When two brothers take the time to drive hundreds of miles to reconnect with each other in the high peaks of Chicago Basin, they finally tick off an adventure they had planned since childhood and reconnect to what keeps them going in a busy world.
Adam: I glance down at my phone—it’s my brother, Bryce. Curious to hear how he is getting on with his new position at work, I answer. Somewhere between anecdotes about co-workers and his new meal-prepping regimen, he mentions that he’ll have an extra day off during the Fourth of July holiday. Now, he has my attention. I quickly switch the conversation from packing chicken breasts to pitching climbing destinations. I begin computing the distance to the nearest alpine spots within striking distance for a summer rendezvous. Although rock climbing season where I live in central Arizona has been quite satisfying, I’m feeling the call of Colorado’s higher peaks.
“You know we’ve been talking about tackling the Chicago Basin fourteeners for too long,” I say.
That’s all it takes: The plan is set.
Growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, southwest Colorado has always been a special place for my brother and me. From ski trips to Purgatory, Wolf Creek and Telluride to fishing the Animas with our dad, Colorado has been our most important escape. But somehow, with all of those trips to the Centennial state, one big objective, the Chicago Basin Fourteeners, four of the state’s most famous summits stacked up in one place, has always eluded us. No longer.
Bryce: Last summer, I was living out on the flat desert of west Texas, stuck six hours away from anything remotely resembling a mountain, snacking on sunflower seeds to stay awake at work, and growing restless. My brother Adam was adjusting to corporate life in Phoenix, writing line after line of computer code. But mountains are in our blood. As brothers, we learned to love them through Scouting and exploring the Rockies. When I was 13 and Adam was 12, we both just missed the age limit for our scout troop’s high adventure trip into Chicago Basin and it’s four fourteeners: Mt. Eolus, North Eolus, Windom Peak, and Sunlight Peak. But the older boys’ stories captivated us and we always dreamed of making the journey ourselves.
As the years passed and I attended college in Colorado Springs and Adam studied in Albuquerque, we made regular trips in Colorado—across the Sangre de Cristo, Sawatch and Front Range—but the San Juans still remained a mystery.
So I called Adam.
We decided to dedicate our backpacking weekend to a military non-profit, U.S. Expeditions and Explorations (USX), which my friend Harold Earls founded to allow veterans and active duty military personnel to meld the healing power of the wilderness with scientific research projects at high elevations. We thought that the trip could raise awareness of veterans’ mental health issues and suicide, and I would also wear an ECG heart rate monitor to collect data on the altitude’s impact on my cardiovascular system.
Besides the two of us, we needed a fit and motivated crew. Two of my friends, Kyle and Dan, had recently completed a 50-mile Grand Canyon ultra and when presented with the idea, they eagerly agreed. With the crew assembled, the trip was set. The Mitchell brothers and company were heading back to Colorado.
Adam: The mountains mean so much to me as does spending time with my best friend, my older brother. When you end up living in different states, you need to make the time to connect and our best time together occurs in the mountains. The time and distance floats away, and no matter what we are going through, there is nothing a weekend together in the hills won’t mend.
With bags in the trunk and good friends ahead, I put the hustle of Phoenix in the rearview mirror. After 12 hours on the road, I meet up with Bryce, Kyle and Dan in Durango. The night before our trip, we discuss the approach, review gear and explain self-arresting techniques. I give my rendition of what we’ll witness the following morning as we catch our first glimpse of the snow-topped mountains towering above. This would be Dan and Kyle’s first trip in Colorado and their first time breathing the crisp, fresh air of the Rockies.
Dan stops me with laughing, and exclaims, “Bryce said the exact same thing in the car ride over here! You guys are both really into this Colorado stuff, and now you’re completing each other’s sentences.” I laugh and continue my story. Anyone who knows Bryce or me is all too familiar with our Colorado tales.
The train ride along the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad opens the gate to our San Juan experience. Surrounded by dozens of fellow hikers, it’s easy to make friends: The car is filled with climbing stories and advice. We’re all so carefree. I feel like I’ve been whisked back to a time when a hearty few mined silver from these mountains. At last the train empties 60 people near the bank of the Animas River. Eager to find the best camping spots, we begin the six-mile hike into the basin and set up our weekend basecamp.
Early the next morning, I crawl out of my tent, awakened by the brisk, pre-dawn air. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot two sets of glowing orbs floating in the dark. They turn away from me and seemingly proceed to collide in space with a loud crash. Slightly startled, I fumble to turn on my headlamp—I see two mountain goats fighting for dominance over the small hill we naively regarded as our weekend home. With our flashlights on the goats, they prance off, leaving us their hill. As my heart rate settles, I muster the confidence to dim my headlight again in order to capture the Milky Way still visible above us in its summertime splendor.
Bryce: It’s 4:45 a.m. at 11,700 feet of elevation deep within Chicago Basin. The pace of our tight-knit group of four has been brisk and efficient. We’ve been hiking for over an hour and, surprisingly, we didn’t even require caffeine to set our minds for the day’s task. When you’ve driven as far as we have, you don’t squander your opportunity to tag a summit with a lazy start.
Past the 12,000-foot mark, Dan and Kyle are experiencing their first taste of Colorado’s thin air. In fact, with each step above 9,000 feet, the accomplished ultra runners have both broken their previous personal elevation records. Having experienced altitude sickness in the past, I kept an eye on their carefree gait and presciently remind them to keep a manageable pace.
At 12,500 feet, we ascend to the Twin Lakes Plateau. The dawn light reflects off the partially frozen lakes. From this elevated position, two of basin’s peaks—Windom and Sunlight with its daunting spire—come into full view. That omnious Sunlight Spire is single pitch block slab that joined the ranks of Colorado’s fourteeners only after recent altitude revisions. It’s now widely considered the toughest fourteener in the state.
Just as I begin to explain the Sunlight Spire’s difficulty to Kyle, a climber joins us at the water’s edge. Glancing upward, he says nonchalantly, “I’m climbing that today. I’ve got gear for two, now I just need a partner. Have any of you done trad?” I shoot Adam a look that says, not today. But in an unspoken agreement, Adam and I both know that we will be back with the proper gear, and expertise to climb the Spire—but today is not that day. We politely decline. Our climbing friend renews his search and we refocus on the task at hand.
The four of us begin trudging up a 1,100-foot steep scree and snow field. It’s the type of loose rock underfoot that makes you feel like you’re sliding back half a step with each footfall. We put our heads down and push onward. Kyle and Dan ran 50-miles in the Grand Canyon and they both understand that suffering is only temporary, but the sustained incline is rough. As for me, I love this humbling scramble: A combination of my high-altitude euphoria and the view of the basin floor below fuels my smile. I’m so grateful to be back in the mountains of Colorado.Adam: There’s a bold serenity I feel outside, hours before daybreak, hands pocketed for warmth and eyes locked on the starlit sky. At moments like these, I understand the significance mountain landscapes play in renewing my soul and in my relationship with Bryce. Our shared enthusiasm for remote places invited us to visit and we answered the call.
An hour later, we were making our way to through the basin past the half frozen Twin Lakes. Having stomped up the slushy switchbacks, and across snowmelt streams, we can see today’s undertakings, Sunlight and Windom Peak, for the first time. The morning light illuminated our route up a snow-filled gully, wth boulders and patches of scree protruding along the path. As the minutes turned to hours, we slid onwards through the snowy scree, until we finally reached the saddle and began a scramble up. One misplaced step here could be very costly—we clamber over large boulders with several hundred feet of exposure on either side. As we continued on, we heard the faint sound of muffled conversation and the ruffling of snacks. We knew our first summit was close. Thankfully, Chicago Basin was gracious in allowing our crew this first victory and we joined a group of others at the top of Sunlight Peak. What a Fourth of July! We celebrated by hoisting an American flag. It’s moments like these that fuel my passions for the outdoors and continue to strengthen the everlasting bond between brothers.
Bryce: No sooner had the trip began, than it was over. From the train ride Durango to Needleton to the successful traverse between Sunlight and Windom to the early morning wake-ups and the late afternoon alpine ice baths (that kept our legs refreshed and ready for the next days mileage), it all occurred so quickly. Thankfully, the trip was a success. Kyle and Dan got their first tastes of Colorado mountaineering, and I collected data while wearing the ECG heart rate monitor. In total, we hiked three mountains, covered twenty-six miles, and ascended 12,000 vertical feet. We didn’t hit all of our objectives: Shifting weather forced us to turn back before attempting Mt. Eolus, but summit fever, has driven too many climbers into bad situations. We decided to stay smart and safe.
Here’s what really matters: Colorado and her mountains continue to connect two brothers in a constantly shifting world. Before leaving the basin, Adam and I agree that we will return to try our luck on the Sunlight Spire and climb Mt. Eolus. The mountains and Colorado really do keep pulling us back. As we grow older, as we advance in our careers, and move further apart to follow jobs across the country, I know one thing is certain: My brother will always be willing to meet in Colorado to explore. We will always grow closer here. This knowledge keeps me grounded. It keeps us close. Mountains continue to inspire us and we both long for those days we can experience them together again.
Bryce Mitchell is an explorer, budding mountaineer and writer. He lives in the Republic of Korea and enjoys climbing rock and ice and exploring historical sites wherever he travels. You can follow his adventures on Melanin Basecamp.
Adam Mitchell is an outdoor enthusiast who enjoys climbing rocks, lugging his camera wherever he goes, and finding himself while getting lost in the mountains. He lives in the southwest working as a software developer. During his free time when he is not outside weekend warrioring, he also writes for Melanin Basecamp.