SUNLIGHT AND WINDOM PEAKS
The Needle Mountains have three fourteeners (Mt Eolus, Sunlight Peak, and Windom Peak) that are buried well into the Weminuche Wilderness. The trip to climb these three peaks is one of Colorado's classic trips. Most people begin this trip by riding the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to the Needleton train stop. The next easiest trailhead is the Purgatory trailhead which adds 9 miles of hiking each way.
Jason and I had this trip planned all summer. We had chosen September due to it being a normally dry month with stable weather. We really wanted to maximize the odds of successfully climbing all three mountains. The train ride is not cheap so we didn't really want to have to come back. We left my house at 2:30 in the morning to catch the train in Durango at 9. We ended up reaching Durango by 7, so we had breakfast at Applebee's before the train ride. The train ride was long, but better than hiking the additional 9 miles each way. The hike was amazing and very challenging. We didn't have great weather, but still had a great time.
Click the map for a full size version.
We went to the train station about an hour early to get our tickets and get our packs loaded onto the freight car. Then we walked around a bit and checked out the train.
The train engine was built in 1928 and all repair parts must be machined on site.
The cars are also all authentic.
There is an option to ride in open air cars or enclosed ones. With the weather we ended up having I'm very glad we chose the enclosed car.
Very little (if anything) has been done to modernize these cars, the walkways between cars are open and some people find them too frightening to cross.
Our ride out on Saturday was in a very packed car. Sitting two people to a seat is cozy.
When the train goes around this famous turn, everyone on the train crowds to one side to get a photo.
The Animas River is fed by several of the high country streams and has a fair amount of glacial silt in it, giving it a nice blue-green color.
The train will sometimes have to stop for water for the engine.
At Needleton all the hikers got off the train. It's fun to be dropped off here, as the train leaves all the remaining passengers wave an take your picture like you're famous. Our train was about an hour behind schedule though. We were a little frustrated by this, but in the end it turned out to be the Lords protection for us. (more of that later)
The trail begins pretty gentle and works it's way up along Needle Creek. After two miles the New York Creek falls are a beautiful spot for a break. There are many opportunities along the way to get water so there is little need to carry much.
Windom and Jupiter don't come into view until a good 4 miles into the hike. There are many camping spots along the trail the whole way, but we hiked all the way to treeline to set up camp.
We found a great spot near treeline just short of the camping closure with a great view of the falls below Jupiter Peak.
While we were setting up camp we saw another of the people from the train come up the trail. We invited him to join us at our camp. His name was Geoff and was hiking alone because his partner had gotten injured before the trip. We invited him to hike with us.
Jason and I decided we had enough time left in the day to make an attempt on Mount Eolus, Geoff decided to stay at camp. We got to the Twin Lakes when we saw a storm rolling in, we quickly headed back towards camp. Just as we reached treeline a violent lightning storm opened up.
The storm didn't last too long, but we were glad it hadn't caught us on the Catwalk of Eolus. Had the train dropped us off at 11:00 instead of noon we likely would have been on the Catwalk of Eolus unable to see the approaching storm. The catwalk is a very narrow section of ridge (down to 2 or 3 feet wide) at a high elevation, exactly the type of spot you don't want to be in a lightning storm.
After staying up to see the sunset, we went to bed. All night long thunderstorms rolled through every hour or two.
By morning the weather had settled, but the skys were still cloudy. The three of us decided to start hiking and just keep an eye on the weather. We had originally planned to do Eolus first, but changed plans at twin lakes to do Sunlight first. This allowed us to keep a better watch on the western sky. We were well up into the Basin below Sunlight Peak before sunrise.
As we hiked I was checking out Sunlight Spire. Though over 14,000 feet it does not rise enough above its connecting saddle to be considered a unique peak.
Attaining the summit of Sunlight Spire requires climbing a 40 foot 5.10 crack. This is 8 miles in with a class 4-5 approach to the base of the spire. I doubt I'll ever do that.
The weather kept changing on us as we climbed. Fortunately this route is fairly easy to follow. Take the red gulley up to just short of the saddle, look for a cairned notch to your left, follow the cairns as they do an ascending traverse along the ridge.
When you reach the first keyhole the climbing gets a little more technical and convoluted, but there isn't much distance left to go. The route goes just left of this keyhole. You're briefly on the East side of the ridge but then must cross back to the West side. Follow more cairns to a second keyhole.
The route goes through this keyhole. (This is acutally us descending the second keyhole.) Then just follow the ridge north to the summit.
Due to the weather the summit of Sunlight was quite wet. This made the summit very slippery.
I've always wondered why most people do not stand on this summit, now I know. Even if it had been dry I might not have stood on the summit. I'm now very impressed that TalusMonkey stood on top of this summit on one foot.
Jason originally thought it was odd I didn't stand, until he got there. With the wet slick rock I think we both made good decisions to play it safe. Geoff was not even willing to go to the summit block itself. I don't blame him for that either. It is very airy and exposed, one slip and it's over.
It's difficult to get a good summit shot on Sunlight, so we also took some in the area of the summit marker that looked decent. Amazingly from this very spot my brother had crystal clear cell phone reception.
The weather really started to look better to the West so we decided to head for Windom.
Windom and Sunlight still had clouds on them, but looked non-threatening.
The red shows our ascent route up Sunlight Peak and the Yellow was our descent variation to traverse over to windom. When dropping into the valley to cross over to Windom look for the shelves on Windom. Traverse on these over to the saddle of Windom.
I was a little suprised at the amount of scrambling required on Windom Peak. As far as class 2 peaks go, it's probably one of the most challenging.
The summit block of Windom was also much more interesting than I expected from a class 2. The rocks that make up the summit are large very square rocks. The one on the very summit is fairly small and would be difficult for two people to occupy.
My summit shot.
Geoff on the final steps to the summit in the clouds.
We met up with several of the other people hiking this weekend on this summit. That's Jason on the summit.
Clouds kept rolling in and out while we stood on this summit.
It was actually a little crowded but everyone was introducing themselves to each other and having a good time. (and yes Jason got cell service on this one too)
We met Tara (sp?) on Windom which was her first Fourteener. Very impressive Tara!
Geoff happy to be on the summit.
I don't remember these guys names, but they sure had a good time that day. When we told them it had only taken an hour and half for the traverse between Sunlight and Windom they took off to go bag Sunlight.
The view of Needle Peak from Windom is awesome. I will return to climb this one some day as it is one of Colorado's Centennial peaks.
Jupiter was just south of Windom as well and is one of the Centennial Peaks.
Geoff got a good picture of Jason and I on the false summit of Windom and then we began our descent.
The weather was deteriorating quickly so we made a quick descent.
The ridge involves a lot of boulder hopping and there isn't a solid trail, but we made good time none the less.
The closer we got to twin lakes though, the better the trail got.
This is a zoom in on the summit of Sunlight from Twin Lakes. You can see one climber in the photo and both of the keyholes if you look close.
We made it back down to Twin Lakes from the summit of Windom in less than an hour, and in 25 minutes we were back at camp.
Once again on our descent from Twin Lakes a big rainstorm soaked us. We decided that since the weather the next day was going to be much worse that we would give up on Eolus and try to catch the train.
So we packed our gear, took a short 15 minute break and refueled.
Then began the long hike out.
The streams were all flowing strong with all the rain.
Even though the weather was dreary the scenery was still beautiful.
With a tight deadline we had no time to stop and rest on the way out.
Finally reaching the bridge after 11 straight hours of hiking was a great relief.
The return train was fairly empty so we all got our own seats and relaxed as best we could as the old train lurched its way back to Durango.
I guess we will have to ride this train again someday to do Eolus.
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