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Weminuche Wilderness/ Chicago Basin 14ers

!!Warning!! Detailed report to follow. I don't normally write such long reports but this was a really special trip for me. Spoiler alert #2 : If you might do this trip don't read this report. I just returned from a hard, but fantastic, trip last week. I spent five nights and six days in the Weminuche Wilderness of Colorado and used the Silverton-Durango Train out of Durango CO to achieve and leave the trail.  My initial plan was to start at the Needleton Train stop and hike counter-clockwise back to the Elk Park train stop thereby allowing me to spend the first several days in the Chicago Basin playing on the 14ers. Well the weather derailed that plan by throwing freezing rain, hail and snow at me for day two and three so I reversed the route and started at Elk Park instead. 
Here is my pack bursting at the seams and waiting for loading into the freight car (they don't let you keep them with you in the passenger cars- no room). This is a new 60L Gossamer Gear Mariposa with a stated maximum load capacity of 35 lbs. I, uh, weighed it at 35.7 lbs with one liter of water to start the trip. (winter bag, winter pad, winter layers, fishing gear, climbing helmet, adds-up quickly)
I was the only backpacker dropped off that day but a kind day-hiker (returning to the train stop for pickup in the next couple of hours)  took my photo.
The trail from the train-stop soon brings you to the actual trail-head where you self-register.
The sun was brutal on day one and I immediately realized I had left my Trailspace hat, sunscreen and chap-stick in my suitcase back at the hotel storage room. Oh well.
My first camp was at El Dorado Lake about 9 miles in (and 4000 feet up) and near the Continental Divide at about 12,500 feet. Can you see the tent?
This hike offered some of the most varied landscapes I've encountered on a single outing. This looks like mars but was high-elevation tundra. Pic taken walking around after dinner from El Dorado Lake.
That evening brought intense winds and hail. I had met a Colorado Trail Through-hiker that told me his tent was destroyed in 100 mph winds a day before. His message put me on high-alert ( I was not through-hiking and losing a tent would really mess-up my trip). So I stacked these rocks around the base to try and deflect the wind from getting under my fly. I was awoken off and on throughout the night by the strong gusts and grabbed my tent body each time to hang on.  In retrospect I should have hiked a little more and dropped off the Divide to a more sheltered location but was exhausted and was also hoping to fish at the lake. Locals told me the fishing was good there but it was really too windy to try. I think this was the highest I've ever actually camped (12,500).
The next day brought hail and freezing rain and I got my butt kicked going over Hunchback pass. The hail was blowing so hard I had to stow my trekking poles and cover my face with my hands to stop the stinging. 
The rain and hail eventually receded for the day and I got a few nice photos. This was in the Sunlight Creek meadow on the Valecito trail. I had hoped to explore off-trail up in the Sunlight basin but elected to skip due to the weather. 

Camp 2 at intersection of Valectio and Johnson Creek. (about 9000 feet)
Day three was the hardest weather day of the trip; the winds and hail were crushing. It took most of the day to climb to Columbine pass as I spurted from tree to tree to get cover from the stinging hail and freezing rain. I had to decide if I would hunker down and wait it out or try to push over the pass to reach the Chicago Basin. I pushed on and this was Columbine lake. No views to be had this day.
DSCN2850-M.jpg Looking back down from Columbine pass in the near white-out.
 I had an anxious moment at the top of the pass when I could not see the trail that descended the other side. There was too much snow and hail. I eventually consulted my three map sources and verified with GPS after starting down what I thought must be the right trail. It was. Whew.
A mine passed on the way down to the Chicago Basin. See my trekking poles leaning to the left for scale. I briefly went in and enjoyed a wind-free moment but it was really a dank place to be and not inviting at all. 
My base camp in Chicago Basin for nights three and four. Once I had reached the basin I scouted the area to find the highest camp I could (to aid in summiting the 14ers). I went all the way up the Twin Lakes approach trail to the "no camping beyond this point" sign and found nothing suitable so I went back down to the only camp I saw in the area.
It finally cleared up a bit that evening and gave me hope for climbing the next day. I never saw anyone else that day even after walking a ways down into the basin so I assumed I was alone due to weather.
The next morning I heard voices about 4AM and saw lights going up the mountain! I was not alone after all! I rushed to get ready (forcing on frozen, icy, socks and shoes-ouch) , hoping to find people to climb with and sure enough I caught up with a twosome; we soon became a foursome. Right-On! Pictured is Joey from Arizona who had just returned from climbing Mt Hood. The four of us were all solo and from all over the country. In terms of climbing experience I was the least experienced of the group but apparently impressed them enough with my hiking resume to squash any concerns. :) Besides, I don't think anyone wanted to go solo in those conditions. 
View from near Sunlight Summit. I lead half the route up to Sunlight and it was brutal breaking all that fresh snow. But the views were just fantastic.
I love this pic of Erik pointing out what we need to do to reach the summit block.
This is me on the summit block of Sunlight. It was really hard to get there and we had to climb up that crack on the right and then stretch or jump to reach the small block to gain the big block. Erik was long enough to stretch out but I had to jump and belly flop. Ouch!
After coming back down we split into to two groups. Erik and I wanted to do Eolus/ North Eolus and Pete and Joey decided to go for Windom next. Train schedules effected all decisions. Here is Erik as we prepared to head over to the Eolus approach as a twosome.
Me on the North Eolus summit.
Me on the Eolus main summit. We made it back to camp after a 14 hour day with three summits done. Wow what a day. Mildy terrifying at times but highly rewarding.
The next day i was on my own and did the Windom route solo. I planned it this way because I knew this was the easiest route. This picture is from the Windom Summit.

DSCN2929-M.jpg The sun was blazing and melting off the lower snow making for some nice contrasts. 
Later, I decided to move camps, not wanting to spend a third night in the same spot. This picture was taken as I turned around to look back up the basin on the way down.

"Uses for a topo map besides navigation"
Last nights camp at a lovely spot above a river gorge and just beyond the flat part of the basin.
Here is a timed shot on the way out to the Needleton Train stop on the last day.
The trip ends a the bridge crossing of the Animas River at Needleton.
I was way early and the train was late. So a few more pics are in order.

Finally! Wow what a trip! Happy Trails!

Happy for you Patrick 

great times! 

Nice report with good pics. You are the man

That's some fantastic scenery!  Did you have enough winter gear to be comfortable?  Gloves, balaclava?? 

What's the verdict on the pack?  Any hot spots?  Were the other climbers also camping nearby??

Great trip, report, photos, and accomplishment...including conquering the peaks and the weather! Forgetting the TS cap may have a silver lining...I was thinking if you had a TS tattoo on your forehead it wouldn't have mattered. And think of the weight savings...

Seriously, love the map cap. Is that the Lightheart Rain jacket? How did it do in that weather?

Thanks John, it was an incredible experience.

  Tipi,  I mostly wore those Nilas mitts while climbing and they worked great.(though I did tear several holes in them on the granite) I should have brought tall gaiters and spikes but research indicated I likely wouldn't need them. Wrong.  Loving that pack so far, no hot spots at all, just limited to 35 lbs. I plan on still buying something burlier  for longer no resupply trips that has a higher carrying capacity. Those other folks were farther down the basin. I hadn't gone far enough to see all the camps which were spread out all over the area.

Lol Phil,   No that was actually a Patagonia rain jacket I found on sale. I wanted a garment I could use to dry out base layers on this trip and I know the non-breathable LHG won't do that.

Meant to say in the report that one the neatest things about that place was the smell. I don't know what vegetation I was picking up on the most but it was awesome.

What a great trip Patrick!...glad you went through all the trouble to take pictures. Its been my experience that trips like that are when I learn by leaps and bounds.

So would you suggest a balaclava for the sleet/rain/wind?

I hope to take an old-timey train to and from a trail one day


Yes for sure a balaclava would have helped. The micro-spikes would have been great also. I already have these things and should have brought them.

I did bring my winter bag which is rated to -10F. It was too warm on the first two nights and I had to constantly adjust it to keep from sweating but the last three nights it seemed just right. I think it was because I was so tired by then. It's also hard to eat much at high elevation; no appetite. I had to force myself to eat almost every time. 

One of my favoite places on Earth. Thanks Patman. 

I would have been all over that dank hole! I'm leaving for 3 days of caving in Tennessee/Alabama/Georgia on Thursday. 

Nice pics, BTW! 

I couldn't tell the jacket from the photo but was specifically wondering if the non-breathable allowed you to dry out - probably the right choice.  I am shying away from the non-breathable rain jacket option for my wet and cold trip plans for the same reason you didn't carry that one...the breathable ones may make you wet after a while but they will allow some drying later. 

Very nice!  How did you like the sheer drop on the other side of the Sunlight summit block?

Colorado high country weather, ya never know what you're gonna get.

ppine, I can see why, that place is amazing country

Goose, I thought of you when I ducked in there. lol


Honestly there were some scary moments and places on every single route I did. That snow and ice was treacherous. I lost the cairns on the way up Sunlight and might not have lead us on the best path, but there was a certain spot before "the Window" with nothing to hold onto and a sheer mountain below that was butt-clinching to cross. That was worse to me than the summit exposure. But it was thousands of feet of drop. :)

The catwalk between North Eolus and Eolus was listed as class 2 in the book , but covered in snow and ice it was "class terrifying" for few stretches. We scooted on our butts for quite a bit of it. Also there was a really hard section on Eolus main that made me clinch up. I think I also missed a cairn there. The book had mentioned that if your moves got harder than what you had been doing you were probably off-route so maybe we were. lol

Windom was pretty straight forward going up but again, the snow made the decent a little sketchy. 

Still, it was an incredible experience I'll remember for the rest of my life!


Good one Patman. I hope to get there myself next summer. We had planned a hike around the Maroon Bells that same week but bailed when we saw the weather forecast, went to Canyonlands instead.

Quite the experience and TR.

Patrick, I think you are falling hook, line and sinker for this adventure stuff.  No sun screen and no cap - ouch!  Speaking of ouch, gale driven hail is the tree hugger's exfoliate of choice.  The weather of shoulder season can be hard to anticipate, especially the higher altitudes.  Good thing the snow wasn't deep, as fresh snow with no base conceals ankle twist footing, making for slow and physical travel.



lol, yeah maybe a little.... 

The lack of those protections was probably the most painful outdoor mistake I've made in years. My face and lips were destroyed. You know the kind of chapped lips where they blister and turn to black scabs? That was me. My face peeled so bad it was shocking to everyone who saw me for several days after. 

The snow generally wasn't deep but there were a few stretches that were knee deep and just as you say, got my attention enough to start using the trekking pole to check.

Winter comes early to the San Juan Mountains.  In pursuit of elk I have camped for ten days in late October at 10,800 feet. It was below zero at night, and some snow every day. We had wall tents with wood stoves and great food which made it very snug and comfortable.  Saddling horses in the dark with frozen latigoes is harder than it sounds. Some of the horses were stumbling on the way out, but the mules were as strong as ever. 

Great trip!  I have always wanted to go there, but preferably in warmer weather.

September 30, 2020
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