14ers in Colorado: Chicago Basin
This past August, I took on one of my dream climbing trips in southwest Colorado. We headed to a cluster of 14,000-foot peaks called the Windom Group, tucked in the San Juan Mountain Range. Wild and rugged, these 14er summits include Windom, Sunlight, Mount Eolus and North Eolus, which stretch up to 14,087 feet into the blue.
These slopes are accessed from Chicago Basin, a middle-of-Narnia mountain bowl with unremitting waterfalls and crystal high-mountain lakes. Our plan was to set up camp at tree line and day hike up to Twin Lakes, then choose the route that leads west to Mount Eolus and North Eolus, or east to Windom and Sunlight.
But first, we had to backpack up from Needleton Trailhead, where hikers are dropped off by the Durango-Silverton train. We took the rail on a Monday, gave ourselves two days to summit 14ers, and packed out to the train’s pick-up that Thursday. By the end, the trip proved to be one of the most challenging, dynamic and fulfilling adventures I’ve had yet.
Durango Silverton Train
With friends Diana and Jamie, I rode the train southbound from Silverton to Needleton Trailhead at 8,212 feet. The backpack up to Chicago Basin was about seven miles with 3,000 feet of elevation gain.
Once there, we had our pick from dozens of private and scenic campsites with access to nearby flowing water. The basin’s mountain goat families are plentiful and friendly, but we gave them respect them by maintaining our distance, and remembering to hang up our food.
We woke up at 4:45 a.m. to start our climb up Mount Eolus and North Eolus peaks. The approach to the Twin Lakes trail sign was muggy and warm, even pre-dawn. I stripped off my rain jacket, fleece and t-shirt, and pushed forward in a synthetic tank, it was so humid.
We started our steep ascent as the streams and pine trees began to light up, but the alpine glow we expected never showed. Instead, a wave of nimbus clouds that almost looked painted on the sky rolled our direction, over the basin’s southern threshold.
“Whoa! Those look so cool!” we said to each other, then swapped worried glances. “But…they almost always mean weather.” At 6 a.m., storm clouds aren’t a fortuitous sign.
However, we didn’t mind hiking in the fog or precipitation. We carried the appropriate gear and food for those conditions, so with no lightning or thunder, we decided to press on.
We veered west at Twin Lakes and once we reached the ramp, we slid on our helmets just as fat flakes began to fall—the first snow of the season.
Submerged in fog, our visibility only five feet in any direction, we steadily made our way up to the green gully, where the flurries transformed into tiny pellets.
We used our elbows, fists and knees to climb up the narrow slot. Once at the notch, we went toward Mount Eolus on the “catwalk;” an infamous, spiny ridgeline that plunges thousands of feet in either direction. The drop offs were hidden by the clouds, which made it easier to stomach.
Once crossed, the catwalk leads to the final face, about 250 feet of class 3 climbing to reach the summit—my favorite section of the entire trip! I love getting into a climbing rhythm that demands concentration but doesn’t require ropes.
Completely veiled, the air was damp but temperatures hadn’t dropped. When we reached the summit, the other side of the ridge was engulfed in sunshine. As we stood there, the rays burned off the remaining clouds, and we caught a panoramic view in every direction before we hiked down under the sun.
This hike (and the following day’s trip up Windom and Sunlight) is a prime example of how important it is to communicate with your group. We shared our concerns, weighed the options and made safe decisions. However, we were ready to turn around at any moment if a risk presented itself. In the end, the weather took a turn for the better and we couldn’t have been happier to have snagged both the summits of Mount Eolus and North Eolus.
When you purchase your Durango Silverton train ticket, inquire about the backpacker special. This summer we were able to buy our tickets at a discounted price, with no carry-on backpack fee and free parking included. (Round trip, our tickets cost $72 each.) You can depart from either end, Durango or Silverton.
We took off from Silverton because we wanted to explore the town and spend time with local friends. If you have time, grab a brew and lunch at Avalanche Brewing Company. The Turkey sandwich with avocado and a side bowl of the white bean chicken chili hit the spot after our hike out.