Sunlight Peak 14,059, Mt Eolus 14,083, North Eolus 14,039, Windom Peak 14,082
RT Mileage: 38.5 Miles
Elevation Gain: 10,700’
I’ve been preparing for this weekend since February when the summer camp catalog came out. I knew I wanted to plan this trip for the days when my youngest daughter was at summer camp, so when she chose her camp I made my reservations with the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad for the days she’d be gone.
It didn’t matter what the weather was, that was the time I had available to go. My son was going on a solo road trip to Arizona (well, he brought the cat) and my oldest would be at Drums Along the Rockies, so I had 1 free weekend to backpack this summer.
Well, then the fires happened and not only did they shut down the railroad, they closed the entire San Juan National Forest. This was unfortunate for numerous reasons, and also because it looked like my trip wasn’t going to happen. Then they re-opened the forest (woot!) but not the railroad. This was getting frustrating! I kept calling the railroad station to see if they were going to be running the train, and every time I called I got a different answer.
So I made two plans: One for if the train was running, and another for if it was not. This was my one weekend to visit the Chicago Basin and attempt its 14ers this summer and I didn’t want to waste it. Going through Purgatory didn’t sound fun but if it was my only option I was prepared to hike into Chicago Basin that way. Normally I wouldn’t mind, but I had a strict time limit because I had to work Monday morning.
I checked and re-checked and checked the weather forecast again. It did not look promising. 70% chance of thunderstorms in the morning, afternoon, and evenings for the entire weekend. These conditions were less than ideal but at least I could prepare for them. I became a weather expert (it seems this isn’t monsoon season yet, but pre-monsoon season that mirrors the actual monsoon season… yeah, basically it’s going to rain buckets with lightning and thunder added in for fun, and it won’t be predictable).
I packed, unpacked, reduced, and packed again. I decided to cut weight by eliminating the need to cook my food (I make a mean beef jerky and dehydrate fruit to bring with me that doesn’t need to be cooked) and added warm layers. Extra socks, pullovers, hats, and gloves.
The day before my trip the train was scheduled to run again, but they weren’t giving out backcountry permits until late August. However, they would honor my tickets since I’d bought them so long ago. Woohoo! I was good to go!
Thursday afternoon I closely watched the weather out the windshield of my truck as I drove the 6.5 hours to Durango. If the weather tomorrow was like today I was golden: heavy cloud cover with no rain. Before checking into the motel I stopped by the train station to pick up my ticket. There was only one other backcountry permit in the queue besides mine, which told me not many of us would be packing in with the train.
Next I checked into the motel. I made small talk with the man at the front desk wearing the Zia Marching Festival shirt (my kids went two years ago for band so small talk was easy) and was assigned a room and a parking space. I stopped by Wendy’s for a quick dinner and brought it back to my room.
This was the smallest motel room I’ve ever stayed in, mainly because I’m a hotel snob. I travel a lot for work, and I need the hotel to have a gym so I can work out every morning. Most hotels with gyms are just… nicer in general. I didn’t think that was necessary for tonight’s stay, so I just chose the cheapest place I could find. I had an assigned parking space my truck didn’t fit into and a room just big enough to walk around the bed. I was a little concerned my truck would get broken into overnight. Well, all I really needed was a place to sleep, so this would do just fine. Check out the view from my room…
I poured myself a glass of wine and brought my backpack in from the truck. After dumping all the contents on the bed I went through my gear one last time. I’ve been backpacking many times, but tonight I seriously felt like Cheryl Strayed. I dipped a fry into my frosty and considered: I’d done a good job packing. There was nothing I thought I didn’t need and I had extra space in my pack. Everything was in a Ziplock bag and I had extra large trash bags if needed. I was good to go! But it felt weird only packing for myself. I haven’t been solo backpacking in a long time: I’m usually in charge of a group of scouts, so I have to over pack things like emergency supplies, food, etc. I could get used to this!
I took a last minute shower (I’d brought my Disney shampoo for good luck: if you’ve ever stayed at one of their resorts you know what I’m talking about), and charged my cell phone and camera. I made a list of goals for this weekend (stay warm/safe/make good choices, learn something, make the most of the time I had, hike at night if necessary, and if the weather’s bad sleep until it’s good). I did some texting and problem solving and answered some very important last minute emails that came in about a potential magazine interview on Monday and made it an early night so I could get started early in the morning.
I had a couple of people who had considered hiking in with me but had canceled due to weather. I was actually relieved they weren’t able to make it! I would have been a terrible hiking buddy in this weather because I’m too goal oriented and I don’t need much sleep. Hiking solo gave me time to hike as fast as I needed, set up camp (or not) and hike/eat/etc. whenever it worked for me. If someone else had been with me I’d have felt responsible for their comfort/ etc. and I’m pretty sure I’d have either made them mad or I wouldn’t have summited (making me mad).
The night had been sweltering. There was an air conditioner that I had to turn off because all it did was make noise. Well, you get what you pay for. I had to take another shower in the morning because it had been so hot overnight. I dressed for success in my new hiking pants that are supposed to repel insects and are two inches too short because I had to get them in the kids section. (Note to athletic/outdoor clothing manufacturers: not every “woman” is large. I’d like some hiking pants that fit a 5’4” 105lb woman please… I’ve been looking for years and resorting to wearing yoga pants under your size 2’s or shopping in the kids section isn’t working for me!)
I did one last sweep of texts and put my phone on airplane mode. The weekend had officially begun.
Check out at the motel wasn’t until 8am but I had a train to catch. The front doors were locked so I dropped off my room key in the slot and headed to the train station. It was a beautiful morning! And that sunrise! It almost physically hurt not to be hiking now when the weather was good.
I was the first one of the day in the parking lot at the train station. I parked in long term parking with 3 other vehicles from yesterday and mentally calculated how many people should be in the basin.
McDonalds was close so that was breakfast. I haven’t eaten this much fast food in quite a while. In fact, I don’t think I’ve been to a McDonald’s since I was in High School. Thoughts from the McDonald’s lobby: it smells like cigarette smoke in here, there are two types of people here: those in their pajamas and those in their motorcycle gear. The parking lot filled up fast.
My Daily Daisy text pinged my phone and I took it as a good sign:
I went back to my truck to get my gear and walked to the train station.
Of course I got there early, so I walked the platform and talked to the volunteers and employees. They were all thrilled to be working again, as they’d all been out of a job for the past 6 weeks. Some teared up as they talked answered questions.
With the help of brakeman Chris I loaded my gear into a boxcar with the two other backpackers and thought to myself how it was already hot outside and I stunk. Those two guys in the picture below on the right stayed behind and watched the wheels on the train to make sure there weren’t any sparks. Several employees shook hands with the engineer and told him to “stay safe out there”.
The train left right on schedule. There were homemade signs and posters all over the fences thanking firefighters and welcoming the train back. Several houses had “Welcome Back Train” signs, and tons of people stood by and cheered the train on as it left, or came out to see the train as it passed by their front yards. The citizens were visibly emotional to see the train in action again, wiping away tears sand clapping. You could tell the closure of the train had impacted the community greatly.
Check this guy out! We saw him every few miles or so, cheering us on. I’m not sure if he was an enthusiastic Durango citizen or paid to do so by the train station, but he would cheer us on, get in his vehicle and drive ahead of the train, change is outfit, and get out and cheer us on again. Everyone on the train loved him. We passed him at least 8 times.
I sat next to a brave mother and father of 6 well behaved boys under 10 years old. One of the train employees talked with me about stopping in Needleton and asked me if I knew how to jump off of a moving train. The boys eyes got wide when I said “Absolutely, I just tuck and roll, right?”
It was a long 2.5 hours to the Needleton stop. I passed the time by going over my trail notes again and again. I arrived at the Needleton flagstop at 11:40am.
I waved goodbye to the train, said a quick greeting to the other two hikers, and started the 6 mile hike to the Chicago Basin. This hike has excellent signage. I signed in at the trail register at about .8 of a mile up the trail where it intersects with the Purgatory Trail.
I passed several groups of hikers hiking out as I was hiking up. They gave me some advice that ended up being very useful: Hang everything up when you leave with your bear bag. Leave nothing in your tent or on the ground. The goats and marmots will eat through your tent to get to your stuff. Also, don’t pee anywhere near your campsite: the goats like pee and will follow you to get it. I found this last part weird since usually urine (especially male urine) usually keeps predators away, but I guess goats aren’t predators and like the salt. In any event, their advice was correct.
The trail was heavily shaded and followed a creek, but that didn’t stop it from being hot out! I don’t usually hike in the middle of the day: It’s tiring! Most of the hike in follows a creek. At the halfway point I crossed a bridge, knowing I had 3 miles left of the hike and seriously hoping it would rain soon.
There were tons of strawberries covering the ground, as well as downed trees. When I saw this small waterfall I stopped and dipped my head in the water (swallowing some in the process, so if I get Giardia I’ll know why). This cooled me off and felt amazing! I soaked my bandana and continued on. From here it was 1 mile left to the basin.
I arrived at 2:40am and was greeted by tons of bold and very adorable goats! Here’s proof:
The goats were everywhere, and seemed to like my company. I carefully placed a beer in the creek to cool off, set up camp, hung my bear bag, re-hung my bear bag because the first place I hung it was covered in sap, and looked up at the weather. It didn’t look too promising, so I went back to the creek to retrieve my beer and went back to camp to eat something. I’d been saving the beer for tomorrow but I was really hot and needed to cool off. I sat down to eat and it immediately began to hail!
This lasted for about 45 minutes and cooled everything off in the basin. It was a good time for me to eat, rest, and get my bearings. There were a lot of people camping in the basin, many more than I’d anticipated considering they couldn’t take the train. They must have all hiked in from Purgatory. Oh, and the inside of my tent was getting wet. Lovely. It stopped raining at 5:15pm and just before it completely stopped I decided I wasn’t going to waste any time. I hung up everything I wasn’t taking with me, gathered my gear and headed towards the trail.
The Twin Lakes Trail gets you to the intersection for all 4 14ers, so I decided to hike up to Twin Lakes and make my decision then which 14er I’d attempt tonight once I got there. I passed several goats along the way.
Since it had just rained/hailed the creek crossings were high. I had to get creative to cross them. The trail came to a junction where I turned left and followed it up the hill, through some rocky areas and some well maintained stairs up a slope and through some waterfalls.
At the top of the slope was Twin Lakes. I could go either left towards Mt Eolus and North Eolus, or right towards Sunlight or Windom.
I’d been doing a lot of thinking on the trek up to Twin Lakes about which 14er I should attempt. I really wanted to get both Eolus and N Eolus done tonight, but as I was watching the weather it looked best near Sunlight Peak. It was a difficult choice, but I chose Sunlight, purely due to weather. I mean, doesn’t it look inviting?
Here’s the route I took:
As you can see, the route is very well cairned. I followed the 6 foot tall cairns toward the gully, and then up the gully to a notch. This gully was a good gully! It had some loose terrain, but was mostly made up of rocks about the size of a tire. I was keeping an eye on the weather, but as you can see, it looks great!
From here I followed the route left. This part was actually quite easy and didn’t require much route finding, just some scrambling over class 3 terrain.
Here’s a great view from a hole in the ridge. I decided not to take this route but to turn left and head to the final summit pitch.
From here there were a couple of class 3 moves, and then a class 4 move up and around to the summit. I made it to the summit and decided to drop my gear and climb the last bit to the “true summit”. It was a scramble on some grippy rock to the top of a few boulders placed a few feet apart in all the critical areas. That had been too easy!
I made it up to the top of the highest boulder and took a look around. Wow! I needed a picture of this! Drat! My camera was back down with my stuff. No worries, I’d just climb back down and get it. I slid feet first down the rock and jumped onto more solid ground. I got a few pictures of the summit marker and surrounding peaks
And took a summit selfie to prove I’d summited.
I took a quick video of the summit, and came to the realization a storm was approaching very quickly. I hadn’t been able to see it from the way I’d climbed in, but it was obvious now I needed to get back to treeline as soon as possible.
Please watch the video below with the sound on. Note it starts at 7:58pm, and then it jumps to 8:30pm.
In 10 minutes time I made it to the top of the gully and it started sprinkling. Wow, that was fast. No worries, I’d just put on my poncho and keep heading down. I made it about a quarter of the way down the gully when the sky broke loose: it started pounding rain, and then hail, and then the thunder and lightning started. There was nowhere to hide: No caves or rocks to hide in or under. I was completely exposed and I couldn’t hike up or down to find shelter, as there wasn’t any. I didn’t want to be a moving target so I found two large rock slabs that didn’t provide any shelter to back up and huddle against. I still had my helmet on, but water was cascading down the rocks straight onto my head, and I was being pelted from the front by the storm. The second half of this video takes place after the worst of the storm is over, but you can still get a sense for the atmosphere.
Just for reference, this is where I was during the storm.
I sat there for over an hour and a half, listening to the thunder crackle all around me and waiting for the lightning to stop. There was no lightning tingle or electric current in the air as I’ve heard from other people who’ve been caught out in storms. Luckily most of the lightning stayed in the clouds, but every so often I’d see a bolt strike Windom. I couldn’t get off that mountain fast enough, but I needed to be safe at the same time, so I waited it out. When I finally felt the lightning was far enough away I got out my flashlight and hiked back to the Chicago Basin soaking wet.
Well, as far as picking a peak to hike tonight I had picked the right one. Windom was a nightmare with all that lightning, and I realized the next day I wouldn’t have been able to summit the other two peaks: I’d have had to come back and hike at least one if not both of them again the next day.
I made it back to my campsite sometime before midnight, and the entire basin was already asleep (besides the goats I said hi to as I passed them on the trail). I was hungry, so I brought down my bear bag and rummaged around for something to eat. Peanut Butter sounded good, but where was my spoon? In the dark it was difficult to find anything, and I was trying to be respectful and quiet for the other campers. Well, I couldn’t find a spoon, but I did have some dehydrated bananas that I could use as a spoon. So there I squatted next to my bear bag, trying not to sit on the ground because it was wet, flashlight on the soil, with a tub of peanut butter in one hand, and the other scooping it out with a banana slice. When I was done I licked my fingers and put everything away.
Now to deal with my sleeping arrangements. I’d put my sleeping bag in the tree with my bear bag before leaving to keep it away from the critters, not anticipating the rain, and now I had a soaked sleeping bag (or so I thought). Luckily I’d brought two tarps. One I’d put under my tent earlier today when setting up, the other I got out now and as quietly as I could folded into a square and placed it inside my wet tent, forming a barrier between the wet floor and myself. I opened my sleeping bag and was delighted to find the fleece blanket I’d rolled around the sleeping bag had absorbed 95% of the rain water, and the sleeping bag itself was mainly dry. I hung the fleece outside and settled down for bed.
Saturday morning came early. After almost 4 hours of sleep I was up at 3:45am and out by 4:15, ready to tackle another peak. I re-hung all my gear by my bear bag and set out in the dark, hiking under the stars and some wispy clouds. The clouds didn’t look too threatening. Everything was still wet from the storm.
I followed the same route I had yesterday up to Twin Lakes. My legs were still sore and I was actually thirsty. I hiked slow and steady past Twin Lakes and towards Mt. Elous. Here the sun began to rise and I got a good look at the route before me.
I hiked towards the edge of a basin and then up a ramp and over some rock slabs
Here’s where the hiking got fun! It became a climb from here on out. I climbed up this optional (class 4?) wall to reach the saddle / ridge
And looked at the catwalk to my left. This was going to be fun!
There was a lot of exposure here but the route wasn’t too narrow. I followed the catwalk to the final pitch up the East Face, which required a lot of route finding and class 3 moves. Let’s just say aim up: There are tons of cairns and they all parallel each other, but the basic route goes up.
Woohoo! Summit Selfie
Now it was time to head back and tackle North Elous. Here’s a look back at the Catwalk and North Elous’ Ridge
The ridge was actually very easy to navigate. It had grippy rock and was a sticky but simple scramble towards the top. Once again, I was glad I’d chosen today to hike this instead of yesterday. Oh, and I was a bit sore so I was hiking slow.
I took a quick summit selfie
And looked back at the way I’d come. Pretty cool! The catwalk looks like a beast, and so does the way back down.
Ok, 3 down, 1 to go. I was closely watching the weather today as I hiked back to Twin Lakes. I made it to the lakes at about 9am and was concerned with the amount of clouds I saw in the sky. I figured I had a 50/50 chance of needing to bail on Windom, but like I said before, I was sore and didn’t want to hike down to Chicago Basin just to hike back up to do Windom again later today: That elevation gain was brutal! I decided to try it, as I could always turn back if needed. I’d just take it slow and keep watching the weather.
At Twin Lakes I met Boy Scout Troop 393 from Phoenix, a fun group of guys to talk with. They were filtering water, and told me about the time a couple of years ago when they hiked Windom. A few of them were Eagle Scouts and Life Scouts.
I continued on towards Windom. The trail follows much of the same route as Sunlight through the basin, but then angles right up a gully (there is a trail to the right near the ridge but it’s currently washed out).
There were several routes, but I took the gully up and aimed towards the ridge, to what I found was a false summit. Drat! I thought I was making great time and I’d been so excited I was going to climb this mountain before the weather set in, but when I hit the notch I realized I still had another 45 minutes or so to go. I steeled myself against the let down and kept climbing, more intent now than ever on finishing this trek.
The final push from the notch follows the left (not the right as the GPS told me to go) and contains some class 3 moves, even though it’s rated 2D. It was very well cairned, and quite a bit of fun!
It took me longer that I’d have liked to summit, but when I did I felt fabulous!
Check out that view of Sunlight!
OK, now it’s time to head back down. The weather was holding, but I didn’t want to cut it close. I turned around and the Boy Scouts called to me from the saddle. They wanted to know if they could summit before the rain hit. Now, that’s a difficult question to answer. I’m not sure how fast they hike, and sure, they could probably make it up, but they weren’t going to make it down before the rain hit. I told them as much and passed them on their way down. They’d already hiked this one a few years ago, so they knew the route. I wished them luck and continued on.
Just before making it to Twin Lakes I met up with the rest of their troop (not all were prepared enough to climb Windom today). We had a nice chat before I excused myself to head back down to camp. I practically skipped back down as the weather held. Sure, I hadn’t brushed my hair in 2 days, I was getting hungry and I was tired, but I’d just summited the 4 14ers I’d come to summit! This mission was a total success!
To top it all off, today I did everything right. All my clothes and sleeping bag were dry, as it hadn’t yet rained. I took a trip down to the stream to filter some water and stumbled upon two moose! A male and a female who didn’t much care I was there
I went back to my tent, ate about ¼ a package of Ramen and some dried fruit, and then cleaned myself up before the rain started. My feet were sore and I stunk, but I was happy as I sat all dry in my tent. I thought about tackling Jupiter tonight/tomorrow. Should I? I kept going back and forth with it in my mind. I took a quick 2 hour nap and was woken by my neighbors. Unfortunately they were boisterous and the man’s voice carried. It continued to rain so I decided against Jupiter for now. I lay down, and the next thing I knew I woke up at 1am, needing to use the bathroom. Well, that had been quite a nap! I guess I’d caught up from the night before. The only problem was it was too early to hike. I didn’t want to summit in the dark, so I decided to just lie in bed and wait an hour or two. The next thing I knew it was 5am, and now it was too late to summit and still make it back. Or was it?
I jumped out of bed, gathered some food, and went to look for the Jupiter trail. As I was hiking I really gave the outing some thought, and while I felt I could summit in time I was worried it would put me hiking back down to the train during the wet weather time of day, and I didn’t much want to do that. So I made a nice 3 mile loop out of the hike instead. I came across an abandoned mine I’d wanted to explore but the ice kept me from it
I stopped for a bit to filter some water, and then continued the trail as it followed a ridge. Here I meet a ton more goats all playing on the scree slope. Two baby goats looked like they were trying to push each other off. The rest just seemed to be rock climbing.
I leisurely walked back to camp, and when I arrived at 7am I was surprised to find the Basin was totally cleared out! Everyone had packed up and left. Wow! So I packed up my things, said goodbye to the goats, searched for and picked up pieces of trash, and left at 7:45am to head back down to the train.
I was in no rush today, which is not normal for me. I’m always in a hurry. I actually stopped, took breaks, and enjoyed the waterfalls and streams. It was so nice not to be in a hurry! I stopped to have a snack by a waterfall, and once I’d made it down to the Needleton/Purgatory Junction I took off my shoes and soaked my feet in the stream as I heard the 11:30am train go by. I washed my hands and re-did my hair. There were tons of flies here, and I tried not to take offense they seemed enamored with me.
I put my shoes back on, passed 4 hikers who’d been let off the train and watched the clouds roll in as I made it to the flagstop. Hey, guess what? I just realized I hadn’t seen a single mosquito this entire trip! I thought the Chicago Basin was notorious for mosquitoes? Hmmm… I must have been lucky!
I made it to the flagstop at 12:30pm, which meant I had 3 hours to wait for the train. That’s quite a bit of time to do nothing, but almost immediately it began to rain. I crossed the tracks and found an old shelter on the other side. It didn’t look too safe, but it did look like it would keep me dry. I’d just have to be careful not to sit down/step on any nails.
For the next 2 hours I watched the rain from inside the shelter. It looked much worse on the trail, and I congratulated myself for not going for Jupiter today: I’d have been stuck in that hailstorm hiking right now if I had.
At about 2:30 the rain stopped, so I went back out by the tracks. A little before 3pm the 2:30 train went by, and out of nowhere 3 high school aged boys ran across the bridge to wave at the train. It seems they’re staying at a cabin on the river (they’d come in by train this morning) and their only entertainment was waving at the train, so they were coming out every time one passed.
My train came closer to 4pm. The two other hikers who’d come in on the train with me were there to take the train back (they’d gotten caught in the hailstorm hiking back down). After getting a $5 beer I had some great conversations with the other people sitting next to me. I tried to relax before my 6 hour drive home, but everyone was chatty. I was ok with that. In fact, I was just fine. I’d accomplished what I’d come to accomplish, meaning I didn’t have to hike in through Purgatory next week to finish hiking the Chicago Basin 14ers. But… I’d still like to come back at a later date, maybe with others next time. I would also still like to come back and do Jupiter someday, but I’m thinking of making it a day hike from Purgatory…
The Mt Eolus Summit Sticker can be found here
North Eolus Summit Sticker can be bought here
The Sunlight Peak Summit Sticker can be bought here
The Windom Peak Summit Sticker can be bought here