Descending Capitol Peak
Special to The Aspen Times
As the aspens start to turn green and the valley gets ready for summer, the summits of the Elk Mountains’ many fourteeners are finally ready to be ridden.
This past week, Nate Goodman and I were lucky enough to have Capitol Peak allow us a rare and sought-after summit descent.
At 14,131 feet, Capitol only ranks as the 29th-tallest fourteener in Colorado, but many would argue it is the most difficult to ski or snowboard.
“You have to want to ride this mountain,” said Goodman, an Avon-based guide and athlete who already has ridden close to 40 of Colorado’s fourteeners. “You have to want to be in the no-fall zone. You have to want to stare the beast in the eyes.”
While the descent of any fourteener can be a daunting prospect, the standard route on Capitol traverses a several-hundred-foot section of 30- to 60-degree snow above a 600-foot band of cliffs. After the traverse, the route heads down a 15-meter rappel to reach a narrow couloir known as the Secret Chute.
The daunting nature of the route means it has seen only a handful of descents. Goodman estimated fewer than 30 people have ridden it, with only around five being snowboarders.
“A lot comes into play,” Goodman said. “Snow analysis, good route finding, assessment for anchor construction. It’s a real snowboard mountaineering route. You have to be able to step into your abilities (as a rider) while having technical know-how to get through certain sections.”
The condition of the snow is a deciding factor when it comes to riding a peak like Capitol — not only does it need to be firm enough to climb, but it must be safe from the threat of avalanches.
“So many things affect the way the snow holds itself together and to the mountain. It has to be perfect,” Goodman said. “We were fortunate; the wind and cloud cover kept the traverse firmer for the duration of the time we were on the mountain.”
Generally, spring is the only time you can find the perfect conditions and usually only in the early morning, just as the sun begins softening the snow surface. Too early, and the snow is hard as ice; too late, and the snow softens to the point it threatens to slide.
“The riding conditions were unbelievably divine, yet I wouldn’t have wanted to drop a second later,” Goodman said. “I believe in actually riding mountains and was incredibly lucky to be able to make solid turns instead of just surviving and side-slipping my way down.”
“The holistic experience is the coolest part,” Goodman said.
“Capitol Peak is a prominent part of an extremely powerful landscape, and existing in that space is empowering, to understate it.”
Ben Markhart is a local photographer and guide. You can see more of this trip and others at http://www.benmarkhart.com or on Facebook.