Solo one-day winter ascent of Capitol Peak

March 17th, 2007
Steve Bremner
and Sam the Wolfdog in spirit

My favorite friend and long-time climbing partner, Sam the Wolfdog died three weeks ago. Along with Mount Eolus, Capitol Peak is one of two of the 54 14,000 foot peaks in Colorado where Sam never made it to the top. I brought some of his ashes to the summit yesterday and scattered them in a small private ceremony.

Climbing Capitol Peak, thought by many to be the most difficult 14er in Colorado, in one day from the road in calendar winter has been an obsession for me for eight years. I tried unsuccessfully twice in 1999 and again in 2001 but never let go of the thought that I could do this. Yesterday brought success.

Sam the Wolfdog on winter attempt on Capitol, March 2001
The plan to do it this year first germinated in mid February before Sam died. I would be returning from a vacation to Barcelona two weeks before the end of calendar winter, which would give me time to get organized and acclimated. Unable to enlist any friends to join me I decided to just head out to the Elks after work on Friday and see what would happen.
Cresting the ridge, Capitol Peak came in view in all its glory
It took 5 hours to drive from my home in Manitou Springs to the Snowmass Creek Trailhead. By the time I had got organized for the next day's climb there was time for only an hour and fifteen minutes of shuteye, which I took in the car. I awoke out of a deep sleep to my alarm at 11:45 P.M. By 00:39 A.M. I was hiking up the road under moonless but clear skies.

The road, which is closed in winter, ends after 8/10ths of a mile. I strapped on my snowshoes and proceeded onto the groomed trails of Snowmass Ranch, the hard snow crunching under foot. After reaching the meadow where the trail turns up West Snowmass Creek I wandered in circles for a bit trying to find some semblance of trail or better yet some tracks. Finally I stumbled on a set of three ski tracks coming down through a gate.

Sunrise over Clark Peak
Even in the dim light familiar scenes from six years ago (has it been that long ago??) passed by as I climbed steadily up to the basin. After five hours I came on a roofless “igloo” that I surmised had been the campsite for the skiers. Did they climb Capitol? My newly purchased Earthmate PN-20's batteries had gone dead and in the day since I had purchased it I had been unable to load maps of the area, so I continued to follow the skier's tracks trusting that they would lead me in the right direction.

After the “igloo” the climb grew steeper. Checking my altimeter I was alarmed to see it go through the 12,000's and into the 13,000's. I had not noticed Moon Lake, which lies at 11,740'. Were these tracks leading me astray? As I reached the top of the ridge I wondered what the peak to the right was? Was it Mount Daly? I decided that if it were I would bail on the Capitol attempt and just climb Daly. Then around 7:00 A.M., just before the sun rose on the horizon, I crested the ridge and there it was right in front of me! K2, the knife edge, and Capitol Peak itself in all its glory! Even better, I could see the snow steps of the party of three along parts of Capitol's ridge. Later I would see their entry in the summit log two days before my climb and the only party to sign the log since September of last year. They posted a trip report on The wind was kicking up and the early morning temperatures were quite cold. I stopped just below K2 to add clothes ,switch from snowshoes and poles to crampons and ice ax, and to eat something—half of a frozen Clif Bar.

Capitol ridge from K2
I was ready to tackle K2 around 8:30 A.M. One exposed move over a set of rocks and a snow walk and I was on top. I down climbed the north face of K2 and proceeded to the infamous knife edge, which turned out to be the easiest part of the entire climb. Snow had formed a perfect snow bridge along the northwest side. The previous party's footsteps had sunk deep into the snow showing that they had been there later in the day when the snow was soft. I followed their steps with complete confidence, making little imprint in the solidly frozen early morning snow—that snow bridge was solid as rock. With the exception of a couple tricky spots on rock along the final ridge it was an easy snow climb most of the way. There were slings on the hard spots and I was sure wishing I would have brought a short rope for a self-belay, but I'm still here!
The way to the summit after Knife Edge
I reached the windy summit at 10:00 A.M. What a feeling! Snow-covered mountains in every direction, snow-covered lakes in three basins below, snow, snow everywhere! I broke out the little package of Sam the Wolfdog's ashes, started the movie on my digital camera and did a short ceremony for my old friend Sam. As I scattered his ashes I said “Noble dog. Favorite Friend. I loved you!” Then I surprised myself by weeping openly for the first time since I had first learned of his death as I arrived in Chicago's airport from a vacation to Barcelona two weeks ago. Sam has climbed many mountains and enjoyed the freedom of the hills as much if not more than any human. He lives on in my fond memories.
Summit cannister with Sam the Wolfdog's ashes on the summit of Capitol Peak
Steve Bremner on Capitol Summit March 17th, 2007
I wasn't looking forward to the down climb, particularly those two difficult moves along the upper ridge. I called Rebekka to tell her I had made it to the summit, but the way down was not going to be easy. When she told me to just climb like she does, very cautiously, I had to laugh. One of the crux moves was down a chimney and I didn't like the fact that I couldn't see where the lower footholds were. After starting out on the two ways around the outer rock I rejected them as too exposed. Finally I went down the chimney reasoning that if I slipped I would go down about 5 feet and have a good chance at glomming onto the ridge. I was able to wedge my fist solidly into a crack which allowed me to lower my leg until I found solid footing. Meanwhile, as the snow softened my crampons collected it making them more dangerous than no crampons, so I removed them. I just had to keep reminding myself that I wasn't wearing crampons anymore! There is a big difference in what you can do with and without crampons. Upon reaching the knife edge the rest of the way off Capitol was easy. I didn't bring skis this time, but would recommend bringing skis up to K2 and leaving them there for a super fast descent. I plodded down in my snowshoes. When I reached Snowmass Ranch I opted to not trespass, instead crossing Snowmass Creek and joining the Snowmass Creek Trail. Big mistake! I postholed with every step up the steep embankment, then once on the interminably long trail I postholed every sixth or seventh step—each time an ignominious surprise. I was on my last legs when I finally reached my car.

I started back for Manitou Springs at 5:00 P.M., stopping to crash on the side of the road near Hartsel for two hours before finally getting home just before midnight. I slept like a log until 8:45 this morning.

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