Three of us were down in the 'breakfast' area of the Super 8 by 0600 as planned. A couple of the group were 20 minutes late. Turns out each day, there was always a couple that got up later. It wasn't always the same folks. Though Dan was up first all but one day.
We were a bit worried about a parking space in the railroad parking lot. This was Labor Day weekend, and we suspected the crowds might be large, with lots of people leaving their vehicles while they backpacked. Supposedly, Chicago Basin is the busiest camping area in Colorado because of the 14,000 foot peaks.
We got over to the lot by about 0645, and it was nearly empty. :) The train depot is a 3-5 minute walk from their parking lot, and we only wasted a little time getting the packs out of the vehicles and heading over. It took a couple of minutes to get our tickets. We dropped off our packs by some benches and headed over to the free train museum. There was a 0800 train heading from Durango to Silverton, but it wasn't stopping at Needleton. Ours was the 0845 train. And it would drop us off at about 1135 (rather than the 1115 we expected).
The museum was probably the most impressive I've seen. Certainly, the most enjoyable. It was small enough you didn't get bored, and there were more interesting exhibits than lengthy write-up explanations/descriptions. I think it had two full locomotives (real ones), and several passenger cars. If you visit Durango, don't skip this museum! You can get to it and go in free even if you don't pay for a train ride.
I left the museum and went to the front of the 0800 train to get a video of the train departing. They warned you to stay on the upwind side of the train to avoid the soot. One gentleman claimed to have ruined a set of attire with soot he couldn't get out. The trains are coal-fired and steam driven. The smoke and soot that comes out is truly amazing. And the whistle blasts are close to deafening. Three trains go up from Durango to Silverton each morning, and then three come back in the afternoon. I'm not sure why people appeared to buy expensive homes near the railroad; it would have been extremely irritating to me on a long term basis.
You can ride in an open gondola car (I think all backpackers did, probably to keep the stink from the other passengers) or a traditional closed passenger car. There was 'low-cost' cars and there were expensive cars (at the back of the train) with thick leather seats that looked more expensive than my lounger at home. They had bathrooms in the non-gondola cars, and a refreshment/bar car. They advised passengers to wear sunglasses or buy $4 glasses to keep soot out of our eyes. The soot, at least part of it was like sand, and it ended up covering the gondola seats and most of our clothes and hair. Our gondola car was just behind the boxcar with our packs which itself was just behind the locomotive and coal car. We were strongly exposed to the soot, steam condensation, and aromas coming from the locomotive. I suspect they put the expensive seats/cars at the back to avoid those 'unpleasantries.'
We piled our packs into the boxcar about 45 minutes before our 0845 train was to depart, right after the 0800 train left. Then we were supposed to be in our seats 30 minutes before departure. I was lucky, and my seat (#3) was on a split between two benches. Don't reserve the #3 seat in the gondolas!
I think the train takes 4 hours to go the 45 miles to Silverton. It took us 3 hours to get to the Needleton flagstop, where we got off. Get seats on the right side of the train when departing Durango. The view of the river gorge is magnificent. The other side of the train either saw rock walls a couple of feet away, or wooded/rocky hills rising to ridges.
The train seems to creep along, especially going out of and in to Durango. But it also slows way down for the best sites and some of the steeper curves. It never goes fast. It didn't bother us going up to Needleton, but it was a bit irritating on the ride back where we sat on the wrong side of the train.
I used the restroom once. It was small like those on airplanes, and clean. The problem was the rocking of the train. It was much worse than turbulence on a plane. If the train hadn't slowed to a near stop while I was in there, I probably wouldn't have been successful at my business.
We got off at Needleton, and started setting up our packs. I had several electronic and rain wear items in my day/fanny pack. I had set up my Zpacks Arc Blast backpack to minimize the chance of damage and loss. So it took me a few minutes to transfer items to my pack and get ready.
My old Mountain Smith Tour pack actually weighed 2 ounces more than my cuben (oops, Dyneema Hybrid) backpack. Again, as in the hotel, I was rushed and didn't have a chance at proper organization. The others all had traditional bomb-proof packs and so had them set up for hiking before they put them in the boxcar.
Our plan was to hike the 6.2 miles up into Chicago Basin and camp there, then do day hikes up to the peaks. The Needleton flagstop was at about 8,200', and the target location in Chicago Basin was at 11,200'. So a 3,000' foot climb in 6 miles or about a 10% grade. Dan thought it wouldn't be much of a problem. My own experience in Montana at altitude said my lungs don't like high elevations. And my experience on the Appalachian Trail said the going would be slower than expected.
Dan and Ken took off like they were at the races. Steve, Matt and I kept up the 0.6 miles to the trail head register, then we backed off and let Dan and Ken go their own pace. The forest service required us to pack out our toilet paper, and they encouraged packing out excrement. Supposedly, they had thick plastic bags at the trail head for that purpose. There were no bags to be found. Also, the required register didn't have any empty pages.
The trail grade was generally pretty acceptable. There were some steep parts with rocks and slippery sand. The real difficulty was breathing at the high altitude. We didn't have much in the way of time for acclimating. Steve and I both got out of breath pretty quickly. They let me slow our pace to a moderate rate, and we stopped frequently to get our breath. We really did not push it, and in truth I did not want to. I drank a lot to help avoid altitude sickness.
We made the first three miles in reasonably good time (not what you would think was good in San Antonio). The last three seemed to take forever. I was testing out my Hikers Assistant watch app, that I had been developing the last couple of months, to complement my Hikers Assistant iOS app for iPhones. The newer Apple Series 2 watches have GPS, waterproofing, and most important, a battery than can last a couple of days. My watch progress screen shows miles, elevation, speed, elapsed time, and steps. It worked perfectly going up. But it also made our slow progress somewhat agonizing.
Here's the elevation profile for our climb:
I started to worry we wouldn't get there in time to set up camp and eat before the roughly 7:30 pm sunset. Dan and Steve had radios, but the connectivity wasn't very good. About 5:00 pm, we heard that Dan had found a camp, and put an obvious marker on the trail.
About 6:00 pm, we came to a flat section we figured was the start of Chicago Basin. We were only about 5.75 miles in. As we passed a couple near a tent, they came running over, and asked if we were looking for a guy in a bright orange t-shirt (Dan's attire for the next couple of days). Apparently they were set up a little back from these folks' tent.
We soon found Dan and Ken, and set up our tents. The other four all had solo (or slightly larger) tents. I had an 8.5' x 10.0' tarp and bivy. The camp site was at the top of a hill next to the creek (maybe 150' to 200' feet away), among tall pines and surrounded by mountains. It was also far enough away from the trail, that hikers didn't bother us.
This was a new, lighter tarp for me, so it took a little longer to set up than my old one. This one didn't use the tensioners I had on my other tarp. And since we were day-hiking, I brought one of my wife's trekking poles (a third one) to use on the tarp. I typically have a base weight just under 11 pounds, but with the extra pole, day pack, fishing gear, extra fleece (uncertain about high mountain weather) and electronics for testing my apps, I was almost up to 14 this time. I really don't like the extra weight.
By the way, I used the fleece sweater in the evenings and never even pulled out my down jacket. It was a waste carrying the extra 7 ounces.
But back to camp. I got out my small Fissure Ti-Tri (Caldera) alcohol stove, got some water and filtered it, and ate before dark. I think Dan and Ken used their JetBoils and finished dinner before dark. But Steve and Matt took a while (they used a traditional small iso-butane burner and tank with a homemade windscreen) and didn't finish till after sunset.
There was a run-down, mostly collapsed cabin by Needle Creek, and the creek had easy access for water. I used a Nalgene bottle for collection. Then a Steripen for purification. Then pour the water from the Nalgene into a Dasani water bottle for drinking.
All of the others used Sawyer filter systems. That took longer getting water into their bottles and then filtering it.
After a dinner and a little talking, I hit the tarp/bivy for the night. I couldn't find my electronics bag with my external battery and cables, so the Apple watch and iPhone didn't get charged that night. I found out the new Apple watch will last two days on a charge! My iPhone is a large 6S+ with a huge battery, so I didn't have to worry there. Though I was using the GPS for 6 hours!
I also couldn't find my retainers (for teeth alignment) for two days.
On the other hand, the new 20 degree quilt from Zpacks was overkill. I don't think it got under 37 degrees F the whole week. I was sweating under my fleece hat. And I had to take off the Houdini wind jacket I usually sleep in with my 30 degree Katabatic quilt. I was impressed with the Zpacks quilt. It was much easier to avoid drafts around the edges than the Katabatic, despite the fact the Zpacks was sized for a 6'3" person while the Katabatic was for a 6'5" user. I'm only 6'0".
And guys, please don't take offense at this next part. :) As I was trying to get to sleep, I heard something that sounded like repetitive, quiet moaning. My hearing is not great anymore, and it's worse in my left ear. So directionality is hit-or-miss. At first, it sounded like it was off in the woods. I wondered if a mountain goat was in pain? It didn't sound like it was sex from the couple in the other direction, not nearly as animated as I would have expected from them.
Finally, I realized it was coming from the direction of the other four tents, and was probably somebody snoring.
Unfortunately, with my usual lack of tact and sensitivity, I mentioned it the next morning. I thought my suspicion it was a mountain goat was kind of funny. However, I'm not sure it was taken that way.
Finally, there seemed to be a full moon every night, almost the whole night long. The thin cuben fiber on my tent lit up from the light and made it feel almost like a weak sun shining through. I had to close my eyes (I do that at night anyway) and turn away. I didn't get a good night sleep that night, but the later nights were fine.
Here are some selected pictures from the day...