| Capitol Grants an Early Winter Summit
Capitol Peak 14,130'
Winter Ascent 1/16/09-1/17/09
Elevation Gain 5790'
Team: Mark Nieport
Now I Feel Like A Mountaineer!
Mark Nieport "The Kid." (by Kiefer)
Kiefer Thomas "The Kid's Big Brother." (by Mark)
Steve Gladbach "Not the Kid." (by Kiefer)
Capitol is a major stumbling block for mountaineers who yearn to grace the summits of Colorado's Fourteeners in calendar winter. Lou Dawson issued the challenge in his Guide to the Colorado 14ers, Vol. 1 (1994). He called the climb "reasonable' for the experienced mountaineer (though he warned those who take up the endeavor need excellent avalanche assessment skills.) At the time he declared the mountain had never received a one-day ascent in winter.
Well, you can't throw down a gauntlet like that without Coloradoans forming a scrum to grab the ball. Since Dawson's acclamations regarding the winter challenge of the peak and the prized one-day winter ascent, MANY have tackled its obstacles. On the internet, you can find at least four trip reports of successful calendar winter ascents of Capitol; two are accounts of one-day ascents. All four accounts are from late winter; the climbers enticed by spring-like conditions while still achieving a winter ascent. Many more successful winter ascents exist outside cyberspace, unfortunately, the accounts are anecdotal and therefore difficult to utilize for planning a winter attempt.
Until last weekend, there were no successful early season ascents detailed in posted trip reports. Well, the 2010 Martin Luther King memorial weekend extinguished all doubt that the peak couldn't be climbed in early winter conditions. Three climbers, Charlie Nuttelman, Max Nuttelman, and Stefan Griebel topped out on Saturday 1/16/10. Beginning at midnight and approaching on skis, they stood atop the summit before 9 AM. Their ascent was most likely the earliest calendar winter one-day ascent of this incredibly imposing peak.
Charlie ascending at dawn w/ Stefan just below..........Max highlighted against the prized Capitol/Snowmass Mountain traverse
The next day, two of their friends, John Prater and Bill Wright, repeated the feat. Their 12:07 time is currently the fastest documented one-day round-trip time on Capitol in the winter. By the end of my story, you'll learn that this past MLK weekend eight climbers safely stood atop Capitol, whose easiest line has often been deemed Colorado's most difficult standard route on a 14er. All safely returned home with fulfilled aspirations.
I attempted this peak alone on Dec 21st and 22nd of 2009, and failed to reach even K2, which is the end of the approach and the beginning of the technical climbing. On that trip, I worked hard for two days, laying-in six miles of previously unbroken 12"-18" deep track. I managed only to reach 12,200' at eastern base of the K2/Daly saddle. A strong storm on the third day and arctic cold temperatures over the following week put to rest any hope I had of climbing the peak over Christmas break.
After an easy ¾ mile, you arrive at the summer trailhead. (by Kiefer)
As you enter the wilderness area, a developed trail climbs ½ way to camp. (by Kiefer)
Kiefer's artistic eye catches what he calls "Mare's Tails." (by Kiefer)
Mark, still on the developed trail, crosses a side-stream. (by Kiefer)
We have to leave the developed trail which has turned NW up Haystack Mountain; the rest of OUR route involves bushwhacking SW toward Moon Lake. (by Kiefer)
Fortunately, a few skiers (including the Nuttlemans) used the route over the following weeks and the remnants of the base remained for MLK weekend. During my December foray into the valley of West Snowmass Creek, it took me 6 hours to reach a camp at 10, 400'. The next day I worked another 4 ½ hours to finish the track to 12,200 under the K2/Daly saddle.
On this trip, 4 ½ hours of not-too-difficult travel brought me to a high camp at 11,220' (a small lake sporting a bald man's halo of trees.) This oasis included running water and afforded the final sheltered area before reaching timberline. Running water in winter is always a nice find since it means time spent melting water can be devoted to resting while listening to a book loaded on your I-pod. On the other hand, it meant my team carried in over four times the fuel we eventually consumed.
At 12PM, I picked my campsite. Minutes later, Griebel and the Nuttlemans, having just accomplished their one-day ascent, skied by and gave a hearty "Hello!" I stamped out a site for our team and settled my tent and gear into a nice little home. Mark had been having nutrition issues for a couple weeks due to some painful and complicated dental work. As a result, he had left the car w/o the needed calories to push his way 6 miles up the approach with a full pack. Kiefer kept him company as Mark suppressed the fatigue and pushed his way to camp. They arrived about 2:00PM and settled themselves into a second tent. Mark took a hot drink and ate a meal before beginning a rest for tomorrow's attempt.
Steve suffers "Tent Envy". (by Kiefer)
Kiefer and I took about another 90 minutes to create a snowshoe track to the 12,200' high point I'd reached a few weeks before. It took me 6 hours of moderate effort to reach the point it had taken two tough days to reach in December. When we returned to our little home, Mark already looked better and he had a second meal and hot drink as Kiefer and I had our first.
Now came the most challenging part of teaming for a difficult peak when there is no definitive leader: the negotiations about when to get out of bed the next morning! Our 5AM-on-the-trail plan had been a three-way compromise and all agreed to abide. I set my alarm for 4AM as it always takes me a while to get going. I slept through my alarm. About 4:45AM, I heard the other tent busily preparing for the day's difficulties and I was forced to confess I was running late. But, by 5:20AM, I'd accomplished my summit-day morning rituals and Mark and I took off up the trail. Kiefer had one more ritual to complete and it took a while as he didn't have any laxative chewing gum. The previous night Mark had explained to us this gum is contained in government issued military MREs.
Adorned in headlamps, the team began the three hour approach from 11,220' camp to the base of K2 at 13,600'. It was snowing lightly and only one or two stars were discernable in the pre-dawn sky, but we had dreams of a bluebird day. We were betting the sun would burn off the cloud cover that had allowed such a comfortable and warm sleep the night before. Kiefer, free of his morning encumbrance, caught up at about 12,200'.
Kiefer catches up at the 12,200' plateau. (by Steve)
We made short work of the climb to our re-equipping site below K2. This turned out to be the coldest stop of the day. We had built a bit of a sweat while quickly pushing our way up the previous 1000' and the wind at this unguarded haunt was a bit stronger. However, it was a very necessary way station. Harnesses were donned and doubled back, ropes and racks were arranged and we crowned ourselves with UIAA approved chapeau. We stashed ski poles and snowshoes. Having completed 24 hours of work which included heavy packs, snow camping, and trail breaking, we were now ready to attempt a climb of Capitol Peak.
Kiefer defeats K2's gargoyle guardian. (by Steve)
We each scrambled over the 20' stone guardian which blocks easy access to K2 and, for the first time today, viewed our task. Though the sky wasn't clear, the route was sufficiently visible. It looked manageable. The route appeared snow-covered most of the way and there was one particularly difficult looking class 5 section 300' below the summit that may prove to be the crux of the day. Mark and I strapped on crampons; Kiefer decided that since he had not brought his, he would go without rather than making the trip to Vail to retrieve them. He hadn't noticed it yet, but hig gaitors had also decided to beg off summit day. Kiefer lead the way as he dropped off K2 traversing its north side to reach the saddle 80' below the summit. Shortly after, Mark took over the lead and I settled into my comfortably secure position between the two who displayed skill and confidence for the rest of the day.
Now over K2, Mark contemplates the real difficulties. (by Kiefer)
Mark is steady on the "Knife Edge." (by Steve)
We all made easy progress to the beginning of the "Knife Edge" proper which Mark attacked with conviction by combining simple walking with minor scrambling. Steve, however, had to admit this wasn't his day to display a completely sanguine disposition. At the beginning of the knife-edge, he happily assumed what Kiefer labeled the "Happy Frog Lotus Position" (probably closer to the doggy-style position) as he straddled the ridge and used his hands to thrust his pelvis forward. He managed a quick but inelegant crawl toward a wider perch. Kiefer crossed with the same confidence as Mark.
Steve assumes the "Happy Frog Lotus Position"
The remainder of the ridge passed smoothly as we reached the lowest spot below the summit. The climb over the first two humps up the ridge went well to the base of some rock climbing that must have been 5.7-5.9. We were lured around this section by the obvious traverse of the previous day's climbers. Once we passed under this difficult section of ridge, a steep snow climb on icy, hidden slabs proved to be the only workable route back up to the ridge. A horn above had been slung, thus indicating Saturday's party also thought the section a little sketchy. Mark free-climbed the 20 meters and slung a higher horn to belay Kiefer and I back to the ridge proper.
To bypass 5.8 rock, an exposed traverse is followed by a difficult climb up to the ridge. (by Kiefer)
Mark first belays Kiefer and then Steve up the icy crux slabs. (by Mark)
Above the headwall, the sky grants a few minutes for views. (by Kiefer)
Mark on the ridgeline. (by Kiefer)
The view down the ridge toward K2. (by Kiefer)
The ridge, K2, Daly, and the Aspen/Glenwood valley. (by Kiefer)
The circumvention of this part of the ridge allowed us to finish the final 250' to the summit with less potential for a 3000' fall. That is not to say, however, that I didn't call for another belay! Kiefer accepted a quick shoulder stand to breach the next 15' move and then belayed Mark and I up. The next 200 yards of ridge were a little hair-raising, but didn't require rope. Kiefer led the final 30' 5th class dihedral and placed a few pieces as he climbed over the final obstacle. A short belay helped me reach the same vantage point and we all walked and scrambled the final 100 yards to the true summit. What a satisfying coup to stand atop Capitol in mid-January!
Steve, Kiefer, and a goggle salesman. (by John Prater)
John Prater and Bill wright
We relished the day's consummation albeit with limited views. We hung about for 15 minutes for the arrival of John Prater and Bill Wright who, like their friends the day before, had attained the summit in a single day. We exchanged the opportunity for summit photos and our party headed down about 10 minutes later.
When I arrived at the top of the highest move, Mark belayed me down, let the other party pass, gave Kiefer a belay and finished with a rappel for himself. Bill, John and I moved down the ridge as Kiefer and Mark finished up with the higher crux. The next ascent-belayed area proved simpler to descend since, from above, we could see the mantle move that made a free downclimb possible. Bill belayed John down the icy, slabby section that surely was the most difficult crux of the day, and then dropped down the section himself.
Climbing down the upper dihedral crux (by Kiefer)
Below the crux slabs, Bill enjoys the fun lower portion of the descent. (by Steve)
While waiting for my party to arrive, I heard a very distinctive metallic clanging noise which changed pitch as the Doppler Effect betrayed the truth of the problem. Even before I heard Mark's "Sh#$", I knew I'd just heard an ice axe rattling down a mountainside. Ostensibly clipped to his harness with the rest of his rack, it somehow fell down the mountain's cliffs during his rappel of the highest crux. Accepting the inevitable, he and Kiefer quickly climbed down to where I waited for a belay over the final difficult crux. Again, Mark belayed me over the slabs and I continued down the ridge as Mark and Kiefer handled the final rope work. A mere 300' off the summit, they stashed the cord for the remainder of the day.
Kiefer is belayed over the slabs. (by Steve)
Mark rappels the slabs completing 5 safe descents of the crux today. (by Kiefer)
An exposed traverse lies below the crux. (by Steve)
Kiefer finishes re-crossing the "Knife Edge." (by Mark)
Reaching Terra mas Firma, the route visibility has deteriorated considerably. (by Steve)
Though the snow was getting thicker and the visibility thinner, the trip down the remaining ridge, across the knife edge, and back over K2 went very smoothly. The team re-grouped at the snowshoe stash and the quick 1.2 mile, - 2800' trip to the tents included the occasional glissade and significantly warming temperatures.
We arrived at camp about 4PM and enjoyed hot drinks and some food as we prepped for the hike out. We said goodbye to our campsite at 5PM then tromped on down to the car. My descent included several falls through the snow which resulted in a snowshoe or two entwined crotch-deep in willows hidden under the softer snow. With a pack, there was a lot of effort involved in the extrication, but I was too stoked to let it bother me. About 1½ miles from the car, a snowmobile track guided us in; we all arrived together well before 8PM.
By 9PM we were enjoying chili, thick burgers and exceptional fries in Carbondale. This little diner has become a tradition since making two visits last winter. The first was with Mark following January 2009's North Maroon climb; the second after Kiefer and I climbed Snowmass a month later. Now, the three of us enjoyed a little victory dinner together. We dropped Kiefer in Vail and Mark headed to Fort Collins while I pointed south to Pueblo. Just before 2AM, I pulled in at the Clear Creek Reservoir boat ramp and slept until 6:30AM before continuing my trip to Pueblo. When I safely pulled into the drive about 10AM Monday morning, I finally felt the trip was over (though I've still not finished all my laundry!)
The route map. (by Steve)
Campsite detail. (by Steve)
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):