Fridays are my hiking days, and today’s Friday. However, it’s also the day I pick my daughter up at camp (at 2pm), which seriously cuts into my hiking time. I’m totally ok with this however, because I planned ahead. I saved Mt Massive for today because it’s a peak I knew I could summit quickly and head back down to pick up my daughter.
So I left the house at 11:30pm and drove to the North Halfmoon Creek Trailhead. Just when I was almost there I saw a huge campsite with about 20 RVs set up. They had a pallet bonfire going, and I thought to myself how I used to do that kind of stuff at 2:30am when I was younger. It wasn’t until I reached the trailhead I remembered I’m pretty sure there’s a fire ban here and they shouldn’t have been burning like that. The road in was rough 2WD most of the way, and the last bit 4WD. Here’s the worst of it.
I arrived at 3am to just one other car in the lot. It’s a small lot, but there’s a larger one adjacent to it that probably holds 15 more vehicles.
I’m a sucker for signs. This trailhead had tons! It also had a memorial to a helicopter crash that occurred on Mt Massive and those who died. There were quite a few liquor bottles surrounding the memorial, as well as cigarette lighters, coins, and shot glasses.
Wow! After last weekend’s Chicago Basin trip, my backpack felt light! This was great! I was practically running up the trail. I hiked almost the entire trail in the dark, so here are some pictures from the way back. The trail started out through the forest. I was surprised at how much I could smell smoke from the surrounding fires. I’ve been hiking a bunch of 14ers the past few months, and this was the strongest smell of smoke I’d encountered yet.
There’s a wall you need to climb towards the beginning of the trail that requires you use your hands to balance yourself. This is much easier than it looks, and if you can do this, you can absolutely hike the rest of the trail. This hike is considered a class 2, but I think it’s only because of this one move. IMO, if Pikes Peak is a class 1 this should be as well. This trail is well maintained all the way to the summit. I came across this move in the dark and was sure I wasn’t supposed to go this way, but yes, this is the correct way to go, up the rock.
The trail passes through a meadow
Turn right at this junction
And then start climbing up some well made talus-stairs (thank you CFI!)
Your goal is to climb up this
It was a nice, steady climb on a well maintained trail with a lot of switchbacks. I never needed to stop to catch my breath or take a break. At the top of this hill you reach a rocky ridge and a couple of false summits. This is where the trek gets fun! There isn’t really any route finding or climbing to be done, but the stairs/steps up make for a nice change of pace.
This is the worst of the “climbing”, and you can skirt around it to the right and avoid it altogether on a trail.
Here’s a look back at the ridge
There are several false summits, but here’s the true summit. You know the true summit is coming up when you see the wind shelter: the true summit will be the highest point north of the wind shelter (about 15 yards away).
I summited at 5:30am, just in time to watch the sunrise!
I’d summited in plenty of time and intended to use my extra time to head over to Massive Green and then to North Massive and maybe some of the other sub-summits of Massive. The route goes through a rocky area, but doesn’t get much lower than 13,900’. Here’s the route:
It wasn’t that cold, and the temperature on the summit was supposed to be 40-60* with 5-10mph winds. This sounded perfect for today! I decided to go light with layers and just bring my moisture wicking zip-up and a hat. This had worked perfectly so far. I got excited when the sun rose because that meant the temperature could only get warmer from here, right? Well, it didn’t . The sun stayed behind the haze and never warmed up the air, and as soon as I summited the wind began picking up and it started getting cold. This is something really hard to explain unless you’ve got it, but let me just say Raynaud’s stinks. With each step I took the temperature seemed to drop as I headed toward North Massive. It wasn’t so much the temperature, but the wind. It was icy and probably hovering at a steady 25mph, which isn’t that bad, but I wasn’t prepared for this. I didn’t have the proper jacket and my gloves weren’t winter gloves. I have Raynaud’s, so it’s important I prevent getting cold because once I do I cannot warm up (it’s a circulation thing). I’m sure most people would have been ok, but as I reached Massive Green I had lost feeling in my fingers. I pulled off one glove and my fingers were white down to the second knuckle. Great. I’d hoped the wind would die down, but it didn’t look like it was going to happen, so I made the executive decision to turn back and head towards Massive before losing my fingers to frostbite. It hurt to turn back. I was seriously mad at myself! I wasn’t tired at all, and I wasn’t even that cold, yet my fingers were in the early stages of frostbite (it happens much faster for people with Raynaud’s) so I had to go back. I couldn’t move them and the only way to get blood back into them to start circulation again was to go where the wind wasn’t. I didn’t regain feeling until just before treeline. Lesson learned: pack extra jacket/gloves no matter what.
I re-summited Massive and headed down the ridge, this time seeing two goats on my way. I love seeing Mountain Goats!
About halfway down the slope I saw something I’ve never seen before: a white marmot! Well, it was more of a very light tan color, but still pretty cool. I didn’t know marmots came in this color? I saw a bunch of brown marmots as well.
Across the trail from me there was evidence of avalanche
Back into the forest I came across more proof nature is amazing
I made it back to my truck at 8:30am, making this an 11.5 mile hike completed in just over 5 hours. That gave me plenty of time to drive to Woodland Park, set up my computer at a local Starbucks to write my trip report, and pick up my daughter at 2pm. I’d definitely do this one again, not only to get in those other sub summits but because it was a nice and peaceful way to spend the morning. It didn’t really feel like a 14er. I could just hike and think and not think too much about the hike…
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 plan: Eat an entire pizza by myself and fall into a pizza induced coma for 4 hours before waking up and driving to the trailhead.
All was going well at 6pm as I jumped into bed after eating an entire pizza (plus 2 pieces of garlic bread, washed down by a glass of wine and 3mg of melatonin). I fell asleep almost immediately as my body began happily processing all the calories I’d just ingested.
At 6:30pm I was woken up by my son playing his accordion in the kitchen. He was multitasking, making himself dinner and practicing his scales. Ugh. I tried to wait him out and get back to sleep but it was no use. His playing was obviously going to last a while. I tried calling his name a few times (loudly) in between sets but he had the stove fan on and couldn’t hear me.
I did not want to get out of bed to ask him to stop. Lately I’ve had vertigo, a complication from Raynaud’s, not enough sleep, and dehydration. For those of you who don’t know what vertigo is, it’s an intense spinning of the room that makes you nauseous. It feels like I’ve had way too much to drink and then try to lay down suddenly: the room spins dangerously like I’m on a spinning carnival ride, and it’s awful. It only affects me as I’m lying down or getting up, and it only lasts 5 excruciating seconds or so, but it sucks and I wanted to avoid it as much as possible. So I lay there for 10 minutes trying in vain to get my son’s attention and finally gave up. I steeled myself for the room to spin, got out of bed, held onto the side of the bed for a second as the room spun and waited for the spinning to stop. When it did I walked into the kitchen.
My son looked up with a ladle in one hand and the other pressing scales on his accordion. He was immediately gave me a sideways smile. He obviously hadn’t known I’d been trying to sleep (he thought he was the only one home) and promised to keep it down while he cooked. I thanked him, went back to my bed, steeled myself for a second round of nausea, lay down, and the next thing I knew my alarm was waking me up at 10:30pm to head to the trailhead.
The drive to the trailhead was uneventful. I didn’t see any deer, which was weird, but I did see a porcupine crossing the road on the 82. Despite triple checking my directions I once again went to the wrong trailhead (this Maroon-Snowmass/ Maroon Snowmass / Maroon Trailhead / Maroon Creek thing really stinks) but noticed my mistake early on and backtracked to the correct trailhead. I paid the $10 fee at the Rangers Station (pay the fee people!) and parked at the trailhead. There were two other cars in the parking lot when I arrived. I jumped out and hit the trail at 3:15am (15 minutes behind schedule due to re-routing… I had time to make up).
While I hadn’t seen any deer on the drive in, as I was passing Maroon Lake I saw about a dozen deer all along the trail. They stopped to look at me and then quickly bounded away. My directions said to hike 1.75 miles to reach a trail junction, and then another .75 miles to another trail junction. I found the first junction just fine, but it seemed like I was hiking a lot further trying to find the second one. I had my GPS, and it wasn’t 100% syncing up, but I’d talked to a couple last week who said the GPS files in the Maroon Bells area had consistently been 50-150 feet off for them, so I didn’t think anything was wrong. Until I saw headlamps hiking up the other side of the hill, about 150 feet across from me. Ugh. I looked at my topo map and I was indeed off course; by about a mile in distance and 500 feet in elevation gain. Double ugh.
So I backtracked, found what was considered the junction (which I’d missed in the dark), crossed the stream in the dark, and headed up the hill.
I’m a pretty quick hiker, so even though I’d started out over a mile behind the headlamp group I caught up to them halfway up the hill, just before the talus field. Yes, they were hiking North Maroon too, just taking a breather before continuing on. I had serious time to make up now, so I didn’t stop to chat long and was on my way. I’m not a fan of talus, but the trail here was well maintained.
I made it across the talus, under the cliff bands, and over a glacier area, and up about 200’ of steep terrain through some trees before the sun began to rise.
I took a break here to watch the sunrise because this type of beauty is what hiking is all about.
From here I could see both Crater Lake and Maroon Lake. For the rest of the hike I used them as indicators of which direction I should head (especially on my way down). They should always be in the same position as you’re hiking this mountain.
Now was the time to apply sunscreen and start drinking water. I almost never drink water when I go hiking. I always bring 2 liters, but rarely take more than a sip because I just don’t get thirsty. But this vertigo thing had me re-arranging my priorities. If drinking more water would make it go away I’d drink more water: I carried the water, I was going to drink it. So every time I remembered I had water I took a sip.
After the sun rose the gullies began. There are two types of gullies in my opinion: good gullies and bad gullies. The bad gullies tend to be anything labeled “2D”.
These were good gullies. They weren’t too steep, required climbing (not shuffling through scree) and were well cairned. If you couldn’t see a cairn you weren’t on the trail (I know, because I replaced many of them so this would be the case). There was a 1st gully and a 2nd gully and both had the same terrain. The only problem was sometimes the cairn would be behind and above you, not directly on the trail (this made sense though, since climbing was involved).
I took another few sips of water.
The second gully was very similar to the first, with grassy slopes and steep, loose rock. When I’d reached the top of the gully I was on a class 3 ledge. This meant a lot of scrambling, following the ridgeline toward the summit.
I took another few sips of water.
There is a rock band here that required class 4 climbing to navigate, but offers a class 3 variation by going around the band. Here’s a picture of the class 3 climbing
DO NOT TAKE THE CLASS 3 ROUTE in the next few weeks: It has a lot of runoff water on the route and is steeper (more exposure) than the class 4 chimney, making the class 4 chimney a safer option. It was also more fun! The only downside to the chimney was my height. I could tell where I was supposed to step, but my legs weren’t long enough to reach. So I used my back a lot and balance where necessary to push myself up the chimney. Luckily it wasn’t too long and didn’t have too much exposure, so if I fell I wasn’t going to fall too far. Here’s a look at the Chimney:
The last bit of climbing was all class 3 over ledges up towards the summit, with a few solid rock gullies thrown in for fun.
I took another few sips of water.
I summited at 7:30am. I took a bunch of summit photos, drank more water, and reapplied sunscreen. I was happy with my progress, and kind of excited I could name most of the surrounding peaks.
I took a summit photo
The way down was much easier than the way up, as I followed the route I’d nicely re-cairned. It was almost too easy! In the beginning I just followed the ledge…
I met 2 other pairs of hikers, made small talk, and wished them well. The weather was very, very nice: not a cloud in the sky!
I took another few sips of water.
I made it to the bottom of the gullies and was almost to the talus field when I met my first goat of the day. We took a quick selfie and then passed each other in silence. He wasn’t too interested in me.
I tiptoed across this huge expanse of talus (and lots of spider webs) down the trail.
It was well maintained and easy to follow in the light. As I was crossing the creek I had a decision to make: it was still before 10am, and the weather looked nice. Should I attempt Pyramid Peak as well?
The downside was I’d have to hike all the way back down to 10,000’ in elevation and re-gain over 4000’ to summit. That made for a very long day, but it was good training for the Chicago Basin. On the positive side the weather looked good (50% chance of rain but not thunderstorms), it was still early, and if I summited today I could save 9 hours in driving time and that $10 entrance fee needed for another hike. One trip report I’d read said the record time for hiking up Pyramid was 1 hour, and many considered it a quick jaunt. It was settled. I was attempting it. I took a few sips of water and reapplied sunscreen, albeit haphazardly (I’m not a fan of sunscreen, but on this nice day it was necessary since a jacket was overkill).
I got out my GPS and looked at the connecting route. After consulting with my directions, which said the turnoff was just before crater lake, I decided to just cut around crater lake and hook up with the connecting trail.
This ended up being a lot more complicated than it sounds, and while I did eventually connect up with the correct trail it was after a lot of hiking through dense forest up and down hills and through dried up lakebeds… all off trail. I was glad I was wearing pants. I was also very tired when I made it to the connecting trail. I wasn’t’ sure I’d saved any time, and I was pretty sure I’d increased my elevation gain in the process. I took some more sips of water. I took the route in blue
In any event, I made it to the Pyramid Trail and began the hike up the path that led to the amphitheater. This trail was well maintained, if covered in a lot of talus. I was basically climbing up stairs the entire way, but well constructed stairs.
When I made it to the amphitheater the trail ended and the serious talus began. Luckily there were a few very large cairns indicating the exit of the trail.
But it looked like this was where the trail ended. My research said to hike through the center of the amphitheater towards Pyramid’s North Face and then turn left to hike up a gully. My GPS had me sticking towards the middle/left. So that’s what I did. I hiked straight through the middle of the area, which was a very bad idea (but probably not so bad in winter with snow). The rock here was loose. I mean, very loose. Have you ever hiked up a 100 foot mountain of corn? Probably not, but I have, and that’s exactly what it felt like: loose, unstable, and with every step up you sink in up to your shin and fall back 2 feet. It’s grueling, not very productive, and even scary at times. I kept drinking water. Here’s the path I took…
When I made it to the top of one hill there was another one in it’s place, and then another one, and when that was over the larger talus began. I just kept aiming towards the gully, trudging on. I made it to some rather large boulders and saw a couple hiking down. We chatted about the route ahead. They told me the rest of the route was cairned and very similar to North Maroon Peak. I told them I was glad it was cairned up ahead and that at this point I was exhausted and never wanted to see Pyramid again. They looked at me quizzically and hiked on (more on this later). I took another sip of water.
OK, I’d made it to the gully. This is the 2D gully that gives all gullies a bad name. It’s 1000’ of intense elevation gain, loose rock, and no, it was not well cairned. Here’s the route:
This took me forever to climb. I was cursing the entire way, getting more and more exhausted with each step. I never wanted to see this mountain again. Never. This sucked. In a big way. This was torture! How could people enjoy this??? I thought all these things also mentally knowing I was tired to begin with: it probably wouldn’t have been so bad if this was the only mountain I was climbing today. But I’d already done about 7000’ of elevation at this point, and I was tired.
And it was hot. I took another sip of water as the sun went behind a cloud. Well, that was positive. Wait, a cloud? Ugh! Clouds were rolling in. Hmmmm. I studied them for a minute. They didn’t look ominous, but I’d need to keep an eye on them.
With about 150’ of elevation gain before reaching the saddle I encountered two men hiking down. They seemed upset. Worried about the weather, I asked them how long it would take to summit after reaching the saddle and they said at least two hours. I couldn’t believe that, as 2 hours seemed excessive. Then I asked if they’d summited and they replied: “No. There are too many cairns that lead to nowhere but up, and each of them ends in a class 4 move. We decided to turn back”.
Well, it was a class 4 hike, what did they expect? I was a little put off with the 2 hours to the summit from the saddle, but I’d come this far, so I was going to keep at it: I really didn’t want to come back to hike through all that talus and scree another time if I could help it.
I was almost to the top of the gully when I slipped and put my hands forward to catch myself, lading on a rock and breaking my phone screen in the process. Ugh! Have I mentioned I never want to see Pyramid again? I’ve had a cell phone since 1996 and never once cracked a screen. I’d just about had it with this mountain…
I reached the saddle and began seeing goats. They were usually in pairs of two, a few were mother/baby pairs, and covering the ridge from here on out. They liked lounging on patches of snow and cold rock ledges, which made sense considering they were covered in dense fur. They amused me. I took pictures and more sips of water.
I kept watching the weather and it wasn’t getting any worse, so I continued on. This part of the hike was indeed similar to North Maroon, but included a lot of sustained class 4 climbing. I followed my GPS route up to the top, which was not well cairned. There were steep ridges, narrow ledges, and class 4 obstacles to navigate. I was in heaven!
Check out the leap of faith! I’d heard about this but it wasn’t in my instructions, so I was thrilled when I came across it. It’s about 4 feet wide and requires you to jump over the gap or fall about 20 feet down. Luckily I was jumping down (not up) and it felt doable, so I took a video of the process. (Side note: on the way back down it was a different experience as I was jumping up in elevation and not down and I didn’t feel I could make it. As soon as that thought came into my head I steeled myself and jumped: I had no time for those kind of thoughts. Oh, and I made it just fine).
I felt pretty good about myself after this, took another sip of water, and continued on. I encountered a lot more class 4 climbing that wanted me to be a few inches taller to make it easy, and pretty soon I was at the summit! It felt wonderful! I was so proud of myself! That was the most sustained class 4 climbing I’ve ever done… and it was FUN!!!
And there was a summit marker! Woot!
I summited at 2pm and took a summit selfie to prove I’d made it.
And a video of the surrounding mountains.
And reapplied my sunscreen and took another sip of water… oops! I was out of water! How could that happen? I never run out of water! Never! This wasn’t good. Hmmmm. Well, I rarely get thirsty when I hike, I’d just have to remember that and start down right away. I’d considered hiking Maroon Peak as well today but didn’t feel comfortable attempting it without any water. I had 5 pieces of butterscotch candy in my emergency kit, and while this wasn’t an emergency, sucking on candy would help keep my mouth moist, so I unwrapped a piece and began my descent.
This time I saw a very well cairned route following the ridge down. It also looked well traveled and was pointing in the correct direction, so I decided to take this route down instead of my GPS route. This ended up being a fabulous idea!!! It contained sustained class 4 moves but was easy to navigate due to all the cairns.
The weather was still holding out, and in fact it was looking better. Any chance of rain had dissipated. As I was climbing down those class 4 moves there were many times I wished my legs were just a little longer. These moves had to be easier with another 6 inches of height. I knew where I was supposed to step, my legs just weren’t long enough to make it there without getting creative. Many times I just slid the extra few inches to reach a ledge and went on faith (after looking several times to make sure the hold was solid). Just before reaching the saddle at the top of the gully I spied some goats lounging on ice and came to a quick solution to my water problem.
No, I didn’t want to drink goat water, but ice and snow this high is good to drink if you can find some that’s clean. I walked over to where the goats were (they quickly stood up and walked away) and found a flat rock. I dug in the snow with the rock about a foot deep until I found “clean” snow, and then used this snow to fill my water bladder. A bladder full of snow really only equates to about ¼ of a bladder full of water, so I had to do this several times on the hike down, but my water problem was solved! And what great tasting (and cold!) water it was! Seriously. It was fantastic.
It was a hot day. When I made it to the saddle I thought to myself I really didn’t want to slide down this gully tippy-toed. So I put on my microspikes and side stepped the entire way down. For those of you who don’t use microspikes on these types of gullies you’re missing out: it makes the descent so much easier!!! A goat seemed amused with me.
The only downside to this process was I was descending pretty quickly (but stably) and my feet began to get hot. They started to burn and I had to slow down and take it easy.
OK, back to the amphitheater.
I hadn’t been looking forward to this at all! I took off my microspikes and hopped from rock to rock across the talus. This time when I got to the big boulders I spied a cairn! What?!?! This route wasn’t supposed to be cairned??? So I followed it to the left, and guess what? There is actually a cairned route that’s pretty simple to follow on this side of the basin! I should have followed this when I entered the amphitheater, but hadn’t know it was there. Ugh! Well, I was following it now. I couldn’t help but think how much less pain I’d be in right now if I’d known about this path earlier…
I followed the cairned route near the snow line and sipped my water. It really was a hot day! Then I got another idea: I walked up to the snow, made a large snowball with some clean snow, popped another butterscotch candy into my mouth, and started eating the ice. Woot! Butterscotch snow cone! It was cold, delicious, and amazing. I jaunted out of that amphitheater a happy hiker!
I met a few more goats as I was exiting the amphitheater. They called to each other before they could see each other. I don’t know if they were welcoming each other to a party or warning each other about me…
I took a picture to inform others there’s an easier way across this talus trouble than I’d taken!!! This was most likely why the couple I’d seen in the amphitheater couldn’t understand my disdain for all that talus: there was an easier way!
The rest of the hike down was very slow going. My feet were burning at this point. My feet have never burned on a hike before, but now they were burning, throbbing, and pulsing. They hurt, and I was hiking slow. I’m not gonna lie, it sucked. And it lasted forever! I don’t think I’ve ever hiked this slow before in my life, but I couldn’t physically hike faster without causing myself more pain. So I just kept on hiking, and hiking, and hiking at a steady pace.
Here’s the cutoff I missed for the Pyramid Trail because I was bushwacking…
I met a lot of day hikers hiking up to crater lake as I was hiking out. They all seemed chipper and fresh. I smiled even though I didn’t feel like it, answered their “how much farther” questions and aimed toward the lake. This trail actually has some pretty good signs in the daylight…
I made it to the lake at 6pm and immediately pulled off my hiking boots and put my feet in the water: I’m pretty sure I heard the water sizzle. The water was cold and it felt amazing on my burning feet!
I couldn’t help but look around at everyone else enjoying the lake. They looked like their parents were all lawyers and they were visiting Aspen for the summer sporting their Nordstrom best (think sweater vests and white, flowing dresses. Oh, and hats.). I felt a little out of place with my hair a mess and dirt all over my clothes. Honestly though, they were enjoying the beauty as much as I was. We all took selfies to prove it!
I’d made it down to the lake at 6pm. I covered 19 miles in 15 hours with 8700’ of elevation gain. And I was tired! But I was proud of myself, and you know what? I’d absolutely do Pyramid Peak again, but only if it was a one summit kind of day. The class 4 scrambling totally made all the other stuff worth it!
When I made it home my kids remarked how I was sunburned in weird areas.
Me: “Well, I really hate reapplying sunscreen, so I get a bit lazy, especially in places I can’t reach.”