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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Single-serving friends and solitude in Chicago Basin

Date:   September 11th thru 13th, 2014
Mission:  The original mission was to summit as many of the 14ers in Chicago Basin as my body would allow.  For me and my gimpy ankle, this meant climbing just Sunlight Peak and Windom Peak.  Eolus and North Eolus would end up having to wait for another time.
Who:  Me and Tyler Durden (for part of it)

Total Length:  18 miles
Elevation gain: 7000 ft.

"You learn something every day if you pay attention." ~ Ray LeBlond

I had three days off work before starting a new job, so I quickly decided to go have some "me time" in Chicago Basin.  My solitude hike plans were snafued by a cast of characters I met along the way.  Most of these were "single-serving friends", but one of these characters even joined me for part of my adventure, that is until a tragic event occurred on Sunlight Peak.

Me enjoying the late day views from my camp near 10,900' in Chicago Basin.  (photo Tyler)


Driving down to Durango from Boulder can be an adventure itself, if you let it.  My drive began with just me, until I stopped for gas in Fairplay, CO and there I picked up Claude.  Claude was hitchhiking at the only real intersection in Fairplay and I stopped to give him a lift.  Claude threw his pack which looked to be fifty pounds or more into the back of my truck and we were off. 

After some brief introductions, I discovered that he was headed to Buena Vista, CO with the intent of doing a ninety mile hike back to Breckenridge, CO where he lives.  He mentioned that it would take about 7-10 days.  He was training for a potential opportunity to go hike for a couple weeks in Switzerland.  Out of curiosity, I asked the obvious question of:  "How do you afford to do things like this?  Are you independently wealthy or something?"  His reply was interesting.  He basically pointed out how one could stay very cheaply in certain places, get free food, and get $5 showers, etc. 

One thing I also realized is that here's a guy clearly not wealthy, and clearly without a car, and he seems pretty damn happy.  It got me to wondering why I spend so much time playing the corporate bull shit game just to chase the almighty dollar.  What it really comes down to is this;  everything in life is just a lifestyle choice.  This reminded me of a great and truthful quote from the movie Fight Club which we will call "lesson 1"

Lesson 1: "The things you own, end up owning you.".

After dropping Claude off in Buena Vista and wishing him the best on his journey, I pushed on towards Durango. 


Tyler driving us to Durango.
Somewhere just outside of Poncha Springs I ran into my old friend Tyler.  Tyler is a true character, and just the guy I needed to talk to since part of this trip was me trying to figure out if I was making the right decision by taking this new job or not.  

Shockingly, after telling him I'd loan him some gear, Tyler decided to join me on my adventure into Chicago Basin.  In exchange for me buying his train ticket, he did nearly all the rest of the driving to Durango.

Tyler and I made it to Durango by 4:30pm and we checked into a hotel by 5:00pm.  Tyler was not feeling like himself, so he crashed early.  I went over by myself to Steamworks Brewery where I met the next character on my adventure, Joe.



I was sitting at the bar drinking my first Third Eye P.A., and I had just got finished ordering a Whiskey Burger with Cajun fries along with a cup of clam chowder when Joe sat down next to me.  I gave him the obligatory head nod and even mumbled a short "Howdy." but not really taking my eyes off the sports on the plasma TVs above the bar.  Joe responded with his own "Howdy!" and commented about how he was going to try every beer at this place before he heads back home, which later I would find out was near Kansas City, MO. 

Joe was a guy in his mid-fifties who had done a solo two day ride out here on his Victory Cross Country motorcycle.  We ended up sharing a few beers (two for me, and maybe five or six for Joe).  After Joe and I talked motorcycles for a while, we changed topics often, like my wife's best friend with a bottle of wine in her.

We chatted for a long time about a variety of topics.  Joe was possibly the most interesting single-serving friend I had met thus far, and I learned something from him too.  When he discovered I was headed in to the basin to climb some mountains he told me a story about how he used to go on long hikes and such until he injured a knee and could never quite walk right again.  This reminded me of my own ankle injury, which was a story I also shared with him.  For some reason though, Joe's story reminded me of a lesson I seem to keep having to learn over and over in life. 

Lesson 2:  Eventually, you won't physically be able to do what you want to do, so do those things while you can.  This means right now!

Joe wished me well on my hike and I wished him a safe and fun ride over to Mesa Verde in the morning.  I wandered back to the hotel with lots of thoughts circling in my head, but not the annoying racing thoughts that plague my sleep attempts many nights.  These thoughts were meditative thoughts; peaceful thoughts. 

An old dude on the train

Before I knew it my iPhone was buzzing and Siri was telling me to go take my last shower for a few days and get over to the train station so I could catch the train into Needleton.

I got ready quickly and Tyler followed me over to the train station being almost mysteriously quiet.  I was still mostly lost in thought until actually boarding the train and then my urge to climb some peaks got ignited.  Tyler sensed this in me and began almost dancing.  For some reason he kept rapping MC Hammer's song "Too legit to quit".  This song would end up being stuck in my head for the next three days.

On the train, I talked with some old dude from Florida sitting across from me. 

It seems that mountaineers get special attention from tourists in two places in Colorado.  The Maroon Lake trail head is one place.  The other is on the train into Needleton.  I remember when my Dad and I went into Chicago Basin back in June that there was a lady from Texas who literally wished me the best in "not getting eaten by a bear".  Anyway, this old guy from Florida couldn't have given a constipated bird shit about me until I told the ticket taker that I was stopping in Needleton.  Suddenly I was like a movie star or something to this guy.  His parental instinct took over and he felt it necessary to tell me about all his experiences in the Boy Scouts, as if I hadn't done many of those same things myself. 

I politely listened until he started preaching to me about super basic stuff like "make sure you filter your water", and "I hope you brought a sleeping pad along with a sleeping bag to insulate yourself from the ground".  But then, right about the time I was tuning out completely, he muttered a phrase that nearly summed up both the previous lessons I had been exposed to the previous day from Claude and Joe.  This old guy said:  "It's great that you are doing these things now.  There are things that you can only do when you are young.  Take the time to do those things." 

To this I gave him the look that communicated "I agree, but there's these things called bills, 401ks, etc.".  This is when he basically read my mind and uttered a golden phrase.  This phrase will be lesson 3.

Lesson 3:  "You will always have time later to make more money."

Day 1 - Hike into camp

Some of the last flowers remaining.  Winter is coming.
We got off the train in Needleton.  Only five people total got off the train.  Tyler and I both waved goodbye to our single serving friends on the train and quickly began our hike into the basin.  Tyler didn't even have a backpack, so I was carrying all forty pounds of our gear.  He was far ahead of me in no time, which left me alone again with my thoughts and the normal Chicago Basin beautiful sights of waterfalls, forests, flowers, and mountains. 

At one point passing alone through some willows, something that I am fairly certain was a moose snorted at me.  Twice.  I had stopped after the first snort and started looking around, trying to figure out where in the willows it was coming from.  The second, louder, and closer snort, got me moving.  I no longer cared what it was.  I just wanted away from whatever it was, so I walked quickly up the trail.  I cursed Tyler for going on ahead  he's usually good in these situations.  Whatever it was did not pursue me, and left me by myself once again.

My solitude left me again in the swirling thought machine that is my brain.  I had thoughts of quitting the job I have that is basically just a technical gig that is slathered in the gravy of corporate bull shit.  I had thoughts of moving my family into a smaller house so we could live mortgage free.  I had thoughts of cashing out my 401k just to go climbing in South America, Switzerland, or both for a few months.  I had thoughts of trying to convince my friend Mark to go with me on said adventure(s).  I had thoughts of playing poker semi-professionally again.  I also had thoughts that all the previous thoughts were crazy.  I didn't know what to think, and then Tyler popped out of the forest around 10,900' and just said:  "This is your life and it's ending one minute at a time.". 

This is what I loved about Tyler.  He was always good about bringing me back into the moment. 

I suddenly realized I was sort of tired of carrying this pack and was hungry.  I had wanted to be away from crowds badly this weekend.  I decided I would just stop and setup camp here  at 10,900'.  It was a premium site so it was great place to stop for the day.

Tyler trying to setup my tent.  The poles go on the inside dude.

On the train, since it was 9/11, they gave out American flags to everyone.  I proudly took mine with me into the basin and now I took it off my pack and planted it in the ground and briefly thought of the famous picture of US soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima.  I then also had thoughts of all those who perished on 9.11.01.  I nearly shed a tear thinking of how the family members left behind must feel each year when 9.11 rolls around.  Again it was Tyler's antics that brought me back to reality when he started trying to setup our tent. 

'Merica!  Fuck Yeah!

After setting up camp, I cooked some very tasty Chicken Ala King.  I ate 2/3 of it and left the rest for Tyler and I went down to the creek to filter some water for tomorrow morning's climb of Sunlight Peak.  After filtering water and getting some reading done, I settled down at 7pm for some sleep.  Tyler kept trying to keep me awake with talk of everything from how I was missing the HPT event in Blackhawk, to Jessica Alba, to how we were going to climb 5 or 6 peaks tomorrow.  I just tuned him out and went to sleep. 

The creek is pretty late in the day.
Home sweet home.

Aaawoooo!  Yip yip yip!  

I snap awake and it's just barely dark.  It's probably only 8:30pm?  I just heard a very loud animal but most of the sound happened while I was asleep.  My brain did not quite register it.  My half awake brain came up with these options while I waited very still, with my ears perked. 

Hyena?  :)

After listening for a few minutes, it howled again.  It was surely a Coyote, and it sounded like a lone Coyote.  It was surely devouring some little critter and it wanted the world to know it was feasting.   I secretly hoped it was a marmot, which is a mountaineer's #1 enemy.  Later I would see this same Coyote near my camp to confirm such assumptions. 

Back to sleep after Wile E. Coyote finished devouring some poor furry bastard.  I slept off and on.

Day 2 - Sunlight Peak

Tyler was up before me.  He was singing again.  This time MC Hammer's "You can't touch this."

"I toured around the world from London to the bay
It's Hammer go Hammer
It's a Hammer yo Hammer and the rest go and play

Can't touch this!"

Ugh.  I just wanted to stay in my sleeping bag for another hour.  I poked my head out of my sleeping bag.  Damn!  It was cold as a topless nun doing an ice bucket challenge.  

Tyler kept going right into the next song.

"I'm too legit.  Too legit to quit."

I finally gave in.  I quickly got dressed, sent my wife an "OK" message via the SPOT and we hit the trail around 4:30am.

I hiked quickly.  I was on a mission.  I was not going to be denied on Sunlight or Windom today.   I felt like I could hike 5 or 6 mountains.  Tyler was rubbing off on me.  Up we went in the darkness silently but swiftly, like mountain ninjas sneaking around in the night.

We were well above Twin Lakes by the time the sun came up.

Sunrise reflecting off of Mt. Eolus, with a reflection in Twin Lakes.

Me hiking up with the San Juans awakening behind me.  (photo Tyler)

Tyler and I made it to the upper basin quickly and took the well-cairned trail that angled towards a gully in between Sunlight Peak and Sunlight Spire.  This gully is moderate on the "suck" scale in my opinion, but it's not the most enjoyable thing I've done.  Tyler led us to the top of the gully where we started traversing to the northwest.  The problem is, you are supposed to leave this gully just before you get to the top.  Thanks Tyler. 

Tyler pointing out our route at the top of the gully.
The route on says "Climb from the notch, traverse under some initial cliffs..."  We basically did that but just replace the word under with the word on.  Clearly it was not the wisest choice, and not something I would recommend.  I realized the error when I could see the route below us.  Tyler convinced me to just continue anyway rather than turning back. 

The "Window"
We got to the first "window" and went through it again ignoring the route.  This was just laziness on my part this time.  I just thought I remembered reading about going through the window, when in fact it talks about going away from it. 

We went through this window which will pop you out on the east side of Sunlight Peak.  We scrambled around trying to find a way up for a while.  There were ways up, but nothing that was class 4 or less.  It involved risky maneuvers on exposed slabs.  I finally convinced Tyler to retreat after I stopped to read the route description again.

After retracing our steps to the northwest side of the window, we found the route again.  The route led to a chimney with a small opening at the top.  This looked like an opening that would prevent anybody from ever carrying a BBQ Grill to the top of this mountain.  So I got that going for me, which is nice.  

On the summit, there remains a 15-20 foot seriously exposed scramble to the real summit.  Tyler went up first.  He was convinced that he could do a handstand on the top of the summit block.  I pleaded with him not to attempt such foolishness, but Tyler Durden cannot be reasoned with.  He got to the summit block and did his handstand on the summit.  He then yelled one last Tylerism to the world.  "Sticking feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken!". 

This is where Tyler left us.

I started get the camera out to snap a picture and heard something behind me.  I turned to see the mountaineer's #2 enemy, the mountain goat.  This suicidal terrorist attack goat ran up the summit block and knocked Tyler out of his celebratory handstand into oblivion.  The suicidal attack goat flew off into the San Juan mountain winds with him.  Tyler didn't even scream during his fall, he just went silently. 

This brings us to lesson number 4. 

Lesson 4:  Watch out for suicidal terrorist attack goats. 

I know most normal people cannot survive a fall like that, but Tyler Durden is no normal person.  I have a feeling I may see my friend Tyler again someday, or maybe not.  Rest in peace my good friend. 

After taking only one or two seconds to mourn my fallen friend, I stepped up onto the blocks and made my way easily to the top.  This is when it got interesting for me.  I have never had vertigo in my life and I now know what it feels like.  On the Sunlight summit block, actually on the second block down, you have to jump from one giant boulder to another in order to get down.  If you screw up this jump, short or long, you will likely die. 

It got into my head big time.  I stayed on the top for a couple minutes taking deep breaths just to calm myself.  Then before I could allow my mind to think anymore, I just jumped and landed safely, albeit not gracefully.  I intentionally did a "starfish" landing.  Vertigo on this summit block is a feeling that I can honestly say that nobody will ever understand unless you have been up there.  If you want to try to experience something close, just go to Bing and type in "Sunlight Peak jump video.".  It's the second scariest moment I've had in the mountains thus far, behind a falling boulder incident that nearly killed me on Little Bear Peak. 

Views from the summit block.  You can see my backpack sitting on the "summit".

Views east from the summit of Sunlight Peak.

More stunning San Juan views!

Me on the summit of Sunlight.  (photo terrorist goat)
I stayed on the summit for maybe twenty minutes and ate some food and prepared myself mentally for my now solo descent through suicidal terrorist attack goat turf.  I walked as stealthily as I could so I would not bring attention to myself. 

Every where I looked, they were watching me.... following me....

Stalking me... Hunting me...

Day 2 - Windom Peak

I descended back to 13,000' from Sunlight Peak as quickly as the goat mafia would allow.  I twice had to dodge rocks they dislodged.  Back on non-goat turf, I felt safer and therefore decided to just bolt up Windom Peak as a tribute to my fallen friend Tyler. 

I reached Windom's ridge at 13,250' and began the scramble up the ridge.  It starts with some class 2 talus hopping and gets more challenging.  The route nears class 3 at the top with lots of large boulders and some exposure around.  I didn't get a whole lot of pictures on the way up Windom, since I was still grieving for my friend Tyler.  I did get summit shots however.

Views looking back at Sunlight and Sunlight spire (right).

Views to the south.

Overlooking Chicago Basin.

Beautiful alpine lakes.

I stayed on the summit for about ten minutes, signing the register for myself and Tyler.  I began my descent and ran into a group of four guys that were on their way up.  They were the first hikers I had actually encountered all day.  I stayed only briefly to chat and then continued my descent still occasionally looking over my shoulder for the sniper goats that like to launch rocks at hikers heads.

Around 13,400' I tweaked my ankle again.  I was still able to walk, just slower and more painfully.  The never ending ankle injury saga continues.  I proceeded with caution as to not cause further injury. 

Slowly, I made it towards Twin Lakes.  Exhaustion was also setting in.  Just as I was approaching the lakes, I realized I had let my guard down while dealing with the ankle pain and exhaustion.  I looked up and discovered that the goats had flanked me.

I took a wide berth around these cunning assassins.   
Perched and ready to strike.  These little furry guerrilla goat terrorists must be treated with extreme caution.

After narrowly escaping the grasps of my enemies, I stopped at the lakes for a rest.  It was sunny with no chance of rain and I thought I would just enjoy the warm sunshine for a while. 

I sat down in nearly the same spot that my Dad and I had sat back in June and thought about my Dad.  I wished I'd planned our trip better so that he could've joined me on a summit in this beautiful area.  I mentally gave the nod to the idea of trying to drag him out to some San Juan 13ers next year.

Dad and I had conditions much worse in June.  The following pictures show a comparison.

Twin Lakes in September 2014.

Twin Lakes in June 2014.

I napped for about 20 minutes.  Fortunately I am a light sleeper.  I woke to a well-planned guerrilla goat attack in progress.  There was one trying to sneak up on me from the rock behind me.  I quickly sprang to my feet and thwarted his game plan.

When I was back on the trail, I was mostly just heads down watching only my feet. Thoughts of Tyler and goats were far away.  I only thought of the fact that Eolus and N. Eolus would not be had on this trip.  I thought if I hiked out on Saturday, took the train back to Durango, and drove the seven hours back to Boulder that I could be home for my wife's famous Sunday morning breakfast.  Then, as I passed a waterfall, I thought only of my Dad again. 

My Dad and me back in June 2014

In full hiking-zombie mode, limp included, I eventually reached my camp back at 10,900'.  Again, I saw no one on the trail until I was back at 11,000' where I passed one group of three guys who didn't mutter a word to me.  I was glad, as I was not in a social mood anymore.  I wanted only food, sleep, and more sleep.

Back at camp, I made some spaghetti and meat sauce and devoured it all.  I hung my food again, filtered some water for the morning and tried to sleep at 5:45pm.  I read for an hour, and I was in a lot of pain.  After tossing and turning and writhing in pain for a bit, I took a pain killer that I carry in my pack for just such injuries.  Sleep came quickly thereafter, and stayed.  However, I did wake up twice from very vivid dreams.

Dream # 1 was a repetitive dream in which I was down climbing some class 3 or class 4 terrain and with every step I took, rock slides would ensue, nearly engulfing me each time.  I woke about 12 times during a 20 minute span of these mini-dreams.  

Dream # 2 was also a very vivid dream where I was a snowboarder snow boarding down a snow covered shelf road and for some reason I was racing a van that was driving, or better yet, drifting around corners down this same road.  This dream went on forever.  The snow covered road went on forever.  I finally woke from this dream only because I had to piss. 

I checked the clock.  It was only 9:30pm.  After leaving some salt on a rock for the goats, I went back to sleep and didn't wake up again until nine hours later at 6:30am.

Day 3 - Going home

By 8am I was packed, ankle wrapped in an ace bandage, and hiking back down towards the train.  By 11:30am, I was sitting in the shade waiting for the train which wouldn't show up for another four hours.  I craved a Steamworks Whiskey burger again. 

I missed my wife.  I missed my kids.  I missed my dogs.  I wanted to be home.  First I would have to wait for four hours, just to then sit on a train for another almost three hours.  The train ride was a much less social one, and the only thing that even got a small smile out of me was when a group of 15-20 teenagers in the river that is adjacent to the train tracks decided to simultaneously moon the passengers on the train. 

After arriving back in Durango, I only stayed in town for forty minutes, which was long enough to drink two cokes, two glasses of water and eat a Whiskey Burger with Cajun fries.  While eating dinner, I kept humming MC Hammer tunes. 

I endured the seven hour drive home that night by dancing around in the truck as much as is physically possible while sitting in a drivers seat.  I was listening to music on my iPhone and singing, dancing, and rapping like a madman. 
My drive home was highlighted by an RV driver that fell asleep at the wheel and nearly killed me when he woke up and realized he'd drifted into splitting both lanes just as I was trying to get around him.  He corrected his mistake so fast, it pushed me off highway 285 just outside Poncha Springs into the grass and dirt on the side of the highway at 60mph.  My theory is he fell asleep not while counting sheep, but while counting psychotic, serial killing, terrorist-attack-mega-goats.  I was not even on the mountain anymore and they were still hunting me!

Normally, I think I would've cursed this guy out, or at least flipped him off.  I didn't even care.  I went on singing as soon as I was out of the dirt and back on asphalt.  It was a long drive, and I rolled into my driveway at 2:00am.  Oh well, it was all for the sake of a very unique adventure and an experience of solitude in Chicago Basin.  I'd do it again next weekend if I had the time off.

I fell asleep that night already planning options for my next adventure in my head.  I remember the awesome sunrise I saw last year on Crestone Needle around this time of year. 

Sunrise on Crestone Needle.  Photo from September 27th 2013.

Maybe it was time for another visit to the Crestones? 

Or maybe Pyramid Peak?

Maybe Eagles Nest A? 


-- This satirical work was done while remembering the greatest teacher I ever had, my 8th grade English teacher Al Yesue.  Al passed away a couple of years ago.  Rest in peace Al, we all loved you.  We all learned from you.  We all loved learning from you.


  1. I love all the Fight Club references, when is the next Tyler Durden adventure?

  2. I think he might be back someday. :) But remember, on a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.