The hour of 8am finds Dwight, Dominic and I laden with overnight packs and bound for West Snowmass Creek. Our excuse? We're climbing Haystack Mountain of course. The real impetus for this trip, though I don't quite want to admit it to myself, is a recent, seemingly whimsical and off-the-wall outburst from Dwight: So we gonna climb Capitol over Christmas? I'm not sure if the seriousness of the question exceeded its jesting or vice versa but that's irrelevant; the seed had been sewn regardless. When the weekend arrived wrapped in a bluebird forecast I decided to continue the charade by proposing an overnight trip to climb Haystack Mountain. This way if we get scared of what we find up there and lose courage we don't have to admit to anyone (including ourselves) that we've even been so bold as to contemplate it.. we're just big fans of completely unnecessary backpacking trips to climb forgettable low 12ers.
This morning we've made a rather epic mistake right out of the gate. Soon we'll realize that we're nearly 2 miles from the (currently accessible if you know the right road to take) summer trailhead and its going to be all uphill on the way back. Well, this is what our mission is supposed to be all about, right? Screw it up now and get it right for the real deal? It'll seem that much shorter next time! Wow, this is starting off even better than I expected...
The 2 miles of well tracked road between the dog sled company and the trailhead pass quickly but our pace slows once we're forced to don snowshoes and start up the actual trail. With some poking around crossing Snowmass Creek isn't difficult and after finding our way across the meadow we're blessed with an old buried ski track to aid our progress up West Snowmass Creek. Its still work but it could be worse.
Camp is constructed at the edge of the large inviting meadow below Haystack Mountain and after a brief lounge we take care of “official” business. The view of Mount Daly and a largely obscured Capitol Peak from there is nice but leaves us wanting to know more.
Dominic & I once backpacked to Moon Lake; that trips lives in infamy. Our ascent route took us through world class deadfall and put us through the wringer. On the way back we discovered a reasonable trail on the west side of the creek that was much more pleasant. Naturally today we've decided to try to find that superior route. From the meadow we bust up steep slopes and begin a hideous sidehilling extravaganza. It doesn't take long for the creek bed to lure us back down defeated. We rediscover the old buried ski track. Time to put our faith in the ghost. The track leads us up the east side of the creek, eventually diverging further left than I would have guessed to go. It craftily takes us through what appear to be the clearest, lowest angle slopes possible. Several sections are exposed to serious avalanche terrain to the east and would be out of the question with any more snow but today this route is nothing short of brilliant. This is clearly not the ghost's first time here.
Moon Lake is breached without incident and the boys are so bold as to locate a camp spot and begin stomping out a tent platform. I mock them for their poignant optimism but can't help joining in a little myself. Although we're dying to see what's around the corner it doesn't make any sense to continue today. We improve the track on the way out and keep our fingers crossed. The ensuing week is agonizingly suspenseful. Will the weather hold? A small storm passes through Wednesday night and Snowmass Resort reports 7 new inches Thursday morning.
Driving all the way to the trailhead is luxurious but that joy is soon forgotten as we heave on our packs and are reminded of their increased burden. Two to three inches of fresh airy powder cover our track to start and become six to eight higher up; our previous efforts pay off big time. The worst annoyance this morning is the bitter cold. Once we leave the trees our tracks all but disappear but that doesn't deter us from reaching our pre-chosen camp site at 11,800 feet on a somewhat sheltered knoll northeast of Moon Lake.
After settling in we engage in a short afternoon session to explore and track part of the route to K2. As we climb above the lake and round the bend its a little disheartening to find that although there are boulders poking out in the upper basin, trailbreaking through the powdery, unconsolidated snow is going to take some work. At 12,400 ft and half a mile from K2 we call it good and retreat to camp for the night.
Beware the alarm clock curse of West Snowmass Creek! We unfortunately experience the same phenomena that caused Steve Gladbach's alarm clock malfunction on summit day. We manage to pull it together by about 6.30, 45 minutes behind schedule. Dawson's words resound in my head: “many groups fail due to slow rope work”. We must be morons for attempting this climb on nearly the shortest day of the year.
As we near K2 it is illuminated brightly by the early morning sun and beckons us upward out of the dark, chilly basin. Everything's coming up roses.... then POW! The ambiance changes dramatically as Capitol Peak and the connecting ridge come into view. Gulp.
Just below the summit of K2 we break. My mind is full of fear and doubt as we make both a physical and mental transition to prepare for what is to come. Snowshoes, trekking poles and shovels are stashed. Harnesses, crampons, ice axes and ropes are in fashion now. I try to choke down some delicious cookies but I can barely swallow thinking about what lies ahead.
Dominic and I have come to appreciate the joys of short rope style alpine climbing and decide to go roped together from the start, perhaps 15 meters apart on a 30 meter rope. Dwight brings up the rear with another 30 meter rope at the ready in case he wants a belay. Running home to mommy sounds rather appealing to me at the moment and I almost hope Dominic or Dwight suggests we do so but instead Dominic sets off with determination toward the top of K2, excavating the necessary holds to accomplish that. It seems nontrivial and we've only just begun.
The climb down the north side of K2 to reach the Capitol/K2 saddle is steep but manageable. Past the notch the sharp ridge takes form and we embark on an amazing journey in another universe. A universe in which there is nothing but us and this ridge. A universe in which the only thoughts and actions we're capable of are those related to conquering it.
The going is a little dicier than expected. Loose snow complicates the scrambling and the exposure is real on either side. Soon Dwight's not too comfortable without a rope and rightfully so. We waste some time getting the 2nd rope out, setting up a belay, and stowing the rope again.
We continue along, carefully calculating every step on the narrow ridge crest. After what seems like more work than it should have been the infamous knife edge confronts us. I belay Dominic as he beats the beast into submission, sending the rather large amount of snow that is sticking to the top of it into the abyss while mechanically thrusting himself forward, one leg on either side. On this day none of us consider tackling the knife edge in any other manner. Once Dominic's across Dwight & I take our turns and find it uncanny how exhausting this ridge humping method really is. We're panting like dogs which adds a hint of comic relief to the otherwise serious tone.
We regroup at the far end of the knife edge and after a short discussion set off with improved efficiency, our rope strategy determined and more well defined. We've decided that the terrain and conditions warrant all of us being tied in together. Chances of survival in the case of a fall seem greater this way and if we focus on efficiency this method of travel shouldn't slow us down much. Although we do have a small rack along that gets used on rare occasion, for the most part the ridge is conducive to natural protection. In addition to paying attention to our movements we have to stay in tune with what's happening with the ropes and constantly make decisions for the team on the fly. What happens if I were to fall? What happens if my teammates fell? Should I sling this horn? What way? Are they going to need a tight rope or quick belay for that tricky spot they're coming to? All sense of time is lost as every ounce of concentration is directed to the task at hand.
Dominic's a steadfast animal and we reach the steep, cruxy step we've read about 2/3 of the way across the ridge two hours after leaving K2. This is the only place where winter parties typically leave the ridge crest. When I realize how quickly we've gotten to this point despite the difficulties encountered I experience real and honest hope for the summit for the first time since the inception of this plan. I know the worst is yet to come but I'm starting to catch that optimism bug.
Dominic considers climbing the manky 5.7+ rock step directly for all of about 30 seconds before executing a traverse across steep snow below the crest on the ridge's east side. Since we don't know what the snow's like and even a small slide would send him over massive cliffs below I give him a belay on both ropes with a solid anchor. Snow feels good. He sets an anchor on the other side and belays Dwight & I across.
The next order of business is getting back to the ridge crest, which Dominic does in one short pitch up steep and snowy but well featured rock. He brings Dwight & I up and we revert to simulclimbing. A tough slabby section followed by a short dihedral just below the summit make me wonder how the heck Dominic led this so casually as I whine for a tight rope. The climbing here feels harder then anything else on the ridge.
Close to four hours after leaving K2 we stand atop Capitol Peak with looks of disbelief. Words aren't necessary. Its a surreal moment. Smiles occasionally shine through despite the best efforts of our voices of reason to stuff them. We're on Capitol Peak in winter, but oh crap we're on Capitol Peak and its winter. We're only halfway there; the ridge must be traversed all over again to reach the safety of K2.
With the descent weighing so heavily our psyches no one's interested in lingering. 10 minutes after our arrival we're prepared to make our exit. We reverse order for the return trip but use the same tactics. Dwight & I are belayed down the chimney and slab section below the summit. Dominic doesn't get the comfort of a tight rope from above but at least we have him anchored from below.
We're now in the shade and its getting colder. The next obstacle requiring special attention is the ridge crest bypass. Dwight throws a piece of cordalette around a horn and we take turns rapping from a less than ideal anchor, taking full advantage of both ropes to reach the start of the snow traverse. I say less than ideal because the dang cordalette is so long we have to do a sketchy downclimb to actually get on rappel but none of us are interested in wasting time fixing it at this point. My fingers freeze in the process and I grit my teeth through a case of the screaming barfies as they warm up in dry gloves at the base of the rappel.
From here we resume simulclimbing with natural protection and the rest of the traverse goes more or less like clockwork. We're less tenuous and more confident than on the first pass and never need anything more than an occasional tight rope or quick hip belay. We chase the sun down the ridge the entire way and its always so tantalizingly close. If only we could bask in its warm glow for but a minute. Alas, Dwight's the only one that ever enjoys such a delicacy and he doesn't seem concerned with sharing the fortune. The knife edge comes in due time and we scoot it in the same fashion. We've honed our hump and thrust technique since our first crossing as one or two other sections higher up have required the same.
The reclimb of K2 and descent from its summit to our gear stash seem almost trivial now. A wave of relief washes over us and our smiles are no longer restrained. Traversing and reversing the ridge has been the most serious alpine endeavor any of us has ever undertaken. It has been the most intense 7 hours of my climbing career (accidents aside). Snowshoes never felt so good. No time to pat ourselves on the back now though, its freaking cold.
Shortly after we begin the plod back to camp the adrenaline wears off and I suddenly feel the physical toll Capitol Peak has extracted from me. I go from tireless to beat in what seems like a split second. I now feel the effects of barely eating or drinking all day. None of that matters in the slightest though. We make camp before last light and settle in for an unforgettable Christmas Eve party. Eventually camaraderie loses to the cold and we retire for the night. My mind is racing and although I'm plenty tired its a long while before I fall asleep. Christmas morning comes and we're not especially eager to jump out of bed. We've already opened our present.