Northern Horizons — Traversing the Colorado Elk Mountains

Post by blogger | February 27, 2005      

Pete Sowar

(Editor’s note, the proposed route on Capitol described below was skied by Chris Davenport and Neal Beidleman in 2006. Report here.)

When you see the same alps next to your town day after day, sometimes you have to go there.

Camp in Pierre Basin below east face of Capitol Peak.

Camp in Pierre Basin below east face of Capitol Peak.

My friends and I dreamed about this traverse for years. From any high point around Crested Butte, Colorado it is totally visible, covering almost the entire northern horizon. We planned on traveling from Marble to Crested Butte, skiing seven of Colorado’s steepest fourteeners along the way. The route would start with Capitol (possibly by a new route), then move to Snowmass, South Maroon, North Maroon, Pyramid, Conundrum, and finally Castle.

Sean Crossen and I were able to talk Jeremy Wegner, Frank Konsella, and Josh Macak into joining us. (Sean and Josh came along only for the Capitol Peak section.) We were all sold on the fact that this winter of 04/05 was huge, so there wouldn’t be any better time to try. We wanted to have as much snow coverage as possible while still getting the good spring snow pack, so we decided to go the third week of April. The problem with going that early is that there is still a chance of big storms coming through. You are rolling the dice, hoping that the big HIGH can hold strong and keep storms away.

Jackass Pass -- a new way for ski mountaineers to get from Geneva Lake to Pierre Basin.

Jackass Pass — a new way for ski mountaineers to get from Geneva Lake to Pierre Basin.

We were on schedule below Capitol. The route from Geneva Lake to Pierre Basin over the two unnamed passes (the pass dropping into Pierre Basin is now Jackass Pass in our book) is there and if you take the best route it could be pretty easy. Turns out we were about 30 feet to the right so we did a short rappel – Frank decided to ski in on a sketchy traverse and then we lowered his pack to him. The weather was pretty rough that day. Standing on Jackass Pass the wind was blowing a steady 30-50 mph and it wasn’t much better on Pierre Lake, where we dug in for the night.

I’ve been studying the new ski route on Capitol for a couple years. It has three cruxes, all of which involve major exposure. The first crux would be the most technical but would also have the least exposure, with only 100 feet between you and the ground. The rest involved a 400 foot cliff just below your feet. The first crux involves about 20 feet of hard ice followed by about 50 feet of snow and then a 30 foot traverse across smooth rock slabs.

Capitol Peak from east, famous Knife Ridge to right of summit.

Capitol Peak from east, famous Knife Ridge to right of summit.

The ice can be easily protected with a screw or two and the slabs can be protected with rock gear. What I thought would be the second crux had a line of snow that went through so it would be easier than anticipated. The third crux was from what I call Crazy Corner, to the main face that goes to the summit. This is a long traverse, at least 5 full rope lengths, with the 400 foot cliff always below you. It’s possible to free climb this but it is super exposed and a group may want to use snow pickets to protect this traverse. From there it would be an easy climb to the summit (50 – 55 degrees). The ski would be relatively easy but would require traveling back across the rock slab and rappelling the ice.
Capitol Peak summit detail, from east.
Detail of Capitol summit section.

Detail of Capitol summit section, viewed from east.

Detail of Capitol summit section, viewed from east. I thought our big winter would cover the ice and rock slab but that is not the case, so this route will be similar almost every winter with a good snowpack, and much worse during dry winters.

We were out of camp early the second day of our trip, standing at 6 a.m. below Capitol’s first crux. The weather was beautiful – clear and cold. We could have easily gotten through this crux and to Crazy Corner (the start of the third crux ), but we didn’t have the gear to protect the traverse that goes from the corner to the main line up the face. Instead of climbing for the sake of climbing – there was going to be no summit – we decided it was best for the traverse if we bailed and moved on.

Detail of lower part of proposed route, first crux is circled. See tighter image below.

Detail of lower part of proposed route, first crux is circled. See tighter image below.

Detail of lower crux on Capitol east face.

Detail of lower crux on Capitol east face.

Because we failed so early with our big mountain objective, we decided to break camp and head back to Geneva Lake. This side of Jackass Pass should be climbed early because it is east facing. We were later than should have been so the snow was pretty soft — axes and crampons were of little help. I ended up soloing an 80 foot section of technical snow and rock that was sketchy at best with my full pack and skis on my back. I then belayed the rest of the group up what we had rappelled down when coming over from Geneva Lake.

The next day we skied the west face of Snowmass, then broke camp and backcountry skied up Fravert Basin to get in position for South Maroon Peak. This was a huge day. Our group felt strong and we were all feeling good about being able to complete the traverse. It was a beautiful day and that evening the full moon was so bright we nearly needed sunglasses to look at it. We went to bed that night with thoughts of a perfect corn run down the south couloir. We were sadly mistaken.

At Geneva Lake, heading for Jackass Pass. Snowmass Mountain to left, a fourteener the crew skied during their return trip.

At Geneva Lake, heading for Jackass Pass. Snowmass Mountain to left, a fourteener the crew skied during their return trip.

Around 3 a.m. the wind started blowing hard and the snow started falling. We spent the next day in our tents. We woke up the next morning to a foot of new snow and it was still falling 2 inches per hour. The 10 day forecast was almost all snow. We figured with so much fresh and more on the way that there wasn’t much of a chance at skiing any of the other lines very safely for at least a week so we decided to bail out over Frigid Air pass and backcountry ski back to Crested Butte. It was a long 16 mile day. We finished in style by going straight to the Eldorado in all our stinky gear, boots still on, for some beer and mighty fine fried food.

It is always sad to give up on something you want so badly. Even though the weather is nice as I write this, the snow is coming back and will stick around for several days. I think we made the right decision considering the objective of the traverse was to try to ski all the Elk’s 14ers. I was fine leaving Capital, and Pyramid could easily have not happened from the summit, but the trip would have still been completely successful without those two summits.

Even though we didn’t complete the traverse and only skied off one summit (Snowmass), it was tons of fun and I was glad to be out in the middle of Colorado’s incredible Elk Mountains with a group of friends who were all as stoked as I was to be there.

(Editor’s note: These men definitely had the potential of upping the anti with their attempt on this traverse, not to mention their try on the new highly technical Capitol Route. While the weather shut them down and they didn’t cover much new ground, as it went they still covered at least 40 miles, and 13,500′ vertical feet, and were out for 6 days and 5 nights. World class! Looking at their achievements over the past years (e.g., Konsella’s new route on Pyramid Peak he did with Jay Prentiss, and Pete’s new route on the South Face of Castle Peak), I believe that along with a few other individuals these guys represent the cutting edge of ski alpinism backcountry skiing in North America. Lastly, on historical note, well known Aspen ski alpinist Bob Perlmutter recently mentioned to me that he’d eyed this route back in the 1970s and was quite familiar with it. When when I spoke with him he seemed was pleased to hear that the Crested Butte crowd were on the case, though knowing Bob and how much he likes great lines, I’d imagine he could easily be convinced to do the route himself!)

All photos used by permission of Frank and Pete.


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