With much recent discussion about an upcoming Chicago Basin trip, and me not able to get that week off to join, I was inspired to make use of a couple of days off for Pigeon and Turret, which I'd been planning for this summer anyway. I went to Durango Friday night, and took the train to Needleton Saturday morning. From the Needleton trailhead, these peaks are accessed partly by an unofficial, unmarked, hard to find trail, as well as a good mile and a half of steep bushwhacking. Roach gives specific directions to locate the Ruby Creek trail, as did Barry share his memories of it not being that hard to find. So, of course, I missed it. I began with a steep bushwhack just to find this very steep narrow trail, but it was nice to be on once I found it, as the route in is kind of convoluted.
At around 9800', the route leaves the trail and takes you bushwhacking through thick steep aspen forest, up the North Pigeon Creek drainage, contouring around toward the basin at 11,760, immediately below the awesome West face of Pigeon Peak. The basin is small, flat, and rarely visited by us bipeds. I encountered about a dozen elk here over the next 3 days, and they were the only company I would have, not counting the marmots and birds. At one point, a large cow elk eyed me from her perch on the slopes to my north, and took off running. TOWARD me. This kind of freaked me out, as prey animals normally don't come at you from a hundred yards off at a run. Shades of South Park: "It's coming right for us!" I guess it decided that the meadow behind me was the best escape route, as it sprinted past my camp on an end-around, and disappeared over the edge of the basin into the trees. Bizarre.
Later, as I got ready to call it a night, the wind picked up hard and fast. The gusts were intense, shaking my little one-man tent mercilessly all night, jangling my tent zippers like tambourines, making for a poor night's sleep, and a missed 5am alarm. Fortunately, 3 days of unbelievably cloudless weather more than compensated for a couple of late starts. Around 7am, when I finally got up, it was 37 degrees, and still constantly windy. Ice covered the ponds, and Pigeon's looming countenance barred any sunlight from my little camp. I downed the usual coffee and oatmeal and started up the steep grassy slopes.
Pigeon has a straightforward approach to the summit block-- just a steep hike up towards the headwall below the North ridge. At which point, I've already begun to realize what a blunder it was to have decided against crampons. The North face approach is quite snow-covered, and would make a great, easy snow climb. Without crampons, I made my own way up this steep 3rd-class route, avoiding snow where possible, and kicking steps and relying on my ice axe where I had to. I brought a helmet, perhaps needlessly, as this is not a loose rock peak at all. The rocks are large and blocky and solid, with the exception of some scree fields. Roach mentions a 4th-class section as the crux of the climb, but I either didn't find it that difficult, or perhaps bypassed it trying to avoid snow, as I didn't find any of the moves I had to make to be technically difficult- just steep and tough.
Just below the final hundred feet or so, the route treats you to a view of Pigeon's awesome Southeast face. Like a thin Long's Peak, this sheer rock wall is mind-boggling just to look at, let alone look down. I push the last section to the summit, and enjoy unbelievable views: the Chicago Basin 14ers, Arrow, Vestal and the Trinity Peaks, Jagged, the Wilsons, Uncompahgre, Wetterhorn, Handies, Redcloud/Sunshine, Coxcomb.... the views are endless. I can also clearly hear the whistle of the trains way down in the valley, from all the way up on the summit. I find that I am the first person to sign the register this year. Only a page and a half's worth of signatures since Sept of '00, including some familiar names: Steve Hoffmeyer, Terri Horvath, the late Eckart Roder, Barry Raven, Kirk Mallory, and others I recognized but didn't retain. I spend 45 minutes here and start my descent, which includes a couple of steep glissades towards large rocks, but it went ok.
Evening brings the winds back, and another night of poor sleep as a result. But the morning brings what will be another completely cloudless day. I start off this morning towards the SE, say hi to 3 grazing elk, and gain the saddle between Pigeon and Turret. Turret is easier-- essentially a walkup with one 3rd class section up high. But today the winds do not dissipate mid-day. If anything, they increase steadily as the afternoon wears on. It makes for a cold half hour on the summit, but worth it for the awesome view of the entire S face of Pigeon. There have been some summiteers this year on Turret; two groups of three, and some more familiar names. The view of Eolus from here reminds me that Eolus was the Greek god of wind. It sinks in why the peak was so named. On the descent, the wind becomes ridiculous. My hood keeps whacking me in the back of the head. I find myself being pushed around like a feather, losing footing. Down towards the basin, assuming I'm out of the worst of it, I yell a curse back at Eolus in frustration. This is a mistake. I've angered an ancient deity now.... Back in camp, I still think late afternoon will bring calm, and I jump in my tent for a post-hike power nap. I later made a conservative estimate of the speed of the gusts at over 50mph. I had 12 stakes holding the tent down, so it holds, but at one point I was surprised the fabric didn't tear. That's it. I'm moving. I try to break down camp, only having to fetch a couple of things that blew 30 yards into the willows. One gust actually took me off my feet and almost knocked me completely down. Screw this. At 5pm, I hike a half mile, descending 500 feet into the forest, and find a nice flat spot, on the stream, out of the wind. This third night, I slept nearly 11 hours, lulled by the rushing brook, and still awoke to the looming face of Pigeon. I'm all better now....
My only concern on the hike out is nailing the route so I hit this tiny ridge where I'll regain the trail out. I managed to hit it within 50 yards, so from there it's just a matter of hiking down the steep loose dirt trail. I now see the painfully obvious connection of the trail from a meadow I'd walked through, and I can't believe I missed it. The cairn Barry told me about is gone, but still, it wasn't hidden or anything. Oh well.
Accross the footbridge, I run into a group of 5 waiting for the train. They've just done Chicago Basin. Not regular 14er baggers, they didn't summit the peaks, but the one more experienced guy did try Windom, and bailed due to his discomfort with the steep snow field towards the top of the West Ridge. I saw a lot of snow in that basin between Windom and Sunlight, so you guys heading there next week, I highly recommend ice axes and crampons. It was in the 30's overnight, and 60's or better during the day; beautiful, but I don't think the snow's melting at a rapid pace.
The train arrived a couple of minutes past 3:00, and although my ticket was for the 4:30, they didn't bat an eye at letting me on, or one of the guys in the other group who had lost his ticket entirely. If they've got room, they'll take you. They'll even hand you a cold microbrew, if you hand them four bucks in return. Back in civilization, the hot tub at the Econolodge and some Chicken cordon bleu over ravioli makes life pretty comfortable. I wander the streets the next morning like a typical tourist, and point the Jeep home, happy with two more ticks on my highest-hundred list.