Peak(s):  Capitol Peak  -  14,130 feet
Date Posted:  08/09/2020
Date Climbed:   08/01/2020
Author:  mattr9
 Alpine Climbing Above 12,000': Capitol's NW Buttress   

Alpine Climbing Above 12,000'
Capitol Peak's NW Buttress Route (5.9, IV)
August 1st, 2020

Overall Stats/Info:

Route (Caltopo Map Below):
Capitol Creek Trailhead to Capitol Lake/Capitol Creek Pass (Correct name??) via the Ditch Trail
Capitol Creek Pass to Capitol Peak summit via the NW Buttress Route (5.9)
Capitol Peak summit to Capitol Lake via standard route to K2, Ridge from K2 to Daly saddle and standard route down to lake
Capitol Lake to Capitol Creek Trailhead via the Ditch Trail

Total Mileage: ~20
Total Vertical Gain: ~5,200'
Total Time: 15 hours 30 minutes

Pitches Climbed With a Rope: ~4.5 (One pitch was very short)
Pitches Climbed Without a Rope: ~8-9

Capitol Peak, NW Buttress Video

A route overlay from Caltopo of our route, GPX map is viewable below

The NW Buttress route, as seen from the trailhead, zoomed in


After the Mega-Maroonal Traverse a few weekends back, I've been taking it easy on running and doing some prehab/rehab to try and get my quad tendon back to health (Slowly but surely, it's getting stronger!). Last weekend I joined up with a Colorado Spring youngin' (19 years old!!), Noah Grage, and had a blast climbing 3 of the RMNP classics. We climbed "Zowie" (Magic in the Middle, 5.9) Saturday and then did Petit Grepon (South Face, 5.9 variation) and soloed Sharkstooth on Sunday. Needless to say, I'm falling in love with Alpine climbing now that I am unable to run as much; if that isn't a silver lining, I don't know what is!

I was going to be heading out to Beaver, Utah anyways to cheer my buddy Pat Gibbs on at the Tushars 100k Ultramarathon, so I figured I might as well keep up the tradition of stopping in Aspen to suffer a little bit before driving into Utah. This winter I took a week vacation to SLC for backcountry skiing and on the way, stopped in Aspen to do a winter ascent of Capitol in one push and then finish the drive (TR here It seems to be a "right of passage" for me to suffer before entering Utah haha

After our fun weekend of climbing last weekend, I was hoping to team up with Noah again, but he had plans to help a family member out already. I put feelers out to a few people but everyone already had plans or was going to be gone. I reached out to a good friend of mine, Aaron Rigsby, and let him know that if he was up for it I'd enjoy taking him up the NW Buttress. Aaron hasn't been climbing for as long as has been focused on completing the 14ers, so I knew this would be a big step for him, but I also knew that besides the first pitches, this would be well within his abilities. He climbs 5.10a outdoors and has been slowly increasing his aerobic capacity. It was a big step, but I knew he could do it.

I drove up after work on Thursday and made a pit stop to see a hero of mine, Mike Marolt, in the Aspen area. I've mentioned him before in past TRs so I won't go into detail, but he is a legend in the high altitude ski mountaineering community! I stopped at his place and was fortunate enough to get a copy of his book "Natural Progressions" personally handed to me, super cool! It's been really amazing connecting with Mike, as I have looked up to him and his brother Steve ever since I started skiing ~4 years ago. To be on a first name basis with him is something I didn't think was possible!

I met Aaron in El Jebel Thursday evening after Aaron completed the Maroon Bells that day, and we enjoyed a couple of beers as we both chit-chatted about life, values, and stoke! Aaron's mindset is inspirational to say the least. You can't help but want to be his friend and he is one of the most happy and stoke-filled individuals I have ever met (On par with the stoke my friends Pat Gibbs and Nicholas Wright always have!). I truly enjoyed the conversations we shared until the sun went down and we realized "Oh shit, we gotta wake up in 5 hours!"

Alarms went off at 2:00am and after making some coffee and loading up #Hotel4Runner, we started the 30 min drive to the trailhead. We listened to my only downloaded playlist, to which Aaron was a big fan. We arrived around 3:00am and by about 3:20am I had shouldered my pack with the 70m rope and all of the gear. We were ready to get the show on the road, but not before chugging some "5 hour energy" shots for our buddy Jordan Wall who would have been stoked to have been there with us but is in Seattle this summer (With us in spirit dude!).

***I'm a huge fan of sleeping 30 min away from trailheads now, especially in winter! Waking up and having to get moving immediately is sometimes hard for me on the alpine starts (~4am and earlier), but knowing that I have 30 min of driving makes it much easier for me to "get up and at 'em." It gives me time to drink some coffee, eat my customary mountain breakfast (an avocado), and allow my bowels to "sort themselves out" just in time to arrive to a trailhead or stop at a gas station (Major Key!!!). In the winter you can also get warm during the drive and get your ski boots to thaw out a bit, nothing like shoving some cold feet in cold boots...

Approach to the Base of the Climb

We started along the Ditch Trail and enjoyed a very peaceful clear ski. We ever caught a few shooting stars in our peripherals! We both exclaimed "Did you see that?!?!" at the same time, confirming that we were not in fact just sleep deprived, we had seen a shooting star! Super cool!

We were making good time and got to the big open meadow before the creek crossing, where we were slightly startled by the numerous pairs of glowing orbs floating a few feet of the ground... It always cracks me up that there is a huge herd of cattle in this valley and they always just stare at you while they lay on the ground like "What are you doing?" haha The reflection in their eyes always spooks me at first because I imagine a spiders nest and all the little eyeballs looking at you...

2 hours and 15 minutes after starting, we arrived at Capitol Lake and decided to stop and enjoy the morning light on Capitol Peak as we had a little snack. It was slightly chilly now that we weren't moving, but it still was an amazingly peaceful morning, devoid of wind (For now...)! We could see the base of our route in the morning light and were getting excited! Only a little further till it was GO TIME!

Taking a quick little break and getting some food in our bellies with a wonderful view

Aaron taking in the wonderful scenery at Capitol Lake

First light on Capitol peak, The NW Buttress is basically the skyline on the right

We followed the trail up to the pass, where we were "gifted" with a stiff wind, and then hiked up a few hundred feet on scree/talus to the obvious start of the route. The scree/talus ends at the headwall and there is a seemingly perfect ledge that goes out to the left for the start of the climb. I recognized the system of cracks from beta pictures (Thanks, Brandon Chalk! so we got the rope flaked, gear organized, and made our final preparations. The morning temps were a little chilly now with the wind, nothing crazy, but we layered up in preparation for our turns as belayer, where we would likely get a bit chilled until the sun made it's way over the top of Capitol and warmed us in its comforting embrace.

Climbing the NW Buttress

Macro Route Beta: The first 2 pitches of the NW Buttress are the "crux "pitches. I was excited to get right after it and was also excited to get the hardest climbing out of the way early and at a relatively low altitude. If you can't get up them, it's much easier to bail there than higher up! Knowing it was easier ground above gave me confidence that once past the crux, we would be well within a reasonable margin to summit. The first pitch is graded at 5.9 and is an initial crack that goes over a mini roof into a left traversing off-width crack into another mini roof and finishes on an off-width finger crack (crux, 5.9) that ends at the base of a chimney. Pitch 2 is the chimney. After an awkward 5.8 move to get into the chimney, it is very cruiser and enjoyable. After that, it's a lot of 4th class/low 5th climbing mixed in with small sections of more exposed terrain that takes you up above the "Unicorn Spire" and all the way up to an upper saddle, a few hundred feet below the summit. At the saddle, there is an obvious piton with a slab up above and up to the left there is a small loose roof/chimney (5.7) that accesses the final 4th class/low 5th class terrain to the summit. After having climbed it now, I would personally pitch out pitches 1 and 2, solo all the way to the saddle, pitch out the loose roof/chimney, and solo the rest. You are on an entire aspect of the mountain, so there are options-a-plenty for route-finding. You could make it spicy for fun, or can find easy terrain for speed, pick your poison.

I made a double check of both of our knots and checked Aaron's ATC / locking carabiner before rendering a "fist bump" and starting up on the sharp end.

Pitch 1 (5.9): The initial moves weren't overly difficult, but they required my focus. I made my way up the first mini roof and came to the off-width left traversing crack, where I found juggy holds deep inside the crack in spots and at one point just threw my whole leg inside haha (No style points on that one, but whatever!). Getting up the second mini roof was a little bit more difficult than the first one, but once you inch up high enough, you are greeted with the juggiest of jugs and can easily pull up and over to a pretty comfortable stance right below the crux off-width finger crack.

Macro of Pitches 1 and 2.

The very beginning of pitch 1: Nice hand-ish crack up and slightly left to a mini roof with good jugs

From this stance, you can easily see the base of the chimney maybe 20' above you, where an old bolt is slightly to the right of the crack. The crack is pretty consistent and it's definitely off-width finger, unless you have some monster sausage fingers or dainty little hands. The face to both the left and right is devoid of many face holds, but has some small bulges that you can effectively smear on. I played around with different spots in the crack trying to find what worked and what didn't. I made a few moves up and placed a big red nut in a constriction to protect me if I were to blow out a foot here. I realized that if I could get my foot into the slightly wider portion of crack right above my nut, I could simply stand up on it and likely be home free. The problem was my mind didn't trust my cold rubber in the thin crack or on the smooth face, so it took some "sacking up". I wedged my numb left foot into the small crack as much as I could and gave it a little twist, used a ring jam with my left hand as high as I could on the crack and pulled myself up. I kept expecting my right foot to slip off the smooth face to the right, but my smear held and I got my right hand above my ring jam hand and inched up. As soon as my hips were level with the nut placement, I pushed my butt out to make some room and shot my right foot into the super comfortable portion of crack. Once my foot was lodged in there, I did exactly what I imagined and stood up... The pitch was over. I gained access to some positive holds and was soon setting up an anchor with 2 cams in nearby cracks and the old bolt.

I radioed to Aaron and soon he was making his way up the pitch. He made good progress and I could hear his laborious breathing as he got to the off-width and was probably thinking "What the F*** do I do with this crack" haha He got above the second mini roof and took a rest on the stance. It took him a few tries, but soon enough he was up at the belay with me as I reassured him: "The hardest pitch is behind us!"

Aaron starting up pitch 1

Aaron taking a breather at the nice stance after the mini roof and right before the off-width finger crack (crux)

Pitch 2 (5.8): Gaining access to the chimney required one 5.8 move which was awkward, but not difficult, on some side facing holds and utilizing body tension. Once past this move (it's literally right above the belay) you have a super cruiser chimney above you. You can throw some stems in, some mantles in, hell, you could even throw a few HEEL HOOKS! I can see how the first 2 pitches can be a wreck if it's rained lately, even without rain for a few days (I think), there was definitely some wet rock in there. The rock is pretty positive for most of the holds so it wasn't an issue, but I could see it being a lot worse with recent rain.

The start of pitch 2, the small bolt that I used in my anchor in the foreground.
The 5.8 move is at the top of the black streak in this picture

I made it up to the start of easier ground (4th/low 5th), set up a belay, and radioed Aaron to come on up. He had some initial difficulties on the awkward 5.8 move but cruised right up after surmounting it. Soon he was at my belay stance and we decided that the terrain above us was mellow enough to solo. We deliberately agreed that if either one of us felt that any of the upcoming terrain was too exposed, that we would set up an anchor there, rope up, and pitch it out. I made it a point with Aaron to be very open in his communication. I didn't want him feeling embarrassed to speak up at all, not on this terrain!

Pitches ~3-5 (4th/Low 5th): Aaron untied from the rope and began heading up as I coiled the rope and draped it over my shoulders and caught up. The terrain was easy and low angle, but loose. Aaron heard his fair share of my annoying "Check every hand/foothold for stability and make smooth moves, no jerky movements." Our mantra was "Zero accidents." I'd rather be annoying than allow a mistake to happen on terrain that would have deadly consequences. We made our way up past Unicorn Spire to the right before crossing back over to the left onto the main face. I think I would go to the left of Unicorn Spire next time, crossing over the ridge line was very loose and blocky. Some funky moves required slightly pulling out on some of the blocks and I don't like that at all when you know everything is suspect.

Me, getting the rope nice and organized on my pack before soloing

Aaron soloing on 4th/low 5th terrain with Capitol Lake below

More of Aaron soloing with Mt Daly, Capitol Lake, and the trailhead in the distance

Aaron negotiating some loose crap. Have to be very careful on what you step on or grab, and have to make sure to not pull out too much!
This is the kind of stuff I would rather avoid by going to the left of Unicorn Spire instead of to the right and crossing back over

Sweet shot of Aaron with Capitol Lake below. Right before we roped up again above Unicorn Spire.

Soloing towards the arete

Looking up the arete that is above Unicorn Spire, me soloing.
We roped up shortly after this for the pitch and a half before the upper saddle

Pitches ~6-7.5 (5.6, maybe): The face looked a bit steeper, so we stuck to our agreed upon plan. I made an anchor, Aaron tied back into the rope (I kept my end tied since I was carrying the rope), I flaked the rope out, and soon I was leading up again. The terrain was steeper but still very easy, so I placed a first piece of gear and then ran it out to the end of my 70m rope, placing two or three other pieces of pro. Once I belayed Aaron up to me, I could tell the next pitch would be a short one, I could see the terrain level off just a little higher. I started leading again and very soon was setting up an anchor on mellow ground (Hence the 1/2 pitch haha).

The mellower the terrain, the shittier the rock... Finding good crack systems to make an anchor with proved to be somewhat annoying. FYI you may have to wander for a bit before you find something that you would trust your life with... Don't settle. If you're going to settle for a shitty anchor, I personally think you might as well have just soloed, because you're not putting a solid effort into protecting the follower if you're relying on a shitty anchor. Just my thoughts.

Aaron following up the long ~65-70m pitch that I ran out. Easy ground but pretty exposed.
Could easily be soloed with the right mental head space and abilities.
Check every hand/foothold though!!!

Aaron nearing the top of the second "half" pitch before mellow ground to the saddle

Pitches ~7.5-10 (4th/Low 5th): We climbed/hiked up more easy terrain (very easy terrain, basically class 3/4) and were soon at the very obvious upper saddle. There was a small snowfield below the saddle (climbers left, facing Capitol Lake), so if you see snow, you're there. I walked right past the piton initially and thought maybe the piton was down lower so went on a little exploration mission before realizing I hadn't really looked hard up higher... I walked back up and sure enough, the piton was literally right where the mellow ridge line meets the face (#facepalm).

Aaron arriving to the upper saddle.
What a view behind him, eh?!

Pitch ~11 (5.7): We got all ready for another pitch, the last one of the day! There is a decent hand crack traversing up and left towards a ~10-15' wall of rock. The protection is pretty good and the moves are easy but enjoyable. Once you are right under the loose roof/chimney, you can easily walk to the base of it to inspect it. It's definitely loose and I didn't trust it one bit. I could easily imagine someone trying to yard on one of these and just dislodging it and sending it down. The belay stance is well out of fall line, but it still wouldn't be any fun to send sharp rocks down on your rope! I made a few delicate moves and soon was out of the choss and onto lower angle choss. The rope drag was getting pretty bad and the terrain above looked pretty mellow, so I set up a belay directly above the roof and belayed Aaron up to me, no issues!

Pitches ~12-13 (4th/Low 5th): The rest of the terrain to the summit was nice and mellow and there were multiple ramps that you could quite literally walk up. Eventually we hit the top of the face as it led to the final couple hundred feet of the summit ridge, we were there! As soon as Aaron saw the summit ridge and the top, his face lit up! This was his first foray into alpine climbing and he was 99% of the way there! A quick ridge scramble and we were there, right on top of Capitol peak.

I recognized the terrain, but it is always truly unique to approach from a different angle, I think that's what I like most about getting into different mountain activities: It forces you to look at the same mountains you love already, but through a different lens. I started looking at mountains first through a "hiker's lens", graduated to look through a "skier's lens", and temporarily looked through a "mountain biker's lens" when I had a phase of carrying my bike up 14ers (The legal ones!) and riding down them. Now I have begun to look at them through a "climber's lens". The progression is fun and addicting, and it has kept things very interesting! What will the next "lens" be? Who knows! I might just keep it simple and stick with skiing and climbing, but I'm always open to looking at mountains in different ways!

As Aaron topped out right behind me, there was an eruption of hoots and hollers, Aaron was pretty goddamned stoked to have summited and I couldn't have agreed more with him. I was so proud of Aaron for doing so well on his first alpine climb AND for having done it the day after doing the bells traverse. The kid has heart and is gonna go far, but even more important, his outlook on life and positivity is legitimately contagious. I dare you to hang out with Aaron for an hour and not walk away feeling ready to take on the world. He is about to complete the 14ers and he wants to get into alpine climbing next, so I'd say he is well on his way! Once he gets multi-pitch logistics, gear placement, and anchor building down, he will be crushing!

Summit stoke! Best believe I wore a Hawaiian shirt!

We took a solid 20min on the summit to enjoy the moment. The weather was still clear overhead, but clouds from the west were moving in. No need to rush, but no need to dilly-dally either. We organized the gear/rope and shouldered our packs to begin the descent via the standard route to K2 and then the ridge from K2 to the Mt Daly Saddle and out.

Descending to Capitol Lake and to the Trailhead

The descent went off without a hitch. We moved nice and smoothly to K2 along the standard route (Walked across the top of the knife edge, crazy how your perception of exposure changes over time! The first time I did it, I was hands and knees haha) and then took the ridge direct from K2 to the Mt Daly saddle. Nothing crazy between K2 and the saddle, but the ridge does get pretty steep in sections, but fortunately there is always an easy way around if you are uncomfortable. I highly recommend this variation, as you avoid dropping down and having to regain the saddle, plus its more engaging and fun!

Once we were at the saddle, the clouds I had been keeping an eye on started to drop small hail/graupel on us as we descended the switchbacks. Luckily, it wasn't very much and wasn't for very long, and it ended up cooling everything off quite nicely! Soon we were back down at the intersection with the main trail and we kept plodding along, just ~6 more miles of putting one foot in front of the other.

The miles seemed to go by slowly, but we were met with a few nice surprises on the way down.
1) The wildflowers were absolutely gorgeous on the first 3rd of the trail from the lake, something we hadn't been able to appreciate on the way up since it was dark. Even just going up to Capitol Lake is worth it to see the flowers!
2) As a large group heading up passed by me, I recognized one of them and asked "Are you the Pfeiffers?" and sure enough, it was the Pfeiffer family. Although I didn't know them all, it was cool to run into Nate and Riley Pfeiffer and have a little chit-chat. They were going up as a family of 5-6 or so for 1-2 nights and were planning to do Capitol peak, super cool! Talk about awesome family time!
3) A lady, also on her way up, stopped Aaron and said "Were you on North Maroon yesterday?" He sure was on North Maroon yesterday and he said that he had gone by her on his way down after the traverse. Small world!

After ~1.5 hours I was on the final stretch of ditch trail to the trailhead when I stopped and looked back at Capitol. This is one of those sights you remember for the rest of your life. Looking back up the valley, there she was, legitimately dominating the entire valley. From this perspective, Capitol looked bigger than ever and I was in sheer amazement. Her granite flanks and steep shape offer a mountain aesthetic on par with mountains like K2 (Pakistan's K2) and Laila Peak (Give 'er a google!!!). I captured the moment but made sure to also soak it in with my own two eyes!

Finally reaching the car, I immediately drank a full liter of water, having run out on the summit, and waited for Aaron. He arrived shortly and was exhausted, but elated at what he had just done! After some rehydrating, we headed back to town where we stocked up on chocolate milk, snacks, and for me, a 4 pack of Redbull. We parted ways back at Aaron's vehicle in the park and I immediately began my next journey.

Follow-On Mission: #StokeCrew

I promised a good friend, Pat Gibbs, that I would cheer him on at the Tushars 100k Ultramarathon, so I pointed my car West and drove. It was 8pm by the time I left El Jebel and I had a 6hr drive ahead of me, so I knew it was going to be a rough one after a 15.5hr day. A mug of coffee and 4 Redbulls along with singing some of my favorite tunes made the first 4.5hrs go by quick, but the last 1.5hrs were rough. I finally got to the Eagle Crest Resort near Beaver, UT and without service, spent an hour looking for the condo that Pat's family was staying in...

I ended up getting an hour of sleep before waking up to see Pat off on his ultra at 5am, and promptly went back to sleep until 9am. The rest of the day was spent napping in between going to different aid stations, and eating LOTS of snack foods. I somewhat caught up on my sleep but was definitely out of it. Pat ended up finishing a little after midnight, with a positive attitude the entire time, in 19hrs 23min, which for this ultramarathon is pretty damn solid! It's 62 miles with 16,000'+ vertical! Huge day! I joked to Pat that while he was out crushing it, I was napping the day away in my hammock haha

5am start, mullet, Hawaiian shirt, mask and all! Go "Flaming Mullet!"

How I spent the day while Pat was crushing miles/vert...

Pat and his sister, Sarah, at an aid station.
Check out that mullet! Awesome!

Story of my life that day...

19 hours and 23 minutes later, the "Flaming Mullet" finished!
Great freaking job dude!

We celebrated a little bit after he finished but I passed out by 3:30am while Pat and Chanont stayed up till 5am. I awoke around 8am and soon Pat was up too. Everyone else had left so we tidied up a little and made breakfast. He was heading to Boulder, UT for a few days and I had my 8hr drive ahead of me. I absolutely can't wait to move out to SLC in January to ski with Pat! Probably the best skier I know! Gonna be rowdy!

Luckily for me, this time I was a bit more refreshed and was driving during the day, so it went mostly smoothly until I hit classic I-70 traffic in Glenwood Springs. I grabbed a burger and beer with a super solid dude, Albie Binkley, and then read my new book I got from Mike Marolt at a park near the river. Around 7pm I decided it was time to get moving again, and only had ~10 min of delays through the lane closure section on I-70 in Glenwood Canyon. The rest of the drive was straightforward and I was back at home a little before 10am, just in time to hit the hay and get ready for another week at work... Although, I'm part time now, so I don't have much to complain about with work now!!! YAHOO!!!

Thanks for reading! If anyone has any questions/comments/concerns,
please feel free to leave a comment! I'm learning and I'd like to help others learn too!
"There are no stupid questions... Well..."

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 16 18 19 20 24 25 27 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 50 51

Comments or Questions

sweet fingers!
08/10/2020 11:57
cool report and cool way to get up Cap!


08/10/2020 14:06
It's a very fun route! Some solid climbing and then lots and lots of steep scrambling!
Hoping to give the whole Mega-Moronal traverse a go later this fall. You're guys' trip reports helped a lot on my recent attempt, so thanks!


Very nice TR, Matt....
08/10/2020 15:33
...Glad you got on it! You know, Abe, you and I and many others gotta move over for these newfound, motivated, and determined youngsters!

08/15/2020 09:00
Nice go! I would rope up any days w/ya to do that route. Heading there today, just to finish my 14teeners. Not sure Iâll have those clear views tho

Much Respect!
09/14/2020 07:52
Just "climbed" Capitol for the first time following the standard route across the knife edge. You're at a whole other level. Loved your report and video. Much respect dude! Rock on

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