Capitol Peak - Chapter 6 Section 2

(See Chapter Introduction for trailhead information.)

Though Snowmass Mountain and Capitol Peak stud the same massif, these are quite different mountains. Capitol is a monolith more attractive for snow and rock climbing than for skiing, while Snowmass presides over the huge snowbowl that provides its name, and is one of the most sought after ski descents in the Elk Mountains. Snowmass Mountain is one of the  Elk's easiest summer fourteener climb -- Capitol Peak is technically the hardest. But with it's relatively solid rock, Capitol's technical problems seem tame in comparison to the tottering boulders of other Elk’s fourteeners such as Pyramid Peak.

[lou, 06-13-05]Alpinists can take their pick from a number of interesting lines on Capitol. A good technical route, with a rock climbng rating of 5.9, takes the peak's northwest buttress via a crack system leading to a steep arete. The peak's north face directisima is seldom climbed -- it's too loose. A less direct and more popular route, known as the Y Couloir, takes the right side of the north face via an icy couloir and several rock pitches. Many a local alpinist has tasted their first mixed climbing on this classic, which was first climbed in 1937 by well known Colorado pioneer Carl Blaurock. One caveat: though routes on Capitol might be termed "solid" relative to other Elk Range peaks, they still have much rockfall danger. Wear a helmet, belay and take rest breaks under protective outcrops, and be aware of climbers above and below you.

[lou, 06-13-05]While winter climbing on Capitol will never be as popular as it is on more accessible fourteeners, the peak has had many winter ascents. Fritz Stammberger and Gordon Whitmer made what is perhaps the boldest of Capitol's arctic firsts. In 1972 they climbed the direct North Face route in them middle of winter, bivouacked on the summit, and descended the next day. While others have challenged the wintry "nordwand," most use the Knife Ridge for a winter route. After a dry spell in march, it's possible to safely ski up the Moon Lake drainage, crampon firm snow across the Knife, then enjoy a ski run from "K2" to your car. One of Capitol’s interesting winter “firsts” is a one-day (within 24 hour period) ascent from car to car. This was first attempted in 1991 when Michael Kennedy did a one-day climb in March, but missed calendar winter by a few days. While the feat may have been accomplished other times since then, a well documented winter one-day was done on March 13, 2004 by Bryan Lechner, Matt Montgomery and Ken Cockrum. According to Lechner, “After running out of water and food, a lot of stumbling, and the most torturous last 1 ½ miles of dirt road in my life, we made it back to the cars by 10:30 pm, 22 hours after starting.”

Capitol Peak - Knife Ridge

[lou, 06-13-05, use existing data block, ski rating Extreme D16]

[lou, 06-13-05]In any season, with a standard route that's somewhat harder than the usual fourteener, Capitol peak is an enjoyable challenge for rock or snow climbers. For skiers, the peak has too many cliff bands to be of interest to anyone but the extremist who's willing to link turns on 50 degree slopes above the cliffs (though it’s possible to do a ski descent when the Knife Ridge is widened by a winter cornice.) Intermediate level skiers enjoy the fabulous cruise from "K2" down into Moon Lake Basin.

[lou, 06-13-05]The standard Capitol Peak route for all seasons is the famous Knife Ridge. This thin arete makes an excellent snow climb in the early spring, and summer scramblers enjoy it as well. It's a cruise for expert climbers, but most novices should be protected by a rope while they dance on the edge. This route is feasible in winter, but many groups fail due to slow rope-work and inclement weather. Thus, a winter ascent of Capitol is something you can be proud of. In winter and spring most parties work from a high camp in the Moon Lake area, though it is possible to do the whole trip in one push.

[lou, 06-13-05]It is more expedient and less crowded to climb this route from the Snowmass Creek Trailhead and Moon Lake. Nonetheless, many people do it from the Capitol Creek Trailhead by camping at Capitol Lake, then joining the route above Moon Lake by hiking a CFI improved trail over Daly Pass (12,480’), the low-point between Mount Daly and Capitol Peak. (See route 4.1.2 for the Capitol Creek to Capitol Lake approach.)

[lou, 06-13-05]Summer after snow melt-off: The route to the Moon Lake area follows a trail through dense timber and patchy meadows. You take a well defined cut for 3 miles to 9,800’, then leave the main trail for a less obvious path up to Moon Lake (11,760’).

[lou, 06-13-05]In detail, park at the Snowmass Creek Trailhead (section introduction.) Hike up the Snowmass Creek valley, pass the famous beaver ponds, and cross Snowmass Creek somewhere within 1/4 mile of the Snowmass Creek -- West Snowmass Creek confluence. During spring spate this crossing can be hairy.

[lou, 06-13-05]After you cross the creek, walk up through the aspen forest on the right (N) side of West Snowmass Creek. Take care to find the trail-cut through the aspen forest as it switchbacks up several steep hillsides, then crosses a ravine at 9,160’. Be sure you're on the trail; any other route across the ravine involves unpleasant bushwhacking. After crossing the ravine, the route follows the NW side of the valley to 9,800’.

[lou, 06-13-05]At approximately 9,800’ you'll reach a large meadow. From here you leave the main pack trail, which heads up the mountainside west to Haystack Mountain, and forge a route on an "un-improved" trail. Stay to the west of the creek for about 1/2 mile, then cross to the east side of the creek as the valley narrows and steepens. Loop away from the creek as you climb up the valley, then traverse back into the drainage on a shelf at timberline (11,150’.) Follow the drainage from timberline to Moon Lake (11,760’.) You'll find good camping at the lower lakes, reach these by continuing W from the 11,150 foot shelf just below timberline.

[lou, 06-13-05]From Moon Lake or the upper of the smaller lakes, continue up the drainage, traverse the south side of an obvious depression, then climb the spectacular north facing basin to point 13,664’ on Capitol's north ridge. This bump, which is your last break before the hand-and-foot climbing starts, is known as "K2."

[lou, 06-13-05]Drop down K2 for a short distance, then shimmy or balance walk the knife ridge for 150 feet. With the Knife Ridge behind you, continue up obvious scramble climbing to the summit. In general, work the east side (climber's left) of the summit ridge. Descend your ascent route.

[lou, 06-13-05]Spring snow season: Use the summer route above with the following variations. To avoid the stream crossing, if you can obtain permission cross Snowmass Creek using the bridge at the ranch (calibrate your altimeter here to 8,380’) ski up valley through the log corrals, then follow the south (creek) side of a fence that parallels the creek for about a quarter mile and leads to open meadows. Cross the meadows and intersect the summer route up through the aspen forest.

[lou, 06-13-05]After crossing the ravine at 9,160’, follow the northwest side of the valley, using the trail-cut, to 9,800’. The important thing to remember about the trail to this point is that you'll find more open, easily traveled timber on the northwest side of the valley, while the timber in mid-valley and on the southeast side of the creek is extremely tight. So, if you're in doubt about the trail, or encounter difficult bushwhacking, work to the northwest and things will get easier.

[lou, 06-13-05]At about 9,800’ you'll ski into a large meadow. From here you forge your own trail the rest of the way to Moon Lake and beyond. Cross to the upper NW corner of the meadow. Enter the forest here, and ski though light timber directly up the valley until you encounter the creek bed. Cross to the left (E) side of the creek. From here on, if you are traveling during very low avalanche hazard and compacted snow, following the creek bed (if it is full of snow) makes a good route up and back from just below Moon Lake. Even with less snow, stick with the creek if possible.

[lou, 06-13-05]If avalanche danger requires hazard avoidance, leave the creek bed to avoid exposure to steep banks on the north side of the ravine. These hazards are obvious. At 10,120’ you'll enter a large cleared area resulting from avalanches off the east face of Mount Daly. Again, with safe conditions, continue up the creek bed; or if slide hazard warrants, leave the creek bed and work left through heavy timber, then do a climbing traverse to intersect the drainage gut at 11,150’. By staying high on the east side of the valley, and utilizing dense timber, you avoid an avalanche-prone headwall. From 11,150’ follow the main drain to 11,600 just below Moon Lake. Here, instead of following the actual creek, take a more direct line up to the lake.

[lou, 06-13-05]Continue to K2 per the summer route. Leave your skis or snowshoes at K2 (or keep your skis if you intend a summit ski descent). Take the summer route to the summit. If easterly snow slopes on the summer route appear hazardous, you can stick to the ridge and climb a 5.3 technical rock pitch up the last section to the summit. For a ski descent pick a day in early spring after a heavy snow year. Ski before late morning to avoid thawing snow on eastern aspects common to the route. Drop S of the summit for 20 or 30’, then traverse to the east face. Ski a 50 degree gully for 150 or 200 feet, then do a series of traverses to the knife ridge. With heavy cornicing the ridge is skiable all the way into the K2 notch, where you then walk or sidestep a few feet up over K2, and complete your descent down the bowls to Moon Lake. Snow conditions vary greatly from year to year, so plan your descent route during your ascent. Consider belaying while climbing and skiing, since most of the route passes above cliffs.

[lou, 06-13-05]Winter: This is a challenging, but feasible winter route. Use the spring route described above. Plan on a high camp, and be willing to turn back if avalanche conditions dictate doing so.

[lou, 06-13-05]Safety notes: Only experienced fourteener climbers, or those with a guide, should attempt Capitol Peak. Carry a rope and know how to use it. Snow seasons: The route to Moon Lake does not pass over any avalanche starting zones, but it does pass through runouts. Travel during times of lesser hazard. The basin below K2 has several lower-angled starting zones that slide on occasion, but are usually wind-packed or scoured. Use caution here. From K2 to the summit the snow is usually very wind-scoured, but belay if you're in doubt. During spring snow season, remember that the route past K2 faces east, with the poor snow conditions characteristic of that aspect. Be there early, and use standard sunrise for sunhit.


Capitol Peak - North Face via Slingshot Couloir

[lou, 06-13-05, use existing data block, not rated for skiing]

[lou, 06-13-05]This technical rock and snow route can be considered a classic because of it's longevity. It was first climbed in 1937 by a group that included the indomitable Carl Blaurock. What tends to diminish the route's standing is it's abundant rockfall, both from natural causes and climbers above. Perhaps a better "classic" is the Northwest Buttress route (4.1.3). At any rate, many climbers have tasted their first alpine mixed climbing on the Slingshot Couloir, and doubtless many will continue to do so. Wear your helmet.

[lou, 06-13-05]Summer or late spring: Drive to the Capitol Creek Trailhead (section introduction.)  From the trailhead, take the Capitol Lake trail as it drops south 420 vertical feet into the Capitol Creek Drainage, then climbs a beaten path 5 miles to Capitol Lake (11,600’). While fit and experienced climbers have done this route in one push, most people camp near Capitol Lake. It’s possible to avoid the 420 foot drop into the drainage by following an irrigation ditch around the west side of the drainage. This option works for most people if they’re traveling light and can deal with a bit of brush and off-trail hiking. Otherwise, use the standard trail.

[lou, 06-13-05]While you sip tea in the sunset at Capitol Lake, study Capitol's north face. To the right of the face is the majestic Northwest Buttress, which drops to the pass at the head of the valley. The feature that defines your route is the slingshot shaped couloir system on the Northwest Buttress, to the right of the huge north face. The north face is going to catch your eye and whet your appetite. Just so you don't get tempted, the directisima on the North Face was first climbed in the winter of 1972 by Fritz Stammberger and Gordon Whitmer. Stammberger knew that the face had too much rubble for summer climbing, and his winter strategy gained him one of Colorado's plumb winter ascents. The first winter ascent of the Slingshot Couloir was done the next winter by this author and Michael Kennedy, via a direct variation up the left arm of the Slingshot, then up the North Face to a saddle just to the west of the summit cone (then up to the summit).

[lou, 06-13-05]For the standard route, hike around the west side of Capitol Lake (use the pack trail where appropriate), and continue up boulders and talus (or snow) to the bottom of the Slingshot. Climb the Slingshot via the right arm (crampons and ax), then trend up and left though a series of ledges, interspersed with steeper hand-and-foot climbing up to 5.7 in difficulty. As you near the crest of the buttress the climbing eases in difficulty but stays loose and dangerous. Stick with the Northwest Buttress to the summit, generally staying to the left of any obstacles. Use the Knife Ridge route for your descent, with a return over Daly Pass, the low-point between Mount Daly and Capitol. Remember, you'll have about 400 vertical feet of work back up to Daly Pass.

[lou, 06-13-05]Safety notes: As with many of the fourteener face routes, it's best that at least one party member has previously climbed the descent route, in this case the Knife Ridge. You'll need a rope, rock hardware, crampons and ice ax. Your leader should be comfortable with 5.7 rock climbing, and all party members should be capable of deft movement over extremely loose rock. The Slingshot Couloir gets little sun, but don’t let yourself be deceived – you’ll want to start early anyway to you have time for technical climbing. There is extreme rockfall danger in the couloir.


Capitol Peak - Northwest Buttress

[lou, 06-13-05, use existing data block, not rated for skiing]

[lou, 06-13-05]This is one of the best technical routes on the Elk Range fourteeners. Nonetheless it is a loose, dangerous route -- only expert mountaineers should attempt it.

[lou, 06-13-05]Summer or late spring: From the Capitol Creek Trailhead (section introduction), follow the directions in route 4.1.2 to Capitol Lake. Continue S on the pack trail around the west side of the lake, then follow the trail 1/2 mile up to Capitol Pass (12,080’.) Leave the trail at the pass and make a short approach SE up the ridge to the base of the buttress. Traverse about 30’ left on a ledge to the base of an obvious crack system leading to a chimney.

[lou, 06-13-05]Climb the crack system (the crux of the route at 5.9) to the chimney. Do this as one pitch so your belayer is not exposed to rockfall by being stuck in the middle of the face below the chimney. Climb the chimney. After the chimney, the route follows an obscure but easy line 400 feet through a low-angled slab area. After the slabs work to the right of Unicorn Spire, then climb to the right of a prominent arete that connects Unicorn Spire with another rotten spire. Cross to the left side of the rotten spire, then climb 3 pitches (about 150’ each) to a small saddle on the ridge proper. From the saddle, climb several 5.7 pitches to the summit. The upper part of this route follows the same line as the Slingshot Couloir route(4.1.2). Descend the Knife Ridge(route 4.1.1).

[lou, 06-13-05]Safety notes: Several people have been rescued off this route after being hosed by falling rock. For your descent, at least one party member should be familiar with the Knife Ridge (route 4.1.1).