| Chicago Basin: Overnight from Purgatory
Overnight from Purgatory Trailhead
Peaks: Eolus, North Eolus, Windom, Sunlight
Route: Purgatory Approach
Date: September 10, 2010
Length: 42 miles RT
Vertical: 12,000 feet
Total hiking/climbing time: 20 hours
Total time including camp: 33 hours
Ascent Party: Mountainmicah83, Baz Agastus, Dancesatmoonrise
Micah only had two days off, which was fine with me. I was enamored with the idea of doing the Chicago Basin 14ers as a dayhike. Micah was in, but since 12 hours of our two days would be needed for the drive, we decided to get started the first afternoon and bivy in the lower basin, completing the 14ers and round trip the next day. Baz particularly liked the idea of marking these four peaks since the other dogs couldn't ride the train.
Thursday, September 9, 2010:
Purgatory TH to Lower Chicago Basin - 4500 vertical, 16 miles.
The trailhead is signed, and the parking is spacious. After hiking a mile and losing 800 verts, the trail forks at Purgatory Flats. The fork is unsigned; stay right. After heading south through the flats, it drops into Cascade Creek and curves east toward the Animas River. The trail is up and down, losing 1100 verts after four miles when it reaches the river, but gains 1800 verts on the return. We hit the river at 3:20, where Micah needed to jump from the bridge – till he saw the water was running a little low.
After crossing the bridge and the train tracks, the Animas River Trail continues northeast to Needleton Junction, at Needle Creek. This leg is about five miles. It's very beautiful, and fairly flat. We didn't run, but it would make a great run on a daytrip. The forest is old and looks relatively undisturbed. We found trees with trunks as large as four to five feet in diameter.
After hiking for a total of three hours, we crossed the Needle Creek foot bridge at Needleton Junction. Those taking the train are dropped off about a mile north of here, and take a left at this junction. We continued up Needle Creek and wondered if we would catch any of the train crowd.
We arrived in the lower basin near treeline, where we camped, in another two hours and fifteen minutes. Our total time for the day was about 5:15. I woke up during the night to enjoy the incredible starscape.
Friday, September 10, 2010:
Lower Basin to Twin Lakes, Loop to Eolus, N Eolus, Windom, and Sunlight, back to Purgatory - 8600 vertical, 26 miles
What a great trip! Eolus' catwalk was spectacular. It's not difficult or all that scary; more like breath-taking. Eolus' east face looks a little surreal, standing at the end of the catwalk.
We made the summit by about 9:00 am, and knew we were behind for the day. Leaving camp at 7:00 am didn't help. But we had to spend some time enjoying the views. I particularly liked seeing Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre at distant skyline, behind and on either side of Vestal.
Eolus' catwalk looks a lot tougher from a distance in photos. Bottom center makes it look scary - but it was not a big deal.
Wetterhorn, dead center on the horizon.
North Eolus was short and delightful. We could not understand why anyone would not want to summit this peak even if it's not ranked. It's a quick, fun scramble to the summit.
Gazing into the sun to the east, the views of our next objective were unrivaled.
We talked about a recon of Sunlight Spire, but given our late start, it didn't look to be in the cards. However, we felt that if split times worked out and we could do the entire trip in 20 hours or less with our overnight packs, then a future dayhike to the Spire might be a possibility.
The upper sections of Windom were interesting. The higher you go, the better the rock gets. I took the ridge; Micah stayed just below to the left, as it was a bit easier for Baz. Baz actually made it onto the summit block of Windom. Sometimes he would put his front paws up on a ledge and look back at Micah, who would help him get his back legs up onto it. Unlike people, it seems easier for dogs to descend rock. They mostly just run down it.
Micah and Baz on Windom's Summit
The crossover to Sunlight Peak was a little tricky with the talus. We chose a line on Sunlight between the two largest slabs at the base of the loose gully, which worked well. From Windom's saddle, we aimed just left of the largest blocks below the right-most of these two big slabs at the base of Sunlight's south-facing gully. Once in the gully, the loose rock and scree begins, but is fortunately fairly short.
At the summit ridge, we made the mistake of passing through the first rock window. There are two, only about 50 yards apart. Unfortunately, both ways are marked with cairns. I laughed as I told Micah about Eric Sanguisa's quotable quote, to another climber asking about cairns while on Pyramid: "Yeah, well, this mountain has cairns all over it." It became the phrase of the day.
After passing though this first rock window, we found ourselves on the northeast side, below the summit ridge, and below the summit block – but couldn't see the summit block. We had to make some exposed moves in our search for the elusive summit block, as our hopes of being back to the car by nightfall were being dashed by the minute. We could have passed back through the window, but chose to ascend more difficult fourth class rock to gain the summit ridge proper, where a short distance to the north revealed the infamous summit blocks of Sunlight. At long last, we were here for the fireworks of the Grand Finale.
Baz "pawsed" long enough at the USGS marker to get a snapshot of paw and boot. He figured if the USGS guys didn't need to hit that summit block, he didn't need to either. We watched as Micah quickly jumped into the lead to demonstrate how it's done. He was so fast, I nearly missed the action, fumbling to grab the camera.
Next, it was my turn.
A Few Words for Those who Have Not Hiked Sunlight
If you've never done it, I'm not going to say it isn't exposed and isn't a bit spooky, but it is a little bit hyped. When I met a 14er finisher at a party last winter and asked him which 14er he thought was the toughest, I was sure he would say Capitol. When he said Sunlight, because of the summit block, this shook me a bit. So I've been waiting to see this beauty for myself. It's not tough. Naturally, you want good weather and dry conditions.
From the easy block below and in front, move right onto a low-angle slab. If you fell here, you would not go 1000 feet. You would only go to the ledge area which we had inadvertently explored by passing through the first window – about 20 feet below – but the rock is very low angle, and very well featured. Try to use the most featured knobs for foot holds. This slab is broken horizontally across its center. Use this broken area for feet, move to the center, then continue up to the top on good knobs. It is here that you encounter the much-hyped "leap" to the next block.
In reality, it is only about a three-foot gap. One thing I've never seen in print as people hype this leap, is the fact that there is a huge block that sits in the gap. I stood on it, right in the gap. True, if you fell into the gap, and missed the block, you might tumble a few feet. But the block is only about three to four feet below, and seems to never be talked about. I got a photo of me standing on the block in the middle of the gap. I also shot a photo, which didn't turn out as well as hoped, of my legs spanning the "leap," while actually sitting on the lower block. It can be done statically, as well as dynamically, and I don't feel it's terribly height-dependent, as reputed.
From the second block, I cannot recall the moves onto the summit block, but do recall that they are entirely static – no "leap" required, and not much of a gap. Be careful, though, as the far side (west side) of the summit perch drops off to near vertical. So just be aware of the exposure and try not to make any unnecessary dynamic moves onto the final summit block.
The descent is a little trickier. Here's my best tips. Getting to the block immediately below the summit block is no issue. It is here that one must make the leap to the block below. While I'm sure people jump from the top of it, note that there is a lower "dish" en-route back down to the other side of the leap. The dish is low-angle, but not flat, so you may not want to try standing there, but to "reverse" the leap, stand at the top of the second block, and visualize your moves. You are going to step onto this dish and push off to step across to the lower block. You can leap from the top, but I found the easiest and most secure way off was, from a standing position on the second block, to step with the right foot into this dish, while pushing off and reaching across with the left foot onto the block below, in one motion. It is dynamic, but not a leap or a jump. Much easier on the knees and back this way, and a slower, more controlled move. I'd heard so much about people "jumping" and worrying about landing wrong and tumbling 1000 feet. Just keep your head on, study the rock, and you won't have a problem. I hope that helps.
Bridging the gap.
Standing on the block in the gap below the "leap": hype demystified.
Well, being 2:00 pm, we knew it was going to be a long night home. We passed back through the correct window and down a shallow chimney onto the west side.
The Spire looks almost irresistible from just below the Peak's summit.
The gully is loose on the descent to Twin Lakes. We made the Lakes by 3:15, about 7.5 hours for the Lake-to-Lake leg, 1.5 hours longer than anticipated. Part of this was due to helping Baz through some of the third class rock, particularly on Sunlight's southwest face. Here's that proud and noble canine alpinist, posing for a shot as we packed up camp.
We spent about an hour packing up camp, probably longer than we should have, but it turned out to be a spectacular afternoon. We left camp about 4:45 pm. We were just hoping to be home in Colorado Springs before first light, so figured a good long break at the Needleton Juncton was in order, where we celebrated with oysters and crackers. Baz got a half-round of crackers soaked in oyster juice, courtesy of Chez Mor'gan. We made the car by headlamp, at 11:00 pm.
All told, the round trip came out to about 20 hours: 5:15 to the lower basin camp, 0:45 to the Lakes, 7:30 Lake-to-Lake 14er loop, 0:30 back to camp, and about 6:00 back to the car. We feel this could have been shortened a bit as a dayhike, without overnight packs and without the dog. But camping in the Chicago Basin was sweet, and it was so cool to see Baz get these peaks. The actual split times did open up the possibility of getting Sunlight Spire in a day. But Micah is working two jobs just to feed his family right now, so we made the best use of the brief window of opportunity he had to get into the mountains. I have to say thanks to Anna, Micah's wife, for allowing me so much time with Micah and Baz. I'm privileged to have done this route with them.
While it seemed a bit exhausting at the time, this route is so rewarding. I want to thank Eric Lee, as well, for his help and information. Eric pulled this off in 14:42 as a dayhike two years ago. I love the first line of his trip report. It remained the inspiration for our journey:
"The one thing I've learned since I began ultra running back in 2006 is that physically any route is possible, nothing is too long or too arduous, once the training is there it's all a mental game." - Eric Lee
I'm so glad we seized it today, refusing to return with anything less than a full handful of Chicago Basin 14ers.
For those of you interested in a little more sight-seeing, the section between the Animas bridge and the Needleton Junction affords many idyllic camping opportunities. If you enjoy quiet, undisturbed beauty, or want to enjoy these peaks with your canine companion, this is the route. While acknowledging the axiom that one should take the train at least once for the experience, I'd have to say that the rewards for the road less traveled remain unparalleled.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):