Capitol Peak Area Backcountry Skiing - Chapter 6
Route 6.1.1 Capitol Creek to Capitol Lake
Climb rating: Harder skins Ski rating: S2+ Recommended seasons: All with snowcover Starting elevation: 8,520 feet Summit elevation: 11,600 feet Elevation gain: 3,080 feet Round trip distance: 16 miles Day trip? No Map: Capitol North Photo:
This intricate valley route is a worthy goal in and of itself; indeed, Capitol Lake in winter is one of the Seven Wonders of the Elks (trivia nuts can dig the other six from these pages). But this route is also important as an approach slog for higher, steeper and longer alpine extravaganzas. Bear in mind that while traveling up the Capitol Creek Valley, you'll be exposed to the runouts of numerous avalanche paths; so travel this route during times of diminished avalanche hazard.
Start from the Capitol Creek Trailhead (see Chapter Introduction). From snow closure, continue up the road to the summer trailhead (9,440 feet). Note that in staying on the road you travel on the north side of a small ridge that separates you from the Capitol Creek Drainage. From the summer trailhead, follow an obvious irrigation ditch that contours along the west side of the Capitol Creek drainage at about 9,320 feet, leading you 3 miles to a sparsely-timbered area in the valley. From here, the key is to use the summer trailcut up the valley, making minor deviations to avoid avalanche runouts, for about 3 miles to the infamous "Headwall" at 10,800 feet. The summer trail cuts up the Headwall across several small slide paths. To avoid these, ski up through dense timber on climber's left. At the top of the Headwall, follow the summer trail for about ¼ mile, then make a major deviation by skiing directly up the drainage until you're just below the small tree-studded knoll to the north of Capitol Lake. To reach the lake, head around the right side of the knoll (pay attention to the avalanche paths to your right). The safest and most sheltered camping is in a small depression near the top of the knoll-a traditional spot used by many winter expeditions, including this author's numerous attempts at the Elk Mountains Traverse, which connects Mount Sopris with Ashcroft via the oberland.
Route 6.1.2 Capitol Lake-Moon Lake via Daly Pass
Climb rating: Harder skins Ski rating: S3 Recommended seasons: All with snowcover Starting elevation: 11,600 feet (high camp) Summit elevation: 12,080 feet Elevation gain: 480 feet Trip distance: 2 miles Day trip? Yes Map: Capitol North Photo:
Rather than a trip in itself, this route is used as a connector for longer tours or for access to different climbing routes on Capitol Peak and satellites. It is also used in reverse for similar purposes. It's described here as taken from Capitol Lake.
Moon Lake is the small lake (11,720 feet) at the head of West Snowmass Creek on the east side of the ridge connecting Mount Daly and Capitol Peak. Daly Pass (12,080 feet) is the low point on the ridge and is obvious from both sides, though better approached from the usually wind-scoured west. As you study the pass from the west (Capitol Lake) side, you can spot a slightly vegetated raised area curving up to the saddle. This is the best route, and is safest from avalanches when thoroughly wind-scoured or compacted.
The east side of Daly Pass is usually more of a problem. It is often a leeward snow pillow, and is usually a calculated risk. Whether climbing this or descending, do an astute stability evaluation, and use a series of rock outcrops as islands of safety. The skiing here can be classic, and there is a fair amount of good skiing on the route from Moon Lake down to the Snowmass Creek Trailhead. In spring, you can find interesting glisse almost anywhere in this area.
Route 6.1.3 Mount Daly Summit from Daly Pass
Climb rating: Moderate boots Ski rating: NA, approach is S3 Recommended seasons: All with snowcover Starting elevation: 12,480 feet (Daly pass) Summit elevation: 13,300 feet Elevation gain: 820 feet Round trip distance: 2 miles Day trip? No Map: Capitol North Photo:
If you're an experienced skier but not a technical climber, this summit keeps you away from the cliffs of Capitol Peak. After gaining Daly Pass via route 6.1.2 and other routes in this chapter, hike the crest of the ridge leading N from the pass to the summit. You're now on Colorado's 391st highest peak. Return via your ascent route. With avalanche-safe spring conditions, expert skiers can descend other routes (see below).
Route 6.1.4 Mount Daly-East Face couloir or flank
Climb rating: Harder skins, Advanced snow climb Ski rating: S4+ Recommended seasons: Spring snow season Starting elevation: 8,310 feet Summit elevation: 13,300 feet Elevation gain: 4,990 feet Round trip distance: 12 miles Day trip? Optional Map: Capitol North Photo:
The eastern reaches of Mount Daly should be on every glisse alpinist's tick list. Wait for a stable spring snowpack and cold nights. Start from the Snowmass Creek Trailhead, and take the Moon Lake route (6.1.2) up West Snowmass Creek. Rather than going to Moon Lake, leave the drainage at 10,400 feet by swinging right (W) into the drainage basin dropping from Daly's eastern reaches. Climb the drainage to about 11,800 feet at the base of the peak's east face. Decide here whether to climb the classic couloir (climber's left), or go up the broad and intimidating face to climber's right. Both are exciting and rewarding. Descend your ascent route. Beware of cliff bands.
Route 6.1.5 Haystack Mountain
Climb rating: Easy skins Ski rating: S3- Recommended seasons: All with snowcover Starting elevation: 8,000 feet Summit elevation: 12,206 feet Elevation gain: 4,206 feet Round trip distance: 12 miles Day trip? Yes Map: Capitol North Photo:
This route includes one of the Elk's more mellow summits and is thus recommended for tyro alpinists. To find the start, use directions above for the Capitol Creek Trailhead. From the T intersection mentioned in the description, take a right and drive just over 4.6 miles on the Capitol Creek Road to an unsigned ranch turnoff and driveway to the left (there may be several mailboxes here). This public right-of-way (historical easement) is usually only plowed a short distance to a home. If it looks appropriate to do so, ask for parking permission at the nearby ranch house. When you're driving in this area, you can see the summit of Haystack to the south (if you need practice, identify it as an orienteering exercise).
From parking, ski up the snowcovered road to a cabin, then follow a trail that swings southeast and climbs to Haystack's long north ridge. Follow easy ground on the ridge 3 miles to the summit. The last bit involves rougher, wind-blasted terrain. Though most of the terrain this route covers is free of avalanches, you can easily reach more dangerous slopes from the upper parts of the route. Descend your ascent route, enjoying meadows and open areas you studied on the way up.
Route 6.1.6 West Snowmass Creek to Moon Lake
Climb rating: Harder skins Ski rating: S3+ Recommended seasons: All with snowcover Starting elevation: 8,310 feet Summit elevation: 11,760 feet Elevation gain: 3,450 feet Round trip distance: 14 miles Day trip? Optional Map: Capitol North Photo:
Moon Lake is the base camp for winter ascents and snow glisse on 14,130 foot Capitol Peak and its satellites. The route is intricate and demanding-most mountaineers must do it once before it's useful for day trip access. While the proper route does not cross avalanche starting zones, it does cross many slide runouts. So only do this route during times of lesser hazard.
Start at Snowmass Creek Trailhead (see section introduction). Hike up the Snowmass Creek valley, pass the famous beaver ponds, and cross Snowmass Creek somewhere within ¼ mile of its confluence with West Snowmass Creek. After you cross the creek, head up through aspen forest on the right (N) side of West Snowmass Creek. Take care to find the trailcut through aspen forest as it switchbacks up several steep hillsides, then crosses a ravine at 9,160 feet. Be sure you're on the trail; any other route across the ravine involves horrible bushwhacking. After crossing the ravine, follow the northwest side of the valley to 9,800 feet. The important thing to remember here is that you'll find more easily-traveled timber on the northwest side of the valley.
At about 9,800 feet you'll reach a large meadow. From here you leave the main pack trail (which heads up the mountainside west to Haystack Mountain). Cross to the upper northwest corner of the meadow. Enter the forest here, and ski through light timber directly up the valley until you encounter the creekbed. Cross to the left (east) side of the creek. From here on, with compacted spring snow, you can follow the creekbed to Moon Lake.
If avalanche danger makes following the creek route too dangerous, leave the creek ravine by swinging left (E). By staying higher on the east side of the valley you can avoid most avalanche danger. When it's logical to do so, take a contour or climbing traverse back toward Moon Lake. Route 6.1.7 Pierre Lakes Traverse
Climb rating: Harder skins and Advanced snow Ski rating: Advanced, S4+ Recommended seasons: Spring snow season Starting elevation: 8,310 feet Summit elevation: 13,200 feet Elevation gain: Approximately 6,000 feet Trip distance: 19 miles Day trip? No Maps: Capitol North and Capitol South Photo:
One of the least accessible and most spectacular of the Elk Mountain alpine cirques is the Pierre Lakes Basin between Capitol and Snowmass Peaks. Enjoy this area as a spring high route with several high camps. Place your camps so you're traveling in the morning, then relaxing in a safe area as afternoon slides roar down. For a super tour, combine the Pierre Lakes Traverse with the Trailrider Pass Traverse (route 6.1.9).
Take route 6.1.6 to Moon Lake, then climb W toward Daly Pass (6.1.2), then S into the high basin used to access Capitol Peak's famed Knife Ridge (see Dawson's Guide to Colorado's Fourteeners). At the head of this basin, on the ridge connecting Capitol Peak to Pierre's Peak (Point 13,520 , you'll find a distinctive notch known as Pierre's Passage (13,200 feet). Be sure you climb the basin and reach the ridge near Capitol Peak rather than climbing directly from Moon Lake S to Clark Peak's west ridge, as all other routes over this ridge are blocked by cliffs.
Pass through Pierre's Passage, and descend a steep couloir into Pierre Lakes Basin. You'll probably need to remove your skis to climb through the notch, and you may need a rope. However, if you encounter unpassable cliffs you've gone to the wrong passage. Ski through Pierre Lakes Basin to Heckert Pass (12,560 feet), which you reach via a long descending traverse around the west side of the basin and a climb up a narrow, steep-sided valley to the final headwall below the pass. Take the headwall direct to the pass summit. (Bear in mind that Heckert Pass may be mismarked on various USGS maps.) Descend the gully on the south side of the pass all the way to Snowmass Lake (one of the Elk Mountain's SevenWonders). For avalanche safety, time your travels so you hit this gully in the morning. From Snowmass Lake ski and hike out Snowmass Creek via the summer packtrail (route 6.1.8). Time your passage down the valley so afternoon wet avalanches don't wipe you out. If you need to abort your trip at Pierre Lakes, Bear Creek is a rough but passable route out. The Pierre Lakes Traverse was first done on snow by longtime Roaring Fork Valley residents Richard Compton and Ned Ryerson, in the early 1980s.
Route 6.1.8 Snowmass Creek to Snowmass Lake
Climb rating: Easier skins Ski rating: Intermediate, S2 Recommended seasons: Late winter, or spring Starting elevation: 8,310 feet Summit elevation: 10,980 feet Elevation gain: 2, 800 feet Round trip distance: 17 miles Day trip? No Maps: Capitol North and Capitol South Photo:
This long and arduous valley tour is a challenging winter expedition, and used for higher Elk Mountains access and egress. If you had to judge among all the lakes in the Elks for their beauty, Snowmass would take first prize. The almost mile-long lake leads the eye to an enormous snow bowl beneath several 14,000-foot peaks. This snowfield is known as the "snowmass" and is the closest thing to a glacier that exists in the Elks. It counts as one of the range's Seven Wonders, as does the gorgeous lake. This is a crowded area in the summer. Go during snow season and see it at its finest. Note that this route passes below many avalanche paths, so only travel during times of lower hazard.
Start from the Snowmass Creek Trailhead (see section introduction). Use the summer packtrail for about 6 miles to a small oxbow lake (10,080 feet). Leave the route of the summer trail here, and stay in the timber on the east side of the valley so you're not exposed to huge avalanche paths rising to the west. About ¼ mile past the oxbow lake a dense forest fills the valley. Use the edge of this forest as a safe route to cross back to the west side of the valley. Here the summer trail switchbacks up a huge east-facing avalanche slope. To avoid this slope, stay in the forest and climb to where the summer trail enters the woods (about 10,400 feet). Spend some time finding the trailcut; otherwise you will struggle through almost impassable timber. Follow the trailcut to the lake (10,980 feet). Return via your ascent route, with the variation of skiing the large avalanche path if conditions are safe enough.
Route 6.1.9 Trail Rider Pass Traverse
Climb rating: Harder skins, easier boots Ski rating: Advanced, S3+ Recommended seasons: Spring snow season Starting elevation: 10,980 feet (high camp) Summit elevation: 12,400 feet Elevation gain: 3,300 feet (from high camp) Trip distance: 13 miles Day trip? No Maps: Capitol South, Marble North, and USGS Snowmass Mtn., Redstone, and Capitol Peak Photo:
This stellar oberland traverse places you in the alpine heart of the Elks. The route was pioneered by extreme ski pioneer Chris Landry in the 1970's. Plan for at least three nights out. Start at Snowmass Lake, reached by either Snowmass Creek (route 6.1.6) or the Pierre Lakes Traverse (route 6.1.7). From the lake climb SW to Trail Rider Pass (12,400 feet). Ski the bowl from the pass to 11,750 feet, then start a series of traverses and descents leading W to Geneva Lake. Use astute map reading for this portion of the route as you're not following a specific drainage. Time your travel so you're moving during the avalanche-safe morning hours.
From Geneva climb N up the drainage to 11,300 feet. Continue climbing and detour to the right to avoid a small gorge. Intersect the drainage at the top of the gorge (11,600 feet) and follow the drainage (with small variations) to Siberia Lake (11,860 feet). Siberia Peak is now to your left (route 3.2.3). Continue N through the bowl above Siberia Lake to Siberia Pass (12,660 feet). Drop N from the pass into the Avalanche Creek drainage, descend to Avalanche Lake, then follow the Avalanche Creek packtrail to Highway 133 (where you stashed a vehicle or have a pickup arranged.)
Route 6.1.10 Baldy Ridge and West Willow from Snowmass Ski Resort
Climb rating: Harder skins Ski rating: S4- to S4 Recommended seasons: Mid to late winter, and spring Starting elevation: 12,310 feet Summit elevation: 13,155 feet Elevation gain: 1,000 feet Round trip distance: 5 miles Day trip? Yes Map: Snowmass Resort Photo:
This is the classic alpine tour from Snowmass Resort (see section introduction). You get about 2,300 vertical feet of downhill for about half that in hiking. What's more, just past the existing ski area boundary you enter the vast terrain of the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness. Thus, the ski area will never ever be able to expand into and ruin this terrific backcountry.
To reach the good stuff, ride the lifts at Snowmass to the western highpoint of the ski area. Exit the ski area boundary via an access gate, Climb southerly up a broad open area known as the Fetch and climb S to Baldy Ridge. Continue S on Baldy Ridge (easy skins or boots) ¾ mile to Baldy Mountain (13,155 feet). A standard tour takes the broad northeast face of Baldy into the West Willow Creek drainage. Follow a series of open areas in the drainage down to 10,800 feet. Trend to skier's left as you near this point. At 10,800 feet, you'll be located below a saddle on the north side of the drain. Climb a short distance to this saddle and enter the ski area just past the saddle.
There are many alternatives to the above. For interesting descents off Baldy, drop W from the summit along a ridge, then descend any of a number of couloirs lining a north-facing cirque (S4 to S4+) known as Willow Headwall. Head a bit farther W along this ridge (toward Point 12,796), and you can head N down another descent(S4+). From atop Point 12,796, drop into a run known as Do It Again (S4+).
If you're lazy, you can drop into West Willow from the upper eastern boundary of the Fetch. Such runs often have difficult snow and are rather short. Basically, they're for wimps who won't hike. In early spring, you may find corn snow on the southerly aspects.
Adventurous alpinists can continue S from Baldy's summit along the ridge ¾ mile to Little Willow Peak, which at 13,244 feet is Colorado's 443rd highest alp. From this lofty airee, skiers and boarders have descended a remarkable cirque E into Willow Creek. Who knows where they ended up after that, because descending Willow Creek leads you through a brush-choked maze which eventually ejects you at private land on T-Lazy-7 ranch, where the ranch hands make gelding snowmobile tour leaders out of trespassing backcountry skiers. If that sounds too charged with adrenaline, try the Little Willow couloir, which drops south from the saddle just east of the summit. Glisse the sweet part of the Couloir, then climb back up the mountain and follow the ridge back to the ski area.
If you're a true uberperson , run the ridge from Little Willow Peak to Willow Peak (at 13,336, Colorado's 364th highest mountain). From Willow Peak you can descend the famed Willow Couloir (S4), which many glisse alpinists have caught tempting views of from Highway 82, but few have attained. Again, getting back to civilization is problematic, and probably best accomplished by climbing back to the ridge
Route 6.1.11 Descents to East Snowmass Creek from Snowmass
Climb rating: Easier skins Ski rating: Advanced, S4 or greater Recommended seasons: Mid to late winter, and spring Starting elevation: NA Summit elevation: NA Elevation gain: NA Round trip distance: Day trip? Yes Map: Snowmass Resort Photo:
Some of the most dangerous, and sometimes the most interesting, backcountry descents at Snowmass Resort drop down the cliffy west wall of Baldy Ridge (see route 6.1.10) into East Snowmass Creek. The most logical of these is known as Kairns. Start from the top of the Cirque surface lift (12,310 feet). Traverse W, go through the ski area boundary, then drop off the edge of the earth at a bowl-like feature. This funnels down into a gully system, which gets narrower and more terrifying the deeper you go (an avalanche here would be certain death). The route eventually spits you out at 10,200 feet in East Snowmass Creek. Follow the drainage (use the summer trail when you can find it) back down to the ski area. For a mega tour, consider descending Kairns, climbing the east flank of Garrett Peak, then descending Garrett (see route 6.1.12).
But why be logical in Kairns? There are other descents into East Snowmass Creek. One winner, known as Sands, leaves the ski area boundary off to the side of the ski runs at 11,400 feet elevation. A number of other descents drop to East Snowmass Creek and are noted on the text map. Other than being guided by a local, the best way to find these is by map, altimeter, and instinct. Explore with care. Be ready to climb back out or rappel if you encounter cliffs.
There are several interesting descents west off Baldy Mountain into East Snowmass Creek. Summit Chute (S5-) leaves from, you guessed it, the summit. Several other routes drop from the ridge between Baldy and the Fetch. The most prominent of these are known as Baldy One and Two. See the text map for these.
Route 6.1.12 Garrett Peak
Climb rating: Harder skins Ski rating: S4- Recommended seasons: Mid to late winter, and spring Starting elevation: 8,310 feet Summit elevation: 12,808 feet Elevation gain: 4,498 feet Round trip distance: 8 miles Day trip? Yes Map: Snowmass Resort Photo:
If you work at Snowmass Resort, Garrett Peak is your nemesis. As you spend days making cartilage mush on bump runs and frying your brain on boring groom, all interspersed with card games or the pages of Louis L'Amour novels, your gaze will rise to Garrett Peak, which looms above the great rift of East Snowmass Creek like a seductive Olympian goddess.
Indulge your fantasies. The purist can climb Garrett without the use of ski lifts by starting at the Snowmass Creek Trailhead (see section introduction). The trick is to skin up the southernmost run of the ski area, then intersect an irrigation ditch at about 8,880 feet. Follow the ditch into the East Snowmass Creek drainage. The ditch will lead you to about 9,100 feet, where you then leave the valley and climb W up the timbered flanks of Garrett to the peak's north ridge. Follow the ridge to the summit. For the most avalanche safety you can descend your ascent route. If conditions warrant, a nice descent takes the gulch and bowl directly east from the summit. This route is best done on compacted spring snow.
During stable avalanche conditions you can also climb and ski Garrett by descending Cairns Gulch from Snowmass Resort (see 6.1.11?) to East Snowmass Creek, then climbing Garrett's east rib (to climber's left of the summit). Descend the rib, east gulch or northeast ridge.
Route 6.1.13 Willoughby Mountain
Climb rating: Harder skins Ski rating: S4- Recommended seasons: Mid to late winter, and spring Starting elevation: 8,310 feet Summit elevation: 13,142 Elevation gain: 4,832 feet Round trip distance: 10 miles Day trip? Yes Map: Snowmass Resort Photo:
Willoughby is the next major peak on the ridge south of Garrett. Just as Garrett draws your attention, Willoughby is also a tempter when viewed from the Snowmass ski lifts. You can glisse Willoughby by climbing a long slog from the Snowmass Creek Trailhead (see section introduction) to 11,200 feet in East Snowmass Creek, then climbing obvious bowls or ribs to the summit. It's also common for alpinists to reach the base of Willoughby via descents from Snowmass Ski Area into East Snowmass Creek (see 6.1.11).