August 17, 2010 - Approach via Needleton
G was down to the three Weminuche 14'ers and Culebra to bring the his quest to climb the 14'ers to a conclusion. I had closed that book a number of years before but by this point had over 85 14'ers, counting the repeat climbs that came with tagging along with Reach and G as they picked up peaks that I'd climbed in seasons past. However, if an excuse is needed to take a week to climb into Chicago Basin, then mine would be to pick up Jupiter Mountain as I close in on tagging Colorado's Centennials.
Five of us left Cheyenne on Sunday morning, headed to Durango and the trip on board the Durango and Silverton narrow gauge steam train the next morning. The run from Cheyenne took a solid 10 hours and we arrived in Durango in the early evening. Our camp for the night was of the commercial variety . . . a grassy tent space at the United Campground, about 4 miles north of town. We pitched the tents and headed for a good meal in town before coming back to camp to do the final packing for the next day. Our group consisted of G and myself along with Lady G, The Nipper, and A. Nipper and A were along for the week after having been part of a canoe trip we took three years earlier on the Green River in Utah. Nipper had scored his first 14'ers during our recent trip to Kit and Kat Carson peaks and was up for another dose, this time aiming to pick up a couple of summits in the San Juans. A had never climbed or substantially backpacked before so this would be somewhat new. However, following the canoe trip, there was no doubt that she would score whatever summit we scored and have no problems. Lady G is above the 40 mark in her tick list and this was her opportunity to pick up three more summits.
We arrived back at the camp after dark and began sorting gear one last time before arriving at the final loads for the planned five days in the back country. G helped Nipper and A drop weight and volume by plucking out gear that was heavy, not likely needed or otherwise not worth either of them hauling up six miles of trail and three thousand feet of vertical. I know I've hauled excess weight many times but over the past years, G and I have both shaved pounds from the gear load and it was time to pay the benefits forward.
We were up by 6 a.m. the next morning and by 7 we were bound for the station to catch our appointed train. The train with the box car for the packs was the second scheduled departure, hence we had plenty of time before our 8:30 boarding time. The bagel place nearby covered our breakfast needs and by 8:30 we had handed our packs to the crew member manning the box car and made our way back toward our assigned car. Everyone was looking forward to the ride in, especially Nipper and A, for whom this would be a first train experience. I had done the trip twice before but still looked forward to the ride up the Animas River to the Needleton trail head.
The train was outbound at 9 a.m. and we made our way up the floor of the Animas valley before cutting to the west slope to begin the climb toward the Rockwood stop and then away from the road and into the river canyon that leaves room for the railroad alone. The run to Needleton took about 2 1/2 hours and was highlighted by the beautiful, and but for this location, ordinary scenery along the tracks traversing high above the river as well as along the river proper. Soon enough the conductor came through, gathering the Needleton drop offs and instructing them to move to the front of the train for the upcoming stop. The train came to rest just yards beyond the Animas River bridge and every bit of 30 people got off to claim their packs and begin the long hike up into Chicago Basin.
We gathered our packs and quickly noted that we would either get it right with our more or less minimal packs or be taught a hard lesson if all of the folks hefting packs twice the size of ours knew something we did not. We were betting on our lesser loads and having been up into the Basin twice before, with a much heavier load, I hoped that our call was the right one. We also seemed to be in less of a hurry than our peers as we stopped to pump water before heading down the riverside trail that lead to the start of the real climb, about 1/2 mile distant. We'd had a rain drop or two that morning in the camp ground but so far so good on the skies. There were clouds overhead but so far we were dry and we hoped to stay that way.
We'd agreed that we would make the climb in two groups, as G and Lady G anticipated that they would be a bit slower that I would be with the "kids". We signed the trail register and were on our way up the 5 1/2 miles of trail that would lead to a camp high in Chicago Basin. The trail parallels Needle Creek, generally taking a course higher than the creek but never far from it. We hiked steadily and soon passed the creek descending from New York Basin and then after about 2 miles, we stopped for lunch. So far so good on the skies but the feeling that rain might be on the way was apparent.
We covered another mile or so after lunch before the gentle patter of rain started, not enough to slow the climb but enough to make one wonder if a wet dinner and camp were going to be part of the equation. We hiked perhaps 4 of the 5+ mile approach before the skies opened up on us. Rather than plodding on through the deluge, A, Nipper and I found a dry spot beneath some pines and decided to wait out the worst of the storm. G and Lady G did the same but grew frustrated and climbed on through the storm, coming to our dry spot and passing on to climb higher in search of a camp spot for the night. We gave Mother Nature another 15 or 20 minutes and took the now brighter skies and near complete cessation of rain as our sign to move on in pursuit of G.
We passed into the camping zone and hiked another half mile at least before coming upon G and another group discussing the camps stoll available to later inbound groups. As we had taken our time to leave the railhead, we were a bit behind the curve and consequently decided to hike into the upper end of the basin and search for a camp closer to the cut off to the trail that would later lead us to Twin Lakes over the coming days. We found the best spots taken so we claimed a marginal spot before Nipper and I went out on a recon trip to see if there was a better place to be had. We found a better site and then Nipper went back to bring the group forward. Once the rest arrived, Nipper spotted a trail into a secluded glade and came back with news of a very good site. We really scored.
The tents went up on flat spots and we soon set about making dinner. I am sure that the sight of a climber with a 10 inch kitchen grade fry pan on his pack caught a few discerning glances, but we were determined that we would eat well at least for the first two nights in the back country. The menu this night called for beef fajitas, cooked up from all fresh ingredients and dished out to all until stomachs were filled. Our first meal disposed of three pounds of London broil, a couple of bell peppers, a couple of onions, and 20 tortillas. Dinner over, we cleaned up and set about a discussion of the next days climbing. It was time to call it a day and we did so just as the skies opened up once again, this time gracing us with not only torrents of rain but enough pea sized hail to cover the ground. The hail came and went, the rain came and went, but by the middle of the night, the skies had cleared and we knew we would all soon be summit bound.