Chicago Basin Group
Hiking into the Chicago basin, and bagging the four 14,000 foot peaks in that group arguably requires the greatest timing and logistics commitment of any fourteener grouping. This was evidenced by the fact that everyone I met in the Chicago Basin was on counts of 20+ fourteeners, and several that I met were down to single digits on their remaining fourteeners. I had pondered back and forth about taking the Silver/Durango train into the Needleton stop, or hiking in from the Purgatory trailhead. Taking the train would save me about 15 miles overall on the roundtrip. Plus, the train would offer a unique experience that is somewhat connected to this particular grouping. So, last minute, I decided to take the train. I bought my train tickets a few weeks prior to my trip. Based on the timing of the trains, I chose to take the train out of Silverton, rather than the one out of Durango. It is the same train as it goes back and forth between Silverton and Durango, but the schedule coming from Silverton worked best for me. I had already done Uncompahgre in the morning, and taken Engineering Pass from Lake City to Silverton. I arrived in Silverton around noon. My train into the Basin would leave around 2:30 pm.
I was particularly nervous about this group. At this point, I was down to five fourteeners remaining on my list. This group accounted for four of those remaining five. No pressure. These wouldn't be the hardest peaks, technically, but the commitment, of taking the train, the hike and camping into the basin required the most amount of time commit of any fourteeners. On top of that, the weather report for the days that I'd be hiking in the basin was miserable. I planned for an early start, but if the rock was wet, it would be very difficult for me to grab all four peaks on this trip.
I jumped on the train at 2:30 pm, and started towards the Needleton stop. During the train ride, I was able to chat with this really nice older couple who had massive experience in the mountains. These folks had hiked hundreds of peaks, and were actually working on finishing up the last of the bicentennials (top 200 peaks in Colorado), where I was only working on the top 59 peaks in Colorado. They gave me some great tips on the climbs, and also on the best places to look for camping spots in the basin. These folks put me at ease a bit. Although, I was still a little bit nervous. I was mostly just nervous that I'd put all this time and effort into getting a shot at the basin group, but that the weather would shut down my plan, without me having anything to say about it. In reality, I had little control over that, and the Chicago Basin was a beautiful place. If I had to return later, there could be worse things.
The train dropped me off around 3:30 pm. Since I had jumped on the train kind of late in Silverton, the conductor had actually allowed me to hop on with my backpack. Most people had to stash their packs in the bag boxcar. That gave me a little bit of a head start in front of the rest of the hikers that got off with me. I jumped off quickly, and started hiking fast towards the basin. It was Friday, mid day, and I had visions of fighting for tough to find weekend camping spots. So, I wanted to stay ahead of the masses, if I could. Plus, I wanted to get up to camp, and setup before the sun started to get too far below the mountains. I ended up hiking completely alone the whole time. Nobody caught me. I made it to my chosen camp site in about 2 and a half hours. I had hiked in with minimal water in order to reduce weight. So, once I hit camp, I gathered water, and immediately started preparing dinner. While dinner was cooking, I setup my tent, and got everything ready for sleeping. I scarfed down a tasty Mountain House stroganoff meal, prepped my pack for the next day, then crawled into my sleeping bag.
I woke up around 4 am, with plans for another 4:30 am start. The skies looked sketchy. Honestly, the skies this morning looked worse than any of the mornings that I'd hiked so far on this trip. But, I was determined to see how much of the hike mother nature would allow me to get in today. I jumped on the trail around 4:30. The trail up to twin lakes is pretty easy to follow. There are a few sections where the rocks made the trail unclear in the dark. But, I never really got off trail. In the day time, the trail would have been easy to follow. I made it up to twin lakes, in just over an hour. At that point, I gathered more water. I had decided to forgo getting water in the morning, at camp. Instead, I just used the water that I already had available, and made plans to refill at Twin Lakes. That worked out well. I actually planned to stop at the lake again after grabbing the Eolus pair. From the lake, I turned left, and traversed towards the Eolus pair. Once around the bend, I could pretty clearly see Eolus. As I was heading towards Eolus, the fog was starting to build up a bit. The skies had not gotten any worse, and honestly seemed to be clearing up slightly. But, there was certainly, a low fog building. I worked my way towards the bottom of the shelf that I knew would lead me to the Eolus/North Eolus saddle. I should mention at this point that I had seen several headlamps ahead of me at various points in the hike so far. It looked like there was a group of about four or five people ahead of me, heading towards Eolus. I couldn't tell if I was gaining on them, but I thought that I might be. I worked my way to the shelf (left), then began the traverse up the shelf (right). The hike up the shelf was not very difficult. It was only moderately steep, and stayed pretty much class 2. Eventually, the shelf opens up at the base of the saddle. At this point, there are several options to get up on the saddle. I took an option that seemed to stay mostly at class 2+. When I gained the saddle, I was actually about 20 feet above it, onto the North Eolus ridge. I made the saddle in about 2 and a half hours from camp. I contemplated grabbing North Eolus first, but I wanted to try and catch the group ahead of me, and climb in tandem with them, rather than worry about crossing paths with them later on the face of Eolus. So, I quickly scamper across the cat walk. The cat walk was different than I expected. It wasn't particularly difficult, but it did involve a variety of low class rock climbing moves. It stayed class 3, but it was interesting, and exposed. I made it to the base of the Eolus face, about the same time as the group of five was heading up. So, I followed them up the face of Eolus. The face and final pitch on Eolus was very loose, and nasty. It was class 3 ledges, the whole way. The technical difficulty was moderate, but the exposure was sustained. For 30 minutes of climbing, you are on 3-4 foot grass and rock ledges, slowly working your way to the summit of Eolus. Again, it wasn't technically much more than a “ladder climb” but the sustained exposure was mentally draining. I made the summit in about 3 hours from camp.
On the summit, I briefly talked with my summit partners. They were a group of five guys, from Denver. We spent about 10 minutes on Eolus, and then headed down as a group. We made it back to the catwalk in about 20 minutes. It took another 20 minutes to reach the summit of North Eolus. The climb up North Eolus was really solid. It was very different from the loose climb up Eolus. The rock was very solid, some of the most solid that I've seen in Colorado. The summit of North Eolus was one of the more enjoyable summits. The perch was outstanding, and the view all around, especially at Eolus was great. I should mention here that the weather was looking reasonable at this point. The fog had come in strong while we were on top of Eolus. but, by the time we reached North Eolus, the fog had started to clear up a bit. And, the clouds had pretty much stayed at bay. It looked very possible that I could grab all four of the basin summits in one day. After 10 minutes on North Eolus, we all started down together. I stayed with the group of five, until we got down into the basin. As we got closer to Twin Lakes, I pulled ahead a bit. The group was planning on an extended stop at the lakes in order to grab a bite to eat. I was planning on just a quick dunk in the lake for water, and I would eat on the run. I make it back down to the lakes in just under 5 hours from camp. I refilled my water and treated it. Then, I was headed towards Sunlight Peak.
The trail towards Sunlight starts on the east (right) side of the lake. If you we're coming from camp, you'd turn right around the lake. The trail is moderately easy to follow. As you leave the lake, you pretty quickly start to gain elevation. There is a small ridge that you gain that lies at the very bottom of Windom's ridge. After you gain the lower ridge, you actually drop slightly on the other side, before you start climbing Sunlight's face. There are some amazing and large cairns that guide you across the lower Windom ridge, and up the base of Sunlight. As you being to gain the face of Sunlight, it gets very loose and nasty towards the top. The route on the face of Sunlight targets the saddle between Sunlight Peak and Sunlight Spire. Your goal is clear, but there are many ways to achieve it. All ways are loose and crappy. I wouldn't say that the route to the saddle is dangerous or exposed, just slow going, and very tiring. Once you gain the saddle, you follow the left side of the ridge towards Sunlight. In other words, at the saddle, turn left, towards Sunlight, and stay on the left of the ridge. As you work towards the summit, it seems like there are multiple class 3 and class 4 options. I'd say that the easiest route actually stays low in elevation for some time. This version is a bit looser, but the exposure, and technical climbing is minimal. Eventually though, you have to sign up for some class 4 and a bit of exposure.
At about this time, I ran into another climbing partner, Michael. Michael was stalled at the bottom of the final class 4 section, pondering his options. We both saw a clear cairn, but is was up on a ledge, that required a significant chimney move in order to gain. As I got closer to the move, it looked a lot easier. I made the move easily, and was up on the shelf with the cairn. Michael mimicked my moves, and easily made it up with me. The next move was of simlar difficulty. It was also a bit of a chimney move, but this time, it was a pass through window from one side of the ridge to the other side. Michael and I stopped here to take a couple of cool pictures throught the rock window. After pictures, again we made the move pretty easily. Neither of these moves had wicked exposure. There was exposure all around, but you'd have to make a pretty bad mistake to have any issues. Once through the window, we turned left and made the final 30 foot walk to the summit. I made the summit in about 6 hours from camp.
Once on the summit, Michael and I both looked at the summit block, and discussed going on top of it. It looked pretty interesting to me. Michael was not as keen on doing it as I was. After a few minutes to gather my thoughts, I finally moved towards the summit block. The first move is to walk up a 6-8 foot slab, then grab the top. The next move was a transfer from the top of the slab onto another rock. I made both moves without much issue. Then, I was sitting on the rock, just below the true summit block. I was maybe 3 feet from being on top of the summit block, but I was already having rubber legs. The moves weren't that tough. And, the exposure was only bad if you looked down. I think that my major issue was having 6 tough hours on the legs, with minimal calorie reflenishment. But, I was determined to get on top of that summit block. After a few minutes rest to gather my resolve, I finally stood up, and moved towards the summit block. I grappled the summit block, and started to pull myself up. There were really no good hand holds anywhere, on any of these slabs, including on the summit block. The climbing was all friction climbing. I was able to pull myself up, center myself on the block, with my feet basically hanging out. I didn't stand up, or even sit on the summit block. I just laid there, on my belly, with my arms and legs flailing out in space. That was all that I was able to commit. Touching the top point with your belly counts just as much as standing or sitting on it. After Michael snapped a couple of pictures of my belly summit, I slowly slid back down, until my tippy toes touched back down on the lower block. I sat there again for a few minutes pondering how I was going to get back onto that slab, without sliding and falling down the face of the slab. A fall on that slab probably wouldn't be fatal, but it was really suck bad. It was maybe a 10 foot fall that would involve a hard rocky ending, and a bunch of scrapes along the way. Many people just make the “leap of faith” onto the slab. It is more like a “step of faith.” But, I did not trust my wobbly legs at all. Eventually, from a sitting position, I just stretched my legs out at far as I could. I still wasn't touching the top of the slab with my feet/toes. And, my legs were hanging out over a 30 foot drop off (between the blocks). I stretched, and stretched. I still didn't reach. I was inches away. So, I made a sort of “butt scoot of faith.” I made a quick butt scoot off the block that I was sitting on, and landed my feet on the top of the slab. I was now suspended above the 30 foot drop. My feet were solidly on the top of the slab, and my butt/back was resting on the upper block. Believe it or not, I was actually feeling pretty safe at that point. I also knew that I could easily make the transistion to the top of the slab from how I was positioned. So, I rested and took a sanity breath. After a brief rest, I pushed up off the upper block, and stood firmly on top of the slab. From the top of the slab, I friction climbed back down to where Michael was standing. Whew… I'd love to try that group of moves on fresh legs. It wasn't graceful, but I got it done!
Once back on solid ground, Michael and I hung out for a few more minutes, then started heading down. The class 4 moves weren't much more difficult going down than they were going up. Michael and I both made the moves without any issue. We made it back to some class 3 loose stuff. Then, we traversed back over to the saddle without much difficulty. We started down the nasty loose slopes. About 100 feet down, I said goodbye to Michael, and started heading over towards the base of Windom. From the saddle, I had scouted out my approximate route. My plan was to stay class 2 on Windom. I was going to stay as high as a possibly could, but to start working my way towards the base of the main Windom saddle. As I descended the face of Sunlight, I worked towards Windom, and continued descending, until I finally found a break towards Windom that was easily class 2. Once I broke towards Windom, it was a pretty easy boulder and rock walk to the Windom saddle. Once I gained the Windom ridge, I just followed the standard Windom trail. I planned to do Windom last because it was suppose to be the easiest of the four peaks. It turns out that Windom was alot of fun, but it definitely was not what I would call easy. Luckily at that point my brain and legs were still functioning quite well.
The Windom ridge was pretty rocky, and moderately steep. It wasn't too hard in the beginning, and I seemed to gain elevation very quickly. I guess that I hadn't dropped all that far from coming off of Sunlight. Before I knew it, my GPS was showing that I was within 400 feet of the top. At this point, the weather was still ok, but it definitely looked like it could be heading towards storms. I wanted to get up Windom, and down the most technical parts before any rain or hail dropped from the sky. At about 13,800 feet there is a notch in the Windom ridge. Beyond the notch, the climbing definitely ramps up to class 2+, and I would argue some class 3. It wasn't horribly difficult, but it was very useful to have some technical rock skills on the upper portion of Windom. Several groups that I met along the way on Windom said the exact same thing: “We did Windom, because people said that it was the easiest one of the group. That was easy?” After doing almost all of the fourteeners, I would say that the class 2 route on Windom was the hardest class 2 rated route that I've done. Having said that, with even a moderate amount of rock skills, I think that anyone would think that the Windom ridge is a whole lot of fun.
The route pretty much follows the left side of the ridge after the notch. Just before you reach the top, there is another small notch that passes through the ridge to the other side. Once you pass through the ridge, the summit blocks are right in front of you. A few easy class 3 moves, and you are on top of the summit blocks, and on top of Windom. I made the top of Windom in just over 8 hours from leaving camp; 2 hours from the summit of Sunlight. I'm glad that I still had plenty of energy left for Windom. Because it really was alot of fun, even though it was more technical than I expected it to be. I summited with another group, and we chatted a bit. They were a couple who was planning to finish their last two fourteeners (the Eoluses) tomorrow. They had also brought along the ladies brother, and Sunlight and Windom were his first two fourteeners ever. I was very impressed that he could do Sunlight as his first fourteener. He was really enjoying himself. He was clearly “hooked” on climbing fourteeners.
We spent just a few minutes on top, then headed back down. The skies were ok, but there were some small storm groupings in the distance. Our climb down the most technical sections was uneventful. We continued down the remainder of the ridge. As we reached the bottom of the ridge, the skies finally started to lob pea-sized hail at us. I had intended to take off my helmet, but had not gotten a chance to yet. With the hail coming down, I was glad that I had something to protect my head. I should say though that the “plunk plunk” of hail hitting my plastic helmet startled me at first. And, whenever the hail hit exposed skin, it stung pretty good. The hail persisted on and off for about 30 minutes. As we got closer to the lakes, I slowly pulled away from my summit friends. I continued past the lakes, down the waterfall, and back into the basin. I ultimately reached camp in just over 10 hours round trip.
Once I got back to camp, I quickly gathered water, and started cooking dinner. About an hour after I got back, the skies finally did open up in a big way. By this point, I was in my tent, and eating my dinner. I stayed in my tent the rest of the night. Actually, I pretty much slept from 4 pm until 8 am the next morning. I wasn't really that tired, I just didn't have anything else to do, and it was raining. I figured that I could hike out to the train in about 2 hours. And, my train was scheduled for 11:15 am. So, around 8 am, I started packing up my stuff. And, around 8:30 am, I started hiking down the trail. Sure enough, I got to the Needleton train stop around 10:30 am. At 11:15 am, I jumped on the train, with a big smile on my face. I should mention that it rained almost non stop from 3 pm the day that I summited, until well into the next day. In fact, it was still raining lightly when I jumped on the train. I suspect that not too many people attempted to summit on the day that I hiked out.
After the train returned to Silverton, I got to my car, packed up, and headed to Jared's house. He'd texted me that they were preparing a huge meal. Yummy. The Chicago Basin group was really nice. But, I'm glad that I was able to get them done. I would love to go back into the basin later, but not with any required summits “hanging over my head.” Four more peaks complete, and only ONE MORE remains. Mount Wilson will have to wait for another time.
*Train to Camp 2:43
Camp to Eolus Catwalk 2:30
To Eolus Summit 3:00
On Eolus 3:10
Back To Eolus Catwalk 3:30
To North Eolus Summit 3:50
On North Eolus Summit 4:00
To Sunlight Summit 6:10
On Sunlight Summit 6:20
To Windom Summit 8:10
On Windom Summit 8:20
Back To camp 10:08
*Camp to Train 2:00
TOTAL TIME 14:51
TOTAL ROUNDTRIP MILEAGE AND ELEVATION:
Miles 6.17 + 10.16 + 6.17 = 22.5 miles
Total ascent 5320 ft (summit day only)