“Fuck!” my face dropped as I gazed up at the cliff in front of me. After a moment of contemplation, I knew I had to turn back. It would be suicidal to attempt this climb alone, without climbing shoes or ropes. I had already gone further than I should have, in hopes of finding an easier route to the summit. Less than 100 feet remained between me and the summit of Sunlight Peak, one of Colorado’s most spectacular 14ers, with an insurmountable cliff standing between me and the shot of adrenaline and 360 degree view that I yearned for.
The journey to this point had been long but interesting, beginning with lungfuls of soot on a coal-powered steam train in Durango, CO (somehow the city of Durango still hasn’t figured out that we have cleaner and more efficient technology than coal trains in 2017), disembarking in a remote mountain valley inaccessible by road at the heart of the Needle Range, and hiking a steep 9 miles with about 6,000 feet of elevation gain. My dad and I had camped in Chicago basin, a beautiful basin right around the tree line with views of all of the surrounding peaks and inhabited by adorable baby mountain goats. We left our campsite at 5:30am for the short but steep hike up to Twin Lakes at 12,500 feet, from where I headed onwards towards the summit alone.
I had read descriptions and screenshotted maps of the easiest 14er in the basin, Windom Peak, but on my way up I met some other hikers who highly recommended the more difficult Sunlight Peak – just around the semicircular ridge from Windom – for even better views. Looking up, it didn’t seem too difficult, so I made a mental note of the best-looking approach and began the 1,000 verticle foot scramble to the summit. As the air got thinner and my legs got more exhausted, I had to stop to catch my breath every 100 steps, every 50 steps, every 20 steps. Finally, I reached a point with only a 10-foot vertical wall between me and an easy walk to the summit – or so I thought. A large crack filled with solid handholds led up the wall, so the climb up that section was easy. What lay ahead wasn’t exactly as it had appeared below: a higher cliff with no handholds or cracks. I had to turn back.
As always, the down climb was significantly more terrifying than the climb up, but I managed to safely shimmy my way back to slightly more stable ground. I still had several route options to try, but descending just to climb back up again wasn’t too appealing in my winded state at >14,000 feet above sea level with lactic acid searing through my calves. I had already caught a glimpse of the view over the ridge, though, and there was no stopping me from eating my ham, avocado, and peanut butter sandwich at the highest point on this mountain.
I traversed across the mountain as far as I could, reluctantly descending another couple dozen feet every time I reached an unreasonably dangerous cliff. Finally, after a roundabout route to the other side of the peak, I noticed a small rock cairn marking a “trail”. I followed the cairns up through a rock tunnel and around the back side of the ridge, and there, right in front of me, was the 360 degree view I had been waiting for. WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!! My voice echoed down the valley, alerting the mountain goats and bears below that I had made it to the summit. PBH&A has never tasted so good.