Rainy and Poor
I thought I’d offer up my climb of Windom, Sunlight, and Eolus from August 1999. Even though it’s somewhat dated, I don’t imagine that those mountains have changed too much in the last fourteen years! I was getting ready to head off to grad school in the fall, so I was working hard to finish the 14ers since I didn’t know if I would be living in Colorado again (I did end up moving back there), I was leaving on August 6 to drive to Chicago, so I would have from August 1 thru 5 to climb, including the drive to and from Boulder. Being an unemployed, soon-to-be student, I also had no money, so I opted to not take the train, and settled on hiking in from Purgatory. I planned two days in to Chicago Basin, one day for Sunlight and Windom, one for Eolus and the hike back to Needleton, and the fifth day to hike back to the car and drive back to Boulder. It didn’t quite happen like that, but here’s the story.
On August 1, I left Boulder in my 1976 Volvo 244 at 5 am and drove like a banshee to Montrose where I stocked up on food at the giant Walmart. I spread out in the parking lot and organized my pack and food, and then headed over the three passes on US 550 to Purgatory, and got on the trail at about 2 pm. The trail down Cascade Creek was perfectly pleasant, albeit muddy in a few places. I carefully avoided the mud because I was wearing my light hikers, with my heavy boots in my pack. Little did I know that the trail would get much muddier over the next few days. I made it down to the Animas relatively fast, and started cruising up the Animas River trail, which is very nice. I heard the late afternoon train head down the canyon, and suddenly felt very alone in this secluded place. Not too many places where you can be hiking up a remote canyon with a steam train whistling at you. I arrived at the Needle Creek trail junction at about 6 pm, where I set up camp, and it promptly started raining, right after I set up my tent. I got inside and started reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a book I was to spend a lot of time with over the next few days. A couple hours later it stopped raining, so I was able to cook dinner and get some sleep.
August 2 dawned somewhat clear, and I packed up for my trudge up to Chicago Basin. I was worried that this leg would be arduous, but it wasn’t bad. The trail never gets too steep, and it is well-marked. Also, I was passing through some of the most amazing terrain I had ever been in. This was my last “new” 14er area to be in. At that point I had climbed 48 of them, but the remaining three, aside from the three I was about to climb, were Kit Carson, Crestone Needle, and El Diente – all places that I had been before because of climbing nearby 14ers. The greenness of the Needle Creek drainage was what surprised me. Such dense vegetation, which made the rugged 13ers around me seem even more inaccessible. I was glad to be on a beaten path to normal routes on 14ers. I arrived after 3 or 4 hours of hiking at the upper basin to find many, many other climbers and backpackers. I spotted a couple in a choice campsite which they were about to leave in a grove of trees, and headed over to ask if I could have it. They agreed, but the man and I were looking at each other strangely. I felt like I knew him. Turned out it was a guy I went to high school with in California, and we hadn’t seen each other in seven years. Crazy. So I set up camp, and at about 1 pm, of course it started to rain. And it continued to rain. And rain more. I stopped for a bit at around 7 pm, so I was able to cook dinner, but then it started up again. I fell asleep to the sound of rain drops on the tent, wondering if I was going to be able to climb anything while I was up here.
August 3 I woke up to rain. I had set my alarm for 5 am, and it was still raining. At 7 am it was still raining. At 8 am it stopped, but it looked like it would start again, but I said screw it, I’m going for it. The skies were totally socked in, and visibility remained only a half-mile or so during the climb, but a couple hours later, I was standing on top of Eolus, with zero visibility. The third class section is blocky enough that it didn’t really matter that it was wet. I was hoping if the weather held I could go grab Windom, but on the way down, it started raining again, so I headed back to the tent, all soggy. It rained all afternoon again, but it cleared a bit in the evening again, so a small group of climbers coalesced in the meadow to chat, and I joined them. It was nice to interact with some other warm bodies. Once again, I fell asleep to the sound of rain.
August 4 I woke up to rain yet again. It wasn’t the same driving rain that had been featured over the past couple of days, but more of a drizzle, so at 8 am I set out for Windom in this wetness. I was getting somewhat damp, but my clothes were keeping me relatively comfortable. Others had the same idea as me, and I saw a group up there that was descending from Windom. Again, I summited with virtually no visibility. Every so often a gap in the clouds would blow through such that I could see Sunlight Spire and Sunlight. Toward the top it stopped raining, so that lifted my spirits for the traverse over to Sunlight. I descended the ridge slightly until I could get on a good snow slope and I glissaded in the direction of Sunlight. I picked my way up the red saddle, found the little “keyhole” to scamper through, and then traversed left on some ledges. Dead end. Shoot. I backtracked, down-climbed a bit, and then traversed left again on a wider ledge, but again dead end. But maybe I could force this route. I peeked around the corner, and there was a smooth, slightly angled slab around a bulge that led to friendlier ground, I thought. I couldn’t see what this slab dropped out on to, because of the clouds, but no worry. Better not to be able to see the yawning chasm below me. I scooted around, and decided it was too slippery with the wetness, so I backtracked to the first ledge to check out the first dead end, and still no dice. So I returned to the second ledge, and this time I really did force the route and found myself on the other side of the smooth slab, not wanting to return that way. I rounded a corner and found myself surrounded by vertical walls and cracks and I thought to myself, what have you done Mark, and then I decided the only way out was up, so I found a crack that seemed somewhat friendly, and of course it started to snow. Yes, on August 4, 1999 it snowed on top of Sunlight. After a few low fifth class moves I found myself on easier terrain, and boom, all of the sudden there was the summit register! I had somehow managed to circumnavigate the north and east sides of the summit block to arrive there. I only had the summit block remaining so, with the snow flurries stopped, I went up and tagged the summit, again, no visibility. Not wanting anything to do with the north and east sides, I opted for scouting out the south and west sides. I did some jumping, some chimneying, some wiggling through holes, but eventually I found myself back at the red saddle. I decided to check out my first route, because I could not believe that I could mess up the route-finding so much, so I traversed left on that first ledge. Turns out, when I got to that dead-end, all I had to do was make a switchback back on another ledge (away from the summit), and my problems would have been solved. I blame my tunnel vision for the summit for my errors, plus also the lack of visibility and the fact that I really did have blinders on from my hood on my jacket. So I glissaded and meandered in the sometimes rain back to camp and was glad to lie down in my tent, until I realized that my down bag had become quite damp over the last few days from all the rain and humidity. This is no fun I thought, so I packed out and splashed through the muddy trails of Chicago Basin in the rain. After an hour or so the rain stopped, which made for much more pleasant hiking. When I got to the Needleton junction, I decided that I really didn’t want to set up my wet gear again and sleep in a wet sleeping bag, so I turned left and headed down the Animas River trail. It was getting pretty late in the day by then. I think I left Chicago Basin around 1 pm, and the junction at about 4 pm. I got to the Cascade Creek junction around 7 pm I guess, and rested for a while. I was debating stopping there, knowing that any hike to my car tonight would end in the dark, but I decided that that would be fine, so I headed out through the flats of the Cascade area to the bridge across the Animas, and I was walking, on the trail mind you, and all of the sudden I hear a scream off to my right by the river, and it is a naked couple, thoroughly embarrassed that I discovered them, and they went streaking across the trail in front of me to their camp. Needless to say, the hike up to my car was not pleasant, nor did I see any more naked people. My legs ached badly for the first few switchbacks before they could get used to going uphill again. I arrived well after dark at 9:30 pm at the car, happy to be alive, but also with no place to go. Being poor, I wasn’t about to check into a motel, so naturally, I just drove home, arriving in Boulder at about 5 or 6 the next morning after sleeping for while at a Glenwood Canyon rest area.