The Long Way In
The one thing I've learned since I began ultra running back in 2006 is that physically any route is possible, nothing is too long or too arduous, once the training is there it's all a mental game. Since moving to Colorado the Chicago Basin 14ers have been high on my list of "To Dos", and after reading reports about dayhiking/running them from Purgatory I became even more intrigued by this route. To my knowledge there are only 3 people who have completed this dayhike; John Prater did so in July 2008 in 14:10, Matt Mahoney in 22:03 in 2003, and Jim Nelson's FKT(Fastest Known Time) of 13:30 in 2006. The summer of 2008 was lining up to have no races between June and mid September, leaving a lot of time for adventure training runs, and this was quickly put on the calendar for mid August. Finding someone to join me was a more difficult task as my regular back country running partners were either running Leadville or Pikes Peak and would not be rested to make an attempt at this. Finally I talked with my friend Matt who is trying to climb as many 14ers this summer as he can, it was set, we'd leave Aug 21st for an attempt at the 3 peaks on Aug 22nd.
Running the Rivers
We arrived at the trailhead just after 10pm on Thursday evening after a long drive from Boulder, quickly packed up some gear and bedded down along side the road for a few hours of sleep. The alarmed blared at 2:40am, we both groggily rolled over and began to ready ourselves for the long day ahead. 4000+ calories, check, 2L of water, check, survival gear and light clothing, check, camera, double check. We were off jogging down the Purgatory Flats trail at 3:11am with our flashlights lighting the way. After a quick wrong turn detour in the meadow we were back track heading down into the Animas River gorge(there are two major spur trails in the first mile and a half, stay right at both). The trail travels through the flat valley before climbing a few hundred feet up away from the river, finally dropping down to the Animas River at 7700ft in a series of steep switchbacks.
After crossing the suspension bridge at 4:21am I started up the slow ascent to Needle Creek(I'd lost Matt on the technical downhill up higher). I ran/walked up the Animas River on mostly good trail, with some randomly interspersed sections that were overgrown with brush. In the dark the only sound was the gurgling of the Animas flowing off to my left. I trotted slowly up the trail, finally crossing Needle creek on the bridge and arriving at the Needle Junction, almost 12miles into the day at 5:33am. From the junction I began a brisk powerhike up the trail, only broken by the occasional jog through a flat or downhill section. The trail climbs continuously up Needle Creek, which I finally began to get glimpses of as light filled the sky just after 6am. The creek cascades down the valley in giant steps, flowing over granite slabs and dropping off cliffs. As I neared treeline the views on all sides opened up to spectacular rocky peaks jutting out of the valley. When I arrived at the campsites near treeline I got my first glimpse of the upper reaches of Chicago Basin and the incredibly steep climb that leads to Twin Lakes. I finally reached the Twin Lakes/Columbine Pass Junction at 7:41am, already behind schedule.
Climbing the Peaks
The steep climb up from the junction showed that I wasn't truly recovered from the past two weekends on Nolans and at Leadville, as I trudge up the steep trail. I finally topped out at the outlet to Twin Lakes and made the hard left into Eolus's SE bowl. The trail up the bowl was good and snow was not an issue this late in the season. I made my way up to the slabs, turning right to follow a broad ledge back to the North, and finally turning back to the West and ascending to the Eolus saddle. From the saddle I got a great view of the infamous "Catwalk" over to Eolus's summit. I sped across the bridge, the "Catwalk" is way over-hyped in my opinion, as I never found any exposed or scary terrain. Once across the "Catwalk" I followed the standard route; traversing left around the initial difficulties onto the South side of the ridge, from where I scrambled up a series of sandy ledges to the summit, topping out at 9:01am. I was climbing much slower than expected and knew any shot at the FKT was long gone. I got Matt on our radios and let him know I was atop Eolus, he was ascending the steep slopes up toward Twin Lakes. After a quick snack I took off back down the south slopes then back to the "Catwalk", making quick work of this section. From the saddle it's a short scramble to the top of North Eolus where I found myself at 9:30am.
Leaving Twin Lakes and Heading up Eolus
The "Catwalk" enroute to Eolus
Panorama from the summit of Eolus
I quickly scrambled down North Eolus back to the trail where I made my way back in Eolus's SW basin. Here I met Matt climbing up, moving well, but also feeling the same lingering fatigue on the initial climb up, it was going to be a long day. I jogged across the traverse back to Twin Lakes, where I grabbed some more water and headed up the use trail toward Sunlight and Windom. Once again the fatigue in my legs really slowed my progress as I ascended into the basin. I followed the creek up toward Sunlight, finally turning off just before a bright orange gulley that led up to the saddle SE of Sunlight Peak. The gulley was a horrific ordeal, filled with steep gravel, loose rock, and scree. I slowly picked my way up the hillside trying any stable footing possible, this was a real challenge. When I finally reached the ridgeline and the rock I was ecstatic to be one something solid. I scrambled around the South side of the ridge up a chimney and under the chalk stone. Once through the gap the summit block came into view, a short scramble found me standing at the base of a 15ft slab then two big steps that led to the summit block. I quickly scampered up the slabs then paused to see the "exposed" step that is so talked about. It was really only a 20-30ft drop for the first step, which I pulled myself up, then a quick mantle onto the small summit block at 11:51am. The North side of the summit blocks drops very quickly and will get the heart pumping. I then gently lowered myself from the summit, but the second step required a short "hop" as I could not lower myself the entire way. Another quick break to munch on some PB pretzels and I was off to Windom.
Sunlight as seen from Windom
I made my way back to the saddle below Sunlight, I made a descending traverse on the rock to a ledge that took me below Sunlight Spire toward the Sunlight/Windom saddle. A little bit of class 3 found me just below the saddle, staring up at the horrible slope that Windom's NW face. I clamored up the rock, passing under a few cliff bands before hopping onto some decent class 3/4 on the North side of the face. The rock wasn't bad, but did require some care due to all the lose crap intermixed with the solid holds. I made my way up the face finally cresting on the ridge approximately 100ft below the summit. The rock on the ridge was enjoyable and I soon found myself atop the final peak of the day at 12:47pm. I radioed over to Matt who was now on his way up the hellish orange gulley to Sunlight. We chatted for a minute, I gave him a few pointers on the ascent to Windom(not to follow me) and wished him good luck on Sunlight. I immediately started down Windom's West ridge following the use trail as it disappeared and reappeared amongst the rocks. This was much more enjoyable than the other terrain I'd seen that day and I soon found myself at Twin Lakes ready for the long jog home(back to the car) at 1:45pm. I radioed Matt on last time and told him I'd be going to radio silence, but would see him back at the car around 6-8pm. The trail down to the Columbine Pass/Twin Lakes junction came quickly, at last I was back on good trail at 2:01pm.
The Long Road Home
The trail down Needle Creek is an amazingly runnable trail and was a very welcome site. After maneuvering around a herd of mountain goats I breezed past the campsites and down into the trees. As I ran down the trail I passed many a backpacker who had just left the train and were heading into the basin for the weekend. Most seemed surprised to see me jogging downhill, though the ones who asked were even more dumb founded when I said I was running back to the trailhead, "what trailhead?" they'd ask. "Purgatory" I'd reply to blank stares, oh well off I go, it's a long way home and it was getting warm. I made great time down Needle Creek, arriving at the junction at 3:26pm, still feeling good despite being on my feet for 12h+ so far. I hung a left and back on the quiet trail along the Animas; just me, a few birds/squirrels, and the train chugging by. I ran most of the trail along the Animas, occasionally breaking for a short uphill. The sounds of the river were very calming and I set into a good rhythm, finally crossing the train tracks and arriving at the base of Cascade Creek at 4:37pm. I popped my last salt cap, took a Gu and hammered uphill, almost home. The climb up from the Animas was steep, but passed by quickly and I was back to traversing high above Cascade Creek. This section was very runnable so I started jogging quite a bit more, finally meeting up with Cascade Creek, where I was treated to a nice view of Engineer Mt. The river ascends very slowly in this section, and was a real joy to run along and before I knew it I popped out of the trees and into Purgatory Flats, SO CLOSE! I jogged through the meadow, past our wrong turn junction and finally up the final climb back to the car. I powerhiked the first section, then mustered up all the energy I had left and began to jog all the uphills. Finally I passed the trailhead login and stepped on to the road, at 5:53pm, 14hours and 42minutes after I'd started running earlier that morning. The Chicago Basin dayhike was a success, and while I was tired I was amazed at how much energy my legs had mustered during the final 15miles or good trail. Matt would arrive just before 8pm, pretty beat as well, but definitely excited at the success we'd had that day. The weather held perfect all day, our legs and bodies had carried us through all 42miles and 12000ft gain/loss(according to the GPS). This is a great run for those truly looking to push their bodies and see some amazing terrain. Some day I will return, with the FKT in the front of my mind, but today it was just great to be out their pushing myself and seeing some amazing terrain.