was solo climbing that day, we managed to navigate the last 100 or so feet of rock climbing chutes and found the 'birth canal' – a climb up through a hole created by a large rock above a chute and there she was....the summit of Sunlight Peak!! It was 715am, and I was on my first summit of the day!! I sat a few yards away from the infamous 'summit block' and watched as the others in the group, one by one, scrambled up and enjoyed the airy views from atop, most with choice words about the exposure.
I had had no intention of climbing the block myself after hearing stories from many people as to its very scary drop on the back side and the 'leap of faith' jump that must be made from it to get back down over a drop that would not be so pleasant to fall into if missed. But, thanks to some friendly persuasion, I got up the nerve to give it a try. I watched couple of fellows making their way uncomfortably up a crack in the rock approach to the block and pretty much said, 'Screw that!'...and just scrambled up the rock to the base of the summit block. I waited my turn and watched with careful scrutiny their ascents and descents of the block. My turn came, and I hopped onto the center block, put my knee up on the summit block and heaved myself up onto it. As I did so, there was no way to miss the exposure that presented itself, full-faced, on the back side of the summit block....it was awe-inspiring!!! To be looking over the side of the top of a mountain, 2000 feet below you is nothing but air!! I turned around in a seated position on the summit block and gave a victory pose....then, just as I was ready to make my way off the block and face the 'leap of faith', something inside me propelled me to stand up! So, I planted my feet and slowly rose to a standing position on the summit block of Sunlight Peak!! All I had left to do was to jump off and it was on to Windom Peak!
After what seemed to be a whirlwind descent to find the route up Windom Peak, it was decided to take a loose gully ascent to cut off about 600 vertical feet we would have originally have had to climb. When I say loose, I mean every boulder, rock, and pebble moved under any amount of weight placed. This is about the time I was thinking of just saying the hell with Windom Peak and getting off this crap pile of shifting and falling rocks. But, and surprisingly so, I still had a lot of energy left in me to climb....if I could just get a grip on something that would keep me from sliding down the mountain side! Finally, about 100 feet from the summit, I was able to get some good hand holds and footing and with 20 more feet to go, I looked up and saw the rest of the group smiling down and encouraging me on! As I sat on the summit of Windom Peak, exhausted, yet elated, I heard the voice of my buddy, Chuck, say, 'Hey, Noel...you still have about 10 more feet to the actual summit!' Grrrrrreat!!! I made the last bits of climb to the top and was surprised at how airy it was up there! There were pretty significant drop offs, but the views from there were pretty spectacular! But after an hour and a half of climbing after leaving Sunlight Peak, I was tired and just ready to sit and eat a snack.
Alas, it was time to descend and head back to camp before the rain that was sure to come in the afternoon. It was a brutal (class 2+, my ass) descent down the standard route of Windom Peak...boulders, loose talus...I have no love for this mountain...lol. Arriving back at camp around noon and having a nice hot lunch was quite delightful...as was sitting around camp and sharing stories with the group of our hikes of the day. Unfortunately, Bill, Jenny, and Dave stuck with the original plan of hiking Windom Peak first and we did not see them until the afternoon at camp.
That evening after dinner at camp, it was decided that another 3:45am hike start time would be set for North Eolus and Mt. Eolus in the morning. A good night's rest was had, but I could tell my muscles had certainly been worked hard on the hike up Sunlight and Windom. At 2am, my body resisted my efforts for it to get going....it was going to be an oatmeal and Motrin morning! Heading up the trail at 3:45am, on the dot, my legs felt like they had been replaced in the night with lead blocks. I had no energy and no amount of thoughts of feathers made them seem any lighter. I knew that today would not be anything like the day before. I would have no hope of keeping up with the fast pace setters, but I was not disappointed in myself for it....I knew that today I would be able to just do what I felt I could and be content in it. I also was able to hike with the part of the group that I didn't get to hike with the day prior....so, it was nice to share time with them as well.
The climb to North Eolus was a lot of fun even with my legs of lead! The notch climb up to the saddle between Mt. Eolus and N. Eolus was a blast and so much easier than anything I'd faced the day prior and the scramble to the summit was nice, tacky rock and it felt great to be on the summit! The five of us enjoyed some summit cookies and made our way to the saddle just as the faster hikers in the group were making their way back off Mt. Eolus. The talk of most coming off Mt. Eolus was disconcerting at best....about the ledgy looseness of the mountain and the exposure much worse than they had thought, along with the route finding challenges. With my legs still feeling sore and exhausted from all I'd put them through the past couple of days, I just knew that I did not have it in me to be on a difficult class 3 peak and feel secure about it. It was one of the tougher decisions I have had to make on a mountain to not proceed to summit Mt. Eolus after I'd come all this way. But, instead of feeling that I had failed, I felt a sense that I'd actually done the right thing! Yes, I wanted to hike all four of those mountains that weekend....but, I knew I didn't have it in me that day, and I was really okay with it. The mountain will still be there waiting for me when I am ready to climb it. So, I began my descent and the others joined after also making their decisions to not attempt it that day as well in their own ways. On the descent, we ran into Laura, Mike, and their friends and shared cookies and chatted for a bit before they began their climb of the peaks for the day.
Several of our group of hikers headed out of camp that afternoon. After saying our goodbyes, our group was down to five for the last night of camping and the hike out to the train in the morning. We opted to head out in the morning to catch the train and made a quick descent to the Needleton stop with plenty of time to rest and change into fresh clothing and sandals for the train ride to lunch in Silverton. Then it was a nice time of reflection and chat time on our ride back to the Durango station, dinner in town, and a good night's sleep before heading back home in the morning.
Even though my goal of climbing all four peaks in Chicago Basin didn't happen, I did climb three of them and I learned a lot about backpacking and about what I've got in me to make it up some pretty tough climbs! I am already thinking about the next time I get to go back there, camp, and see the summit of Mt. Eolus and touch the benchmark atop!! I thank all those that shared this great experience with me out there, I am so happy I got the opportunity to share it with you all!!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):