Trip to the Top of Colorado

By Robert Nichols

I feel relaxed and at peace as the rhythmic clickety clack of the Durango-Silverton narrow gage train takes me farther from a world of mountainous information overload and closer to my destination, the mountainous Chicago Basin in the Weminuche Wilderness. The plan for a remote summer getaway was conceived during a summer of extensive field testing for my work. Between the adrenaline of readying sometimes finicky lasers for the next release and the tedium of monitoring detector voltage peaks along with a 12Hz flashlamp background soundtrack at 3 in the morning, it was clear I needed a trip to clear my mind and experience mountain peaks and the soundtrack of babbling creeks.

I invited two friends from work; actually I emailed them a power point presentation of the Chicago Basin from my trip last year. I figured pictures of that beautiful area would be more persuasive than me talking them into a trip to complete two peaks I wanted to stand atop. Those being Sunlight Peak and Windom Peak both 14,000’ peaks and the former having the most difficult moves of any of the 54 Colorado 14ers. I heard that Sunlight Peak is fun, but the last 12 feet can be downright scary if not mentally focused for the gaping 1000’ exposure off the back of the summit block, a surface area comparable to my office chair.  So Van and John both took the bait and we chose a date of the last day of summer and hoped that the weather would hold.

I was happily surprised that only 2 other parties jumped off the train on that Friday at Needleton. One was a couple from Tennessee just going on a camping trip to Chicago Basin and the other were two hikers from Golden, CO ready to sweep the Basin and for one complete a list of 14ers. The trail up to Chicago Basin is a consistent 500’/mile for 6 miles. While Van was calculating how many mega-ergs/km of work we were doing, I was simply wondering why my pack was so heavy.

We reached the Basin in fine weather and I was surprised that we had our pick of any camp spot we wanted. Besides Team Golden, there was maybe only one other party in the valley. We chose a nice tree sheltered place with a great view of Needle Ridge, Sunlight, Windom, and Jupiter. It happed to be the same exact spot where a photo on the front of our National Geographic topo map of the Weminuche Wilderness was taken. (Yes, we did the crime scene investigation and lined up trees and the creek as reference points) After setting up our tent we saw one of several showers move through. As it passed through to the east we were treated to a brilliant rainbow before the peaks of our destination. I took this as a promise of good things to come for the next day. Van, the amateur meteorologist that he is, looked back and discovered a sundog. Sundogs (or technically parahelions) occur when light from the sun separates wavelengths when refracted through prisms of ice crystals in clouds 22 degrees from the sun. This was the first time I saw both a rainbow (back-refracted light) and a sundog (forward-refracted light) at the same time. But then we were in a magical basin, and seemingly anything in nature could happen here.

We woke to good weather, some wispy clouds around the peaks but hopefully would hold off becoming serious. We had a quick breakfast, and hit the trail with light daypacks containing raingear, first aid kit, Mix1 protein drink, and snacks. Mine also had 20’ of 9mm climbing rope, 20’ of 1” tubular webbing made into a runner, 20’ of 1” tubular webbing made into a swami belt harness, a few locking ‘beaners and a #2 & #3 cam. I am a binary person when it comes to mountain tops and wanted to insure that I had as much equipment as needed to succeed in my goal of standing on the summit block. If conditions were non-optimal I felt confident that being roped I could still safely proceed to the top.

Route finding was not much of an issue, keeping up with John was the crux. But John is sincerely patient and used his waiting breaks to soak in the beauty and enormity of the setting. The scree slope was not bad, finding the way on the final face was smooth, and any 3rd class moves were short and had the comfort of horizontal terrain below.  Our breathing was labored as each steep step had us trying to suck as much O2 out of the thin air as we could but at 14,000’ there was only 60% per lungful of that commodity to be had.  The effects are hard to monitor because they come slowly like drinking too much good wine.  Fatigue and judgment are the first physiological effects to diminish, and once judgment is impaired it is hard to recognize the reduced coordination, a key in safely reaching the summit.  When Van and I reached the top and were greeted by John’s smiling face. The summit, the summit at last! And with such fantastic views! We had it all to ourselves, as the guys from Golden had just summited and were on their way down. John witnessed their summit block experience. After determining that the 4th class leap ‘o faith was height dependent, he watched them anxiously sketch their way up the more technical 5.2 slab option. Knowing that a slip could result in a serious situation, John was praying he would not become part of their rescue operation. Eyeing dark clouds heading our way, I quickly went to the base of the slab, stuffed 2 perfect cams in the crack, equalized the anchor, roped up and scampered to the top without hesitation. My only pause on this 18”x24” pinnacle was taking my eyes off my feet and looking over to John who snapped a picture. Even the down climb was piece of cake. I am amazed at the confidence 9 mm of perlon rope can give.

Again, cue the weather. A snow shower caught up with us and hurried our retreat to thicker air. We briefly managed to go too low on the final face but realized our mistake and climbed up to the scree slope. If we would have diagonaled down, we could have become caught in a nasty cliff band. At this point we were hoping that this too would pass so that we could climb Windom which was on the other side of the valley. I think I had my mind made up, snow or no snow, I wanted to go. We all agreed to that once at the valley floor and again on cue, the weather cleared. I think we just needed a bit more spice to this already incredible hike.

Once on the N. side of Windom we encountered snow patches but enough rocks to make upward progress no problem. We contoured our march between the Notch and the Saddle, meeting the trail to Windom’s summit just above the saddle. The trail here skirted the N. face and there was much snow in the nooks and crannies, enough to make one’s boots wet while negotiating 2nd class moves requiring both hands and feet. Near the top, while negotiating a move, John’s camera popped out of the case attached to the front of his shoulder strap. He helplessly watched it bounce-bounce-bounce until it landed in a snow bank 25 feet below him. What a bummer! He carefully down-climbed to where it was and retrieved it, perhaps after witnessing it’s fall only as a recovery mission and not wishing to litter the mountainside with the jettison of this expedition. Miraculously in a Krakauerian way it survived!

Deep within us lived the satisfaction of challenging ourselves and making a dream happen. Deep within resided the glow of being in a special place and looking down on the entire world.  There never was a guarantee that all the factors necessary for a successful summit bid would fall into place, and because of that there was a guarantee that adventure awaited deep within this unknown.  And upon standing on that summit peak was the realization of any problems that we may face in the future will be put into the perspective of this day, of this peak.