Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Discovering the Trinity Alps

Upper Canyon Creek Lake - Thompson Peak in the distance
These days, for almost every climb or hike we take, there is a “mountain” of information available online about our destination. An important step in any climb is researching where you are headed. Personally, I like going into a climb with as much data as possible. That’s one of the reasons is one of my favorite websites for climbing in Colorado. Before we head to Colorado every year, I study over and over the pages of the mountains where we are headed. When climbing other mountains, it isn’t quite as easy. There are a few online forums that are “ok” - but just ok. And even then it’s only the popular destinations that receive the most attention. If the place I’m going to isn’t one of those, then the search for beta gets more and more arcane. There are these things people in the 20th century used to use, called books. Personally, I’ve never really gotten great data for climbing out of a book. It’s just the way my mind works now, maybe, after so many years being spoiled by finding that info online. It’s just a better format. Even books, though, fall into the above problem that only the really popular objectives are widely written about. Like old maps from the 1800’s, some mountains remain blank spaces on the map of the internet.

The Trinity Alps are one of those places that there just isn’t a whole lot of stuff written about out there. They are like some unspoken secret place - nobody talks about them, but I can just sense that those in the know just aren’t sharing in order to keep the place hidden. I’d seen the peaks - from a distance on Shasta climbs or when we take our dogs up to the summit of Mt. Eddy - but never had a chance to really explore them. So finally, this Thanksgiving Day I made a plan to get out there and see what was what. I found out a little online, and from that decided that Sawtooth Mountain, although not the highest, looked to be the most rewarding climb in the area. With a few sparse internet entries I could find on it, one of them had the quote “If you climb only one peak in the Trinity Alps, climb Sawtooth” - or something to that effect. The scanty entry on Sawtooth in Summitpost also names it as one of the finest hikes/climbs in the Alps. (Oddly, SP has decided to not maintain that page, as some sort of weird “tribute” to the original writer who has now passed away. Seems counter-productive to the goal of what a site like that is supposed to be. But oh well...)

So with barely no information whatsoever, this trip was really about gathering data, a fact-finding scouting trip if you will. I downloaded a map of the area, a pretty good (at least I thought) topo of the area, the best one I could find for free. I used Google maps to study how the area looked, at least from space. But other than these two things, I really had nothing. As the route is supposed to go, the best I could glean from the scattered sources I could find was this: Hike up past a couple of pretty waterfalls to some pretty alpine lakes. Then turn east up a “duck trail” (I had never previously heard the term duck trail, turns out its just a trail marked by cairns.) to a small lake called L Lake. Using the google maps distance feature, and using the scale on the topo, I figured this to be about a 13-14 mile round trip. To be academic about it though, I took my wife’s Garmin Forerunner 305 GPS watch. I didn’t want to think that it “took about 5 hours” or whatever to hike someplace. I wanted to know exactly how many miles it was. We all hike at different rates, so the only way to be thorough is to know the exact mileage. The Forerunner in our experience has been a very accurate indicator of that, even though it’s made for jogging or biking. Turns out, my pre-trip estimate of the miles involved was way off. But I did end up with some concrete numbers that I hope future hikers will find useful. 

A pre-dawn start got me up and onto the curvy Highway 299E out of Redding. I was glad I had perused on Google Earth the turn-off in Junction City to the Canyon Creek Rd. It’s really easy to miss. The road is paved all the way, but it goes back about 13 miles or so. At some point I passed a sign that told me that the road was not winter-maintained past that point. No big deal, I thought, because it did not seem I was in any danger of running into snow at this altitude. (The Canyon Creek trailhead is only 3,073’ by my GPS’ calculation) Well it wasn’t snow that stopped me this morning, but I certainly did stop for a pine tree leaning precipitously far over onto the road. We experienced some very high winds the week before, and this tree nearly had me driving back home without a hike. Thinking that I had just enough room to make it under in my truck, I slowly drove underneath it, wondering the whole time if it would fall the rest of the way to the road later on that day, thereby blocking my exit. That stayed on my mind the rest of the day, too.

Tree trying to block the road. I crept past on the right side.
I continued on up the road, which was increasingly strewn with more and more pine needles and branches. I proceeded slowly, not really knowing what was up ahead. Around a turn I went, and again I was forced to brake. A large boulder, which must have tumbled from the right side of the road, appeared to block my path. Getting out and inspecting, I thought maybe I had enough room to go around it on the left. I better not be wrong though - there was a steep, steep drop off to the far left. I could hear the rushing creek far below, and again wondered if I should keep going. Thinking maybe I could move the rock a little out of the way, I tried to roll it over. It barely budged - it was sooo heavy. I did manage to scoot it (maybe?) 6”. I’m not sure if it was necessary for me to pass with my truck, but it did make me feel a little better. I got in and slowly drove past it, not wanting to hit it with my tire - as surely something that heavy would not give an inch, and I didn’t want to begin my hike changing a flat.

Rock in the middle of the road trying to ruin my day! I crept past on the left.
At the trailhead
At last I arrived at the trailhead, the only vehicle there was mine. Still dark outside, I got my stuff together and clipped on my headlight. I could tell it would be light soon - it was 6:50am, but the tree cover was certainly keeping things hard to see. I have to admit, it was a bit spooky. This area is notorious for bear activity, and I couldn’t help but think about that and the fact that I was alone out here - not another human within miles. It’s tough to keep thoughts like “have you ever felt like something was watching you” out of your head. Certainly hiking in thick forest in the dark is not my favorite past-time.

The trail itself starts out very good for the first 3 miles or so. Steadily it gains altitude, but with a nice loamy soil its easy to make time. I did those first 3 in just a little over an hour, a fairly good pace for myself with a pack. (My pack probably weighed 25 pounds or so. I had some crampons and my ice axe, you know, just in case - plus lunch and some extra layers.) It was still mostly in the trees, leaving just a few windows through to see the morning sun shining on the hills above me every now and then. I was still in the trees mostly at this point.

Getting a look here and there at some of the peaks through the trees
As the trail broke east up the side of the canyon and away from the creek, it got a lot more rocky and rough. The only good part was finally to get out of such dense tree cover, although for the most part I still couldn’t see too far ahead of me. If there was a crouching mountain lion or something around the corner, I would have been hard pressed to react. I did go over in my mind, exactly how long I thought it would take me to get my pack off and get my ice axe out. It was either that or my pocket-knife, and I figured the axe would make the more intimidating thing to swing around should I encounter something wild. Still, it wasn’t exactly a feeling of security. It wasn’t until 3.3 miles into the hike, that I saw my supposed destination - Sawtooth Mountain - rise out above the tree cover.

The trail got a lot more rough
That's Sawtooth Mountain up there

Finally at 3.7 miles I reached the Lower Canyon Creek Falls. These were pretty nice, I couldn’t help think that it would be a healthy hike just to reach here, and that this might be a nice destination for a dayhike. But of course I had more to discover up ahead, so I kept going after taking a few photos. There were some more vantage points, but I felt my pace slipping away, as the rougher trail had slowed, and continued to slow me down more and more as the day progressed.

Lower Canyon Creek Falls
Shortly after leaving the lower falls, the trail evened out it’s uphill ascent for the most part, and the loamy soil returned. Unfortunately, so did the dense tree cover. I bypassed the trail that went off to the side to another falls I could see through the trees, as now my time/pace was starting to lag behind where I thought I wanted to be by that time. Several times I felt myself walking through an area of high weeds or a thicket of bushes and thought to myself “if I was bear, this would be a good place to hang out” but luckily I still saw nothing. Every once in a while I would let out an audible “WHOOP” sound - just to make sure whatever might be ahead would hear me coming. I also had my wife’s bear bell, which she had recommended I take, attached to one of my trekking poles. So every step I took it would ring a little. Sometimes, I’d slam that pole into the ground just a little harder than normal, and get a little louder ring out of it…

At last I started to break out of the constant forest. It was a mixed bag - finally I could see what lay ahead, but that scenery although beautiful was not exceptionally easy-looking for hiking. I passed up a sign that said something about no campfires above this point, so that the natural vegetation around the lake could be maintained. Since now I was nearing the six-mile mark, I was happy to think that maybe now I was very, very close to the Lower Lake. I was starting to get a little weary and lunch was starting to sound better and better.

However, it turned out to be something of a false summit - or a false lake in this case. There was no lake, at least not yet. I rounded a corner and then - another waterfall. I lost count of how many waterfalls I saw on this hike. They were all real nice and everything, but I just didn’t come here to see waterfalls. The trail got a little more harder to follow. Soon I was following trail bits from cairn to cairn as the path went quickly higher.

Slabs below Lower Canyon Creek Lake
Then, finally, I saw the lake nestled a little below me. Not really sure of how the trail went from here, I just went to the mouth of the lake to capture a photo of where I was right now. Lower Canyon Creek Lake was peaceful and serene, with not a ripple disturbing it’s crystal clear waters.

Lower Canyon Creek Lake

I didn’t quite know where to go from here. By this point, there were cairns all over the place. Unsure if this was the right way, it looked to me that heading up the west side of the lake would be the path of least resistance. As I got a little more than halfway across the lake, I began to doubt that assessment. I was roughly headed for a patch of tall trees,  but I could tell that the shoreline cliffed out at that point. Somehow, once I got to those trees, I would have to search for higher ground, hopefully via a path or at least some cairns. (On the descent I would discover the line I should have taken) I entered the trees and it seemed to hold a few signs that people had been there before - signs of trails.

The patch of trees on the west side shore of the lower lake. I should have headed farther uphill.

It didn’t last though. Halfway up out of the trees and before the cliffs, I ran into a dead-end. Faced with the choice of going right - towards the cliffs, or left into a jumbled mess of thorny bushes and willows, I elected to go left toward more safer for sure ground. In full on bushwhack mode, I found in short order a little gully that led up to what looked to be pretty easily climbed rock. With just one short move, I was up on top of the cliff band. What was there to greet me on top? Why more cairns of course. Although I had gone way off track, blindly I had ended up back on the trail. 

From here I could see the upper lake, and the outline of a trail that went along it’s shores. I noted on the Forerunner that I was now at 7.55 miles - so when they say the upper lake is 7 miles, they were definitely rounding down. Comfortably back on a somewhat established trail, I followed it down the one of the most absolutely picturesque lakes I’ve ever seen. I knew from here that to get to the trail to L Lake, I would have to get across the whatever creek was draining out of the upper lake. I approached it high, and it was quite a cliff down. Heading north back towards the lake, I found a little easier going, although it was steep and required care not to slip on the smooth rock down towards the mouth. Crossing the mouth wasn’t hard - but I could see where in other times of the year, times with more waterflow, it might be more challenging, or at least more wet. But I made it to the other side and started trying to figure out where the “duck trail”,  as it had been described, up to L lake might be.

Looking to the south at both the Upper and Lower Canyon Creek Lakes
Looking up toward the way to L Lake
Beautiful peaks towering over Upper Lake

Pretty quickly I was back in bushwhack mode. It’s not that there weren’t any cairns, indeed the problem was that there were cairns all over the place. I wasn’t sure if I should stay low, near the east side lake shore, or start heading east, up the incline towards the cirque where I knew L Lake must lay. I ended up taking a hybrid of the two, and this ended up being the more correct decision, as soon I found some pretty good cairns to follow. The way from Upper Canyon Creek Lake to L Lake is abruptly much steeper than any previous sections of the trail though. The hunt for the cairns gets more and more dicey the higher you go to. It’s slabby, bouldery and rough. My feet were killing me, and I would find out later this hike was going to cost me at least one toenail, and definitely the majority of that battery seems to me came on this particular section. Each rise I overcame I would hope to see a leveling out on the terrain, and seemingly each rise I was disappointed to see only more mountain going up.

Looking back at the rough "duck trail" up to L Lake
Looking up the way to L Lake. Sawtooth Mountain summit is on the right.

Tired, hungry, and more than a little mentally defeated by the extra miles than I had thought on the trail, I spied a high point up ahead and decided that would be my turnaround point and lunch spot. All I really wanted at this point was to get a good vantage point of the cirque that ends with Sawtooth pointing up on the southernmost side, and snap at least a picture of that before I enjoyed my sandwich. Finally I got to where I wanted to eat. My GPS read 8.63 miles. Through the trees up ahead, I could see the clear waters of L Lake. To make it there, I would have to descend a little, and walk I guess another ¼ of a mile or so. That wasn’t going to happen. I knew I had a 15 mile hike in me today, and if I turned around right here it would be over a 17 mile hike. I wasn’t about to make this an 18 mile hike either. Not today, not at this time of year (November) when I would be cutting it so close to getting back to the trailhead before dark as it was. This was a fine stopping point. This was at an elevation of 6,509’. Sawtooth Mountain still towers an additional 2300’+ from here. With the mileage involved, the roughness of the trail and the altitude from trailhead, Sawtooth Mountain would be a very, very difficult dayhike even during the long hours of summertime. This is most definitely a climb better done as part of at least a two-day trip.

Sawtooth from my lunch spot

I took some photos and headed back down after lunch. As I neared the lake, I once again kind of lost the trail, as on the way up I had only been following one of multiple possible cairned routes. I ended up in a thicket of bushes, sticking me in the side and trying to knock my hat off. Only this time, I could see the lakeshore ahead of me, and knew if I just keep heading toward that, I could eventually work my way around back to the mouth and the trail out. I crossed the mouth and back across between the upper and lower lake. This time, I stayed on the cairned path. The correct way, is high above the west side of the lower lake. No bushwacking involved, just keeping an eye out for cairns and the best possible route down. It did get a little cliffy on some of those slabs, but I did manage to make it down somewhat on trails that did look to have been trodden on before.

Now my order of business was to get back to the trailhead before dark. After leaving the lower lake, the rest of the way the trail is much easier to follow. I knew I was going faster, as I was losing altitude, but not so sure if I would be the sunset. In these late November days, there is only about 10 hours of daylight, so sunset was slightly before 5. At my current pace, I figured I would have to put on my headlamp for a few minutes and arrive back at my truck around 5:30. Not ideal, I really felt like I didn’t want to be out here after dark. I still had that funny “somebody/something is watching me” feeling.

A look at my GPS track at my high point

That feeling was still with me as I descended back down into the thick forest. Suddenly, I thought I heard a distinct “bark” and stopped fast. Before I could think “Did I really just hear that?” or “Was that what I thought it sounded like?” It barked again. Canine. Definitely a canine. But I was still pretty sure I was alone. I had seen some footprints here and there, some human some dog, but they looked at least a week old. My thoughts, admittedly in hindsight clouded because of the general spookiness of the trail, immediately concluded it couldn’t be a dog, that it must be a coyote - (or maybe OR7? nah, he wouldn’t be down this far south… I hoped) and doubled and re-doubled my pace. No, I was basically trail-running now.

Eventually I got to a point where I felt sort of safe again. I figured if I was being tracked by coyotes, I wasn’t in any danger unless I stopped - so I just didn’t stop. Then it occurred to me - I got here pretty early. It’s quite possible someone got here later than me, and hiked up behind me. They could have been somewhere off the trail and I just missed them on my way down. About an hour after hearing the bark, I came across another hiker, a young bearded guy with a pack heading up. After a minute of some chit-chat, we went on our ways. Pretty sure now that my second theory - that it wasn’t a coyote but another hiker-  was the correct one, I now slowed my pace a little. Even if it was a coyote, the coyotes would now attack and eat this hiker and not me. The good part about the coyote scare is that now I was on pace to get back to the trailhead just a little before dark. I would later look at my GPS record - one mile on the way down I had covered in just six minutes! I bet I know which mile that was.

The complete route of my hike

I never had to turn my headlamp back on, as I reached my truck just before the light faded. A check of the GPS showed I hiked 17.3 miles total in 9:55 - a good day out in the woods to be sure. My conclusion is that if you want to see some waterfalls or a some pristine alpine lakes, this is a good trail for a dayhike. If you’re looking to actually climb something, you’re going to need to overnight it. Some pages on the internet I read called the Sawtooth Mountain climb “a long day” - well, maybe it is for trail runners or people who like to brag needlessly about their exploits in the hills, but for regular folks it doesn’t hold up. The Trinity Alps are, however, an area of striking beauty, and I’m very much looking forward to getting back up there next summer for further exploration (and a LOT more climbing!).

That was quite a day out!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The 14ers Rite of Passage

Our transportation to the Chicago Basin
The black soot was everywhere. All over my hands, which had led to it getting all over my face as well. Literally everything in the gondola car was covered in it. Funny how I had not remembered this part at all when I was a kid and had first rode on the Durango-Silverton train that day my Grandpa and Grandma had taken us there. I guess when you were a kid being dirty all the time was just part of the package, but after having been out climbing 14ers and camping for the last few days - where we had not gotten half as dirty in all that time combined as we did on the train ride out - I was a little amazed at just how messy this mode of transportation really was. As if the blocks of coal left alongside the tracks the entire route wasn’t enough to convince me before. No way could anything like this train get built today - could you imagine what the environmental impact report would look like? No matter to me, I was just anxious to get back to Durango and eat a good meal in a restaurant, then take a shower and go to bed in an actual bed. We had accomplished The Rite of Passage all those who wish to climb all the Colorado 14ers must pass through. We had done the “train peaks” as I liked to call them, the 14ers of the Chicago Basin, Sunlight Peak, Windom Peak, Mt. Eolus and North Eolus. Our 46th-49th Colorado 14er summits.

The road to climbing all of Colorado’s 14ers goes through the Durango-Silverton railway for everyone eventually, unless they choose the ominously named “Purgatory” route - adding an extra 7 miles to what isn’t a short journey into the wilds of Southern Colorado. We knew this was coming, and we never even considered the Purgatory option. For me it was always about the train, a chance to share a cherished childhood memory with my wife and also bag some peaks while we were at it. But taking the train certainly wasn’t without its own challenges, as we would find out.

I bought our tickets ahead of time, just to be on the safe side as we were travelling on Labor Day weekend. They aren’t cheap either. You must specify the “Wilderness Train” when you buy them. Don’t buy them online through the website either - those will be for the regular train that doesn’t stop. Call them up and speak to someone. The tix cost $90, but they charge you another $10 for your backpack. And you don’t even go all the way to Silverton! Well, it is what it is. You can walk an extra 14 miles if you don’t want to pay it…

The backpack car

So we showed up Saturday morning for our train. It’s really very neat, watching the old Iron Horse pull into the station. There is a lot of excitement in the air - we were surrounded by a mix of senior citizens and families with kids, and everyone is looking forward to the ride. I had chosen a gondola car for our seats - hence why on the return trip we would notice that we had become covered in soot. But on the way there we didn’t really care, happy to be out in the fresh air and excitement of a journey into the mountains. A journey that would leave us stranded in an isolated Shangri-La, that the folks in Colorado call Chicago Basin.

The Durango-Silverton Trai

The train goes slow. I think they said the top speed is like 18mph. So don’t expect to get there in a hurry. Our stop was a place called Needleton, which is really a ton, but just a little stop with a few family-owned cabins and a bridge over the Animas River. Going through the canyons - I had forgotten (ok, it was 35 years or so since I was a kid and was there before) how dramatic the drop-offs are. The rails are literally inches from the cliff sometimes, and there are moments when the rock walls are easily less than 6 inches from the sides of the car. So it was definitely a memorable ride, at least enough to last me hopefully for another 35 years. The sounds and smells of the old-timey coal-fired steam engine evoked many memories for me. My Grandpa snapping photos with his 35mm camera (Grandpa was a bit of a picture nut), which I had thought at the time must cost thousands of dollars (and it probably did).

Goodbye, our only way back to civilization
At Needleton

And then all of a sudden you’re in Needleton and the train has dropped you off and chugs away. At that moment you suddenly realize how isolated and remote this place is. There is no cell service of any kind. The little family cabins have strict no trespassing signs, as you have to cross a ¼ mile of private property to get to the rest of the trail. You are out there - way out there. At first the trail is crowded, as the rest of the backpackers who came on the same train spread out among the route, but sooner or later people’s rates of progress are pretty evident, and it’s just you and your partner in this place, this big, uninhabited place.

Getting our stuff at Needleton

They say its a six-mile hike into the basin to the point where the campsites are. Honestly it felt a little further to us, but we had forgotten to take our little running GPS - the Garmin Forerunner - so we really were hiking blind so to speak. The trail is really scenic, as it parallels Needle Creek. My pack actually wasn’t too heavy, considering we were ready for 3 nights out. I’m sort of getting a feel (finally?) for packing a little lighter, and knowing what will be essential for a trip and what will not. I’m also getting a lot more used to my North Face Prophet 65 pack, which I had almost replaced because I was having so much trouble with it initially.

The Chicago Basin greeted us, with rain and hail

The Chicago Basin area is notorious for it’s rainy weather. Checking the weather forecasts in the days and weeks ahead of our trip, it was truly a discouraging outlook. Every day - literally - was forecasted for afternoon rain, 60-70% on nearly every day. We’re used to the afternoon rain thing in Colorado, as this was our 7th annual trip to the state, but even then normally the chances were not that high. As we walked along the storm clouds started to build up. Eventually, we heard a pretty big “boom” and Gineth mentioned that it must be a jet. I knew it wasn’t a jet. I didn’t want to tell her because I didn’t want to worry her too much, but it was definitely thunder. In short order that boom was followed up by more booms, and we knew the weathermen weren’t liars. By the time we reached the basin we were getting pretty well soaked, and even occasionally pelted by hail. Even though we were looking for the first possible site we could take, the Basin was all full up until we were very nearly at the trail split, where the actual climbing route “begins”. We camped just about 100 yards short of the junction in a field of weeds, which looked to be about the flattest spot we could find that also had a little tree coverage and some rocks for sitting on later. As night settled in, we had a nice view of the mountains and what would be ahead of us for the next day.

Finally, at camp

We were all set to wake up at 4am the next morning. The night was restless,  Gineth’s air mattress - which we had just patched before leaving for vacation - failed, slowly, and soon she was sleeping on the ground. Several times I woke up in the night to hear her putting air back into it. And I never really tent sleep well. I sleep on one side, until it gets numb, then reverse. It’s usually about an hour and half each side. So sleep is a precious commodity when you can get it, and it didn’t come easy. At one point I rolled over, unable to sleep any longer and turned on my Iphone to check the time. It was 4:25! Seems we had forgotten to reset our alarm clock to Mountain time. So we were more than ready to get up, not to mention that both of us were tried of trying to sleep only because it wasn’t morning yet. I choked down a protein bar, and we decided to forego morning coffee and just get going. We were ready to climb, not eat.

The first few minutes were fine, easy enough trail to follow in the dark. But then we hit slabs, and it was all “search for cairns” after that. After a confusing slow-down, we did hit trail again and it was pretty much up, up, up after that. As dawn starting to shed some light onto the mountains above us, we reached the Twin Lakes and our task lay in front of us.

We had broken the peaks down into two days. I know I’ve read some people who do all 4 in one day. I knew for us this wasn’t even on the table. We were very much not acclimatized, having only arrived in Colorado two days prior. Also, I’m realistic about my own climbing speed when it comes to Class 3+ terrain. So it was an easy decision to make to split the summits into Sunlight/Windom on day one, and Eolus/North Eolus on day 2. We somewhat hoped maybe we could summit the Eolus’ in time on climbing day 2 to get back down, pack up camp and get out that day, but left it open and prepared to stay that night in case. This turned out to be a very fortuitous decision.

The first obstacle was to go up what the description called the headwall. In their description and photo, it didn’t look like much of a slowdown. But once we got into it, man I couldn’t believe how much more difficult it was. We got up it, and then the trail petered out… That’s when we saw these two guys, who had passed us earlier in the morning going at a pretty fast clip, standing up ahead. They weren’t standing too close to each other at this point, but they did seem to be together.

Heading up Sunlight Peak

Turns out they had been up the previous day, and summited the other 3 peaks (or so they told us), but had been chased off of Sunlight by bad weather. One guy was pretty much like, he didn’t want to go up Sunlight. We told the other fellow where we are headed, and he just said “good”, and introduced himself to us. We figured he was just a guy who didn’t want to climb alone, which is definitely a smart move. His partner didn’t want to go back up Sunlight. So we started up Sunlight, now a group of 3 (sort of) with our new companion who immediately climbed faster and higher than us but was presumably in our company.

We started our climb up Sunlight and did our best to pick our way up the steep, scree slopes. We had an eye on our new friend, but weren’t necessarily following his exact footsteps. He in fact looked a little reckless here and there, so it wasn’t necessarily a bad  thing there was a little distance between us. We climbed up the crappy gully, and soon spied our new friend camped just below the saddle between Sunlight and Sunlight spire, seemingly looking at his phone and contemplating his next move.

We reached him and found out the problem. This was the same spot he and his buddy a day earlier had become confused as to the route. He pulled the route up on his phone (we had larger 8 X 11 prints I had printed out to look at) and calmly told him where the route went. He disagreed, and really seemed to get upset and argumentative about it. In all the previous 14ers I’ve ever climbed, I’ve never met an individual that got so strangely upset about which way to go. No matter to us, we just blew past it. Gineth and I continued on the way we thought (pretty much knew) was correct and left him and his phone behind. Not surprisingly, he soon followed our way.

Gineth going up through the chimney
There was also another group of about 4 or 5 coming up fast from below. They were definitely drafting up behind us, but at this point we were already on our way up the Class 3 cliffs of Sunlight. Soon they were up on us (It still kind of annoys me when people catch us from behind. I blame the aforementioned lack of acclimatization) and they really turned out to be some nicer, more helpful than our previous “friend” folks. Four guys and one girl, and from their banter amongst each other I can only assume they were one of those “Internet Climbing Parties” - people who decide to climb together from knowing each other only through the internet - type groups. Nevertheless, they seemed nice, and now our group of 3 was a group of about 8.

And it was nice, if ever so shortly, to have 8 brains figuring out a route instead of 2 (or 3). the description of the route is a bit vague, and honestly didn’t seem to really match up well with the reality of the mountain. We followed the route steps well, and soon we were pushing through and were up on the summit. We had climbed our 46th Colorado 14er.

From Sunlight Summit
Summit block stuff

Here’s the thing that everyone knows about Sunlight. The summit block - they call it the Leap of Faith. The summit marker is not up there. So, as far as many as concerned, yours truly included, the summit on this one is where the marker is, and is the top of the mountain. We climbed the mountain. It really is the top of the mountain, and I personally saw no need to scramble up what looks to be a pretty unsafe and pointless last few feet. Maybe purists would disagree with me. I don’t really care. I climb the 14ers for myself, there is no reward for this othe than what I feel inside. So risking my life to go (maybe) 5 feet higher on a mountain I’ve climbed? No, that is not going to happen.

But one of the group did decide to make a go at the leap. Our nutty friend #3 from earlier, slipped and desperately and awkwardly scrambled up the rocks, and soon he was up there. I’m pretty sure he was just trying to make up for looking like a bit of a dumbass earlier and not knowing the route. I didn’t care. I was Facebooking and Tweeting my summit records, and I read an e-mail. Just barely noticing him out of the corner of my eye, I noticed even he was a bit nervous about the leap down. Good for you big guy, you did it. Then some other poor fool from the other group went up there. I was still reading Facebook and Twitter (it was cut-down day for the Raiders roster, but I digress...) and then I noticed this guy was stuck. He was literally too afraid to jump down. Minutes went by, many minutes went by. Gineth and I decided the weather looked threatening enough that it was definitely time to go and start heading down and onto Windom. As we left the summit we finally heard his “friends” coax him down off the block. No one else out of the 8 or so people would try this ridiculous and pointless exercise.

We started back down the crumbly slopes of Sunlight, later joined by our co-climbers/followers/whatever as they had finally persuaded the friend down from the Sunlight block. Friend #3 whizzed by us and stumbled clumsily down ahead of us. There seemed to be some confusion about the best way across the scree onto the Windom slopes. That was about the time I looked at Gineth, and she looked back at me (of course, she’s always ahead of me) and we communicated telepathically. Time to leave this group of idiots.

Descending Sunlight towards Windom

I eventually caught up to Gineth and we started climbing Windom Peak properly. Windom isn’t really a technical type of a climb. It reminded me more of the collegiate peaks actually, in that it was a lot of boulder hopping and that sort of thing. We made it up to what they call the “notch” on Windom. We were well behind our former comrades at this point. But it really didn’t matter. We had long since written them off as “climbing” partners. Still, we were using them as gauge to our own progress, which was looking seriously in question due to the oncoming stormy looking clouds.

Heading up Windom

The climbing on Windom is less than class 3, but its still difficult at times. There  are no places you feel like you might be in danger of falling, but you definitely have spots where you have to muscle your way up. All this time we were looking to the south, making sure the little black cloud we saw wasn’t heading our way too fast. Eventually that cloud scattered of the east of us. We made it up to the summit and found ourselves in some perfect weather. We started getting a feel for cloud watching at this point - the paths the clouds seem to take and how much time that would buy us. Although we got a rogue hailstorm on us on the way down, there was never any lightning danger and sure enough, after we had cleared off the mountain completely the skies re-opened back and it was a lovely day.

As we made our way back down we noticed the multitudes of mountain goats around on the surrounding hills. We were actually surprised to this point, as I had heard about their abundance in these parts, yet to this point we had not seen a single one. That would change quickly. We arrived back in camp to see several goats just milling around all over. Completely unafraid of people, they seemed oblivious to our presence. I like mountain goats. They are pretty cute animals in my opinion.
Mountain goats on the slopes

That night we went to sleep with this plan: get up same time as yesterday, climb Eolus and North Eolus, and if there were still enough time we would high tail it down to the tracks and hopefully catch the 3:35 train. According to all the trip reports I had read, that was the way to do it. If this could be done, it would save us a whole vacation day, which was very enticing. What could go wrong?

At some point towards midnight as we slept, I awoke to hear the tap, tap, tap of raindrops on the tent.  This was soon to be followed up by on outright downpour. While soothing (I’ve always found the sound of rain on the tent to be relaxing and sleep-inducing) this was very troublesome for our early morning wake up and climb plans. Sure enough, when 4am rolled around, the rain was still coming down as steadily as ever.

Goats amuck in our camp!

I actually thought we weren’t going to climb at all this day. Certainly not if the rain continued, were we going to try our luck on Class 3 rock and the infamous Eolus Catwalk in slippery conditions. When we had parked in Durango, I had paid for an extra day parking ($7) for just such a contingency, so I wasn’t worried about leaving without getting the summits - yet. But I just did not especially think the rain was going to let up once it started, especially since all those forecasts I had previously read always said 70% chance of rain every day. I somewhat resolved us to a rest day, and uncomfortably as always fell back asleep.

We both awoke about the same time, the sun was up and the rain had stopped. A quick glance at the time showed it to be 6:30. Immediately gone was the idea that we would rest this day. The climb was definitely on. This morning we drank some coffee and took our time getting ready. I knew that our late start had effectively erased any chance we had to make the summits, descend and make the train that day. For sure we would have to endure one more tent night, and that removal of pressure actually was a load off our shoulders. All we had to do was summit Eolus and North Eolus, and we had all day to do it.

Going up the trail was much easier in the daylight, especially in the slabby section obviously. But also, it was really nice to see the rest of the trail in the daylight as well. It is a beautiful trail, the trail up to the Twin Lakes. Very green vistas, full of waterfalls in almost every direction await the climbers who hike this amazing trail. Indeed, it was inspiring to look back towards the Chicago Basin and see this pristine and remote Paradise all around.

The way to the Eolus’ is quite a bit easier walking than the way to Sunlight/Windom. As you get to the base of the massif it gets much steeper, but overall the trail is pretty good and easy to follow. We pretty easily navigated our way up the slopes to the notch, where the first bit of Class 3 climbing shows up. There, we bottlenecked up with the other groups on the mountain that day, parts of whom had been on the mountains we had climbed the day before with us. Before ascended this first section we stashed our trekking poles, confident that this area would be a safe cache point for them.

This section is  not extremely hard climbing, and there were plenty of hand and footholds. It did take a little figuring it, but definitely was a lot of fun. When you reach the top of the notch, you can see clearly what you have before you - you are on the Catwalk. We had decided to climb Mt Eolus first, as it is the harder of the two. North Eolus in fact, is by all accounts that we had heard (and later verified to be true ourselves) is a much easier climb on easier rock.

We started off across the Catwalk, part of a larger group of climbers all crossing about the same time. Most of the Catwalk really isn’t hard, its just that it gets pretty narrow in a few sections. The drop off to the north is particularly precipitous. So we didn’t just run across it, even though its rated Class 2 - and justifiably so. Finally we made it across, and looked up at Mt Eolus, which from this perspective looked quite daunting indeed.

Before we climb a 14er, I usually spend a good amount of time studying the route, usually by memorizing the route descriptions I print out from This time, however, Gineth and I were far from alone on the climb. We found ourselves, willingly or unwillingly, part of a bigger group, like it or not. Everyone was climbing about the same speed,  so there was no way to make very much separation.  As such, when we started climbing up Eolus, we generally followed whoever was going first, sort of a pack mentality thing.. The group began by making some pretty obvious by generally wise route-finding decisions. But I couldn’t help but notice the two in front, a younger couple, start to make some choices that were decidedly against what the 14ers directions had described. In particular, they had said to stay towards the center/left, and we were very much headed off to the right. I started reminding people of this, but not many people seemed interested, as they were still making progress up the slopes. Finally, the ones in front hit the inevitable roadblock - end of Class 3 climbing and into Class 4 or 5 looking stuff.

That was when my Gineth took over, thankfully. She commandeered the group, and started going up what was to her the easier way - and just so happens that way agreed with what I had read in our 14er directions. Before I knew it, we were shouting up at people above us who were already on the summit, and just like that we were soon there ourselves. And then the rest of the group piled in behind us - and the Eolus summit is not a big one particularly.

While it was nice to have company on the summit for a change, so many of these we had summitted and been the only ones - it was a little frustrating as one guy sat right on the summit marker and started eating his lunch. Who does that? Nevertheless we got some good summit photos and there was a little cliff and Gineth was abl
e t
o get one of her summit/cliff photos. Again, these summits were the only places around one could get internet signal, so I was able to quickly catch up on the world before we took off for our descent.

The walk back across the Catwalk seemed for whatever reason a little more exciting than the walk towards Eolus had been. Maybe because it’s a little more going up, or maybe I was just more aware of that drop on the north side. Whichever, we made our way across and then up North Eolus, which was just as we had been told, a pretty easy climb up on rock that was very grippy, although a little sharp to the ungloved fingertips. Again, we shared our  summit with the “group” but waited as long as we could so we could be the last ones to leave. After all, we were in no hurry. We weren’t making a train today, and we really had nothing else to do. It was also 11:30am, and no sign of any kinds of threatening weather could be seen.

With a great sense of accomplishment we headed down. We had knocked out the 4 Chicago Basin peaks, an important milestone on the way to climbing all the Colorado 14ers. North Eolus was our 49th summit on our list of 58, and many in the “group” were at a similar number. There was one guy for whom it was his 4th 14er, but everybody else was in the 40’s. So in that sense the “group” really was together, no one really stood out as having more or less experience, as we all had about equal the amount of peaks under our belts.

We did have a surprise waiting for us back where we had stashed our trekking poles. Seems a friendly mountain marmot had decided to snack on the handles of Gineth’s poles! I’ve never worried about this happening before, seems Eolus marmots are hungry marmots.

Gineth and I made our way back down to the Twin Lakes. There we lingered and drank in the sights of the beautiful basin, the pretty alpine tarns, and the herds of mountain goats effortlessly roaming up and down the craggy cliffs. We sat by the lake and rested and napped for a couple of hours. I don’t think in all the 14ers we had ever done that we have had a chance like that to just relax and let the majesty of the mountains soak in. We not only had no other place to be, there was no other place we would rather be right at that moment.

The last thing I have to say about our Chicago Basin trip maybe will touch on a little more political issue, or conservation issue to be specific. When we got back into camp that afternoon, we just relaxed and were generally bored. I was walking around a little bit, just trying to kill time, and came upon two guys dressed in camouflage who were walking quietly up the trail. I wasn’t really thinking about hunters, honestly. I kind of stupidly asked them if they were climbing. No, it turns out one of them had a goat tag.

A few years ago, when we first started climbing 14ers, we had come across two mountain goat hunters while climbing a double summit hike of Mt Oxford and Mt Belford. I remember asking them about their hunt, and them telling us how they had to climb over these two 14ers to find a goat, and then lug the kill back over the mountains and get him out. To me then, mountain goat hunters seemed like the biggest badasses in the hunting world. Climb 2-14ers and then back with a huge animal! Crap, that must take a lot of work, and they were really earning their reward.

But to meet mountain goat hunters in Chicago Basin was just the opposite. Really? You’re going to hunt goats here? To me, it’s tantamount to walking into a herd of cows, and popping one point blank. Where is the “hunt” in this? Where is the challenge, the sport? We would later see these guys later on, as we were about to get on the train. They came running down the trail, smiling from ear to ear. Proudly telling some other hunters (a group of young men who looked to be in the early 20’s, and had come out empty-handed) about their victorious kill and how they had “Got ‘er done”. What a bunch of pussies. You went up and killed a  goat that wasn’t afraid of humans at all. We had them in our freaking camp at night, for godssakes. Now I think mountain goat hunters are the biggest wussbags in the hunting world. Oh well…

I probably ended up getting us out of camp too early the next morning, just because I didn’t want to see them bring a bloody goat down through our campsite. I had just felt too close to these creatures, these masters of mountaineering, to see one picked off by some cowardly redneck trying to prove his masculinity. We ended up waiting at Needleton for quite a few hours because of this, and in the end Elmer Fudd still caught the same train we were on.  By this point I was just ready to get back to civilization. Finally the train arrived, and we were on our way. We drank a couple of Durango Dark Lagers, and that’s when I noticed there was soot, like everywhere. Should have sat in a covered car, I guess. It wasn’t right away we were back in town either. The train picked us at about 3:45, and we got to Durango at 6. But the best thing is this was a trip we wouldn’t have to do again.

The next day, we were headed up towards the Telluride, and our first look at the Wilson Group - Mt Wilson, El Diente Peak, and Wilson Peak. The only one we planned for this year was Wilson Peak, because, well, from what I can tell, Mt Wilson and El Diente are super talus-filled crumbly ankle killers, and with Gineth leaving for Carstenz in little over a week, we needed to keep her healthy. So this was really more of a get to know the area part of the trip. And the Wilson’s had always looked a little intimidating to me too. I remember seeing them from the summit of Mt Sneffels - and I hated the Sneffels climb. They looked like more of the same .

Telluride the town itself I thought was really cool. I vaguely remembered coming here as a child, and hiking up to one the waterfalls east of town with my Dad. Definitely after roughing it for so many days in Chicago Basin it was nice to be in more modern comforts, take the gondola and drink some micro-brews. We had a great time at Tomboy Tavern, and also at Smuggler’s Brew Pub, where we watched the USMNT-Costa Rica soccer game. (We lost :( - making Gineth happy) and enjoyed also many a good brew at Tracks in the Mountain Village.

Back to the mountains, though. We decided on the newly-opened Rock of Ages trailhead, and took some time to find it the day before we were going to climb. Good thing too - although the turnoff to Silver Pick rd is visible on the eastbound side from Placerville, there is no sign coming from Telluride. We went all the way to Placerville and had to backtrack our way. So many times in Colorado I don’t get a chance to see these roads until it is like 3am, so it was good to actually see what we had to drive in the daylight. The road is rough, but easily do-able for a high clearance 2WD. (There’s one creek crossing I might be hesitant to do with a small car)

So the next morning we headed back out to the trailhead. We got there just as daylight struck. It’s great they’ve opened up this trailhead for Wilson Peak. It makes the peak easily do-able in just a dayhike. We easily navigated our way up - until we hit the “Rock House” or “Rock Hotel”  - I think technically it was a hotel, where the trail seemed to peter out. We couldn’t figure out which way to go. We saw people way up higher, and so decided to head straight up to where they were. This is what our 14er directions saidFrom the rock house, you will need to do some brief route finding. Look directly south up on the steep slope to see the remnants of the Silver Pick mine. Just to the left of the mine, locate a dirt "trail" that leads up to the mine. From the rock house, walk across and then up some talus. There's not a great trail here, just continue south up talus until you spot the best way to reach the base of the slope.”

So I thought, OK. We’ll just head up towards those guys. We were passing mine debris everywhere. It was also really, really steep. Was this the trail? We looked down and saw some folks who were following behind us - but they had gone over to the east and looked to be on a regular trail down there - although a flat area and we were climbing. We continued on up our way, and it seemed we had taken a really swell shortcut. We reached a switchback point, and regained a regular trail, from which we could see those behind us ascending up. Oh well, I liked our way better, even if it was a bit of a steeper climb.

Headed up to the saddle from the rock hotel

We reached the saddle, and I did something I have not done many times in the mountains. The mountain I thought we were climbing was the wrong mountain. I guess I had not study the route quite enough, and I thought we were climbing what turned out to be Gladstone Peak, a 13er. We traversed across just like the directions said to, but then at a point Gineth pointed to some climbers above us and said “That’s the way we go.” My first thought, honestly, was “No it isn’t, those guys must be climbing the 13er” - ah, but then I checked my directions once  again. Good thing I have my guiding light Gineth with me. She makes sure I never climb the wrong mountain.

Back on track, we started up the Class 3 ledges. A climber has two options here, the class 3 ledges or descend 100’ or so and climb back up, keeping things class 2 or so. We definitely decided upon the class 3. We just didn’t feel like going down and back up again. There is a little bit of route finding involved, and as almost always, a bit of deciphering between good cairns and cairns that just don’t make a lot of sense. We reached the ridge at last and followed it up to the false summit.

What we had before looked daunting. It really looks bad, looking at the summit of Wilson Peak from the false summit. Wanting to be able to move more efficiently, I cached my backpack. I’ve really got to get myself a better, slimmer, more fit for rock climbing/scrambling backpack. I was still climbing with my expedition North Face Prophet - way overboard. Definitely I felt better without it, as I descended down to a cairn I could see below, on some very challenging terrain.

Wilson Peak Summit block

This was when Gineth busted out the neon green tape. We carry this with us sometimes on harder climbs. It really does help us see - especially on the way down - how we go up a route. We always clean the tape on the way down - always leave no trace. But the neon green tape is easy to see, and definitely acts as a climb-by-the-numbers especially on the way down. We got up to the summit, and it was fantastic. Our 50th Colorado 14er, and it felt very  good. Wilson Peak is a very fun climb, and goes down as one of my favorites. The summit block was tough, but plenty of handholds and footholds made it a blast.

And thus wrapped up our Colorado 2013 campaign. We did get a dayhike in of the Kilpacker approach of El Diente. It’s very beautiful, and I can’t wait to do it next year. I’m a little undecided if we should do the famous traverse to Mt Wilson, or just do separate climbs. Obviously the traverse would be epic, I’ve heard it’s very hard. The approach to Wilson from the north looks - ugh - talus scree blah. But we will see. Until next year Colorado….

Hope we can finish next year. If not, it's still will be good to go to Colorado again. Call it a win/win.