photo-A look at the East Coulour of South Eolus. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011.
I had been planning a trip into Chicago Basin for six months and the time was finally upon us. Joel and I had been hanging out around Lake City for a few days snowboarding and mountain climbing. On the 7th we left camp on Cinnamon pass and made our way to Durango.
We found a hotel next to the train station and started sorting gear. Over the course of the evening the rest of our group joined us. Sam had been hanging out in Durango for a bit paddling and bumming around since the season had ended in Vail/Beaver Creek. Ben had just finished his last final at CMC and drove out from Vail to join us. Pollo also drove up from Vail to join us on the 7th and Stuart arrived from Denver and went to Moab for a few days after our Chicago Basin trip.
We made last minute trips to the grocery store, sorted gear, and discussed the next day. Everything takes longer than you expect and it was after midnight before anyone was asleep.
We woke up at 6am on the 8th to catch our train from Durango to the Needleton Trailhead. Mt. Eolus and its adjacent 14ers, Sunlight and Windom sit in one of the most remote areas of Colorado, deep in the southern San Juan mountain range. There is an old train called the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge that mostly takes tourists for a scenic ride from Durango to Silverton and back. This train also serves as the staging ground for mountaineers accessing these peaks. The train makes a stop about 2/3s of the way to Silverton at the Needleton Trailhead. From there it is 6 miles and about 3000' of elevation gain to get to base camp at 10,900' in Chicago Basin. This was our goal for the 8th.
photo- from left to right; Stuart Paul and Dan Bogardus loading the train while Joel Paula and Ben Jordan look on. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011.
Another group from Avon was also going in. Dan Bogardus who is the manager at Bag and Pack at Avon and four others were a part of his group. Dan was one of the earlier snowboard mountaineers in Colorado. He started carrying his board up mountains in Colorado in the 90s. Somewhere along the way he was led astray by skis and now he skis primarily. Oh well, to each his own. Dan and his group were all great guys and we had fun with them over the course of the next few days. Anyway, 13 of us total loaded packs in the train and boarded the open air gondola car for the ride in to the trailhead.
photo- from left to right; Ricardo Moreno, Stuart Paul, Ben Jordan, Joel Paula, Zach Taylor, and Sam Jordan. photo by Sam Jordan, 2011.
photo- The Durango Silverton on the way to the Needleton Trailhead. photo by Ricardo Moreno, 2011.
photo- The train at the Needleton trailhead. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011.
After about two hours of riding on the train through hills and mountains above the Animas River the train stopped at the Needleton trailhead in the middle of the woods. The only other way to get to this drop off is by a 7 mile walk from Purgatory ski area. Then it is still another 6 miles to base camp in Chicago Basin. We all sorted and repacked gear and then began the grunt up Needle Creek towards Chicago Basin base camp.
photo- the crew unloading at the Needletone trailhead. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011.
photo- Zach Taylor getting ready to walk the bridge and begin the hike into Chicago Basin. photo by Joel Paula, 2011.
We planned on being in Chicago Basin for 6 days and 5 nights. We were hoping to climb Sunlight, Windom, both Eolus's, and whatever 13ers in the area that we would have time to after that. The weather ended up changing our plans a bit but that is what I have come to expect.
photo- Joel Paula at the Animas River bridge. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011.
photo- waterfall up Needle Creek. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011.
photo- from left to right; Ben Jordan, Sam Jordan, and Stuart Paul walking the Animas River bridge. photo by Ricardo Moreno, 2011.
The hike in took most of the rest of the day. I stopped and talked to one guy on his way out that said he had skied Sunlight, Windom, and both Eolus's that day. He said his name was Doug. I think the jury is still out on that one but it is quite possible he did what he claimed. There are a lot of badsasses out there and the weather was great that day.
We rolled into Chicago basin a couple hours before sunset and set up camp at about 11,000' just southwest of the big open field that sits at the head of the drainage. We had beef brisket for dinner and went to bed early hoping to climb Eolus the next day.
5/9/2011-I woke up at 3:00am to start hiking and it was dumping snow and windy outside so I stayed in my sleeping bag. No one attempted anything that day. By late morning Stuart, Pollo, and I got restless and toured up into upper Chicago Basin to about 12,500'. We dug a snow pit and checked out the snow. The snowpack was actually not real structured and seemed to be very stable. There was a mix of crusts and slabs which did not seem reactive to any tests. The new snow had come in overnight though so the old snow surface was frozen. We knew if we got a lot of new snow it would probably not bond well. At that point there was only a couple inches new though and the snow pack seemed good to go for the moment. Visiblity was horrible above treeline so we dropped into a fun little avalanche path and rode back to camp.
The rest of the day was spent hanging out at camp, building a snow fortress, stockpiling calories by consuming massive amounts of bacon, and whiskey/tequilla were passed around to help pass the time as well. Jim Holva and Marc Manko arrived from the train in the late afternoon making our group 8.
photo- Pollo and I proud of our snow fortress. photo by Stuart Paul, 2011.
photo- Zach Taylor hanging out at camp in the storm. photo by Ricardo Moreno, 2011.
We cooked Mountain Houses and extra dehydrated veggies for dinner and went to bed early.
5/10/2011- I woke up at 2:40am (20 minutes early) to Joel and Sam sounding an early wake up call. It was cold and I replied that I would be up at 3am. Everyone started getting out of their tents around 3:30 or so. We had warm sausage, bacon, and cheese English muffins, courtesy of Joel for breakfast and were skinning by 4:15am.
Our group split up into 2 groups of 4 a bit above treeline and took two slightly different approaches to the base of the East couloir.
photo- Joel Paula skinning below the east couloir. photo by Sam Jordan, 2011.
Jim said that he was not feeling well and elected to hang out in the basin below the east couloir and wait for our return. By this time Dan's group caught up with us making our group 14 going for the summit. We all dropped into line and kicked steps up the east couloir.
photo- Ben Jordan and Sam Jordan getting ready to start skinning in the dark. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011.
photo- Sam Jordan making his way up the east couloir of South Mt. Eolus, 2011.
Clouds swirled over head as we topped out of the couloir. The day had stayed cold, windy, and cloudy although the clouds stayed high enough to still allow decent visibility. According to Lou Dawson's guidebook the pitch of the couloir is 44 degrees. One member of our group measured it at 48 degrees with his inclinometer. I never pulled mine out unfortunately. Taking into account seasonal snow variability it is probably safe to say that the pitch angle runs somewhere in the above mentioned range though.
From the top of the couloir I looked up at the west face and was disappointed to not see a contionous line of snow. It would have taken some snow shoveling and rock moving but with a bit of time and work someone might be able to contrive a summit ski/snowboard descent this season. It is definetely very bony though for the last couple hundred feet.
With weather looking iffy and no one else interested in hanging out to help me piece together a summit descent I dropped my board at the top of the couloir with the rest of the group and scrambled the last section of ridge to South Eolus's summit.
photo- Zach Taylor on the summit of South Mt. Eolus. photo by Marc Manko, 2011.
We hurried back down to the top of the couloir and lined up to wait our turn for the couloir drop. One at a time 14 people skied down the couloir.
photo- A look down into the east couloir. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011.
photo- Ben Jordan skiing the east couloir of South Mt. Eolus. photo by Sam Jordan, 2011.
photo- Marc Manko snowboarding out the bottom of the east couloir of South Mt. Eolus, 2011.
Our group regrouped at about 12,800' in the basin and Joel and I decided to go give North Eolus a try since weather seemed to be staying stable and the rest of the group went back down to camp. As we started skinning back up the basin towards North Eolus we noticed that Dan's group had traversed from the bottom of the East couloir towards North Eolus as well. They were a bit ahead of us but it looked like they were headed the same direction.
Joel and I came to a short headwall that gave access to the east face/south ridge of North Eolus. We put on crampons, brought the axes back out, and continued up the headwall. We followed the headwall up to the ridge and dropped our snowboard/skis about 200' below the summit where snow stopped. We enjoyed a quick and easy third class scramble in crampons and snow boots to the summit of North Eolus.
photo- A look at our tracks in the East Couloir of South Mt. Eolus from North Mt. Eolus. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011.
photo- Joel Paula on the summit of North Eolus with South Eolus pictured in the background. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011.
photo- Zach Taylor on the summit of North Mt. Eolus with South Mt. Eolus pictured in the background. photo by Joel Paula, 2011.
The views of the surrounding peaks were even better from North Eolus's summit as weather improved a bit and visibility was better. We scrambled back down the ridge briefly, strapped on our plank/planks and made our second 14er descent of the day dropping back down off North Eolus. We returned to camp happy, satisfied, and a bit tired. Pollo left because of other obligations and hiked out at the end of the day.
5/11/2011- We again woke at 3:00am to head up Sunlight and Windom but it was dumping snow again so everyone stayed in their tents. About 7:00am Ben, Sam, and Stuart decided they did not want to wait out the storm and packed up camp and left in the blizzard. The last thing I heard said before half our group left was Sam saying, "Joel you are well on your way to living in an igloo." Joel, Jim, Marc and I decided to hang out and see if weather improved hoping to still climb Sunlight and Windom on the trip. Unfortunately it continued to snow all day and into the next night. We saw Dan's group leaving as well and talked to them. They said they had left camp at 4:00am to try and climb but were turned back because of the weather. There was about 20" of new snow at camp and they said there was even more up high reporting easy shears in the new snow old snow interface. We went backcountry skiing below Columbine pass and enjoyed some great powder turns. I felt like I was on a hut trip in January sans hut not mountaineering in May. The turns were stellar but effectively closed off the high peaks in the basin due to avalanche danger for a couple days. We decided in the afternoon to head out the next morning and leave a day early since we believed the snow pack would not be safe to attempt another climb for atleast two days which was past when we had to be out anyway.
photo- base camp on the morning of the 11th in the storm. photo by Sam Jordan, 2011.
photo- waiting in line to drop the east couloir from left to right; Sam Jordan, Rocardo Moreno, and Stuart Paul. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011
5/12/2011- It snowed into the early morning hours and began to clear a little with the sun rise. We packed up camp and started heading downhill. Clouds cleared progressively throughout the day and it was warm and sunny at the Needleton trailhead by the time we got there. We hung out in the sun for a while waiting for the train. We did not know at the time but a snow/rock avalanche had run across the train tracks so we were not picked up until about 6:15 pm when it was finally cleared away and the train could get to us, 3 hours late. We were preparing to set up camp for the night when the train finally showed up.
photo- Joel Paula and Jim Holva waiting for the train. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011.
photo- Zach Taylor enjoying a beer while waiting for the train to pick us up.
All in all it was a great trip, an extended wilderness holiday with some great mountain climbing and snowboarding. It was slightly annoying that we only had one reasonably safe day out of six planned to actually climb anything since a combination of weather and avalanche danger kept us from accomplishing everything we came to do but the summits were great and good times were had by all. I cannot wait to come back this summer to play in these peaks a little more and hopefully finish climbing all the 14ers in this basin.