Capitol Peak

15-17 Jul 2002 - by Chris Long

As with most of my plans, this trip started out pretty ambitiously. Tracey was on vacation and wanted to climb a fourteener somewhere. We matched up the mountains we both had done so we could select one we both hadn't done. We thought of something in the San Juans, but decided to stay away from the fire in Durango. We next decided to go to the Sangre De Cristos. Most of the Sangres are in the San Isabel National Forest, which was closed due to fire danger. The Sawatch Range was also in the San Isabel NF.

Finally we came to the Elks range. Neither of us had done anything in this range and there were no fires in the area. Here is where the ambitious part comes in. I was looking at the maps of Snowmass and Capitol and noticed that they were connected by a ridge and were only a couple of miles apart. After checking the routes on both of them I figured that if we started at the Snowmass Creek trailhead, we could climb Capitol, then take the ridge to Snowmass, go down to Snowmass Lake and finally, follow the Snowmass Creek trail back to the truck. We could do all of this over 3 or 4 days. Looked pretty good on paper. After searching on the Internet for about an hour, I could only find one reference to anyone having done the ridge. He did not give any details about the ridge, but at least I knew it could be done. Ever hear the phrase, my eyes were bigger than my stomach? Seems fitting here.

Day 1 We left a little late and had some difficulties finding the right way to the trailhead. We ended up going through Snowmass Village instead of Old Snowmass. We took Brush Creek Rd to Divide Rd to the dirt road signed Ditch trail. Go straight at the next intersection and youre there. We arrived at about 5 pm and were on the trail in 30 minutes. My pack weight for 3 days including sleeping bag, bivy sack, a 40-meter rope and some nuts and biners was just under 30 pounds and it felt great. I figured 5 miles would get us to Moon Lake where we would camp for the night.

After about a mile, we came to the trail junction that would take us to Moon Lake. It looked different than the map showed it, but the terrain looked the same. There was a river crossing, which we expected. I tried to cross on rocks without taking my shoes off, but ended up getting a little wet. I stopped on a gravel bar in the middle of the river and took my shoes off. I finished the crossing bare foot and the water was cold! I got to the other side and dried off. Tracey changed to flip flops for the crossing and she was ready to go before I was.

We headed up the trail, which seemed to be still different from the map. It was taking us to the same place, just in a different way. There was a group of about 20 or so cows on the trail. We apparently were scaring them, and they would run away from us, but on the trail. One cow was having some bowel problems and left us a little green squirt on the trail every few feet. After following the cows for awhile, they finally headed up a drainage and the trail turned left.

We came to another junction. To the right was the trail for Haystack Mountain, to the left, the trail headed downhill toward the river. The map didnt show any trail after this for the direction we wanted to go. We headed left and the trail abruptly ended. All we had to do was follow the stream to Moon Lake though. We walked across some nice meadows for about ten minutes. The stream was beautiful and meandering.

On the hill to our right appeared to be a trail. We got onto it and continued on. The trail would sometimes be nice and big, and other times would be gone. I think it was more of a game trail than anything. After awhile, it was getting dark. We stopped for a break and to put our headlamps on. The next section of trail seemed to be more of a water runoff area than trail. We continued on eventually losing the trail, if there was one. It was time to bushwack. The terrain was steep and had much vegetation. It made for slow and difficult going. By now it was pitch black. At least the routefinding was fairly easy. Anywhere we went, we could hear the stream we were following. Sometimes we would stay close to the river in the thick, low green plants. Sometimes we would go higher in the thick, higher trees. Either way was difficult. The terrain became less steep and I knew we were getting close. Finally, the bushes gave way to a large talus field. We could hear the river under the rocks. We walked up the rocks for a bit, but did not see Moon Lake. I thought that maybe it had dried up in the drought.

We found a nice flat area that looked good for camping. We set up our bivy sacks and sleeping bags, had some food and went to sleep around 11 pm. It was a beautiful night with more stars than you can count. There were also falling stars and sattelites visible. The weather was clear and not cold. It never even got close to freezing. I would guess the low to be around 40 degrees F or so.

Day 2

We awoke early to a warm, clear morning. We ate again, packed up and hit the non-trail. In about 45 minutes, we found Moon Lake. We were camped about a half-mile below it. We could see some people on the ridge that came from the Capitol Lake side. We ascended the gully ahead of us, then turned south to the saddle between Capitol Peak and Clark Peak. We didnt actually go all the way to the saddle but, when the terrain became less steep, headed directly to K2.

K2 is the 13,664 peak that you go to on the way to Capitol. The famous knife edge is between the two peaks. It turns out you dont actually have to go to the top of K2 to get to the knife-edge. You can skirt around it on the west side. As a matter of fact, it is more difficult to climb it, because then you have to down climb to get back down to the knife-edge. We down climbed and made it to the area between K2 and the knife-edge. There is a steep couloir there that seems to go down forever. It is so steep; it seems to be overhung under you when you are standing at the top. It was amazing to see.

The knife-edge began shortly thereafter. Most things called knife-edge are actually wide enough to walk on. This one was not. Some parts of it actually came to a fine point. As you scooted, laybacked or crawled along this section, you were treated to excellent views in every direction, including one thousand foot drops on both sides. One wrong move would be sure death.

Closer to Capitol, we ended up on the left side of the edge and had to cross over and down climb about 6 feet. Then we continued up and around the left side of Capitol. You end up summiting from the southeast.

Tracey was a bit behind me when I summited, so I replaced the summit register with the one I brought up. I signed it and then went to check out the dreaded ridge to Snowmass.

It looked pretty hard. It was somewhat late to be starting the ridge, and there were clouds overhead that had been building all day. Some of the peaks in the distance were being rained on. I thought that we could just do half of the ridge and then descend to Pierre Lakes for the night. There also seemed to be a way down the southeast ridge of Capitol.

Tracey came up to the summit and her hair was sticking out all over like she had her fingers in a light socket. That usually means lightning is imminent. My hair moved around like a strong breeze was blowing it around. There was no breeze. We quickly descended to a somewhat safer location. There was not really any safe up there. Nor any quick way down. The route we came up would expose us to lightning on the ridge. The Snowmass ridge would do the same. We decided to go down the southeast ridge. At least it went down right away. We would descend to the largest of the Pierre Lakes, spend the night there, and then climb Snowmass in the morning.

We either descended the southeast ridge or to the right of it. We came to several sections that were too steep and had no holds and had to route find our way around to get down. About 80% of the time, we were downclimbing 4th and lower 5th class terrain. Again, one wrong move and you would fall to your death. It was a very stressful time. I dont think I would have been so stressed if I were alone. It wasnt fun watching someone else going down this crazy terrain, especially with a 30-pound pack and hiking boots.

I came to a section that was very steep and didnt have many handholds. I stopped above and just looked at it while Tracey caught up. I asked her what she thought. She said, What do you mean? I said that it looked pretty hard and asked her if she thought she could downclimb it. She said she had her doubts. There was a nice solid rock on the climbers right next to where I was sitting. I put the rope around it and rappelled down. Tracey had some difficulties tying her Munter hitch, but finally got it and rappelled down. I tried to pull the rope. It wouldnt move. I tried to pull the other end. Nothing. I climbed back up and tried to adjust it so it would pull down. Wasnt going to work. I took off my pack and tied it to the rope. I lowered it to Tracey, and then threw the rope down. I downclimbed. It seemed so much easier to downclimb without my pack on.

We continued this sickness for what seemed like forever. Finally, about a hundred feet below us, there appeared to be a large, flat ledge. Just below that, it looked like we could walk or downclimb a short way to the ground. I chose a way to go down and started downclimbing. It was dead vertical and the rocks were loose. I got part way down and was unwilling to stick my neck out any further. I climbed back up and chose another way that was slightly less vertical. Tracey came down the same way, and we finally made it to the ledge.

It turns out that the ledge was not flat at all. It was tilted at about 30 degrees or so. The rock was loose. Would this day never end? And not the bad way either. It started raining. We put on our rain gear and huddled under a rock. It was almost dark. I was so tired, I could have slept right there. Instead, the rain stopped and we had our last chance to get down or spend the night on this tilted ledge. I went down to the edge. The ground was still several hundred feet down. It was very discouraging. It looked like the ground was closer on the fallers left. I went in that direction for a hundred feet or so and found a nice, little, flat ledge. Right next to it was a solid rock with an excellent crack in it. It was begging me to put a couple of nuts in it. I obliged and it swallowed the first two nuts that I gave it. I clipped a couple of biners on to the nuts and attached the rope. I rappelled down, coming to another nice ledge. This ledge didnt have any good cracks though and I still had a lot of rope left. I rappelled down to near the end of the ropes. I still had another rappel to go. I went back and forth looking for a good place for an anchor. There wasnt a good place. There was a mediocre place.

I had four nuts left and the same amount of carabiners. There was an eight-inch step in a dihedral to stand on. It was big enough for one foot. I engaged my prussic and hung on the rope. I put my biggest nut in the dihedral crack. It was too small. I put it sideways and it stayed. It wasnt great, but I didnt think it would come out. There was a five-inch crack a little to the left of the dihedral. That was way too big for anything I had. There was a smaller rock jammed into the crack though. I put a nut between the small rock and the crack and it seemed to hold. I didnt like it though. I put another one in in a similar rock/crack below that and then my last nut next to the first rock/crack one. This better get us down, Im out of pro. Four mediocre nuts would hopefully equal two good ones.

I attached myself to one of the nuts with a prussic. Tracey came down. There was no place for her to stand. We both put one foot on the small step. I hooked her to the anchor with one end of the rope and pulled the other. I ran the rope through this anchor and hoped it was even. Tracey hooked up to rappel and I untied her from the anchor. She went down about half way and stopped. The rope was getting tangled up below her and she had to untangle it. My calf was burning from standing on the step for too long. After about ten minutes, I told her I was going to rappel down to the ledge she was on. It was pitch black outside. The sun had set long ago. My light was in my pack. I couldnt get to it. I hooked up my rappel in the dark and hoped it was good I came down landing on another tilted ledge. At least I could stand on both feet. Tracey finally got the rope somewhat untangled and started to rappel again. I was attached to the rope with my prussic. As she rappelled down, it was pulling me away from the rock. She came down to the end of one of the ropes. They were uneven and needed to be moved. I took my prussic off the rope and just stood on the ledge in the dark. I told her to keep the short side of the rope from moving and let the longer side slide through her device. She asked if she was supposed to let go of one of the ropes and rappel off of a single strand. Thinking I misheard her, I said, WHAT? She said it again and I said, NO! I explained it a little better and she started doing it. The ropes became tangled again. I started to get impatient and told her so. I tried to get her to hurry up. After about 30 seconds, I changed my mind and told her not to rush, but to be safe. She finally made it to the ground and I came down. I was so glad to be on the ground. No more worries about falling to my death.

It was late and the place we were going to camp was about a mile away through a large talus field. Traceys headlamp was dimming and she didnt have any extra batteries. On the other hand, we had enough food and supplies for at least another couple of days out. The only problem was our lack of water. I had been nauseous for the last few hours and I knew I was dehydrated. We could hear a small brook trickling not too far away. As I hiked down and to the left, I came upon a snowfield. The brook was somewhere underneath. I went to the edge of the snowfield and tried to get to the water. I couldnt get to enough of it to get in my water bottle. Suddenly I heard Tracey scream. She got to the snowfield and with her dim headlamp, couldnt tell it was snow. She stepped on what she thought was a rock and slid a few feet. I found another area outside the snowfield where I may have been able to get to the water under the rocks. There were several smaller rocks in the way. I moved them and then tried to move a bigger rock. I moved it a little and then tried to get some water. I couldnt reach it very well and the water wasnt deep enough again. I sat down on a rock to rest and wait for Tracey to catch up.

She caught up to me and I decided to try the water thing again. I went in the same hole, but to the right. The water looked deeper there. I was able to move a bunch of small rocks so I had free passage to the water. I had to crawl inside the hole to my hips. It was just big enough for me to fit. I filled several water bottles, handing them back to Tracey in between. I almost got stuck trying to crawl backwards out of the hole. With the water problem taken care of, I went to find a flat rock to sleep on while Tracey treated the water.

I found the perfect, flat rock with enough room to sleep two people on about 50 feet from the water source. We set up camp and finally got to sleep about 1 am, ending our day from hell.

Day 3 I awoke a couple of times during the night and drank water. The stars were beautiful. When the morning came, I awoke again. Beautiful sunrise.

I didnt actually see the sun when it rose, but the colors in the sky were beautiful. Back to sleep. I woke up again and had some food and water before I went back to sleep again. The sun finally came over the mountain and was shining on us. I set up my poncho for some shade and took a nap.

We finally got up, packed up, and hit the road at about 10:30am. The road consisted of rocks that were about half the size of a car, all jumbled together. I filled my water a little below where we camped.

We headed straight down a drainage to the left. I got to the smallest of the Pierre Lakes ahead of Tracey and chose a suitable rock next to the lake to take a break. We were in no hurry today. Taking it easy today was the plan. There were a bunch of rainbow trout in the lake near my rock. They were swimming right next to me. The water was so clear that they were easy to see. Tracey arrived and we took a break. She had a blister on her heel that she worked on. I took a nap.

We moved on down to the next lake. About half way past this lake, we went over the hill on the right. Coming down this hill, we met up with the stream again.

There was a trail! I was not expecting a trail for some time. It was nice to be in the green stuff again. The trail made for fast going. Some parts were pretty steep, but it was much better than the bushwhacking I had planned for.

As we continued down, the trail would sometimes be wide and established and sometimes almost non-existent. Some parts were more overgrown than any trail I have seen. The trail was still there underneath, but you couldnt tell it was there unless you parted the bushes and trees that covered it.

We came to the area of the confluence with Snowmass Creek. We were still a little high on the left side, so couldnt see the rivers through the vegetation. The trail was still going, so we carried on. Eventually the trail came to what I figured must be Copper Creek. The trail ended right at a small pond. It looked like other people had crossed the pond. I didnt feel like doing that. We bushwhacked straight down to Snowmass Creek. There was supposed to be a major trail on the other side of the river. I found a fallen tree that bridged the river. It looked like the far side was about as wide as my shoes. I crossed on the tree, using my trekking poles on rocks for support. Tracey didnt want to cross the tree. She ended up putting on her flip-flops again and crossing in the water. While she was doing that, I went to find the trail. I found a small section that looked like a game trail. I looked a little on the higher part of the hill, but didnt find anything.

Tracey mentioned something about finding a camping spot. I didnt want to camp here. The flies were driving me crazy. We went down the trail and it ended. I decided to cut up the hill and found the major trail. It was like driving my whole life on a bumpy, dirt road and then finding a freeway.

We took off like a shot and were making great time. We stopped to fill our water again, and then kept going. We got back to the truck in no time. I was glad that I finally got to get some real sleep in a bed tonight.

We changed clothes and drove away. I was exhausted and hungry. I wanted something simple like a nice, fat hamburger. Old Snowmass didnt seem to have any fast food restaurants. Neither did Aspen. On the drive to Leadville, it got dark. I was having a hard time staying awake. I was nauseous again. I slowly had some of my trail food, and felt a little better. I knew I would never be able to stay awake all the way home. We got a motel room in Leadville. I could barely make it up the stairs to the third floor. My legs were done for the day. The hot shower felt great.

The Elks Range is a beautiful area. If I were to do Capitol Peak again, I may go up a different route, but I would definitely not go down the way we went.

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