Start date: 29 June, 2005
Finish date: 30 June, 2005
Participants: Patrick Lilly & Matt Mahoney
OK; the bad news first. We didn’t make the summit. Any of them. We set out from the Purgatory trailhead on Highway 550 at 9:20 pm on the 29th, intending to run up into Chicago Basin, and climb Mt. Eolus, North Eolus, Sunlight Peak, and Windom Peak. But we were turned back by steep, hard-surfaced snow at roughly 13,800 feet on the slopes of Eolus.
All the same, it was a great run and climb, in absolutely perfect weather. An hour and fifteen minutes sufficed to get us down to the Animas River, and by 12:45 am we were signing in at the Weminuche Wilderness boundary where Needle Creek empties into the river. Glimpses of the incredible, starry sky were available whenever we could take our eyes off the trail and look up. Listening to the roaring creek, which we could only occasionally see, we reached Chicago Basin around dawn.
Avalanche debris obscured the trail in a couple of places, making route-finding in the dark interesting. As dawn light crept into the sky, we began trying to find the correct route from Twin Lakes—which were basically invisible, being covered in snow—up the east slopes of Mt. Eolus. Somewhere above timberline, we encountered the extensive snow fields, a testament to the fact that Colorado’s drought is over. As a result, the going got very slow here.
We traveled light, carrying only belt packs, and wearing only running shoes on our feet. That proved to be our undoing. The highest reaches of the snow fields were so steep, and the snow so hard-packed and slippery, that crampons would definitely have been needed to allow us to get through to the bare rock above. The peaks themselves, all four, were indeed bare and could have easily been reached by us clad as we were! Indeed, with crampons, it would have been a delightfully easy snow climb. Without them, however, it was just plain impossible.
Disappointed but certain we had given the mountain our best effort, we finally gave up on Eolus somewhere around 7 am. Descending the snow fields, we very briefly considered trying Sunlight and/or Windom. The view from across the basin, however, quickly convinced us that exactly the same conditions pertained on those peaks, and we wouldn’t be able to summit either of them that day, either. So we left the peaks to the more heavily-laden backpackers who had come prepared with crampons and ice axes, and headed back down the trail.
We made decent time going back down to the Animas River, but the final 1,100 foot climb back to the trailhead, undertaken in the heat of midday, was slow indeed. We finally reached our starting point 17 and one-half hours after we had set out.
I was amazed that we could enjoy perfect, spectacular weather, in a place where the weather is usually the biggest possible problem, and still strike out on summits. The weather was, indeed, all anyone could hope for. There was not a cloud in the sky, and it was shirt-sleeve weather just a few hours after sunrise even at high altitude, but the lingering effects of past weather managed to make reaching our summits impossible. Still, it was a great learning experience, and a very enjoyable distance run (31 miles, 7,200 feet elevation gain) in beautiful mountains.
A selection of photos can be seen