Date climbed: 7/30/19- 8/1/19
Elevation: 14,059' (Sunlight Peak), 14,087' (Windom Peak), 14,083' (Mount Eolus), 14,039' (North Eolus)
Partners: Dean, Ben and his son
One of the jewels of Colorado, Chicago Basin is among the best kept "secrets" for locals. The unique approach, involving a beautiful ride on a true coal-fired train through pristine wilderness, a strenuous approach through alpine meadows, to the base of the rugged Chicago Basin is unmatched.
I was far from alone, however. As I exited the train at the Needleton stop, about 30+ other backpackers walked out alongside me. I had anticipated a large group, but nothing like the flood that I began the hike with. Wanting to stay ahead of the crowd, I pushed hard for the first few miles, hoping to find a campsite as close to Twin Lakes as possible (it is illegal to camp at Twin Lakes, so all backpackers are forced to camp at least one mile below Chicago Basin proper). As the miles stretched on, the groups fell further behind, and the scenery became more rugged and picturesque.
About 2 miles below our campsite, Jupiter Mountain came into view, obscuring all but the highest ground of Windom Peak. Just before camp, Mount Eolus came into view far off to the left. It was a spectacular basin with green meadows all around, and sharp peaks high above. Only South Colony lakes and the Crestones came close, but on a much smaller scale. As I was alone, I wanted to be somewhat close to other campers should something happen. Thankfully a father and his son had kept pace, with the same intention; bag the 14ers and camp as close as possible to the peaks.
The father (Ben) and son duo were a strong team, but very friendly! After setting up camp together, Dean (a solo hiker from New York) joined our small group. Soon we had dinner and made plans to hike together as a group of 4. The early onset of the "monsoon" forced us to plan a 4:30 AM start, hoping to bag all 4 peaks before the afternoon thunderstorms rolled in.
The next morning came early, but I was relieved to have others climbing alongside. A small cliff bar for breakfast (yuk) and a hastily packed food bag for the hike, and we were off to the races! Our pace was quick, but sustainable. Before long, were standing in Chicago Basin itself, Needle Ridge standing imposingly above with Sunlight Peak high above to the northeast. We had all agreed to tackle what we believed to be the hardest peaks first: Sunlight and Windom. Given the epic winter we had previously experienced, snow was still a large factor.
We were a little uneasy with so many clouds so early in the day, so our pace remained strenuous. Up the loose rock and dirt, and soon we were on the ridge proper. The view was spectacular, and not one I will soon forget. This peak alone would be worth the trip! Wanting to move fast an light, we unloaded any extra gear we didn't need, ate a quick bite, and began the fun portion of Sunlight Peak. Up, up, up we went along the ridge, climbing, traversing, and scaling the solid rock barring our way to the summit. Behind us, the extraordinary Sunlight Spire loomed, catching the morning rays.
As the climbing became more technical, our morale rose, and before long we were atop our first peak! I had been unsure how I would approach the true summit. Rumor had it that the true summit of Sunlight Peak was the most exposed move on any 14er. Having come this far, however, I wasn't going to let a little exposure keep me from the top! The rumors turned out to be unfounded, however the summit itself was very airy. We all had our moment of glory on top, and then began the journey to Windom Peak.
After an interesting hike around the basin below Sunlight and Windom, we began the ridge "hike" to the summit. We found the route-finding tedious, but not difficult. Although the climbing never exceeded class 3, we lost precious time reaching the summit. The view, however, made up for it. Two ladies who had been chasing us met us on the summit just as we were about to descend. They too were a strong team, but were concerned the weather would not hold long enough for a push of Eolus and North Eolus.
After a short scramble and some glissading back into Chicago Basin, we reached our decision point. Either we would continue into the worsening weather, or we would retreat back to our tents and attempt tomorrow, with an even worse forecast. I hoped to wait for an hour, anticipating the gathering storm would blow over soon, and leave a clear window for the summit. The window didn't come quick enough, and in the spitting rain and gusty wind, we descended back to camp, anticipating an even earlier start of 4 AM. Eventually, the weather window did come, but it was too late and we were already recuperating at camp.
Rain descended throughout the night. I feared our attempt would be over before it even began. The rumors had reached us that the route-finding on Mount Eolus would be the toughest of any 14er, perhaps even more so than the Bells or Capital. What's more, the catwalk in windy and rainy weather would be a risky proposition, and a thunderstorm on such a peak would be a death-wish. Our team, however, gave me confidence. We were strong, quick, and experienced; I was willing to push a little further given our team.
The alarm rang, up we got, and in the spitting rain, heavy cloud cover, and stifling darkness we began our ascent. Unfortunately, pictures do not describe the opposition we encountered. As the morning continued, the weather became steadily worse, and soon we were wearing what few layers we had carried up. Everyone was soaked, the rocks were slick, and the wind was just enough to make things very uncomfortable. Just as we approach 13,000 feet, I was feeling at the limit of what I was willing to risk for a summer summit. I was shivering uncontrollably, the way forward was uncertain, and our morale was low.
I had to keep moving. If I stopped for too long I would lose my momentum, and I would turn around. "Just a little further. Let's just check it out." I kept repeating to myself. The ramp finally came into view. Although many had told us snow was still filling the ramp, we encountered none, and so we pushed ahead. I knew the others were debating whether or not to turn around, but I was banking on a weather window that was supposed to break through at 7 AM. So, I quickly pulled out the micro spikes and ice axe and forged ahead up the last snow slope to the ridge. Once on the ridge, our mood improved. The climbing ahead was exposed, but doable (if only just). Across the scary-slick catwalk we went, reaching what we believed would be easier terrain.
Boy, were we wrong! The climbing and route-finding was among the toughest of any 14er, taking us an hour just to ascend the last 400 feet! After many wrong turns, frustratingly loose rock, and difficult climbing, we reached the summit. Our weather window had arrived just in time. The clouds were still just threatening enough to keep us on our toes, but we felt confident we could make it to North Eolus and then down to camp safely. Most impressive of all, though, was Ben's son. At just 15 (?), he had summited his 17th fourteener in conditions that were miserable at best and had not uttered a single complaint. In fact, every step I took, he was close on my heels, especially during the early hours when conditions had been at their worst! What a monster!
In the drier conditions, and with a healthy skepticism of any cairns, we made much quicker progress on the descent. A quick hop and skip up North Eolus, and our fourfold feat was complete!
The weather seemed to improve as we descended. Group after group ascended past us, asking about conditions and wondering if we had been the headlamps they had seen ascending in the darkness. We arrived back in camp around 10:30 AM, enough time to pack and catch the train! Ben and his son were in no hurry (understandably), but Dean and I being solo hikers wanted to get out quickly. Within half an hour, we were "sprinting" down the trail, unsure if the train would arrive at 2:30 or 3:30. Thankfully, we later discovered 3:30 was the correct time, and just before Needleton we were all back together again.
What a journey it had been! We reminisced and celebrated on the train; smelly and dirty, but happy just to have a chair to sit in. Reflecting back on this journey, this was among the one of the best trips I've had the fortune to be a part of. I'm very grateful I had other experienced climbers to rely on when the going got tough, and I pray God will continue to bless them on their future adventures! Chicago Basin was in the books. Once back in civilization, I was able to catch my extended family in Telluride and spent the night there (avoiding another sleepless night in my car!). A great end to a great trip.