Thanks to thebeave7 for his trip report, which I noticed a couple of years ago, and which directed me through the two unmarked forks near the beginning.
Thanks, too, I guess, for mentioning the purported fastest known time (FKT) for the route, 13h30. Reading it, my competitive fire was kindled, and though I was planning a fun outing, I knew that was… fkt. Each encouraging split caused me to up the pace, until I was jamming down Chicago Basin and the Animas River Trail at a decent run, and crushing myself up the climb back to Purgatory in baking mid-day heat. So maybe I have the FKT until one of the top Colorado ultra runners bothers to give it a shot.
For those who don’t want to spend $100 on the train, the best way to get to Chicago Basin is a 12-mile hike or run down Purgatory Creek to the Animas, then up the Animas River Trail to Needle Creek, near the train stop. For those who want to climb these remote 14ers without camping out, this makes for a long day — 14ers.com claims 42 miles and 12,000 feet of elevation gain — with a painful finish, climbing 1500 feet back out of the Animas to Purgatory. Fortunately, most of the trail to Chicago Basin is very runnable, so a decent trail-runner can make it a reasonable day.
I set my alarm for 2:30, then tried to sleep at the trailhead, but was awakened by a midnight thunder and rain storm, and couldn’t get back to sleep. When my watch beeped for 2:00, I gave up, slammed some coffee and a couple of bananas, tried to use a convenient port-a-potty, and hit the trail at 2:26. 20 minutes later, I had to use a hole in the ground — these early starts are hell on my body’s timing.
The trail down Purgatory Creek dips and switchbacks, and is rough enough in places that it is not an easy run by headlamp. Remembering the trip report, I turned right at the two unmarked splits, trusting in the moonless night that I would end up in the right place. Reaching the bridge at 3:21, I was caught completely by surprise, reassured that I was on the right path, and driven to push for speed.
The Animas River Trail crosses the narrow-gage tracks shortly before they cross to the west side of the river, then follows near the east bank for (supposedly) 7 miles. Though there are rough spots, much of this is runnable, and I found myself jogging long stretches despite going up-river. Multi-hour headlamp time can be a form of meditation, or just an extended absurdity. I drifted into the latter mode and, as I jogged an obscure trail alone in the middle of the night, DJ Dan’s repeated encouragement in my headphones to “get next to the opposite sex” and “shake that ass” somehow fit.
Somewhere in this stretch, I stopped to grab one of the 6 peanut butter, honey, and banana sandwiches I was carrying (in addition to 4 packs of pop-tarts), and was disgusted to find that the “value brand” bread I buy was just not up to task. Rather than sandwiches, I had an old bread-bag containing about 1500 calories of 6-layer bread pudding. I carefully peeled off the top layer of this monstrosity and gagged it down as I walked.
I reached the Needles Creek turnoff at 4:37 and, still feeling good, jogged the flatter, smoother parts of the trail up into Chicago Basin. This trail is not as runnable as the Animas trail, with some partially washed-out sections and one messy tangle of trees. The sky lightened as the basin opened up, and by around 5:30 I was headlamp-free and able to see the multitude of tents in the basin, some of their inhabitants just starting their days.
The purported use trail to Twin Lakes seems to have become official, with a sign and significant trail work. I power-hiked the steeper climb up to the lakes, then took the left branch toward Eolus. I noticed a few footprints in the wet sand, and met the two men making them as they descended just below the ridge-line. They were watching a family of the basin’s way-too-friendly mountain goats, which I shooed off the trail with some annoyance.
Most of Eolus is just a hike up sand and a few slabs, but the climbing from the saddle to the summit can be fun. I took a class 3-4 route near the spine on the way up, and followed the more meandering, cairned, standard route on the way down. The summit has a great view of Pigeon and Turret to the west, two high 13ers, which I admired as I switched to daytime mode and tried to dry out my dew-soaked shoes and socks.
After bombing back down to the trail junction, I took the path northeast toward Sunlight and Windom, passing the men I met earlier just before the standard routes split. Sunlight sounded more interesting, so I chose to tag Windom first. This proved fortunate, since you can easily drop down Windom’s north face on loose sand and talus on the traverse in this direction. The standard route gains a saddle on Windom’s west ridge, which it follows to the summit, mostly on stable class 2-3 talus.
After dropping down Windom’s north side, I picked up the standard route on Sunlight, a mostly painless sand- and talus-fest until the last 100 feet. Seeing my two occasional companions on the summit rocks, I pushed myself to catch them before they descended, 4th classing my way up the last bit to the summit a bit before 10:00 AM, 7h30 out. After trading picture-taking duties, they returned the way they had come. I had a snack, enjoyed the view, then found the fun standard route, which passes through a short tunnel to the west side of the ridge.
Now it was on. Dropping down the sand, I refilled my water at a snowmelt stream, then started making good time down to the Columbine Pass junction. From there on, I ran the trail through the basin — a trail that begs to be run — and what I could of the descent to the Animas. I crammed down pop-tarts and ibuprofen, put on Rammstein, and took off at a brisk but efficient jog along the river, feeling surprisingly good.
Things started turning grim at the bridge, 10h20 in, where I ate the last of my “pudding” and started heading uphill. It was over 90 degrees in Durango the day before, so it was probably in the 80s on the climb, with no wind and only intermittent shade. I knew I would be well under the 13h30 FKT, but really wanted to go sub-12. Giving Rammstein another spin, I jogged flatter parts and power-hiked steeper ones, suffering all the while. It was hard to identify landmarks passed by headlamp, but the few I recognized allowed me to stay motivated, and I was immensely pleased to reach the trailhead sign at 11h20.