More Then Just a Traverse
When first asked about traverses, I have mixed reactions about them. A couple years ago a few of you may have remembered a kids trip report on here on his accident on the Maroon Bells Traverse where my friend, Kevin, took a 600 foot fall down the Bell Chord Couloir among other survival parts of the story. (Still on the site) I am sad to say, Kevin very tragically passed away on June 15, 2010 on Little Bear Peak. It's been hard loosing a close friend but we got quite the reactions and responses from some saying I would not make it past 21 or 25 to the fact that I would get avalanched off the Notch Couloir on Longs Peak. Some said my dreams were out of reach and crazy and that I will never do it. While others cared and gave me sound advice. I recently wrote an apology article to everyone in that trip report stating an apology for the way I responded to them.
I was doubted and named "the kid that should not be in the mountains." Some thought "this kid will get a reality check" while others admitted "he'll grow out of it." These two comments were sent to Explorer's Web when I wrote two articles for them back when I was 15 and 16. (http://www.explorersweb.com/everest_k2/news.php?id=17595 Article #2) Back when I wrote them, I was young and inexperienced but the dream and determination were there. That's all it takes. The dream is still there and even stronger. Now, I'm planning on heading to Mount Everest in 2012. One more step into preparing for winter at 8,000 meters. I say all this to show my progress and that I take my goals extremely seriously. My dreams are simply not dreams, there reality in my head. To some it may be a surprise of what I've changed into but from the beginning I could vision it. Here is one more of my dreams that is completed. This is not just a trip report, it's a story of a life changing experience with conquering a traverse that was a huge undertaking physically and mentally. It was more then just a traverse for me.
The Capitol Peak - Snowmass Mountain ridge traverse is the hardest 14'er connecting ridge traverse in Colorado and in competition with many of the traverses out there. It may be the most dangerous ridge traverse in the lower 48. Ever since I began climbing I have dared and dreamed of climbing this ridge traverse. I spent a few years researching it and the history and have not found really that much at all. There has only been a couple ascents known of it. I found that none of them stayed on the ridge direct the whole way, meaning they dropped off to the bottom to skip the nightmarish sections. I talked to one of the fellows who actually had it in him to solo it. He reported how scary it was and stated in an e-mail he ranged from scared to extremely scared for all 3.5 miles of it. The fact that he made it through it in one piece is quite amazing.
Here is what he said on Mountain Project:
Continue this way for a long way, on terrain that is so sustained in its looseness as to be psychologically wearing. (I accidentally trundled some big stuff -- not onto myself -- it works best to keep your limbs as spread out as possible onto different blocks in case one goes. They all shift.)
Just before North Snowmass Mountain, after you've negotiated a prominent sub-peak, the ridge becomes an absolute nightmare, with car-sized teetering gendarms and huge scalloping flakes on the walls below them.
It's far and away the hardest 14er-connecting ridge in Colorado, and likely one of the hardest ridges in the state, for a variety of reasons -- length, exposure, route-finding, loose rock (extremely loose rock, almost the whole way).
For those of you that have looked at and seen the traverse, it's quite the view! For me, it looked doable but also it's much more dangerous and harder then simply what it looks like. You simply cannot see the surprises along the way.
I tried organizing partners for it but no one was really interested. Who likes to climb 5.8 choss? As far as I knew the ridge could have 5.9 pitches on it or just 5.6, choss of course. I could get no one interested in one of my ambitious ideas. I was determined though and was not giving up. Of course, I'm not saying I enjoy climbing 5th class choss either.
In 1952 was one of the first attempts of which took 3 days and the dual party had to bail due to weather at the Gendarmes. They got very close to death with lightning. They put up two cairns on the route that we saw and they made mention of the deadly rock and how severely exhausting it was. They were also the only party shooting for an ascent on the ridge direct.
Then in 1966, Bill Forrest and Glen Denny went for a 24 hour push and climbed South Maroon, Snowmass, and Capitol. They then quoted later on to a friend of mine that they did not stay on the ridge all the way.
In 2000, Cave Dog made the speed record of all the 14'ers and climbed the ridge from Snowmass to Capitol. He also did it ten years ago on the exact day of our attempt - September 11.
Then a year or two later, Matt Samet made what might of been the first ascent from Capitol to Snowmass. I talked to Matt quite a bit before heading out to do the traverse. He is also the one responsible for writing the Mountain Project page for the traverse. He quoted," I was ranging from mildly scared to scared to hella scared the whole time, just focusing on keeping moving fast enough that the whole thing didn't slide away under me." I couldn't agree more.
That's all that's recorded from all the information out there. It's hard to tell but the ridge traverse has never been climbed without dropping to the basin. At least no recorded data is out there that shows it.
Organizing the Team
Then I asked if they would allow a kid like me to join them? They wanted to stick as a team of two which I understood as it's more efficient. They also stated many have asked to come along. I was feeling like I was fighting for that one girl that everyone likes. Okay, maybe equating a girl and this traverse is not right. Finally, they stated they would like to have me on the team.
I was very excited. Soon, Steve Gladbach came along asking if he could join and all three of us agreed, as Steve is very experienced in the mountains. I respect all three of them so much. We had the team of four of which was ready to tackle this goal.
Our team of four was quite varied. From 18 years old to 49 years old with a variety of experience. Many of us had not even met but this traverse has created a bond between all of us that I have never experienced. Trust is the first word that comes to my mind when I think of our group. We all lead each other into the unknown and worked as a team to figure out the gift that kept on giving. Honestly, these guys are the ones I would choose next time to go on a very serious trip. They are great friends and I trust them with everything.
To Capitol Peaks Summit!
Several planned dates didn't work out and months blew by but finally a date worked for all of us on September 11. Our plan was to approach from the Capitol Peak ditch trail, bivy, and do a carryover of the summit of Capitol Peak and then the 3.5 mile traverse to Snowmass Mountain ending then at the Lake Geneva trailhead. We all met at the trailhead and started off. We carried a couple cams and a set of nuts along with an 8.6mm rope and some bail gear, not much really. I tried to go very light since I was carrying everything the whole time.
Before we went to sleep, Kiefer and I took a fast hike to the top of avalanche gulch and then to the top of UN 12,751 right by Capitol Peak. We were greated with stunning views of the North Face. We were both very excited slapping hands and taking a few pictures on the way down - even running down the trail.
For sleeping, I brought my heavy duty coat and a bivy sack, which is essentially a waterproof plastic bag. I knew I would not sleep. Kiefer brought a single man bivy tent which ended up being really roomy - until I got in it. Kiefer offered me a place in it and I didn't deny it. It was quite tight. I was tossing and turning all night. Though semi-warm, I didn't sleep and seemed to keep Kiefer up. He was not happy.
Mike's girlfriend, Brenda, was going to pick us up at the Lake Geneva trailhead the next day. Steve chose the West Snowmass Creek approach and planned to meet us at the bottom of K2 at 5:30 in the morning due to him not being able to hike in with us. We headed off at 5 A.M. and met Steve as planned. We climbed to Capitol's knife edge when the sun came up. We could see the traverse and we all were stunned. We stayed on the ridge direct and a mix of the normal route to the top. We got to the summit at about 9 A.M.
We took a breather, got our harnesses on, and set our minds to a long day on terrain that was going to demand all we had for many, many hours. Steve had forgotten his harness and he made a homemade one from webbing. We knew we were in for a day like none of us had ever had.
CommittedOff the summit of Capitol Peak, it looked interesting. The climbing started off right away. It was like the knife edge but a bit more loose, harder, and way more exposed for about 100-200 feet. This was my kind of climbing. I love exposure so much. We had to drop off in a bowl to access the actual ridge. Between this bowl and us was a cliff. We found the hidden gully and scrambled down as far as possible. It was really exposed looking straight down to the bottom. Don't fall! Or should I say don't slide!
We had one person go at a time. Each person knocking down a microwave sized rock down as we all watched in amazement. This was just a taste of the traverse. The beginning part of the traverse is actually the most solid part. I knocked on every handhold and foothold testing it a few times and STILL did not trust it.
All of sudden 6-7 microwave sized rocks came down and collided into Steve's legs. We all froze and moved out of the way. Steve held on and was in the middle of the rock slide. In a matter of seconds it stopped and it was covering his feet. It was quite scary watching it. He moved his feet as the rocks fell down many feet below us. Wow this is insane. We were all so focused. I rappelled first and Steve rappelled last.
It seemed when we pulled the rope that there was no point in return. We had to move forward and that's the only choice. I looked ahead at the traverse and it looked even harder and looser. What were we going to encounter? From the time we left Capitol I have never been more focused for such a long time. To be honest, at many parts I was scared this whole ridge would slide away with me on it. This was just the beginning. I did feel the most wonderful feeling starting on this unknown territory and making our own route down. We were going into the unknown, nothing is more gratifying then that.
The rappel put us on a slope with horrendous loose rock, loose as crap, and set the tone for the rest of the day! We went down the slope carefully, being aware of our partner's below us, and sliding every step. The care we had to take all day long about trundling rocks onto others below us was always on our minds. At the bottom of this loose stuff, we went across a knife-edge that makes the Capitol Peak knife edge look like a freeway! It was like a Jenga game, knife edged, teetering rocks stacked oh so carefully, just waiting for someone to come along and knock it all down. Tip-toe, tip-toe, careful, trying to be as light on our feet as possible we gently made it across this only to be faced with a vertical pile of slabs and large rocks we had to go up. No feet or hand holds could be trusted on this section and scooting across was just not possible on part of it. I led the way. Send the young guy first!
Up I went through one or two actually semi solid low 5th class moves. Up and down, around to the left and right, just trying to follow Satan’s ridge. Great views all around were there of scenery that I have never seen a picture from. About 1,000+ ft straight down to Pierre’s Lake made it very interesting exposure.
The quality of the rock was again, horrendous. It simply could not be any looser. It would fall away at the slightest touch, and all the boulders and scree we would walk on were wobbling, rocking, and needed to highest level of attention to stay balanced at all times. Even then they would slide out underneath you like rollerblades.
We soon reached the sub summit of Capitol, well some summit near it. To get here seemed to take forever. The next part was the most solid part of the whole ridge. We named it “Slab City.” It was all slabs that required friction to traverse across it. It was rather interesting and took quite a while to carefully go across it. Kiefer fell behind. I was falling behind from Mike and Steve. We were all taking our own paths. The route finding was not easy. We soon all caught up at a rest spot only to see Snowmass the same distance away and Capitol Peak as close as when we looked a few hours back. We were getting no where! It was frustrating. We actually were moving but this ridge really has no class 3. Just about all of it is Class 4 to 5.7 on very loose rock. Farther away the rock looked to get really bad again.
On we went, being so careful to keep the amount of rocks being knocked off to a minimum, as it was not possible to keep them from cutting loose. I will say here that all four of us did a great job of protecting the others from being hit by falling rocks. No matter what we did they came down, but none of us were hit by any. Up to the size of basketball hoops were slipping underneath.
We kept going with the same dangerous terrain, so focused, sticking to the apex of the ridge. Soon Snowmass was getting closer! We encountered many low fifth class moves along the way. One of the most impressive things was that during the day, the scale, the massiveness, of this place. Everything was huge, views were almost endless, and distances were skewed by the size of our world up here. We finally got to a place where the terrain actually flattened out a bit on a small summit. It gave us reason to cheer! We could walk a little easier, make some quick progress, and relax just a bit. It was a nice respite, taking into consideration the intense focus of the previous hours. Snowmass lay ahead. I thought “Were actually going to make it.” We kept going and going and the ridge again lasted longer then what it looked like.
Soon we were stumped. We soon saw the actual crux of the traverse and it looked like one of the most intimidating things I have ever seen. We called it the “Gendarmes from Hell” or “Satan’s Horns.”
We tried to go over the top, staying directly on the ridge, not happening. We tried to find a spot to drop down into the gully that lay ahead. Rappel? Go around? Looking high and low and thought a rappel might be in order. I found a good spot. Kiefer and Steve went up high to check the ridge again to see if I missed a weakness. They agreed that we should try a different way. I did remember that in the Mountain Project beta we read, it said that "after negotiating a prominent sub-peak, the ridge becomes an absolute nightmare, with car sized teetering gendarmes and huge scalloping flakes on the walls below them..." The Mountain Project beta also said something about "drop down west via a nasty downclimb to the talus and walk 50 yards until you are beneath a huge rotten overhanging bowl in the ridge. Climb up diagonalling ramp/cracks to the right of the bowl on the north facing wall (5.5 very exposed) to gain a faint rib.."
At this point we had been going for over 12 hours, Steve was feeling less than fresh, as we all were, and we had a ton of technical rope climbing still ahead of us. We were at a critical point in our journey. What should we do? Steve informed us he was done, not feeling well and needed to go down. With the technical climbing still ahead, he decided it was safest for him and the group if he excused himself and let the others finish without him. He felt that he would hold the group back too long and, possibly, increase the chances of someone else getting hurt. We all decided we would NOT allow Steve to descend by himself. All of us had gotten this far together and together is how we would continue. We all, as a Team, decided to also go down and return another day to finish this spectacular thing we happened upon.
We descended down to the talus and off to Geneva Lake to meet our rides. Stephanie (Kiefers' Girlfriend), and Brenda were waiting for us, to drive us out of there. Getting down to the trailhead took us longer than any of us anticipated. By the time we got to the trucks and the girls waiting for us, it was 9pm. Long day to be sure.
Finishing What We Came Here For
After doing some research, I found no reports of anyone climbing the ridge proper threw the crux of the route. Only in 1952 had it been attempted but even then, they didn't reach into the heart of the gendarmes. All we had to do is finish this last part without dropping into the basin. Sounds easy right? Thinking now, there is a reason why no one has ever climbed through that section to what we know of. It's the hardest climbing on the ridge on loose rock that is poorly protected.
It ended up Kiefer was sick the night before we left. He urged us to go without him even though we didn’t want to leave him behind. We missed him on it. Steve and I carpooled while Mike met us at the campsite. We approached from Lake Geneva this time, where we descended. We slept sound for our start around 4 to 5 A.M. I was nervous. These gendarmes looked terribly scary. Was there actually a way to get through them? It all looked scary. We climbed up to the ridge where we had left off.
Interestingly enough, a couple days before our date to go up, a snowstorm came to the Aspen area. We heard a foot of snow fell. We originally cancelled the date but then decided to go check conditions for ourselves. It was snowy and cold but doable and dry on the frightening parts. We all were very concentrated.
We started up the ridge where we ended and were trying to negotiate this sub-peak. The only way it seemed was to make a very airy step into this chimney that had very loose rock in it and looked like it would send you down a thousand feet down the other side. It's that steep on the east side. We roped up.
I started off with the lead and was quite intimitaded. Here we go, into the unknown. What were we going to encounter?
I made the airy step and stepped into the chimney and I heard a rock about to slide out right when I stepped into it. I put in a nut as soon as I could, clipped into it and stated," I'm on Belay." Wow! I climbed up the chimney. All the footholds were a tiny bit icy. I topped out and yelled in excitement. The next few feet didn't look bad. I went as far as I could, set up a belay, and belayed Steve up who was in the middle of the rope. Mike was in the end and cruised up! We all agreed that first step was rather scary.
Mike took the next lead and made a downward traverse down the ridge that kept your attention (5th class). Once again the pro was seperated by gaps of 30-50 feet and the pro was in extremely loose rock. It was a no fall zone for everyone. We all joined him. Now it would be nice if the rest of the ridge was like this but we weren't even into the guts of this thing. Now we saw this huge Gendarme. You couldn't pass left, right, or over the top. The only way I saw was going through it. There was a gap separating the gendarme that was not that wide. Wide enough that we all had to take off our packs, suck our stomachs in and slide through it. I took the lead and just to get to that slot I had to climb some mid fifth class with ok pro. I stood there right before it and smiled. It also didn't look like a drop off after this slot! I went through it taking my pack off and set a belay on the other side. We all joined and were admitting that was a cool pitch! We named it “Satan’s Doorway.”
Steve told us he was taking the next lead. He took off. We still could not see the guts of the gendarmes yet. He did well and set up a belay about 200 feet into it. By this time we had two ropes out to speed up time. The leader would lead with the lead rope and the middle would hook into both ropes while the follower would be at the end of the 8.6mm rope. Did I mention the rope drag was horrendous?
By the time we all got to Steve's belay we were standing on what seemed to be an overhanging bulge of extremely loose rock. Things were sliding. I wanted to get off this belay. I felt like any minute, a couple tons of rock was going to fall off with me on it. Luckily we were on a rope. How much could we trust this protection in this choss rock though? Luckily, all the belays were pretty solid minus one or two. I could see the gendarmes or Satan's horns. Good new was that there looked like a way across. Bad news was that it looked like the hardest climbing on the ridge and with not much pro at all. Plus, time was flying by. It was taking forever to do this. It was Mike's lead who took one of the two most frightening, dangerous leads on the route. He led a slightly downward traverse with gaps between the pro of up to 50-75 feet. This traverse pitch was in the 5.6-5.7 range it felt like. The bad thing was if any of us well, it would not be good news at all. There are no ambulances nearby or worse coffins. I followed after Mike and the whole time I was so mentally in it, thinking to myself,"You got this, test every hold." On a pitch like this, you can't think about falling. Steve then followed after me and I was a bit worried. When he got in talking range I kept encouraging him," You got this man." He finally got to the belay station and wow, were not even at the heart of the gendarmes yet. Guess what, it was my lead next! I was not as excited as I would be on a solid rock route. Someone has to lead it though.
I lead on with a traverse on an easy ledge leading slightly downwards. I had Mike clip me into a piece right by him as sort of a top rope and I would let him know to take me off it when I get a solid piece in. I don't think I found that solid piece for a 100 feet. Everything was loose and no protection was good. I finally found a nut that I found to be "ok". I was right below the biggest gendarme on the ridge, Satan's horn. It looked like the traverse ended in about 50 feet. We would have to climb this vertical headwall to keep on going. It looked kind of solid and sweet. I yelled," can I take the next lead?" They were perfectly fine with that idea. I climbed a bit up it and made what almost was like a hanging belay. The belay was solid. I just didn't want to lean out in it from how bad the rock was. Mike and Steve soon followed and had trouble finding a spot to even stand. The bad thing was that this headwall when I stood right below it had no pro. I had regreted saying I wanted the next lead.
I put on my rock shoes and was kind of scared. I didn't know how hard the climbing would be. I would be fine with that if it was protected but this wasn't. This proved to be one of the two scariest, dangerous pitches. Mike lead the last one. Now it was my turn!
I set off. I found a small placement directly above the anchor. I clipped into it thinking," hey, maybe this won't be to bad." It was a 5.6 headwall that was still loose. There was massive exposure. The talus at the bottom was right below your feet. I found a small placement about 10 feet above the belay that I'll let you know I didn't want to fall on. The next 50-75 feet were unprotected. The minor protection was there at times but I didn't even bother with it because it was so bad. Who wants to sling a huge flake that's about to come off?
I placed one piece before the belay. I had to climb under this overhang to get to the belay. It looked like after one more pitch; we would be done with these gendarmes! I belayed everyone else up. We were looking straight across the gendarmes. I don't know how they stand!
Mike took the next lead up this slab. It seemed to be 5.7 at first. He got a nut in about 10 feet up and ran up it. It was actually solid, well 25 feet of it. He yelled that was the last of the gendarmes. We were more then happy at that point. We still had the rest of the north ridge though. It was getting late. We admitted the fact that a bivy on top of Snowmass might have to happen if we don't hurry up.
We packed up the ropes when we got to Mike's spot and started off to the base of the last two pitches of which are reported to be the most solid pitches on the traverse. We shot up to the base in actually 20-30 minutes. There was some snow we had to negotiate. I was excited. Two more pitches and I'm off this crap. We put on our rock shoes and scrambled as far as possible. Steve took the first pitch and belayed Mike up. I soloed the first pitch. It was nothing to hard. There was some insane exposure though!
I stopped before the second pitch and was waiting to rope up. We were making time. Mike and Steve actually spotted a piton from the fist ascent of the ridge! This ridge has only been done a couple times I imagine, not popular.
I gave Mike the last lead. I was later quit depressed that I did. It was the best pitch on the route. Really solid! Well, according to Eldo, Yosemite, and etc. probably loose. I followed Mike and soon was on top of North Snowmass! Steve then followed and joined us. These two pitches were only in the 5.5 range. We did encounter a little snow which made it a little more difficult but what awesome pitches!
Did we really do this? We all smiled and started to lighten up a bit, before we were all pretty tense. I got easily angered for some reason one or two times. I thank Steve for dealing with me those one of two times I did. I don't even remember what I was upset with.
We slapped hands. What I thought as impossible before turned possible. I was so happy. For me, this was a dream come true. We got a group summit shot and shot over to Snowmass over really snowy ground. (Class 3/4) We got to the top of Snowmass and the gratification of doing this was even more awesome. I stared at the ridge traverse stating to Steve and Mike," We did that!"
Ending Thoughts: Adventure and Fun?
We headed down the miserable West Slopes Side at about 5-5:30. For those of you who have done that descent, the traverse is even looser. I was tired. We got down to camp and packed up and got down to the car in only 3 hours. From summit to camp and packing up to the car at Lead King Basin in 3 hours. I was impressed. I still had the long drive home to Denver though. I called off work the next day and got home close to 3 in the morning and woke up the next day thinking the whole trip was a dream.
I will finish this report by saying without reservations; this place is scary and dangerous! At one point, Mike tripped up on a boulder, which caused him to loose balance. He got tossed forward, while his backpack, which didn't have a waist belt, fell over his head. He reached out to stop myself from going straight over the edge into Pierre Lakes Basin, 1000 ft below! Mike knocked a ton of rocks and boulders off the edge, crashing into the Basin. The look I gave him was one of those one’s that was a frightening one. I thought he was gone! The day was one not to be forgotten. It’s all about the adventure and fun. Did I have fun on this traverse? To be honest I didn’t really, save for a couple parts on it. One adventure I’m glad is over. And one dream of mine I can put away. (Videos can also be found on Youtube of the climb)
Other LinksMountain Project Write Up of the Traverse
Kiefer's Great Trip Report
Daring Dreams Website