Capitol Peak and Snowmass Mountain in Colorado’s Elk Range are unique when compared to the range’s other 14ers in that they are composed of fractured granite rather than the teetering piles of sedimentary choss that make up the range’s even more famous 14ers (notably, Pyramid and the Maroon Bells). Because of its mandatory Knife Edge on the NE Ridge standard route, Capitol is considered by some to be the state’s most difficult 14er (debatable, of course), and Snowmass is probably the most remote 14er outside of the San Juan range—not a lot of people climb it in a single day. I have an interest in eventually completing a north-to-south link-up of all seven of the Elk 14ers, so rehearsing the best route between Capitol and Snowmass seemed like a good idea.
Of course, as usual, none of my aspirations are that original or unique. Aspen-area hardmen Neal Beidleman and Jeff Hollenbaugh are believed to be the only folks to have completed the full Elks 14er enchainment, in something like 34hr back in 1996. When I first heard about this a few years ago, it sounded impossible. My interest was re-piqued last year, however, when Homie and Max Nuttelman made a valiant attempt in early July but were ultimately shut-down by hideous electrical/rain storms after traversing the Bells. Ultimately, when planning my own link-up of the range’s first two 14ers–Capitol and Snowmass–I would rely on very helpful beta from Homie and a detailed trip report from Eric Lee, who had linked them together in a car-to-car FKT of 10h44min last summer.
The most interesting thing about linking Capitol and Snowmass is that they are connected by one of the most legendary ridges in Colorado (see photo above). The history of traversing this ridge is recounted in fascinating detail both on Summitpost and Mountainproject (by Matt Samet, maybe the only person to stay true to the ridge in a single push?), but the summary is that basically no one does it because the ridge itself—despite looking incredible—is fantastically unstable and exposed. The technical difficulties allegedly only reach 5.7 or so—ostensibly solo-able—but the amount of mental focus required on 2.5mi of such treacherous terrain makes it virtually prohibitive. Obviously, as someone who was interested in linking the two peaks as quickly as possible, this ridge was a non-starter. Based on Homie’s and Eric’s beta, I decided I would summit Capitol and decide then what route exactly I would use to get over to Snowmass.
I left the Snowmass Ranch Trailhead (8400′) at 7:11am and ran the excellent trail up the valley for a little over a mile where I joined the West Snowmass Creek Trail, waded across Snowmass Creek and continued up the West Snowmass drainage. This early going was on gradually-graded runnable trail, so I made quick work of it, getting to the ~9800′ point in 44min, where I left the trail to continue bushwhacking up the drainage toward Moon Lake. The first 25min of this was a little frustrating as I was still below treeline and only occasionally picking up bits and pieces of use trail. Soon enough, though, I crossed to the other (lefthand) side of the creek and found a great little use trail that l was able to follow all the way to the talus and boulders around Moon Lake at 11,700′ or so, 1h38 into the day.
From Moon Lake it was a very straightforward trek across and up talus to K2, the peak that marks the beginning of the 4th Class traverse to the summit of Capitol itself. After scampering across the knife edge ridge (and nearly dropping my camera off it) I elected to stay much more true to the ridge the rest of the way to the summit of Capitol because Eric’s account reported that the rock–though more technical and exposed–was markedly more stable than the debris-covered 3rd Class ledges of the standard route. While this was true, I think that it was a bit slower for me, as I reached the summit of Capitol in 2:49:25, 22min after leaving the summit of K2 (last summer I did the traverse in this direction in 19min taking the dirty ledges after the knife ridge).
Standing on the summit of Capitol, I had a decision to make. Should I continue over the summit onto Capitol’s knife-like southwest ridge in order to drop onto the west side of the SnowCap ridge (allegedly possible according to a friend of Homie’s, but likely extremely tedious and technical and with complex routefinding whilst downclimbing…oy), or should I retreat all the way back over the Knife Edge, over K2 and drop into the Pierre Lakes Basin (the drainage between Capitol and Snowmass on the east side) via a mellow couloir called the Wandering Dutchman? Both Homie and Eric had done this, but it seemed like a big waste to retrace so much of one’s route, essentially going in the wrong direction. Ultimately, though, I simply wasn’t feeling bold enough to deal with the exposure and route-finding of onsighting the downclimb southwest off of Capitol’s summit, so after only 3min of deliberation I left Capitol’s summit and headed back over to K2 and the Wandering Dutchman. Along the way, I briefly wondered at the possibility of descending the upper part of Capitol’s Cleaver Buttress and dropping down a gully from that to get into the basin…anyone have any beta on that?
I reached the top of the Wandering Dutchman at 3:23, descended the few hundred feet into the basin and started across on an epic stretch of talus and boulder-hopping, headed for the lowest point in the SnowCap ridge (~12,900′). Homie and Max had done this last year, and it seemed more appealing to me than dropping all the way to Heckert Pass, the way that Eric had. Oddly enough, I really enjoy the concentration and footwork needed to move quickly across boulders and talus, so before long I was groveling my way up the steep snow and loose matrix of talus and boulders that comprised the climb to the col. There were bits of 4th Class scrambling in here, I’d say.
I reached the pass at 4:12 and was unsurprised to see that my route to the base of Snowmass’ west ridge consisted of even more talus. This contouring traverse was broken up by a handful of annoying moraine-like ridges, but at 4:43 into the day I finally found myself at the western base of Snowmass.
The weather remained perfect and my legs retained a bunch of pep—probably because I’d just been spending most of the day hopscotching across boulders and talus, not really running—so I was able to charge to the summit of Snowmass quite efficiently, reaching the top at 5:10:40.
I paused for a couple minutes here to take some pics and admire the view, but after a few more minutes of downscrambling on generally easy terrain I was able to find a weakness in Snowmass’ ridge and hop onto its eponymous snowfield for several hundred feet of glissading toward Snowmass Lake. The final couple hundred feet of drop to the shoreline were on loose scree, and that, combined with a few more frustrating minutes of willow-negotiation made reaching the Maroon-Snowmass trail junction 5:55 into the day particularly gratifying.
I knew there was ~8mi of trail and 2500′ of drop to get back to Snowmass Ranch, so I was determined to close the loop in less than 7hr. The trail proved to be a little more technical and gradual than I had anticipated, so despite pushing hard in the mid-day heat I was only able to duck under my self-imposed goal by a couple of minutes, arriving back at the trailhead 6:58:11 after having left. Though I don’t know if I’ll be able to squeeze in an attempt at the full Elks enchainment still this summer season—a handful of racing goals are going to take precedent—this outing certainly increased my psyche for attempting the link-up sometime soon.
Snowmass Creek crossing – 15:30
Leave W. Snowmass Trail – 44:00
Cross W. Snowmass Creek – 1:09
Moon Lake – 1:38
K2 – 2:27
Capitol – 2:49:25
Leave Capitol – 2:52:30
K2 – 3:13
Wandering Dutchman couloir – 3:23
SnowCap Ridge col – 4:12
Avalanche/Siberia divide – 4:21
Base west ridge of Snowmass – 4:43
Snowmass – 5:10:40
Leave Snowmass – 5:12
Snowmass Lake – 5:46
Maroon-Snowmass Trail jnct – 5:55
W. Snowmass Trail jnct – 6:47:30
Snowmass Ranch TH - 6:58:11