I wanted to start this post by first taking a moment to thank all of our friends and family for all of the support that you have given to Kimberly and me. I started Summits for MS with the goal of creating more awareness about MS and to raise much needed funding to keep fighting this incredibly challenging disease. As many of you know, MS is a disease that can deprive someone of the ability to move. With the thought of movement and momentum in mind, climbing 14ers to show my support of those living with MS made sense to me. While climbing these mountains has been fun, it has been far from easy. On every hike and climb, Kimberly has been with me in spirit as an inspirational force – an ever present motivation in my mind that truly helped me to reach each of these summits. Every single day, I bear witness to someone who battles this disease head on. Kimberly helps me be a better person each and every day, and her strength has given me the strength to meet and exceed my goals for Summits for MS. I hope you’ve all enjoyed the stories that I’ve shared. It has truly been an adventure!
Chicago Basin is home to the most remote 14ers in Colorado. To reach the basin, you are faced with either a 14 mile hike into the basin, or a 2 hour train ride followed by a 6 mile hike. The Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad offers hikers and climbers a scenic, and dare I say authentic, ride to Needleton, CO on their coal-powered steam engine train. The four mountains we planned to climb included Mt. Eolus, North Eolus, Sunlight Peak and Windom Peak.
The journey to reach Chicago Basin began on Thursday, August 22nd. Our good friends, John and Jeb, joined me for this multi-purpose adventure. Not only was I focused on reaching my goal for Summits for MS, but Jeb was just 4 mountains away from climbing all of Colorado’s 58 mountains over 14,000 feet by his 40th birthday, which was on Sunday, August 25th. Needless to say, not reaching these peaks was not really an option.
As we left Breckenridge, the forecast was less then desirable with a 60%-80% chance of rain and thunderstorms. With train tickets purchased, we opted to hope for the best and prepared ourselves for a weekend that could potentially be extremely wet. As we headed towards Durango, we closely watched the forecast in hope that the outlook would improve. Unfortunately, as we would find first hand, it would not.
We booked a last minute hotel close to the train station for Thursday night, in preparation for our 8:45am departure on Friday morning. After a five hour drive from Breckenridge on Thursday, we arrived in Durango shortly before midnight. We took a few minutes to reorganize our gear before grabbing a few hours of sleep. As I drifted off, my mind was filled with both excitement and some uncertainty about the trip ahead of us.
Our alarms rang loudly at 6:45am, and we each took our last shower for a couple of days before heading to the train. Our goal was to ride the train into Needleton on Friday, summit Mt. Eolus and North Eolus on Saturday, summit Sunlight Peak and Windom on Sunday, and catch the train back to Durango Monday afternoon, as the train only comes once a day. With the forecast looking unfavorable, we weren’t sure what to expect.
The train’s steam-powered whistle sounded loudly as we grinded to a start. John, Jeb and I were excited for the two hour ride ahead, but we were also eager to get on the trail as soon as possible. The train would drop us off at 11:30am, and with a 6 mile hike into the basin ahead of us, the thought of getting caught in the rain was on all of our minds.
We were soon distracted by dramatic views of the Animas River, as well as close encounters with the narrow rock walls that lined the railroad tracks.
The trip went by quickly and before we knew it, one of the conductors was gathering us to head to the front of the train to offload at Needleton. The train came to rest, we gathered our packs and before we knew it, the train departed towards Silverton, leaving us to face the journey ahead.
A large dark cloud loomed in the direction we were headed. We took a couple of minutes to stash a few beers between some rocks in the river that we planned to enjoy while waiting for the train to pick us up for the ride home in a few days. We made good time heading into the basin and were greeted by some excellent views of the surrounding Needle Mountains. John managed to find us a great spot to set up camp just across Needle Creek that provided adequate shelter and easy access to water that we could filter for drinking.
We were all pretty excited that the weather was holding, and we managed to get set up and get organized quickly. Before long, we were visited by a few friendly mountain goats who were obviously far from scared of humans, and who were most likely looking for food.
After cooking up dinner, we decided to turn in early with the intention of getting an early start the next morning. As we discussed our plan for approaching the mountains we decided that if we could hike and climb all 4 mountains in one day, we would. The thought of missing a small window of opportunity with the weather was weighing heavily on our minds. We set the alarm for 3:30am so that we could be on the trail by 4:00am. The sky was clear and sleep came easy after the long hike into the basin.
As our alarm sounded, I immediately noticed the faint pitter patter of rain drops on the tent. As we gathered our gear and emerged from the tent, we were met with a light drizzle of rain and the skies were completely clouded over. John and I discussed whether to wait it out a bit to see if the weather would pass. We consulted with Jeb who simply replied, “Let’s start walking.” We started up the trail just shy of 4:30am.
With the moon still mostly full we could see breaks in the sky and it appeared that the weather could be improving. No sooner did that thought cross our minds and the rain set in. At first the rain was light, but it grew more steady. We tried to ignore the obvious and continued our way further into the basin.
As we worked our way above tree line, the light was just starting to break on the horizon. With the miserable weather, we were all hiking with our heads down and, you guessed it, completely missed where the trail turned sharply to our right up towards the saddle between Mt. Eolus and North Eolus. We approached a steep gully that looked completely unfamiliar and upon further exploration, we opted to retreat lower down the mountain to find the correct route. It didn’t take us long to find where we went wrong, and we were soon back on the right track.
As we worked our way towards the ridge that connected the two mountains we would climb first, the weather really started to improve and our spirits were rising. That window of clearing skies was short lived and we were soon back in the clouds.
It was a good thing John managed to keep his sense of direction because Jeb and I were both under the impression that we’d reach the summit of Mt. Eolus first. Upon further discussion, John clarified that we’d be climbing North Eolus first before traversing the”Catwalk” towards Mt. Eolus. We should have trusted the kid from Yonkers, as we soon found ourselves looking at a summit marker that matched the elevation of North Eolus!
With the weather continuing to look grim, we didn’t hang out on the summit long before heading south towards Mt. Eolus. The connecting ridge between the two peaks offered some “fun” views of dramatic drops on both sides of us. As John worked his way across the ridge, I managed to get a good shot of him in the clouds.
Mt. Eolus offered some fun climbing and we soon found ourselves on the summit. Even though there was quite a few people camped out in the basin below, we found that the weather had kept most people inside the comfort of their dry tents. This allowed us to enjoy this summit all by ourselves.
The skies cleared for a few moments which allowed us a view of some of the surrounding area. We took a few moments to enjoy the views and to catch our breath.
We were each feeling good and it was still relatively early in the day, so we decided that we would work our way back down to Twin Lakes where the trail would split to gain the basin between Sunlight Peak and Windom Peak. We decided we’d stop here for a bite to eat, and to assess the weather before deciding if we’d give the other two peaks a shot, or if we’d save them for the next day.
When we arrived at Twin Lakes, the weather was still the same. We opted to take a short break and after some discussion, we decided to continue on. Sunlight Peak offered some of the more challenging climbing of the day, so we decided that we should head towards that mountain first and save Windom Peak for last. We worked our way into a steep gully that would lead us towards Sunlight’s summit. As we reached the top of the gully, the climbing became more difficult and demanded all of our focus.
We navigated a few more tricky sections of rock and were soon near the summit. Sunlight is famous for it’s “Summit Block” that offers an “airy” perch with hundred foot drops on either side. Jeb went up first and John followed once he was safely down. My palms were sweating just watching them, and I opted for a lower, less exposed perch. Below is a picture of Jeb on top and me trying to muster up the courage to take one more leap!
We wasted no time working our way down from Sunlight towards Windom Peak. The excitement of getting all 4 peaks in one day was driving us forward. Jeb was also overcome with excitement that the prospect of completing his goal of climbing all the 58 mountains in Colorado over 14,000 feet was now just a few thousand vertical feet away.
Windom Peak’s West Ridge offered some fun scrambling on solid rock. Jeb’s excitement gave him an energy that pushed him quickly up the mountain. He was soon well ahead of John and I. As we neared the summit, we could see Jeb reaching the highest point of the mountain. He climbed on top of the small rock block that was Windom’s highest point and threw his arms into the air with excitement. Seeing this image from less than just a hundred feet below made me move quickly towards the summit to share in Jeb’s accomplishment. I was soon on top and Jeb, John and I all reveled in the victory.
Deciding that we’d already pushed our luck with the weather, we opted to move quickly off the summit. As we returned to the trail junction at Twin Lakes, we could see the skies darkening to our west. We hiked as fast as we could towards the lower portion of Chicago Basin, hopeful that we’d make it to our camp before the skies opened up.
As we arrived at our camp, the rain came. We were both giddy with our accomplishments and a bit delirious after an 11 hour journey that took us over 8 miles and included almost 6,000 vertical feet of climbing. We hunkered down under the trees in camp and enjoyed some 12 year old Scotch we’d packed in with us to celebrate the day’s accomplishments, reaching the Summits for MS goal and Jeb’s 40th birthday.
The rains let up just long enough for us to enjoy dinner. It was still early, but with the weather being less than desirable, we opted to pile into our tent for a bit to see if the rain would let up. Unfortunately, it did not. It ended up raining steadily through the night so we decided to catch the train out of Needleton the next day and spend Sunday night in Durango at a hotel before heading home to Breckenridge.
We spent the evening reliving the day’s events and looking through each other’s photos. We’d end up spending the next 15 hours in that tent together, waiting relentlessly for the rains to subside. Finally, at 11:30am the next day, we opted to make a mad dash to get our gear packed up and to make the long, 6 mile trek towards Needleton to catch the 3:30pm train to Durango. We were unpleasantly surprised to find that all the rain had caused the Needle Creek to rise enough to submerge the rocks we’d used to cross the creek. We bushwhacked up stream a bit before Jeb found an area he could jump across. John and I threw his pack across the creek to him, and then our packs, before jumping over the water.
Back on the trail, we worked our way through the rain towards Needleton. The rain subsided as we neared the halfway point, but the skies remained overcast and threatening. We arrived at the Needleton trailhead shortly after 2:00pm and were pleasantly surprised to find the beers that we’d stashed in the river two days earlier had not washed away!
The train arrived right on time and we were eager to stow our gear and dry out for a bit.
We enjoyed a few more cold beers from the bar car before being dropped back in Durango.
This was an amazing trip with great friends! Yes, the weather could have been better, but the challenges presented by the weather made the trip that much more memorable. Jeb, being able to share your 58th 14er summit on your 40th birthday was a huge bonus on this journey and this is an accomplishment to be proud of. Thank you, Jeb and John, for a trip that will not be forgotten. Kimberly and I appreciate all your support for Summits for MS. It has been a wonderful journey!
If you haven’t donated yet and would like to, please visit my donation page at http://main.nationalmssociety.org/goto/SummitsforMS.
Thank you again for everyone’s support!