On the Summit of Sunlight Peak, Sunlight Peak reflected in Twin Lakes, and Sunlight Peak with a Local Photos by Joe Broeckert (L) and Casey McCoy (C,R)
This is the second part of a two part trip report - read the first part here!
Thing had looked pretty gloomy the previous evening before we went to sleep, and nobody was greatly encouraged about the prospects for the next day. There was still some hope that we could get up and do the other 14ers if the weather improved overnight. I was hopeful of a repeat of the experience I had almost exactly a year before in the western San Juans. One day I was blown off of Wilson Peak from waves of storms and whiteout conditions and then the very next day turned out to be absoutely beautiful and allowed my partner and I to summit Mt. Sneffels by its classic Southeast Ridge (first CO 14ers for both of us!). Unbelievably that very thing happened! We woke up to wonderful blue skies and what looked like only a slight increase in snow cover on the mountains. We promptly set about cooking up breakfast which quickly attracted the locals! An older mountain goat was leading around a much younger one and they decided to crash our campsite. They first went after our food sack, but despite being rebuffed from that continued to circle the camp for the next half hour. I thought this was pretty exciting as I was hoping to get a close look at the mountain goats up here and I knew they frequented Chicago Basin. After a while though they tired of running circles around us and settled on eating peed-on grass.
Them belly full but they hun-gray! Mountain goats and sunlight reflection in Twin Lakes Photos by Casey McCoy
The trip up to Twin Lakes was made much more rapidly this time and the light and calmness of the water allowed me to take some pictures of the mountains reflecting in the water. After a quick snack we set out for the upper basin between Sunlight and Windom and shortly reached a point directly south of the saddle between Needle Ridge and the West Ridge proper. Grady and Joe had overpacked and decided to leave a lot of their clothing behind in a stash near the trail. The slope to the saddle looked short but extremely unpleasant. From this distance it appeared to be made of fine scree, but once we traversed closer found that it was somewhat more substantial. By taking a careful track Joe and I avoided spending a lot of time sliding downhill, but it was still tedious and not fun. Grady elected to take the direct route and arrived at the pass shortly after we did. I made it up first and took in the fabulous view north into the Noname Creek drainage and the Grenadiers beyond.
Grady toiling up unpleasant talus slopes to the base of the West Ridge and Vestal and Arrow Peaks to the north Photos by Casey McCoy
I was a little surprised that there were no cairns marking the way so I would actually have to put my routefinding to the test (gasp!). The northern aspects of ridge were thoroughly covered with snow and a direct start to the ridge looked considerably spicier than 4th class. There was a short ramp that led around to the north side that looked easy so I set off that way to scout it out. It was a lot more reasonable than anything else looked so I called the others up to my position and evaluated the way ahead. The way up looked pretty vertical and snow-covered. I was confident I could get up it but wasn't too sure about my companions as they hadn't ever scrambled, much less climbed, anything in their life! I was concerned about the snow only thinly covering the loose rock underneath - one wrong step and it would be quite a ride! I kept these thoughts to myself however since I knew the others were thinking the same things and and that they were well aware that they were out of their element. Thinking I knew what I was doing, I was pretty sure they would continue following me until things looked desperate (ha, suckers!). I alternated pulling easy, but fairly exposed rock moves with kicking lines of steps up the snowier parts. For the most part we proceded in echelon to minimize the risk of rockfall, but on one occasion I nearly pulled a microwave-sized block out of the wall directly on Joe's head. It was the best hold in the vicinity and appeared pretty solid so I gave it a pull, in response to which the block started to happily dislodge itself. I gave it a strong shove back into its slot before it got out to far. I don't even think the boys below noticed, but I was a little anxious about how close the disaster was averted. I told them what happened and cautioned from using the same hold, but nobody seemed particularly unnerved by what had nearly happened.
We continued up the face up the most expedient route I could find. I was looking forward to getting on the crest of the ridge and getting back in the sun. After a couple more short sections where I coached the others through the moves we topped out to a commanding view of the Chicago Basin and beyond. Most of the ridge left was a hike with a few short scrambling sections including an especially exciting wall that Gerry Roach refers to as "primal". Based on this we started referring to the feature as the "Primal Wall". It was absolutely fun, and involved scrambling up some large cracks up a moderately steep face. This was the final obstacle on the ridge and shortly after this the route intersected the standard South Slopes Route.
Grady reaching the crest of the West Ridge, Sunlight Peak, and Joe climbing up the "Primal Wall" Photos by Casey McCoy
I scrambled over to the notch in the ridge connecting Sunlight Peak with Sunlight Spire and lowered myself down into the snow on the other side. It wasn't very clear which was the best route here, but it looked like one could descend down further in the snow and begin scrambling for the summit from there or traverse a narrow ledge further up to the same point. I did the traverse and eventually ran into some cairns. The others showed up at the notch and followed the same route. I proceeded ahead, trying to figure out where the summit was and what was the easiest way up. I was zig-zagging up the face trying to follow the cairns. A couple cracks looked climbable, but getting down had the potential to be problematic and I was pretty sure there was an easier way. I finally decided to force my way up a section that seemed harder than fourth class, but it was the way the next party took as well. Joe was none too thrilled about the move, but with a little encouragement he pulled up to the top. From there it was a short hike to the summit log. The exposure at and size of Sunlight Peak's summit are well known so I couldn't help but stand on the top. I gave my camera to Joe and scrambled up to the final hop over free space to the very top of the peak. Initially I was happy with squatting there, but after some repositioning found a stance such that I could stand up (not too easy with the clunky mountaineering boots I was wearing however!). I made a few poses for fun, including the 'what's the big deal?' one at the top of the report, before scrambling back down to the others. They were quite satisfied with the climbing they had already done and elected not to go through with the same stunt. We settled down to a lunch of cheese, sausage, and pita - what a wonderful day it had turned out to be on a great summit!
The victory had been one rather easily with only a few tense moments...somewhat different than our experience the day before. Luck decided to take a turn for the worse against just when we were reveling in our success the most. Joe brushed against his pack laid out on the rocks and suddenly there was a clatter as something was knocked off. I imagine Joe could only look in horror as his GPS unit disappeared down a deep, dark crevice below us. Joe was crushed thinking the GPS was lost forever, but we all poked around a bit to see if we could get to it somehow. We even tried to move some of the bigger boulders out of the way to no avail. Unfortunately, we had foregone bringing headlamps with us, but it was clear that the crevice went down a long ways. Well, maybe not that long, as down around the side of the rock pile there was a hole that entered the crevice from the side. It was barely large enough, but I slithered my way into it as best as I could. I got into the hole up to about my thighs. Without a light I could see hardly a thing, but it didn't look like a could squirm in far enough to underneath where Joe had been sitting. At the far side of the crevice I could see an old top of the summit register and indistinctly, a square piece of something that looked reflective. I thought that it could be the screen of the GPS, but it was so far away I had no hopes of reaching it. I crawled out and reported no sightings, thinking I shouldn't give Joe false hopes by mentioning the reflective object. Grady decided to take a look and buried himself in the hole. He called out that he could see the same things that I had, and I decided to corroberate his observations at this point. Still, there seemed to be no way to reach into the depths to where the GPS had fell - what seemed to be the worst possible place.
Just as we were regathering above the crevice I spied a couple of people making their way to the summit. We asked if they had a headlamp and if we could borrow it, so once again I spelunked my way back into the damp hole and shined a light to the far side. This time I could tell for sure that it was the GPS, but despite my best efforts I could only get a full bodylength into the crevice. Beyond my furthest reach the ledge I was on dropped down a foot or so, continued further back, dropped off again, and then leveled off at the very bottom to where the GPS was. I honestly couldn't imagine how anyone could crawl back there, so with considerable effort backed my way out of the claustrophobic space. But the two climbers once again came to our rescue as they had trekking poles! As if I enjoyed it, I threw myself back in the hole as far as I could, had Grady pass me a pole, and tried to hook the basket over the GPS. I was able to reach it, but it soon became obvious that I wouldn't be able to drag the GPS up the drops in front of me. Providentially, there was a small hole right next to the GPS that I guessed led to the more accessible crevice next door. Positioning myself as best as I could, I punched at the GPS and finally succeeded in knocking it out of my sight and hopefully where we could get at it. The next crevice could be reached from either side, but it looked like we could only reach it from one side. Joe and Grady made their way to one side while I extricated myself from what had been until quite recently the GPS's tomb and made my way to the other side of crevice #2 with the pole. At its current extension, the pole didn't quite reach so I unspun the catch and extended it out as far as it could go. I jammed myself into the crack as far as I could and reached until Grady called out that I had hooked it with my basket. All's that was left was to pull it down the flat bottom to me, but unbelievably, victory was snatched from us just when it seemed to be within our grasp. I gave a slight pull on the trekking pole only to watch the bottom section slide out and remain hooked over the GPS. I was left holding the top section of the pole and quite stunned. To anyone watching this probably would've been pretty damn funny, but we all just sat there silently. I dropped my section and said that I was through with the rescue and headed back to the top to where the other climbers were sitting. Grady called out, betraying absolutely nothing in his voice, "Can we borrow your other pole?" Despite the setback, with the other pole it was a simple matter for Joe and Grady to snag the GPS and yank it out. Joe couldn't have been happier and swore to buy us lunch for our efforts, something he incidentally has yet to do... We thanked the other climbers profusely, I am sure it would have been absolutely impossible to recover the GPS if they hadn't have appeared. Bad luck and good luck had combined in such a way that we ended up in the exact situation we were in before!
South Slopes of Sunlight Peak Photo by Casey McCoy
After hanging out on the summit for a while we began descending the South Slopes route. It had been our original intention to summit Windom Peak next, but I could tell the others had had enough adventure for one day. I was waiting for them to call out to me and tell me they were going to head down, and shortly before reaching level ground they did that. I was determined to continue on since Windom was the only San Juan 14er I hadn't summitted, but they didn't see any value added in climbing the comparatively easy West Ridge of Windom, so we parted ways with me crossing the basin to gain the ridge and they heading back down to Twin Lakes and then camp. I hustled up the very snowy north side of Windom gaining the ridge at its lowest point and then proceeded up the boulder strewn West Ridge. I ascended a couple hundred more feet and caught up to a crew of three Texans who were huffing their way to the top. The altitude seemed to be causing them some trouble so they were resting a lot. I chatted with one for a while before continuing on and passing the others. I reached the summit about an hour after I had left Joe and Grady. I took some pictures, tried to get a self-portrait summit shot but nothing came out well, and started back down. Passing the Texans again I encouraged them that they had only a short ways to go yet and then proceeded back down to the saddle. I took a fairly direct line down towards Twin Lakes and ran into a pack of a dozen or so mountain goats roaming around at the lakes. They happened to be right on the trail and as I approached they all took off down the trail - single file too! I ended up herding them down the trail for some distance before they broke off a ways to the south. Most went on about their business, but one goat in particular kept an eye on me as I continued past. For a little while I thought he was going to come after me! The Windom detour only cost me about an hour and a half of time so I made it in plenty of time for dinner!
North Face of Windom Peak Photo by Casey McCoy
We cooked some soups for dinner and tried to finish off as much of our food as possible. The only item on the menu for the next day was to catch the train back to Durango, but Joe wanted to head out earlier and catch the train up to Silverton and do the "tourist thing". So we did, breaking camp early enough that we reached the Needleton Stop with enough time to spare to play a few rounds of hearts and eat the rest of our Hershey's chocolate bars! We got some burgers at the Handlebar's and wandered around a bit before hopping back on the train for the long ride back to Durango. In the end, the trip was everything I had hoped for - exciting climbing, exciting location, exciting wildlife, and even some exciting unplanned happenings! All elements considered, Chicago Basin was one of the best trips I've ever taken. Even the bad parts added a lot of character to the trip! I'd certainly recommend anybody that loves heading into the mountains make at least one pilgrammage to this fantastic place!!