The idea of wilderness
is to create a place apart. People may come and go, but their mark never remains. These are the words running through my brain when the trail we’re following in the Weminuche tucks under late-season snow and vanishes. There are no blazes, no cairns, no signage, nothing that says which way to go except that primal human instinct to keep going up. We’re headed to Chicago Basin, a backcountry drainage hidden between a trio of Fourteeners deep in southern Colorado’s San Juan Range. It’s grand and ornery and needs little introduction to readers of this magazine. Taking the narrow- gauge train to the Weminuche boundary is a wilderness pilgrimage.
It’s such a popular pilgrimage, in fact, that you can count on plenty of company in summer. But not in spring. For if there is a way to improve upon perfection, it’s to dress it in snow. Nothing else can improve both beauty and solitude. And so in we go, packs tottering with skis and boots, trusting our feet to find the way.
After 4 miles through deep forest and across half-frozen creeks, Chicago Basin does not disappoint. Mountains crowd all around. From our basecamp, the slopes seem to go up forever, gaining marbling by the vertical foot until their summits gleam like lighthouses in an ocean of wilderness. The first day, we head up into the clouds on 13,125-foot Mt. Kennedy to a saddle pounded by wind and the first sideways snowflakes of a brewing storm. There is no skin track. There is nothing but the elements that matter: snow, rock, and evergreen. We descend snowy aprons into the trees and ride the high all the way to camp. The second day arrives with 6 inches of fresh accumulation, as if the wilderness has torn off a sheet of paper to reveal a fresh one.
Our tents are lit with the eclipse light of a snow- caked fly and even our skin track is gone. We make a new one, this time to the alpine parkland and steep shoulder of 14,058-foot Sunlight Peak, where a lull in the wind grants access to the top. It’s a sight to behold, all ice castles and frozen moats, and we float down to the saddle and back to our camp. We know we’ve gotten away with something to get such a famous place to ourselves, but we also know we earned our reward. In wildernesses like the Weminuche, solitude is written in ice. But let winter keep others away. In the following pages, you’ll find plenty of gear to help get you there, and you should already have what you need most: desire. – Casey Lyons
The final push up Sunlight Peak