To complete three of my last four of the 54 Colorado Fourteeners, I caught the train out of Silverton, backpacked into the Chicago Basin, and climbed Eolus, Sunlight, and Windom. These three Fourteeners were much harder than the easy climbs I had anticipated. Tough, complex routefinding and short 4th class pitches were encountered on each of the Peaks. A compilation of information from the Borneman/Lampbert, Dawson, and Roach Fourteeners guidebooks, along with tips from friends, helped assure efficient route finding. The Borneman/Lampbert guide descriptions were especially descriptive and helpful for these Fourteeners. It provided the only description of a window just below the summit that you pass through on Sunlight to cross over the ridge. From my experience, I'd recommend carrying a short section of rope and some pro on all of these Fourteeners to help ascend/descend some of the short, steep sections that will be encountered, especially if it rains and you end up dealing with wet rock and slippery moss.
Friday, Aug 25 I was fortunate and caught the 2:00 train out of Silverton. Officially the only train that stops at Needleton is the 3:30 train from Silverton, even though two earlier trains depart from Silverton to Durango. But, being early I was assigned to the 2:00 departing train. (The fare from Silverton is $30 round trip and one hour each way, with free parking near the offices. From Durango the fare is $45 with a three hour ride each way and paid parking.) With only the one hour train ride to Needleton, I was able to backpack in the six miles and 2,800 feet to a campsite at 11,400 feet by 7:30 and set up the tent just before dark. It poured rain for two hours during the backpack in, but the next three days were relatively free of bad weather.
Saturday, Aug 26 With wakeup call by the light of dawn around 6:10 AM, I was off to Eolus by 7:15. The trail climbs about a mile steeply alongside a series of waterfalls to Twin Lakes at 12,500 feet. The trail to Eolus is well worn and heads west on a long traverse from the south end of the Lakes around a large rock outcropping to the basin SE of Eolus. A series of ledges takes you to the saddle between Eolus and N. Eolus. I found the ridge and exposure just before the "Sidewalk in the Sky" especially difficult and clumsily worked my way over and alongside it to the Sidewalk, which was flat and easy to walk across. However, the short 25-30 foot long Sidewalk has significant exposure on both sides. (It's much easier and shorter than the Capital Peak Knife Edge.) The route continues to the summit with a series of traverses and short climbs. Cairns are everywhere. I followed some into 4th class climbing areas and had to retrace my steps to find an easier approach. After summiting Eolus around 10:30, it was not sane to try and do Sunlight and Windom the same day, so I recrossed the Sidewalk, traversed back around to the Eolus-N. Eolus ridge, and scrambled up to N. Eolus. On the descent, I was treated to two huge rockslides off the NE face, possibly triggered by the heavy rains the prior evening. The sound grew to a roar, almost like the wash from a jet engine. As the bounding rocks and slides hit the floor of the basin, a cloud of dust similar to an avalanche rose high into the air. The fragrance was the unmistakable scent created by crushed rock. After returning to the saddle, I dropped into the basin and crossed over to Glacier Point. The Point is directly above the Twin Lakes and provided unobscured views of Sunlight and Windom. The clear skies began to cloud up around 9:30 AM but only a few sprinkles fell during the entire day and evening. Only five other climbers were in the area all day.
Sunday, Aug 27 Again slogging up the same steep route to Twin Lakes, I followed the climbers trail NE and E into the wide basin below Sunlight and Windom. Roach's advice was to do Sunlight first since it was the more difficult of the two peaks, and it was an excellent plan. The route climbs on broken slopes and some loose scree to the saddle between Sunlight Spire and Sunlight Peak. (Later in the day, from Windom, it was apparent that this was the "Red Couloir" referred to in some of the guidebooks. During the climb up to the saddle, it wasn't evident that the soil and rock had a distinct red coloration.) From the saddle, the route follows a tortuous series of traverses and short climbing sections, often reversing direction, as you work your way across the face of Sunlight toward the West Side of the peak. The route comes to a three sided rock window which you pass through to the other side of the ridge. The route then continues to traverse below the summit. A 10-15 foot high difficult 4th class section bars further progress to the next ledge. I couldn't find an alternate route around the section and could not find handholds secure enough to commit to the stemming and high step moves required to ascend the pitch. Finally feeling desperate, I placed a 0.5 Camalot with carabiner in a crack above head height and was able to use the artificial handhold to grunt through the difficult section. (The descent was equally inelegant with an off-balance short slide and extended anxious stretch back down to the ledge below.) The register was on a "flat" section of rocks just below the summit. I considered the steep 15-20 foot friction climb up a smooth face that was required to ascend to just below the summit block (which indeed is a single, huge block of rock). Clouds had been building all morning, and the weather was threatening with thunder and rain evident several miles away to the NW. To climb to the top of the summit block I would have had to set up a self-belay and plan to rappel back down potentially wet rock. I decided that the view from the airy summit block (Roach describes is as only room for 2-3 butts!) just wasn't worth the time and risk. Plus, I hoped to continue on and summit Windom before being weathered off the mountains.
To try and save time and not drop back into the cirque below Sunlight and Windom, I did a high traverse from below the Sunlight Spire/Sunlight saddle across to the saddle between Windom and Peak 18. From the saddle, it's about 700 feet of scrambling up the boulders on the ridge to the summit. About 200 feet below the summit, the skies overhead darkened, the temperature dropped rapidly, and BB-sized hail began to fall. Being cautious not to seek shelter in an alcove or under rock where I would be exposed to ground currents from lightning, I huddled and hoped that the hail would quickly subside. After about 15 minutes, the skies began to lighten up again, and I hurried on to the summit. With thunder threatening, I quickly signed the register and began a quick descent. Later in the afternoon, it hailed twice again but lightning was never observed. Like the day before, the storms were quick moving and without local lightning, and I was able to summit both Sunlight and Windom. About 9 PM it rained hard for about 3 hours.
Monday, Aug 28 To be certain I would be at Needleton to catch the 10:45 AM train, I started breaking camp in the dark around 5:30 AM. The four hour backpack in was only three hours on the descent, and I arrived about an hour early. Ten backpackers had camped overnight on the other side of the tracks and also were happy to see the train arrive for our return trip to Silverton. I took the 4WD Alpine Loop from Silverton to Lake City (about two hours) and arrived back in Denver around 7 PM.
Sometime in September I'll make the pilgrimage to the top of Pikes Peak and celebrate completing the 54 Fourteeners with their "world famous" doughnuts. Maybe I can find a friend with a hitch that will drive slowly and short-rope me to the top! Right now, a ride back down also sounds great! Oh the joys of chasing Fourteeners! Happy trails!
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