IntroThree years ago in August, Karen and I took our first trip into Chicago Basin with our good friends Bill and Jen. Bill and I had been talking about doing that trip ever since we moved to Colorado, a classic Colorado backpacking adventure and it didn’t disappoint. Back then we had climbed less than 20 14ers and ticking off some sort of peak checklist wasn’t even on my radar. It was a great trip, we managed to summit Windom, and gave a good effort on Eolus before running out of time and courage. As most great trips end in Chicago Basin, we finished with a soggy 6 mile hike out in the pouring rain – ahh, monsoon season in the San Juans!
Close to 30 14ers later, we were ready to head back, this time earlier in the rainy season with a couple of extra weather days built into the agenda. Andy and Sarah, who we met on Snowmass Mtn last year, would be our companions this time and we made plans to rendeavous at the train station in Durango.
Day 1 – The Approach to Chicago BasinDistance: ~7 miles
Elevation gain: ~2900’
All pictures from Day 1 (right-click to open in a new window)
Saturday morning started off with a fun 30-minute game of Marco-Polo at the train station trying to find the mystery parking lot where Andy and Sarah were waiting for us. At one point I actually asked Andy “Are you in Durango?”…If this was any indication of what the rest of the week would be like, we were doomed. On board, the week’s entertainment started with a great presentation by Travis, the trusty concessionaire. FYI, Travis highly recommends the Bloody Mary and coloring book combo for your train ride…he was a trip! Two and a half hours later we reached the Needleton stop where we would start our trek up to the basin. Karen was sporting her new Osprey Aura pack and I was testing out the Granite Gear Nimbus Meridian I had picked up recently to replace my behemoth Gregory Whitney – after this trip, I’ll never carry my Whitney again, the Nimbus Meridian carried like a dream. The hike up into the basin was fairly uneventful, aside from picking up a couple demo waste disposal bags from Bob (a friendly volunteer ranger from NM) and a quick lunch break beside the creek about 2.5 miles in.
We kept a nice steady pace all the way to the far end of the basin and set up camp in the same spot we had 3 years ago, just past the junction of the Columbine Pass and Twin Lakes trails. My wish for the day had come true and we managed to set up camp without getting rained on and we turned in for the night after a quick dinner of chicken and ramen and defending our camp from several raids by the local goat herd.
Day 2 – Mt Eolus, North Eolus, Glacier PointMt Eolus: 14,083’ – CO rank 32
North Eolus: 14,039’ – unranked
Glacier Point: 13,704’ – unranked
Distance: ~5.5 miles
Elevation Gain: ~3100’
All pictures from Day 2 (right-click to open in a new window)
The weather forecasts for the week ahead had looked like the typical Colorado summer day: 30% chance of isolated thunderstorms, mostly after noon. We opted for early starts each morning to give us the best chance of beating any storms and set off for Mt Eolus at 4:35am. The trail leading up to Twin Lakes seemed to be cairned better than our last visit and we had no trouble staying on route aside from trying to bypass a steep slabby section just above the first creek crossing, which was a little exciting by headlamp. The remaining trail was as steep as I remember, but we persevered and reached the lakes in just under an hour. The trail leading over toward Mt Eolus seems to disappear for a bit here, but is obvious as it traverses beneath the cliffs on the north side of the creek.
We made steady progress up the trail, crossing a short snowfield until just below the ramp. Here we encountered a larger snowfield that was suncupped but still firm. Karen had her full crampons and I had my in-step crampons as a “just-in-case” measure so we decided to go ahead and use them to be safe, as well as our ice axes. Andy and Sarah did the same except substituting yak-traks for crampons, and we all did fine making our way about 100-ft up and back onto the rock ramp. We quickly ascended the rest of the ramp and zig-zagged our way up along grippy slabs to the saddle between Eolus and North Eolus by 7:15am. The view of the Catwalk and Eolus’s northeast face were impressive, and we watched the group in front of us work their way up the face close to the ridge.
The catwalk had been our stopping point previously and a few climbers we met had decided to do the same today. Andy and Sarah led the way as we picked our way across in no time. The catwalk definitely had my attention, but it wasn't nearly as narrow as I had been expecting.
The east face, however, was every bit as steep as it had looked from a distance. We made our way across approximately to the center of the face and started looking for cairns heading up. The rock here was pretty loose in spots and cairns were somewhat difficult to spot. Several times we questioned if we were on a good route, as lost people have a habit of building cairns too.
About 75-ft up the face we started to traverse right and found somewhat of a better route. I felt the climbing at this point seemed about as exposed as the ledges on Pyramid and the route finding to be a bit trickier than Pyramid as well. Fortunately we only had another 150-ft or so to go. Shortly below the summit, we crossed paths with the group ahead of us, now on their descent, and carefully made our way across another section of loose and crumbling rock. One more short scramble up and we topped out at 8:40am. The views from the summit were terrific and the weather was holding beautifully so we took some time for a short snack and some pictures.
The descent was just as exciting and I vowed to find a better route now that the cairns were easier to spot from above. Toward the bottom of the face we decided to traverse left, closer to the ridge, and avoid the steep and loose section we had ascended in the middle of the face. One tricky move was required just above a small snowfield, followed by a careful traverse on the rocks at the edge of the snow, and we were back at the catwalk again, phew! Minus the snow, this would have likely been a better way to start up the east face.
Once back across the catwalk and at the saddle, Andy, Sarah, and I started making the quick scamper up to North Eolus, while Karen stayed back since she had already made that summit last time. The scrambling up North Eolus was a blast on its super grippy granite slabs. Too bad that this wasn’t the official ranked summit of the pair! Back down at the saddle, Andy and Sarah decided to head across the plateau to Glacier Point while Karen and I started back down to camp. While we were heading down we looked up to notice a goat standing right on top of Eolus’s summit block…probably just his daily scoping out of his territory. It might have been this same fella that caught up to us later just before we reached Twin Lakes.
He walked right up to us, so close I had to back up a bit to take his picture. I got the feeling that I should have asked his permission before climbing his mountain, so we kept moving, but what an impressive creature! Heading down from Twin Lakes we took some time to admire the waterfalls and the spectacular beauty of the surrounding peaks. Andy and Sarah made it back to camp shortly after us, just in time beat the 2pm storm and catch an afternoon snooze.
Day 3 – Sunlight Peak A, Windom PeakSunlight Peak A: 14,059’ – CO rank 39
Windom Peak: 14,082’ – CO rank 33
Distance: ~5.6 miles
Elevation gain: ~3900’
All pictures from Day 3 (right-click to open in a new window)
After yesterday’s steep grunt up to Twin Lakes, Andy and Sarah were all for making that trip just once more, so we decided to leave at 4am and shoot for the Sunlight/Windom combo. We reached Twin Lakes just after 5am, turned off our headlamps, and continued on around the north side of the lakes on snow. Ascending up to the basin between Sunlight and Windom involved some minor snow crossings, but crampons were not necessary. We traversed left across the upper basin and started heading up toward the saddle between Sunlight and Sunlight Spire.
Karen and I crossed a lingering snowfield while Andy and Sarah made the prudent choice to drop 50 feet and maneuver around on the rocks below. The remaining ascent to the saddle was a bit of a loose mess and we stayed close together so any falling rocks would have minimal chance to gain momentum on us. Just below the saddle (7:25am) we turned left to pass along the right side of a large set of boulders to face the scramble to the summit. The route wasn’t as obvious as I was hoping but Andy found some cairns leading up the slabs to our right.
The initial bit of scrambling didn’t require moves that were all that difficult, but our sense of the exposure was heightened that day. Karen and I weren’t feeling as confident up there as we needed to be so we decided to back off of the route, while Andy and Sarah went on ahead. It was a tough decision, but we had reached the point where we weren’t having fun anymore and it just wasn’t worth it to continue. Andy and Sarah made quick work of the remaining challenge to top-out and return to the saddle 30 minutes later, way to go you two!
The weather was holding off well so we started our descent with plans to head over to Windom. The snow leading to the saddle between Windom and Peak 18 was soft enough to easily kick steps with only occasional post-holing. I was looking forward to the making a second ascent, as my previous trip up Windom had been a good challenge for me and I wanted to see if I would feel more comfortable this time.
We found a couple of different cairned routes leading up from the saddle and tried to keep up a good pace as storm clouds seemed to be building off in the distance. After reaching the notch at 13,800-ft we couldn’t quite find the proper route as the cairns seemed to lead off onto the northwest face. Karen decided to wait at the notch while I continued on with Andy and Sarah. I remembered needing an assist through a v-shaped notch created by two blocks on the last trip and that turned out to be the next move.
Further above the notch the route-finding started to get really interesting as we missed a key cairn higher on the ridge and ventured out onto the northwest face route again. A little bit of snow on the face added to the adventure and we found ourselves slowly picking our way across looking for ways to head back to the ridge proper. Shortly below the summit was a rather large snowfield that would have been foolish to cross. Andy asked if I remembered if the true summit was on the left or right side of the snowfield above and I said “left, I think.” Good thing we didn’t listen to me. Andy found a good route back to the top of the ridge to the right of the snowfield and popped out just north of the summit block. 2 minutes of scrambling down and back up later and we topped out at 11:08am. We had taken longer than normal to reach the summit from the notch and I was sure Karen would be concerned, so we took a few quick pictures and headed back.
The descent was much easier and we were able to stay on solid blocks along the ridge proper this time. Karen was glad to see we were okay and eager to head back down to camp. Clouds were starting to build, but the rain held off long enough for us to reach the tents. Two days in a row!
Day 4 – Jupiter Mountain, Columbine PassJupiter Mountain: 13,830’ – CO rank 92
Columbine Pass: 12,700’
Distance: ~5.7 miles
Elevation gain: ~2700’
All pictures from Day 4 (right-click to open in a new window)
With the major objectives of the trip covered we looked forward to a later start and a more leisurely climb. Jupiter was on the ticket and we left camp around 6:10am following the trail for Columbine Pass. We left the trail just before a creek crossing near 11,700-ft and headed up toward Jupiter’s grassy southwest slopes.
We found a slight trail as we ascended a steep grassy hill near 12,000-ft, but no other trails of note along the way. Around 12,700-ft we were ascending another steep grassy gully where we stopped to see if we could warm up Karen’s feet. A couple days of crossing creeks, splashing through puddles, and the occasional snow crossing had her boots pretty well saturated and staying pretty cold from the moisture. So Karen and I decided to head back down to camp to relax and see if we could get her boots to dry out in the sun while Andy and Sarah continued on. According to their report later, the remainder of Jupiter was just a steep grunt up the grassy slopes, followed by a false summit and some exposed scrambling at the top that reminded them of some of Eolus’s ledges. Once back down to the Columbine Trail, and under the warm morning sun, Karen’s feet were warming up a bit, so we decided to continue on the trail on up to Columbine Pass.
The flowers along the way were spectacular and the trail was casual. Views of Columbine Lake and Hope Mountain from the top of the pass near 12,700’ were worth the effort.
We met back up with Andy and Sarah on our way down and made it back to camp just before noon. While having lunch near camp, we received news of a hiker that had been hit in the head with a loose rock kicked by a goat while descending from Twin Lakes and were able to offer first aid. The injuries were such that she needed to be evacuated later that afternoon, and I was impressed by how other hikers in the basin rallied to support her and her family as best as we could, and how quickly a mountain rescue crew arrived on scene to evacuate her. The best moment of the trip was seeing the hiker and her family safe and full of smiles when we deboarded the train the next day!
Unfortunately, I had made the mistake of leaving my helmet on the ground during the afternoon, and a marmot chewed up my chin strap like it was corn-on-the-cob. Andy's thermarest also fell victim to the vermin, as did the straps on Karen's trekking poles. When they say there is a marmot and goat problem in Chicago Basin, they're really not kidding...watch your gear like a hawk!
Day 5 – Departure from Chicago BasinDistance: ~7 miles
Elevation gain: 0’
All pictures from Day 5 (right-click to open in a new window)
It was nice to be able to sleep in the next morning and I was glad it wasn’t raining while we packed up camp. We met up with Ernie, the injured hiker’s dad, on the way out of Chicago Basin to help carry out some extra gear. Wouldn’t you know it, as soon as we started hiking again, the rain started, and it didn’t really let up until the hail started.
Andy made the keen observation that it might have been better to bring a speedo, rather than a raincoat. At least we were on the way out, and headed someplace warm and dry, but we were drowned rats by the time we got back to the Needleton stop. A word to the wise: even though the train to Durango doesn’t come until 3:45pm, leave camp first thing in the morning, so you can wait out the afternoon rain for the train under a shelter. Back in Durango, we found one of the only motel vacancies left in town, and I know why. To call this place “shady” was a huge compliment. But it served the purpose for us to get a good night’s sleep and air our swampy gear.
Day 6 – A Day of RestWe woke up alive the next morning, thankfully, and had a nice breakfast at the Durango Doughworks. Andy and Sarah were headed for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, followed by the El Diente – Mt Wilson traverse from the Kilpacker side with some friends, so we parted ways. Great hiking with you guys! Karen and I headed to Trimble Hot Springs, but missed out due to a lightning storm that was rolling through. So we headed back south for a quick stop at Mesa Verde to see the cliff dwellings.
We stopped in Cortez at the Big R to see about getting some coyote urine, as I heard it was good for keeping marmots out of your camp. The front of the bottle we found said, “useful for attracting large game such as bear, elk, and moose.” Pick your poison, I guess…we put the bottle back and moved on. Base camp that night would be the back of the Jeep at the Navajo Basin trailhead.
Day 7 – The Approach to Navajo BasinDistance: ~5 miles
Elevation gain: ~2100’
We met a hiker in the morning who had just hiked out of the basin and talked about thunderstorms starting as early as 9:30 and 11am in previous days. So we hastily packed up and started up the trail at 8:40am. The trip in was mellow for the most part and we kept a mild pace arriving at Navajo Lake at 11am.
Clouds had been building over Gladstone Peak so we quickly found a nice spot on the north side of the lake and set up camp. Soon after, the rain and wind started and didn’t let up until 3pm or so. We got out to have dinner and filter some water and ran into Emily Hale with Allison and Jeff Valliere. And later during dinner we ran into Dave Hale and the rest of his family, who were all headed up Mt Wilson the next day. Nice seeing you all out there!
Day 8 – Wilson Peak and DepartureWilson Peak: 14,017’ – CO rank 48
Distance: ~11.8 miles
Elevation gain: ~3200’
All pictures from Days 6-8 (right-click to open in a new window)
The goal for the day was to summit Wilson Peak, hike out, and drive all the way back to Colorado Springs (preferably before midnight) and avoid any storms along the way, which meant we planned to start hiking at 3am. We set out under nearly a full moon, which was a big help with route finding up from the lake. Maybe I was just uncoordinated that morning but I wasn’t a huge fan of the trail leading up from the lake as it felt like walking across a field of tennis balls and I was wobbling all over. Cairns along the way were a little sparse and we lost the trail a few times crossing the lingering snow fields. Fortunately we found footprints in the snow leading up to the Rock of Ages saddle and got back on track with the trail. We reached the saddle between Wilson Peak and Gladstone around 5:00am and decided it would be best to wait about an hour for the sun to come up a bit and highlight the more difficult terrain ahead.
Meanwhile we watched Dave Hale’s crew starting to make their way up toward Mt Wilson down in the basin. From the saddle, we opted to climb down about 75-ft and cross back over to the south face on snow. Crampons were necessary for the snow crossing, although the class 3 traverse option across the rocks above was probably the best choice. Ascending back up the south face toward the west ridge was a chore and a little unnerving. The south face is one huge heap of choss and everything moved. I was glad to get back close to the ridge and on the cairned route.
It looks like that mess can be avoided for the most part if you follow the traverse across class 3 rock from the saddle. Just below the false summit we decided to drop out packs for the remaining scramble to the top. Once we reached the false summit and saw the remainder of the route I became more confident as I could see an obvious line to the summit. The rock here was much more solid than below, although a few of the hand holds I tested were getting ready to flake off.
We methodically made our way down from the false summit and then back up the other side following the most stable path we could find. There was exposure, but plenty of hand and foot holds to make for easy scrambling. We topped out at 7:35am, on summit #49!
There was tons of debris on the summit from a plane that crashed there in 2006, which we expected, but I was surprised to see the personal effects from those who died in the crash scattered within the man-made wind-shelter on the true summit. A tragic accident indeed, which gave the summit a somber feeling. I took more pictures of the route’s upper difficulties on the descent and we were glad to see our packs hadn’t become marmot food.
On the way back down to the saddle, I loosened a 50-lb piece of choss on the uphill side of the trail and it came smashing down just in front of my lead foot – phew! We passed 5 or 6 climbers on their way up and for some reason decided to take the lower route across the snow back to the saddle again. The snow looked soft enough to kick steps this time, but not quite as I slipped and slid down the snow about 20 feet before arresting with my axe. Crampons came back on for the short traverse and we were back up to the saddle in no time. The weather that day was perfect, so we made a casual descent back down to our campsite enjoying the views and were packed up to hike out to the car by 11:30am.
The 4.5 miles back to the car was hot and buggy, but at least it wasn’t raining and it felt so good to take off my boots and put on a clean shirt. Steak and a burger at Flinger’s in Montrose was a like heaven compared to a week of Backpacker’s Pantry dehydrated red beans and rice, the perfect end to a weeklong walk in the woods!