The Animas River, Mt. Eolus, and Sunlight Peak behind Twin Lakes Photos by Casey McCoy
I have been doing as much climbing as I can in the San Juans over the last year, but the trip I had been most excited about doing since hearing about it was Chicago Basin. I had hooked my friend Joe on it since this spring and the weekend was to be Labor Day. We had to delay a week because Joe had "girlfriend obligations" that he had forgotten about for that weekend, but this allowed us to pick up another member, our friend Grady. By the end of August I had summitted ten of the San Juan fourteeners which left only the Chicago Basin ones to finish the "list". Joe and Grady on the other hand had never ascended a mountain by a more difficult way than by trail, and their highpoint was Mt. Humphreys in Arizona. I was proposing to climb at least the three fourteeners and none by an easy route. I was most excited to do Sunlight Peak's West Ridge because I had never climbed a 4th class route on any mountain and I figured the others would go along with it since they didn't know any better! The plan was to take the train out of Durango, hike up to Chicago Basin, spend the next couple days climbing mountains, head back down to the train on Sunday, ride it back to Durango, and make the late night drive back to the Burque. The weather looked good through the weekend - mostly cloudy and partly cloudy with no precipitaion forecasted, but we planned on bringing all our bad weather gear along just in case since forecasts are always wrong and the mountains usually have worse weather than you expect!
The rest of the crew – Grady Patterson & Joe Broeckert Photo by Casey McCoy
We headed out of Albuquerque Wednesday afternoon after getting all of our gear dialed in and got on the road to Durango. We grabbed a quick dinner, a couple beers, and headed over to "El Rancho" for some more since we would be without for the next few days. After an uneventful couple of hours of drinking pitchers of Newcastle we decided it best to find a campsite and try to get a little sleep before the backpack into Chicago Basin the next day. We thought we'd check out the a campsite near town, but it was still closed for repairs so Grady pulled his Chevy Silvarado off the side of the road to turn around. It looked quite a bit like the sort of place one would turn around in, but all's that we managed to do was get stuck! It was probably around midnight at this point and we hadn't the slightest idea what we were stuck on, although we did know for sure the truck wasn't going anywhere. Any attempts at reversing were met with very little change in location, but a whole lot of wheel spin. A quick look at the front end of the truck revealed a metal fence post thrust upward into his right front wheel well. We tried to push it around, dig it out of the ground, and at one point I even pulled out my ice axe and tried to bash into submission, all to no avail. It seemed that the post could only stop us from going forward though, so a reexamination of the problem revealed the true culprit: another fence post, this one wooden, was sticking about a foot out of the ground and was positioned directly behind his front axle. Now how he got over the post in the first place was beyond any of us, but the two posts had us effectively trapped. Eventually Joe seized on the idea to jack the axle up sufficiently high to clear the post, and then just gun it in reverse and hopefully hop out of the jam. We had to do several iterations of jacking and placing rocks to boost the jacks height before the axle was high enough, but when Grady let loose in reverse we jumped over the post as planned! The damage to the truck wasn't pretty. A front torsion bar had actually been ripped off the frame, but it was drivable, so we headed on to another place and called it a night.
Next morning we rolled on back into town, found a parking spot, and headed down to the train station. We hopped on board with all the tourists and shortly rumbled out towards the mountain. I thought the scenery was pretty boring and the ride not particularly exciting - the other guys slept most of the way since we hadn't gotten a whole lot the night before after our little fiasco. When we stopped at the Needleton stop, only a few others got off with us which was relieving. I was hoping that since we had skipped out on Labor Day weekend that it wouldn't be crowded on this one, and it appeared that we were correct. We grabbed the packs, crossed the bridge, and headed up into the wilderness. The weather wasn't stellar, but so far it was matching the forecast of mostly cloudy skies and no precip. Reports I had read indicated the trail to Chicago Basin is tough, and after doing it I would have to agree...especially with fairly heavy packs! We made it up in reasonable time and set about putting together our camp. We camped at right around 11,000' at a decent little spot just off the trail and after cooking up some noodles and chicken went to sleep anitcipating a great next day.
Taking the D&SNGRR up into the mountains & our Chicago Basin camp…notice the tired hikers! Photos by Casey McCoy
Unfortunately, part way through the night it started raining, and when we woke up in the morning it was still going at it. This was rather demotivating, so we all stayed in our sacks until it after eight. While the weather was somewhat demoralizing, it didn't seem to be so bad to keep us out of the mountains so we decided to give Mount Eolus a try. We didn't get going until after nine, but we figured we had plenty of time to summit and be down before dark, and if the weather turned for the worse we could try again the next day. It didn't take too long to realize the route was going to be consistently steep. The section of the trail to Twin Lakes was excessively so! Grady took off a little too fast which cost him later, but me and Joe maintained a well measured pace. Far off to our right we saw a fellow climbing up the slopes south of Peak 18 heading straight for its south face. I could think of no reason why anybody would be going that way unless he was trying to scale Peak 18 by soloing a technical route or had no clue where he was going. After about an hour we had climbed to the lakes, but the views were less than awesome. We knew that not too far above where we were were the mountains, but the clouds pretty much engulfed everything above 13,000'. We grabbed a bite to eat and set off on the trail toward Eolus. The summit's location could only be guessed at, but I had a pretty good idea how to get there since the way was likely to be fairly well trodden.
The earlier rushing started to show as we headed steeply up the trail, and after reaching the rock walls at the head of the small basin on Eolus' east flanks we stopped for a lunch of summer sausage, pita, and cheese! This seemed to revitalize everyone, but the most difficult parts were yet to come. After climbing up to the basin below North Eolus and Glacier Point we pretty much lost the trail to snow and headed in the general direction of the Eolus - North Eolus ridge. We scrambled up some rock until we reached the crest of the ridge and started heading south. We crossed the 'Catwalk' which didn't seem so exposed since we were surrounded by nothing but white and made our way to the base of Eolus' Northeast Ridge. Nobody was keen on the idea of ascending this 4th class ridge when covered in a skiff of unconsolidated snow so we skirted left towards the East Face. The climbing was easy although the routefinding wasn't, however it didn't take too long to reach the ridge and follow that to the summit. What with all the clouds it took a little searching around for the summit log tube to verify that we had actually reached the true summit though! We sat around for a while marveling at the great views...actually lack thereof...when all of a sudden the wind pushed all of the clouds away to the west in a most dramatic fashion revealing North Eolus, Pigeon Peak, Aztec Mountain, parts of Chicago Basin and more. It was really quite stunning and we quickly started snapping pictures. The open sky only lasted a few minutes before more clouds rushed in to spoil the moment, but I think we got perhaps the only break in the weather of the whole day at that precise moment!
Me on the summit of Eolus surrounded by nothingness and Turret and Pigeon Peaks to the west Photos by Joe Broeckert (L) and Casey McCoy (R)
So we packed up our gear and headed back down and eventually reached the saddle between Eolus and North Eolus. I suggested we scramble up to the top to see if we could see the Grenadiers to the north. Joe was game, but Grady was tired and decided to wait there. Joe was a little hesitant since we could see rain clouds moving in rapidly from the west, but it was such a short way to go to the top and the rain still looked a ways off that we went ahead and scrambled up. The texture of the rock was remarkable and it was quite a fun scramble. The clouds had actually lifted somewhat at this point to where we could see Sunlight, Windom, the Grenadiers, and the northern side of Eolus so we started snapping away with our cameras. I was just about to take a picture of Arrow and Vestal when my camera started making an odd buzzing noise. Joe looked at me and asked if the lens was stuck. Suddenly, realization hit us both at the same instant and we looked at each other briefly before bolting down the mountain. I had chucked the camera as an instinct and after descending a short ways realized what I had done.
North Eolus Photo by Casey McCoy
I said flatly to Joe, "I left my camara up there."
He said, "What are you going to do."
I said, "I'm going back for it."
He said with conviction, "I'm going down."
I dashed back up to the top, recovered my camera, and started back down in a hurry. What had been a controlled scramble up was now essentially a barely controlled fall down. We shouted at Grady to get off the ridge, although I think he could tell something was up from our hasty descent. Part way down we heard the big boom that the buzzing had alluded to, although quite fortunately we saw no flash of lightning. We made it down to walking terrain and started trudging through the snow. That's about when the snow/hail started. We got a brief blue sky when we got back to our lunch spot, and then it started to rain and pretty much continued for the rest of the day.
The other Chicago Basin 14ers, Sunlight Peak, Sunlight Spire, and Windom Peak Photo by Casey McCoy
Just for the hell of it, we contoured north around the lakes and stopped for a break near the upper one. On the other side we saw two guys descending so we headed over to see what they'd been up to. It turned out they had been the ones (We'd only seen one however) that were horribly off route. They'd never found the trail to Twin Lakes, and never found the way up to Windom which was their objective. They had intended to climb Windom's West Ridge, but from what it sounded like they had ended up on the extremely snowy North Face and had been eventually turned back by the poor weather. What really got me was the light windbreaker-like clothes they were wearing and lightweight shoes, but what can you expect from a couple of Texans!! Seriously though, the three of us were geared up for the worst - if it had gotten to that these guys looked like they would have been in a whole lot of trouble. We all started down together, but after a while the three of us moved on ahead. Not too long after arriving back in camp (but fortunately after dinner) the worst storm of the day rolled in. It was loud, there was lots of thunder and rain, and we weren't too optimistic about the next day in which I had hoped to summit Sunlight and Windom. We talked about a few options for the next day, but since it was all dependent on how things turned out with the weather, we headed to the tents and went to sleep.
Read the exciting conclusion of this story here