These are my notes from the trip Dave, Bryan, and I made into the Chicago Basin. I'm copying them exactly from my journal, bad grammar and all. I'll add parenthetical notations about any photos that I drop in that need explanation.
Day 1 - October 11
We got on the Durango/Silverton RR at 9:00 a.m. Nice train ride in an enclosed car. Train dropped us at Needleton trailhead right at 1130. This late in the season, not too many venture so high, so in addition to the three of us, there was only one other solo backpacker. He was planning on an eight day trip! As the train pulled away all the tourists waving and taking pictures & videos of us, yelling "good luck!" and "have fun!" The solo-packer commented, "I've never been a tourist attraction before." It's kind of weird to think that that I'll have a very small starring role in someones vacation album! Getting dropped off at Needleton was very cool for me personally. Mom & dad took us on that train ride when I was in my early teens, and I remember how cool it was when the train stopped in the middle of nowhere and picked up these two climbers on the side of the tracks.
The Needleton trailhead is at about 8,000 feet and our high camp goal for tonight was at about 11,000 feet. We stopped for lunch and to filter some water at about 9,000 feet, a couple of hours into our pack in, and continued on.
Within thirty minutes of lunch, the altitude hit me like a train. I couldn't catch my breath and could only walk 20-30 feet without a break. Bryan had powered on ahead, and Dave was with me. At one point I practically collapsed onto a big rock on the trail. Nausea, complete breathlessness, weak muscle tremors... the whole bit. Dave force-fed me some "energy goo" and made me drink a half-bottle of water. Twenty to thirty minutes later I was feeling more "OK" and I plodded along at a snail's pace... Dave babysitting me. Oh, and I popped 250 mg of Diamox, too.
Bryan was who-knows-how-far ahead, and Dave and I started to worry about him a little. Well, at least I did... I'm assuming Dave did, too. It was becoming clear to Dave that I wouldn't be able to make our 11,000 foot camp goal for tonight, and was becoming clear to me that it might even be dangerous for my health to push that far. At about 5:30, just as I was really beginning to worry about what we'd do if we didn't find Bryan (Dave and I had the tent and food) Bryan came hopping down the trail. (literally.) He had gotten to within a mile or so of our objective, waited for us for over an hour, then decided something might be wrong so he humped it back to us. By now I was really hurting, so Dave and Bryan left me sucking air and went to find a camping site close by. They found a good site within a quarter mile, and they returned, Bryan taking my pack from me, which is a pretty humbling experience, but I needed it... could hardly breathe. Light was fading fast, so Dave ran to filter more water, and Bryan and I fought with the tent. I don't know if it was my oxygen-deprived brain or what, but I've never had such a hard time getting a tent up. Just as Bryan was getting ready to throw me off the rim of the gorge we were camping by, we got the tent up. I was miserable. Everything I did required five minutes of recuperation: Unroll my sleeping bag... five minutes of gasping for air. Change into warmer clothes... five minutes of gasping for air. Awful. Bryan and Dave made dinner and force fed me a cup of ramen noodles before I headed straight in here (the tent) to bed and to scribble my notes. We're at just over 10,000 feet here, and now that I'm doing nothing but laying here and writing I feel a lot better.
Day 2 - October 12
Bryan said it was about 34 degrees when he and Dave crawled in the tent last night. My sleeping bag did great. I even ripped my thermals off in the middle of the night because I was too hot. Three Thumbs up for the Mountainsmith Kodiak!
I woke up feeling much better. Still getting easily winded, but not nearly as bad. No nausea, headache, or weak tremors... all good signs. Stuff sack busted on my sleeping bag. Three thumbs down for the Mountainsmith Kodiak!
Not a bad day for us. We walked a couple hours to the top of the basin, decided it was too windy and exposed to camp there (clouds moving in over the mountains, which had shown us nothing but clear skies until now) so we walked a way back down the basin and found a nice spot protected by some big pine trees. We had camp set up by noon. Camp is at 11,170 according to the altimeter.
Bryan and Dave wanted to head up to Twin Lakes, about 12,500 feet or so, but even though I am feeling a lot better, I decided it would be best not to go with them, but to spend the day relaxing in camp and further acclimatizing. Bryan was pretty vocal about not wanting me to go, too. Guess he didn't want to make that "Eric had a heart attack on the side of some mountain" call to our mom! While they were gone I fetched water, hung the food (Pretty sure I saw bear poop close to camp) finished setting up camp, then found this nice place in the sun to sit, write this, and read the book I brought. (I took the pic below as I was reading and writing this)
Dave & Bry showed up right at 5:00 as promised, and said twin lakes was beautiful, but the climb up the wall of the basin was grueling. Good thing I stayed down.
I made dinner, some dehydrated pack food I brought that's made right in Kettering. Good stuff! It got cold fast as soon as the sun went down, and we were all in the tent by 8:00 or 8:30.
Day 3 - October 13.
Got down to 31 or so last night. Cold. But warm in the tent, bag kept me toasty again. Dave and Bry both said I stop breathing in my sleep. Probably related to the altitude, High Altitude Periodic Breathing, I think it's called, but I better make sure and have Tonya watch for that at home, just to be sure. Speaking of my wonderful Tonya, really starting to miss her and the kids; can't wait to talk to them on Sunday.
Two words for today: snow and triumph. We woke up to cloudy skies and a temp of 34 degrees. Quick oatmeal breakfast to warm up our bellies and we decided to try to get to the top of Columbine at about 13,000 feet. We headed out around 11:00 with lunch, water, and an extra layer of clothes each. We could see the pass from our camp and it looked cold up there. (The pic below is of Columbine as it looked from our camp.)
Very nice climb up to the pass. Lots of good photo ops along the way. Passed several abandoned mines, very cool. Entrances still open, but we didn't venture in too far -- no headlamps, which Bryan and I both lamented not having brought along from camp.
I started getting winded real easily again by the time we were at 12,000 feet, but not nearly like before. As long as I maintained a slow, steady pace, I didn't get terribly winded. As soon as we cleared the tree line, the wind became brutal, and I think everyone donned their technical shells a few minutes thereafter. Bryan (part billy goat, part kangaroo) was way up ahead, and Dave was in the middle, with me panting in the rear. Bryan and Dave found a good place with a reasonable amount of wind break for us to sit and have our tuna and crackers lunch. Huddled behind some bushes, I think they were Manzanitas, but I'm not sure... I'll have to check with Bryan, we had a nice break and could look up to the final 500 feet or so of our climb.
Right after lunch jackrabbit Bryan took off up ahead again, and Dave and I resumed our traditional places as middle man and anchor man. Plodding along, step, rest, step, rest, I heard a loud scream from above and looked up to see Bryan standing in the pass. Great moment.(Bryan and Dave even left me a little trail marker to show me the way)
It took me about thirty minutes to catch up, and the snow and clouds were really beginning to set in heavy. Altimiter said "12,800 feet." Poor Bryan really wanted to find another 200 feet of elevation so we could hit 13,000... but there was nowhere to go from there!
We spent a few minutes in the pass, snapped a few photos, and started the descent. We had gone vertically off route for the final 100 feet or so to the pass, because the trail was covered completely in snow. There was one stretch of trail we passed that I thought was too exposed and slick for us to have safely crossed... but the others quickly ridiculed me for my caution. There was quite a bit of run-out had one slipped off the snow-packed trail, but in the end we all made it fine, so I guess the guys were right. Even so ... it was crampon and axe territory for a few feet.
Very quick decent back to camp in the snow. Only took a couple hours. I got pretty cold once we were standing around camp and dinner was done. I think I had gotten a little sweaty on the descent or something, because it was the only time I was ever really cold. Started feeling crappy and breathless again, not surprising after a big day. I hopped in here (tent) to write at about 7:00. It's been snowing all afternoon, sticking... looks like over an inch on the ground now, but it sounds as if the snow has stopped hitting the tent. I hope so. Long pack out in the morning, and if we miss the train, we also miss our plane home! Cold! Bryan and Dave want me to set my alarm for 0600... wow that's early. Necessary in case we end up with a pile of snow we have to fight through, though.
Day 4 - October 14
Got up at the crack of dark and everyone (even me) got moving quickly. I think I had my best night's sleep yet. We dropped the tent real quick, packed up and were on the trail by 7:15 or so. It got down in the twenties overnight... ice on the tent, water bottles frozen, but we all stayed warm in our bags. Humped it down the basin in the snow ... beautiful!(Sunrise...)
We made it back to the train stop by 10:30... didn't even have to be there until 3:00. It worked out OK, because as the train went northbound at 11:00 they stopped. Bryan talked the conductor in to letting us hop the train then, and riding in to Silverton and back, even though our tickets were only for the south bound trip. Fun train ride... well-earned Durango micro brews and brats for all!