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 Windom. 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.
Undaunted, we left camp about an hour later than planned hoping the clouds would lift. As we made the hike to Twin Lakes, we met other climbers beating a retreat saying conditions were poor. However, we continued.
Once at Twin Lakes, the conditions were just as poor - low clouds, rumbling thunder and occasional rain mixed with graupel. We paused at the Lakes to caucus and decided to continue the climb up Windom's ridge.
The visibility was about zero but we spotted the occasional cairn and made steady progress higher. Soon we had joined with other climbers and our newly formed team of 7 climbed higher in the low clouds. I really cannot report much about the climb except that it was rated as a class 2 and we all felt it had sections of low class 3.
In spite of the conditions we soon made it to the summit block just as the skies really opened up with a heavy downpour. I climbed to the top of summit block and made a quick phone call to my wife using Robert's Verizon phone. ATT did not work anywhere in this area. It would have been nice to relax on this summit given it's complexity of huge jumbled rocks and amazing views, but the weather dictated a quick descent.
We quickly down climbed the ridge back to Twin Lakes to evaluate if Sunlight was an option. It was not an easy decision in that we had to catch the train out the next afternoon at 3:45PM so a delay would mean an early morning push to summit Sunlight. Also the clouds played with us mercilessly. It was sunny, then raining, then cloudy then sleeting - all in a matter of minutes.
John Little, back at camp taking a rest day, radioed us multiple times with reports of tough conditions in the basin proper. But the severity never made it to the higher levels.
So with a sense of urgency or some might call it summit fever, Robert and I left the group to climb the Sunlight gulley. About half way up, the weather closed in just as John told us of 60 mph winds down below. Robert paused while I continued higher to inspect the route. My thought at that moment was to understand the route to accelerate my climb starting with a 4 AM departure the next day. However, if the conditions improved, I would go for the summit and my final 14er.
I made it to the summit ridge of Sunlight just as the clouds dropped down once again. The rain on the lichen covered rock made for a slippery surface. Knowing that Sunlight was an exposed class 4 climb near the summit, I inspected the route; pushed it as far as I could and retreated gracefully. Robert, a great friend, was waiting for me at Twin Lakes.
Back at camp, my teammates looked at me with a curiosity but I felt confident on the day's maneuvers.
So, Windom was fun. A bit more difficult than advertised but quite doable as a solid class 2 with a few low class 3 sections. The summit block is interesting with it's jumble of bus sized boulders. As for the views, I have no idea!