Chicago Basin – Week 5

14ers this Summer: 25
Miles this Sumer: 194 miles
Elevation Gained this Summer: 78,105 ft

Week 5 pretty much consisted of a few days off in Farmington with family and trying to bag the peaks in the Chicago Basin.

Spending time with family in Farmington. Awesome to see my brother Konrad and 94 year old grandfather still kicking it!

The Chicago Basin is a beautiful basin located between Durango and Silverton. The standard way to reach the three 14ers in this basin is via the touristy Durango-Silverton train. For $80, you can buy a ticket and take the train for 20-30 miles before it drops you off at the Needleton trailhead. From here, you hike an additional 6 miles to the base of Sunlight, Windom, and Eolus.

Chicago Basin

Because $80 each is a lot of money and because James assured me the additional miles you hike by not taking the train are “flat”, we opted to hike into the basin via the Purgatory Trail (with full packs mind you) the full 15 miles each way. With our longest hike in so far, you probably get the drift by now that it is a pretty remote place. James had taken the train into the basin the previous year with the intent of hitting all the peaks but due to the timing of his trip falling on Colorado’s monsoon season, he wasn’t able to hit all the peaks.

The basin and surrounding area had seen rain every day for the several days before we hiked in. We told ourselves that this was not a sign of what we would experience and surely the skies would clear before we hiked – they did not.

We started the hike as early as we could convince ourselves to get out of bed – a whopping 7am, and headed for Chicago Basin. Our plan was to hike all 15 miles in one day (they were “flat” miles, right?). About 4 miles in, my left knee started giving me problems. As if the looming thunderheads were not enough to dampen my excitement, the persistent pain added additional insult to injury. I hobbled along determined to get to that basin all the while wondering if $80 wouldn’t have been worth it. I thought about hiking out, but then what? If we or at least James wanted to summit these peaks, we would have to return and our schedule didn’t allow for losing days. I went a few more miles where we took a break at a sweet campsite right next to the Animas River. It was still early and luckily hadn’t started raining yet. Only 8 miles in, the campsite we were resting at started looking more and more appealing. I could see where we would put our tent and I could almost smell my Chicken Stew “Mountainhouse” dinner that I was supposed to eat that night. That was it. We were staying. We put up the tent just as we heard the Silverton bound train going by. We cleaned off at the river, built a fire, relaxed, made dinner and called it a night. Surprisingly, we never heard the train going back to Durango as it always does. This was odd.

Our sweet camp spot on our way to Chicago Basin

Our plan for the next morning was to get up early, see how fast we could make it to our next campsite at the Chicago Basin and pray the weather was good enough for James to at least hit one peak that day. It had rained everyday; I’m not sure why we still held out hope but I didn’t see how else we would stay on schedule if he didn’t climb something that day. I had decided at this point that I just needed to get to the Basin so James could summit. I had lost all hope of summiting any of the peaks due to my knee (since I still had to hike 15 miles out) so I put all my hope on James that he could at least be successful and not leave the basin a second time without any summits. So, off we went. The trail was very straightforward so James hurried ahead of me dropped off his tent and pack at a camping spot in the basin hoping to hit a summit.

I made it up to the basin, found his pack, set up the tent and settled into my sleeping bag to take a nap while waiting for him to return like the good wife that I was. Alas, he came back unsuccessful – the clouds starting rolling in and he didn’t want to chance it. Probably a good idea since about an hour later, the thunder and lightning had started followed by an insane hail storm leaving an inch of white on the ground.

At this point, we were running low on food – not dangerously low but low enough to where James would only have one more day to attempt all the summits. This was quite a tall order. The next morning, he got up at 4am and headed out. Being more than halfway through our peak goal of the summer, James was in really good shape. He is also really fast (when I’m not hiking with him). He was able to summit all the peaks! I was really proud of him. I was back at camp packing up the tent and getting everything ready to head out when he arrived around noon.  We still had 15 miles to go but after camping in the rain for 2 days, I was determined to hike all the way out. After only 4 miles, my feet hurt, my knee hurt, it was raining but we kept going. After a long day (even longer for James) we reached the car at 8pm.

James staring down a mountain goat in Chicago Basin. The goats wait to see if you will pee so they can get some salt - no joke!

View on the way to Eolus

Chicago Basin really is a beautiful place, with tons of wildlife. I’m looking forward to going back to see it from 14,000ft but with an injured knee and relentless rain, I must say, when we reached the car, I think it was one of my happiest moments on this trip.

As it turns out, we never heard the train returning to Durango because apparently sometime after we heard it go by, there was a mudslide and the train was stuck in Silverton for a few days while they cleared the mud and fixed the tracks. This was very unfortunate for the hikers who were waiting for it to pick them up and take them back to Durango. In the end, James’ idea of hiking in wasn’t such a bad one after all since chances are we wouldn’t have been able to catch it anyway.

Summit blocks on Windom

James' Summit Shot

Kirsten

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