Explore the San Juans with Kim Fenske
Story and photos by Kim Fenske
Durango is the entry point for a rare adventure into the Weminuche Wilderness Area to ascend three challenging Fourteeners. After a six-hour drive from Summit County, an overnight camp is possible along Highway 160 on the outskirts of Durango or a couple of hours sooner in the National Forest campgrounds between Wolf Creek Pass and Chimney Rock. However, plan to arrive downtown in Durango before eight in the morning if you want to catch the train to the high country.
The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad take backpackers on the three-hour trip to Needleton flag stop for about a hundred dollars round-trip. The Durango and Silverton departs from the Main Street depot in Durango and follows the Animas River to the edge of Weminuche Wilderness Area and drops backpackers near Needle Creek.
Chicago Basin, the destination for a base camp at about 11,300 feet, is six-and-a-half miles above the flag stop. On a ledge overlooking the junction of the Needle Creek and Twin Lakes trail, a string of headlamps can be seen climbing the switchbacks north of the basin at four in the morning. An hour later, Twin Lakes, 12,480 feet, will be visible in pre-dawn light in Sunlight Basin, about a mile above Chicago Basin.
Surrounding the lakes, pika, marmots, mountain goats, and ptarmigan occupy the boulder fields. Filter two quarts of water at Twin Lakes for the ascent because no water source exists above the basin. Following a trail west of the lakes leads to Mount Eolus. Heading east leads to the summits of Windom Peak, easiest of the three, and Sunlight Peak, the most difficult.
A good way to test route-finding skills is by tackling Windom Peak first. The best path across the mile of boulder field to the saddle hugs the north face of Windom ridge marked at times with cairns and patches of trail in the dust. At a mile above Twin Lakes, the boulder field demands a steep ascent at about 13,800 feet, a few feet to the south face of the ridge, then resumes on a steep climb up boulders along the center on the ridge.
The summit of Windom, 14,082 feet, is south of the main ridge by several feet and tagged by a Geological Survey marker. Although only a mile from Twin Lakes, the time from base camp back to base camp is about eight hours for an intermediate hiker. Be prepared for early afternoon rain and hail storms.
Next morning, ascend the Twin Lakes Trail again before sunrise. Turning left and crossing Needle Creek on a clear path through the tundra, the trail winds through the western slope of Sunlight Basin on a moderate climb to a small bowl between Mount Eolus and Glacier Point, which is the knob to the east.
The easiest path to the knife ridge or catwalk across to Eolus is a wide trek north along the smooth red rock ledges on the east face of North Eolus. Follow scattered cairns on easy scrambles up the curved switchbacks to a point a few feet above the ridge, then drop down to about 13,780 feet and gingerly cross the exposed tightrope to the base of the final ascent. The blocked ledges of the east face makes Lilliputians of the climbers who dare continue to the summit at 14,083 feet on one of the peaks in the top twenty percent of the most difficult of the Fourteeners.
On the day of departure, Sunlight Peak, east of Needle Ridge may be approached from a trail that departs northeast of Twin Lakes at the start of the Windom boulder field. However, any climb must end a couple of hours before noon. By eleven, eat a snack, filter a quart of water, break base camp, and begin a brisk descent along Needle Creek to Needleton. At four, flag the Durango and Silverton train to return from this great adventure.
Kim Fenske is a former wilderness ranger, firefighter who has hiked thousands of miles in the Colorado mountains. He has served on the board of directors of Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.
Fenske has authored several hiking books filled with hundreds of photographs of Colorado wildlife, wildflowers, and scenery. His books are enjoyed by thousands of outdoor enthusiasts. His current electronic book titles are published on Amazon for Kindle, as well as Barnes and Noble for Nook. Search for these titles: “Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado,” “Holy Cross Wilderness Area,” and “Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.”
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