The Long Cold Road To Capitol Peak


Image #1: Capitol Peak in its winter gloryCapitol Peak in its winter gloryView Larger Image

No problem is insurmountable. With a little courage, teamwork and determination a person can overcome anything.

Partners in Crime: Abe, and James

First off, let me say, this trip would not have happened what so ever if it were not for Abe and James. This is a story of teamwork at its best that I was privileged in joining along with. It portrayed what a little determination and perseverance can do.

Image #2: Abe ascending the slopes above Moon LakeAbe ascending the slopes above Moon LakeView Larger Image

Part 1: It Isn’t Easy Like ABC

It’s 4 A.M. on December 18, 2010, and I’m spending it breaking trail. I want a one day winter ascent of Capitol Peak. You see, I had no clue what was in store for a Capitol Peak winter ascent. It was going to be hard, but I don’t think I understood at first how hard it would really be. Breaking 7 or so miles of trail to Moon Lake made me understand what I was up against. West Snowmass Creek was way less fun than I thought. The upper half is filled with very thick vegetation which resulted in falling branches hitting you, and falling some more. In 4 and a half hours I was standing at Moon Lake alone, absolutely exhausted, but with good snow conditions. The thought of continuing really did want to make me throw up. The goal was just to break trail and get it ready, so I went down, happy that I hopefully wouldn’t have to break it again, and waiting for a winter window.

Image #3: 1rst time at Moon Lake. Thumbs up for thinking I got the trail ready. Then 8 feet of snow came.1rst time at Moon Lake. Thumbs up for thinking I got the trail ready. Then 8 feet of snow came.View Larger Image

In a couple days it snowed 8 feet and covered up all my exhausting work. I was furious. Capitol in the winter was proving to be much harder than I ever imagined.

It’s midnight in mid February 2011 and I’m back for another attempt, again without a broken trail. Chase and I are trying for a one day ascent. With our borrowed GPS ready to go, we set off. In 8 or 9 horrible hours, we reach Moon Lake, too late in the day to go on. GPS problems and bad snow conditions slowed us down. I repeat to myself while getting smacked by branches on the way down that I am never coming back to try it again in the winter. It’s beyond frustrating and I’m ready to bring a chainsaw to cut some of the trees down. I think to myself that I have to do this approach again if I ever want to climb Capitol in the winter.

Image #4: Chase coming down after turning around at Moon LakeChase coming down after turning around at Moon LakeView Larger Image

Am I ever going to climb this thing in the winter? How am I going to climb Capitol if I am beyond tired at Moon Lake?

I try to forget it and ignore the fact that Capitol Peak is giving me a of trouble. It becomes what I train for in the next year. It’s still on my mind a ton. I continue to ask advice from Kiefer and Steve about it. I made sure that if I ever got up there, I would know every single thing about the whole mountain. Was I ready for the suffering it included? Did I have the mental toughness?

Part 2: The Long Curculios Road

Image #5: Attempt number 3Attempt number 3View Larger Image

Capitol Peak in the winter has been a huge dream of mine for a long time, so much so, that I started writing the introduction for a trip report on it a few years ago. I knew I would get it someday so I started writing a trip report to motivate myself even more. I remember staying up late into the night reading all the trip reports on Capitol, researching as much as possible or reading Steve and Kiefer’s trip report and getting quite jealous. I would be jealous when anyone that did it had a broken trail. I would stare at the pictures and imagine myself crossing the knife edge with a cold breeze blowing spindrift in my face. I wanted it bad. I remember Kevin and I hiking together, and I would not stop telling him how I wanted to do Capitol Peak in the winter. He thought I was crazy, and I think most people perhaps thought I was too. I was obsessed I guess you could say. Can’t you tell?

Image #6View Larger Image

(Introduction Trip Report, written in August, 2009)

Capitol Peak has been “the” mountain for me in Colorado. I saw countless winter/spring climbs of it. It’s been my dream climb in Colorado for a long time. It’s really the crown of 14’ers here in Colorado overall. This peak is simply magnificent! I am a Christian and it amazes me what God has created. It has so much history as well.

I have had two major climbs on my mind: Capitol Peak in the winter and the Notch/Kieners Route on Longs Peak. There are many alpine rock routes I want to attempt in RMNP also but these two mean the most to me.

Failure in my terms is giving up on climbing or simply not getting out to play all together when you have a strong passion for it. When you turn back from a climb, you’re not failing I believe.

It seemed I was failing and putting more effort into it then it was worth. I literally hated the approach. (Still do) Though it was “scenic” it just sucked. Every time I attempted it, I would get to Moon Lake too tired to continue or something else went wrong. At the rate it was going, I thought it would be years before I got it. I finally stopped with the one day ascent and knew if I did a two day sort of deal, the success rate would be a little higher. I was trying day ascents in snowshoes with no broken trail. Abe later told me a day ascent would be virtually impossible the way I was trying it. Skis or broken trail would improve your chances. I agreed with him. Breaking trail really made the experience pure though. I was starting at Point A and not getting anywhere it seemed like.

Image #7View Larger Image

Part 3: Taking the Splinter Out of My Body, Finally

Image #8: Getting to the knife edgeGetting to the knife edgeView Larger Image


I rolled my eyes. James sent me this message right when I got back from climbing in the San Juans. I was tired and sore from the trip and the last thing I wanted to think about was Capitol Peak. He asked me to commit with him and Abe.

“I don’t know man” I reluctantly state as I really didn’t like the idea at the time.

My simple answer shows that I kind of didn’t want to go. I told him I was out of a job and out of money for gas. He then stated he would cover it.

“Dude, that approach, it’s so horrible. Ugh. I don’t want to break 7 miles of trail in West Snowmass Creek,” I stated.

He proceeds to state that Abe is an endurance animal and that they would help break a lot of it. I took a look at the weather and avalanche danger hoping in a way it wouldn’t look too good. I was trying to get out of it. With everything I came up with, James overcame it. Then I got many thoughts in my head. This weather is good and there is not as much snowfall this year, it might be the time.

“I can’t believe I’m saying this but I’m in.”

Image #9: Why did I commit? Very cold night at Moon Lake.Why did I commit? Very cold night at Moon Lake.View Larger Image

For the next couple of days, anxiety filled my mind. I had what felt like a cloud all around me. I just wanted to get the trip over with and move on. I didn’t think success would come because of previous failures but there was only one way to find out. Then a storm moved in and was forecasted to dump a foot on the already horrible snow pack. Again, I was getting pissed. Now I can’t even get out the door!

I talked to Steve and Kiefer about it. We were planning on Sunday and Monday with the storm coming in Saturday. We followed it closely and it seemed to miss the Elks partly. Around K2, about 4 or 5 inches fell and Monday was looking perfect to summit. I called Chris Tomer and asked for a specific weather forecast. He stated it was going to be a cold night but Monday looked good. I was getting excited, but still a lot had to work in our way to make it happen. A day before we left, I found out a group had climbed Capitol on Christmas Eve. This got me happy for a bit until I realized the storm would cover a lot of it along with previous wind and minor snow before this storm that happened.

Image #10: Looking out from Moon LakeLooking out from Moon LakeView Larger Image

Then there was an alpine start for the approach. We started off from Denver at 5:15 A.M. after I was late to meet up. The whole way up to the start of the approach I started to remember parts of my previous attempts that were meant to be forgotten. I felt like I had the heaviest pack going in but again, I felt like everyone was thinking that with their own packs. After 2 miles of flat trail, we started up West Snowmass Creek with a trench that was covered with a couple inches of snow. We were happy to have it. After a couple miles it pretty much disappeared near the Haystack Mountain split off. We went a different direction up the rest of the way to avoid the steep slopes. Avalanche danger was not great near tree line but I was kind of expecting that. Near and below tree line was supposed to be bad in the Elks while higher elevation slopes were supposed to be better. We avoided steep open slopes by climbing what felt like 60 degree slopes in thick vegetation jumping from tree to tree. We all had a couple falls but were in high spirits. We set up camp right below Moon Lake around 4:30pm. I was not that tired compared to previous tries. James stated his toes were numb.

Image #12: Coming down from breaking the trail for summit day.Coming down from breaking the trail for summit day.View Larger Image


Image #13: The moon was huge!The moon was huge!View Larger Image

Abe and I then went and broke trail to Moon Lake and up to the start of the ascent to K2 while James set up camp. I was just happy to make it further than I ever have. I actually got to see K2. Things were looking good. We came back to camp at dark a little tired. We were all pretty tired from the long approach. James was having problems with his toes. They were still numb. Only one of our stoves worked so that was a pain. I thought we might be going to sleep without a stove. It was very cold. Chris was not lying about the forecast. It was well below zero. It was cold enough that my feet started getting cold in my double boots. I jumped in the tent and went in the 0 degree sleeping bag and proceeded to be cold and sleepless all night.

Image #15: Summit push. Summit push. View Larger Image

Abe was a life saver. He cooked us all the water we needed and eventually a Mountain House meal for James and I. This was teamwork but I needed to do my part . To be honest, if James or Abe stated that we needed to go down in the morning, I would not have argued. I was cold, tired, and suffering. At this point Capitol seemed far off.

What am I doing here?

Image #16: Near the summit of K2Near the summit of K2View Larger Image

We have trouble with the alarms but finally I set one for 4 A.M. We do not have the well documented curse of the malfunctioning alarm in West Snowmass Creek and we’re off on the trail at 5:30 sharp. I’m actually quite excited but a little nervous at the same time. Around sunrise, James decides to turn back due to his feet being numb again. He gives the rope to us and sets off. It was time to get serious. The slopes up to K2 prove to be longer then I can remember from the last time I was there. Abe and I switch on breaking trail. Soon were at the bottom of the summit of K2 but fog covers everything until Boom, there’s Capitol. It starts to clear as we both wonder what we’re doing here.

Image #17: Ummm....Ummm….View Larger Image

“I kind of wish we didn’t see it until we were on it,” I state.

Image #18: This is actually kind of fun...but kind of scary tooThis is actually kind of fun…but kind of scary tooView Larger Image


Image #19: Knife edge Knife edge View Larger Image

It was time to be efficient and fast. Abe and I decided beforehand to solo up until the crux bit of the ridge. We see no sign of previous passage. We put on the crampons and get out the ice axe. I start off on the scrambling part of K2. I shove the ice axe pick into a small crack and pull up to try to find feet. The crampons scratch around and I smell the “fire” smell it makes. I try to find something. After it, I’m a little more nervous as that move felt a little hard for 4rth class. Only a half mile more of that except more difficult right? A lot more rock looks exposed then any pictures I’ve seen of Capitol in the winter.

Image #20: Abe crossing the knife edgeAbe crossing the knife edgeView Larger Image


Image #21: Abe leading me up a vertical part in the ridge. Trust those crampons.Abe leading me up a vertical part in the ridge. Trust those crampons.View Larger Image


Image #22: Closer...kind ofCloser…kind ofView Larger Image

I led off with the process of brushing off holds, making every move with caution. This ridge in winter has to have 100% focus the whole time. I make move after move until the knife edge. I proceed to scoot across knocking off quite a bit of snow. I keep getting a Charlie horse in my left leg from scooting. I scream in pain as I can’t do anything about it. This proceeded to be the case along with racking myself on the sharp ridge. I watch the snow fall into the void and then focus my attention back to the task at hand, not falling. Spindrift occasionally blows in my face as I try to breathe. This is really exhausting! I start crawling at the end of the knife edge and I don’t even care how it looks. I proceeded a little farther and then let Abe take over for the trail breaking until the rope up point. I follow his footprints up some steep bits until the crux step.

I then realized the seriousness of where we were. We are about 8 miles from any car, in the winter, with no one around. For some reason, I loved it.

Image #23: Coming upComing upView Larger Image

Go, go, go, go!

Image #24: First roped pitch. The traverse. Not to bad but challenging none the less.First roped pitch. The traverse. Not to bad but challenging none the less.View Larger Image

We break out the two 30 meter ropes. I make a quick anchor and Abe belays me on the traverse. The snow isn’t bad but I’m cautious of the huge pendulum fall if the snow gives out. I make some minor sketchy moves and belay Abe over. I grab the gear real fast, have him tie in, put me on belay and I’m off. After 20 meters of steep rock and snow but good holds I reach the ridge and the cordellete the Christmas Eve group put there. I tie in, pull up the rope, put Abe on belay and he soon joins me. We belay two quick pitches and simul a little until the final pitch. It looked bare. I grab the gear and go. I’m tired but so close. I place two pieces along the way and found the crux bit to be not low 5th class but mid 5th class. As I pull up in the dihedral, my left foot slips while smearing it on the face. I remain calm and pull over and quickly belay Abe up. We rush over the summit ridge that also included some scrambling. At 12 P.M. we summit.

“Wow, we did it, we actually did it.”

Image #25: Abe following a steep pitch near the summitAbe following a steep pitch near the summitView Larger Image


Image #26: Now time to go down.Now time to go down.View Larger Image

I sit down wiped staring at Snowmass. I didn’t really understand where I was.

“Want to continue and do the Snow Cap ridge?” I said as I try to bring a little humour into an otherwise serious situation.

“Dude, are you okay?” Abe states a few times while on the summit.

I needed energy. I ate some cliff shots, and some gels and I’m back to “normal.” I took out a cross that was given to me by Kevin’s parents but I didn’t feel like it was time to leave it up here. I instead took some pictures. We took a few pictures, sign the register, and we’re off. We were not relaxed on the summit. All I could think about was the descent. I was only half way there. I’m not going to lie, I was pretty tired.

“Deep in my cells I know there’s something bad at the end if I don’t get through it. This keeps me honest. It keeps me scared. I am stronger because I know there is a consequence. I know I can’t get away with slacking off. This is what happens when you ascend above mediocrity. It’s a game. It’s a test. It is the way I live my life.” -Mark Twight

Image #27: Onwards my friendOnwards my friendView Larger Image

We rappel the last pitch and then simul climb to the last rappel to the traverse pitch. This proceeds to be sketchy as the dang cordellete is super long and some spicy moves are required to reach the bottom of it. We both rappel and make sure to have 100% of our attention the rest of the way. Scooting our way across the knife edge we’re almost there. Instead of re climbing K2, I decide to lead us around K2 by traversing. This proves to be sketchy but soon were in the safe zone.

Image #28: Let's get out of hereLet’s get out of hereView Larger Image

We were stoked. We basically run down and clean camp. James left us hot tea and took a lot of the weight. I was so happy about that. We power walked the 7 miles back to the car. The last flat 2 miles could not drag on any longer. Back to the truck, I realize, I finally had climbed Capitol in the winter. Relieved, I took my boots off, and actually felt like I could breathe now. I felt like I was in a trance the rest of the way home.

And I never have to come back to West Snowmass Creek ever again. That’s something I’m excited about.

One journey’s end brings another journey’s beginning. Walk on.

Image #29View Larger Image

Message from partner in crime:

Climbing Capitol in the winter has to be my most shining mountaineering accomplishment thus far. Just want to say that teamwork and camaraderie definitely made this climb a success (that and Noah’s astonishing rope skills!). I learned a lot from him and James also who I was with on Bancroft’s East ridge in November.

Image #30View Larger Image

About Noah McKelvin

Never skip a day of living life
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