|Sunset and the remnants of a storm near Durango, CO|
With two of my friends, Chris and Tyler, we organized a 5 day itinerary for July, when we hoped most of the winter snowpack would have melted off. So after all the planning, dreaming, and anticipation, the three of us finally found it to be reality on July 8.
After a short drive into Silverton, we spent a few hours running around the small town, waiting for when our train was scheduled to depart at two. The train was an ancient steam powered locomotive, catering mostly to tourists these days, but retained its original character with its backpacking passengers.
It should be said that the ride is not cheap by any means. Tickets run at about $71 for a backpacker leaving Silverton (departure from Durango jacks up the price by about $20) and its only an hour ride. Regardless, its an incredible Colorado experience that can't be matched anywhere else.
|Down the Animas Canyon|
The climb was steep, following Needle Creek which wound its way through dense old growth forest with a number of small waterfalls. Needle Creek is incredibly clear and one of the cleanest bodies of water I've ever seen. To be honest, I thought about just drinking straight from it. A shame that these days we have to use things like water filters in the first place. Alas, I didn't.
As the forest opened up with elevation, we finally set up camp close to dusk. Rugged 13ers surrounded our camp, with fierce looking broken granite cliffs. After a long hike, we wanted nothing more but to break into a package of ritz crackers that we had brought and a hot dinner of mexican style rice and beans. Although it was freeze dried food, everything in the wilderness tastes delicious. After our meal we enjoyed having some extra sleeping room in our tents.
|Tyler and Chris checking out one of the many waterfalls|
|Columbines along the trail|
|Camp chef Chris with thirteen thousand foot Mt. Kennedy above|
The following morning was perfectly clear with cobalt blue skies. And we woke up to this...
We'd heard about the mountain goats but we were definitely not prepared for their thirst of urine. Every time one of us walked off to take care of business, we were accompanied by the entire herd. There were too many moments where I thought a goat was going to go for the source...
|Windom Peak directly above Chris' head with the line of snow underneath|
We couldn't decide on a campsite for a while so we looked around. That led to moments like this.
We finally set up down by the creek on a small granite bench. By then, another storm had rolled in and we had to set up a makeshift shelter with a tarp for immediate rain cover. While waiting for the rain to stop, we would often have very animated card games. Kings and Peasants seemed to be our favorite. Eventually the rain died down and we were able to set up our tents and cook. The three of us decided that for the next day, we would attempt Sunlight and Windom Peaks. Since the weather was arriving early in the day, a 4 AM start seemed appropriate.
We awoke to a partly cloudy morning, with some of the stars visible. We trudged up the trail to the Twin Lakes with our headlamps. Since we were all a little groggy and it was pitch black, we had little recollection of what the trail was like (On the way down however, we were startled by the number of switchbacks and strewn rocks). We ran into a few other climbers at the Twin Lakes. The Twin Lakes have to be some of the highest alpine lakes I've ever been to. Chris' GPS unit read the elevation at around 12,000 ft. We filled water at the lakes and continued on towards Windom Peak along the climber's trail which weaved through patches of snow. The sun slowly started to creep up, and we were met with breathtaking alpenglow on Mt. Eolus,
|Alpenglow on the Eolus massif: Mt Eolus at left and North Eolus at right (both above 14,000 ft.)|
|Dawn's first rays on an unnamed needle that forms Sunlight's west ridge|
We climbed up the saddle between Windom and Peak 18 and continued along Windom's west ridge which climbed steeply upwards. The route wasn't difficult and Gerry Roach's class 2+ rating in his guide book seems to nail it. Not quite class 3 but not really a 2 either. There were moments where we did climb with our hands, but I'm sure there a easier routes where that isn't necessary. At about 7 AM we reached the summit. It was a mostly cloudy gray sky, but the views were still spectacular. In every direction, there were mountains as far as the eye could see. Not a single trace of civilization. Distant sunshine illuminated Shiprock in New Mexico. The San Juans, being 4000 square miles in size, make for a very different experience than peaks in the Front Range near Boulder. Needless to say, we felt elated. This was likely the most beautiful vista any of us had ever seen, and the air the cleanest we've ever breathed. It really was a true wilderness experience.
|A panorama from the summit|
We celebrated briefly and headed down. The clouds seemed to build and we were uneasy about attempting Sunlight. We saw few people on the descent. For most of the morning we had been following a group up Sunlight and watched their progress. This gave us a good idea of the route beyond a vague description. Back down in the bowl between the peaks, we decided that an attempt on Sunlight was necessary, since we had come this far.
|Sunlight and the Spire from Windom. Our route up Sunlight was the bright red scree slope on the left.|
|The Spire and Windom Peak from the ledges on Sunlight.|
We reached the marker and gazed at the imposing summit block. This pile of broken granite, if in my front yard, would be like a nice playset. Fun to scramble up and down without a second thought. However, it was really precariously perched on top of a precipitous drop that fell some 500 ft. into another basin. After some consideration, I decided it was worth a shot. I scrambled around the first two boulders and crawled on top of it. Here came the first big move. There was a five foot gap that dropped some forty feet into a crack. I paused here for a good ten minutes. Another group had arrived on the summit, and one of their party had scrambled up next to me. He paused as well and after a brief discussion decided to go for it. I cringed as he jumped over. He stuck it. Then he dog legged to reach the summit. Finally I summed up the courage, and joined him on the summit. It was airy to say the least. Nothing but emptiness for thousands of feet. I probably stayed up there for 30 seconds. As beautiful as it was, it felt as though man was tempted to be here under his own discretion, and any poor judgement would result in the ultimate penalty. Unfortunately between Chris and I, the only camera that we had with us was in my pocket and I was far too gripped to pull it out. So I'll have to settle for a shot of the summit marker.
And a selfie below the summit block:
The down climb was much quicker and we took a slightly more direct route towards the lakes. The scree was exhausting and each of our minds went into a strange zone, focusing only on reaching the lakes since we were close to downing what we had left. Little was exchanged between us during this time. Near the lakes, the clouds began to look more ominous and it was now clear a storm was brewing. We quickly filled up and bolted for the safety of lower elevations. After incredibly steep switch backs along the trail into the basin (that none of us remembered) we reached our campsite. We were ravished to say the least. Instant oatmeal was prepared and a few more games of Kings and Peasants were played. Strange to think it was only about 1 PM. It felt like 5 to us. We each relaxed and enjoyed our own silent reflection. Tyler lost his spoon while cleaning his bowl by the creek and used the afternoon to whittle a nice new spoon. Eventually the storm came and drenched us with a deluge. The storms seem to come much earlier in southern Colorado and linger for longer. The storm stayed with us until dark. As we began to fall asleep, loud thunder jolted us awake and lightning illuminated an otherwise dark landscape. It was one of the most frightening storms I've experienced. Fatigue eventually won out over fear and I slept through the rest of it.
|The storm that rolled in and soaked us|
It was finally time for us to come out of the wilderness. The trip had been an incredible and exhausting experience, each of us craving some real food and the opportunity to watch World Cup Final. The train came promptly at 11, and we did our best to mask our odor around the hordes of tourists wielding cameras and snapping away at everything.
|The ride out|
Backpacking in the San Juans has to be one of the best outdoor opportunities in Colorado. The mountains are steeper and more rugged than anywhere else in the Rocky Mountain region, and aren't penetrated by the larger crowds that are found in other areas. Without a doubt, I plan on returning for more and hopefully with a pair of skis. The wealth of lines to be found could entertain a skier for their entire lives. I'd highly recommend going down there as long as you are prepared for the elements.