Castle & Conundrum in Winter

The first time I climbed the Elk Range 14er Castle Peak was for my company’s 2004 Griffith Centers Peak Challenge. I organized it and selfishly chose Castle Peak as I had not hiked it. Griffith Centers for Children sponsors 14er climbs every year we try and participate every year we can. Griffith Centers is a great organization that helps troubled children and their families primarily in Denver. Come to think of it Castle Peak was Rainier and my 1st 14er in the Elks.

BGCE Peak Challenge summit pic on Castle Peak (14,265'). August 7, 2004

BGCE Peak Challenge summit pic on Castle Peak (14,265′). August 7, 2004

I then learned there was another 14er next to Castle Peak called Conundrum Peak (14,060′). However, back in those days Conundrum was not recognized as an official 14er of the list of 54 due to it not rising 300′ above the connecting saddle with its higher neighbor, Castle Peak. These days, I believe Conundrum is generally included in the 14er list. Rainier and I ventured up high into Montenzuma Basin in the spring of 2006 and climbed Conundrum just the two of us.

Brandon & Rainie on Conundrum Pk's summit (14,060')

Brandon & Rainie on Conundrum Peak’s summit (14,060′)

In late June of 2008, Kristine was on her quest to complete the Colorado 14ers and so we all went back up into Montezuma Basin and climbed both 14ers. We took more of a sporty line up Conundrum Peak this time via the steeper Conundrum Couloir. After we summitted Conundrum, we did the fairly mellow traverse over to Castle Peak. Montezuma Basin offers wonderful skiing and we skied from about 13,500′ all the way back down to the truck. It was a great day.

Kristine nearing the top of the Conundrum Couloir

Kristine nearing the top of the Conundrum Couloir

Conundrum Peak summit (14,060')

Conundrum Peak summit (14,060′)

Castle Peak summit (14,265')

Castle Peak summit (14,265′)

I’ve been skiing over in Montezuma Basin a few times since 2008 but never to go climb those two 14ers. My friend Natalie Moran is on her winter 14er quest and asked me if I would like to join her on these two. After our recent fun climb up Mt. Sneffels two weeks prior, I was itching to get back up on some peaks as well. And, the weather has been wonderful from a winter climbing perspective., i.e. not much recent snow at all leaving stable snow conditions. Another friend of Natalie’s, Greg from Crested Butte, joined us as well and turns out that these two 14ers were still left on his winter 14er list. Greg only has 6 or so more winter 14ers to have climbed all the 14ers in winter. Pretty amazing stuff. Plus, Greg is one of the fastest people I have climbed with no doubt. I drove over to Aspen and turned onto the dark Castle Creek Road, went south to Ashcroft and the winter road closure, and parked next to Natalie’s car around 10:30pm. In winter, the route starts much lower with much more distance and vertical gain to climb than in the summer. I believe the roundtrip stats are around 5,500′ and 16 miles in winter for both 14ers. You can cut that in half or more in the summer given how far you can drive up the 4WD mining road in Montezuma Basin. After a rough and very short night’s rest in the back of Kristine’s Subaru Impreza, in which I certainly did not fit, we woke up at 3:15am and got geared up. Greg showed up at our cars and we all began up the road at around 4:15am with Natalie and I on our skis and Greg on foot with his snowshoes on his pack. We made good time the first few miles and eventually reached the point on the road where I had always driven my truck just before the Pearl Pass turnoff. Soon after the morning colors began to light the sky we entered Montezuma Basin.

Dawn breaks

Dawn breaks

Natalie skinning up Montezuma Basin

Natalie skinning up Montezuma Basin

Upper Montezuma Basin from the summer 12,800' 4WD parking

Upper Montezuma Basin from the summer 12,800′ 4WD parking

After another hour of skinning, we reached the 12,800′ 4WD summer parking area and looked up at the final headwall to the small glacier below the peaks. We noticed a skin track up this 600′ headwall and went for it only to find out that is was horribly icy and slick from a skinner’s perspective. At this point, I certainly wished I just had crampons or snowshoes to go straight up instead of slipping and struggling up the switchbacks.

Me skinning up the icy headwall skin track. Photo by Natalie

Me skinning up the icy headwall skin track. Photo by Natalie

We regrouped in the high 13,500′ basin below Castle’s north face and Conundrum’s east face. Our plan was to climb to the saddle between the two peaks, but it looked a bit loaded from a snow accumulation perspective and perhaps a bit dangerous climbing it. I was honestly expecting it to be a bit drier. We then chose to climb the steeper north couloir of Castle leaving the skis and snowshoes at the base. The couloir was safe enough but definitely a bit demoralizing as it was littered with scree. Snow only covered a small portion of the couloir and it was a bit unconsolidated at that. Natalie and I were fighting our own battles in that couloir due to climbing in ski boots on loose, steep scree. We soon topped out to find Greg lounging at the notch. After a quick snack and drink, we left for the summit only a few hundred vertical feet above along the northeast ridge.

Looking down Castle's North Couloir at Natalie with Conundrum Peak behind

Natalie climbing Castle’s North Couloir with Conundrum Peak behind

Looking up the couloir at Greg almost to the notch

Looking up the couloir at Greg almost to the notch

Greg & I going for Castle's summit. Photo by Natalie

Greg & I going for Castle’s summit. Photo by Natalie

Greg climbing Castle's northeast ridge

Greg climbing Castle’s northeast ridge

Natalie climbing Castle's northeast ridge

Natalie climbing Castle’s northeast ridge

Natalie a bit higher

Natalie a bit higher

Greg

Greg

Almost there

Almost there

Conundrum Peak from Castle's northeast ridge

Conundrum Peak & the Conundrum Couloir from Castle’s northeast ridge

We topped out on Castle around 11:15am making for an ascent time of around 6 hours. After maybe 15 minutes, we started making the traverse over to Conundrum.

Castle Peak summit (14,265'). March 5, 2016

Castle Peak summit (14,265′). March 5, 2016

Greg & I on Castle's summit. Photo by Natalie

Greg & I on Castle’s summit. Photo by Natalie

The othhr 5 rugged Elk Range 14ers to the west

The other 5 rugged Elk Range 14ers to the west

Upon reaching the saddle with Conundrum, we scoped out a possible descent back to the high glacier bowl between the peaks. This same route looked more dangerous from below in the basin a few hours earlier in terms of climbing up it, but now looking down it, it looked like a viable route off these peaks instead of reclimbing Castle and downclimbing its north couloir. Plus, when you are descending a steeper snow route, obviously your time in the danger zone of going down it is much much less than climbing up it. We tested the snow and it definitely appeared stable with no deliberate slabs waiting to rip. We left our packs at the saddle and made the short climb up Conundrum’s south ridge.

Natalie climbing up Conundrum with Castle behind

Natalie climbing up Conundrum with Castle behind

Natalie on Conundrum's summit

Natalie on Conundrum’s summit

Conundrum Peak summit (14,060'). March 5, 2016

Conundrum Peak summit (14,060′). March 5, 2016

Greg & Castle

Greg & Castle

I was happy for Natalie as Conundrum had eluded her on her last winter foray up into Montezuma Basin. Though, at least she was able to summit Castle that day in late January of last year. We descended back to the saddle and one by one descended the steep powdery slopes to below the small cliff band. Then, in order to get down the slope quickly, we each had fun glissades for a few hundred feet. A quick traverse led back over to our skis and snowshoes at the base of Castle’s north couloir.

Greg descending the powdery slopes below the saddle to me below the small cliff

Greg descending the powdery slopes below the saddle to me below the small cliff

Greg

Greg

Natalie striking out across the slope below the small cliff band. This would have been a fun ski with good snow :)

Natalie striking out across the slope below the small cliff band. This slope would have been a fun ski as this was good snow :)

Glissade tracks

Glissade tracks

Natalie back at our skis and snowshoes with our descent route from the saddle behind

Natalie back at our skis and snowshoes with our descent route from the saddle behind

After a snack and some Gatorade, we transitioned back to our skis and shoes and descended. Greg motored ahead while Natalie and I picked our way over to the slope we have both skied before. It was pretty tough snow to ski and I ended up alpining instead of telemarking (as much as I hate to resort to alpine turns) for fear of blowing out my knee. We actually got some nice corn turns down lower in the basin, which was much more enjoyable.

Me skiing the skiable headwall. Photo by Natalie

Me skiing the skiable headwall. Photo by Natalie

Me skiing lower down in the basin. Photo by Natalie

Me dropping my knee lower down in the basin on some nice corn snow. Photo by Natalie

Skate-skiing out the final 2 miles to Ashcroft passing horse-drawn sleighs along the way

Skate-skiing out the final 2 miles to Ashcroft passing horse-drawn sleighs along the way. Photo by Natalie

Natalie and I skied on out all the way back to the winter road closure at Ashcroft and our cars arriving by 1:45pm making for about a 9.5 hour day. Even though Greg was on snowshoes, he only arrived an hour after we did. He is fast. I had to take off soon after arriving at the cars in order to make a Costco run for the Chalk family on my way home and to catch the Duke-UNC game, of course. A wonderful day out with a fine crew. Happy that Greg and Natalie added more peaks to their winter list and that I could be a part of it. As for the winter 14er list for myself, I need to go back and count (if I am able to) which ones I have done in winter over the past 18 years. I always swore that I was done with lists. However, I guess never say never.

Mt. Sneffels in Winter

The boys and I had our annual Silverton ski trip this past weekend. Typically, we have been very lucky with snow conditions every year with massive amounts of powder and storms on this exact weekend. However, this year the mountain had not seen good snow in weeks and I felt like the conditions would leave a lot to be desired. So, I decided to see about skiing on Saturday and climbing a peak on Sunday. I chatted up my friend Natalie and she soon had me convinced to attempt the 14er Mt. Sneffels with her as she had tried it in winter 3 years prior and had turned around at the 13,500′ Lavender Col because of unfavorable snow conditions. She is trying to climb all of Colorado’s 14ers in winter – a serious and very admirable undertaking. I always thought I was done with lists after the 7 Summits and I still claim that I am. However, climbing Sneffels made me realize how I do enjoy being up high on a 14er in the winter. Our crew did end up skiing on Saturday below gorgeous sunny bluebird skies and the snow on Silverton Mtn actually warmed up to acceptable ski conditions. It was a lot of fun with a good crew. Natalie showed up at our Wolf Haus late that afternoon and we all went to a great dinner that evening at Eureka Station in Silverton. We got to bed around 11pm and woke up at 3:15am for a 4am departure to the Sneffels winter road closure gate outside of Ouray. It was a great day to be up high in Colorado and things went about as well as they can on a 14er in the winter. I had climbed Sneffels maybe 6-7 times before all via the standard Lavender Col route and one trip via the Snake Couloir on the peak’s north face , but never in the winter. So, this trip was a special treat to see such stunning terrain in all its winter glory. Natalie wrote a nice little trip report here, which sums up the day well. Below are a few of my favorite pics from the day:

Me starting the steeper skinning up to Lavender Col above. Photo by Natalie

Me starting the steeper skinning up to Lavender Col above. Photo by Natalie

Natalie booting up the steeper slopes to Lavender Col with Gilpin Peak behind

After leaving the skis around 13,200′ (because the very icy and firm snow made the slope unskinnable), Natalie boots up the steeper slopes to Lavender Col with Gilpin Peak behind

Me booting up the Lavender Couloir. Photo by Natalie

Me booting up the Lavender Couloir. Photo by Natalie

Me on the upper face. Photo by Natalie

Me on the upper face. Photo by Natalie

Natalie forging ahead on the steep and exposed upper face

Natalie forging ahead on the steep and exposed upper face

Mt. Sneffels summit (14,150') on February 21,2016

Mt. Sneffels summit (14,150′) on February 21,2016

Natalie and I at the summer 4WD trailhead at about 12,400' on the ski out

Natalie and I at the summer 4WD trailhead at about 12,400′ on the ski out

It was about a 14 mile RT day with about 5,000′ of vertical gain is just over 9 hours.  I kept thinking how fun and enjoyable it would be to come back with Kristine and drive up to the summer 4WD trailhead and ski some nice late May/June corn snow on this peak and the surrounding terrain and other peaks. We’ll try and make that happen.

New 14er Dog Book

Well, after 7 years in the making and 11 years of climbing 14ers with his golden retriever named Sawyer, Josh Aho of Denver completed his wonderful coffee table-style book chronicling his and Sawyer’s 14er adventures together in an attempt to become the 2nd human/dog duo to climb all of Colorado’s 14ers. They were so close to completing their goal, but Capitol Peak, widely regarded as Colorado’s hardest 14er by its easiest route, eluded them. This book really is a one of a kind book and anyone who loves dogs and hiking mountains should buy this book.

Climbing Colorado's 14ers with Sawyer

Climbing Colorado’s 14ers with Sawyer

Years ago Josh reached out to me inquiring about Rainier’s 14er adventures and climbs with me. He was planning on doing a section of his book dedicated to the history of 14er dogs who had climbed a significant number of them and had done some of the tougher peaks. I was honored that he thought to include her in this section. Rainie was honored too :) Rainie and I have spent a lot of time together exploring the Colorado 14ers (and countless other peaks and areas) and she really was my #1 partner for so many years on these peaks. All said and done she climbed 45 different 14ers (of 54) and probably 150+ total ascents of 14ers with multiple repeats. She has probably logged 25 ascents up Quandary Peak south of Breckenridge not to mention 3 summits of Snowmass Mountain, 2 of Wilson Peak, 2 of Mt. Sneffels, 2 summits of both Challenger Point and Kit Carson Peak, the El Diente to Mt. Wilson traverse, 1 ascent of Pyramid Peak, 1 ascent of Wetterhorn Peak, and 1 of Crestone Peak just to name the highlights.

The History of 14er Dogs section. Can you spot Rainie?

The History of 14er Dogs section. Can you spot Rainie?

Rainie's section

Rainie’s section. Click to enlarge

I cannot imagine the effort and dedication it takes to pull off a book like this and my hat (several hats) are off to Josh on a monumental effort and wonderful success. He initially had 1,000 of these books printed and shipped to his home and I have no doubt he can sell them all. There are so many hiking dog lovers all over Colorado and the country that would love every page of this book. The pictures are outstanding and Josh chronicles each climb with Sawyer and even has a “paw” rating for how dog-friendly the 14er may be.

A typical two page spread for each 14er. This one is dedicated to their climb of Wetterhorn Peak

A typical two page spread for each 14er. This one is dedicated to their climb of Wetterhorn Peak

A few chapters are dedicated to certain climbs that took multiple attempts and extraordinary effort. One such chapter details their climb of Pyramid Peak, likely one of the top 5 hardest 14ers. I haven’t reached this chapter yet in my dissection of this book, but I can’t wait to get there as I have fond memories of Rainier and I climbing this same mountain.

Ascending the Pyramid chapter

Ascending the Pyramid chapter

I have to throw in a few pics of Rainier and I climbing Pyramid back in August of 2009 as this was one of my most favorite days in the mountains. Good friends Caleb & Jennie Wray joined us for this climb. This was my 4th time up Pyramid and I had climbed it just two weeks prior to when Rainie and I climbed it just to make sure I knew the route without hesitation. I was so very proud of Rainie that day. Well, I am always proud of her no matter what. She really stuck by my side (right on my heels) on all of the treacherous 14ers and if there was a move she needed help with she just waited for my help either ascending or descending. That’s what the dog harness was for – to help her in tricky spots,

Starting out with a view of the Maroon Bells. Photo by Caleb Wray

Starting out with a view of the Maroon Bells. Photo by Caleb Wray

Hitting snowline and she has her dog harness ready to go

Hitting snowline and she has her dog harness ready to go

The "Leap of Faith" move

The “leap of faith” move. Photo by Caleb Wray

The class 4 "Green Couloir"

The class 4 “Green Couloir”

Rainie on the summit ridge

Rainie on the summit ridge

Rainie and I on Pyramid's summit

Rainie and I on Pyramid’s summit

...and down we go. Photo by Caleb Wray

…and down we go. Photo by Caleb Wray

Anyway, back to Josh’s book. Weighing in at over 5 lbs, its a beefy book but is packed full of 350+ pages of wonderful photos and stories. As slow a reader as I am, its going to take me a while to read the entire masterpiece, but if you like mountains and dogs, you should order a copy. More details and ordering information can be found on Josh’s website at www.14ercanine.com.

BGCE Holy Cross Climb

Despite being the 14er in our backyard, I hadn’t climbed Mt. of the Holy Cross since the  July 4 weekend of 2004. That weekend was an awesome steep snow climb up the Angelica Couloir on the north face of Holy Cross with Billy Larson, Matt Davidson, and Rainier. We descended down the standard north ridge route and back to our camp down in the East Cross Creek valley. Before this holiday weekend in 2004, the first time I had climbed Holy Cross was a daytrip way back in the summer of 1997 with good friends Chris Zarek and Andrew Norelli on one of our typical half-summer road trips to climb peaks and be college kids.

Rainier & I climbing the Angelica Couloir. I think I should start wearing Patagonia Baggies shorts over long johns again. Photo by Matt Davidson

Rainier & I climbing the Angelica Couloir in 2004 on July 4 weekend. I think I should start wearing Patagonia Baggies shorts over long johns again. Photo by Matt Davidson

Billy, me, & Rainier on the summit of Holy Cross (14,005') in early July 2004

Billy, me, & Rainier on the summit of Holy Cross (14,005′) in early July 2004. Photo by Matt Davidson

Our engineering firm, Beaudin Ganze Consulting Engineers (BGCE), tries to participate in the Griffith Centers for Children sponsored 14er climb every year we can. Griffith Centers is a great organization that helps troubled children and their families. BGCE missed out on last year for various reasons, but now with Dan Koelliker at our helm he was determined not to miss another year. I organized this event for 8 of the 12 years I have been with the firm and so Dan and I agreed I should do it again. Not wanting to drive very far and knowing there were several new employees to the Vail Valley who had not climbed the local 14er, I chose Holy Cross. We had never done Holy Cross as a firm for this event before and probably for good reason. Its one of the bigger dayhikes of any of the 14ers. At 12 miles and 5,625′ of vertical gain roundtrip, its nothing to sneeze at. The Griffith Centers has great polypro shirts made for us every year in exchange for our donation and we all try and wear them on the climb and end up wearing them for years afterwards as they are great shirts.

We had a great crew from our Avon office making the climb and all made it up to a campsite at the Halfmoon Campground last Friday evening. It was such a fun evening of camaraderie and games (Hammer Schlogger). In fact, when Kona and I racked out in the back of my truck at 11pm, Billy said he was going to be back, but never showed. He, Dylan, and Trevor partied all night long and kept the fire going. Good thing too because I love having a warm fire to wake up to at 3am to send us on our way. Trevor is the best basecamp manager ever. And, Dylan is a heck of an intern. Too bad he has to go back for his senior year at Penn State. Holy Cross would be Dylan’s 1st 14er as it would be for Sam Gale and Kelsey McGrew. Also, Kona had never been up Holy Cross. A new 14er for her as well.

Some of our crew at our campsite

Some of our crew at our campsite

Playing Hammer Schlogger round the fire

Playing Hammer Schlogger round the fire

This is a fun game

This is a fun game

Just some nails, a wood block, and a hammer - that is all that is required

Just some nails, a wood block, and a hammer – that is all that is required

Up at 3am for coffee and oatmeal, we all geared up. Dan showed up just shy of 4am all bright eyed and ready to go. We finally got on the road/trail by 4:30am. Not too bad for a party of eleven and two dogs. It was  gorgeous morning and the sunrise to the east was brilliant. Chelsey decided to hang at Halfmoon Pass and watch the sunrise and leisurely stroll back to camp where Trevor was undoubtedly sleeping in.

Sunrise over the Gore: Zodiac Ridge front and center

Sunrise over the Gore: Zodiac Ridge front and center

Gorgeous light over the Gore from Halfmoon Pass. Photo by Shawn Wright

Gorgeous light over the northern Gore Range from Halfmoon Pass. Photo by Shawn Wright

Moon over Notch Mountain. Photo by Shawn Wright

Moon over Notch Mountain. Photo by Shawn Wright

First light on Holy Cross descending to East Cross Creek from Halfmoon Pass

First light on Holy Cross while descending to East Cross Creek from Halfmoon Pass

Mt. Jackson

Mt. Jackson

Dan and I (and Kona, of course), along with Tim, Brent, and Billy booked it down 1,000′ to East Cross Creek and folks grabbed a drink. I wanted to reach the others who were further ahead. Dan and I boogied up the lower section of the north ridge where the trail is so well-defined and a very nice trail at that. Much different than I remember 11 years ago where the trail was pretty faint. We caught up to Sam, Dylan, Billy, and Britta. Dylan then decided to hike with me at a brisk pace up the great north ridge trail to catch Shawn, Kelsey, & K9 companion Fitzy. Of course Dylan was right on my tail the whole time. He is a beast and a great athlete. He has also tried out as the kicker for Penn State’s football team and regularly kicks 60 yard field goals. Not bad at all. We reached Shawn, Kelsey, & Fitzy at about 13,000′ and all hiked together from then on to the summit.

The Gore Range and Notch Mountain from Holy Cross' north ridge

Looking north to the Gore Range from Holy Cross’ north ridge

Shawn & Dylan with Holy Cross' summit behind

Shawn & Dylan with Holy Cross’ summit behind

Dylan with Notch Mountain behind

Dylan with Notch Mountain behind

Fitzy with the summit of Holy Cross behind

Fitzy with the summit of Holy Cross behind

A few hundred feet below the summit, we peered down the ole Angelica Couloir. It would be a nice ski someday.

Looking down the Angelica Couloir

Looking down the Angelica Couloir

Arriving on the perfectly windless Holy Cross summit around 8:15am, we dropped our packs and soaked in the views every which way. I forgot just how amazing the views are from this perch. Its the only peak rising above 14,000′ for a long distance in every direction. From the Elks to the south, the Flat Tops to the northwest, the Gores to the northeast, and the TenMile and Sawatch to the east and southeast, the views are unobstructed.

Me taking in the views almost to the summit. Photo by Shawn Wright

Me taking in the views almost to the summit. Photo by Shawn Wright

Vail's back bowls and the northern Gore Range

Minturn in the valley, Vail’s Game Creek Bowl, and the northern Gore Range

The southern Gore Range

The southern Gore Range

Looking down the east-facing Cross Couloir over to Notch Mountain

Looking down the east-facing Cross Couloir over to Notch Mountain

Righ to left: The Maroon Bells, Pyramid Peak, and Castle Peak all visible in the Elk Range

Righ to left: The Maroon Bells, Pyramid Peak, and Castle Peak all visible in the Elk Range

Capitol Peak and Snowmass Mountain visible in the Elk Range

Right to left: Mt. Daly, Capitol Peak, and Snowmass Mountain visible in the Elk Range

Kelsey on her 1st 14er summit!

Kelsey on her 1st 14er summit!

Shawn & Fitzy on Holy Cross' summit

Shawn & Fitzy on Holy Cross’ summit

Dan, Sam, Billy, & Britta arrived about 9:20am and Tim followed around 9:30am. Brent had turned around on the north ridge at about 11,800′ just above treeline. Kona and I scampered back down to to just above the Angelica Couloir to make sure I didn’t seen Brent coming up. Who I thought may be him turned out not to be. We then hiked back up to the summit. There were lots of folks on the summit – maybe 30 climbers. Dan had asked one of the trail crews how many people were on the peak today and he estimated maybe 110 people. He said it was typical for a Saturday in the summer. Amazing. A decade ago, I bet that number would be less than 10 people. It was wonderful to see Sam so excited to be up there. It looked as if she had been doing these peaks for years. I broke out our BGCE company banner and we got the requisite group summit shot.

BGCE on the summit of Mt. of the Holy Cross (14,005')

BGCE on the summit of Mt. of the Holy Cross (14,005′)

Me and Kona

Me and Kona

Dan and I on the summit of Holy Cross

Dan and I on the summit of Holy Cross

A cool summit panoramic of Vail's back bowls and the Gore Range by Shawn Wright. Click to enlarge

A cool summit panoramic of Vail’s back bowls and the Gore Range by Shawn Wright. Click to enlarge

Holy Cross summit boulder and USGS summit marker

Holy Cross summit boulder and USGS summit marker

We all left the summit around 10:15am and made our way down the boulders to the north ridge. Shawn, Kelsey, & Fitzy motored ahead to meet his parents as they were leaving the Valley the next morning to head back to Minneapolis.

Sam, me, Dylan, and Kona on the north ridge during the descent. Photo by Dan

Sam, me, Dylan, and Kona on the north ridge during the descent. Photo by Dan

Tim and Britta were together, Dan and Sam stayed together, and Dylan, Kona, & I made our way down the north ridge to East Cross Creek where we tried to wait for the others, but the mosquitos were just too bad. Though, we did refill with water and Kona took a much needed drink and swim to cool off. The three of us motored back up to Halfmoon Pass catching Billy along the way and we made it back to the campsite around 1:45 pm to find Brent, Chelsey, and Trevor sitting around the fire. The remaining folks all arrived by 2:30pm and we sat around for a bit and recapped the day. Kirby Cosmo’s BBQ Bar in Minturn was on tap for a post-hike celebration, so we quickly packed up and headed down the Tigiwon Road. Things worked out really well for our crew up on Holy Cross this day. From the weather, the group, the camaraderie, it was all so very enjoyable. Thanks to everyone for their positive attitude and excitement. Congratulations to all!

Celebrating at Kirby Cosmo's

Celebrating at Kirby Cosmo’s

Excitement & Disappointment in the Capitol Creek Valley

My good buddy Jesse Hill and myself spent an evening, night, and a half day or so this past weekend up in the beautiful Capitol Creek Valley. We were both so excited and a bit anxious about attempting to climb the spectacular Northwest Buttress on the 14er Capitol Peak. Its a route I had long wanted to try and climb. Climbers say its one of the better mountaineering routes on a 14er in the state. Having seen it now up close and personal, I would have to agree. The first pitch is 5.9 albeit at 12,500′ up a traversing crack system for a good 120′. The 2nd pitch is a long 5.8 chimney leading to easier (4th class) ground. 500′ or so of solid 4th class scrambling leads to the right (west) of Unicorn Spire from where low 5th class simul climbing typically ensues for several hundred feet up to a saddle. A final 5.7 pitch leads to 4th class scrambling to the summit. Descent is via the standard northeast “knife-edge” ridge route. Here is an overview of the route drawn by Stich on MountainProject:

Capitol's Northwest Buttress route

Capitol’s Northwest Buttress route. Click to enlarge

I had been up Capitol three times all via the standard route, which in itself is a classic route very worthy of all the hype. Jesse had climbed Capitol maybe 11 years ago and was excited to go back. We departed Edwards around 3pm on Friday afternoon and were hiking by 5pm on the Capitol Ditch Trail into the Capitol Creek Valley. Unfortunately, it was lightly raining on us the entire 6.5 mile backpack into Capitol Lake (11,500′).

Jesse hiking into Capitol Lake on a dreary Friday evening

Jesse hiking into Capitol Lake on a dreary Friday evening

It never even approached to crossing our minds that this rain was doing much more damage up high on our intended route, i.e. drenching the route and making the 5.8 chimney a small stream. What we didn’t know at the time didn’t bring us down, so we enjoyed the pack into the valley with good conversation despite the rain. We arrived at the lake 3 hours later right at 8pm and quickly found a site to set up the tent to get out of the rain. However, as soon as we put down our packs, the rain stopped and the skies cleared. Jesse went to filter water while I took pictures of Capitol’s north face in the alpenglow. That site never gets old.

Alpenglow on capitol's north face. The Northwest Buttress route is the right skyline

Alpenglow on Capitol’s north face. The Northwest Buttress route is the right skyline

I ate my burrito while Jesse cooked some Mountain House and we got in our sleeping bags around 9:30pm. I was still chilled a bit though warmed up within the warm confines of my zero degree bag. I slept horrible that night. I think it was a combination of using the climbing rope for my pillow, which in turn gave me a headache and hurt my neck, and a big root right under my pad. Anyway, I was a zombie at 4am, but after some coffee I was fired up to go. We left the tent with harnesses on and geared up around 5am. It was a nice hike up to Capitol Pass at just over 12,000′ and took us about 40 minutes. We then began the talus scramble up the steeper ground to the base of the technical pitches up the Northwest Buttress just as it began to get light enough out to see our surroundings.

Jesse on the talus cone with Capitol Lake behind

Jesse on the talus cone with Capitol Lake behind

We were excited. However, upon seeing the large black streaks drenching over the 5.9 crack originating from the 5.8 chimney, we paused for a moment. We thought it may just be a stain from previous water and the rock still dry. As we got right up on the face, we could see it was running water and the pitches were wet. Not ideal and very disappointing.

The upper half of the 1st 5.9 pitch was drenched from the previous day's rain

The upper half of the 1st 5.9 pitch was drenched from the previous day’s rain

We discussed things a bit and decided to give the 1st pitch a go primarily get a good look at the 5.8 chimney 2nd pitch. We traversed east out the small ledge to the base of the 5.9 crack. I racked up and Jesse belayed me on lead of the awesome finger crack start.

My finger crack start to the 1st pitch

My finger crack start to the 1st pitch

The views were great from the small ledge

The views were great from the small ledge

I believe there is an easier start located about 10′ left (east) of the finger crack I climbed. I worked my way up crack system traversing left placing a few cams, clipping an old stuck hex and a piton, and pulled the roof to a good stance about 60′ up from Jesse where an old bolt was located on the face above.

Me pulling the roof on the 5.9 1st pitch

Me pulling the roof on the 5.9 1st pitch. Photo by Jesse

A leftward trending off width crack leading to the final vertical finger crack to the anchors was the 2nd half of the 1st pitch and yet to come from where I stood above the roof. This is where the water was drenching the route. Instead of continuing on to the anchors, I decided to lower off the piton and hex below me. I could see the 5.8 chimney well from my position and there was a small waterfall pouring over the crux bulge to get into the 5.8 chimney above the anchors for the 1st pitch. If I had continued onto the anchors, I don’t believe I could have rapped back down to Jesse with a single rope, i.e. the pitch was too long. Ugh, I was gutted lowering back down collecting my gear. Honestly, the water issue and potential wetness of the pitches after a rainstorm was something I hadn’t remotely considered. There was a couple from Carbondale who had dayhiked in from the trailhead that morning arriving at the base of the technical pitches as I lowered down. They seemed deflated as they looked at the water on the route. They were gunning for the 5.10 start called Early Times, which seemed to be very wet and slick as well. We started down the talus cone back to Capitol Pass occasionally glancing back at the duo trying to figure out the drenched 5.10 dihedral start to Early Times. The fellow was on a ledge trying to figure out how to get into the wet dihedral for probably 30 minutes. I am not sure if they ever figured it out. We lost sight of them soon enough.

Jesse and Capitol's Northwest Buttress

Jesse and Capitol’s Northwest Buttress

I labelled the 1st two pitches of Northwest Buttress route

I labelled the 1st two pitches of Northwest Buttress route

The fellow can be seen just right of center trying to figure out the black stained (wet) entrance to the dihedral on the 5.10 start

The fellow can be seen just slightly down and right of center trying to figure out the black stained (wet) entrance to the dihedral on the 5.10 start

The Northwest Buttress from Capitol Pass

The Northwest Buttress from Capitol Pass

One more of the Northwest Buttress on the descent

One more of the Northwest Buttress on the descent

We arrived back at our tent by 8:15am and I was itching to do something else. I didn’t really care to go up the standard knife-edge route on Capitol again, but I had never been up the adjacent 13er Mt. Daly and so that was a plan. Jesse decided to nake a nap in the tent and chill at camp while I went solo up Mt. Daly. I was especially looking forward to the views of Capitol from the Daly summit. 1000′ of nice trail brought me to the Capitol/Daly saddle and I turned left and started up the south ridge of Daly initially bypassing some 5th class looking towers on the left (east) side via steep grassy ramps. I then scrambled to the ridge proper and went over a few loose towers to a small saddle and then continued on easy 3rd class scrambling to the mellow upper slopes.

Capitol from Mt. Daly's south ridge

Capitol from Mt. Daly’s south ridge

Mt. Daly's fun little south ridge

Mt. Daly’s fun little south ridge

Mt. Daly's

Mt. Daly’s summit comes into view

I arrived on Daly’s 13,300′ summit about an hour and 15 minutes after leaving camp and the views were wonderful. Capitol’s Northwest Buttress looked so amazing from this vantage point.

The backside of Mt. Sopris from Daly's summit

The backside of Mt. Sopris from Daly’s summit

Moon Lake and the Elk Range

Moon Lake and the Elk Range

Capitol Peak and its Northwest Buttress forming its right skyline

Capitol Peak and its Northwest Buttress forming its right skyline

Mt. Daly is a nice destination in itself

Mt. Daly is a nice destination in itself

After chatting with my dad and a good 15-20 minutes up top, I descended Daly’s south ridge back to the Capitol/Daly saddle and then down the switchbacks and was back at camp just shy of 11am. Jesse had taken down the tent and we departed camp by about noon to make the pack out. We arrived back at the trailhead around 2:30pm and boogied on home after stopping for a coffee in Basalt. We reflected on the decision to bail and considered it the safe thing to do. There is a reason we try and not rock climb in the rain :) Climbing 4th class or even low 5th class on wet rock is one thing. But, when you are trying to climb upper 5th class pitches on wet rock, things are a bit different and things become incredibly slick, tough, and unsafe. Chalk the trip up to some good recon and seeing the Northwest Buttress up close and personal. One thing this trip did was amplify my desire to climb this route. Maybe we’ll give it another go come early fall when the weather tends to be much drier.

We shall be back!

We shall be back!

And, of course a few Sawyer pictures to end on:

Two teeth

Two teeth

That's some mighty fine hair there, little lady!

That’s some mighty fine hair there, little lady!

Sawyer and I bouldering in Wolcott on Sunday while Kristine was with good friends hiking from East Vail to Frisco via the Gore Range and then road biking back via I70 and Vail Pass

Sawyer and I bouldering in Wolcott on Sunday while Kristine was with good friends hiking from East Vail to Frisco via the Gore Range and then road biking back via I70 and Vail Pass

Sawyer’s 1st 14er Summit

Well, you definitely never know how things will turn out with a 9 month old on just about any outdoor adventure much less taking her to over 14,000′. You just got to be very flexible as parents and go with the flow. Sometimes we do have to turn around on a hike or leave the climbing crag because she is over tired or because of any one of a number of other reasons. Sometimes she is very happy and can stretch her awake time without getting too fussy. One thing we do know is that there is no predictability :) Nevertheless, we wanted to give a 14er a go with Sawyer. Make it a nice family outing on a shorter 14er so even Rainie could go. We thought of the easy and very accessible 14ers above Kite Lake in the Mosquito Range south of Breckenridge & Quandary Peak and figured Mt. Democrat would fit the bill nicely. In addition to only being 4 miles roundtrip and 2,250′ of elevation gain, there was Kite Lake at the trailhead so Rainie could go swimming before/after to stay cool. I had never seen so many cars (even a tour bus!) at a trailhead (well, except for Longs Peak, I guess) and we had to park 1/4 mile down the Kite Lake road at about 11,800′.

Kristine carrying Sawyer in the Ergo carrier on her front side with Kite Lake behind. Fortuantely, Sawyer was asleep at this moment

Kristine carrying Sawyer in the Ergo carrier on her front side with Kite Lake behind. Fortuantely, Sawyer was asleep at this moment

Sawyer didn’t nap much on the way to the Kite Lake trailhead, so she was a little unhappy at the beginning of the hike. But, she fell asleep on the gradual hike maybe 20-30 minutes from the trailhead. This was a BIG relief to Kristine & myself.

Making our way up to the Democrat/Cameron saddle at 13,400'

Making our way up to the Democrat/Cameron saddle at 13,400′

Sawyer's K9 protectors

Sawyer’s K9 protectors

Sawyer slept for 45 minutes or so and woke up right as we crested the 13,400′ saddle between Democrat and Cameron. Hikers kept commenting to us upon seeing Sawyer in Kristine’s Ergo carrier, “Wow, there is a baby in there?” Funny stuff. We all took a break and snacked for 15-20 minutes at the saddle.

At the 13,400' Democrat/Cameron saddle

At the 13,400′ Democrat/Cameron saddle

Rainie standing guard as Sawyer gets a snack

Rainie standing guard as Sawyer gets a snack

Having had a good nap, we transitioned Sawyer to the backpack and loaded it up on my back. We love this Kelty backpack – it fits Sawyer very well. One observation that we had were the number of folks on these 14ers. Even on a Friday, the masses were astounding. I mean I know these 14ers are some of the easiest and most accessible and thus most popular 14ers in the state, but all I could think was just “wow”. I honestly haven’t been on of these popular 14ers in the summer in over a decade and the crowds these days are sure different than they were in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Sawyer and I making our way up Democrat's class 2 east ridge with Mt. Cameron behind us

Sawyer and I making our way up Democrat’s class 2 east ridge with Mt. Cameron behind us

The weather (cloud building) was a little intimidating and obviously we didn’t want to be caught out in a storm with a baby, but the weather held off just fine as we made our way to the summit. We sort of got off the trail and climbed the east ridge direct in order to avoid the crowds coming down the main trail consisting of loose scree/boulders. Rainie did wonderful on the off-trail boulder hopping and I believe people were equally impressed with 12-1/2 year old Rainie making her way up another 14er as they were with us having a 9 month old in the backpack.

Almost to the summit

Almost to the summit

We crested the summit maybe an hour and 45 minutes after leaving the trailhead. Not bad at all. The weather was holding and we got a few pics. Sawyer was really a trooper and not very much did I even hear a fuss from her – mainly just her squeals and laughs. She seems the happiest in the outdoors just like the rest of her family.

Sawyer on top of her 1st 14er!

Sawyer on top of her 1st 14er!

Mt. Democrat summit (14,148')...Sawyer did so extremely well.

Mt. Democrat summit (14,148′)…Sawyer did so extremely well.

Me, Rainie, & Sawyer on top of Democrat

Me, Rainie, & Sawyer on top of Democrat

Being on the summit reminded me of the last time I was on Democrat with Rainier and Kristine in the winter of 2004.

A younger Kristine, Rainier, & myself on top of Democrat 11 years ago

A younger Kristine, Rainier, & myself on top of Democrat 11 years ago

We then motored down the summit ridge and back onto the standard east ridge trail and back down to the saddle.

Happy that it all worked out this day

Happy that it all worked out this day

Sawyer again had a snack as I gave the dogs some food once we got well below the saddle and then she really did well in the backpack all the way back down to Kite Lake. She was a happy camper back down in the meadows on the shores of Kite lake while Rainie swam again.

A girl and her dog

A girl and her dog

Happy Sawyer

Happy Sawyer

I think I did something funny here

I think I did something funny here

It was a very memorable day for Kristine and myself and we were/are so proud of Sawyer for being a trooper up a 14er. Not that we’d want to attempt a 14er every weekend with her, but maybe another one is in the cards before the snows come. Not that Sawyer will remember anything about this day, but we are hopeful she’ll look back at these pictures and say “wow, my parents carried me up a 14er when I was 9 months old”.

The three of us with Mt. Democrat behind

The three of us with Mt. Democrat behind