Peak(s):  Mt. Eolus  -  14,087 feet
Windom Peak  -  14,089 feet
Sunlight Peak  -  14,061 feet
North Eolus  -  14,042 feet
Date Posted:  03/16/2014
Date Climbed:   03/10/2014
Author:  Yikes
Additional Members:   Mickeys Grenade
 Winter summits in Chicago Basin   

Expedition Team: Mickeys Grenade (Jeff) and yikes (Jim)
Dates: Fri 3/7 - Sat 3/15
Length: ~40 miles
Elevation Gain: 13,000+

Fri - Prologue
Several months ago, Jeff invited me along for a week's worth of Winter 14ers. He proposed Chicago Basin, which I thought was crazy. Too many miles, too much elevation gain, peaks too difficult in winter. So I said "sure", hoping a last minute storm would provide an easy excuse to avoid the misery. We also talked about having a backup plan in case the area received too much snow. Nothing specific, maybe Mt Wilson or something in the Elks. Jeff attempted to round up I Man, but he had to bail due to work commitments. So we were down to two. Could we do it with only two? The prior week, Silverton received 33" snow in a single storm and I had visions of breaking trail in 2-3' of new snow. Could I even winter camp for 6 nights, when I go stir crazy after a single night? The 11+ hours per night in a tent tests my patience. I figured I would haul a 500 page novel to help reduce the boredom.
We set out from Denver on Friday at 3pm (Jeff was nice enough to drive back across town and pick me up), and we began the drive from hell. The 3pm start was too late to avoid the ice storm that hit 285. Traffic was at a crawl through the Conifer area due to multiple accidents. Cars were sliding off the road sideways when they came to a stop. I really wanted to say "let's turn around and try again tomorrow", but we continued on. Slowly. 5 hrs just to Salida. Since we were several hours behind schedule, we decided to have a quick bite at Salida Burger King. Closed. Out of Business. What fast food joint ever goes out of business? Oh well, guess we have to lower ourselves to McDonalds (not a fan). We continued over Poncha Pass where we just missed a rollover accident. Several cars already stopped to help, so we continued southward. The roads improved a little and after 9.5hrs we finally reached Durango. We stayed at the Super 8 and hit the sack after midnight.

Sat - Riding the rails
Durango is very dry, with no snow to be seen. Our train was scheduled to depart at 10. So we ate a quick bite at the hotel (they have one of those make-your-own-waffle machines, yea) and drove over to the station. The ticket salesperson seemed confused how to ring up ticket for a layover. She wanted to charge me for a ticket in each direction. I asked about the "local discount" and she nodded and it rang out at $60ish per person. She mentioned it being "dry" at Cascade, so hope was rising that we wouldn't have to wallow in significant amounts of snow. There isn't a boxcar on the winter train, so we had to drag our packs through the narrow doors and stash them next to the trash cans. The train was about as fun as a train can be, which is not much fun at all. All of the rocking and coal smoke was upsetting my stomach and burning my throat. And there is nothing as tranquil as a 3 year old boy with a coal cinder in his eye. Good thing for him the train had the "don't throw objects out the windows" signs. We were dropped off at Cascade around 12:15 and made the conductor promise he would come back in 6 days.
We hiked up the Animas River Trail instead of the railroad tracks. We weren't sure about the existence of any snow bridges and I was nervous about trespassing on the tracks. The trail is fairly easy, being that it parallels the railroad grade. The trail was about one-third snow, one-third dry and one-third ice. I don't think I have ever hiked on that much ice before. Our winter packs were loaded with camping gear, 7 days of food, avy gear, snowshoes, crampons, etc. I wasn't able to weigh the pack before we left, but I think it exceeded the "comfort factor: 35-55 pounds" that the backpack was labeled with. We had to be careful with such heavy packs since it is easy for the weight to stress our joints or carry us off balance. The trail only gains 500' over the 6-7 miles, so the effort wasn't too bad. But there was one needless hill with 6 or so switchbacks, immediately dropping back to the starting elevation.

Jeff early on the Animas Trail

Snow on the Animas Trail

After reaching Needle Creek, we donned the snowshoes since the snow quickly deepened and started the trudge up the trail. We spent a cold night, camping at a nice flat area next to the New York Creek bridge.

Sun - Muling up Needle Creek
We spent about six hours hauling the packs up to high camp, mid basin. At which point we collapsed from the effort. I'm not used to such a heavy pack.
Snow is deeper in Needle Creek

Needle Creek trail

Reaching 11,000 upper camp

We found a nice spot in the trees where we proceeded to set up camp.
Jeff's kitchen

After camp was arranged, we broke trail most of the way to the lakes.

Heading up valley

In the middle basin, I proposed following summer route which would have required a bit of side hilling. Jeff decided to check out the creek drainage to avoid the side hill ankle twist. He found the route usable, but busted through the snow into the running creek on the way back down. Only the size of his snowshoes prevented him from getting soaked.
Heading up to the lakes

Mon - Looking for warmth on Sunlight
Monday was slated for Sunlight and Window. We made quick work to the lakes since the trail was already broken. We closely followed the summer route: up to the saddle, traverse below the rocks and follow the cairns up through the hole. Jeff thought about bringing a 20 meter rope to protect the final moves, but I talked him out of carrying the extra weight. Fortunately, the summit block was dry and no more difficult than in summer.


Above the lakes, looking back to Eolus

Hiking to Sunlight

Reaching the rocks below the saddle


Negotiating the Sunlight rocks

Sunlight summit


Descending Sunlight


After retracing our steps down the steep snow slopes, we had to make a decision on Windom. Although we were tired from Sunlight, we didn't want to have to hike back up the 2000', so we decided to proceed. There was a slight deviation from the summer route, going straight up through some rocks to avoid the loaded slopes at the saddle. The ridge hike wasn't technically difficult, but we were tired and made slow progress to the summit.
Heading to Windom ridge

Snow flurries

Heading back to camp

That night was very windy, making it difficult to sleep.

Tuesday - Are you okay?
We were one day ahead of schedule. So I decided upon a rest day at camp, while Jeff decided to break trail to treeline on Jupiter. Lying in my tent, enjoying my novel, a helicopter went screaming directly overhead. I figured it was heading to some distant place, but the sound continued for a while. I jumped out and walked to the clearing to see what was happening. Oh crap, the helicopter was Flight for Life and was making numerous passes over Sunlight and Windom. Oh crap, they must be looking for us. I knew Jeff had a Spot and saw him press it numerous times, but we didn't talk about specifics. Since he was breaking trail on Jupiter at the time and couldn't provide details, I was thinking maybe he hit the "911" by accident on Monday. The helicopter finally came back down valley and flew overhead. I was hoping it saw me so they would know we were alright. It returned a few minutes later and set down several hundred feet from camp. Leo from La Plata County Search and Rescue jumped out, sunk to his thighs in the deep snow and struggled over to meet me. Their response was due to numerous "unsent" messages from the Spot device. It was successful on Sunlight, but not on Windom or when we returned to camp. So concerned individuals feared we fell off the Sunlight summit block and the sheriff decided to send in the helicopter. After explaining the situation, Leo jumped aboard and the helicopter flew down the valley. Jeff came running back down the trail a few minutes later fearing the worst. That somehow an avalanche wiped out camp, I managed to call for help and the helicopter came to rescue me. The joys of being out in the middle of nowhere.

Wed - "That's what we're here for"
Showtime, Eolus. This was the peak we were most worried about. Would the ridge provide too much of a challenge? Was there too much avy danger in the basin? We heading back up the trail to the lakes and started breaking trail up the basin below Eolus. We went straight up to the rock band since it felt like an area of safety, staying below the ramp on the summer route. Above the ramp, we made a quick ascent up the snow slopes to the saddle where snowshoes were finally removed.
Jim hiking up to Eolus

We are heading to the rocks below the ramp

Eolus ridge

Starting the catwalk

Up on the ridge

Jim on Eolus ridge

Jeff on Eolus summit

Jim on Eolus summit

Jeff on N Eolus with Eolus ridge behind

The ridge looks very scary from afar, but route is fairly straightforward when you concentrate on one section at a time. The summer route on the face looked awful; I can't imagine anyone making any progress in the very steep snow. On the ridge, a lot of the rocks were dry on top due to several days of sun and we didn't have to clear off much snow. Any steps in snow were made cautiously, ensuring we wouldn't posthole or stumble on buried rocks. We moved quicker than expected and happily reached the summit. The descent down the ridge went smoothly. There was one crux where we had to work some ice-axe trickery to stretch across a wide gap.

From the saddle, we quickly climbed up North Eolus where we were treated to great views of Eolus. Back down to the saddle and made haste to get down the steeper snow slopes before they turned to slush. We were back to camp by 1:30pm, a much shorted day than I had feared.

Thursday - Why Jupiter?
Jupiter. Jeff said we should climb it since we were there; just in case we ever want to work on the "Centennials in Winter" list. I have very few items on my "I will never..." list. I will never own a minivan; I will never try Rocky Mountain Oysters. I'm pretty sure "I will never try to complete the Centennials in Winter" can be added to the list. Since Jeff was nice enough to have already trenched the route to treeline and we had nothing but time to kill, I decided to submit myself to some more suffering.
Jeff made a nice, albeit steep, trench to treeline. The snow was a lot deeper on that side of the valley. From treeline we went straight up; no switchbacks like you might consider in summer. We ended up wearing the snowshoes all the way to the summit rocks.

Jupiter ridge



After a quick rest on the summit, we hiked back to camp. We quickly packed up and started to hike down to the Animas River. The initial plan was to reach the river where there are lots of flat areas to camp and then hike the remaining distance the following morning.
With much surprise, we ran into (Mad) Mike, Joe, and Dwight starting up Needle Creek. It was nice seeing other people in such a remote location. We provided some beta and wished them luck. Running into "The A-team" reinvigorated our spirits and we decided to buck up and try to reach Cascade that night.
I did okay until the last few miles, where I started running on fumes. I knew once we reached Cascade that I wouldn't have to bear the heavy pack again, so I struggled on and we reached the train stop at dark. We started a small fire in the pavilion and stared at the flames for an hour or so before we crawled into our tents, happy to be done.

Friday - Hot dogs and Crab Legs
I had a much better sleep at Cascade. No more worries about difficult ridge climbs, no more worries about missing the train. All we had to do was wait. The maintenance crew showed around 8:30, asking how our night went and fortunately didn't give us any grief over camping on their property or using their firepit.
Jim napping at Cascade

The train showed up at 12:30. The conductor gave us a little concern when he said our tickets were "from last week" and seemed confused. Fortunately there were several empty seats available and he gave us approval to ride. After hauling our packs on board, we raced to the concession car and ordered hot dogs and beer. Both were outstanding.
The ride back went okay. My stomach wasn't bothered by the rocking, I didn't notice the coal smoke (since we were sitting in the front car?) and no children screamed in pain from coal-cinder-in-the-eye syndrome.
Heading back to Durango; a little tired

After getting back to town, we once again shouldered the heavy packs and hiked amongst the tourists back to the parking lot. We booked another night at the Super 8, where I called the Sherriff and begged for forgiveness. I had a lengthy discussion with "Butch", and it seemed to end well when I provided my CORSAR number. Hopefully he will be able to reclaim the $2000 helicopter bill from the S&R fund.
That night we enjoyed a few beers and the "Cajun Boil" at the Steamworks in Durango; highly recommended.
Jeff's favorite in Durango - Cajun Boil

Jeff fell asleep around 8, while I struggled with thoughts of going back to the real world and didn't crash until after 11.

Sat - Easy sailing
We had breakfast at the hotel (this time I had two waffles). It took 6 hrs to Denver with a few quick stops to stretch our legs. Much better than the 9.5hrs it took to get to Durango. Happy to be home. Happy to have accomplished our goals. Happy to be done for the winter. 11 summits. Not bad.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
This looks like a great time
03/17/2014 04:51
Pics and narrative tell a pretty solid story.
Thanks for posting.

Great Report!
03/17/2014 04:57
Awesome photos, awesome trip! Looks like you all had a great time out there - congrats on a hell of a trip!

a week in Chicago Basin...
03/17/2014 05:26 winter - nice job!

”I‘m pretty sure ”I will never try to complete the Centennials in Winter” can be added to the list” - haha

looks like one heck of trip!

03/17/2014 11:42
Thanks for the vicarious thrills. LOVE that camp at the RR bridge--stayed there many times.

03/17/2014 14:05
Very nice hard earned peaks! I was there in the summer, but no matter, I blew off Jupiter anyway! The pride of hardwork was evident in your post ride back! If I ever get back down there, I will have to try Steamworks' Cajun Boil. Hopefully it will be hot enough to make me smile, otherwise I will probably chuckle a little and ask for more red pepper!

Silly SPOTs
03/17/2014 14:26
I canceled my subscription last year for the same reason, after nearly giving my mom a heart attack in the PNW when like one in every three messages went through.

Other than that, looks like a perfect trip. You two had a very successful winter season. Congrats! And yes, the Cajun Boil at Steamworks is a stellar way to end...

sweet success
03/17/2014 15:06
Congrats guys! I'm not a winter 14er goal oriented person, but Chi-Basin is one of those places I would like to visit in winter.

Maybe you should have asked the helicopter to come back in a couple of days to give you a ride out?!

SPOTS....I've been receiving Mike's and his have gone through without problems that I can tell. His tracking was on too and working. Interesting.

I Man
Congrats guys!!
03/17/2014 15:51
Beyond stoked for you and really wishing I could have gone. Very proud of you both for a strong winter though. Jeff, I know we didn't get out much this season but we will next year. The ridge on Eolus looks surprisingly doable.

With regards to SPOT, I also got every message from the Meisers in December. That with some other factors led me to worry and we made the decision to make the call. Live and learn. Glad you guys are safe.

A Very Quirky SPOT
03/17/2014 17:02
Jeff had multiple (at least 3, I think) contacts on his SPOT's, send to, list. Jeff activated the SPOT 12 times over the course of the 6 day trip. Only 10 of the 12 SPOT messages were actually transmitted successfully. The 2 failures occurred on Monday, and the helicopter showed up on Tuesday, about 26 hours after the last successful SPOT transmission. I received an email on all 10 of the successful transmissions. Jeff had himself as a contact, and he only received 7 of the 10 emails. That part really makes no sense to me.

Since it's obvious that SPOT has its flaws, maybe the thing to do when in remote/multiday situations such as this trip (or any trip for that matter), is to send multiple times from one location (moving around somewhat between transmissions), at least every 24 hours, in an effort to increase the chances of one of those getting out. Worst case scenario would be that your emergency SOS message did not go. That situation definitely calls for sending multiple times. Then again, in a dire situation, you are probably going to wear the darn thing out sending SOS messages anyway. Bottom line, be aware that SPOT is not entirely reliable.

Congrats to Jeff and Jim on a very ambitious undertaking. Nice work.

Congrats and question
03/17/2014 17:46
Hey guys, congrats on a successful trip. Looks like it went almost entirely according to plan.

Question: Not at all lecturing, but was the SPOT unit's face pointing skyward, and did the dual flashing lights indicate that the message was sent (e.g. fixed light)? I ask because I've had a near 100% success rate, it only fails when I'm in a hurry and don't give it time to send. I was in your neck of the woods last week (other side of Chicago Basin) in a relatively narrow canyon and had 100% success. Just weird.

But again congrats on a big undertaking and stellar success.


Nice job.
03/18/2014 15:45
Congrats guys! Way to take advantage of some good conditions.
I agree with d_baker: wish I'd spent a week in Chicago Basin in winter.

Nice job
03/25/2014 03:31
Great work and some cool photos. Like your own private mountain range huh!

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