(Last Updated On: January 20, 2016)
This is part of an ongoing series re-telling Brittany’s fourteener-skiing story. Look for the reports every Thursday, as part of a Throwback Thursday theme.
The Chicago Basin fourteeners always intrigued me. I mean, who wouldn’t want to get dumped off in the wilderness by a train and then hike in for miles to camp, and then have all kinds of peaks to ski? But, the timing wasn’t right for us until spring 2008. Alas, we made it happen.
Frank and I headed out to Chicago Basin to ski Mount Eolus, Mount Windom and Sunglight Spire along with our friends Jordan White and Jarrett Luttrell. Below is a slightly modified version of my original trip report.
Three of Colorodo’s most remote fourteeners (Windom, Sunlight, and Eolus) lay tucked away in the San Juans, towering over a scenic valley called the Chicago Basin. The basin was once home to some mining activity, although it never escalated to large-scale mechanized mining. Perhaps that is in our favor, as the basin still appears pristine and lovely. Before the miners, the land was enjoyed by the Weminuche, which were a band of Utes who inhabited the region at that time.
The shortest trail that leads into the Chicago Basin is only 6 miles long. However, the access to this trail is from the Durango and Silverton Railway. The basin can be accessed via other trails, but they are double the length at a minimum. Given that most people carry heavy packs with camping supplies, shorter is better 🙂 Besides, who doesn’t like taking a historical train ride?
To avoid exorbitant parking fees, we parked on the side streets of Durango and walked to the train station. The looks on people’s faces as we walked through town with our packs and skis was amusing 😀
Soon enough, we were bound for the train ride. The train is a fun and historical journey. The train between Silverton and Durango has been running for 125 years. Though once used for transportation purposes, the train is now mostly a tourist attraction. Generally, the only people who use it for a mode of transportation are the backpackers accessing places like Chicago Basin, such as ourselves.
Pigeon and Turret as seen from the train.
People who wish to access Chicago Basin don’t ride the train all the way to Silverton. Instead, they get off the train about 2/3 to 3/4 of the way to Silverton at a stop referred to as Needleton. We found ourselves there nearly 3 hours after leaving Durango. We said goodbye to civilization as the train parted, throwing us a giant bag of popcorn out the window as the chugged along.
And then I took a good look at my pack. Crap, I have to carry all this for 6 miles?
The skis and boots made an already heavy pack seem miserably heavy. But, we only had to hike 6 miles, so it couldn’t be that bad, right? Besides, snow-line is most likely an hour away. Off we went on our merry way, enjoying the stunning beauty.
We couldn’t have been more wrong. An “easy” trail turned to misery as many places it looked like this.
A winter of heavy snowfall wreaked havoc on the forest. It became obvious that through the winter avalanches had started high and had traveled far through the dense forest, causing more avalanche activity than this basin has seen in probably 100 years or so. What was supposed to be a scenic and enjoyable hike quickly turned to torture. Frank described it as “soul-crushing”, which is completely accurate.
Eventually, the forest opened up to the mountains. And we found ourselves in Chicago Basin. It had taken us 6 hours to travel 6-7 miles.
We found a fantastic campsite, nestled in some trees and very near a stream.
We went to bed happy to be settled in our camp, but fearing what forecasters had predicted for the weather the next day- snow and high winds. Our 4:30 wake-up was quickly shut down as we looked out to snow. We reset the wake-up time for a couple of hours later, and looked outside to a complete blizzard. So, back to bed it was. At 9:30 I opened my eyes to a very brightly lit tent. It was sunny outside, and the storm had broken.
The fresh snow and cold temperatures made a late start perfectly feasible for the time of year. We set our target on Mt. Eolus, and left camp at 11 am.
Mt. Eolus lies to the north side of Chicago Basin. A view as seen from near Sunlight and Windom to the East. The peak on the left is the true Mt. Eolus summit, often referred to as S. Eolus. North Eolus is on the right, and I am sure would make a fun ski.
But as we approached the couloir, the wind settled. And the rest of the day was fantastic!
Once we reached the top of the couloir we still had to climb north on the ridge to the summit.
We reached the summit around 3 pm and found the summit register ready for us to sign.
Brittany at the summit.
As always, the scenery was stunning. Arrow and Vestal.
In order to ski from the summit, we skied a few hundred vertical feet down the SW face. Frank ripping it from the summit.
Brittany skiing from the summit.
Frank skiing the couloir- full of powder!
We enjoyed the skiing in the upper basin as well.
We even got to ski some corn further down!
We were able to ski all the way back to camp.
After such a harsh day the day before, it was nice to have an easy day where everything went smoothly 🙂
A closer look at our line through the basin and up the couloir
After a day out on Mount Eolus, we were geared up for Windom and Sunlight Peaks the next day!