The Long "Vacation"
(A Lot of Up and Down)

15-24 Aug 2007 - by T Colorado

Every now and then, it's nice to take a LONG backpacking and climbing trip. You know the kind ...you forget what the date is ... what day of the week it is ... it's a wonderful feeling. For me, it usually takes at least 4 or 5 days to transition to that level of pleasure. This particular LONG vacation was scheduled for last year and had to be postponed when I broke my foot early in the climbing season. We (me, my husband and our friend, Ron) left Denver on Wednesday early in the morning and took the beautiful drive down to Durango. On the way, at Alamosa, I took over the driving from Ron as he had never been in this part of the state before. We were soon in Durango, checked into our motel, and headed over to Steamworks Brewing for what has turned into our traditional pre-trip meal stop. They have a very yummy bleu cheese crusted flat iron steak (in a red wine and shallot reduction) that comes with garlic mashers and fresh green beans that is an absolute must-order menu item.

On Thursday, we went to Carver Brewing Company for our traditional pre-train breakfast and then drove over to the parking area for the narrow gauge train. Michael and I have ridden the train many times before, but this was Ron's first time. That's always a treat! Due to circumstances beyond our control, the train left later than scheduled (and had an unscheduled non-water related stop) before we were dropped off at the Needleton Bridge. So, we were not hiking until after 12:00 p.m.

Our big plan was to backpack up the No Name Creek drainage, camp somewhere near Jagged cabin, and climb some stuff in that basin. Then, we'd take a day to backpack from the No Name drainage, over Ruby Pass, clip the head of the Ruby Basin area, climb over an unnamed pass, descend below but stay high in the basin below North Eolus and Glacier Point, ascend Twin Thumbs Pass, and descend into Chicago Basin to climb stuff in that basin. Then, we'd descend the Needle Creek trail back down to the train. Bonnie was going to meet us in Chicago Basin on Monday to hook up for the last of the trip.

We shouldered our heavy packs and made our way along the Animas, soon coming to the dreaded "Watertank Hill" portion of the approach. We were soon at the top of the hill, gazing down on the infamous watertank, and made our way down the very steep trail to No Name Creek. I can see how this would be an undesirable experience if it were raining. Lucky for us, the rain held off until we were on good footing. The last three hours backpacking were spent in the continual rain (sometimes heavy, sometimes light), and we found ourselves setting up our tents in the rain, minutes from Jagged Cabin, as the light was fading.

Friday morning brought sketchy weather and we spent the day drying out gear, eating food, and gazing at the views of Knife Point and Gray Needle. The rainy weather reappeared that afternoon. We decided to get our packs ready for Saturday and climbing ... what our objective would be would depend upon the weather.

Saturday morning was overcast with bits of sun. As we made our way up the valley, the rain came again and we took some shelter in the trees to don our raingear. Once above treeline, we decided to go for Peak Six. From the high lake at around 12,200' at the head of the No Name drainage, we made our way north up steep grassy slopes and rock ledges to a lake at about 12,500' that sits in a high basin between Peak Five and Peak Six. We ascended the saddle between the two peaks and made our way up the ridge to Peak Six. The views were fantastic! We could see Jagged Pass (from where we'd attempt to climb Jagged Mountain), and to Ruby Pass (where we'd be backpacking in a couple of days). The stunning Grenadier and Needle Mountain range surrounded us and it was fun to name all the peaks we'd done over the years and show Ron what was yet to come in his climbing career. After awhile on the summit, we descended and were tempted to continue over to Peak Five. But weather concerns, and knowing we would need all of our gumption for Jagged tomorrow, we headed back down towards camp (finding a much better descent route, after cliffing out, than the ascent route was).

Sunday brought the best looking weather day so far and we were out of camp early making our way to Jagged Pass. The view from the pass was indeed intimidating and the closer we got to the mountain, the more complex the route appeared. After a few hours of climbing, belaying and route finding on sandy ledges and slated grassy patches, we came to a small saddle. We had to hunker down due to bad weather on more than one occasion, and took about a 20 minute break here in a downpour. Unfortunately, after continuing on our ascent, we came to our high point ... and, disappointingly enough, it was not the summit. Jagged Mountain has many ridge points, and we had climbed to the top of the wrong one! In all our years of climbing, we've never climbed a "non-summit". We've even climbed the wrong peak, but still were able to count the summit (we had attempted Grizzly Peak in this area and ended up on McCauley Peak quite a few years back). We were close to the actual summit of Jagged, but alas, this mountain does not allow for route finding mistakes such as this as it is a classic example of "you can't get there from here". We descended down, dodging more weather, rappelling and downclimbing and soon came to the base of the face. Upon reflection, we know where we went wrong on this complex mountain. That certainly doesn't make the failure any less palatable. But, we'll be back next year to climb Jagged Mountain. We made our way back to the pass, descended back to our camp and discussed the big day to come tomorrow.

Monday dawned a cloudless day ... and it stayed that way all day long. Boy, did we need it. We packed up and left our camp at 9:00 a.m., and arrived at our Chicago Basin camp at 8:00 p.m. The initial ascent to Ruby Pass was up, up, up. Ruby Pass is a beautiful pass located between Monitor Peak and Peak 12. We followed climber's paths and game trails for the most part, and then grassy slopes to the pass at over 13,000'. After taking a break, we descended and contoured a bit southeast on scree and sandy slopes below Peak 12 to an unnamed lake that sits high in Ruby Basin at about 12,600'. This is a beautiful spot and we stopped for lunch and to filter some water for whatever was to come. When I had scoped out this traverse (from No Name to Chicago Basin), I could find little helpful information regarding the conditions. So, each turn and each pass brought us all to a higher sense of clarification. The hike up to the unnamed 13,000' pass between Peak 12 and North Eolus was a sidehilling scree fest and we soon dropped down to get better footing as we headed up. Once at this pass, we could see our next objective ... Twin Thumbs Pass. But, the views were a bit discouraging. We would need to lose several hundred feet of elevation in order to bypass some cliffs and hard snow/ice (we didn't have the luxury of ice axes on this trip). We also could not see all the way across this traverse did not know how much elevation we would have to lose before beginning the long slog back up to Twin Thumbs Pass (13,200'). As we traversed below North Eolus and Glacier Point, the route became more apparent (there's no trail) and sooner than we knew, we were at the base of a long scree and talus slope leading up to the pass. The actual pass looked a bit unfriendly at this point. Unfortunately, it would prove to be just that. We all assumed the typical ascent technique that is associated with scree slopes of two steps forward and three steps back. With heavy packs, this process was difficult (after already climbing two passes that day) to say the least and our stamina was waning. Once we got about 60 feet below the pass, the crappy pass unfolded before us. The north side of Twin Thumbs Pass is an exposed, loose, friction type of setting ... not conducive for me with a big pack on. My husband was kind enough to climb it, drop his pack, downclimb to me, and take my pack up while I "spider-manned" my way up it. Ron, to his credit, used a mixture of profanity and spiderman technique. Once at the pass, it was time for a LONG break. Boy, were we glad to be there or what! It had been a long day, both physically, but also mentally with so many unknowns. The view down to Twin Lakes, and over to the Sunlight/Windom basin was beautiful. As the sun got lower in the sky, we made our way down the trail where Bonnie was waiting with our campsite selected. And, she'd brought in beer (DPA's)! That was one of the best beers I've ever had! hahaha.

On Tuesday, I took the day off. Our tent had been set up on a slope the night before and needed to be moved ... plus, I wanted to take a break (or shall I say my body wanted to take a break). So, since Ron and Bonnie were there to get the 14'ers done in Chicago Basin, Michael headed up with them and they did Eolus (and North Eolus). I stayed around camp, chatted with the goats, aired out sleeping bags, moved the tent, filtered water, unsuccessfully attempted completing some crossword puzzles and watched the hordes of people heading up the trails in the basin. After not seeing a soul for 4-1/2 days in the No Name drainage, the throngs were an entertaining sight for the eyes. The weather was great that day (as it was the day before).

Wednesday brought another great weather day, and all four of us climbed up to the Twin Lakes basin, and then on to Windom. It was more fun that I remembered from the last time (this was my 3rd time up this one and Michael's 4th time). After photos and food, we descended and traversed towards the large snow patch located at saddle between Windom and Sunlight. There were many cairns and paths to follow. Once at the snow, Michael boot skied and Ron, Bonnie and I glissaded down the snow to continue the traverse on talus to the start of the climb up to Sunlight. We hit the red saddle, contoured along, up and through all the obstacles, and soon were at the benchmark and register. Michael climbed to the "actual summit" (as he did the last time). Bonnie got up to the second large rock, but could not do the "big step across". Ron and I were satisfied with photographing them both. hahaha. Along the way, we'd picked up a straggler by the name of Brian who is going to the U of N (he's a husker fan unfortunately ... hehehe). A nice kid though, and we had a blast climbing with him (as he did with us). We took our time descending, taking in the views and stopping to filter more water and eat food on the way down. It's probably the last time Michael and I will be in that basin. It's such a special place.

On Thursday, we all got up, hiked up the Columbine Pass trail a ways, and made the turn off to climb Jupiter Mountain. That is such a great summit! It has a wonderful ridge finish and the views are spectacular. Bonnie was feeling a bit of altitude sickness and headed down quickly, but the three of us reluctantly and with deliberate pause took our time in order to savor the last hours that we would have on this wonderful adventure.

When I spend such a long time in the backcountry, I find that all I need is a shower, a laundromat, and a grocery trip and I'm ready for more. Life is reduced to basic principles in the mountains. Success and failure can be abrupt realities. I experienced much consternation over the failure on Jagged ... it's not an emotion I deal with easily. It eats away at me. But, I must confess we did have "a grand day" that day. And, the climb was challenging ... in fact, I bet we find out next year that our incorrect route this year was more difficult than the correct route will end up being! Wouldn't that be a hoot!

Friday's backpack out was uneventful. We left early enough to have time to do a quick shower and change of clothes before boarding the train. There weren't many of us waiting for the train ... I think there were only six of us. The hot dog and beer on the ride back were delicious, and the discussions with the little old ladies and children were entertaining. All in all, it was a great vacation with much success and camaraderie. Happy Trails!


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