August 7, 2000 - West Ridge
I had wanted to do the Weminuche peaks for a long time but did not have a climbing partner at the time. I gave thought to a long solo but then figured I would call Dan and see if he wanted to go. I climbed my first three 14’ers with Dan in 1983 and later he and I came to Colorado from Baltimore for a three peak turbo trip in 1988. I had not talked to Dan in perhaps three years or more therefore the first trick would be finding him. This sounds a bit off but you have to understand Dan to make sense of it. He’s the kind of fellow who tends not to keep in touch, I don’t mean a call once in a while, but instead I mean if you don’t call him, you would not likely here from him ever again . . . ever. However, that does not mean he will not go climbing, it just means you have to call him.
I had done the cold call to Dan before when I was looking for someone to go to for a long chicken bus ride from Guatemala City to Tikal back in 1993 when the Guatemalans were kind of having a civil war. I had not spoken with him in two years but after some effort found him in Wyoming and after a brief conversation, no more than five minutes, we agreed to meet at the departure gate for a flight to Guatemala City four months later. I hung up and four months later got on a plane for Houston. He was at the gate as we agreed earlier . . . four months earlier. This time, I found Dan’s answering machine in Lompoc, California, and left a message, hoping for a call back. I got a call a few weeks later and Dan explained that he spent most of his time in Manchuria and that was the reason for his delayed response. I was pleasantly surprised, but not surprised, that he was also up for the train/climbing trip if I would push it off by one week to meet his schedule. I had scored a partner and a good opportunity to go climbing with someone, with whom I had climbed, hiked, backpacked, and caved with for the better part of six or seven solid years. I was psyched.
I picked him up at DIA and we headed for Durango, making the trip easily and finding a good campground just north of town. The rail line heading north of town bisects the campground and I think it is called United Campground. If you are thinking about camping before or after the climb, this is my choice of spots, many tent sites featuring thick green grass. I am headed back this summer and I will make a beeline there before and after this year’s train trip as well (2002).
We got up early the next morning and parked the truck in the D&S RR lot, paying for four days parking up front. This is sure easier than having to find extended parking in Durango, which for the best of my snooping does not seem to exist. If you are hotel bound, I am sure you can swing the long-term park with the room, but a camping crew might as well pay the $7 or so bucks a day and leave the car next to the RR depot. The plan for climbers is that you have to arrive for the first train out, get the packs stowed in the boxcar at the head end of the train and take your seat for the trip to Needleton. Needleton is about 2 ½ hours up the line and I think we got off the train at about 10 or so in the morning. Some folks I talked to later took the train down from Silverton but then they got off at about four in the afternoon and had to make the hump up the basin in the late afternoon. I would much rather have the day to do the hike and then relax and rest in the late afternoon to be fresh for the climb the next day. We were deposited at Needleton right on time and hefted our packs for the trip across the river and on up canyon.
The hike up the canyon gains the better part of 2500 vertical feet and is about 6 miles. It is a long 6 miles, steep in some places and for Dan, a flatlander now, it was a painful up hill drag. We spent the entire afternoon getting up to the basin below the peaks but found a decent camp spot between the trail and creek. We chose a well-established spot and set up the tent for the night. There seem to be plenty of spots in the basin but we still ended up with neighbors, another group of climbers, well mannered and quiet. Next came a stove-cooked dinner and then we hit the tent figuring to get an early start the next morning, hoping to avoid the legendary and likely Eolus based afternoon thunderstorm.
The next morning dawned clear and we got an early start up the remaining valley, headed for Windom and possibly Sunlight Peaks. I had planned the trip for three days and three peaks with an additional day for the train/hike in and another for the hike/train out. We had bit of a delay spotting the trail cut that climbs to the high basin below the flank of Eolus but after a bit of looking at the hillside, I spotted a trace and we cut off from the trail that otherwise leads to Columbine Pass. That slight hurdle overcome, the route was obvious and we continued climbing to the Twin Lakes. En route the lakes, we passed by or probably more appropriately through a herd of perhaps a dozen mountain goats, who were interested in getting off the trail to let us pass but by no means cowed by our presence. They were a magnificent group of animals and we scored some great photos as we passed by on our way up the trail.
We skirted the Twin Lakes and made our way across the large talus toward the flank of Windom. These peaks see a good bit of traffic but not so much that the trail is an obvious herd path. You still have to do a bit of thinking and if you pay attention, you will spot cairns that show the “way.” We slowly climbed the flank toward the saddle between Windom and Jupiter Mountain, where I paused for Dan to catch up. I have gone from sea level to climbing in Colorado myself but I was remiss in my appreciation for the effort Dan was putting out to gain the elevation. We rejoined at the saddle and rested for a bit before starting up the west ridge of Windom, which reminded me of the scramble portion of Wetterhorn with respect to character and difficulty. The route is not always obvious but if you keep an eye out for the general direction of traffic wear on the rock, you will be heading in the correct direction. We slowly made our way up this traverse of the ridge and gained the summit around noon. The only problem was that the Eolus thunderstorm of lore was also en route and our time on top was limited by the approach of darkening clouds and the inevitable lightning danger.
Our trip down was prompt but not hurried, however we were more than content to reach the basin above the Twin Lakes when the skies opened up first with a touch of rain and then with pea sized hail. I donned some wind pants as the temperature fell appreciably and we kept moving down a quickly as was safe. The storm was in an equal hurry and fortunately for us, moved on to the next valley by the time we made it half down from the Twin Lakes. By the time we reached the bottom of the slope, it was again a warm and sunny day, with the layer of hail melting away literally before our eyes. We made our way on down to the tent, content to have made the top of Windom on our first day.
Dan and I discussed the plan for the next day and he suggested I climb without him due to his trouble with the altitude. I nixed that idea as I have climbed with Dan for years and had no intention of leaving him in camp while I ticked peaks off my list. In lieu of a split party, we decided to head out the following day, take a rest day after that and then take a shot at Sneffels. This would likely give us both two peaks for the trip and I figured I could return to the Weminuche in a later summer to score the other two peaks. That was our plan and a rest day focused on the Ouray hot pool is a worthy plan in my book any day.
We broke camp the next morning and headed down hill to catch the train back to Durango. We had tickets for the last train but did not know if any earlier trains would stop at Needleton and pick up hikers. If you are planning to catch an early train out, sleep in instead, the first three blow by and only the 4 o’clock or last run of the day stops in Needleton to pick you up. We again threw our gear in the boxcar at the head end and found a place to lean in one of the open cars. They sell beer on the train and a cold one after the hike down sure does feel good. The train gets into Durango at about 7 in the evening and we trudged our gear and tired bodies on back to the truck in the adjacent lot.