Eolus, Windom and Sunlight

3-4 Sep 2000 - by Steve Bremner

After returning to my truck from El Diente around 5:30 P.M. on Sep 2nd, our next problem to solve was how to get in the Chicago Basin trio of fourteeners, Eolus, Windom, and Sunlight before the end of the Labor Day weekend. The drive back to Colorado Springs would be six hours plus, the backpack in to Chicago Basin was 15 miles one way, on top of that there were three fourteeners to go up. We had put off climbing these fourteeners because they are so remote. Now that we had come all this way we wanted to get them done.

On the way towards the Purgatory trailhead we stopped in the "True Grit Cafe"--one of Ridgway's claims to fame is having been the locale for the filming of the John Wayne movie "True Grit". We went there on the recommendation of a local. I was disappointed though with the Vegetable Stir Fry. A portly gentleman sporting a cowboy hat sitting next to us at the counter tried to start a conversation, "Did you know there are more than 20 mountains over 12,000 feet in Colorado? I counted them on the map." Then later, "I get up at 5 A.M. every morning, by 6:30 I have my breakfast steak and by noon by golly I'm hungry again." By the looks of him he would be well off doing something about that hunger of his.

Leaving Ridgway less fortified than I had hoped for we headed south on highway 550. The fifteen mile backpack (in and out) was nagging at me. I didn't so much mind fifteen miles in, but I knew that the hike out would be agony. Normally climbers take the Durango-Silverton train to Needleton cutting a good ten miles off the backpack from the road. The train doesn't allow dogs though and with Sam the Wolfdog along we were stuck with the long backpack.

Or were we? As we drove down the highway we began to brainstorm. "How about we drive to Durango, get a hotel, and in the morning Jonathan, you take the train to Needleton with our packs, and I run the trail with Sam to Needleton. I can do it in 2 hours--about the same time as the train will take!" Great plan! Driving in to Durango we started seeing that all the hotels and motels had NO VACANCY signs up, also a propensity of motorcycles parked in each of their parking lots. Further in to town we saw the banners, "Welcome, Iron Horse Bikers!". The entire town was filled with bikers. Not a hotel room for miles. Not to worry, we headed out of town to the National Forest, pulled the truck over to the side of the road and under clear skies inflated a mattress in the back and slept out under the stars. Cheaper and much less complicated besides.

Next morning we were fortunate to get a spot on the train leaving at 8:15 A.M. for Jonathan and after I grabbed some Java and a croissant I drove up to the Purgatory Trailhead. The trail started off by immediately dropping about 800' in elevation over a mile or so. Not a very propitious beginning, not to mention ending the next day! A cursory look at the trail on the topo map had led us to believe the trail was "flat". It was not flat. Instead of following the river proper the trail climbed high above the river before returning to its lower levels twice before finally reaching the Animas River 3.7 miles later. This section of the trail had taken me 45 minutes. Now I would spend the next twenty minutes trying to find where the trail continued. Finding the bridge over the river took ten minutes as the trail suddenly showed three alternatives, none marked in any way. I took the most well-worn trail and after that soon disappeared tried the next well-worn trail. Finally I just hiked on down to the river and looked for the bridge.

After crossing the bridge there was a sign saying, "Cascade Wye" and pointing right. With no other alternative sign I assumed this must be the right way. Wrong again. Wandering on down the non-trail I soon came on railroad tracks that dead-ended by a large enclosed gazebo, picnic area. I guess this was "Cascade". The tracks led out to the main tracks and after orienting myself with map and compass I realized if I just hiked on the tracks I would run into the correct trail. This I verified with a camper I noticed approaching. He told me "hike on down the tracks and just before crossing the river the trail goes to the right, it's an old wagon road. It's six miles to Needleton from there." Well, I had thought it was five according to the guide book. Later when I reached the junction it read seven miles back to Cascade. I think six miles is about right as it took me about an hour to run the distance.

About a mile past the bridge we came on a cabin by the river to our left. Right about that time the train went noisily by tooting its whistle and blowing out lots of coal dust--not moving very quickly at all. In fact Sam and I at a healthy clip almost held our ground. I waved, but Jonathan wasn't looking I later learned. The train was due to Needleton at 10:50 and I calculated that by the time Jonathan had retrieved the packs and hiked out to the trail junction it would be 11:20. This was now my "goal time". I made it to the junction at 11:19, 30 seconds before Jonathan arrived!! We didn't waste time, quickly getting under way it took us just under two hours on the excellent trail to reach our camp site as high as you can go before reaching the closed area. Above timber line is closed for obvious preservation reasons.

After setting up the tent and hanging our food we were moving up to the peaks just after 2 P.M. We wondered if we might be able to bag all three that same day. We could have if not for difficulties with Sam the Wolfdog.

This is wilderness, far from the sound of a car on the highway. For this reason it is a very popular place. We saw many hikers and climbers, and at least three rangers. As we hiked up to Twin Lakes we met someone coming down saying, "Is that Sam the Wolfdog?!" "You must be Steve, and Jonathan". It was John Prater who had read some of my trip reports and with whom I had corresponded by email. He was coming down from doing all three in eight hours. A darn good time. This was when we first thought we had a good shot at getting them all done that day.

Our first peak would be Eolus. After reaching Twin Lakes in half an hour from camp we moved left on the climber's trail ascending into the basin below Eolus. The cairn-marked route continues to a spine between North Eolus, a 14,000 foot subpeak of Eolus and Eolus proper. We continued to follow cairns too far--past the spine and into the next high basin with a small alpine lake. The correct course is to ascend the spine to the saddle between N. Eolus and Eolus. Not taking time to consult maps or compass we ended up to the right of N. Eolus, thinking it was Eolus Jonathan went up it. Finding no register he yelled back down to me that Eolus must be the peak far to the right. I was having troubles getting Sam to go up the class three rock. He was spooked from our off-route ascent of El Diente the day before and would have none of anything of difficulty. I coaxed him along skirting the summit of N. Eolus and aimed for the saddle and the famed "cat walk", a flat two-foot wide ridge walk with exposure to either side connecting N. Eolus to Eolus. I have to say that it was a "cake walk", really not a big deal at all. For Sam though it was the last straw. He moved down the mountain. Rather than lose 300 feet elevation to retrieve him at this point I moved up the mountain to join Jonathan on the summit around 4:30. We quickly moved on down the mountain returning to Twin Lakes around 5:15.

Cognizant of dark fall at 8 P.M. we decided to go up Windom. As we made our ascent we tried to figure out if it were possible to get Sunlight as well. Finally we decided that if we were on top of Windom at 6:30 it was a go. We had our headlamps and so long as we were off the mountain proper we would have no problem reaching our camp in the dark.

Windom by the standard route calls for moving up to basin in between Sunlight and Windom, them ascending the saddle between Windom and point 18, a 13,000+ subpeak. From there to Windom's summit is blocky bouldering, class 2+ stuff, irritating enough for a human, but most definitely not to Sam's liking. I was determined that he was going up this one though. When he retreated 200 feet below me I went down with the leash to encourage him along. In the meantime Jonathan had reached the summit at our agreed on time of 6:30 for a try at Sunlight. It was 6:45 though by the time I had pulled the reluctant Sam to the top, though and we prudently decided to leave Sunlight to the next day. I didn't want to be on any class 4 rock after the lights went out. The lights did go out after we passed Twin Lakes on our way back to the tent and it got really dark--no moon.

Next morning we were on the trail to Sunlight hiking by 5:50 A.M. It was dark until about 6:15, so we were most of the way up to Twin Lakes before we took off our headlamps. Strangely we didn't see any climbers at all until we were returning from Sunlight well below Twin Lakes and after 8 A.M. So much for an early start to avoid afternoon storms.

We chose the standard "south slopes" route because of Sam the Wolfdog. To the alcove 30 feet below the summit was easy enough for him. Then we tried to coax him up a pretty tricky move to the east side of the summit block. Reluctantly he went for it, but that was all. He downclimbed rapidly and I decided to let him claim credit for going to the alcove. Jonathan and I continued on the supposedly "class 3" ascent to the final class 4 move to the summit. Well, if that's class 3....I don't know what! Jonathan made his way with difficulty up to the final ledge. When he offered me a belay on my short static rope I keep for Sam I gratefully accepted. The final class 4 move to the summit was easy after that. Looking down from the summit I asked Jonathan how he had descended. When he said he jumped to a 2X2 foot square block with exposure all around I said "you are a brave man!". Then when I considered the alternatives I did it too. Exhilarating!

The descent was nonchalant. We were exhilarated and inclined to savor the moment--in no hurry. Vaguely we thought we might make the 12:20 train to Silverton, but if not, then not. We could backpack all the way out to Purgatory if need be. Leisurely breaking camp we started down the trail around 10:30, at first just ambling along with no sense of urgency.

Around 11:30 we came on a wide wagon road section of trail with a nice downhill slant. I started to run. It was easy. We continued to run the next forty-five minutes--fast--- and with backpacks (light though--we both scrimp on any extra weight), eventually arriving at the train stop with 4 minutes to spare before the last train to Silverton! As Jonathan flagged the train down I quickly retrieved my key and hydro pack for the run back to my truck. This time would take me half an hour longer than the run in...the final 800' elevation gain was killer.

I met Jonathan in Silverton around 4 P.M. and we made it back to the Springs at the reasonable hour of 10:00 that night. A satisfying and successful three-day weekend of 14 ascents. Jonathan has 52 of the 54 14ers now completed. I have 50 and Sam the Wolfdog has 48. He has to go back though for Eolus!! We both have to go back for Mt Wilson.

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