There are four 14ers that many people never climb, those in the Chicago Basin in Southwest Colorado. To get there you either backpack in for 32 miles, one way via the Purgatory trailhead, or take a hour or two and half hours on the Durango & Silverton steam train to a wilderness drop-off point and backpack 6 miles to the basin. Either way, it is a multi day commitment in an area notorious for extreme weather thus making the chances of summiting all chancy at best.
On August 14-17, 2010 I took that chance with a few friends to grab my final four 14ers. Our goal was to summit Eolus, North Eolus, Windom Peak and Sunlight Peak. This report is for the hike in and Sunlight. Click on the others for their reports. All of the reports start with the same summary of the hike into Chicago Basin.
Click on any picture to enlarge it.
The trip started for most of us in Durango, a college town but also filled with tourists enjoying the Colorado summer. I met Anne and Kevin Martin from Colorado along with John Little who drove in from Houston at the Durango Hometown Hostel. My regular 14er partners Patrick Vall joined us later and Robert LeClair met us at camp the next day since he came in from Silverton via the train.
The Durango & Silverton Railroad steam train is quite the experience with it's billowing engine puffing madly to haul the 12 car train along the narrow gauge rails. I had known about the train for years and it was fun to finally take a ride. We left Durango around 9:00 AM and slowly but steadily made our way towards Neddleton, the stop where we got off the train and grabbed our packs from the storage car. We were on the trail by noon.
The hike to Chicago Basin follows Needle Creek in a heavily forested area. The trail starts at 8220' and gains about 2,800' on an excellent trail. Near the basin it opens up quite a bit revealing a beautiful cirque and, of course, our objectives. We hiked to the sign marking the junction to the Twin Lakes and Columbine Pass.
The basin was filled with camps but in such a large area, never felt crowded. Our site selection took us across the stream to a relatively flat area in the trees large enough for five tents. Our plan was to climb Eolus and N. Eolus on Sunday and then Windom and Sunlight on Monday thus catching the 3:45 PM train out on Tuesday. However, the San Juan weather had other ideas.
We had summited Eolus on Sunday and then Windom on Monday in difficult weather but Sunlight remained elusive. Given it was my last of the 54 Colorado 14ers, I was highly motivated to tag the top. And there was another reason that drove my pursuit.
As I described in my Windom report, Robert and I attempted to summit and I and reached the summit ridge the previous day but retreated as the weather closed in completely. Knowing I had to hike the 6 miles out to catch the 3:45 train back to Durango, I made up my mind to start early, push hard and take what the mountain would give me on my last day.
Overnight, the rain was extremely heavy and compete with sleet and medium sized hailstones. I lay in my sleeping bag thinking about the exposed class 4 terrain near the summit of Sunlight and if it was going to be icy when I arrived. I awakened on my own, probably from being a bit anxious, to a wonderfully clear sky filled with bright stars. However, the ground was quite wet and the temps had dropped into the high 40s. I wondered what it would be like 3,000' higher.
I set a good pace to Twin Lakes in the dark and continued route finding as my headlamp developed an annoying flicker. The route in this area is well marked but gets very thin as you leave the grassy areas and gain the nearby rock and boulder filled ledges.
I knew the general direction from the previous day's reconnaissance but still ended up climbing one gully over from the route. This was not too bad in that it topped out around 13, 500' so I simply traversed over to the correct gulley just as the sun peaked over the ridge.
The area looked completely different from the previous day in the low clouds. The route from the top of the gulley to the summit had a few cairns marking the general route but I followed my nose more often than not and had a lot of fun scrambling on the class 4 terrain. I did spot the often cited feature of a rock window frame and soon reached another from that lead to the summit ramp.
The rocks were still damp as the sun now allowed me to turn off the random headlamp.
I reached the summit completely alone with no one in sight. I sat my pack down next to the survey marker and studied the rock formation that held the true summit. This formation is widely discussed for a move that involves a steep climb to the top and then a return jump of a a couple of feet onto a very exposed rock, My plan had been to use my helmet cam to record my jump of this final 14er.
But with the wet conditions and being solo, I thought better of it and was totally satisfied to simply climb the rocks and give the top rock a gentle touch with a simple thanks. I took a video to record the moment:
I returned to my pack and took my 'finisher' picture using a sign my great friend Robert LeClair had given me. I also took a picture of me holding a picture of my mom who had died from Alzheimer's exactly one year and day ago. It was a moment.
Packing back up, I heard some voices and soon a few other people were heading towards the summit. I took my leave knowing I had to make good time back to camp and then back to the train.
Sunlight. What a perfect name for my final 14er. It was refreshing on the final summit push with exciting exposure along with solid holds and interesting rock and route. As always in the San Juana, the views were rewarding. My only regret was that my teammates were not able to be there but we shared the event via radio.