August 11th - 14th, 2005
How do you top a previous excursion to the Chicago Basin where you climbed Mount Eolus, Sunlight Peak, and Windom Peak in one day? Throw in North Eolus and try for four fourteeners in a day, and then, if you’re still not satisfied, throw in one of Colorado’s 100 highest peaks as well, Jupiter Mountain. That was the plan for our latest trip into the very beautiful Chicago Basin, buried deep within in Colorado’s spectacular San Juan Range. Would Mother Nature cooperate was a whole other story. The Chicago Basin provides access to Colorado's most remote 14ers located in the heart of the spectacular San Juan Mountain Range. Mt. Eolus, Sunlight Peak and Windom Peak are 15 miles southeast of Silverton. They are most commonly hiked from the Needleton Trailhead and is the route we chose for our trip.
How do you top a previous excursion to the Chicago Basin where you climbed Mount Eolus, Sunlight Peak, and Windom Peak in one day? Throw in North Eolus and try for four fourteeners in a day, and then, if you’re still not satisfied, throw in one of Colorado’s 100 highest peaks as well, Jupiter Mountain. That was the plan for our latest trip into the very beautiful Chicago Basin, buried deep within in Colorado’s spectacular San Juan Range. Would Mother Nature cooperate was a whole other story.
The journey began at 5 a.m. Thursday morning as Amy and I departed Boulder to meet up with Laura and Greg in Golden. We departed Golden at 6 a.m. heading west on I-70 for the scenic but long drive down to Silverton where we would be boarding The Narrow Gauge Railroad at 2:45 p.m. We arrived in Silverton to terrible weather, the peaks were completely socked in with thick, ominous clouds and a torrential downpour greeted us with open arms. We stopped by the train station to pick up our tickets and one of the train conductors told us that Needleton, where we would getting off the train, was getting hit hard by the storm. He said there was snow on the high peaks and didn’t paint a pretty picture for the weekend. We had some time to kill before the train would be departing so Greg and I stopped into an internet café to check the forecast. The forecast was completely terrible, calling for heavy rains and even snow Saturday and Sunday. Looks like we might be spending a lot of time in the tents this weekend. Oh well, nothing we could do about it now, just leave early in the morning for the summits and hope we could beat the storms.
Soon enough the train departed, winding its way down the very beautiful Animas River Canyon. We had purchased tickets for the open-air train car, which was a big mistake today. Luckily we were able to move inside one of the other cars and get out of the cold and rain. With the scenery of the canyon hidden behind the dark veil of clouds we all tried to take a short nap before the train came to a stop and it was time to depart. The tourists on the train thought we were insane to be getting off the train in such bad weather, but we put on our raingear, shouldered our heavy packs, and disappeared into the storm.
We crossed the suspension bridge over the Animas River and made quick time along the relatively flat section of the trail to the Needle Creek Trail. I signed us in to the trailhead register and we began the steady climb up into the basin. The storm had lifted and we were quickly overheating inside our raingear so we stopped to make the necessary clothing adjustments. The trail follows alongside Needle Creek for the first couple miles and provides some wonderful displays of beauty.
Greg led the way, setting a fairly brisk pace up the trail. I brought up the rear, snapping photos and soaking in the scenery along the way.
We arrived at the Chicago Basin around 7 p.m. and quickly began looking for a campsite. I found the exact same campsite along the banks of Needle Creek that we used three years ago unoccupied, so we set up our basecamp and got dinner ready. We all were a little tired from the long drive and hike in so after agreeing to a 5 a.m. departure time, we all retired for the evening as the sun was setting on the high peaks.
It rained heavily off and on throughout the night, too heavy of a rain to sooth you to sleep. At 4 a.m. we ate breakfast under a blanket of clouds, no stars were visible this morning. We were hoping to be able to at least climb two peaks per day, Mount Eolus and North Eolus today, and Sunlight and Windom tomorrow. At 5 a.m. we began the journey from the basin up to Twin Lakes guided by the lights of our headlamps. The willows and bushes along the trail were covered with water droplets and it quickly became apparent the person in front was getting run through the carwash. We arrived at Twin Lakes around 6:30 a.m. and stopped to take a short break for food, water, and clothing adjustments. After 15 minutes we were off again, heading up the steep climber’s trail towards Mount Eolus.
The hillsides were absolutely stunning, blanketed with Indian Paintbrush.
Before too long we found ourselves at the base of the headwall below Mount Eolus’s northeast ridge and began to traverse to the right, along a wide sloping ramp. From the top of this ramp it was a short scramble up to the ridge between Mount Eolus and North Eolus.
We spied a large crack that looked like a fun and reasonable way to gain the ridge, so we headed up it. There is an easier alternative to the right of this crack.
We gained the ridge between Mt. Eolus and North Eolus and I remembered being a little intimidated by the view of Mt. Eolus from this vantage point 3 years ago, but this time, it just looked like fun to me.
We danced along the northeast ridge, making our way towards the famous “Catwalk”. There is some exposure along this section of the ridge, but no difficult climb has to be done so it is fairly straightforward.
Once past the “Catwalk” we traversed south of the ridge, following the cairns that lead us up the steep ledges towards the summit. As we’ve discovered on many of the 14ers we have climbed lately, there were cairns guiding us in multiple directions. We just kept choosing the path that looked most desirable, ascending leftward up the face.
We reached the summit of Mt. Eolus at 8:15 a.m. taking us a little over 3 hours from our campsite. The sea of San Juan peaks that spread out before us were spellbinding. From our lofty perch we had a commanding view of Turret and Pigeon Peak immediately northwest, to the north Peak Thirteen and Monitor Peak were vying for attention.
Further north were the peaks of the fabulous Grenadier Range with Arrow and Vestal Peak (shown below) beckoning us to come climb them their beautiful summits. Of course the views to the east of Jagged Mountain, Sunlight Peak, and Windom Peak were equally spectacular.
We tried to sign the rain-soaked summit registered and exchanged summit photos with Greg and Laura. This was Amy’s 48th 14er and Greg’s 52nd. If we were fortunate enough to climb Sunlight and Windom Peak as well, Greg would complete his quest to climb all the Colorado 14ers.
After about 20 minutes on the summit we departed south along Mt. Eolus’s south ridge briefly before dropping down the onto the east face. Our descent route was definitely more straightforward than our ascent route and we quickly found ourselves back to the “Catwalk” (shown below).
Amy and I crossed the “Catwalk” gingerly while Greg showed off some of his slacklining skills by tiptoeing over the “Catwalk”, please do not try this at home.
Back at the ridge between Mt. Eolus and its smaller subpeak North Eolus, we decided to take the extra 20 minutes and scamper up North Eolus as well. After all, rising to 14,039 feet, it is an “unofficial” fourteener.
It was a quick and delightful scramble up North Eolus on wonderfully solid and grippy rock where we topped out at 9:15 a.m. From this vantage point you have the same spectacular view of the San Juans, with the “Catwalk” and Mt. Eolus thrown in for an added bonus.
The weather was much better than we had expected so we quickly departed for Twin Lakes, believing we still may have a chance to do all four peaks in one day.
We arrived back at the lake at 10:30 a.m. and stopped to take another quick food/water break. There was a group of mountain goats hanging around the lake, but once we began taking pictures of them, they decided they had enough of the spotlight and took off over the hill.
After a nice 30-minute break we headed up towards the high basin between Sunlight Peak and Windom Peak. The weather was still holding out and we made pretty good time traversing along the right side of the basin.
Around 13,400 feet we turned north and began the frustrating slog up the red-colored slopes between Sunlight Peak and the Sunlight Spire. Amy and I decided to stash our packs to make better time and made quick work up to the ridge.
From this point we traversed northwest along the left side of the ridge crest, following cairns and encountering a couple fun 10-15 foot tall scrambly sections like the one shown below. The scrambling is slightly more difficult on Sunlight Peak than Mt. Eolus, but it is much shorter and doesn’t have much exposure.
I had forgotten how fun the scrambling was on route to Sunlight’s summit and we were enjoying ourselves immensely. Soon enough we were at the familiar keyhole I remembered from my previous ascent, so I knew the summit was just through the other side. We topped out on Sunlight Peak at 12:10 p.m., taking us 1:10 from Twin Lakes. The views from all of the 14ers in the Chicago Basin are incredible, each one is slightly different. Sunlight’s summit gave us a good view of the East Face of Monitor Peak and it looked frightening. I remember seeing a presentation by Gary Neptune about climbing the East Face and it was quite gnarly.
Amy and I were ahead of Greg and Laura by a little bit so I quickly climbed up to the famous summit block.
I stretched over the gap, grabbed the next boulder, and pulled myself up. Now I just had to get up on top of the final boulder and maybe I could muster up the courage to stand on top of this time. Last time I was content just to sit on the very top.
I had Amy ready the camera and since the exposure didn’t bother me as much this time, I stood up as Amy took my picture. A headstand was definitely out of the question however. Last time I made an awkward downclimb from the summit to get back over the gap and this time I just decided to jump back over. I think jumping is an easier method unless you’re over 6-foot tall and can stretch down to the lower boulder. Soon Greg and Laura joined us and Greg did a friction climb up the boulder on the left to gain the summit block, instead of climbing over the gap on the right side. Greg, with his incredible slacklining balance, had no problems walking around on the very top boulder of Sunlight Peak and we were all quite nervous just watching him.
We all signed the register and admired the views briefly before we headed over to Windom Peak, our final objective of the day. The weather was still holding and we were optimistic that we would be able to get all four peaks. We were quickly back to the saddle between Sunlight Peak and Sunlight Spire and after searching for our packs for a few minutes, we crossed the basin aiming for Windom’s west ridge. There was a party of 4 guys traversing Windom’s north face and on multiple occasions they sent rocks hurtling down towards us. After three of four incidents Greg finally asked them to stay put until we were out from underneath them and luckily they agreed.
From Windom’s west ridge it is just a boulder hop to the summit. Once again we decided to drop our packs and quickly scramble up to the summit. This time I left a t-shirt hanging from my trekking poles to make finding our packs easier on the descent.
Everybody was feeling the effects of the long day, but for some reason, I felt great. I was wearing my lightweight Montrail Hurricane Ridges and my feet felt better than they ever have on such a long day. I made quick work of the west ridge and found myself alone on the summit around 1:45 p.m., our 4th and final peak of the day. Once again I was greeted by another astonishing San Juan panorama. The featured mountains from Windom’s summit were definitely Sunlight Spire, Jagged Mountain and Rio Grand Pyramid.
I could even see the notch cut out of the ridge along Rio Grand Pyramid known as “The Window”. It was cool to be able to identify a lot of the surrounding mountains, on my first visit to this area, I had no clue about any of the surrounding peaks.
Amy joined me about 10 minutes later with Greg and Laura not far behind. This was Amy’s 50th fourteener and Greg’s final summit. He was very excited to finish out his quest that started 53 mountains ago on Longs Peak. The weather still looked favorable so we spent a fair amount of time on the summit, shooting lots of pictures from various vantage points.
Around 2:30 p.m. we decided to depart and began the journey back to camp. With my shirt fluttering in the breeze like a flag we easily found our packs and quickly descended down to a snowfield, where we decided to glissade down to the basin. Laura’s glissading technique needs some fine-tuning (use the brakes woman) and she rocketed down the slopes a little bit out of control, but the slope had a nice easy runout so it wasn’t a big deal. A storm looked like it might be brewing so we jogged the better sections of the trail back down to Twin Lakes. Back at the lake Laura and Greg stopped to pump so water while Amy and I continued back to camp. The steep slope below Twin Lakes went quickly and we soon found ourselves back to treeline and the relative safety of the Chicago Basin. We arrived back at our campsite at 4 p.m. bringing our roundtrip time to 11 hours.
We all took a short nap and as we were preparing dinner, two rangers visited us and told us we were too close to Needle Creek and needed to move our camp. We needed to move our campsite at least 100 feet away from the creek and wouldn’t you know it, as soon as we began hauling our stuff uphill, the clouds that were now filled to the brink released a downpour on us. It was too late to retreat back to original spot so we hurried to set up our new camp. Everything got pretty soaked (including us) but luckily our sleeping bags stayed nice and dry inside the tent during the move. I unfairly called the rangers every name in the book (they weren’t around to hear me), but I knew they were just doing their job and trying to restore the vegetation around the creek. However we were now wet, cold, and muddy and cursing to the wind, trees, and the chipmunks made me feel a little better. After dinner we discussed our plans for tomorrow and Jupiter Mountain. We agreed to sleep in late, assess the weather as well as our physical condition, and decide whether to climb Jupiter Mountain in the morning. We were extremely happy that the weather held out for us and this was one of my most enjoyable days in the high country (despite the moving camp incident). We climbed some mighty fine and fun peaks, witnessed some of the best scenery Colorado has to offer, and just had a wonderful day in the San Juans. I don’t think any of us had any trouble falling asleep after our long but extremely rewarding summit day. I’m sure fell asleep with a smile on my face since as I began to drift off, I had visions of dancing along spectacular summit ridges playing in my head.