Saturday, December 23, 2017

Homie Finishes the Winter 14ers!

Homie did his first winter 14ers in 1997, the year before my son Derek was born. This past Friday he completed the last two: North Eolus and Eolus. That's 58, maybe 59, as climbers keep adding non-ranked summits. Whichever it is, that's a heaping helping of frigid suffering. It’s so difficult, that, despite a lot of recent interest in the last five years or so, Homie is only the 12th person to complete them.
The worst weather of the trip was right at the start. Here we are packing up in the parking lot.
I’ve been lucky enough to be invited along on a number of Homie’s ascents, usually the easier ones, though we’ve done some tough ones as well. We’ve climbed the following 14ers in winter together:

Longs (multiple times)
Capitol (fastest one-day winter ascent at the time)
La Plata
North Eolus

We’ve failed, as a team, to climb the Bells twice. The only winter summits I’ve done without Homie are:

Maroon Peak

Some of the toughest 14ers to get are the four in the Chicago Basin. These are normally climbed by taking the Durango-Silverton train in order to access the nearest trailhead at Needleton, but in winter the train only goes to Cascade, which is six miles short of Needleton. From Needleton, it’s, roughly, 20 miles, roundtrip, to get the peaks. Homie had been in to the Chicago Basin, in winter, twice before. His first foray was a solo trip that was primarily a scouting trip that, I think, convinced him that climbing such difficult, remote peaks is best done with partners. On his second trip he recruited Danny Gilbert and Wes Thurman - two incredibly strong climbers. On that trip they got two of the four peaks - Sunlight and Windom - but snow conditions on Eolus spooked them and they left those for another time. It was now “another time.”

Derek and I were leaving to climb Aconcagua in Argentina on Christmas Day, but when Homie mentioned that snow levels in the Chicago Basin were at historic lows for this time of year, we were interested. We figured it would be a great training climb and a good final test of our Keen mountains boots. We left town amidst tremendous traffic on Wednesday night, the 20th of December, and picked up Wes in Colorado Springs. We then did the long drive to Durango and stayed with my sister-in-law Tara and her husband Carl. They treated us well and we left the next morning, in a snowstorm, for the trailhead at Purgatory Ski Area. We weren’t taking the train this time, but would hike an additional four miles to get to the Cascade Wye, where the train stops, and then hike along the Animas (?) River to Needleton, where we’d camp.

We shouldered heavy packs and trudged down the hill and the six long miles to Needleton. It was 3 p.m. but with darkness falling around 5 p.m. this time of year, we got right to work putting up the tent and cooking dinner. Our tent was atop a mere inch of snow and we were able to get water out of the creek draining the Chicago Basin, thus saving fuel from not having to melt snow.
Andrew Hamilton and Derek behind, limping up the trail.
It wasn’t long before Will Seers and Justin Becker showed up. Last winter Will climbed 51 14ers. Fifty-one! In one season! It was the most ever climbed in a single winter and Justin was his partner on many of those ascents. They were in here to start cleaning up Will’s remaining seven 14ers. They were also meeting 14er-speed-record-holder Andrew Hamilton, who was attempting to climb all four Chicago Basin 14ers in a single push from the Purgatory Trailhead. And, get this, he’d never done a 14er in winter before. So…with Homie and Wes, this was truly an all-star group of climbers back here. Derek and I were a bit overmatched, but glad to be with such strong climbers.

After a hearty dinner and with hot water bottles nestled in our sleeping bags, Derek and I watched a movie on my phone before falling asleep.
Wes at the saddle between North Eolus and Eolus
We awoke the at 3 a.m. and just a few minutes later, Andrew Hamilton came by. He was looking for Will and Justin and we directed him to the other side of the trail. They would take off an hour before us, but spend most of that time hiking further upstream to Needleton proper before realizing their mistake and backtracking all the way back to us.

We ate breakfast, warmed up our boots, filled our water bottles, and were hiking around 4:30 a.m. Homie led the way and we didn’t get lost. He knows what he’s doing. Derek and I had to stop and shed out down jackets once we started uphill in earnest and Homie and Wes kept moving to stay warm. When we caught up, I took the lead, mainly so that I wouldn’t get dropped. I was the weakest in the group, as Derek is now stronger than I am. I followed the tracks of the three climbers in front of us. We mostly hiked through one to two inches of dry snow, but there were many sections of the trail that were glare ice and so slippery that all of us fell at least once. Wes was wearing his Microspikes from the start, but after a fall, Homie put his on. I didn’t put mine on, in a show of solidarity, because I knew that Derek had forgotten his spikes. We could tell from the tracks that the climbers ahead of us were already wearing crampons.
Heading up into the Eolus bowl

Ninety minutes into our morning we caught Will, Justin, and Andrew. They were stopped for Andrew to switch from his approach shoes into his warmer mountaineering boots, as his feet started to freeze. We stopped and chatted with them and drank some water and got out a bit of food. From then on, we loosely became a team of seven.

I was glad when it finally became light enough to shut off our headlamps. Hiking via headlamp sucks. We didn’t get into the sun, though, for another ninety minutes and there we stopped to take a break. I was leading again, but when I turned around I didn’t see Derek. I asked Andrew where he was and he said, “Oh, he’s just down a bit. He stopped to eat something.” I walked down to the last switchback and saw Derek limping up the trail. His knee had gone bad on him. He has had this problem periodically since entering the Amazing Race on the CU campus and running 12 miles on pavement. We had thought those troubles were behind him, though…

We continued up the trail, which only had 2-4 inches of snow on it. Homie took over leading and he and Wes gapped the rest of us. Derek was having lots of trouble with his knee and when we regrouped I asked him if he should stop. I was worried about him doing more damage and hurting his chances for Aconcagua. He told me, and the rest of us, not to wait for him any longer, but he’d move up slowly and see how it went.
Me climbing by Andrew Hamilton (taking photo)
We steadily gapped Derek as we moved up the bowl of Eolus, assuming he was going to stop. But he kept coming. Things slowed down considerably now at altitude. Andrew dropped his pack, which was massive, and then gapped everyone. Andrew eventually waited for Will and Justin and Homie, Wes, and I moved by and up to the saddle in between North Eolus and Eolus. We dropped our packs and tagged the North summit first. This was no problem but had some cool scrambling on it. The ridge up to Eolus was ideal terrain for a scrambler like me and I could move a bit faster than the others here. I headed up to Eolus before Andrews and his crew arrived at the saddle and Homie and Wes soon followed. Along the ridge I could look down into the bowl and see Derek still moving up near the ramp up to the saddle. He saw me too and we waved. I waited on top of Eolus for Homie and Wes and we congratulated him on his successful completion of the winter 14ers. So cool.
Homie approaching the summit of Eolus, his last of the winter 14ers.
I then started back along the ridge, greeted Andrew, Will and Justin, and met up with Derek a bit below the saddle. He wasn’t bending his right leg at all, and instead moving up only using his left leg, matching height with his right. I tried to tell him to stop, but of course, he declined as he was so close. We ate and drank some, and then decided to just do North Eolus to get him a summit, and we were there quickly, as Derek was still very strong aerobically and just limited by knee pain and not fitness. After retrieving a summit rock we descended back to just below the saddle where Wes and Homie were waiting for us. The other three had started down as they were still going for the quad-fecta. We saw them once more, down where the trail splits to go up towards Sunlight and Windom. They were by a small stream of open water, brewing up with their JetBoil.

We said our goodbyes and headed down. It was a long way out, and Homie and Wes pushed ahead to get the stoves ready (and to break 12 hours, as Homie would tell us later), while Derek and I made our way a bit slower. Anything steep was slow-going for Derek, who still was not bending his leg, but on anything of mild grade he could move along just as fast as normal, gapping me in spots. We got to camp 10 minutes after the two strongmen and we settled into our tents for dinner. Wes generously offered us an extra meal, since we only had one for the night, and we brewed up four hot bottles. We agreed to get up at 4 the next morning to get home sooner.
On the summit with Homie.
We left at 5:45 and started out. Derek’s knee had recovered slightly over the night, and he could bend his knee, but the injury was still subject to flare-ups throughout the day.  After 2 hours, we got back to Cascade and smelled a camp-fire. After some speculating, we walked right up on Andrew. He had spent the night hobbling and shivering his way down and out. He was out of food; he had just finished his water; and his foot was giving him a really tough time. After some chatting/fueling here he said he was up for joining us and that his foot was feeling better. We walked all the way out (the remaining 4ish miles) with him, chatting about his plans for the new year and sharing stories and beta of Colorado mountains.

On the summit of North Eolus with Derek
Derek descending from the summit of North Eolus

1 comment:

Gayla Wright said...

Happy that trip is behind you. Sounds a bit brutal! Of course, now I am concerned about Derek’s knee. Hope it is strong enough for Aconcagua. Do not push it as you, Derek, have a long life ahead of you. Need all your body parts in tact. Sounds like another great adventure. Love all your write-up Bill. Mom/NaƱa