A Capitol day
In the wan light of early morning the temperature hovers around 10 degrees at Little Elk Creek. Ours is the only car in the lot and once the engine is silenced, a pervasive winter stillness settles. We fumble with ski boots, bindings and backpacks, then one by one set off up the road, too cold to stand around waiting.
Frost flocks white on neck gaiters and jacket collars as we skin up to the Capitol Lake trailhead, where the welcome sun slants across the valley and streaks through aspen groves. Basking in the quick thaw, we shed clothes and gaze at Mount Daly and Capitol Peak, stark summits that mark the far end of the valley.It’s a long way to Capitol Lake, so there is little time for gab. Randy takes the lead, with Colin and me not far behind. The ditch trail is already broken because several of us broke it the weekend before, so we make good time on the icy crust. Elk hooves puncture the track on this south exposure where they winter in the redolent sage.After snaking around on the ditch trail, our track cuts up into a small drainage through aspen groves that mark the snow with undulating shadows. A filigree of branches spreads overhead against a deep blue, almost black, sky. At the creek crossing we step carefully over a murmur of water muffled beneath a mantle of snow and ice.
A coyote bounds from a clump of willows not far ahead. It wallows through deep snow, then disappears across a sun-crusted slope. Looking up at the ridge, we see the squiggles of our ski tracks from the week before. They mark the glades where the snow was creamy and perfect for telemark skiing. The crenelations at the top of the ridge stand out like the rim of a pie crust.We contour through aspen stands and open glades bathed in brilliant sunshine, then descend to the valley floor where our broken trail ends and the real work begins. As Randy straddles a creek through a narrow, snow-filled ravine, one snowbank collapses under his weight. His ski dips into the water, icing up the moment it contacts the snow. Randy stops to scrape, so Colin and I push on into the dark timber.
The forest is dim and peaceful, a relief from the blinding sun. Spruce and fir are draped with thick, green moss that filters rays of sunlight. Time is nebulous, and nobody checks their watches. One hour, two hours pass as we break a twisting trail between the trunks of ancient trees. Occasional meadows open below avalanche chutes that sweep down from the ridge of Mount Daly. We skirt them along the edge of the protective timber.Randy catches us where the headwall rears up just below Capitol Lake. He makes a practiced appraisal and cuts switchbacks among protective clusters of anchoring trees. Colin and I wait for him to get clear, then follow, leaving a safe gap between each of us. At the top of the headwall the basin rolls back and we ski through soft, silent snow. The only sound other than the swish of our skis is the hollow popping of tall snags warming in the sun’s heat.When at last the trees give way to timberline, the basin opens to craggy ridges and the rock face of Capitol Peak, rising several thousand feet from the frozen lake to the 14,130-foot summit. The foreboding granite wall looms in the shade, a cold eminence of gray, striated rock.
In a windless shelter of boulders between the high peaks we throw off our packs and strip off shirts to dry them in the warm sun. Beyond the lake a narrow ramp climbs between vertical ramparts to Avalanche Pass. Randy and Colin set off for the top while I rest on a boulder and let the sun bake out the last of the morning chill. Soon my companions are specks against the immense basin. A lone raven cackles to keep me company.Behind me the ridge of Mount Daly runs ragged to the north, where the sky meets the white ridgeline of the Flattops. To my right the Elk Mountain Ridge terminates in a snowy basin capped by cornices and sub peaks. To my left is the face of Capitol, the knife-edge ridge, and the false summit called K2. I stop breathing for a moment and listen to the ear-ringing stillness. The powerful silence awes and humbles. My solitude is a remarkable gift.
Randy and Colin, barely visible from where I sit, finally reach the pass and disappear over the top. Ten minutes later, I watch them working their way back down, gliding and falling intermittently on breakable crust. They arrive back at the lake tired but exultant, naming the peaks they saw – Hawk, Daly, Marble – and describing the vast, white topography of the Elk Range in midwinter. While we fuel our bodies with food and drink, shadows are lengthening from Capitol Peak. The way out is long, and we must make our way through miles of forest and then back across the lower meadows. We don jackets, gloves and hats for the ski down. We clip into our ski bindings and set off into the timber, an impenetrable wall that soon absorbs us.
The snow is soft and consistent in the trees, and we ski through an old-growth slalom course that demands quick turns and occasional jumps over snow-laden tree trunks. The meadows bog us down when our cold skis freeze fast to the sun-warmed snow. We scrape off the ice and glide again through the dark timber, only to repeat the process in another mile.At the creek crossing we stretch on climbing skins for the contouring ascent to the ditch trail. By then the shadows have moved across the valley, bringing a bitter snap to the air and numbing our fingers and faces. Our exhales emit white plumes as we follow the ditch trail back to the sun-drenched trailhead. Here we stop to gaze at Daly and Capitol, the two sentinels of Capitol Creek.The sun twinkles on the western ridge, and we push off for the final descent. Nine hours on the trail takes a toll, and it is with relief that we pull off ski boots at the car and throw our gear in the back. Quiet and reflective, we head home for hot baths and hot food, warm beds and warm memories, all of which fashion a recipe for sound sleep and good dreams of a Capitol day.
Paul Andersen is a columnist and contributing writer for the Aspen Times.