“Did we bite off more than we can chew?” I’m asking myself as we stand atop the 14,131-foot Capitol Peak in the notorious Elk mountains of Colorado.
Photo: Jordan White
The answer is a matter-of-fact “No, we have to finish.” This day began at midnight, and this mission began a week ago, and this dream began a few years ago with a taste of this big, lonesome, beautiful north face.
Capitol Peak is the holy grail of all Colorado’s fifty-four 14,000 ft peaks. The easiest way up is via the infamous knife edge with a thousand-foot cliff on either side. In the words of Chris Davenport, “A fall either way would be your last.” The mountain has been skied before, but not by many. The routes back down have been a bit contrived and full of traverses; none have been direct. It’s a pure mountaineering event no matter how you look at it.
My partner Jordan White and I had made one of these descents three years earlier, a first descent we named “The Plank” for obvious reasons. It was the first route that descended the north face and ended in a large cliff with Capitol Lake far below. It was a serious undertaking, and here we were, staring down the barrel of the face again. This time we were dropping directly from the summit, a much more serious undertaking with an even larger portion of cliff below us all day.
With the wettest May on record in Aspen Colorado, our home mountains were looking the best they had looked in years, considering the date. Late spring is when I typically find myself bagging peaks as the stability increases to a consistent level. For whatever reason, the Elks are inspiring beyond reason, and Jordan and I were drawn back to Capitol and the idea of repeating The Plank in better conditions.
Capitol is one of the more remote mountains in the Elks, and we needed to get eyes on it to confirm our hopes that the line would be in. Lucky for us, Jordan is a mountain rescue volunteer and has a connection to a pilot with an airplane who was willing to circle the mountain, giving us ample opportunity to see its condition and snap photos for study.
Back in my ski bum den, study we did. Then we argued the way two passionate mountaineers who trust each other do. Was a new line directly off the summit possible? We zoomed in as much as our cameras would allow on the upper portion of the north face. It looked very steep, and potentially very, very thin. It also looked better than it ever had before. “You don’t know until you go” is one of the quotes I live by. So we decided we would give it a go. We also studied a couple alternative routes down in case this one was too gnarly.
So now we had a goal. A goal that was going to require some massive efforts, quite a bit of gear, some skills, and some balls.
Rappels are green, and the skiable line is red.
Two ropes, ice axes, crampons, snow pickets, rock cams, rock nuts, slings, webbing, and carabiners were all packed accordingly and divided among the group. The group was now up to three, partly as a necessity to help carry this equipment. We would have to bring the same amount of group gear whether there were one, two, or three of us, and we really liked our friend Riley. So we extended the invite, but didn’t tell his parents. We filled our packs, added our skis, skins, boots, and shells and trekked four miles in on dry ground to where we would cache the equipment for our summit bid a few days later. With eight miles to Capitol Lake at the base of the face and 4,000 feet of climbing from there, it was guaranteed to be a huge day. Keeping weight off our shoulders and getting a fast start to the day was crucial.
The cool bike ride home from our sunset softball league game had my hopes high that the night would get cold enough to ensure a solid freeze up high, where we would be skiing in not much more than 12 hours. This left me with a few precious hours to close my eyes and be horizontal in my bedroom, not that I actually slept. I still made myself bacon and eggs and coffee at 10 p.m. when I “woke up” in an attempt to trick my body into getting ready for the day ahead. A lovely drive into the mountains was only stalled by a Pitkin County Sheriff pulling me over for going way too fast (I was in “send it” mode). His grace set the tone of good luck rather than the opposite for the day ahead.
We departed the trailhead under a full moon at midnight. We moved light and fast carrying only water, food, and layers. We ended up at our gear cache an hour or so later and were happy to find it intact, dry, and not chewed up by critters. The next bit was potentially the most painful, but we knew it would be. Deep manky snow, dry, snow, dry, snow, dry―but finally we were able to click into our tech bindings on solid snow that was beginning to freeze and put some miles behind us.
Headlamps went off, and the night was stunning under the full moon reflecting off the white snow. I was in an almost hallucinogenic headspace, being up at such an odd time of day in such a spectacular environment. We stopped and refilled our water bottles at the last of the running water near the lake and zapped it with the SteriPen (which is one of my favorite things ever). Water is so heavy. Its also the most precious resource, and there is really no way to bring enough sometimes. We hydrated and began the climb from the lake up the side of the mountain, through punch crust. It could have been worse, but it was not the best.
Punch crust … you kick in, step up, and your foot punches through. Then you pull your other foot out of the crust it just punched through and repeat the process. It’s not that hard until you have to do it a thousand times at high elevation with skis, ropes, water and other gear on your back. But like I said, it could have been worse.
The route goes up and over a saddle and up a big basin in the back where it finally meets the knife edge at a high point known as K2. Here we experienced a moment that sticks out in my memory. The full moon dipped on the western horizon just as the sun peeked its red head over the eastern horizon. A moment of glory for sure, but also the moment the hourglass turned upside down and the sand started pouring through.
Photo: Jordan White
We weren’t necessarily behind schedule but we weren’t ahead of schedule either, and the sun was beginning its daily progress on the east-facing snow. Honestly though, I felt much better when we got on the knife edge. The fatigue and monotony melted away and my mind became fully engaged in the climbing and the exposure. We made fine time up the knife edge and I think we all really enjoyed the climbing.
Photo: Jordan White
The fear really started to settle in as we neared the top and got eyes on that upper portion of the line. It was thin! Too thin. Beyond being thin it was just weird-looking, with mini-spiney features that I wanted no part of.
Photo: Colter Hinchliffe
I voiced my concerns clearly at the top: “Screw that, I am not skiing that, I’m not into it.” Riley agreed and so did Jordan, but it took him a bit to admit it. We had just climbed our asses all the way up here, nine hours of extreme effort, and now we didn’t know how the hell we were going to get down. The last few grains of sand were slipping through the hourglass on the possibility of returning the way we came. It was June 4th and 9:30am, and the east face was hot and dangerous.
We did have one other option off the southwest face: a different line that had never been skied before. We left our gear on top and down climbed to a point where we could see the whole line and the few things that we were concerned about. For one, the snow was bulletproof and didn’t look like it was going to see the light of day for a few more hours. That would leave us waiting on the summit as the day slipped away. A bigger problem was the first of the two huge rappels looked bad. The rock we would have had to build our anchor in looked beyond suspect, it looked loose and crappy.
Back on the summit, with brains functioning on thin air and little sleep, we weighed our options: 1) Return the way we came, which was hot, not fun, not cool, and sketchy; 2) Descend the southwest face with the long wait and the crappy rock. Not great, not fun, but kinda cool if we didn’t die … not a great option; and 3) The line we came here for, with no way in and lots of unknowns below. We had no great options.
After a bit of back and forth on the summit we found a “BFR” (a legit mountaineering term for “Big F**kin Rock”) to rappel off of, and a we went with a modification of our original plan. It looked like a full rope length would get us past the unskiable 200-foot section right below the summit. So we wrapped 20 feet of webbing around that BF rock, clipped the ropes to it, and rappelled onto the face. From here the only way we were getting off the face was by going down. We were committed. The ropes just reached the slightly less angled slope below, where we were barely able to edge our skis in and come off rappel.
Photo: Jordan White
The scariest part of the whole ordeal was the short traverse from the bottom of that rappel to the next anchor we found. It was over 60 degrees, shallow, and barely edgeable. It didn’t help to have 400 feet of rope over my shoulders. Another rappel got us past the final crux portion of that upper face and onto a manageable slope below, where we all took a deep breath.
Photo: Colter Hinchliffe
From here we enjoyed 1500 feet of surprisingly awesome turns. Don’t get me wrong, it was still fully heads-up skiing in a no-fall zone, but comparatively chill. Near the end of the clean panel of snow we edged our way down to the huge cliff we had been skiing above.
Photos: Brad Unglert
When we got to a point we didn’t feel comfortable continuing without ropes, we drove two snow pickets deep into the snowpack and equalized them with a sling and a biner. It was the first time I had relied on snow pickets to keep me alive, but it wasn’t so different than a BFR or the rock cams that I was used to.
As I weighted the anchor and removed my skis to place them on my backpack for the rappel, I dropped one. That’s right, I dropped my ski and watched it careen off the rocks and over the 400-foot cliff below me. But I didn’t need it anymore―not really, anyways. I rappelled into a deep chasm in the cliff with rock walls on both sides and ice under my feet. I literally rappelled to the very ends of the ropes, where I found a place for two cams in solid rock. I equalized those and clipped myself into them and took myself off rappel, allowing the other two to descend to me.
Photo: Riley Soderquist
From here, using the same anchor we were clipped to we threw the ropes one last time over an edge and into the void. We hoped beyond hope the ends were on the ground, as we were running out of gear and anxious to get out of harm’s way. I went first, and as I crept over that edge I gave a holler of joy to my partners that both ends were on the ground. As soon as I relaxed a baseball size rock went flying by my head with that eerie sound a rock makes at terminal velocity. After literally rappelling through a waterfall we found ourselves on the apron below the face, rejoicing in the triumph and feeling of relative safety.
I found my ski below in working condition, and a few hours later we stumbled to our trucks back at the parking lot. Capitol was looking oh-so epic in the evening rays, and we cheersed a beer or three as we watched the sun finally set on our first descent. A route we dubbed “Peg Leg” in honor of my ski taking the plunge, and to keep the pirate theme intact. Peg Leg sat only a few hundred yards to the left of The Plank. I am proud to help pioneer both routes, but hope I won’t have to do them again, at least not until I become re-inspired beyond reason.
Photo: Jordan White