Peak(s):  Mt. Eolus  -  14,083 feet
North Eolus  -  14,039 feet
Sunlight Peak  -  14,059 feet
Windom Peak  -  14,087 feet
Jupiter Mtn  -  13,830 feet
Date Posted:  06/04/2016
Modified:  03/29/2017
Date Climbed:   05/27/2016
Author:  bmcqueen
Additional Members:   freepancakes
 A Finisher Yet Again - Spring Snow Climbs in Chicago Basin  

Background

I finished the list of 54 14ers on August 17, 2006 with the Mt. Wilson/El Diente traverse and had been happily climbing duplicate peaks near Denver for most of the last 10 years while starting to knock off a few Centennials here and there. I was last in Chicago Basin in July 2003 on my way to the list of 54. I distinctly remember my father and I arriving at the Eolus/N. Eolus saddle and looking to both the left and the right. The Eolus catwalk was to the left with Eolus looking a long ways away. To the right, just a short distance above us was N. Eolus. We opted to skip N. Eolus since we were working on the list of 54 and we headed over to Eolus.

As I have gotten more involved in the wonderful 14ers.com community the past few years, I noticed that most finishers are now doing the list of 58 peaks. I checked my Excel spreadsheet. I had done Cameron on the way to Lincoln and had done Challenger Pt. on the way to Kit Carson. That left me Conundrum and N. Eolus left if I wanted to be a 58 finisher. Oh, how I wished I had just done N. Eolus back in 2003!

On June 15, 2015, my family and I were in Carbondale, so I ran up and soloed the Conundrum Couloir to the summit, then went over and did a repeat of Castle Peak. N. Eolus was now the only one left for me to again be a finisher.

I started strategizing when I could get back down to Chicago Basin to re-finish the 14ers. I've been loosely working on a new goal - the Seasonal Grid (climbing each of the peaks in each of the four calendar seasons) - and thought it would be fun to go do the Chicago Basin peaks in spring snow season to get four new Seasonal Grid spots plus finish the list of 58. I started bugging possible partners in the fall, but I seemed to be the only person who was planning their calendar eight months in advance for 14er climbs. No matter - I blocked the late-May dates on my calendar and trusted that I would find a partner or two before it was time to leave.

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Sunlight & Windom


Preparations and a Partner

I climbed through the fall season knocking off 12 Seasonal Grid Spots including my first non-summer summit of Longs Peak. I grabbed a duplicate winter summit of Pikes Peak on 12/23/2015 before leaving for an Aconcagua attempt on 12/26/2015. After getting hammered by wind for six days and nights at 16,500' on Aconcagua, we retreated without a summit attempt and I was back in Colorado ready to start my CPA busy season. The May Chicago Basin trip on my calendar was excellent motivation for me to continue to maintain my fitness level and climb as often as I could on the weekends. I finished the monthly grid on Kelso Ridge on 2/13/2016, then did new winter Seasonal Grid spots on Yale, Ellingwood and Crestone Needle before spring came.

In February, I had lunch with a nice young man, Morgan Mahoney (username - freepancakes), that I had met at a Small Business Awards luncheon the previous fall. Morgan has only been in Colorado for two years, but has a very nice start on the 14ers. We chatted about climbing as well as business over lunch and he was very intrigued at the idea of Chicago Basin in May. We kept in touch and agreed to try to get out and climb together a couple of times to see if we might be suitable partners for the trip. We only ended up getting out together twice in the spring - once for Sherman in April and once for Quandary's Cristo Couloir in May. Morgan was loving climbing on the snow in his crampons, so he was in for Chicago Basin and I had a partner! We booked our train reservations, I booked a flight from Denver to Durango (Morgan planned to drive) and we were off and running.

My 10:00 pm flight to Durango on Wednesday 5/25 was scheduled as such because I had to give my final exam that evening in the auditing class I teach at the University of Denver. We were scheduled on the 8:45 AM train Thursday morning, so it would be a bit of a short night of sleep at the Durango Doubletree, but I wasn't worried about it. As luck would have it, around 7:00 PM, I got a text from United that my flight was delayed an hour. Now I wouldn't get to the Durango airport until 12:15 am. The night just got shorter. I put the finishing touches on my packing, working hard to get everything in my duffel and keep it under the 50 pound limit. Finally, the bag was packed and I was ready. Another text from United, "We're sorry, but your flight has been canceled. Please click here for rebooking options." You must be kidding, right United? Weather issues you say??? That's a load of malarkey! I've been watching the weather like a hawk for a week now, actually charting the daytime highs (mid-40's), nighttime lows (mid-20's - good freezes every night!) and forecasted precipitation (a chance of thundersnow every day, mostly afternoon - new snow accumulation of less than 1/2 inch possible) in Chicago Basin. There is no weather in the forecast that makes it so you can't fly an airplane between Denver and Durango tonight and you know it United. Morgan's drive had gone well. He warned me that he passed roughly 15 police officers in his car on the way there, each of whom were eager to wish travelers a Happy Memorial Day weekend.

I threw my duffel in my car, kissed my wife and kids goodbye and started to drive. Melissa hopped on the phone as I drove and canceled my rental car reservation as well as my return flight with United. No need for a return flight if I'm forced to drive instead! I promised Melissa I would grab a cup of coffee towards the start of the drive since my normal bedtime is around 8:30 PM. Check. I set the cruise control at a level just under that which I thought might get me a Memorial Day greeting from an officer and rolled into Durango at 12:58 AM Thursday morning.

Day 1 (5/26) - Pack In

We got up at 6:00 AM so I could get my gear converted from my airport duffel into my backpack, then had breakfast at the hotel and walked with our heavy packs over to the train station. A nice woman told us that we had two seats in a car where the other 40 seats were filled with a foreign tour group. She asked if we wanted to move to a different car. We said, "sure and thank you." She moved us into another car. We boarded and were the only two people in the new car aside from another foreign tour group of ~25. My French is better than my Japanese, but neither are good. Morgan and I talked to each other excitedly about the trip and enjoyed the 2.5 hour ride to the Needleton backpacking stop.

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All aboard!


By 11:30 AM, we had our packs off the train and were ready to cross the bridge over the Animas and enter the backcountry. We hiked up the good trail for an hour and a half through some rain and graupel (this is apparently a Colorado thing, so I had to explain what it was to Morgan and assure him it is a real word - Wikipedia calls it "soft hail or snow pellets"). We did 1,250 vertical feet in our first 1.5 hrs before a break. We took a short break after another hour before hitting our first problematic snow at around 10,350'. We knew Dr. Jon K and crew had been up a few days before on his 2016 14er ski project, so we hoped that perhaps they had made a nice path for us. We saw one set of ski tracks and several other sets that had done some miserable post holing. We tried to stay on the surface of the snow, but soon, we were wallowing in knee deep snow and we begrudgingly put on our snowshoes.

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Graupel on the way in
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Post holing on the approach


The trail from here to Chicago Basin was a mixture of dry dirt and rock and huge piles of soft spring quicksand like snow. I felt silly walking in snowshoes on the dry dirt trail, but was very happy to have them on when we hit the snow patches. Morgan opted for the opposite. He was happy carrying his snowshoes through the dry patches and miserable as he carried his snowshoes while in up to his thighs in a few of the snowy spots. We reached Chicago Basin at last and began looking for a campsite with two relatively level tent platforms, preferably on dirt vs. snow. We found a great site at 11,100' that met our needs beautifully. It even had two big trees so that I could hang my hammock! 3.5 hours had elapsed. Morgan made himself a gourmet meal with olive oil and couscous, careful to study the high altitude directions for boiling it that he had written on the back of the cardboard nutritional information that he had cut-out of the box. I had dehydrated chicken gumbo. We each enjoyed a small glass of Scotch. Hunger truly is the best spice.

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Into the basin at last
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Our camp
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Be sure to bring the high altitude instructions


Day 2 (5/27) - Eolus and N. Eolus

I had warned Morgan about all the goats in Chicago Basin as well as the pesky marmots. We left nothing outside of our tents when we set off at 4:20 AM except that I stashed my wag bag underneath my tent (thinking the animals wouldn't be interested in my feces). Ooops.

Our plan for Eolus was to ascend the E Couloir, then traverse the catwalk to the N. Eolus saddle and finish with N. Eolus to again make me a 14er finisher. We carried our snowshoes as we walked across the frozen early morning snow, our packs now much lighter than the day before. We carried our avalanche beacons, shovels and trekking poles in lieu of probes. We also carried a 30 meter rope and a snow picket with sling just in case. We ditched the snowshoes for later and strapped on our crampons above the lower headwall and made our way up and into the Eolus basin. We worked our way towards the base of the E Couloir at around 13,600', noting slide debris here and there in the basin. I led up the couloir, easily working up the consolidated spring snow. It was a tad tricky bypassing a small cornice at the top of the couloir, but soon enough, Morgan and I were both at the top. Morgan led most of the way up the spectacular remaining ridge to Eolus' summit. It was 8:00 AM - 3:40 elapsed time.

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Upper windom basin from Eolus
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Start of the E Couloir
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Looking back down the E
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Morgan heading up the ridge to Eolus
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Sunlight and Windom
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Final ridge to Eolus summit
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Eolus summit


We had a look down the ridge and catwalk over to N. Eolus. It was snowy, exposed and looked time-consuming. We discussed options at the summit and decided to descend the E Couloir back into the basin and traverse over to N. Eolus rather than taking our chances on the ridge. We down climbed parts of the E Couloir face in and turned face out when we felt comfortable. We crossed over several debris fields, ascended the ramp onto the shoulder and gained the saddle on the Eolus/N. Eolus ridge. I studied N. Eolus for a moment, getting excited to re-finish the 14ers with my last of the 58. Morgan let me lead the way to the summit, where I arrived with jubilee 5:25 after leaving camp that morning. It felt GREAT to have the last of the 58 done and remove the scarlet letter from my 14ers.com peak checklist! Morgan joined me on the summit for a quick celebration, then we began the trek back down to camp. The snow was softening quickly and we weren't thrilled at the idea of putting our snowshoes on. We made a few glissade tracks and were back down in the lower basin in no time. 7:08 round trip time back to camp put us there at 11:28 AM just in time for lunch and an afternoon nap while we dried out our belongings. Unfortunately, a large marmot had taken a liking to my wag bag and had chewed a hole in it after pulling it out from underneath my tent. I kept it outside while I tried to grab some zzz's, but the pesky little critter kept coming up to the tent and grabbing it. Great - looks like I'm sleeping with my wag bag from now on. Ick.

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Catwalk, the E Couloir and Eolus
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#58 finisher PC Morgan Mahoney
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Descending from N. Eolus


Day 3 (5/28) - Sunlight and Windom

We set the alarm 15 minutes earlier in hopes of being out of camp at 4:00 AM and on our way to Sunlight. We left camp at 4:10 AM. Somehow we got slower. No matter - we're off for Sunlight and Windom! Morgan realized that he was missing a trekking pole from the day before. We figured it must have popped out on one of the glissades while I was in front of him. We navigated up the basin in the dark and found our glissade tracks from the day before. We again carried the snowshoes to stash for later. Towards the top of the headwall, I found Morgan's trekking pole squished and frozen into the snow of the glissade track. I tossed it down to a happy Morgan and we cut to the right towards Twin Lakes and the basin below Sunlight and Windom.

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Morgan on approach to Sunlight with Eolus in background


We climbed easily up the solid spring snow to the saddle between Sunlight and the Spire. From there, it got a little trickier as we navigated around a couple of cliff bands.

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Navigating debris on route to Sunlight
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Sunlight ridge with the Spire


We found the hole in the ridge leading to the eastern side of the ridge and saw that Jon K had skied from the summit on that side. It looked as though that had been their ascent route as well. The snowy ledges looked doable, but the fall lines were huge, so we opted to stay on the southwest side of the ridge and follow the standard summer route as best we could. After more exposed traverses, we reached the bottom of the chimney leading to the summit ridge. It looked a bit dicey, so we decided to pull out the 30 meter rope. I gave Morgan a hip belay as he climbed through the chimney, making himself skinny at the top to fit between the snow and the rock. He then returned the favor for me and we were both on the summit ridge. We horned the rope around a boulder or two to provide some natural protection as we made our way along the exposed ridge to the final summit block. Morgan went for the summit first while I kept him on belay. He stepped across the 3 ft gap, still wearing his crampons and climbed onto the summit. I yelled to him that I still had him on belay and he should stand up and really summit Sunlight! Reluctantly, he stood up, staring down at 2,000 feet of nothing in front of him. Well done Morgan! He asked if I planned to stand on it as well. "No way!", I yelled back. He came back down to the 3' gap and asked me how to get across. I said, "jump". He paused for a moment, not really liking my advice, then jumped and stuck the landing with his crampons biting into the nice snow. Uh oh. My turn.

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Morgan on Sunlight's summit


I climbed up to the summit and gave it a nice big bear hug, just like I did last time. Morgan told me to stand up. I told him to take the #$#%@ picture. I quickly got back down off the summit block and stared at the 3' jump back to terra firma. That's when Morgan learned that I'm actually quite afraid of heights (an odd attribute for a guy who just did his 264th Colorado 14er). I hemmed and hawed for quite a while about not really wanting to do the jump. I told Morgan he might have to leave me there until summer and come back to get me. I made him move closer and get me tighter on belay. Then I decided that wasn't good either. I looked for another way down. Damn it. It's a stupid hobby really. I don't know why people do it. Hmm...what to do, what to do...daylight is burning and we have another mountain to do. We were 4:17 up Sunlight and Windom's face is getting blasted by the bright sun.

I tell Morgan that I'm going to try another way down. I go back up to the summit and resume my bear hug. Then I pull myself along the summit block trying to get over to the large rock on the opposite side that is steeply situated, but connects directly to the summit ridge without a 3' drop that I'll have to jump. I look down the 2,000' from about 6'4" lower than Morgan's vantage when he stood there moments before. I'm such a coward. I just want off this stupid summit! I ease myself down onto the steep block leading down to safety and thankfully, it is just fine and quite easy to descend (noted for next time!). I'm back to Morgan and we head down the ridge towards the top of the chimney. I give him a belay again as he down climbs, then he returns the favor. We descend a steep snow section of the south face, then stow the rope and traverse to the base of Windom.

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Morgan heading down through the chimney


We had planned on the Widowmaker Couloir on Windom, but it has a cornice that we don't like the look of and has been baking in the sun while I was dilly dallying on Sunlight's summit. We discuss options of possibly going up the summer route up the W ridge instead. We decide that it is most expeditious to do the face, but I choose a line to the right of the Widowmaker that is on a slight rib. The snow is much softer, so I am working much harder to put in a boot pack. There were no signs of any instability in the snow, but I still chose a very careful line and did my best to stay on the rib as we ascended towards the summit. I knew we were close when I could see Dr. K's ski track off the top! It was 11:59 AM - almost 8 hours after leaving camp, we were on top of Windom. Weather was moving in over Eolus, so we had a very quick snack and snapped a couple of quick photos of the IO Couloir on Jupiter, our planned route for tomorrow. We descended down the relatively tame west ridge, then glissaded down into the upper basin. Since it was later in the day today, we were forced to don the snowshoes for the trek back down into the basin. Our descent to camp took us a whopping 71 minutes!

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Windom face with our route in blue
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The IO Couloir on Jupiter
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Descending Windom's west ridge
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Storms brewing over Eolus


More graupel in the afternoon cut into my hammock time, but it turned lovely again before dinner. We feasted on quinoa (courtesy of Morgan with olive oil and high altitude cooking directions), a can of salmon that I brought and some cheese and salami. We consumed the last of the Scotch, bummed that I was far too stingy in the quantity brought, but we made up for it with dehydrated apple cinnamon crisp for dessert. My tent smelled like crap that night and I don't think it was me.

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Hammock time back at camp PC Morgan Mahoney


Day 4 (5/29) - Jupiter and Pack Out

We were scheduled to be on the Sunday 3:35 PM train back to Durango and had one peak left to climb - Centennial Jupiter Mountain (13,830'). We wanted to leave camp by noon at the latest, but knew Jupiter was also the closest mountain of the five in relation to our campsite. We set the alarm for 4:00 AM and started walking at 5:06 AM. We were a little worried about the long approach to get to the base of the IO Couloir, so we opted to go for the SW ridge instead. We hiked to the head of Chicago Basin and angled right up an avalanche path with deeper, less consolidated snow (snowshoes were on this morning). We planned to veer around the cliff band on the right to gain the ridge somewhere around the corner out of sight, but then saw a few couloirs that looked like they might go. We ditched the snowshoes at the base of the cliff, marked them with a GPS waypoint and chose our couloir. The snow was total crap - poorly consolidated sugar snow that wouldn't stay under your feet. We were chewing up time as we worked our way up as best we could, often having to make a move or two grabbing the rock on the edge of the couloir to gain purchase. Morgan didn't like the look of what I had gone up, so he tried his luck one ramp to the right. I finally attained the ridge and waited for him. No sign of him. I waited some more. I called his name. Nothing. I saw my first other humans since the train when I saw a group of eight heading towards the headwall on the way to Eolus. Still no Morgan. "Morgan!" Still nothing. I was getting a little worried. Finally I saw him down below, slogging his way up through the miserable snow.

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Our route up Jupiter in blue (Morgan's deviation in red)


Once he joined me on the ridge and we had a quick snack, we continued the ascent - on much better, consolidated spring snow. It was gorgeous climbing directly towards the sun on snow that was untouched by human footsteps! Above 13,000', I joked with Morgan that I had really been looking forward to having a 24-year old young buck along on this trip to break trail for me. I asked him when I might expect that to begin? He said something about trying to catch up to me for the past three days and that he'd be happy to break trail for a while up the rest of Jupiter. I enjoyed his tracks for a few minutes, then by some trick of the hand (or mind or foot), I found myself back in front again! We hit the first false summit, then the second. We realized we had to down climb a tricky little exposed section, then traverse around a small cliff to attain Jupiter's tiny summit. I led the way with Morgan close behind. At 9:06 AM, we topped out on Jupiter, our 5th mountain in the past three days, the culmination of our 13,000 vertical feet! After another quick snack, we headed down, opting to descend the shady north face into the basin between Jupiter and Windom where the IO starts.

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Climbing to the sun on Jupiter
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Looking back on Chicago Basin
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Almost to the sun...
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Morgan down climbing just before Jupiter's summit
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All five peaks in one shot!


The snow was fabulous for plunge-stepping down! We bypassed a few cliff bands, turned the corner back down to the left towards Chicago Basin, navigated more cliff bands and eventually reached our snowshoes. At 11:00 AM, we strolled back into camp and began the process of packing up. Just before noon, we headed out and bombed down the hill, cursing the still present snow drifts with inevitable post holing as we went. In just under 2.5 hours, we were down at the bridge waiting for our train. It startled and panicked us a bit when the early train (that doesn't stop at Needleton) came barreling through. We breathed a sigh of relief when we remembered we were on the 2nd train and still had another 45 minutes until its arrival. Cold Coors Lights were consumed on the train, and in no time, we were back in Durango, showered and at the BBQ joint ready for our first real meal in days.

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Oh, thank heavens!
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Our train!
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BBQ!



In Closing

Chicago Basin and its peaks are a spectacular place. I'm so happy to have had the chance to visit this magical place again and do these climbs in ideal spring snow conditions. I want to thank Darin Baker both for his great TR from his 2010 trip to the area as well as for being willing to answer my questions while I was planning this trip. Morgan was an incredible partner - strong on the mountains and a pleasure to be around in camp. We had each of the mountains we climbed all to ourselves, seeing only the eight other people heading up Eolus the day we did Jupiter and running into a couple of their friends at their camp on our way out. Somehow, we saw not a single goat and fared well against the marmots other than my wag bag. It feels great to have the list of 58 completed and I couldn't have picked a better place to re-finish the 14ers. Amazing trip!



Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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 Comments or Questions
d_baker

more snow!
06/04/2016 17:40
You guys had a lot more snow than we did in 2010! Beautiful area to be in with snow, and some fun climbs!
I'm glad your trip went well for you guys!


2toes

Nice job!
06/05/2016 08:21
I'm glad you can take off your scarlet 57 badge now I'm also glad I wasn't sharing a tent with you and your open bag!!!


jasayrevt

Excellent Accomplishment, Congrats!
06/05/2016 19:54
Great, well-written TR. Thanks for sharing the adventure. Glad trip was safe & smashing success. Nice work with completing 14ers & becoming a finisher. Grand way to see through this truly special mountaineering journey. Keep on climbing!


FireOnTheMountain

love the hammock photo
06/06/2016 10:44
nice work in cool conditions


nsaladin

Awesome Trip
06/09/2016 08:13
Nice work Brad and Morgan! Wish I could of Joined you guys, next time!


Welsh Jill
Well done You two
06/12/2016 11:37
Wow! You guys rock! Thanks for such a great trip report. We headed into the Basin on May 7th the first day the train opened and had a failed attempt. We got to within 300 vft of Sunlight's summit and had to turn back due to poor viz'. Then had a foot of snow fall on the tent that night making the following day too risky to climb. Now wondering if next w/e will be good time to head back in there. Will let you know if we go.
Thanks again!


bmcqueen

Thx.
06/12/2016 16:17
Thanks for the kind words Jill. Sorry you had so much snow early May when you went. I hope you have better luck next weekend!



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