Date: 16 Aug 2003
Route: Ascent: Northeast Ridge From K2; West Snowmass Creek Approach To Moon Lake; Descent: Same
Difficulty: Class 1 and Class 2 on Approach; Class 3 from Moon Lake to K2; Class 4 from K2 to Summit
Elevation: Base: 8,400 (est) at Snowmass Creek Trailhead; Camp @ Moon Lake was at 11,000; Summit: 14,130; Elevation Gain: 5,800 (from trailhead)
Distance: Snowmass Creek Trailhead to Summit: 8.5 miles; Summit to Camp on Night 2: 10 miles (est); Total Distance: 18.5 miles in two days (est)
Route: This was the first leg of a two-leg trip over four days that would allow us to summit both Capitol Peak and Snowmass Mountain. We drove from Colorado Springs to the Snowmass Creek trailhead on Friday, 15 Aug 2003. We immediately geared up and departed the trailhead at 1300. There is now an access pass system in use at the trailhead and all parties must register at a box and put a tag on their gear. The route to Moon Lake is accurately described by both Roach and Dawson. The trail was uneventful until we reached the intersection of the Snowmass Creek trail and the trail that follows West Snowmass Creek towards Haystack Mountain. There is a sign at the intersection.
At that point we had to cross Snowmass Creek, which we negotiated by wading with bare feet kind of slow and cold. Once across the creek, we used the existing trail through private land to move towards the west. We cached two bags with food and clothes in some aspen trees a few hundred meters west of the creek, because we knew we would be coming back over the same route the next day to move into position to take Snowmass Mountain.
We followed the trail as described in the guidebooks and then hooked a left and began bushwhacking up the West Snowmass Creek drainage. Once across the south side of West Snowmass Creek, there is in fact a faint trail, but considerable downed timber make this route slow go at best. We never really worked a continuous trail, we just kept the creek to our right, and worked through the dense vegetation. Because of rain, we were soaked. Ponchos are a good bet for the Elk Mountains in August, regardless of how sunny it seems. We remained on the south side of the creek the entire route up. Just as evening neared, and we approach timberline heavy rain, hail, and most importantly lightning and thunder greeted us. We surveyed the immediate area and found a delightful campsite within 100 feet of the creek, just above the first headwall and talus field. We estimated this campsite to be at 11,200. There is an obvious path from this campsite up the next headwall and into the talus fields that surround Moon Lake itself.
There are no campsites at Moon Lake proper. But the place we picked was sweet! Great site; great fire; great whiskey, and an okay sleep were found at the site we selected at the forest near the creek at 11,200. We departed for Capitol Peak at 0730 the next morning. Route was almost entirely characterized by talus climbing over Class 3 pitches up to K2. No snow present to speak of. Good conditions in the early morning. Moon Lake was beautiful. Slight breeze. We continued west past Moon Lake, and then hooked a hard left and climbed due south once we were in the bowl between Mount Daly and K2. Mount Daly is a good landmark to use for navigation throughout the entire trip. The broad diagonal band of flesh-colored rock on its east face is unmistakable from any other mountains. We gained the summit of K2 at 1000. We met some CMC folks who had aborted the climb on the other side of the Knife Edge. Don't know why.
We then traversed the Knife Edge and the continuing NE ridge as described. The route is very well-marked with cairns. The rock is pleasantly solid compared to Maroon Bells and Pyramid. Class 4 climbing on final approach to summit was exciting. Plenty of exposure on both sides of the ridge in places, but a yawner in others. Nothing too bad from a ledge standpoint though. Knife Edge was rather pedestrian, I thought. My opinion is that the ledges on the final pitch of Mount Eolus required much more complex route finding and offered less room than anything Capitol challenged us with, but that's just my opinion.
We gained the summit of Capitol at 1200. We ate a quick lunch, took photos and then began our descent at 1230. We were back to K2 and across the Knife Edge by 1400. Then the weather broke loose and continuous rain, lightning and thunder accompanied us all the way down to Moon Lake. The granite talus was very slippery when wet and it took a good long while to return to camp. We arrived at camp at 1530, rested briefly and then decamped at 1700.
On our return trip out of the West Snowmass Creek drainage, we initially took the faint path along the south side, just as we had down the day before. But at approximately 10,500, there is an intermittent stream that flows almost due east into the creek, which comes down the middle of a broad avalanche gully to the west. Right on the other side of West Snowmass Creek, is the start of a much better, and easily hiked trail that goes along the NORTH side of the creek. This is a much better route than that suggested in the guidebooks, and it shaved considerable time off of our trip out. This trail is rough in places, and goes through marshy areas, but is the preferred route, in my estimation. It ends in dense timber with many deadfalls, and one has to bushwhack the last few hundred meters to tie into the Haystack Mountain trail. I imagine that is why it is not described; because it is difficult to find coming into the valley. But it's definitely the way to go out of the valley.
Once on the main trail, we moved out quickly to recover our cache before nightfall. We just made it at 2030 hours. We were soaked to the skin, so we just crossed back over to the east side of Snowmass Creek with our boots and socks on, and then headed south along the trail to Snowmass Lake to find a field expedient campsite. Soaking wet, with just our headlamps glaring in the rain, we found a suitable place to crash at 2200. What a day. We were beat, but felt as though we had accomplished much. We saw at least a dozen other climbers abort there attempt of Capitol on the final leg, for one reason or another. We preserved; it had been a good day.
Conditions: Weather Intermittent rain the entire time; overcast and dry during the climb from K2 to the summit and back; heavy rain on the down climb from K2 to Moon Lake; considerable electricity
Climbing Companions: Mitchell Ackermann