From Chicago Basin
Friday July 15, 2011
After working all day on Wed. 07/14 my wife Maggie, friend Bob and I packed up the TrailBlazer and hit the road out of Louisville at 5:00PM and headed south via routes 93 to 6 to 470 to 285 to 112 to 160 for Durango. The traffic was moderate then heavy then thinned considerably as we made our way further south. The evening was warm and upon reaching the San Luis Valley a nearly full moon appeared directly from over the Sangre de Cristos…awesome. We paused for a brief stop in Saguache for fuel and snacks and then made the last push to Durango and made it to our friends Tom & Terri’s place at 11:25, right on time. We all turned-in shortly after.
Next morning after a nice breakfast and visit Tom gave Bob and me a ride to the Durango and Silverton Railroad on his way to work. Lots of people at the station and we got our reserved tickets, loaded our backpacks on the boxcar and boarded for an on-time departure right at 9:15AM.
The train was fairly full but the open gondola had plenty of space on this picture perfect morning and the views were spectacular all along the way along the Animas River and up into the Needle Mountains. Beware the flying cinders from the coal-fired train where hanging over to get a good look may result in the unpleasant speck in the eye as the dust is everywhere and settles on everything………Don’t wear white! The fascination of travel in this manner had me wondering back to when this train was the only conveyance and the superb technology that went into not only the train but the narrow gauge rails snaking on a path barely wide enough through rock and timber on such a gradual grade. Simply amazing.
Animas River from the train
"old 481" chugging up along the Animas River
We stopped to fill the tender with water and again at Cascade to drop-off some boy scouts hiking up Cascade Creek for an overnight.
At 11:52 we arrived at Needleton where 8 people including ourselves unloaded for the 6 mile trek into the back country. We readied ourselves and were over the Animas bridge and on our way at 12:06PM
Bob on Animas Bridge
Yours truly on Animas Bridge
we soon reached the trail registry where two older forest rangers pointed-out the sign-in procedure. Packing-in in the heat of the day was somewhat grueling (I was sporting well over 40 lbs.) and the forest offered some shade with nice views along the Needle River. All was dry as this beautiful trail climbs gradually into the very depths of the Weminuche Wilderness Area and in spite of the efforts required to reach the remoteness of the Chicago Basin it could not damper the excitement of venturing where we’d never been before. Heavy forest and the creek running hard down on the right with blue skies above and sweat soaking my dew-rag with every step. Lots of wild flowers and the overall green took on the resemblance of a Hawaiian rain forest of sorts as we paused several times to take in water and snacks. We set a fair pace and passed the other six people along the way.
Taking a breather
Needle Creek Scenery
Entering the basin itself was undefined but we soon came upon a group camping who said we were a good ½ mile in at their point. It had taken a solid 3 ½ hrs to reach our destination here we stopped for a good rest and two guys from the train passed. Our next quest was to find a suitable campsite; lots of people were already there and many tents of all shapes, colors and sizes occupied a good mile into the basin. We stopped at one spot where the overgrowth was heavy and moist and thick with mosquitoes; removing our packs we ventured-on and explored farther-on where Bob reported to had found what looked to be a possible site. I came on and then went back for my pack as Bob looked some more. We were both pretty well spent by this time and the site Bob found was looking better by the minute, Bob returned for his pack and here we would stay after a good hour more to find this spot. Decent camp sites are a premium back in here.
Packing-in had taken its toll on both of us and although we’d drank plenty of water along the way I still couldn’t help feel a bit dehydrated as we pitched our tent in what proved to be an ideal setting. Well done Bob!! A mere 30’ to the trail and 150’ to Needle Creek, but yet confined, semi-level, shaded and far enough away from the low lying brush to keep from feeling too closed-in. Needle Creek was rushing clear
and the next task at hand was getting more water; the pump worked perfectly and we filled every available containers and water bladders we had. Bug spray kept the mosquitoes at bay as a lone snowshoe hare in summer phase with dark brown body and the ever present white hind legs appeared and soon after a bunch of mountain goats with mamas and babies (cute kids) also came along.
Base Camp Goats
After a leisurely dinner of freeze dried food, some short distance explorations and photos of our digs; way tired we bedded-down at 7:10PM with marvelous mountain views directly out our tent windows.
My watch alarm sounded at 5:00AM and we took our time rousting ourselves as we readied our day packs, prepared an instant coffee, oatmeal, Gatorade breakfast and got on the trail at 6:26.
The weather was perfect; mild temps, clear skies and calm breezes as we made our way deeper into the basin with the high ground visible well ahead. Surrounding peaks showed high snows and threads of waterfalls from way up high with the greenery showing that this place had been getting plenty of rain. We spoke to a few people camped right near the trail and saw many other encampments as we proceeded to the last of the basin and here the elevation increased rapidly via switchbacks and rock “staircases” out of the basin and up some boulder/ledges to Twin Lakes.
The views were great with the larger Twin Lake having an iceberg floating in it and we could now see a better picture of much more to come as the trail levels and splits left along the right side of the lakes before gaining more elevation through talus as following what few cairns we saw took us to a series of massive cairns up above. Hiking across a couple of short snow fields we saw a nice looking melt pool that still had a good bit of ice on it
Cairne & melt pool
and the peaks still had some snows that had collected in the bowled lower portions. Advancing farther we could now see two people well above and another much larger group below and following the trail would not be a problem this day as it was clearly defined……..Nice. Our pace was good and we both felt good as we gained more elevation as we went much higher on a rocky trail with staircases and more short switchbacks with the views of Sunlight left, Sunlight Spire center and Windom Peak right dominating the heights ahead; with Twin Lakes below and Eolus and North Eolus to our backs with the sunshine now reaching us as we climbed higher up from the shadows.
Climbing/scrambling much higher up though rock, dirt/scree and much steeper where following the cairnes was again a bit more challenging but the way was still fairly clear as footprints from others lead the way. We paused often but briefly and our ascent slow but steady as gaining the upper ridge brought us in contact with a young couple (Eric & Whitney) returning from the summit and on their way to Windom Peak. We exchanged greetings and info as they then went down and we continued up; we’d be tracing their steps for the rest of this day and taking careful note as to where and how they progressed over to Windom as from our high vantage we could see their advance quite well. Crossing/ascending staying just left of the ridge approach and to a large, square “window” in the rocks and then further on to another not-so-square window where we clambered through and out the other side to where we could hear voices ahead.
Here the trail climbs up through one last series of larger boulders to where the larger group we’d seen earlier was now at the summit, it was 10:36. We’d made it! Before us was a girl atop one of the lower three signature summit blocks that comprise this unusual summit with a rope at her waist attached to a rather ill-fitting harness, at the other end was an older gal on belay. Around them were the other four persons in the group looking-on in silence. Now one older guy proclaimed they were with the Colorado Mountain Club** and that “we know what we’re doing”. With a rather crusty look the older gal on belay and older guy who had spoken made it apparent that they were here first and we’d have to now wait for them to summit, but one other person stated they wouldn’t be going and the girl at the end of the rope seemed very uncertain. At that point the older guy asked if we were going and inside of about 32 seconds I had my butt planted on the summit block proper for a quick photo.
Yours truly on Sunlight Summit block
Bob's summit "touchdown"
The roped girl then went and Bob soon after. We appreciated their graciousness and soon departed after taking a few quick photos on this gorgeous day. My 55th 14’er and Bob’s 2nd………..Sweet!
Now at 11:02 we left to descend back down and over to Windom Peak………………More later.
**I'd like to take a moment to offer that I respect the CMC and all their members for their fine work and many publications that I've used as reference many times. I only post what I experience and I thank them for allowing us to summit and not having to wait. Most sincerely, malice towards none.