Friday, August 15, 2008

Sunlight Peak (14,064 ft.)

Windom Peak (14,087 ft.)

North Eolus” (14,044 ft.)

6 through 8 August, 2008: I finally made it back to Chicago Basin. As faithful readers know, in 2005 I had run in overnight from the Purgatory trailhead on US 550 with ultrarunner Matt Mahoney, hoping to climb all three of the basin’s ranked fourteeners. The attempt failed because lingering snow high on the slopes of Mt. Eolus (14,088 ft.) was too steep and hard to be negotiated without crampons.

So, this time I brought crampons and an ice ax. I also took the more leisurely, and more common, approach. Together with Trisha, I took the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad north from Durango to the Needleton train stop on the Animas River (~8,200 ft.). This saves about eight miles each way, so Trisha figured it was worth the train fare. Suzi graciously drove us down to Durango the evening before, and we all stayed overnight in a motel room. This got us started with at least a reasonable approximation of a decent night’s sleep.

About 8:30 MDT the next morning, we tossed our expedition packs, loaded with everything we could think of that we might need, onto the baggage car at the train station, and waited for the 9:00 departure time. The train—authentic 19th century narrow gauge equipment carefully maintained into the 21st century—slowly chugged its way north along the Animas River. Top speed is about 25 mph!

It takes 2½ hours of, admittedly, very scenic travel to reach the one-time mining camp called Needleton, one of a handful of train stops on the way to Silverton. At times, the train is perched on narrow ledges, blasted out of very hard rock, up to 200 feet above the river below. As I write this, those train ride pictures haven’t been posted yet, but I promise I will eventually get an album online. Following my usual biases, I have given a higher priority to publishing the mountain pictures!

About 11:30 MDT, we got off at Needleton. We collected and put on our packs, then crossed over to the east side of the river on a good footbridge, and our journey was officially underway. Three-quarters of a mile downriver, we came to the bottom of the Needle Creek trail. It heads steeply up to the east along—you guessed it!—Needle Creek. Actually, it starts out going something like east-southeast. Then, over the next six miles (and 3,000 feet of elevation gain!), both trail and creek do a broad turn counter-clockwise, ending up heading east-northeast before leveling out somewhat in the lower end of Chicago Basin.

Chatting on the way up the trail, we decided to set up our camp fairly low down. This might seem foolish: it would make for longer climbs both Thursday and Friday to reach our target peaks. But the overriding wisdom of such a choice was that we would only have to travel the mileage in the upper basin with our day packs. Whatever distance we didn’t travel on the way in to find a campsite, would be mileage that we also didn’t have to travel under the weight of full expedition packs on the way out on Friday. Without a doubt, this proved to be the right decision.

So, after just under four hours of uphill hiking (fending off prodigious swarms of insects most of the way), we found a spot at about 11,100 ft., not far from the creek, where we set up our camp. After getting the tent set up, we both immediately put on long sleeves and long pants, to prevent getting cold in the falling temperatures of afternoon/evening.

Then we fluffed out our sleeping bags, and set about preparing our first camp dinner. Tired and well-fed, we suspended the food bag from a tree limb (a necessity here), laid out stuff for the morning, and happily plopped ourselves into our bags long before the sun had actually set.

We had nearly ten hours to sleep before the 4 am alarm went off. Even so, we gave ourselves nearly half an hour of extra snooze time before yanking ourselves out into the chill of pre-dawn and making some coffee. After that, and a breakfast of instant oatmeal, we finally hit the trail at abut 5:40 am MDT. It had rained some during the night, but precipitation had stopped, and the skies seemed to be clearing at least partially.

When the trail turns more to the north, just above timberline, it also turns dramatically up, for the final push to Twin Lakes. On this steep section, we finally saw a couple of climbers coming up behind us, and one large party (I think we counted 9) a short distance above us. It took us an hour and a half to get to the lakes (12,500 ft.).

Meanwhile, the clouds were persistently failing to burn off. After passing by the lakes, we made another turn, heading back in a more easterly direction, for the last leg of our approach to the basin in between Sunlight and Windom. First Sunlight Spire (14,000 ft.) came into view, then Sunlight Peak, and, finally Windom. All were completely or partially wrapped in clouds, depending on just when we looked up.

By about 8:30 am MDT we reached the base of the aptly named “red gully” on Sunlight’s southwest side, and the climbing steepened again. The rocks also got looser and gradually larger. We could see the party of nine heading up toward Windom (on our right), and wondered if they also planned on climbing both peaks. We trudged on, aiming for the saddle between Sunlight Peak and Sunlight Spire.

After peeking over the ridge at the saddle, we turned left. The truth is, the pictures tell a better story of what we encountered from there to the summit than words can. Basically, we turned left and contoured across the western side of the mountain, gradually climbing and slowly winding clockwise around the summit block. Several steep climbs over large boulders and through steep cracks were required. Trisha decided to leave her pack behind to aid in balance, and not long thereafter, I jettisoned my ice axe, because the point of it kept banging into overhanging rocks as I negotiated narrow spaces. She would pay a price for her convenience later…

About 10:30, we came to the final obstacle: a virtual tunnel where it was necessary to climb a steep groove completely roofed by a large boulder. Emerging at the top, we found ourselves on a level bench which led away a few yards to our left, where the benchmark and register are located. Just beyond, we looked up another fifteen feet or so to the true summit.

The true summit of Sunlight Peak is a unique thing of mystical beauty and fascinating danger. There is no other fourteener summit like it, not even on mountains that are actually harder to climb. To reach the top, one must either friction walk up a large slabby boulder tilted at about 45 degrees, and totally devoid of cracks or handholds, OR take the “Leap of Faith,” across a gap just too wide to be stepped across without momentum. And then, the rounded topmost boulder must be clambered up onto, again without any real handholds. On the other side—where your momentum would carry you if you got up too much of it—is another curving drop-off and 1500 feet or so of uninterrupted air.

Trisha demurred, but I simply had to go for it. I found it a little too breezy to stand upright on the top, but I got there, as her pictures attest. Fourteener number 37 for me, 35 for Trisha.

Even though we technically had all day, and it was still morning, we knew we still couldn’t trust the weather. In fact, we fully expected some showers; it was just a question of when and how intense. So after a few pictures, we headed back down to the saddle and off toward Windom. Before we got there, however, we met a couple on their way up who informed us that they had passed Trisha’s pack on the way, and that the famous marmots had chewed through one of her zippers to get at the snack food inside! Fortunately, it was only the small, outermost pocket, but the zipper would simply have to be replaced later. We could only laugh at our lack of foresight in forgetting to take the edibles out before leaving the pack behind.

We angled to our left going back down the red gully, and eventually gave up only about 800 feet of elevation before taking off on a gently climbing traverse. We had just a couple of very short stretches (50 feet or so) across some lingering snow fields, and the snow supported us perfectly well without gear. We got on top of the west ridge, which connects Windom to its sub-summit, Peak 18, just east of a gentle ridge point and turned uphill.

We generally stayed close to the ridge crest, bypassing any obstacles on the left. The greatest of these is a good-sized notch at about 13,800 ft. Although it required a significant detour, we found a well-cairned route leading back onto the ridge crest in fairly short order. Then, once again, we found the average size of the boulders increasing and the amount of hand work increasing too.

This only went on for five or ten minutes, though, until we could see that we were almost on the summit. Low clouds had completely closed in and blocked all direct light, but the rain had held off. Finally, we climbed onto the first of the strangely cubic boulders which characterize this summit. A video of our approach is at:

We found the register canister missing its cap and, therefore, a register. Fortunately, Trisha found a spare Ziploc bag in her pack, and I just happened to have a suitable rubber band, so we installed a new register and improvised a cap. We also placed the canister on a level shelf above its attachment point on a vertical surface, instead of letting it hang the way we had found it, and secured it somewhat with a handy rock. Hopefully, this will suffice until some dedicated person can bring up a real screw-on cap. I put out a call in my trip report for this action.

Once again, however, we didn’t want to linger long. (There weren’t any really good views to soak in, anyway!) Not ten minutes after starting down, we did finally get rained upon. It wasn’t heavy, nor was it sleety and freezing, but we proceeded with some caution. Also, the wind remained absent. By the time we got back to the saddle and exited the ridge, it had stopped. There, we actually met another climber heading up. He said he had climbed Eolus that morning, and was determined to hit Windom before the day was out, so we wished him luck and continued down.

Naturally, even with a couple more brief bouts of sprinkling, we made much better time on the return trip. Just after the steep drop-off from Twin Lakes, we took a wrong turn in one of the places where the trail goes across a rock slab, and had to backtrack for about ten minutes. We actually ended up on the Columbine Pass trail and approached the junction from a different direction than we had intended.

Still, we were back in camp by 5:30 pm, for a total descent time of barely three and a half hours. The round trip came to just under twelve hours—perfectly acceptable, IMHO.

We were encouraged when the clouds largely dissipated and late afternoon sunlight flooded our campsite. The first quarter moon became visible, and we drifted off to sleep with hopes that the following day would give us a better break on the weather than the previous one had.

Alas, it was not to be. Although only a few sprinkles of rain fell during the night, and day broke with partial clearing, it never really cleared up. We got up and going relatively quickly, knowing that we had only half a day to climb, and that we needed to hike out back to Needleton by 3:45 pm. We could see the tops of the many peaks which rim the basin in the dawn light, including one clear shot of Mt. Eolus, before the clouds re-formed and blocked off all direct light.

Still, I was very pleased when we passed the elevation where Matt and I had been turned around three years before: Everything from here on was new territory! We reached that point just before 8:30 am, and success seemed quite likely.

But new territory, together with the totally enveloping clouds, meant that we could no longer see very far ahead. As a result, we could only follow the cairns, which I was pleased to see were there.

At a point which had to be only a hundred feet or so directly below the famous Catwalk—the narrow ridge between Eolus and North Eolus—we followed obvious cairns up and to the right (north). Here we cached our crampons and ice axes to lighten our loads, as we both agreed that we simply weren’t going to need them. I expected the route the cairns defined to turn left and level out at some point and, sure enough, it did. This did not, however, deposit us at anything which looked like the north end of a narrow ridge.

Instead, the route flattened out into a saddle, and continued wrapping around to the left, where it commenced climbing again. The climbing was fairly steep, a mixture of bouldering and crack climbing, and I really began to wonder. It was past 9 am now, and I figured that we would really have to turn around by 9:30 in order to get back to Needleton before the train.

But we were still going up, so, even though visibility was severely limited, we pressed on. The wetness of the rock also began to be a factor, and we had to be careful. Finally, the cairns clearly led us to the base of a narrow crack fifteen to twenty feet high. It was very steep, and so were the solid slopes on either side of it, so it looked like the only available route up. Carefully—very carefully—we ascended it one at a time, searching diligently for every ledge and handhold.

At the top, we found a small saddle in the narrow ridge, and a route leading still up and to the right, roughly following the ridge crest. The climbing from there was still serious, over and around fairly large boulders, but after the crack it didn’t seem very bad! After just a few minutes, I thought I was a saddle/ridge emerging from the mist to my left. Could this be the Catwalk after all? I hurried to the obvious high point between me and it to find out.

As I approached, I finally saw an elevation benchmark (see photos) on the high point, and my hope soared momentarily. Was this, against all odds, the summit? When I put on my glasses to read the elevation—which, unlike everything else, had for some reason been hand-scratched into the benchmark—I finally solved the riddle of our location. It read 14,039: the accepted elevation value of North Eolus. In the fog, we had climbed the wrong summit!

The ridge beyond clearly led down now, to what must be the Eolus/North Eolus saddle, But the fog was thicker than ever, and we could only see a few feet ahead of us. Despite being less than a quarter mile from our objective, and forty feet below it, I knew we would have to abandon it. Unable to see what lay ahead, I couldn’t risk an untested route down to the saddle. It might cliff out, presenting us with real danger. And, even if it didn’t, we would still have to climb the ledges—which I knew to be poorly cairned—to get to the summit.

I couldn’t take that risk, because Suzi had given me just two unequivocal instructions for this trip: 1) Make sure Trisha was safe, and 2) Don’t miss the train! Dropping off toward that saddle, so close by, might put either or both of those commissions in jeopardy. The only prudent choice was to follow our ascent route back down, since this was a known quantity, and then make all the haste we could back to camp.

It took most of an hour to get back to the place where we had left our snow gear. While I was in the process of downclimbing the infamous crack, Trisha yelled down to me that she had been able to find a gentler way around it, somewhere over to climber’s right. She took it, but I completed the downclimb rather than reverse my progress, and we met up again at the bottom a few minutes later. Less than ten minutes after reclaiming our gear, we met the only other climbers we saw that day, a couple going up toward Eolus. We told them what we had found, and wished them good luck putting the information to effective use. Then we turned our attention to speed.

We succeeded in that regard, and arrived back at camp, some 2,400 feet lower, in only an hour and twenty minutes. Winter had magically changed back into summer by then, and the sun was out and the rain gone. We made ourselves one last quick cup of coffee, stripped off some clothes, and laid our damp outer garments out dry while we tore down the tent and packed up the remainder of our gear. By 12:50 pm we were ready to go, and headed down the trail toward the train stop. We were out of emergency mode, but we still had to hurry at least a little bit.

A couple of miles down, we began meeting the folks who had gotten off the morning train coming up; we were actually surprised at how few of them there were for a Friday. With a couple stops to shed still more clothing, we stumbled out of the Weminuche wilderness and over the footbridge with twenty minutes to spare. Needless to say, we spent most of that twenty minutes sitting down, leaning against our packs, although Trisha did take a few pictures of the area.

It was with a strange mixture of satisfaction and longing that we got back on the train when it arrived. Against all plans, we would have to come back to this incredibly beautiful place to snag that last peak—the highest one of the bunch. But we had had a fantastic adventure and knocked two more off the list of 54.

For a combination of reasons, there are precious few pictures of Friday’s climb, all taken with Trisha’s camera. My pictures, and a few of hers, are at

Long life and many peaks!


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