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Arts and entertainment reporter climbs Chicago Basin 14er over Labor Day weekend

At the summit of Windom Peak
WINDOM5_

Chicago Basin

How to get there:

Catch the Silverton/ Durango Narrow Gauge Railroad train to Needleton (train was built in 1882).

Follow the Needle Creek trailhead by crossing the bridge over the Animas River.

Camping is allowed anywhere in the basin, except sites that are closer than 100 feet from any water source. Camping is not allowed around the Twin Lakes. No fires are allowed (it gets cold).

The Peaks:

Windom Peak - 14,082 feet, ranked 33 of Colorado’s 53 14ers

Sunlight Peak - 14,059 feet, ranked 39 of Colorado’s 53 14ers

Eolus - 14,083 feet, ranked 32 of Colorado's 53 14ers

Routes are mainly class 2 and class 3 climbing

Things to remember:

Be prepared for any kind of weather; the area typically sees sun, rain, sleet, thunderstorm or snow in the same day

The effects of altitude are painstakingly real. Train!

Know your routes, get a map and read about the best way to get to the top; cairns are visible, but you need to have an idea of where you are going

Have the right gear (backpack, hiking shoes and socks, tent, etc.) or you will be one sad hiker

Know that almost every step you take will be uphill, but it’s an epic adventure that will test your limits

— “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

There’s tough, and then there’s a mental toughness that comes into play when you are confronted with a choice: Face your fears, limits and obstacles or to turn back around.

The Peaks:

Windom Peak – 14,082 feet, ranked 33 of Colorado’s 53 14ers



Sunlight Peak – 14,059 feet, ranked 39 of Colorado’s 53 14ers

Eolus – 14,083 feet, ranked 32 of Colorado’s 53 14ers



Routes are mainly class 2 and class 3 climbing

Things to remember:

Be prepared for any kind of weather; the area typically sees sun, rain, sleet, thunderstorm or snow in the same day

The effects of altitude are painstakingly real. Train!

Know your routes, get a map and read about the best way to get to the top; cairns are visible, but you need to have an idea of where you are going

Have the right gear (backpack, hiking shoes and socks, tent, etc.) or you will be one sad hiker

Know that almost every step you take will be uphill, but it’s an epic adventure that will test your limits

Earlier last week, an incredible opportunity presented itself. Two days before the departure, I was asked by a friend to go backpacking into the Chicago Basin. The four of us were to use the long Labor Day weekend to attempt to summit Windom Peak (14,082), Sunlight (14,059) and Euolos (14,083), all nestled in the San Juan Mountains.

Thinking only of the epic adventure this trip would hold, I instantly said yes, 110 percent, I’m in. Mind you, this was before I read anything about the area or what I was getting myself into.

Oh, did I mention this would be my very first attempt at hiking a 14er?

Reading as much as I could within the two-day time period, I came to the conclusion that nothing could fully prepare me for a 14er.

Sure, there are the usual tips — planning the route ahead of time, triple-checking the weather, packing adequate gear (in this case, I definitely needed a climbing helmet) remembering all of the signs of altitude sickness and so on. But when you’re out there in the backcountry, it’s just you, your crew and your destination looming ahead of you, awaiting your attempts to reach its summit. There is no one who can tell you how to get through it but you.

Our itinerary had us arriving in Durango Friday evening to camp by the Narrow Gauge Train station. We were welcomed to Durango with a downpour of rain. Unfazed by the soggy start to our adventure, we boarded the train that wound through canyons near the Animas River and watched as the breathtaking peaks of the San Juan mountains came into view.

Once in Needleton, we backpacked into the Chicago Basin, about 6.5 miles with around 3,000 feet of elevation gain. Already learning to embrace the challenge, we each kept smiles on our faces, even as the packs became heavier with each mile.

Arriving at camp that night, the basin’s meadow opened up to a serene view of vivid wildflowers and mountain goats, waterfalls flowing into the nearby stream and our destination peaks looming in the background.

We didn’t have to wait long to hit the first of our unexpected hurdles. We hoped for great weather Sunday and planned to first tackle Windom Peak then Sunlight, finishing off the day with Eolus. Due to time and weather — and much to our dismay — we could only climb and descend Windom Peak.

With a late start, we set out on the trail for Windom Peak, which is considered a class 3 14er due to the climbing required to reach the summit. Technically, any time you need to use your hands for more than balance as you climb, it’s considered a class 3 “scramble.”

Enamored with the views and the fact that we were climbing one of the most beautiful mountains I had ever seen, I almost forgot about the altitude until we reached about 13,550 ft — in total, we climbed about 6,800 feet throughout the weekend.

Heart pounding, adrenaline rushing, every muscle screaming with every step we took, there were moments each of us had to stop and look fear square on in the face. Climbing through the boulder field, we continued to go higher and higher as the boulders became bigger and bigger. Some were loose, and some were slick with snow or dew. At times, there would be a crossing with a vertical drop on each side, obviously not a place to ponder how easy it would be for you to slip and fall to a crushing death.

Focusing on each step, there was one line of the opening quote I remember repeating to myself the last 30 minutes climbing to the top: “You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.” In that moment, nothing else mattered but reaching the top. And when I got there, happily exhausted, I came to the realization that we think we know who we are and what we are made of until we are faced with a seemingly impossible obstacle.

Each year, an estimated 500,000 people attempt to climb one of Colorado’s 54 peaks that reach above 14,000 feet. One summit may be enough for some, while others set out to climb all of them. No matter how you look at it, the four of us had accomplished a feat only a handful of people have the opportunity to experience in their lifetimes. But all it takes is saying, “yes, 110 percent.” When that opportunity does present itself, remember you are much stronger than you think you are.

After my first 14er, I now have the “itch” to summit another peak and be greeted with those feelings of astonishing accomplishment and views that leave you speechless, yet remain vividly present in your memory.

Chicago Basin, we will be back.

To reach Audrey Dwyer, call 970-871-4229, email adwyer@SteamboatToday.com or follow her on Twitter @Audrey_Dwyer1


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