Partners: Carl Dowdy, Marc Barella, Matt Kamper
Route(s): Approach via the Durango/Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to camp at 10,900` in Chicago Basin (May 13th). Ascent and summit ski descent of Sunlight`s South Face to East Face snow ramp, ascent and summit ski descent of Windom`s Widowmaker Couloir (May 14th).
Numbers: 6.5 miles, 2,700′ (approach), ~3 miles, 4,150′ (ski descents of Sunlight and Windom from camp)
Carl, Marc, and I had been looking forward to this trip for a LONG time. The idea of an extended trip into the Weminuche Wilderness to ski four remote 14ers always sounded particularly rewarding. Initially we had quite a few folks interested, but as often happens with big trips like this, our group size was down to just four a few days prior to departure. Well a small group certainly has its advantages, efficiency being one of them, so we set our sights on skiing the four peaks in a three day, two night push from Durango.
I met up with Carl and Marc in Copper around 8pm on the 12th where we consolidated gear into Marc`s truck (FYI I left my car in the corner of one of the skier lots and it was never disturbed). Arriving in Durango around 2:30am we were all ready to get some shuteye and didn`t care to put much thought into how/where it was going to happen. Carl`s giant memory foam pad went down next to the truck in the train parking lot and we were asleep shortly thereafter.
After a few hours of horrendous sleep, we loaded up on coffee and Sausage McMuffins (56 grams of fat in two of em, rock on!) and went to meet Matt at the train depot. Getting the vehicles parked and gear loaded onto the train was sort of a mad scramble, but it worked out. At 9am we were chugging along enjoying the comforts of Durango`s premier tourist attraction.
This train ride was just as spectacular as I remember it being a few years back, though I can`t say I remember it being so expensive (probably because it wasn`t). We arrived in Needleton around 10:45am and began prepping for the long approach as the sound of the train whistle slowly faded in the distance.
After crossing the Animas the trail turns south for half a mile or so before joining up with Needle Creek. We were all pretty excited at this point and moving quickly as a result. Downed timber was never much of a problem. I know it has been in previous years though.
About a mile and a half beyond the New York Creek crossing we stashed our shoes and switched to boots and skins, though the skinning was patchy at best. At this point in the season it`s probably easier to just boot all the way to Chicago Basin and cut out the futile toiling of trying to keep skis on the feet.
After lots of annoying transitioning we finally found ourselves in the lower basin, staring at Windom and Peak 18. We elected to camp around 10,900` in the basin on the south side of the creek. As soon as our camp was sorted out, an excellent taco dinner was served. One of the major highlights of our trip was the food – we pretty much spared no weight or expense in this category.
Our heads hit the pillows around 10pm. Sleep didn`t come easy for me even inside our warm, quiet igloo, but it rarely does on trips like this. We woke up around 6am, brewed coffee, and ate some oatmeal. A 7am departure from camp had us at Twin Lakes in an hour and a half.
As we were skinning above the lakes, the sun decided to show itself for the first time on the trip. We regrouped at the base of Sunlight, stashed our skins under a rock, and began the ascent of the south face.
Eventually we arrived at the small tunnel which grants access to the upper-East Face. After heading through, the group mood became that of focus. The Sunlight summit ramp is not a negligible climb and ski.
Once across the traverse and up the ramp, we had ourselves a fine summit to enjoy.
Aware of the fact that we still had a lot of climbing and skiing to do, we didn`t dally on the summit for long. Skis went on at the skiing high point and the descent began. The first turns we took on this trip were some of the most intense as the ramp to get off the summit is steep and resides above a large drop off to the east. We took it conservatively one at a time.
Back through the hole and around the corner the skiing commenced.
The skis came off around 13,100` where our focus became the Widowmaker on Windom`s northwest face. At this point some ominous clouds were rolling in but nothing appeared too threatening.
About halfway up the couloir the clouds socked us in and it started to snow.
As quickly as it started, the storm dissipated and revealed some outstanding views…
I bet one of those ski paragliders could make Sunlight Spire go from the top if they could make it up there…
We headed on over to the summit blocks and admired the views in every direction. This truly is an amazing place this time of year. A short break later we began gearing up for the ski descent. Past the short summit traverse, Carl made a few turns skier`s right of the windloaded section up top. It was a bit sluffy but well behaved overall. The rest of us followed and made some nice, steep turns down to a safe zone where Carl was waiting. At this point we were directly above the crux, which was around 50 degrees and narrow in the condition we found it. Carl made a ski cut above this section and sent a good sized sluff down, then skied it. One more regroup below the crux pitch and we were making wide turns out the mouth and heading towards our gear stash. Now for some ski photos:
We regrouped at our skin stash, where we thought it appropriate to bust out some fried chicken and flamin` hot bbq sauce. Then skied back to camp…
…and after another big meal consisting of chili-cheese bratwursts and Cutty Sark blended scotch whisky, we hit the sack. Like I said, we ate like kings up there.