Mount Eolus (4292m), Sunlight Peak (4285m) and Windom Peak (4292m) are the most remote of Colorado’s fourteeners. These wild, rugged peaks lie buried in the heart of the Weminuche Wilderness in the San Juans. No matter how you approach these peaks, it will be a major undertaking.
A narrow gauged railway can save you from some walking, but I wanted to do it the hard way. I carried four days of supplies in my backpack when I started the long hike from Purgatory to Highcamp.
Day 1 (2-Sep-2005):
I woke up in a National Forest Campground close to the Purgatory Trailhead. After breakfast I drove the few kilometres to Purgatory Trailhead, which is situated approx 35 kilometres north of Durango on US 550. The parking lot is across the Purgatory Ski Area on the east side of US 550. The elevation here is 2670 metres. There were 10 cars and only one slot left for my car. I parked my car and started to arrange my stuff. I expected to be 3-4 days in the wilderness, so I had to bring my tent, sleeping bag, stove, food etc. After I had packed all my stuff into the backpack, I tested it on my back. Yes it was heavy, but I didn’t think it would cause any problems walking 23 kilometres to high camp in Chicago Basin. One other guy at the parking lot said I was out of my mind. To hike 23 kilometres in one day and gain 1400 metres in elevation with a heavy backpack is crazy, he said. He suggested that I should go to Needleton the first day, and Chicago Basin the next day. I did not want to offend him, so I said that I probably would do so. I left the parking lot and started to walk at 08:00 certainly aiming to reach Chicago Basin later in the day.
First I descended to a river in the Cascade Creek and lost 250 metres in elevation. Then I continued along this river, but the trail seemed to go up and down all the time to avoid the steep riverside. After 3-4 kilometres the trail started to go high above the river valley, before it descended into a new valley, the Animas River Valley. It had taken me 1,5 hours to walk the 6 kilometres to the bridge over Animas River. More time than expected, but I had stopped up several times to adjust my backpack.
Then I walked over the solid bridge, crossed the narrow gauged railway and continued up on the east side of the Animas River. The trail was mostly fine, but there were some short stretches of “bushwhacking”. I guess that there simply is too little hiking traffic on the trail in order to keep the fast growing bushes away. It seems like 98% of the hikers/climbers take the train instead of hiking into Needleton, leaving me and the other Purgatory trekkers to solitude. I did not see any people between Purgatory and Needleton, except for a short moment when the old Durango-Silverton train passed me. The tourists waved to me and looked rather surprised to see a human being in the desolate valley. They probably expected to see a lot of bears, but not a human being.
It took me less than two hours to walk the 8 kilometres from the Animas Bridge to the trail junction in Needle Creek. This is were the Purgatory trail and the Needleton trail merge into one lane up Needle Creek and into the Chicago Basin, and were one meets the masses of hikers and climbers who recently stepped off the train in Needleton. Well, at least I met some people on their way up or down Chicago Basin.
High Camp in Chicago Basin
From the trail junction it was 9 kilometres and approx 900 metres gain of elevation before I reached the upper part of Chicago Basin 14:30. I had to take shelter several times during the last few kilometres because of heavy raining, but still I managed to do this in 2,5 hours. It had been a rather strenuous day, but I was very satisfied to complete the hike in one day. It had taken me 6,5 hours including breaks. Not crazy at all.
There were a lot of other campers up in Chicago Basin, but I found myself a nice campsite just below the tree line. I had no close neighbours the first evening and night, being more than 300 metres away from any other campers. I ate some bread and rested. Later in the evening I planned to make myself a dinner, but I had forgotten matchsticks. Damn. More bread and then sleep. During the night I woke up several times, because of some larger animals making noises outside of my tent. It could have been an elk, mountain goat, fox, or a bear. I checked where my pepper spray was before I went back to sleep. Later in the night there were screams from an animal, and the echo was really terrifying. I felt immediately sorry for the deer or elk that a predator had killed just a moment ago. But I went back to sleep again. This was certainly a night in the wilderness.
Day 2 (3-Sep-2005):
Mount Eolus (4292)
I woke up at 06:15 and felt very good, despite of all the load carrying I had done yesterday. Then I went out of the tent and grabbed my bag of food, which hung on a fixed rope between two trees nearby. Storing the food this way, makes it less likely that a bear will tear down your tent in search for food. Bears have a great taste for sugar and candies; so don’t even think about keeping your marshmallows in the tent while sleeping. Bears can smell it from a long distance.
I started to walk at 07:00 hoping that this would give me sufficient time to climb all tree peaks before the thunderstorms turns life into a nightmare in higher altitude. Bearing in mind that I had three peaks on my schedule, I started in good pace and got in front of a girl who asked me if I was planning to do Sunlight Peak. Later, I said. She was planning to take her dogs to Sunlight Peak. No chance that you are able to haul your dogs to the summit, I said. But I wished her good luck. She was pretty as well, but I had other “objectives” on my mind.
I believed that I was in front of everybody, as I hiked my way up the steep trail to Twin Lakes. When I arrived these beautiful lakes at 3750 metres, I started to traverse northwest into the small basin under Eolus’ steep east face. Further down I could see someone else chasing my position. I speeded up and after that I had no competition at all. Then I did an ascending traverse on a ledge to the right, and reached a levelled area between Eolus and Glacier Point. I approached a huge slab and I had to get rid of my poles before I climbed a crack in the middle of this slab (class 3) to reach a saddle on Eolus’ northeast ridge. From here it was stunning view of the remaining route. I walked along the narrow ridge and crossed a famous stretch of ridge called the Catwalk. I expected this section to be very narrow and exposed (according to my guidebook), and I was a little bit disappointed to find out that this had been a big overstatement. I even started to doubt that this was the catwalk.
Beyond the catwalk I met another guy coming down from Eolus. I noticed that he had traversed well below the ridge on the east side. For a moment I considered to climb directly up the steep part of the ridge, but I abandoned the idea because of time constraints. Thus I started to traverse on ledges below the ridge. There are a lot of possibilities here, and most of them are class 3 or lower. At one occasion I found myself below a much harder pitch, but I simply went back 10 metres and found another way. I did not find any distinct route up here, and the cairns seemed to be scattered around everywhere. But as I said there are a lot of possibilities here, so it was not a problem to find a feasible route.
I reached the summit 08:40 and I spent at least 20 minutes there. I rarely see this kind of panorama from a summit, a spectacular view in all directions. I could see pinnacles and gendarmes everywhere, and most certainly a lot of challenging 13000 feet peaks in the beautiful wilderness.
When I returned to the catwalk, I had to bypass several people on the narrow ridge. Someone asked me if this was the most exposed section, but I said it was more exposed on some of the ledges further up. One of them was too frightened to proceed so he simply turned around. Whether that was a decision based on my last comment or something else, I don’t know. But I think that those persons, who are not even comfortable on the moderate exposed catwalk, certainly have picked the wrong peak.
Sunlight Peak (4285)
I picked up my poles below the slab, and continued down to Twin Lakes. I spent some minutes here to eat my food while I glanced at Sunlight Peak, which created a beautiful reflection on the lake’s surface. Then I continued on a good trail into the high basin between Sunlight and Windom. Here I walked up the south slopes, first on talus then scree, and aimed for the saddle between Sunlight Peak and the imposing Sunlight Spire. If the latter peak had been 5 feet higher it would be Colorado’s hardest fourteener. The last stretch up to the saddle was on very loose scree, causing a lot of erosion.
Below the saddle I met the pretty girl and her two dogs. She had reached the true summit but not the dogs. Nevertheless a good try. I continued to the saddle and after that on ledges below the ridge (class 3) to avoid the pinnacles. Then I reached an area where the south slopes joins the west ridge route. I went left (west) and climbed steep up a 3-meter broken rockband (class 3) and then through an interesting tunnel to reach the final summit ridge of Sunlight Peak.
I walked the few last metres of ridge before I stood beneath the famous and very exposed crux of the route (class 4). Many souls have elected to stop here, but this is not the summit. The east side of the 9 metres high summit block is easier (class 4) but more exposed than the slab on the south side (class 5). I took of my backpack and decided to climb the slab (class 5). There were no cracks in the slab, but the friction was sufficient to get my worn out boots to the top. I had finally reached the true summit at 11:05. No belays needed, this was more like an easy type of bouldering, but without crash pad. I climbed the same way down again, keeping in mind that if I started to slide down the slab, it would certainly not kill me. But a crash-pad would indeed have been perfect to prevent minor injuries J
When I sat down and ate a banana below the summit block, I saw two other guys approaching me. This was a good opportunity for me to get a photo of me on the top. So I handed over the camera and started to climb up the block again. Now I decided to take the more exposed class 4 move, simply to get some variation. I scrambled up the block’s east end (class 3), and then I did the final, committing, class 4 move that required me to step across and exposed gap, and then pull myself up onto the rounded, smooth block. As I straddled the gap, I could peer down the north face between my legs. They took a photo of me sitting on the top, before I down climbed the slab again.
The two guys were from Denver and had climbed approx 30 fourteeners in the past. One of them tried to do the class 4 route on the summit block, and it took an awful lot of time before he dared to do the committing move. He needed support from his friend to get down again. His friend also did an attempt, but he never reached the true summit. I left them some few minutes later, because I was in a hurry to do Windom Peak as well before the thunderstorm started. See you on Windom, they said.
Windom Peak (4292)
I walked down the south slopes and after a while I was standing in the basin between Sunlight and Windom, the elevation being approx 3950 metres. Then I started to traverse beneath Windom’s northwest face in order to reach the west ridge. The dark clouds were starting to scare me as I scrambled up the west ridge. Higher up I followed the ridge directly (class 3) instead of the trail that went somewhat below the ridge (class 2+). I reached the summit at 12:15 e.g. past the deadline (noon). It started to rain during my 10 minutes break on the top, and I decided to get off the mountain as quick as possible. Further down I met the Denver guys, and I said it was at least 20 minutes to the summit. Ten minutes later everything turned into hell. It was raining, snowing and lightning around me. I could see some other people turning around further down. I don’t know if the Denver guys turned around so close to the summit, but I didn’t envy them being up there.
I managed to get down to Twin Lakes on the very slippery rocks, and I was wet and cold as I proceeded down to my tent. Eventually it stopped raining, nevertheless I was glad to crawl into my tent and get some rest. The time was 13:35 and I had walked for almost 7 hours, including rest stops.
Vodka in the Evening
Later in the afternoon I noticed that I had got some neighbours. They were talking German. I had an urgent need to get some matchsticks in order to fire up my stove and get myself a decent dinner. So I walked over to them and kindly asked them if they had some matchsticks. Yes, they said. After some initial chatting, they kindly invited me over for vodka in the evening.
I returned to my own tent and made myself a good dinner (chicken with rice). Later I joined the German couple from Berlin. Franz and Michelle were driving around in the states for 3 weeks, including Arizona, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. Not primarily to climb mountains, but that too whenever there was an opportunity. We drank a lot of vodka and I really enjoyed talking to them. We talked for maybe 4-5 hours before it was bedtime. While they were aiming for an early start to do Sunlight and maybe Windom, I was planning to sleep until 8 or 9 in the morning. I had no peaks on my schedule, only plain walking back to Purgatory (23 kilometres). So I had plenty of time tomorrow.
Day 3 (4-Sep-2005):
Returning to Purgatory
I woke up several times during the night because of heavy raining and frequent lightning. I knew that when it was raining down here, it was probably snowing on the peaks, so I did not envy those who were heading up early in the morning.
The raining did not stop before 8 o’clock in the morning. When I looked out I could see that the higher peaks had turned into white giants. It was snow down to 4000 metres. I was not surprised to see Franz and Michelle still in camp. They were 2 hours delayed, and finally set off 08:30. I wished them good luck.
I was very happy to be safe below tree line for the whole day, because I had lost all trust in the weather here in the San Juan Mountains. I’m well used to thunderstorms in the afternoon, but not how they operate during night and even before noon here in the San Juans.
I packed my stuff into the backpack, including my wet tent, and started to walk 09:05
The hike back to Purgatory was uneventful but still enjoying. First 9 kilometres to the trail junction above Needleton, then 8 kilometres along he Animas River and finally the 6 last kilometres to Purgatory. The last leg was the most demanding one, because I gained more than 400 metres of elevation here. I did the 23 km hike in 6 hours and 15 minutes. The rain poured down the last few kilometres, so I was rather wet when I arrived my car at 15:20. Half an hour later I was on the road again. Next stop? Telluride.
(I’m referring to the YDS class rating system throughout this article)