Andrew Hamilton’s 1999 Attempt

Day 3 (August 30, 1999)

On Day 3 I was to climb the Needle mountains.  On Day 2 I had finished with the Sangre De Cristo mountain range and now I was entering the San Juans.  The San Juans are unique in Colorado because it is not a linear mountain range.  On a San Juan mountain you are likely far from civilization and from the top of a mountain in the San Juans you probably can’t see any cities or towns below.  The 3 needle 14ers are Mt. Eolus, Sunlight Peak, and Windom Peak.  These mountains are some of the most remote in Colorado.   They are normally accessed from the Needleton trailhead, 10 miles to the southwest.  Needleton itself is remote as the only access is by train or trail.  The train is the Durango to Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway.  It is a tourist train that follows the spectacular setting of the Animas River.  Climbers usually ride the train to Needleton, backpack about 8 miles to Chicago Basin, and from there they spend a day a two climbing the mountains.

I did not want to count on the train schedule, which starts late and ends early.  Since I needed to complete these mountains in one day I looked into alternative means to get to Needleton, and figured that if all went well I could catch the train on the way out.  So I decided on the Purgatory trailhead.  [In hindsight I believe any attempt on the 14er record should start way up in Chicago Basin, 5 miles up from Needleton).  The Purgatory trailhead is right across from Purgatory ski resort near Durango.  It is about 8 rough miles from Needleton as the trail drops down to the Animas river, then heads up the Animas river to Needleton.  I thought how lucky I was that even though most of the area surrounding the trail was designated wilderness.  The sliver of land not designated wilderness was where the trail went, so that meant it would be legal for me to ride my mountain bike on the trail, all the way to Needleton.  At that point you enter the Weminuche Wilderness so it becomes illegal to take a bike.

All I had to do was get myself to Purgatory, hop on my bike and I would be on my way.  But getting to Purgatory was turning out to be a big problem.  I could not stay awake on the drive to Purgatory.  By the time I had been driving for an hour, I was already dozing off.  So just before South Fork I pulled into a rest stop and got out of the truck and walked around a little bit, trying to wake myself up.  I got in the car and immediately dozed off for about 15 minutes before I somehow woke up and started driving again.  I made it to the top of Wolf Creek Pass, swerving like a drunk and barely keeping my eyes open.  I realized that I had to sleep so I pulled over and slept for about an hour.  That seemed to help a little and from there I drove straight to the Purgatory trailhead.  I arrived at 10:00am and was very worried.  Climbing all of the mountains in one day is a big deal, but starting after 10:00am would be ridiculous, and I was certain to be climbing in the dark.  Not a happy prospect because these mountains have difficult scrambling and are rugged and rotten.

I realized I would probably not be back until about 10:00pm – Midnight, so I figured I should call my sister and let her know so she would come to meet me a little later and not be worried.  That is when I tried to figure out the cell phone.  Natalie and Laura wanted me to have a cell phone, so I could contact them if something bad happened.  I thought that was silly, nothing was going to happen.  Nevertheless, I was happy to have it now so I could call Laura and tell her my situation.  For my life, I could not figure out how to turn it on.  I messed with the damn thing for about twenty minutes before I gave up and drove to the Purgatory ski lodge.  From there I found a pay phone, called Laura and left a message that I was running late.  I told her to come meet me around 10:00pm, which is when I expected to return.  Then I headed back to the truck.  I finally figured out how to turn on the cell phone (you hold down the no button for a couple of seconds – really intuitive), and found that it couldn’t get a signal, so I wouldn’t have been able to call Laura from it anyway.

I had wasted enough time.  I went back to the trailhead, got all my stuff ready and was off by 10:45am.  Now this isn’t an ordinary mountain bike trail.  This is a super rough trail and it turns out that you spend half the time hiking your bike.  Hikers look at you like you are an idiot when you go by them if you are on a mountain bike.  And the parts that you can ride are super bumpy and beat up the body anyway.  I even thought about ditching my bike in the first mile, because the going is so rough and slow.  But I stuck with it, made it down to the river, where the difficulty eases, and then up to the trailhead by 1:25pm.  Now time was of the essence, and I came through with what felt like one of my fastest hiking paces.  I was in Chicago Basin by 3:30pm and was very optimistic that I could climb Eolus and Sunlight (the two more technical peaks) in daylight, then Windom as it was getting dark, and hike and bike out by midnight, fast enough that Laura wouldn’t be worried.

Even though I didn’t have far to go, I was only at 11,000 feet so I still had plenty of elevation to gain.  But to be honest I love the short steep trails, as I can usually do 2000 feet per hour,  at a pace I can hold indefinitely.  So I started cruising up the steep trail toward Twin Lakes at 12,500 feet.  At 4:00pm around 11,500 feet, I came over a little rise and saw a guy hiking fast right at me.  He was out of breath.  He told me there had been an accident and he was glad to find someone else.  He was only the third person I had seen since Needleton, and I had noticed that there weren’t very many people up here, probably because it was a Monday.

His shin was badly injured, it had a huge cut and obviously needed stitches.  I was kicking myself for not bringing my little first aid kit, with butterfly closures.  I had nothing that I could help him with.  He didn’t seem to mind though, and he wrapped it with his bandanna and said he was close to his tent.

What he was concerned about was his climbing partner.  He said his partner had taken a fall off Eolus and he wanted to know if I had a cell phone.  I did and got it out, turned it on but it couldn’t get a signal, and was useless.  At this point I didn’t know what to do, I found out that his name was Jay.  I told Jay not to worry, and that we would be OK.  He broke down, almost cried, but then sat up with a look of determination.  At this point I figured that my record attempt was over, but I wasn’t too disappointed because this seemed more important.  Yet part of me was already planning my alternative course of action, which would be to bivouac overnight and continue in the morning.  I had a couple of buffer days built into my plan, meaning I could waste two days and still set the record.

I tried to get more details about the fallen climber.  Jay said he thought his friend was dead, that he had tried to get a pulse, and couldn’t get one.  And then came down looking for help as soon as he could.  But he didn’t seem totally convinced that his friend was dead.  I asked him if his friend would be able to survive the night if he was still alive.  He wasn’t sure, but when I mentioned that I had my space blanket he thought it would be good if I could get his friend wrapped up.  He said that he was a marathoner and could make the run back to the train tracks in an hour.  I told him I thought it would take longer, but it did not matter to him.  He was going to go down and try to find someone else to help.  He had seen some cabins when he hiked in and was at a last resort going to go to one of them and try to get access to a phone.  I was to go up and find the fallen climber, and try to set him up so he could survive the night.  I was also hopeful that I could get the cell phone to work.  I figured if you can’t get it to work from the top of a 14er, then the thing is totally useless anyway.  I told him I wasn’t prepared to bivouac, and he told me where his tent was and said I could use his sleeping bag if I could drop back down to 11,000 feet.  That was the last I ever heard of Jay, I assume he made it out. [Years later I received a message from the wife of the fallen climber.  I learned of the desperate adventure suffered by Jay.  He met the other hikers I had seen, who went down with him.  He was eventually able to get help from some of the railroad workmen.]

I started hiking up as fast as I could go.  The trail is super steep so I was able to gain elevation fast.  As I hiked up I was telling myself that the climber was still alive and that Jay had been in a state of shock.  He may have panicked and not fully checked to see if his partner was dead.  I felt stupid for letting Jay go down alone, realizing that he had been in shock and with that bad leg injury.  But now I was focused on one thing only, finding that climber.  Jay said he was at the bottom of a big snowfield and as I hiked up, there was only one snowfield that seemed likely, so I hiked as fast as I could until I finally made it to the base of the snowfield at 13,400 feet.  The climber was nowhere to be found.  I started yelling for the climber to talk to me.  I yelled for him to stay with me, and that I was going to help him, but that he had to help me by saying something so I could find him.  I searched and searched and yelled and yelled but had no luck.

Finally, I saw him, much higher than I had expected and not close to the big snowfield, although he was by two small patches of snow.  He was wearing dark blue and that had made him hard to spot in the shadow of Eolus’s East Face.  My heart sank and sadness overcame me when I saw the climber.  He was lying on the rocks in a position of death.  I now understood that he had taken a big fall, off the face of Eolus.  I made my way to the body and when I saw it, there was no doubt he was dead.  His face was instantly burned into memory and would haunt me for weeks.  I picked up his arm and checked for a pulse, his arm was cold and stiff.

I was almost in tears and felt like crying.  I didn’t even know the guy, yet I felt absolutely terrible.  This was the first time I had ever seen death.  I have been to funerals for my grandparents.  But there you are with family and you remember all of the good things about their lives.  But I had never seen death in this way before.

I straightened out his body and put him in a more dignified position.  I found a bandana in his pack and placed it over his face.  Then I took a big red scarf from his pack and draped it over a rock nearby, so his body would be easy to find.  Meanwhile, I had taken out the cell phone and dialed 911.  The display still said it was searching, so I figured it could not get a signal from here.  I did not know what to do.  Then all of a sudden I heard a voice on the phone.  I grabbed it, afraid they might think it was a false alarm because I had not answered, and yelled into the voice piece.  It was a 911 dispatcher.  I told her my situation and that I was concerned about the battery on my cell phone.  She said to turn it off for two minutes, and that she would have Search and Rescue call me back in a couple of minutes.  So I turned it off.  I was finally figuring out the phone and realized that I was getting a very weak signal from my position.  Ten minutes later no one had called me back.  I tried to call my mom.  But the phone was busy.  So I called Natalie who was at work and thankfully she answered the phone.  She sounded pleasantly surprised to hear from me, but I immediately told her the bad news.  I wanted her to call my mom and sister and tell them I was OK, and would not be back to the trailhead that night.  I hung up and waited for Search and Rescue to call.  The phone rang, and I answered, it was Laura.  I told her what was happening.  I told her Search and Rescue had not called me back and that I didn’t know what to do.  She wanted me to be able to get on my way and said she would call Search and Rescue to try to find out why they weren’t calling me back.  I decided to go to the saddle between Mt. Eolus and North Eolus to see if the signal for the cell phone was better.  Twenty minutes later I was on the ridge, but no one had called me back.

Finally I got a phone call from Search and Rescue.  They asked me a bunch of questions about the body, asked me to describe the location of the body and how I came upon it.  They said they were working on getting a helicopter and wanted me to call them back in twenty minutes.  I now knew that I would be able to continue my record attempt, because Search and Rescue would take care of the body.

Rather than just sit there, I decided to climb Eolus in those twenty minutes.  I climbed up the class 3 face of Eolus and made the summit at 6:20pm. On my way down I realized how the climber could have fallen, as the climbing is loose and dangerous.  He had written “Sleet” as his comment in the summit register.

I made it back to the ridge twenty-two minutes after I started up and immediately called Search and Rescue again.  They wanted me to stay on the ridge until the helicopter arrived, just in case they couldn’t find the body.  They said the helicopter would be there at 7:00pm.  During the next half an hour I called Laura and Mom again and advised them of my situation.  I told them to expect me back around noon the next day, we also realized that I probably would not be able to contact them again except from the summits of the other mountains I had to climb.

At 7:00pm the helicopter was not there.  Not wanting to climb the class 3 route off Eolus in the dark, I decided to hike down off the ridge, and just after I got down, around 7:30pm I heard the helicopter.  It came up the valley, circled a few times and then disappeared behind a ridge.  I received a phone call from Search and Rescue.  They had seen the body and said I was clear to leave.  They had been worried about me because I had told them I wasn’t prepared to bivouac.  I figured I wouldn’t tell them that I had made the decision to climb Windom and Sunlight in the dark.

I made it to Twin Lakes around 8:00pm, and started ascending toward Windom and Sunlight.  Along the way I realized the trail I was on was taking me straight up Windom.  Not wanting to change directions, I decided to ascend Windom first, I am not sure why I decided this was best as earlier I had planned on doing Sunlight first because it is has a few class 4 moves.  At this point some clouds blew in.  I could see flashes of lightning in the distance and was praying that they would not head towards me.  The wind picked up, and near the summit of Windom around 8:30pm it became dark.

I stopped, put on some warm clothes, put on my headlamp, and made the summit of Windom (no summit register) at 8:58pm.  Now the clouds came in and it started sleeting.  I decided to descend the north slopes of Windom because it took me directly toward Sunlight.  It was class 3, however, and with the dead climber fresh in my mind I took it slow.

Once I made it down to about 13,400 feet, I started looking for a source of water, as I had run out.  I found a little trickle and filled up my bladder.  I had absolutely no idea where I was as it was totally fogged in and sleeting.  All I had to go on was my altimeter.  As I kept heading north I started falling asleep, and I realized I had to rest.  I was afraid to go up Sunlight in these conditions, especially because I was haunted by the dead climber’s face.  I tried to find a big rock to provide cover from the wind, but I couldn’t find anything.  I was so tired I could hardly stand so finally I chose a spot behind a little rock.  I got out my space blanket and started unfolding it (not an easy task, those things are folded really small when they are new).  I put the space blanket over me and put my poncho on over that, and drifted to sleep – only to wake up about 10 minutes later.  I was not in a comfortable spot.  I wasn’t expecting the Hilton, but it would be nice to sit in a position where the rocks weren’t poking me everywhere.  After sitting there for awhile not wanting to move I got up and laid on a big flat rock that was right out in the wind and rain.  I got comfortable and fell asleep.  I would drift in and out of sleep for the next hour and a half, shivering uncontrollably.  The space blanket didn’t feel like it was providing any warmth, but when I moved it to get more comfortable I just about froze, and I realized that the space blanket was providing my only warmth.  My clothes were all wet on the inside, because the space blanket doesn’t allow any moisture to escape, so I had no desire to get moving again.  However, I was thoroughly chilled, and the sleep wasn’t that good, so I decided to get moving again.

I was very concerned about climbing Sunlight.  It has some class 4, the route was totally wet, I was exhausted, and I didn’t even have my compass.  I couldn’t see farther than 20 feet.  When I was 15 years old I had been up Sunlight in some bad conditions as well.  My step dad, little brother, and I had taken the train to Needleton and backpacked up into Chicago Basin.  Henry went to climb Pigeon and Turrett. At the same time, Joe (only 7 years old) and I were to climb Windom, Sunlight, and Eolus.  We climbed up Windom, slid down a snowfield toward Sunlight, and climbed right up the snow to Sunlight.  As we neared Sunlight a nasty electrical storm had blown in and Joe started crying.  I remember us huddling under an alcove near the summit inside our ponchos.   We were freezing because of all the ascending and descending we had done in the snow.  We made it down to Twin Lakes and were so cold that the water in the lake felt warm.  So we removed our gloves and boots and warmed up our extremities.

Because of that experience, I still had some vivid memories of parts of the route on Sunlight.  I kept moving and for a few moments, the sleet slowed down and the clouds cleared, I was able to see that I was directly below the Sunlight spire, too far to the East.  I pointed myself in the right direction and was headed up Sunlight’s class 4 South Slopes route before the clouds rolled in again.  I took it very slow to the summit, as the route was loose and exposed.  It was a little difficult to follow in places.

I reached the summit at 1:30 am.  I signed the register, then made a difficult move in the dark to get onto the summit block.  Then I came down, strapped on my pack and tried to head down.  But it was so fogged in that I couldn’t find my way down.  I went up and down the summit block looking for the way down, looking for any way down.  An hour later I finally found the way down, I had been searching in the wrong direction.

I decided to go down a gully a little to the east of what I had come up, and I think that was a good choice (the gully that has the snowfield Joe and I climbed up years before).  The trek down to Twin Lakes and then on to Chicago Basin was very steep and tough on the legs.  By the time I made it into Chicago Basin I was falling asleep again.  I would be hiking along and then I would doze off just as I was starting to walk off the trail.

I decided to get some more rest and laid down in a meadow and slept comfortably for about an hour.  Then I woke up and headed down the trail, it wasn’t long before I saw the bandanna that Jay had used to wrap his shin, lying in the middle of the trail.  I made it back down to the bike by 8:00am and back to the Purgatory trailhead at 10:30 am.  On the ride I realized that the reason my brakes hadn’t been working so well lately was that the rear brakes were worn to nothing, it was metal on metal.  So on the downhills I tried to get by with just the front brake.  When I finally made it to Purgatory, Laura and Mom were waiting for me.

It was nice to have Laura supporting me.  She totally organized the truck, and had a nice bed waiting for me in the back.  They pampered and fed me, and got the truck ready for the drive over to the Wilson group.  I was happy to take off my wet shoes.  My feet and especially toes were starting to feel the burden of the hikes and were now blistered.  Mental Note: next time preventative measures should be taken with feet.  Don’t wait till after it hurts to do something about it, especially on the toes next to the pinky toe.  But even worse than the foot pain was my butt.  I don’t want to give details here but it was hurting very badly and would dominate all other pain (except for maybe my knee) for a few days.  We said goodbye to mom and were on our way, I was a half a day behind schedule.