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Peak Beyond the Trail

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Hi, my name is Noah. I am a Eagle Scout with a Bronze palm and I spent 13 years in the Boy Scouts of America. Backpacking was my specialty.

Windom Crew Left to right: my Dad, Shawn, Cole, Matt, Lark, Steve, and me in the middle

Windom Crew Left to right: my Dad, Shawn, Cole, Matt, Lark, Steve, and me in the middle

After our first taste of adventure in Colorado, it was time to plan our next trip out to the San Juan National Forest. The last trip we took out here was a solid 35 miles or more and we wanted a larger challenge, not in distance, but the degree of difficulty. We set our sights on climbing one of the 14,000-foot peaks that surrounded the Chicago Basin. Sunlight (14,059 feet), Mt. Eolus (14,083 feet), and Windom (14,085 feet) were the three peaks we had to choose from and they all had their level of difficulty. Sunlight had an odd trail and took the most time if I remember correctly.

This made it a challenge because timing your accent and decent with the evening storms could end up in disaster. lightning, hypothermia, and rock slides from heavy rain were all things we had to take into account when picking the perfect one to summit. Mt Eolus was the most dangerous of the three, there is a portion of the trail near the peak called the Catwalk. This was a few feet wide with several thousand feet of drops on either side and if that wasn't harrowing enough there is a small gap between two sections of the mountain you have to JUMP across to reach the summit. A task of this difficulty was something out of our skill level for the age group we were taking with us. We eventually settled on Mount Windom.

This had its share of challenges but was easily doable and happened to be the tallest one of the three in the Basin. The trail up this mountain started off winding through the trees and old mines in the area and began to ascend out of the tree line. Unknown to us there are also two false peaks. When hiking up mountains with false peaks, you look up and gain some hope that the end of the trail is near but when you reach the top there is more mountain ahead of you. This happened to us twice and then finally there was the summit.

So we picked out the mountain and we already knew the area, so all that was left was to pick a date and roll out. The gear we would take was similar to the first trip but we were less concerned about weight because we had a base camp and were not trying to go long distances. We were well-versed in Durango and spent less time in town and got right down to business. we took the same beautiful train ride up to Needleton Creek, disembarked the train, and began our trail head ritual of making toasts to our trip and set off.

This was exciting and we reminisced about the trail we left last time. Once again we passed the rock my parents stayed at and had some lunch before continuing. Chicago Basin looked as beautiful as the last time I stayed in the lush grassy valley and it felt like home to be back.

Our heading into Chicago Basin

Our heading into Chicago Basin

The camp was made closer to the back of the basin and in a spot where we could see all three peaks. this year the summer was wet and man were the fly's out in force. So much so that we began to make a game out of killing as many fly's as possible.

I think by the end of the trip I had managed to take out maybe a hundred. the majority of us were certified fly assassins by the time we were done with the trip that's for sure! In case you were wondering, yes the same mischievous mountain goats were there to greet us and make sure our camp was set up to their liking. the creek where we soaked our feet after a long day was still babbling along, albeit there was a higher volume of water from the rain and snow melt.

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In a few hours, we had constructed a small pool waist deep while sitting where we could attempt to brave the cold water for as long as we could. Carefully moving rocks that were already in the creek so as not to disturb the surroundings. One task of our preparation for the hick up the hill was to make a short day trip to Columbine Pass this would get our legs trained for going uphill all day, this was also fun because this was the last mountain pass we crossed from our 2006 trip. With our shakedown hike out of the way, it was time to check the weather one last time and get a good night's sleep for the next day.

Early in the morning before the woods woke up we had a quick breakfast and loaded our day-packs with water, snacks, and gear for the trip. This was game day, we were going to climb a mountain and the first portion was going to be done by headlamp. Skill was needed on the beginning leg of this trail, in the mountains, the dark of night is extra dark. There is no light but the stars above you and depending on the position of the moon you won't even get light from that, headlamps on and boots tied just right we set out for what would be the biggest adventure we had yet.

Most of the trail was easy going aside from the general stops to catch our breath there was nothing out of the ordinary but then we came to a section of trail that caught us off guard. Some ice that had not melted off the trail was covering a large portion of where we had to cross, to make matters worse it was at minimum thousand feet of ice before more steep rock slopes.

We couldn't take a different trail because that would have put us at the summit and possibly be caught in a storm, which would have disastrous consequences. We sat there for a long time thinking through possibilities and frankly getting right with God. This is something that will require literal perfection to ensure individual success. We came to the point where those that wanted to continue could move forward with one leader and those that didn't want to take the risk could leave for basecamp with the other leader. No hard feelings between us one way or the other and after what felt like hours passed and one by one we all agreed this is what we came here for and agreed to cross the treacherous ice path to continue to the peak of Mt Windom.

Those that had two hiking poles with spikes shared with those that did not have them. We cleaned out the tread on our shoes to make sure we had the maximum amount of grip. One at a time we started along the narrow shelf worn into the sheet of ice. To say that this was nerve-wracking would be an understatement, the danger was not theoretical it was real and just one minor misstep from utter disaster. Those that went first waited close on the other side and waited with bated breath as the others crossed and eventually we all made it across. 100% perfection was achieved and we continued to the summit.

The ice shelf was well above the tree line and as the air got thinner out caterpillar rate increased in frequency. Finally, after hours of climbing and treacherous paths, we made it to the summit. Just sky beyond the highest point we could see and we were thrilled. All of the aching bones we had in our legs were about to get a small break before heading back down to base camp as our group reached the summit however we realized what the adults already knew. There was our first false peak. frustration set in, how come they didn't tell us? Why did we have to climb all this way to have our excitement diminished? The answer only comes to me now as I write this. They wanted us to push past disappointment and our limits. The ice was a shock to us all so moving past two difficulties would be a learning experience for every boy here. They informed us that there was one more false peak and then the true summit.

Backpacking was not just about the trail and the great outdoors, it was about learning perseverance and toughness and what it means to trust someone with your life. These are things that can be taught only in certain circumstances. It would be a lie to say that the second false peak and getting to the summit were accessible, on the contrary, they were difficult just not as dangerous. We reached the second peak, knowing that this was our last false alarm raised our spirits and as we traversed the van-sized boulders balancing on a pinpoint. As the trail wound around the base of the summit it was clear that we had made it to the summit and all that was left was to take pictures. Being up this high was astounding, seeing the curve of the earth, clouds, and eagles below you was something we could not have imagined, for reference I have been skydiving, we jumped out of our plane at 10,000 feet, and this peak was another 4,000 feet above that.

The official summit was on top of an about four-foot cube that you could stand on, as we stood atop the mountain and soaked in the view this was the proudest many of us would feel in our young adult lives. after pictures and a good rest, we descended the mountain taking a different trail to avoid the ice, and made it back to Chicago Basin. The rest is history, the train ride, and everything that happened in Colorado paled in comparison to what we had just accomplished and remains the peak, no pun intended, of my time in the Boy Scouts of America.

Myself at the summit of Mt Windom

Myself at the summit of Mt Windom

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Noah

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