Capitol Peak is a mountain that I initially hated. After all, my first four attempts were shanghaied by the weather and there was even another two-three meager-hoping’s where I never bothered leaving the tent. I’ve since in the intervening years, shared gummy bears, beef jerky and such with partners atop the summit four times.
Capitol Peak has become a mountain that I’ve come to respect. And it’s not some cheap, tin-can, superficial respect deserved by the merit of its rock alone but rather, a deep, ebb & flow struggle against its’ wishes and mine; most of the time, the mountain perseveres...stoicism usually does. I end up leaving angry and frustrated, sipping my coffee, enjoying the views and silently cursing the Mountain Gods as I’m cresting Independence Pass on my way back home. However, mentally, I’m already planning my next assault.
I’m tenacious, like the slow drip of water on stone. Perseverance is the answer. However, this trait is not always the climber’s friend. It can very much act as one’s endgame. But of course, this is not the outcome we want. The mountain doesn’t give a shit; I do. Or is it, that I’m just ascribing some silly anthropomorphic quality to the mountain to make it seem more approachable, more personable, more…I don’t know, level? Hell. Does it even matter?
Apparently, it must else I wouldn’t be writing about it. And this is what I’ve been obsessing about; attaching ghost qualities to a relatively unknown ridge on one of Colorado’s best and arguably hardest Fourteener’s. And for the record, yes, it does make the mountain more approachable. I’ve been fascinated with Capitol’s South East Ridge (AKA: “Cleaver Buttress”) for upwards of three years. I thought I knew this buttress from what little literature I’ve managed to scrounge up but I was sadly mistaken. My chance to climb it came this summer (2012) when a great climbing partner said yes to an open invitation (risky, I know).
This ‘scavenger hunt’ for a partner turned into a dusty and winding trail of perseverance. Pierre Lakes Basin and “Cleaver Buttress” was well worth the frustration and wait. Everything I thought I knew about it was dismantled and exceeded…a perfect marriage of Jenga and Legos.
For those who haven’t trekked up into the Pierre Lakes, the approach is fraught with unspoiled terrain, mad wildflowers & waterfalls. And at the end of one’s journey, punctuated with sheer granite walls that hold prisoner, magnificently blue islands. Pierre Lakes Basin is God’s castle courtyard.
Knowing when to leave the wonderful trail in Snowmass Creek can be challenging. I knew approximately where to do so from the meager description on SP but still had no clue. Kim and I found a clearing on the stream-bank, socks and shoes came off, slung around the neck and we waded through the stream. Last year when I futilely tried this, finding a way across the swollen Rubicon during a heavy snow year, I managed to corner myself into a small but steep ravine. I was forced to climb up and out of the static maelstrom of debris that littered the virtual gorge back to the Snowmass Creek Trail.
Imagine my surprise when scrambling up the slope, the log I grabbed to pull myself up and over tore loose and I was rewarded with a lap full of ants and larvae! Oddly, I was more intrigued than revolted. Despite not making a Pierre Basin trip happen, I still managed to summit three peaks (“Trail Rider Peak”, Point 13,062 and Point 12,653). I say, when life gives you ants, make pâté!
Across the stream, the trail is primitive and at times, hard to follow. But it continues to course in the right direction. The deeper into the drainage Kim and I walked, the better the trail became. Cairns actually make a showing somewhat frequently and there are no confusing ‘social trails’. Needless to say, I was shocked.
I know folks tread up into the basin to fish (the lakes have native Cutthroat) but at times, the trail appeared like a single-track. There were even some good camping spots lower down just below treeline. We lost the trail at the waterfall which, as I’ve read…happens. Instead of tracking it down, we just elected to climb up through the cliffs. This was nothing difficult, just a lot of annoying shrub, deadfall and moss. The trail appeared right at the top. The remaining trail up into the basin was gravy. It was easy to follow.
Making Camp...Kim and I weathered a slow-boil thunderstorm sheltered by a small rock alcove near a tarn/marsh. I practically fell asleep covered by the rainfly of my tent waiting for the rain and lightning to subside. The moderate droll of the rain, moisture in the air with the carpet of green we were lying on, kind of had a relaxing effect. Finally, the tent came out, bags got thrown inside and we shared the bivy to save on weight. Despite the water-soaked landscape, we somehow still managed to light a fire! Mad props to Kim for making this happen.
It was a pretty good night spent in the clouds at 11,840ft. I don’t think I moved even once all night.
We woke late, broke camp and sauntered across the talus fields like a couple of caffeine-fueled sloths; forcing yourself to march across football field after field of rock when there’s still half a beach in your eyes can be tricky business. We contoured around the nunatak which, by the way can be had for an incredibly low price of only 4th class! Just be sure to retrace your steps. The western edge (facing Capitol) would make for a very spicy down climb or awkward repel. I did build a few cairns along this short stretch but once we passed the nunatak, the cairn building stopped. I built no cairns on the buttress; with the exception of my cut rope, we left no indelible marks.
Cleaver Buttress has a 4th class broken chimney we used to gain access to the crest. Kim even did some low 5th climbing along the left side. Once we were atop, we found the vulgarities, spires, columns and exposure started in earnest. With this buttress, there is no introduction, hand-shakes or pre-dinner platitudes. It’s all business.
First impressions aside, the buttress appears rather short from the basin. Kim and I both thought the length of the approach didn’t merit such a ‘stubby’ climb. However, we left camp just shy of 9:00am and arrived at the base of the chimney fore of 10:00am. It took us roughly seven hours to climb the 1,100ft to the summit. A healthy portion of the buttress is very exposed with two moves in particular being somewhat extreme. The rock, not being what I’ve read, was actually quite solid and stable! But because of the columns and spires along the spine combined with the ever-present threat of bad weather most of the day, we had to scope out the easiest route instead of lingering, looking for harder climbing opportunities.
Our route was serpentine. Kim and I climbed predominantly on the right (northeast) side with forays to the ridge crest when we could. The spires along the lower half the buttress were granite phalanges protruding upwards like twisted fingers. We snuck around and passed quietly through the joints doing a pretty good job not dislodging anything. The lower portion of the buttress acted like the Elks’ twisted version of an alpine Stonehenge.
The crux consisted of a 5.8 around-the-corner, poor hold move that involved mantling off a toe hold on the northeast face. You could look down between your knees about 150-200ft straight down to the talus below. The good facet before committing this move is that we could lock our left arm off in a good, deep flake.
The second half the buttress had a completely different character to it. The difficulties came quite literally to an end…at the right time. While on the northeast side, we could snatch glimpses of a left angling chimney on the upper face. The top of this chimney, which required a move and a half of perhaps 5.2 to 5.3, deposited us onto the crest. This was actually a nervous discovery because back on the left (southeast) side, while I was doing some scouting, the slabs were just too angled/pitched to afford ANY protection. So having the chimney end at the top of these slabs was a welcome relief. The rest of the route was easy sailing, fairly enjoyable actually! The views were breathtaking and movements became light, easy and secure. Route-finding became a no-brainer. Our mantra for the day which, Kim gladly provided and reiterated was “…All you can do is keeping plugging away.”
For a route with absolutely no beta available, it was apt advice!
There were small blocks and stubby columns immediately demanding our attentions. These first few obstacles were easy. They consisted of nothing more than hard 4th class to maybe 5.0. The first 50-60m or so consisted of this type of terrain. Since the rock was so good, it was stable & enjoyable climbing. Much harder climbing was still ahead. Along the ridge crest, you could see it very clearly. Eventually, Kim and I wound our way over to the (right) northeast side. The spires and columns were becoming too difficult and large to climb over. Unless one was a proficient 5.11-5.12 climber, it was impassable. On three separate occasions, Kim climbed back to the crest to check for weaknesses. “Unless you’re a spider, we’re not climbing over these.”
The climbing was gradual in difficulty. It came at us in waves. Ledges became smaller, more sloped. The wall became smoother, more featureless. For me personally, this kind of exacted a mental toll because face climbing has always been my weak-point. About a quarter along the way, we encountered a move that neither one of us wanted to make. So we rapped down the left side. Instead of setting a sling, we threw the rope directly around the rock (mistake). We rapped about 15’ down to some slanted boilerplate. From there, a flake (we didn’t trust it) with smeared feet led to a short, featureless chimney that gave us access to the col on the other side of the pinnacle. Kim already made the col by the time I rapped down. I unclipped and tugged the rope. No dice. Shit. I was afraid this might happen. Kim wrapped the rock well enough that ‘looping the rope’ didn’t work. I crab-walked a few feet up the slab (keeping mind of the cliffs below me) and cut both ends of the rope. I stuffed both ends of the rope in my pack muttering some quiet obscenities about the quick surgery but if we needed the rope again, there was nothing a couple burnt ends and a double-fisherman’s couldn’t handle in a pinch. This was the only time we ventured onto the left (southeast) side of the buttress. We passed back through the col and attained the northeast side again.
We were getting a lot closer to the end of the difficulties. However, looking up at the top of the ridge, the end of said difficulties was prominent. The side we were on looked more menacing. I was starting to think we’d actually have to use the pro I brought (Camelot’s: 0.4, 0.75, two 1.0 and three chocks- 4, 7 and 8). The entire left side of the crest was nothing but tilted slab and the crest proper was equally slabby with occasional ‘vertical steps’. We continued climbing on the right hoping to find weaknesses and access that tilted chimney we spied below. Turns out we choose correctly!
We were able to link up a lot of small ledges; some tilted and bypass some drops by jamming some good holds to step across mini-abysses. The rock remained stable and good. We encountered no loose scree, gravel or wobbly blocks. At this point, it was just the exposure that was unrelenting. However, we finally came to the second of the two crux's along the route. This damn move stopped me dead for near 10 minutes. I had a good ledge to stand on with my left foot. There was also a decent flake/crack I was able to lock my left arm off nearly up to my elbow. I wasn’t going anywhere. However, the step was around a slight corner and over a vertical shaft. The only thing to step to was a toe-sized hold on the granite face. There were no lips, cracks or edges to grab onto of this slab.
I had to let go with my left arm, swing my momentum around and immediately mantle myself (about chest level) and push up with the edge of my right foot. It was an awkward move. I ended up ‘inch-worming’ my body across the top of the slab until my thighs were also on the rock. Setting a rope and pro would have been useless at that point because if I were to have fallen, I’d pendulum across the lower face. I took a few minutes to ‘compose’ myself, yelled a few F-bombs (works pretty well at undoing the stress) then tied myself off to the rock and put Kim on top-rope since she had a hard time reaching the toe-hold.
A good sloped ledge led up to a narrow alcove and lo and behold, there was the chimney we could see from below! It led straight up at what looked like low 5th climbing; similar actually to the cruxes on Jagged Peak in the San Juan’s. But again, the rock retained it’s good, solid character. Some moss and heavy lichens lined the corners but nothing to worry about. Most of this chimney was 4th class.
The question was: would the chimney exit us onto the slabs with vertical steps to smear with no pro? We had no idea. Kim was climbing first. The top of the chimney ended with a move and a half of low 5th and then “Whoo-hoo! Hell yea!” Kim bellowed out. I started laughing.
“So I guess we’re done with this shit, eh?” I climbed up and joined her on the crest. That was the end of the lower half of the ridge. We could see the rest of the route as it followed the crest clear to the summit. It was a virtual highway of low-angled slab that looked no more than 3rd-4th class. As we found out, there were some hidden low 5th moves but they were single moves at most. After our deserved break, we took off for the summit. We bolted straight past the cairned northeast ridge route directly to the top and followed the ridge to the summit. We both collapsed like a couple of bean bags. Damn. That was the best tasting Red Bull I’ve had in a long time!