CAPITOL PEAK 14,130′
Moon Lake Approach from Snowmass Creek TH
Northeast Ridge Direct
March 13-14, 2014
Greg, Jamie, Jason, Matt
My first experience with Capitol Peak came late in the spring of 2012 when my friend Peter and I made a climb of the standard route in early June. Which you can read here if you’re interested.
We hiked in to Capitol Lake then did a snow climb to K2 and safely traversed to and from the summit of Capitol. At the time it was my crowning achievement as a climber, though only one month later Peter and I would travel to Washington to do a climb that would change my life forever and started to redefine what I thought was possible for me. I knew that I wanted Capitol in winter but at the time I had only done 15 of the 14ers in calendar winter and nothing harder than class 3 in easy conditions. Another year went by and I was approaching 40 on the winter list but the idea of trying Capitol still seemed like a pipe dream, that is until this year.
The thought of actually doing it was almost too much. Though we talked about it throughout the winter it was already March and we had yet to head to the Elks. A variety of factors kept conspiring against us not the least of which being our obsession with ice and mixed, but finally it was time to make it happen. With favorable avy conditions and a decent forecast we penciled in an attempt on Friday March 14th, packing in on Thursday. Several of our friends were pretty vocal about how bad the approach was. Earlier this season on a hike with Sarah in the Sangres she happily told me that no matter how much I hated Spanish Creek, the Moon Lake approach was worse. Wonderful. Noah also helped to make us understand what we were in for.
Conditions seemed ideal but we started to wonder about going in as only a team of 2, not only would the trail breaking be hard but we would be pretty out there. 3 is always safer than 2, and while 2 might be romantic from the standpoint of alpinism, sometimes you need to be practical. Even Mr Shit Scared himself went in with a team of 3. Speaking of that, why do we feel the need to scare ourselves so much? At one point during the descent Jamie remarked that anyone who climbs at this level has to question their sanity and decision making skills. Set to leave the next day, we decided to strengthen our team by adding Jamie to the mix. He and I had climbed several times before and talked very often. This was his 60th of the top 100 in winter and it was awesome to chase such a big goal together At the last minute, Greg agreed to make the drive after work Thursday and get started bright and early to meet us for the climb. Our recklessly optimistic team of two had now become a strong team of 4, things were looking up.
OH SOMETIMES I GET A GOOD FEELING…YEA
We met up in Eagle Wednesday morning and hit the road (relatively) early on Thursday. After a tasty breakfast in Glenwood Springs we made our way to the Snowmass Creek TH. Jamie and I have done a lot of winter camping in Colorado and generally go for comfort. Jason on the other hand was determined to go light and his petitely French pack was enticing, but we wondered how happy he would be later that night. In fact, we had been told by several people that the Moon Lake area was unusually cold. When team McKelvin did their climb in 2012 they experienced Alaska-type cold. Despite this, he was confident in his choice to bivy with a 15 degree bag. Since he wound up being out front for a good portion of the approach it led to us saying “Dead Man Walking” or “Dead Man Breaking Trail.” This was since we assumed quite literally that Jason would freeze to death that night, but luckily we were wrong. You win, sir…though I’ll take my tent and my warm bag and my down booties every time.
Our psyche was high as we left the car in late morning. The sun was shining and there was a well groomed trail. Jamie headed out first while Jason and I took our time and finally took the first few steps. Before too long we arrived at the summer TH (Standard route on Snowmass) and saw Jamie waiting near the sign. There was no track and we decided to stay on the groomed track for a while longer despite it being private property. It turned that the owners didn’t seem to care. At one point we were walking on the trail when there abruptly appeared a sled and a dog team hurtling at us. Woah. We jumped out of the way and the driver gave us a friendly wave. Now it was obvious what all those groomed trails were doing back there. Man, what a life, being a dog sled guide outside of Aspen. I think I messed up somewhere along the way.
We linked the many trails and crossed the river before finally getting to the base of our drainage. It was time to venture into the unknown. We stepped over the very top of a fence buried under feet of snow and started making our way up hill. The going wasn’t too bad but there was a bit of bushwhacking and a tall vertical step that was a major pain in the ass with snowshoes and a pack. Before too long we actually met up with the summer trail for a short bit, whhich was reassuring. However it ended quickly and the vast open basin surely lived up to its reputation. We spent the next several hours cutting through meadows and forest and making our way towards a large headwall that we knew we needed to go to the left of. Finally at 5pm we dropped our packs at 11,000ft, content with our days work. Jason headed up to break trail to or the hike to Moon Lake in the morning while Jamie and I started to set up camp. After a bit we got bored and headed up to improve the track and get a look at what lie ahead.
As we made dinner and melted water it begun to snow lightly, and then heavier. We didn’t say it, but we hoped that this wouldn’t stop us and we tried to stay positive. Luckily the snow tapered off before bed and we were able to relax, or well….you know, “relax.” interestingly enough I felt none of the anxiety that had come the night before my first climb of Capitol two years before. Perhaps I figured we had no chance so why bother being nervous? Sleep came easily.
RUNNING RED LIGHTS
We woke up a bit after 4 hoping to be moving by 530am, which was also when we had agreed to meet up with Greg. Of course, winter mornings never go as planned and it was close to 6am when I rolled out of camp. Jamie followed and eventually Jason, but there was no sign of Greg. We guessed that he might have had trouble locating our track in the dark and that it would likely slow him down. We hoped he would catch us in time for the ridge.
It was a frigid morning and we all kept to ourselves while enjoying numb fingers and toes. At least the going was easy and the moon shown bright in the clear and starlit sky. Conditions were ideal, but i didn’t think much of the climb ahead, more just getting to K2. Not too long out of camp I arrived at Moon Lake at 11,740′ where i was presented with two options, straight or left. I chose the wrong option, but Jamie followed, and we wasted some time until Jason caught up and called across the valley to us that we were going the wrong way. We turned around and quickly caught up to him. His way looked more enticing anyway, and talk about Gladbaching it. We broke trail into the wrong basin and still made the summit. That was for you Steve! Route finding has never been my forte either buddy.
The sun was up by now and the views of Daly were breathtaking. We steadily made progress upwards on good snow until the way ahead was obvious. To make up for the day before, Jamie and I took the lead and leap frogged each other as we gained altitude and broke trail. Above 12,000ft loomed a large slope that gave us the willies and we stopped to regroup safely below it. Though we agreed we didn’t like it, we knew we were going and I offered to take the risk. Luckily as we got closer the slope wasn’t as steep as we initially thought and the snow conditions were good. We could see safety just ahead, and sun…oh god did we want the sun. It was damn cold and I needed my hands back if I was going to play on Capitol’s upper reaches. We took a break near some rocks in the glorious warmth of the sun and clearly saw the summit of K2 up ahead, and it was safe. We were about on par with the summit of Daly, somewhere around 13,300′.
Jason was on his way up and in the distance we saw Greg! He was going to make it to climb with us and we were ecstatic, though it was getting a bit late in the day. It turned out that Greg had slept in a bit after a long day at work and the drive out. He also had trouble finding our track as expected, but either way, here he was as fast as ever and easily catching our slow asses. We stashed snowshoes below the ridge and went a couple hundred feet higher and had a pow wow.
We were going to make a go at it obviously,we were here and the weather was perfect, even pleasant in the alpine sun. We donned technical gear and dropped any unnecessary weight, including Jason’s pack. After some food and drink, and courage, Greg started up towards K2 first. Right away shit got real. There was a knife edge snow arete that led to a steep section of douboy exposed 4th class rock. We dispatched it without much trouble and found ourselves on the summit of K2 arou d 11am. This was the first time we saw Capitol’s beautiful (or ugly) face. I instantly thought of Noah saying he wished he hadn’t seen the ridge before being on it, but you do and its sobering. The one thing that was clear is that we were climbing into a different world, from K2 all the way back to K2 it would never relent and there was no retreat except back the way we came. This route has a level of commitment that is rare for Colorado and it is impossible to ignore.
I remembered vividly that the most difficult climbing in summer had been the descent off of K2 and I happily followed Greg’s lead as he made delicate snow and rock moves down the north side of K2. I don’t think it ever exceeded 4th class, but it was tricky and exposed and we were still adjusting to our new environment. We sure took our time here. I met up with Greg on the saddle and we took a break to gather our wits before heading onto the ridge. Jason and Jamie weren’t far behind and Greg moved ahead but quickly stopped dead in his tracks.
There were two small towers before the knife edge and they were both covered in snow and presented a challenge. After a few minute Greg asked if i had brought my shovel to excavate. Ha. Clearly we were going to need to pass the towers by traversing the snow on the South side, but it wasn’t in the best shape and the slope ran steeply down for 2,000ft. By now the J Men had caught up and the 4 of us discussed options, which were likely turn around or rope up, and we decided on the later. Jason would tie in first. Greg put him on belay and he headed out to get into trouble. After a bit of work he moved past both towers and got a solid piece. The climbing involved traversing some of the steeper snow i have seen in Colorado and was pretty heady, but it was the only option if we wanted to continue. I then started climbing, but the going was very slow. By the time all 4 of us were moving a decent amount of time had elapsed and the snow was baking in the sun. We had several discussions about the descent and whether or not we had any business going on. On the knife edge itself Jason stepped through a cornice and all I heard was “oh shit,” but nothing happened. This section can vary greatly from season to season and within a season. On the North side a small amount of rock was exposed before the slabby drop off and the South side was heavily corniced. It was like walking a tightrope and I may or may not have butt scooted a section. Its ok though, I don’t think anyone saw.
Simulclimbing is an efficient way to move on easy technical terrain but falling is definitely a party foul. I am glad all my partners brought their A game, and confidence. After the knife edge the terrain eased a bit but the consequences of a fall were still dire, and would remain that way for the duration of the climb. It took us almost 2 hours to go from K2 to the start of the bulk of Capitol. However, it was only 1pm and we had a lot of daylight left, plus we were getting the hang of this mountaineering thing. The decision to continue was unanimous.
We were able to get a decent anchor at the saddle and we stayed in the same order on the rope. Some easy rock moves led to this wild sort of snow tower thing, the likes of which I hadn’t encountered before, and we were on our way. The snow was softening in the sun and gave us cause for concern, especially for the way down. For the most part we stayed on or near the ridge crest on the South side. For a bit we weren’t able to get any pieces in but it was one of the easier sections and we were moving fairly efficiently until we came to our first ridge step. The obvious choice was to traverse onto the face and then climb back up to the ridge, but the snow wasn’t in the best shape here and we didn’t have a ton of pro. Since we were all tied together and exposure was extreme, this presented enough of a problem that we discussed calling it, but eventually we decided that we would go on and hopefully rappel this section on the way down. Jason summoned his courage and led on. Of course, he views it as there were three people blocking his way down.
Now back on the ridge we continued to make steady progress and were quite sure we were past the crux, but you know how that goes. Never assume you are past the crux. As we gained altitude and the ridge got even narrower we were careful to have several pieces in at a time, which was time consuming but prudent. Waiting can be the worst thing, too much time thinking instead of doing. I have only felt this out there a handful of times, and most of those times have been on expeditions in other countries far from safety. This entire day was fully over the edge, from the moment we left K2 there was no background noise in my mind, there was only here and now, get up and get down, stay alive. I think this is why I climb, there is no other time where i experience such clarity of thought and existence than when I am pushing my limits. It is why I follow a personal motto of ‘always be pushing higher, harder or faster.’
It was now 3pm and up ahead Jason was running into trouble. The real crux was above him and was already runout about 150 feet. Again we discussed turning around but we were so close, the summit was clearly visible less than 200 vertical feet above. We had come all this way, I don’t think any of us wanted to go through this all again, so after some talk we pressed on. In a brilliant display of Alpinism, Jason stepped out onto the face and made some delicate moves unprotected. I watched his every move hoping he wouldn’t fall and pull me off and let out a sigh when he placed a cam, and then another as he dispatched the 5th class rock pitch that was completely covered in snow. I untied an retied further down the rope to give him the room he needed to finish the pitch, which required 5th class moves on a knife edge ridge crest. The climbing was truly classic and amazing, but horrifying all at once. There were a couple of moderate mixed moves, then Styrofoam snow. Finally there was a knife edge arete that led to the belay. It was a relief to arrive at the ledge and clip into the anchor. I then belayed Jamie, who belayed Greg.
One final section blocked our way to the ridge, a moderate 5th class chimney. Since Jason was out of gear and Greg was already on belay, he just led through and climbed the chimney with ease. Once on the summit ridge he continued towards the top. Jamie went next and I followed. Above this wall we were all in, just a few hundred horizontal feet of some gnarly ridge and the prize was ours. My mind was numb by now and i just did the moves, barely noticing the exposure. Just before 4pm on March 15th our team made the summit of Capitol Peak. It was a surreal moment and brilliant display of teamwork. Jason and I instantly embraced when he arrived on top.
We spent 20 minutes before starting the dreaded descent, which I knew would hold up as one of the most serious descents I’ve ever undertaken. In hindsight, I can safely say that the only worse descent of my short climbing career was 8 hours spent descending the North Ridge of Artesonraju (6,025m) in Peru this past summer. We retraced the summit ridge, did a few rappels and some downclimbing and arrived at the start of the knife edge ridge as the sun was really starting to set. It had been pretty taxing since after an initial easy to locate, bomber rappel anchor, it became very complex due to the ridge being buried so deeply in snow. At least twice we rappeled off of things that rock climbers might normally balk at. It wasn’t very fun to be the last one on the worst of the rappels, but here I am safe and sound. We quickly dispatched the ridge as efficiently as ever and made it safely to the other side of K2 before the the darkness over took us. The snow had actually cooled and hardened in the cool evening wind, and our concerns were not realized. The snow was actually in better shape than we found it on the way up, talk about luck!
As I stepped down from the last downclimb onto safety I felt pure elation, not so much for the summit of Capitol, but because we were going to live. Sure, we were a couple of hours from our camp and it was 730pm, but who cares? It felt insignificant. We arrived back at camp at 930pm and rested for a bit before packing up camp and making the dreaded hike out. The moon once again shown bright in the clear sky and the views were astounding, I enjoyed solitude for a while before Jamie caught up, and eventually Jason, Jamie and I finished the hike out together (Greg left earlier without a heavy pack). We arrived back at the car at 2am, officially into our 3rd day. I drove us home to Eagle where I caught a couple hours sleep before going into work at 630am. Yuck.
Its often been said that Colorado is merely a training ground for true alpinism, but i have found first hand that this is not true. If you look, you will find it. This was as real as it gets and by far the most incredible alpine day I’ve had here in this wonderful state which i have the privilege of calling home. Its been almost 3 years now and I am forever grateful.
Jamie and Greg, it was a privilege to rope up with you. Congratulations on this tough summit. You’ve had one hell of a season Greg, and Jamie., 60 of the top 100? Legendary stuff man.
Though he insists he did nothing since we were simulclimbing, the rest of us want to thank Jason for the work he put in to bring us to the top. I can’t believe we puled this off man, as you say, follow your dreams. I can’t wait to get into trouble with you up North in just a couple months. Remember, we will eat and drink and make Daft Punk dance videos, and at some point we might climb something.
Climb to live or live to climb…this is what dreams are made of.
written by Matt Grabina
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