A Little History
“Some 2,500ft high from the lake at its base, it is an exceptionally steep and
smooth rock wall. In some places the rocks actually overhang and it is doubtful
if the peak could be climbed from this side.”
However, as time offers new and upcoming climbers to test their mettle and prove old opinions wrong, mountains fall to second & third ascents ad infinitum and new routes are sometimes put up, becoming the standard. 28 years later, famous climber, Carl Blaurock, one of the first to scale all Colorado’s 14ers made the first ascent of Capitol’s West Face in 1937 with fellow climbers, Elwyn Arps and Harold Popham up a rotten chimney that led directly to the NE Ridge just past the Knife Edge. As said, it’s just a matter of time before opinions are proved wrong, records are broken and in doing so, the envelope is constantly pushed a little further & higher.
Capitol Peak (great page by Aaron Johnson!) is one of seven 14ers that occupy the Elk Mountain Range in Central Colorado. Alongside the Maroon Bells and Pyramid Peak, it is also one of the hardest 14ers to scale by way of its easiest route (exposed class-4). However, unlike the fractured sedimentary rock of the West Maroon Valley, Capitol and Snowmass Mountain are bastions of slab granite and vertical playgrounds of knife-edges…gray decomposing battleships. Capitol Peak rises from the West Snowmass Creek Basin and Capitol Creek Valley like a massive upturned canine of some massive, ancient dinosaur.
During the 1873 Hayden Survey Party, Henry Gannett, in passing, put into few words about Capitol:
“A gray prism shaped top and precipitous sides forbid access.”
Indeed, during the early days of Colorado exploration, Capitol Peak was once thought to be Colorado’s highest peak! I can only imagine sitting at old and abused poker tables guarding small glasses of whisky and bars with more stories to tell then modern-day authors in some of the first mining encampments, how Colorado must have appeared to be something of an American equivalent to the Himalaya.
The town of Ouray after all still retains the “Switzerland of America” connotation. It makes me wonder how many other monikers have been lost to time about places like Lake City, Minturn, Animas Forks or Telluride. It would seem Old-Man Time steals and erases his fair share of historical booty as he sees fit to reward it.
But the mountains are what I know. I’ve grown up on a steady diet of 9,000ft (2.743m) to 14,000ft (4.267m) peaks and equally cacophonous terrain. Multiple summers of cragging and scrambling segue into winters of snowshoeing, skiing and camping. This directly fuels my appetite for all things vertical.
And it’s true. Every mountain does have an identity and character. There are as many Anthony Hopkins and Ian Holm comparisons as there are Aleister Crowley and Sid Vicious. And as far as natural basaltic, granite and sedimentary temperaments (Maroon Bells anyone?), each mountain can have mood swings. Capitol Peak is arguably Colorado’s hardest 14er. Winter adds a whole new dimension that few are willing to experience.
In fact, the first [calendar] winter climb didn’t happen until January 1966 by Matthew Wells, Karl Arndt, William Roos & Charles Carlin via the NE Ridge. Since then, Capitol sees a handful at most, successful climbs per calendar winter. Winter can turn a normal, easy mountain into a whole different beast.
Thus far, this winter season 2009/2010, Capitol Peak has already seen 8 people reach its summit, testament to a dry and low snow year. Mark Nieport, Steve Gladbach (whom is only 4 peaks away from being the 4th person to scale the 14ers in winter) and myself are among those eight.
Formulating a plan of Attack
Steve and myself had been trying to make an ascent of Capitol Peak for most of December and early January. Earlier in the season, Ryan Scoppola, Ben Conners and myself had bailed on Steve due to increased avalanche warnings (rated high) from CAIC just the previous day. Steve was already up at Snowmass so he did some recon as to not waste a trip.
Back in October, I wanted to hike in via Capitol Creek and scout that particular approach a little.
Glen Maxson and myself camped overnight and climbed the class-4 ridge from the Capitol-Daly saddle to K2 and called it a day on the summit of K2. The ridge had taken us considerably longer then either of us had expected. I got the answers I wanted from the Capitol Creek approach anyway (not viable).
By what I can only deem as a stroke of pure, dumb luck, I had all of Martin Luther King Jr. weekend off from both jobs. Since Steve teaches, his time off was a given and Mark was still in between semesters at CSU (Colorado State). Steve and I partnered up again along with Mark Nieport who had accompanied Steve up North Maroon Peak last winter. We three left Vail for the winter road closure 1.8 miles below Snowmass Falls Ranch for a 2-3 day trip into the Elk Mountain Backcountry for an attempt on Capitol Peak. Hopefully, the January snows would keep Capitol drowsy and lulled asleep for our passage to its airy summit.
Approach and SurpriseClimbing the Colorado 14ers in calendar winter is only counted from December 21st (winter solstice) to March 21st, the vernal equinox, a time when the sun crosses the celestial equator and day & night are at equal length.
Wintertime presents climbers with additional difficulties. Snow conditions are more unstable, the Jet Stream is lower adding to highly fickle weather, hours of available daylight are much shorter and intrinsic difficulties specific to each mountain become more pronounced, unavoidable and in many instances, enhanced.
There have only been three people to climb all 54 14ers per calendar winter: Tom Mereness (Boulder), Jim Bock (Boulder) and Aron Ralston (Aspen). Mountains like the Maroon Bells, Capitol Peak and Eolus Peak are major stumbling blocks, so to speak. After our successful summit of Capitol Peak, I believe Steve Gladbach will become the forth.
I hadn’t really done my homework in terms of scouting out the West Snowmass Creek or looked that intently at the topo’s. I knew the approach was long, similar in fact to Capitol Creek. I don’t know what I was expecting save for maybe something like ~5 miles or so of calf-deep post holing through unknown terrain. But as luck would have it, three guys had gone up seven hours before us on skis. They left the trailhead at midnight and in turn, had set down a good track to follow. Plus, Mark and I had Steve’s semi-compacted trail to pursue.
West Snowmass Creek was longer then I expected and of all the times I’ve stood at the Capitol-Daly saddle looking east in that direction, I had no idea exactly how far east it coursed. Our heavy packs made the approach through the forest seem long and soporific. However, it was a beautiful passage and very scenic. The ascending and weaving climb up the cliffy area below Moon Lake was murder on the quads and the poor snow quality didn’t help. I was very generous along this section in supplying ample F-bombs to anyone within earshot. Past this delightful area, I continued to follow Steve’s familiar MSR snowshoe tracks out across a hardened slope that I have to say, I wasn’t thrilled about having to cross. I didn’t like the pitch combined with the 3”-4” frozen top-layer. But thus far, everything was stable. Mark and I never witnessed nor heard anything contrary to safety. The slope had ski tracks crossing it (cutting it) and running it vertically.
So I continued out across following Steve. I actually met up with Steve near the top of a small rise a short distance past this slope. He had set camp in the vicinity in a secluded grove of Evergreen’s on the other side of an exposed and running stream.
We were probably about ~300ft below Moon Lake. I don’t know which made me happier, that camp was another 5 minutes away or that we had access to running water! Personally, having to melt snow for water isn’t one of the more enjoyable aspects of winter camping.
We stayed at the rise and talked for a few minutes until Mark came into view. I made my exit and continued on towards camp and dropped my pack. I walked around our campsite and the access path to stomp it down further while Steve took our Nalgenes down to the stream to fill them. Mark collapsed near Steve’s tent like a sack of Silly Putty.
Our tent went up almost immediately and pads and bags came out.
Stoves came out, water started boiling and Mark crawled into his Mountain Hardwear Phantom as soon as was possible. Mark devoured two dinners; Steve and I had a cup of tea and decided it was worth setting in a small trench into the upper basin below K2.
It’s amazing how quickly one’s energy reserves can come flooding back with a cup of hot water/tea!
Physical exhaustion makes the simple things seem so profound!
It wasn’t really all that cold out. The cloud cover seemed thick and uniform and with the temperatures being what they were, it probably was. We stomped past Moon Lake through dead light and up to 12,400ft. We decided to stop here for the day and turn back to camp.
The pumpkin seeds I had with me weren’t doing the trick and I needed to eat.
After an entire package of mashed potatoes, more tea, Chex, pumpkin seeds and half a bottle of Gatorade, it was time to likewise, take an obsequious bow and follow Mark’s lead and find some sheep to count. Tonight, sleep wasn’t a problem. The best thing about ‘Winterneering’ (my term) is that the approaches will almost always thoroughly wear you out!
L' ombre triste
“Hey, guys. It’s snowing.” Mark said non-chalantly.
“What? What was that!?” I exclaimed sounding a little like an inebriated Bob Dylan.
“It’s snowing but it’s really light.” Mark countered. Well, that was enough to thoroughly confuse me and rouse me from my bag and tent quickly. The forecast had predicted it to be partly sunny, 10-15mph winds with a 20% chance of snow. It was the driving reason that Steve had picked MLK weekend. I looked up and couldn’t see any stars.
“The cloud cover must be pretty thick. It’s a lot warmer then what I would expect for 5:00am”. I mused to myself out loud. “Steve. You up?”
“Yea. I don’t know why my alarm never went off. Are you guys serious? It’s snowing?”
I wouldn’t exactly say it was snowing. It was more like shaking snow off a spider’s web. It was light and gentle. I was a bit apprehensive about these new developments but otherwise, I was wide-awake and excited to hit the trail. Mark and Steve left camp ahead of me into the dark gloom. I had some ‘morning duties’ to take care of. They moved fairly quickly. It was actually surreal walking up the snow slopes in the gray dark by myself.
It was now about 7:00am and still solidly overcast with gossamer snow. We followed the ski tracks up into the basin below K2 and left our snowshoes at the end of the higher snowfield. It was time to move on foot. Everyone donned extra cloths. We climbed to the summit of K2 and eyed the gray summit and it’s .8-mile long ridge of difficulties.
I have to be honest, standing there looking at the summit of Capitol, less then a mile away under fairly warm weather for January, a smile crashed across my face like a train wreck. We glanced down the NW Slopes of K2 seeing the spindrifted prints of the previous three. We scrutinized the descent like three well-dressed mountain goats, put our game faces on and dropped below wrapping around K2;
time to get serious.
Gumdrops in the Snow
The ridge past K2 is committing, exposed, long, at times easy and punctuated with three small sections of up to 55° climbing. The snow had made these ‘areas’ both easier and more difficult. During the times when Steve was out in front, he must not have latched or zippered his pack shut enough because Mark and I had a nice, small trail of gumdrops to follow. It certainly made the climb more entertaining. I believe I ate more of Steve’s candy than Steve did! I felt like a little kid being rewarded with a morsel of red, green and yellow sugar coated goodness every 10 feet.
The weather was being a little fickle but definitely within reason. We seemed to be at a stalemate with the clouds. It had stopped snowing and to a larger degree, the ceiling had lifted significantly then what it was threatening earlier in the morning. It was still solidly gray out west, rather dark up north and these huge Stay-Puft Marshmallow clouds were floating through occasionally blotting out Snowmass Mountain and Siberia Peak. The angels must have been playing some kind of game of celestial golf. I wonder if they would still wear those dorky shoes?
Mark crossed the Knife Ridge first.
He pseudo-walked and crab-walked most of it then sat down to wait for Steve and I. It was definitely airy and exposed, to be expected of course but personally, well within reason. I had been expecting ice along this 100’section but instead it was a mix of néve, rock and thick veriglass. Even for the ridge beyond, I never used the screws I brought (2-13cm).
We continued following the footsteps of the three guys (Charlie Nutterman, Max Nutterman & Stefan Griebal) up the long undulating ridge. I stayed behind for a good portion of it snapping pictures. Past the Knife Ridge, the ridge difficulties eased up for a bit save for a short 15’ pitch that flirted with 55°.
For Capitol Peak, I decided to leave my crampons at home. I never even bothered to take them out of my gear closet. Honestly, there were a couple sections where they’d been nice to have and I was a bit jealous of Mark and Steve since they had theirs on. But I figured the snow quality would be dry enough to where any impact crampons would have would be moot. Plus I was expecting a lot less snow then what there was on the ridge especially for January. In fact, we all were. But I did just fine without them, leading and following and I certainly didn’t beat myself up for not bringing them.
We reached a small notch on the ridge crest where the tracks left it and started a traverse out across a steep slope. The traverse wasn’t long but it certainly retained a ‘Himalaya’ feel to it. This is where we decided to rope up and I belayed Mark until he reached the start of the crux pitch. I took in some slack and walked out myself to the same spot. I loosely wrapped the rope round an exposed jut of rock and fed Mark rope as he climbed up the pitch. Steve and I had our axes planted cleanly up to their heads. This actually kind of surprised me. Mark stopped momentarily at a large jut of rock that the previous three had slung an anchor to repel from. He removed the webbing and continued climbing to the ridge crest, only another 10’ or so and re-set the anchor. Steve tied in and we simul-climbed the crux up to Mark’s position.
I chose to continue up the ridge unroped while Mark and Steve stayed tied in. We ran into a small 10’ wall with small but ample holds. It looked like a snow-covered piece of sandpaper. I brushed off a good portion of the holds, took my gloves off and climbed up. From the top of this section, the summit ridge was only another 10 minutes away. I turned around at the bottom of a short chimney (poor holds) and snapped a killer shot of Mark who’d just joined me. I scrambled up into a small alcove in the chimney and cleaned everything that had snow on it. The chimney, if you could call it that was only about 15’-18’ high, tilted with a finger lip on the left and a run-out but decent fist crack on the right. I inserted my hand, made a fist and turned it, locking it in place, pretty much textbook. I didn’t have much for my feet, so I yanked down hard on my fist and quickly inched my left grip up the finger hold to a small jig of rock. I laid my left leg down and pressed it into the left wall while swinging the right foot around and jamming it against the right wall while awkwardly, releasing my fist jam and grabbing a good hold now within reach. My body position wasn’t the best but I wasn’t going anywhere.
Then I did something pretty strange and actually, kind of amusing. I unclipped a #2 cam and placed it as low as I could between my legs into a crack not entirely visible from the bottom and followed that up by setting a #1 cam a little higher up. I scrambled to the top of the summit ridge and waited for Mark to follow. He clipped as he climbed and belayed Steve up. Another 10 minutes later and we were standing on the summit of Capitol Peak! The ridge from K2 to the summit was in the words of Jim Morrison, “Soft driven, slow and mad, like some new language.“ It took us 3 hours. The sun had come out, I was completely elated and happy and as far as anyone else was concerned, I was standing on a higher outpost in Heaven.
We observed two guys making fast progress up the ridge behind us. We stayed on the summit waiting for them. It turned out to be John Prater and Bill Wright (Bill, the only way I could remember your last name is to think of Richard Wright of Pink Floyd). We all took the standard hero pictures, summit shots, chatted for a little while and we all made way to leave. As with the same ascent speed, Bill and John descended as quickly and we didn’t see them again. They had tagged the summit of Capitol like their three friends the day prior, in a single day. The chimney was easier on the descent. As Mark was down climbing the chimney, my view of it partially obscured by some rock, I heard a metallic, ‘cling-clang-cling-pong’ then nothing.
“Shit!” Came from above. “Man, I hope that wasn’t his axe”, I said quietly to myself. Mark climbed down to where I was at the bottom of the ‘sandpaper’ [mini] crux.
“You dropped your axe, didn’t you?”
“Yeah. I don’t know how it came out. I slipped it through my rear gear loop. I can see it down there planted in a small snow patch. Hey, didn’t Jordan drop his axe on his and Joe’s climb and ski descent? He repelled down and got it I think”.
“Yea. I read that report too. But we don’t have a full 60m with us. They did. I wouldn’t repel that face without at least that much.” By now, Steve was way out ahead and putting some distance between us.
“Are there any routes up this face? I could come back this summer and retrieve it.”
“None that I specifically know of. There’s the NW Butt and the Slingshot Couloir but they’re way further over there out of view. I don’t know if anyone’s climbed the West Face.” Since we only had Steve’s 30m rope and my 27m, we abandoned the idea of retrieving Mark’s axe. Although, his idea of coming back in the summer and attempting the West Face is very intriguing.
At the crux portion, where Steve was waiting for us, I belayed Steve down. I was just going to down climb it but Mark talked me into tying in, I’m glad I listened! The snow was awful, dry and lightly veriglass covered slab underneath. I waited at the bottom of the traverse for Mark to repel. Steve had light a fire and continued on ahead of us.
Steve had watched us cross the Knife Edge from the summit of K2 and we caught up with him back at our snowshoe stash. I looked down to put my snowshoes on and started to laugh.
“What’s funny?” Steve said.
“I forgot my gaitors! They must be back at camp on my big pack. No gaitors or crampons. At least I brought a jacket!” The long walk out ended in darkness back at the car at 7:45pm and ultimately at the Red Rock Diner in Carbondale.
It’s gonna be hard to top this trip. And it’s only the third week of January!
Steve's Report via 14ers.com