Sunlight, Sunlight Spire, and Windom seen from the summit of Eolus
Of Colorado's 54 recognized summits over 14,000 feet, Eolus, Sunlight, and Windom are the most remote. They are most often climbed as a multi-day backpacking trip from the 100 year old, narrow gauge, coal burning Silverton-Durango railroad stop in Needleton. The round trip hiking distance from here is 18.6 miles with 6900 ft. of climb.
The nearest trailhead reachable by car starts from the forest service campground across from the Purgatory ski area on US550, 20 miles south of Silverton and 27 miles north of Durango. The round trip distance from here is 36 miles with 10,000 ft. of climb.
Map of the route from the nearest road
Sunlight Peak is said to be Colorado's hardest fourteener, if difficulty is rated by the hardest single move. All of the hard, class 4 climbing occurs in the last 10 feet. The scariest move for many is a 3 foot step up across an exposed gap dropping hundreds of feet. The climber in this photo is approaching the step.
Mt. Eolus is the highest peak of the three, at 14,083 feet. It's most distinguishing feature is the Catwalk, a ridge that narrows to 3 feet wide with 100 foot vertical drops on both sides. However, the hardest climbing occurs later, as you ascend several hundred feet at a 50 degree angle on broken class 3 ledges.
Windom Peak is the easiest of the three mountains, just a class 2+ boulder hop to the summit.
There is some debate whether Sunlight Spire is an official fourteener. It was last measured at 13,995 feet, but a survey since then increased the height of many fourteeners by 7 feet. If it is a fourteener, then it would definitely be the hardest, rated 5.10.
Chicago Basin 2:30 AM Windom 4:11 Sunlight 5:15 Eolus 6:55 Chicago Basin 7:37He took the train out, climbed the Wilson group and Sneffels later that day, the rest of the San Juans the next day, and all 54 fourteeners in 10 days + 20:26.
All of the other fourteener records were set in similar fashion, starting with these mountains and taking the train in and out, except for Andrew Hamilton who mountain biked the trail between Purgatory and the Weminuche wilderness boundary at the trailhead near Needleton (where bikes are not allowed). On June 30, 2003, during a self powered fourteener speed record (no motorized travel between mountains), he left Silverton by bicycle at 2:30 AM, climbed Eolus, Sunlight and Windom, and returned to Silverton at 10:00 PM. No additional details are given.
Jim Nelson (Utah) reports he climbed Eolus, North Eolus, Windom and Sunlight from Purgatory in a 13 1/2 hour day hike from Purgatory in August, 2005. He is one of only 6 people ever to complete the Barkley 100 (as of 2006) and one of only 4 to complete Nolan's 14.
By Matt Mahoney
On July 14, 2003, I climbed Eolus, Sunlight and Windom (but not Sunlight Spire) as a day hike from Purgatory in 22 hours and 3 minutes. I had flown from Florida (elevation 17 ft) one week earlier, and spend the last week getting as much altitude as possible to acclimate for this trip. I made a short climb of Evans from Summit Lake on the 8'th (my first full day in Colorado), then climbed Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn on the 9'th, a 20 mile hike that took 10 hours. On the 11'th, I paced a runner (Hans Dieter-Weisshaar, age 62) at the Hardrock 100 for 44 miles over 17 hours, which included a traverse over 14,048 ft. Handies Peak. I had to stop there because I could not keep up with him. Then the following evening I met Hans 15 miles from the finish, and paced him again all night over Putnam-Pole divide (13,000 ft) to Silverton (where I was camping) from sunset to sunrise. After he finished (in a time of 47 hours, 45 minutes), I took a 4 hour nap, then drove to the campground across from Purgatory. It was closed for tree removal, but I parked just outside the gate and set up my tent in an empty campsite anyway.
I had originally planned to do this hike a week later when I was better rested and acclimated, but there was a high pressure area, which meant good weather and no afternoon thunderstorms. This wouldn't last forever, so I had to do it now. I had tried to find climbing partners, but everyone I talked to said it was impossible to do it in a day, so I went by myself.
I set my alarm for 4:00 AM and started at 4:52. I carried a 2 20-oz bottle trail running hip pack with about a pound of food (mostly peanut M&Ms, cookies, and some meat), an LED flashlight and spare, a compass, map, various small items (duct tape, paper towels, ibuprofin, caffeine), a disposable camera, ultralight rainsuit (8 oz.), and other warm clothing, most of which I tied around my waist because it wouldn't fit in my small pack. I didn't bring a water filter. Ever since I had a mild case of Giardia in 1996 I have been drinking untreated water to keep my immunity up. The total weight was probably 5 lbs. with the bottles full, which is more than I usually carry, making running somewhat difficult. I wore lightweight Merrill trail running shoes without socks.
The trail starts downhill from 8800 ft. to the Animas river. I ran most of this, reaching the river about 6:15 AM and crossing a wooden bridge. The trail then turns left and parallels the river upstream. I mostly racewalked this, with a little running. I reached the Needleton trailhead, about 9 miles, at about 7:30 AM.
The trail then enters wilderness and climbs from 8200 ft. to the Chicago basin just below treeline at 11,000 ft. On the way up at about 8:30 I passed some campers. They said they had also stared from Purgatory and this was their third day.
First glipse of the mountains approaching Chicago basin
I reached the upper Chicago basin, about 15 miles, at about 9:45 AM. This is where everyone camps. From here, you turn left and pass a sign that says "No camping beyond this point". The trail becomes very steep and rough here, probably a 50% grade, climbing to Twin Lakes at 12,500 ft.
Map details of Chicago basin and summits
From Twin Lakes, you can go left to Eolus or right to Sunlight and Windom. I went left, first on easy trail, then up increasingly steep rock which becomes class 3 to the ridge between Eolus on the left and North Eolus on the right. Turning left, you then cross the Catwalk.
Eolus, just before crossing the Catwalk
The hardest climbing is after the Catwalk. You just go straight up the side on broken ledges about 2 feet wide and 3-5 feet high, climbing from one to the next wherever it looks easist. The climbing is class 3, but exposed. During Andrew Hamilton's first speed record, he found the dead body of a climber who had fallen here.
Eolus ascent route
I reached the summit at 12:14 PM and returned to Twin Lakes.
(Left) Sunlight seen from Twin Lakes basin (Right) Looking up at Sunlight Spire from the basin between Sunlight and Windom.
The climb into the hanging basin between Sunlight and Windom is somewhat rocky but not hard. From here you can take more or less any route up Sunlight on solid slabs, which are easy at first and steepen to class 3 near the top. I climbed to the right of the summit, to the saddle between Sunlight and Sunlight Spire.
Approaching Sunlight along the SE ridge
I climbed along the ridge to Sunlight but soon ran into a 50 foot high headwall. There just happened to be some rock climbers here trying to climb the same wall, two teenage boys and two older men, one the boys father and the other a rock climbing instructor. They offered to loan me a harness and belay me up after they climbed. The wall had 2 chimneys that I guess were about 5.6 on the left and 5.4 on the right. (I can't say since I didn't climb them). I waited while the instructor led up the right chimney, but he came back down and said it wouldn't go for some reason. Then one of the teenagers led the left chimney and belayed the other up. When they were on top of the headwall, they yelled down that this would not get them to the summit either. I don't know what they saw, but they came back down.
A minor obstacle approaching Sunlight from the SE ridge
Finally after waiting 90 minutes, I found a route that traversed around the left side of the headwall on class 3-4 rock and reached the opposite ridge. The climbers followed but they were moving too slow and it was getting late so I left them behind. I found the summit register empty with the lid missing, but this was not the top. The hard part has just started.
The first move is a 10 ft. 45 deg. friction climb up a slab, that's easier with a running start. From here, you grab the top edge and traverse right. The right side is exposed, overhanging a cliff. You climb onto the rounded top of the slab and then make the long step up across the exposed gap onto another rock. The final move is a 4 ft. mantle onto the narrow summit block. It has a 100 foot vertical drop on the right side. I sat on it at 5:00 PM.
Returning, the hardest part is the step down across the gap. I could just get a toe across, then push off and balance on top of the exposed slab. From there I descended the same way back to the basin. The climb to Windom was straightforward except that I got off route somehow and climbed a 20 ft. class 4 chimney. I summitted at 6:30 PM.
I descended to Twin Lakes and took what I thought might be a shortcut to the trail, but missed it and ended up bushwacking down 1000 vertical feet of willows and horrible underbrush, crossing back and forth and not finding the trail until I was back in Chicago Basin at 8:30 PM.
I talked briefly to another hiker, but the sun was setting and I had 15 miles to go. I ran as far as I could, but as it got dark my pace slowed and I ended up walking the last mile downhill to the Needleton trailhead at about 10 PM. I was really tired by now and my sleep deprivation from the night before was catching up with me. I took caffeine pills to stay awake, but I was starting to hallucinate from lack of sleep and just had to sit down on the trail and close my eyes for 5 minutes. I went instantly into a dream state, then woke up, still tired but at least the hallucinations were gone.
Finally I reached my car at 2:55 AM, a total time of 22:03. I put the seat back and was asleep in seconds.
Climbing the Needles was just the start of a wonderful 6 week vacation in which I climbed 28 fourteeners to finish my list (except for Culebra) and ran the Leadville 100.