Sunlight Peak
Descent Route: South Face
The Needles Group (AKA the Chicago Peaks)
Sunlight Peak
South Face
May 8, 2006

I have been looking forward to this adventure into the Needles Group all season. This trip is unique for several reasons, the first being that you access the trailhead using the steam driven power of the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The second being that it?s possible to again ski three ?official? fourteeners (and one ?non-official?) in a day from a high camp. The official fourteeners are Windom Peak, Sunlight Peak, and Mt. Eolus. North Mt. Eolus also tops out above 14k, but it is so closely connected to its bigger brother that it doesn?t count on most people?s lists. The third reason why this trip is so special is the seclusion you feel when your camped high up in Chicago Basin. These peaks are remote, and the basin is spectacular, and all of this leads to a powerful feeling of wilderness experience, a sensation I love and crave. We gathered the team together in Durango after driving down from Telluride (and our three peak day in the Wilson Group). Because this was a special adventure, I had invited all sorts of friends, and when we stepped on the train for our journey, we were a group of ten.

The Durango and Silverton Railroad was built in the late 1800?s to serve the booming mining industry in the Silverton area. For years the train hauled ore out of the mines and down to Durango, where it connected with another railroad that would take the ore to smelters and industry across the West. Now, the train serves as the premier tourist attraction in Durango and Silverton. We skiers and climbers are lucky enough that three of our beloved peaks lay a mere seven miles from Needleton, a whistle stop for the railroad along the Animas River. Without the train, skiing and climbing these fourteeners would require a multi-day, arduous approach. So we boarded the train in Durango, filling a boxcar with all of our ski, camping, and camera gear. As I said, the team was big for this trip, the biggest group I have brought together on my project. Skiers Mark Welgos and Will Cardamone of Aspen, and their friend Chris Knackendoffel from Grand Junction joined me. Pro photographer Scott Smith from Durango came along to shoot, and brought his friend Dave as well. We had my film crew of Ben Galland and Jon Hagman along. We were also fortunate to have two new friends join us, Charley Mace, a climber from Golden, and Brendan Cusick, a guide out of Durango. Charley and Brendan are super experienced high altitude climbers and guides, having climbed extensively throughout the world, and I constantly picked their brains about mountains I wanted to climb. My wife Jesse and my boys, Stian and Topher, also came along for the ride. When our gang unloaded the train at Needleton, Jesse, Stian, and Toph, continued on to Silverton to spend the night and ride back to Durango the next day. The tourists gawked at us as we pulled all our ski gear out of the old boxcar. As the old steam locomotive fired up and pulled out, I high-fived my boys in the gondola car, one of the best experiences of my project so far. With heavy packs, we began the ascent up the needle Creek valley, our destination Chicago Basin.

This approach covers over five miles and climbs well over three thousand feet. We were definitely the first people to hike in here this spring, judging by the lack of names on the forest registry and the lack of tracks in the snow. After almost six hours of hiking we arrived at a south facing meadow, just below tree line, that would be our home for the next two nights. We set up our tents on flat snow because the meadow was sloping a bit much. Camping on the snow is no problem, as long as you have the right tent, bag, and pad to keep you comfortable. That evening we ate and discussed plans for the next day. I explained to the group my thoughts for the day, and how I wanted to attempt all four fourteener summits in one day. Everyone in the group was psyched to give that a go, but we all were realistic that we may only get two done, and have to come back for the other two the next day. (Again, there are three official summits, and one non-official, which is why I keep talking about four.) We discussed film angles, radio communication, and the weather. With everyone satisfied and excited foe a big day, we turned in a 9:00 p.m., anxious for another big day in the mountains.

Coming off our big day in the Wilson Group (El Diente, Mt. Wilson, and Wilson Peak in a day) I was feeling very strong and totally in tune with the mountains. I awoke on Sunday confident and ready to climb and ski all four of these peaks in a day. We brewed coffee, ate bagels and oatmeal, and then began our climb into upper Chicago Basin at 7:00 a.m. This was a bit of a late start, but the night had been quite cold, and the peaks were close. We made fast progress, and were at the base of the South Face of Sunlight Peak in less than three hours. As I have been reporting throughout my journeys in the San Juans, there is not much snow this year, somewhere between 40% and 60% of average snowpack. So I was slightly concerned as I climbed sunlight at the lack of snow near the summit. What would I find? Would there be enough snow for a summit ski descent? As I got closer, things looked bad. It was not until I had climbed the big boulders on the west side of the summit and topped out that I noticed plenty of snow on the upper East Face, on a line that would connect me through a notch back to the South Face. The summit of Sunlight has a freestanding rock pyramid thirty feet high that requires climbing skills to ascend. So the summit USGS marker and register lies on the highest point on which one can stand. While I did boulder the cliffs to the high point, I down climbed back to the snow and skied from there. A similar situation to this exists on Wetterhorn, where the highest point of the mountain is a rock spire. (Its true also for many others that have big boulders on top) skiing down the exposed upper section of the East Face was hairy, the snow soft and of poor quality. This pitch, however, was short and I skied it fast, hitting the notch and climbing through an arch to access the South Face. On the South Face the snow was better, and our group skied it one at a time, down to the valley below. The snow on this face was just beginning to soften up, and made for some really nice turns. Charley got a great photo of Chris K. upside down, and Ben got his second fourteener summit and ski descent.

We regrouped at the bottom and I through my skis on my pack and began the climb up Windom Peak. For the continued story of this trip, click on the Windom Peak page.


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