Sheer drop offs; to the west a mere 1,000 feet, to the east several thousand; wind whipping up the driving snow; temperature a chill 8 degrees Fahrenheit. "Are we having fun yet?" A typical winter's day on the infamous knife-edge ridge of Capitol Peak.
Jonathan and Bill passed the greatest difficulties of a winter ascent of Capitol Peak (the knife-edge ridge) only to be forced into retreat by the clock. Laila and I had opted out shortly beforehand when Laila's hands and feet went numb while waiting in the belay "pipeline" in the extreme conditions.
The idea to climb Capitol Peak in a one-day assault from the road first germinated in my mind when I read in Lou Dawson's Guide to Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks that no one had ever done it. Immediately I thought, "I could do that!" After all it was only 16 miles round trip, 5,800 feet elevation gain.
Having now tried Capitol three times in three successive winters, I have gained a respectful appreciation for just how formidable a task a one-day ascent really is. Two years ago I tried it from the Snowmass Creek side on New Year's Day, alone with my wolfdog, Sam. When he disappeared shortly after dawn I had little choice but to wait for his return. Four and a half hours later he slunk back guiltily and exhausted. I was forced to abandon the climb due to lack of daylight hours. Even so, I had never located the trail, or even found a way up from Snowmass Creek. A little over a year ago, I again tried it on December 22, 1999, from the Capitol Creek side along with Kelly Bates. We left at midnight under the largest full moon in 100 years. In the soft corn snow typical of early season we floundered and struggled through deadfall only to give up after seven hours of drudgery, shortly after dawn. We were cold, the temperature hung steady at 5F, and our spirits sank as we saw snow plumes spirally off the mountain-indicating high winds. So we turned around.
For this year's attempt I enlisted a tough, highly fit crew. Jonathan Cavner and Bill Lhotta had also read Dawson's observation of no one completing a one-day ascent of the peak in winter as a challenge. When I suggested the idea of their trying it with me they were enthusiastic. To round out the team I invited my girlfriend, Laila, the passionate Spanish lady-a strong climber with ultra marathon endurance.
On my previous winter attempts I had started early in winter, reasoning that there would be less snow pack. This time I decided that late in the winter might be better; the snow would have had time to consolidate, and also there would be at least three more hours of daylight.
All week we tracked the changing weather reports for Aspen, nearest large town to Capitol, and monitored avalanche conditions for the area as well. Early in the week it didn't look promising-they were calling for snow Friday, Saturday, and Sunday! Our plan called for packing the trail and route finding to Moon Lake, elevation 11,750' on Saturday, then completing the climb on Sunday. As the week wore on the weather report changed daily, until ultimately it looked like snow on Saturday and partly cloudy skies for Sunday. Not ideal, but prospects seemed to be improving.
Friday night Bill's fiancie's sister's graciously put us up for the night at her place in Glenwood Springs. At 0930 Saturday morning following a hearty breakfast at the Red Rock Diner in Carbondale we were marching up the 8/10 of a mile road segment closed to motor vehicles in winter. At road end well-groomed trails beckoned us onto Snowmass Ranch. This is private property and one should request permission before using this approach. It does save a horrific crossing over Snowmass Creek later on, however. A mile or so later we were surprised to see a dog team approaching from behind us, then another, then another-- until eight or ten teams were circling around the maze of groomed trails. The small huskies took an interest in Sam the wolfdog, and once almost pulled the sled off track.
We had decided on making our attempt from the Snowmass Creek side at Bill's prompting. Snowmass Creek offered less elevation gain, and > mile less distance each way. On the other hand, the trail was spotty according to Jonathan, who had climbed Capitol in summer using this route a couple years ago. In winter the condition of the trail is less important, and Bill guaranteed to keep us on course using his GPS.
The first test for the GPS led us slightly astray, however, when Bill directed us too far southwest in the open field directly west of Snowmass Creek. This was the same place I had not been able to find the trail two years ago. When his GPS told us to turn directly west we looked up into deadfall and no apparent trail. Prudently we backtracked to where the trail was evident. Indeed someone had packed the trail--a welcome development. Switch backing up through mixed pine and aspen, the trail went up the left side of the drainage. After > mile we had a choice of switch backing to the right and staying in the left side of the drainage or staying left and passing into the next ravine. Here the GPS really shined as it told us unequivocally to move left. With the softening snow clinging annoyingly to our snowshoes we found ourselves stopping at every tree to knock it off. Bill, especially had problems with his new Sherpa snowshoes.
Soon, we passed into an open field where we noticed the packed trail diverted into an apparent campsite. Not long afterward the packed trail had disappeared altogether. I guess that is where our trailblazing benefactors had given up their expedition. We had many more miles to go both this day and the next.
With no packed trail to guide us Jonathan in the lead began angling up the right side of the ravine. Soon we were on steep slopes-difficult to continue on. Looking down into the ravine we espied what we thought looked like the trail. Backtracking we adjusted our course to up the middle of the ravine.
Plodding steadily upwards we next came on an apparent impasse of deadfall and dense trees in the ravine center. Moving left we found ourselves ascending an avalanche chute. Too high it seemed, so we began moving right to stay in the ravine, only to realize we would have to give up all of our hard earned elevation to avoid impending cliffs. Up and down, it was a good thing we were doing our route finding on this day rather than on the climb day.
The way up grew ever steeper until ultimately, as I led the group, in order to ascend to the next level I found myself floundering waste deep in snow and forced to wade on elbows and knees to maintain upward momentum. Snow spit from the sky intermittently; increasing in intensity the higher we climbed.
We pushed on with one eye on the clock as the hour approached 4 P.M. Six hours and fifteen minutes after leaving our vehicles that morning we reached Moon Lake, elevation 11,750'. We stashed crampons, ice tools and other gear (I left my entire pack) in a cavity below a large rock. Jonathan, Laila, Sam and I set forth ahead of Bill while he put on his skis. Not long afterward he swooshed past us. By following his fall line down mountain we avoided our up hill errors and packed a true and easy course for the next day's endeavors.
With no rest breaks, Jonathan, Laila and I made it back to the vehicles in two hours and 45 minutes-shortly after sundown. Bill was already comfortable in his sleeping bag and cooking dinner in the back of his Outback, having completed the return in an hour and 45 minutes. Still, he ultimately decided it wasn't worth hauling the nine extra pounds of skis and boots up again the next day and had determined that it was not feasible to "skin" up to Moon Lake on his skis. Having left his snowshoes up at Moon Lake he decided to go up without snowshoes or skis the next day. Luckily, Jonathan had an extra pair of snowshoes, because despite Bill's thoughts that it was doable without, the rest of us had our doubts.
When Bill asked what time we wanted to start in the morning I volunteered, "4 A.M". Bill suggested 3 A.M., which we settled on. The next morning up and moving shortly after 2 A.M., we ultimately got the train rolling down the tracks at 3:30. The sky overhead was clear and starry, the temperature a mild 28 degrees.
Within an hour the stars disappeared and it began to snow. Not to worry, after all the weather forecast was for partly cloudy skies-no call for snow. Surely this would not last. Sadly it did. There were only brief respites from the white stuff for the remainder of the climb. The snow was with us for the duration.
Keeping to our well-laid track from the previous day we reached Moon Lake in four hours, forty-five minutes-a full hour and a half faster than the day before. The best thing about our strategy of packing the trail the day before lay in being able to hike quickly and with no route finding time wasting in the pre-dawn hours.
It was close to 9 A.M. when we had assembled our gear for the push beyond Moon Lake. The snow continued with only brief letups. Moving first around the right side of the lake we went left around a prominent buttress then up a steep snow slope to the basin below Daly Pass-the route from the other side via Capitol Creek. Now we were all on familiar ground. Winding first left up the valley the route then bends right and climbs steadily up the slopes of K2. Stopping for a short pause to replenish with energy bars, finishing before Jonathan and Bill I started up with Laila directly behind. Occasionally, glimpses of K2's summit tantalized through the misty veil.
Nearing K2's summit the ridgeline narrowed until the exposure on either side dropped off hundreds of feet. Sam whined, then retreated a hundred feet to await the outcome of these foolish human endeavors. On a narrow snow ledge we began the arduous task of donning crampons. I struggled with Laila's strap-on crampons in high-altitude befuddlement and stinging cold. We broke out the rope for protection. By the time we had prepared to continue it was well past 1 P.M. Jonathan belayed Bill up one short pitch where he established an ice ax belay point and brought up Laila. I followed closely behind tied into the same rope. When Bill greeted me with "Laila says she's cold and it's only going to get worse up here." I immediately made the decision for Laila and I to turn around. With the daylight hours shrinking rapidly I knew that with all four of us on one rope the likelihood of all of us reaching the summit was dim. Down climbing to Jonathan I wished him and Bill luck and asked, "What's your turn around time?" The last thing they wanted was to still be on the knife-ridge after nightfall.
After another 20 minutes of exchanging crampons for snowshoes Laila and I started for Moon Lake and the long trek back. I glanced back for a last image of Jonathan dancing in place to keep warm as he belayed Bill from below. I thought they are going too slow. They won't make it at that rate.
Jonathan reported the rest of their ascent as follows:
"On the first lead I had some route-finding problems and ended up climbing to the top of K2 thinking it was the ridge. I was forced to back track and drop down on steep snow to circumvent K2 and gain the ridge proper.
"The weather was becoming increasingly worse. Blizzard conditions at times prevented us from seeing more than 20 feet in either direction.
"The knife-edge ridge was much more technical than I expected. Sheer drop offs on either side described it. The east side featured a several thousand-foot drop; the west side a mere thousand feet. The snow was unstable. Kicking steps triggered small spindrift avalanches off the face. Cornices were a big threat. Had to be careful to look on both sides of the ridge to make sure you weren't going to step through a cornice into oblivion. The climbing alternated from kicking steps on either side of the ridge, straddling the ridge, and dry tooling rock. I definitely wish that I had brought some rock gear. The pickets were sketchy at best. Additionally, we had so few of them (three) that we were forced to belay with only our ice axes as protection.
"On the next lead Bill kicked steps on the east side and on the top of the ridge. The weather would clear for a moment exposing tantalizing glimpses of the summit in the distance. "This is intense crap" was said more than a few times by both of us. The following lead was mixed rock and snow climbing over a small pinnacle and some more airy ridge climbing. On the next pitch Bill continued ridge climbing with a scary section of mixed rock and snow. At that point I looked at my watch and it read 3:30. We both decided it would take at least another 1:30 to summit and another couple hours to climb back across the ridge. This would leave us on the ridge after dark. This we were not willing to risk.
"On the way back across the ridge, we retraced our steps continuing to protect ourselves as best as possible under the conditions and with our minimal gear.
"At the end of the ridge proper as I belayed Bill towards me I reached back to steady myself against the snow behind me. BOOM! A large piece of cornice broke and fell from beneath my hand! As it tumbled down the East face for thousands of feet I lunged forward to avoid going down with it. Wow! That was close.
"We soon reached the spot where we had left our packs, which ended the technical section of the climb. The weather had become worse and I had a tough time keeping my hands warm. My goggles had fogged up and I had to choose between keeping the snow out of my eyes and being able to see to get off the mountain. With another foot of snow since we had begun climbing the ridge our tracks had disappeared from existence. We continued down to find our tracks shortly before reaching Moon Lake. Arriving at our stash and feeling extremely dehydrated I guzzled as much slush as I could."
Stay tuned for next year's attempt! We will keep trying until we get the deed completed!
New lessons learned: (1) bring two ropes (2) more rock gear for protection (3) start at midnight (4) build in at least one more "weather day"