NOTE: Going through old trip reports, I’ve found a lot of them are long on storytelling and short on beta. So on occasion, I’m going to revisit a few peaks to give a more straightforward look at what it’s like to hike or climb these mountains.
The San Juan Mountains make up my favorite mountain range to date, mostly because of the variety of peaks you can find there, in addition to the sheer quantity. Inside the range is anything from simple, short walk-ups to highly technical – and spicy – climbs. Whatever mountain you choose is going to have a sense of wildness, as these mountains almost entirely exist within established wilderness areas.
One of these areas is the Weminuche Wilderness, some of the wildest and most remote country in the state of Colorado. Among the prime destinations in this wilderness are Chicago Basin and its numerous 13,000- and 14,000-foot peaks.
Four 14ers serve as the pinnacles of a crown of peaks surrounding the basin. On the east end are Sunlight Peak and Windom Peak. On the west, Mount Eolus and North Eolus.
Mount Eolus (14,083 feet) is the second-highest of the four and seen by most as the second-hardest. It’s definitely a worthy target, and is often climbed in tandem with North Eolus.
Getting to Chicago Basin is a bit of an obstacle itself. Like I said, it’s remote. It’s not like driving to a trailhead in the Front Range or the Sawatch. You basically have two choices: Hike in from Durango (that might take at least a couple of days) or get an open-air ticket on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Train, a tourist service that takes vacationers on a ride between the two towns and through the mountain scenery along the Animas River. Most people do the latter, a service provided by the train operator to backpackers. The train stops at a place called Needleton (there’s no town there, just a spot for the train to stop and let people off), and on the banks of the Animas River there is a pedestrian bridge that leads you to a trail. Your ticket price will include pickup and a return trip to Durango once your trip is over; be sure to book in advance.
From the bridge crossing, a good trail goes all the way to the Basin. It starts out flat, but soon you start gaining elevation quickly. About 5.5 miles in, you will see places where you can camp. Campsites are available up to 7 miles or so from the bridge crossing, right at the southern foot of Mount Eolus. Most people choose to camp after the hike in so they can get an early start – a wise thing in the summer, as afternoon storms are common here.
From there, follow a good trail along the river, then a series of switchbacks up the headwall – steep Class 1 and 2 hiking. It’s a real leg- and lung-buster, but nothing more. Higher up the headwall, you will cross rock slabs that are slippery when wet. This will lead you to a saddle between Mount Eolus (to your left) and North Eolus.
It’s about here when you’ll want to take a good look at the skies and determine how the weather is going to hold out. The route from here will slow you down considerably, and if you’re caught on the connecting ridge or on Eolus’ summit pitch, there is no fast retreat.
Here you will face the first real obstacle climbing Mount Eolus – the Catwalk. Visually, it’s a slender ridge that is usually about 10-15 feet wide, but as narrow as five feet in some places. There is no alternative route to get to Eolus from the saddle – you either cross the Catwalk or forgo the summit entirely. The rock is solid, but it is exposed on both sides. Mostly, it’s a walk with an occasional scrambling move.
Once off the Catwalk, a couple of options are available. Most people follow a series of cairns up the ledges leading to the summit, just left of the ridgeline proper. There is some exposure, but it’s manageable. The main challenge here is route-finding: negotiating the blocky ledges to find your way to the top. The route is classified as a Class 3 scramble with high exposure.
For a more direct climb, go up the northeast ridge proper. This is a more demanding way to finish the climb in terms of route-finding, climbing difficulty and managing exposure. The ridge direct is Class 3-4 climbing, with spots of airy, no-fall zone exposure (large drop-offs to your right would likely end in death if you fell). You will be able to climb over or around several stone blocks; some require traverses that are pretty committing.
The final push to the top involves easier scrambling and a rest stop on the mountain’s small summit perch. From here, you’ll have sweeping views of North Eolus to the north, along with 13ers Pigeon and Turret peaks to the northwest. To the east, Sunlight Peak, Windom Peak and Sunlight Spire (among others) can be seen.
Either route you take, be sure to test handholds and footholds. But I found most of the rock fairly solid.
From the campsites closest to the headwall, your elevation gain is about 3,000 feet, with a round-trip route length of about 6 miles.
A couple things to note: Bring bug spray (the flies are relentless in the summer), and know that there is a sizable population of mountain goats that are accustomed to people and often hang out a camp and might follow you around.
Interested in reading the original full Chicago Basin trip report? See it here.