Mount Sopris Backcountry Skiing - Chapter 4

Elk Mountains Ridge Traverse -- Sopris to Capitol Peak and Beyond

 

Climb rating: Harder skins and Advanced snow climbing
Ski rating: Advanced
Recommended seasons: Early spring
Starting elevation: 8,110 feet
Summit elevation: 12,453 feet
Elevation gain: Minimum approximately 7,000 feet
Distance: 25 miles
Day trip? Probably not, due to snowpack concerns during spring warmth.

In the first mountaineering guide to Colorado's fourteeners, John Hart wrote that the "Elk Mountains are among the most startling both in form and color in the United States." So true, and the Elk Mountains Ridge Traverse places you in the heart of the Elks, thus yielding the breathtaking vistas Hart so fondly wrote about more than 60 years ago. Though seldom done, this high sojourn is considered a classic. In addition to lots of miles above the timber, several rock scrambles give variety, and you might even get a few ski descents in the bargain.

Below, the line of Elk Mountains Ridge is rather tempting when viewed from high ground in Aspen area.

Elk Mountains Ridge viewed from east.

Since this author and friends pioneered the route as a ski trip in the 1970s, the line has been done multiple times in various styles. Usually, individuals have timed a trip with spring corn season and had wonderful experiences. While the original trips were done in March during a winter snowpack, doing so is not recommended.

Spring snow season: Park at the West Sopris Creek Trailhead and ski climb to the lower subsidiary East Summit (12,453 feet) of Mount Sopris. Drop S down easy ground to Bull Saddle (11,720 feet).

Alternativly, you can start Elk Mountains Ridge from the true Sopris East Summit, or skip Sopris and simply begin at Bull Saddle. (Amusing to think, during our attempts in the 1980s we usually ended up making our first camp at Bull Saddle, due to the lengthy ski approach up snow covered roads.)

Continue S from Bill Saddle for a short distance along the ridge to a large bastion of scree and rock outcroppings (Point 11,874). Take this via a scree slope on the left, sans skis. From the summit of Point 11,874, ski the ridge crest for ½ mile to the base of an obvious arete that's been fondly dubbed "Little Matterhorn." This little gem involves another short scramble.

 

Christiana Peak
The author (Lou) breaking trail up Christiana Peak during 1982 Elk Mountains Traverse, March.

 

Just past the Matterhorn is the broad, somewhat flat and eminently skiable (provided it's not wind scoured) portion of the Elk Mountains Ridge. Follow this section for about seven miles to Point 12,878 (about 1 ¼ miles northwest of Capitol Lake); this point is known as Christiana Peak. Drop down the south shoulder of Christiana Peak and intersect the first saddle to the south. From the saddle, drop into the bowl to the northwest (if the snow is safe from avalanches) toward the Capitol Creek Drainage. Ski to about 12,000 feet in the bowl, then climb over a small ridge that forms the east side of the bowl. From the crest of the small ridge, combine a bit of easterly traversing with skiing on small bowls and slopes that lead you to a point just below the small knob to the north of the Capitol Lake outlet. Return to civilization via Capitol Creek, or for extended adventure, head over Daly Pass to Moon Lake and then down Snowmass Creek.

(Below, John Isaacs decends east side of Daly Pass during 1982 Elks Traverse, Sopris to Ashcroft.)

Descendng Daly Pass.

Another option is to attempt a complete traverse of the Elk Mountains by finishing at Ashcroft. You can do this in various ways. This author did so by heading up to Snowmass Lake, then over Buckskin Pass. The route continued to Gothic, then to Conundrum Hot Springs to finish by climbing Castle Peak then descending to Ashcroft.

If your descent to Capitol Creek is blocked by avalanche danger, you can descend a series of rocky ribs on the east face of Christiana Peak. Once in

the less steep part of the bowl, descend to where the two intermittent streams combine (about 11,640 feet ), then ski a sparsely-treed headwall on the south side of the creek, eventually hitting the valley about ¾ mile below Capitol Lake.

Elk Mountains Ridge viewed from Mount Sopris.

 

Sheltered camping spots on the Elk Mountains Ridge are sparse. Bull Saddle is a good place for a snowcave or bivvy in leeward locations, and occasional areas offer shelter from the wind. Several spots on the high ridge hold enough snow for caving, but in many places the snow is too thin for such shelter. In case of retreat, the two best routes down from the ridge are off Bull Saddle and back to the Dinkle Lake Road, or down the packtrail to the south of Williams Lake. Note that nailing Elk Mountains Ridge requires excellent orienteering skills, dexterity with hand and foot rock scrambling, and a high level of fitness -- not to mention avalanche safety expertise.