Trip Planning for Mountaineers
Nearly 75% of the visitors to Chicago Basin plan to climb the nearby “Fourteeners”: Mount Eolus (14,083′), Windom Peak (14,082′), and Sunlight Peak (14,059′). This section provides information to help you plan a safe climb. General access, camping, and backpacking information is provided under Trip Planning for Backpackers, so it will not be repeated here.
Maps and Guidebooks: For technical climbing information, consult websites, maps, and guidebooks, some of which are available through the SJMA on-line Bookstore. When you approach the 14ers, the peaks you want to climb are not readily apparent. It is highly recommended that you purchase USGS 7.5 minute topographic maps for navigation. The Columbine Pass quad covers Mt. Eolus and Windom Peak. The Storm King Peak map covers Sunlight Peak. Mountaineering guidebooks outline the climbing routes on the peaks and their level of difficulty. It is strongly recommended that you choose routes that match your ability level, plan carefully, and stay on-route during your climb. Most climbing accidents occur when climbers get off-route, especially in severe weather.
How Difficult Are They? All 3 of the 14ers will get your heart pounding—in other words they are NOT easy. Climbing these peaks safely requires careful planning, good judgment, and extreme caution. It is strongly recommended that you consult mountaineering guidebooks before attempting these peaks so you are knowledgeable of the climbing routes and risks. The USDA Forest Service does not maintain trails up the peaks or recommend climbing routes. Climbing Eolus, Sunlight, and Windom can be very dangerous—there have been serious injuries and fatalities on these peaks. Extreme weather includes wind, lightning, hail, or snow. Loose and slippery rocks make for uncertain footing. To avoid weather problems and summit safely, climbers typically leave camp at daybreak or before. Conventional wisdom is to be off the summit by noon, but if you look at the lightning statistics for Colorado, it would make sense to be off the summit before 11 AM if storms are building.
Weather Hazards: Expect weather conditions on the fourteeners to be much cooler and more changeable than your weather at home. Before you leave home, check the long-term weather forecast for Silverton, Colorado—the town closest to Chicago Basin. Temperature drops about 3.5 degrees for each 1000′ increase in elevation, so expect the temperatures on top of the fourteeners to be about 17 degrees cooler than Silverton, even more if you take the chill factor from wind into account.
Base Camp Location: The important thing you should know is that camping is not allowed in Twin Lakes Basin. This includes the entire area bounded by the three 14ers. Twin Lakes may appear to be the perfect base camp location for climbing the peaks, but its alpine environment simply cannot withstand the impacts of thousands of climbers camping there. The above timberline alpine tundra is a very fragile environment. Soils are very erosive, and vegetation at this elevation has a short growing season (about 60 days a year) and does not have time to recover. For these reasons the Forest Service has found it necessary to close Twin Lakes Basin to camping to protect its beauty for all to enjoy. Thus, you must camp in Chicago Basin and hike up the approach trails from there. There is 3000′ of elevation gain from Chicago Basin to the top of the 14-ers.
Approach Trails to the 14ers: The approach trails have been improved by the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative in cooperation with the US Forest Service. They are not shown on many maps, and are not clearly signed, but they are good trails. As the main trail nears the head of Chicago Basin, take a smaller trail that angles left (north) and climbs toward Twin Lakes Basin. The trail reaches the top of some cascading waterfalls, flattens out, and then climbs steeply to Twin Lakes. From where you first view the lakes, the approach trail to Mount Eolus is seen to the west (left). Continue hiking half way along the lower lake to find the approach trail to Sunlight and Windom Peaks climb to the east (right). There are multiple routes to the summits of these peaks, some of which may get you into trouble. Be prepared with a good map and route finding skills to reach the summits safely.
Time Required: It generally requires 3 to 4 days to make the trip to Chicago Basin and climb the three 14ers. Consult guidebooks and maps for logistics, distances, and elevation gains.