Chicago Basin: Bagging 3 Fourteeners

Chicago Basin lake peaks

Twin Lakes area in the bowl of all 3 Peaks.

(Notes from our hike in August, 2016)

This photo barely scratches the surface of the beauty of the Chicago Basin area of southwest Colorado, and it was a trip we’d hoped to make for many years. Because of all the details involved, it only came together this summer. Once you book your train tickets 3-4 week in advance, there’s not much of a refund, so you don’t have the luxury of waiting for a prime weather weekend and then deciding to climb mountains. Our forecast had “monsoon” in it and we did get rained or hailed on every day at some point. It was a 5+ hour drive to Durango where we spent the night. The next day involved a 3 hour train ride, and then a 4 hour hike to camp at around 11,000 ft, climbing 3000 ft in around 7 miles (with rather heavy packs, I might add).

Chicago Basin MJ waterfall

Me at the first waterfall/creek crossing.

Our campsite is just on the approach to get where you can climb the peaks, so it’s not all butterflies and waterfalls to get to Chicago Basin. About 8 total backpackers got off the train when we did and quite a few others were getting on the train. Some hiked up there to camp, fish, knit (not kidding), or hike Columbine Pass and chill at the Twin Lakes area. Not everyone had 14ers as their goal. After doing laundry in the creek & having dinner, we crashed around 8-8:30 pm. You can’t build a fire (wilderness rule) & it gets into the 40s at night, so you might as well rest your bones.

Day 2 – 8.5 hours hiking (Fitbit gave me 27,000 steps), 1000s of calories consumed, our first encounters with goats, and temps that had us starting in down coats and gloves, and Tim later going shirtless. Based on our last glimpse at the weather report, we decided to hike Mt. Eolus first.

We figured we could get up and down that peak before the storms. Not so. We got hailed on before we got to the summit, then it paused for about an hour and then we got hailed on again on the descent. There was thunder but thankfully no lightening. (Hiking above tree line in a storm will increase your prayer life. Just sayin’.) The rocks were slippery and Tim wiped out and slid down a rock slab, ripping his shorts on the seam. These were the only ones he packed so thankfully, the tear was not obvious. I slipped and crashed a few times as well and still have the bruises and scratches to prove it. My britches, for those wondering, stayed intact. On a more positive note, the wildflowers were everywhere and we met many hikers along the way to give us their take on the peaks. “Absolutely terrifying,” said one about The Catwalk we would later face. Another hiker gave us his printed pictures of routes up Sunlight & Windom, so we felt better prepared for those. Some hikers were doing all 3 mountains in one day, so we felt rather old and slow in comparison. They also started at 4 am and we’re not a fan of finding a new trail that way. Needless to say, a hot dinner and glass of wine were very nice rewards for our efforts.

Day 3 – 2 mountains, 10.5 hrs of hiking (Fitbit said 25,000 steps), some close calls on tricky cliffs and we started the day running out of camp stove fuel. That’s what happens when you try to keep your pack too light & don’t bring an extra Jetboil canister. Breakfast was cold water in cups with instant coffee and an oatmeal pack stirred in for a jet-powered start. Thankfully, we had plenty of other food options that did not require cooking. We headed up Windom first and encountered a few more hikers.

This was billed as a Class 2 mountain and not one person we met agreed with the rating. There was route-finding which means “frequently clueless but climbing upward, scanning for cairns.” I turned my phone on at the top, got a signal and texted (our adult kids) Dylan and Tess that we had “2 down, 1 to go.” I quickly switched it back to airplane mode to save battery power as this was my only camera — and the wonderful recharging battery I had just purchased & brought along did not come with the right adapter for my phone. Nice thing to discover after you’ve hauled it 7 miles. Grrr.

The traverse from Windom to Sunlight was sketchy. More route-finding. We almost bailed since Tim’s legs were fatiguing and he wasn’t sure he wanted to exert another 1000 ft vertical to reach the summit. The weather looked great, so we went for it, slowly picking our way up the gully. I’m fairly sure we were off the suggested route when I had Tim pull me across a crevasse with a hiking pole and a leap of faith. What were we thinking in that thin air? We somehow wound up on different sides of the stupid cliff, and quickly realized those shenanigans were not exactly safe for people who get senior discounts. We regrouped & scrambled up a scree gully and made it close to the top of Sunlight where we stopped. Our rock-climbing skills are basic at best and we know our limits. Well, usually. No other hikers were near, so we took a few pics and found a safer way down.

At one point on the descent, we heard yelling from neighboring Windom Peak and later learned that a man fell and sprained his ankle. He was able to hobble back down to the lake while his buddies went up Sunlight. Turns out, they were camped somewhat near us, so we chatted a couple of times. As anticipated, we ran into some rain before reaching camp at 4:30 pm and it was a glorious thing to take those boots off. At least we were hiking with light packs and didn’t run out of water. Our trekking poles were bending at the tip, so I think they’ve seen their last trip since we got them in 2004. Yay for REI products, but they don’t replace things that old, in case you’re wondering.

Dinner was smoked salmon, Manchego cheese, summer sausage and creme brûlée. And probably some chocolate. You never run out of chocolate in the mountains. It’s a rule. In anticipation of breakfast, we decided to re-hydrate a foil pack of camp eggs with various added goodies. Yes, they’d be cold, but slightly better than oatmeal swimming in cold coffee, right?

Day 4 – We could sleep in! And the day was all downhill.  But who can sleep in when it’s been 9 hrs since you went to the bathroom!? (Just keeping’ it real.) Ha. According to my Fitbit, this leisure day was still 25,000 steps. We had a lot of wet gear, so up went the clothesline with tent fly, bags, etc. to dry out. The goats arrived – 4 of them – after we noshed our way through cold eggs. They kept us entertained as we packed up.

It was nice to take our time hiking back to the train station 7 miles away, but it started pouring before we got there and it felt 2 miles longer than it should have. We huddled under a tree on a rock by the river and dug out the rain gear again while waiting for the train. Despite no showers for 4 days, we were still feeling rather “fresh” in light of all the exertion. Rinsing clothes and having a creek near camp helps. Tim even shaved one morning! At least 15 hikers were returning from the wilderness that day, so we took our place together in the open boxcars for the 3 hour journey back to Durango. That’s when we realized that we should have packed some cash or a debit card. While the others were enjoying cold beers, popcorn and (whimper) a hot latte, we sucked on our camelback hoses and snacked on yet more nuts. LOL. Truly, we were thrilled to be in one piece, to have accomplished so much for our age, and be able to sit on a cushion and watch the beautiful scenery. Lots of prayers of thanksgiving went up.

Once we got to Durango, we had to hoist our monster packs one more time to the parking lot. In search of some hot food, we had to settle for Subway offerings in the car while we drove our dirty selves back to Colorado Springs. We arrived around midnight and left the whole mess of unpacking for the next day. It was great to see (our Golden Retriever) Moxie, get a hot shower and sleep in our own bed.

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