The Team: Dominic, Dwight, Greg & I
Peaks Climbed: Sunlight Peak, Windom Peak, Mount Eolus & Jupiter Mountain
RT Approach from Cascade: 24 miles & 4,300 feet
RT Climbing from camp in Chicago Basin: 17 miles & 9,900 feet
The train slowly creeps to a start in downtown Durango as the sun reaches its highest zenith of the year over the South Pole. How many other passengers realize what has just happened do you suppose? Doubly excited yet a bit nervous I sit quietly smiling and trying to wrap my head around our seeming good fortune. All year I've been tormented by the reality that making an attempt at the Chicago Basin 14ers this season would require a complete and virtually unrealistic alignment of the stars. The mountains certainly don't abide by our petty schedules, yet I'd only have one shot during the last week of December due to work. My hopes and expectations virtually nil, I thought more than once about just retiring from the winter 14er rat race for good. But now, by some miracle, we're off to Cascade staring at a long term bluebird forecast! Can this actually be happening?
Staying safe and somewhat comfortable in a remote and rugged part of Colorado's high country for an entire week in winter requires advance planning; simply gathering supplies and packing seems to take days. We go ultra-conservative with our food and fuel rations and bring enough technical gear to ensure victory over any potential rocky obstacle. When all is said and done our packs range from a burdensome 45 to 55 pounds each. If there's not enough snow to snowshoe along the Animas I'm going to cry.
We arrive in Cascade around noon, stash some rewards for our return, and shoulder our beasts while the rest of the tourists enjoy their picnic lunches and cast curious stares.
Just minutes after beginning our march away from civilization a major decision point is reached. The Animas River is a big one, and a dangerous one, and it can generally only be crossed safely by bridge. To reach Needle Creek six miles upstream on the south side we have two options:
Cross the rail bridge at Cascade, walk the railroad tracks to
Needleton, re-cross via the foot bridge at Needleton, and backtrack a
mile on the
2) Remain on the south side of the river and try to follow the trail (more effort, and likely impossible in some conditions). This saves ~2 miles round trip.
The trail is covered with a near perfect amount of snow, enough to warrant snowshoes but not enough to require much extra effort. The decision is an easy one today. We settle in for a slow grind, taking comfort in only the fact that although the suffering may be intense, it'll at least be brief today. The sun sets early on the shortest day of the year.
After turning the corner into Needle Creek my back is cringing at the thought of going any further but we persevere for a mile more. Trail work begins in earnest but its nothing to write home about. In fading light we stomp out a platform mid trail at 8,800 feet and call it home for the night.
Somehow packing up camp in 4 degrees doesn't feel all that awful and we're bearing our burdens by 8am. Constructing a trench with this sort of load is certainly grueling but I can't help imaging how much worse this really could be. Hour after hour ticks by and Needle Creek remains a very cold place; its not until noon that the first rays of sun fall on us and a true break can be enjoyed.
In stark contrast, near the six hour mark we're roasting in the snowy open meadows of Chicago Basin. We drop our packs next to a big pine tree at 11,000 feet and rejoice in the fact that our days of serving as mules are temporarily over. Camp is established and our aching bodies allowed a brief respite.
The sun dropping behind Aztec Mountain prompts us to finally get busy with our intended recon and track building mission to upper Chicago Basin. More or less following the summer route, we manage 700 vertical feet before the sun sets. Satisfied with what we can see, we retreat back to camp for the night.
Today's plan is to discover what Sunlight & Windom have in store and to climb one or both of them depending on conditions. Windom has the reputation of being quite reasonable in winter and we don't expect it to put up much of a fight today. Sunlight, however, is a different animal. An ascent requires confronting its its steep, blanketed south slopes head on; snow conditions must be favorable for a reasonably safe attempt.
We're walking by 5.30am and cruise the track to its end where last night's strenuous wallow through sugary willows a bit west of the summer trail resumes. Dominic beats the worst of what remains into submission and then easier ground leads us in an ascending traverse east to Twin Lakes basin. We occasionally trigger moderate settling under foot but the snow cover is thin enough that choosing a safe line isn't rocket science.
Twin Lakes are buried under snow and with a cold wind blowing we waste little time in continuing up into the basin between Sunlight and Windom. Which one will it be?
Sunlight's invite to join him in basking in the morning sun is just too good to pass up; at 13,200 ft we veer north to assess conditions on the south face. The snow is variable, but mostly unconsolidated and generally unhelpful. Nevertheless, it feels quite happy staying put and that's about as much as one can hope for this time of year.
We follow some variation of the summer route, initially climbing straight up the south slopes toward the prominent notch in the southeast ridge.
Just short of the notch we begin a long traverse west across the south face below fifth class rock.
The terrain becomes more and more scrambly as we go, but pockets of deep snow encourage us to keep our snowshoes on and deal with the occasional awkwardness.
At the first reasonable opportunity we stop traversing and climb straight up toward the ridge crest.
We finally ditch the shoes at 13,900 feet when the climbing becomes more difficult. Somewhat challenging but fun and mostly lighthearted scrambling brings us back to the ridge crest.
To dodge the difficulties of the ridge once again we execute a second, somewhat shorter, westerly traverse under the summit area.
Cairns tell us we are on route, and there is no mistaking the rabbit hole when we find it. Today it serves as a conduit for an arctic blast.
The unmistakable summit boulders pop into view and Dominic and Greg race to the top.
Last time I opted for the friction finish; I've never actually done the famous step across move before. I slip on my harness and short clip myself into a rope tied around a boulder before making the moves.... just in case. Without much ado Dwight takes his turn and we retreat a few minutes down the summit ridge for a more sheltered break.
Its just past 11am and Dominic, Greg and I naturally have our sights set on Windom. Dwight, on the other hand, is feeling beat from the difficult, multi-day approach and opts to make a more casual descent and leisurely return to camp. After all, we've got plenty of time and a limitless bluebird forecast.
We slip and slide our way back down the same line, each of us falling on our rears at least once.
The descent takes under an hour and once back in the basin between Sunlight and Windom we stash all of our technical and avalanche gear and set off for Windom. Our speed is slowing, but with little more than 800 feet to climb and several more hours of sunlight remaining there is no need to push ourselves.
We connect rocky islands in the snow plastered on Windom's northwest face and gain the west ridge a quarter mile east of the Peak Eighteen saddle. Snowshoes are useful to about 13,600 feet where the ridge narrows and becomes much more rocky. From this point mostly easy third class scrambling leads to the summit and we're lounging up top by 1:30pm, quite pleased with the day's work.
Mount Eolus has been staring us down all day and now, with other business behind us, there isn't anywhere for our minds to hide. Tomorrow will be the day I face my fears. And I get chills just thinking about it.
As we begin the descent back into Chicago Basin we strategically stash all of our technical and avalanche gear next to the track at our intended break off point for Eolus tomorrow morning. Reuniting with Dwight around treeline, the four of us return to camp in a tired state; three tough days have taken their toll.
Mount Eolus. Dragon of Chicago Basin as far as winter 14ers are concerned. And the final significant obstacle that stands between me and the end of the list. I'm not going to lie: I'm scared. All indications point to this being a serious undertaking. Suddenly I can't help but identify with Steve, who found himself in a very similar position three years ago. The heat is on and boy do I feel it. I know Eolus is going to test my mettle.
A consensus on Eolus' best winter route, if there is one, has yet to been established. Very little information regarding winter ascents of any route on Eolus is available. Several obvious choices exist but none of them could be considered inviting.
The third class summer route crosses the narrow catwalk that forms the beginning of Eolus' northeast ridge, and then traverses and climbs steep ledges on the upper east face. Unfortunately, when the snow flies that rocky east face quickly becomes buried under a thick cloak of suspect snow. Seems an unlikely possibility, but one could hope.
There's always the east couloir, a steep, inset chute that leads 600 terrifying feet from the Eolus bowl to just south of the summit. This is a winter route appropriate either for folks who get a kick out of playing Russian Roulette, for those with extreme confidence in their snow evaluation abilities, or for those for whom it has simply become a last resort. However, Steve Gladbach made a successful ascent in winter 2010 - 2011 and reported reasonable conditions and easy going between the topout and the summit, so it does have that going for it.
Roach mentions a fourth class variation to the standard route that, instead of venturing onto the upper east face, remains on Eolus' narrow northeast ridge, following it the entire way to the summit. Steve's photo of this ridge in winter is quite sobering, and the fact that the sight of it discouraged even Steve from trying, perhaps even more so. I remember discussing it with him, at the time skeptical that I'd even make it this far down the list. Steve knew better though, and cognizant of our different styles, was convinced Dominic and I would one day go poking around up there and was anxious to hear how it really was. Of course Steve was correct; this is our route of choice.
First thing in the morning Dwight announces he won't be joining for Eolus today; rest or at most a stab at Windom is in order. Greg, Dominic and I leave camp at 5.30am, crank back up the hill to retrieve our gear stash, and then leave our track and begin making our way up the large southeast facing bowl under Eolus. Strangely, the humidity seems high, the clouds low, and hmmm... seems to be snowing now.
The unexpectedly unsettled weather fuels a fiery sunrise and incredible light show.
By 12,800 ft its pea soup; we're completely immersed in the clouds. Where did this weather come from? Maybe it'd be better to come back tomorrow when its nice and sunny again? I ask Dominic whether he thinks this is going to burn off by the time we hit the ridge and his confident, affirmative response is good enough to keep my hopes afloat for the time being.
The slope angle at the floor of the bowl is generally not worrisome but does occasionally exceed the 30 degree mark. Steeper slopes lurk above and the thing has somewhat of a creepy feel overall. Its unclear whether the old avalanche debris we're walking over came from the steep cliffs above or the east couloir. Speaking of the east couloir, we can't see it very clearly even though its less than 500 feet away from us. I can only hope that the events of the coming hours allow me to forget about that damn thing for good.
Near the head of the bowl, the left to right trending ramp used in summer to escape to the plateau above is discernible. At the moment this exit requires climbing and traversing snow slopes to about 35 degrees. We haven't triggered any settling in the bowl thus far and today the exit doesn't seem like a particularly daring feat. However later in the season I'd imagine this can be quite an intimidating proposition, brief but certainly risky.
The ramp surprises us with a thin but slick layer of recent snow on top of wind slab and partway up the going gets kind of dicey in snowshoes. Dominic and I ditch ours mid slope in favor of kicking steps while Greg sticks it out to the top with them on.
The snow between the top of the bowl and the Eolus/North Eolus ridge is a mix of 100% supportive and bottomless powder. Greg has the advantage with his snowshoes still on and starts to pull ahead while Dominic and I posthole our way behind him.
The third class weakness that allows access to the ridge connecting Eolus with North Eolus is buried in ice and snow and by the time we catch back up to Greg its excavation is nearly complete.
Greg ditches his snowshoes here and Dominic and I opt for crampons. The short pitch is somewhat delicate but at least it'll be a soft landing if we blow it.
North Eolus is insignificant and viewing it as a distinct peak to be ticked off, even in winter, seems like quite the stretch. If one happens to be in the area it requires nothing more than an easy 15 minute side trip. Alas, it seems to have become somehow ingrained in the winter list and I feel obligated to do it. At least it turns out to be a fun little scramble and a new summit for Greg.
The views from North Eolus are nothing short of spectacular. The low clouds, which are indeed slowly breaking apart, add an eery dimension to our opponent's already formidable presence. Without further diversion, we descend back to the saddle and prepare to meet our destiny.
Harnesses go on, Greg decides its time for crampons, and I bundle up to prepare for a potentially slow and technical undertaking. The ridge looks ridiculous. Taken in all at once its overwhelming. Just breathe.
As Dominic begins to lead us across the catwalk my disquietude shows. Watching him stomp and feel around in the loose snow to find secure footing in order to progress across the exposed sidewalk freaks me out. Several times, to his annoyance, I remind him there's no shame in deciding its time for the rope.
Thankfully, the calm and confident air put on by my two exceptional partners goes a long way toward calming my nerves. I take a step back and will myself to look at this as a long series of manageable little problems, instead of one paralyzing task.
At the far end of the catwalk the northeast ridge rears up in a short but quite vertical step. Looks kinda tough. We slip around the corner onto the powdery east face and search for a way to work back up to the ridge. A small notch quickly presents itself, and Dominic excavates a path up to it through the deep snow.
The ridge above the tiny notch is somewhat friendlier, but we're still faced with a series of moves best done with the protection of a rope. Hmmm... the west side looks like it could have potential and a little exploration might save us some rope work.
Another short traverse, this time on the west side of the ridge, allows a friendlier line back to the crest that we're willing to scramble. This is actually starting to resemble fun! Why do I find myself doing hand jams?!
We follow the narrow ridge crest the remaining distance to the summit. The scrambling is generally characterized by short and highly exposed boulder type problems. Greg leads the way, locating and brushing off key rock features as he goes. Its the usual loose winter powder over granite.
Balance is key. The exposure is dizzying in places and more than once I find myself shamelessly straddling little knife edges. Fortunately my nerves have made a comeback and I'm in the zone. The end is in sight and in more ways than one. The remaining ridge is no joke, but its no harder than anything else we've done to this point. Yes, this is happening; enjoy the ride.
The spacious summit arrives a bit after 11am. The skies have continued clearing and any lingering clouds are shrinking fast; the sun has won. I can't help but wonder if Steve's been watching us and hope that the got his answers about the ridge. Inexplicably, I feel he has.
After snacks, pictures and signal sending we're anxious to finish the job. I tend to take much comfort in the known, and seem to genuinely enjoy climbing down the ridge. Or maybe I'm so high on Cloud 9 at the moment that I just can't think straight to appreciate the risks. Whichever it is, the descent is quite exhiliarating! Recrossing the catwalk seems so trivial that I'm embarrassed about my earlier whinings regarding the rope. Funny what fear can do.
The remainder of the descent is gravy and we're back at camp by mid afternoon lounging in the sun. This is the first time we've really been able to relax since the start of the trip and it feels great.
The highlights of our Christmas Eve party are good company and a highly competitive boil-off for which I serve as officiator, making the all important “rolling boil” determination. Greg is the clear victor, boiling his 16oz creek temperature sample in an impressive two minutes and five seconds.
It's Christmas Day in Chicago Basin. Dwight wants a crack at Eolus. Objectives reached, Greg decides to take a rest day. To me this seems like a splendid excuse to wander up Jupiter Mountain. Dominic's had his fill of peaks and hard work but faced with the alternative of going stir crazy at camp he decides to join me. The two of us make a stress free ascent of something resembling the summer route, enjoying a near perfect winter morning and a special sort of Christmas.
I'm the last one to leave camp at 9:20am just as the first ray of sunlight hits. I should be glad to be going home to the luxuries of modern living after surviving in a tent and eating nothing but freeze dried meals for a week in December. I should be happy to have achieved my goals and ready to move on. But I'm not. I feel a connection with this place and I'd rather not go. It is with unanticipated and perplexing emotion that I turn my back and surrender to starting down the track.
The miles clip by and all too soon we reach the Animas River. A few hours more and bam, Cascade. Being back in the realm of civilization feels odd. Simply sitting on a picnic bench seems like a privilege. We call the Cascade pavilion home for the night and enjoy staying up late next to the heat and light of a fire. The train doesn't arrive until noon tomorrow but I can't stop thinking about the pulled pork sandwiches that'll be on board!
The morning seems endless and the train arrives a few minutes late, brimming with passengers. The railroad workers remember us and offer friendly greetings, curious to hear how we have fared. Its a beautiful day and there is easily a factor of 4 or 5 more passengers on board than there were on our inbound train. Its hard to contain ourselves and let the masses exit before taking up our mission to the concession car. Suffice it to say our order is rather large.
Its not until after we're home that I can thoroughly process and appreciate everything that has transpired over the last week. I felt strong while we were out but now its obvious that this has been a bit of a drain both physically and mentally. I believe some recovery time on a warm couch is what the doctor would order. And with just Mount Elbert remaining, there should be plenty of time for that.
Complete Photo Slideshow: Sunlight & Windom
Complete Photo Slideshow: Eolus & North Eolus
Complete Photo Slideshow: Jupiter