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Sunrise from Sunlight Peak

Sunrise from Sunlight Peak, Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado

Sunrise from Sunlight Peak, Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado

The experience of shooting sunrise from Mt. Elbert and Castle Peak suggested the idea that I would find the best Fourteener summit photos on peaks that were relatively close to very dramatic neighbors. That, in turn, led me to think about three of the most rugged peaks in Colorado, Mt. Eolus, Sunlight Peak and Windom Peak, which are clustered together in the Needle Mountains of southwest Colorado.

The Needle Mountains, a part of the San Juan Mountains, are justifiably famous among mountaineers. Even today, they require a full day to approach them. When Franklin Rhoda, a member of the 1874 Hayden Survey, saw the Needle Mountains in the distance from the summit of Mt. Sneffels, he wrote, "We have never yet seen the group from any station (and we have viewed it from all sides) without feeling both deep respect and awe for their terrible ruggedness."

In July, 2006, I rode the Durango and Silverton Narrow-Guage Railroad to Needleton, then backpacked six miles in to Chicago Basin, basecamp for all three peaks. The next morning (or should I say, in the middle of the night?) my alarm jarred me awake at 1 am. Map study had convinced me that Sunlight Peak probably offered the best composition, so I started with it. My plan had one hitch: I'd never climbed any of these peaks, and trying to find my way up class II and III terrain in the dark, by headlamp, with a 4x5 field camera on my back, was a daunting challenge. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained. The worst that could happen, I thought, was that I'd sit down on some ledge in the dark, put on all my warm clothes, and wait for the sun to come up so I could find my way back down.

A steep but straightforward trail led to Twin Lakes and then into the basin below Sunlight and Windom peaks. From there things got trickier. I knew I was supposed to climb the Red Couloir. In the dark, of course, all colors are indistinguishable, even with the aid of moonlight. So which gully was the right one? A GPS position fix and some map, compass, and altimeter work eventually got me started up the right couloir. At the top I exited left, following the guidebook's description, but missed the line of cairns indicating the easiest route. After thrashing up unstable talus and gravel-covered slabs, I reached some broken ledges just beneath the last 100-foot cliff blocking access to the summit ridge. Could I crack the final barrier? With difficulty, I scrambled up to a sharp notch and peered over into the yawning abyss beyond. Surely that couldn't be the easiest way; if it was, I was certainly not going to climb it in mountain boots (rather than rock shoes) with a 4x5 field camera on my back. I backed down and tried another way, eventually climbing through a short, steep tunnel behind a huge boulder to gain the summit ridge. I emerged to discover that the summit was just 50 yards away.

I pulled on warm clothes and considered the photographic possibilities, eventually setting up looking west toward Eolus. At the last minute, the clouds to the south over Windom lighted up, and I made the mistake of trying to move the camera. By the time I got set up again 30 feet away on the extremely uneven terrain, the best light had faded. I set up again looking west, and fortunately was in time to make the image you see here, which shows Mount Eolus, North Eolus, Turret, Pigeon and Monitor peaks arrayed before me, their tips glowing in orange sunrise light.

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