Aspen ski mountaineers descend new line on Capitol Peak
After hiking, skinning and climbing for about nine hours June 4, three Aspen men were finally in position at the head of their targeted ski line on Capitol Peak.
They had scoped out a couple of lines while taking a reconnaissance flight around the famed mountain and taking pictures a few days before. They sought routes they didn’t believe had been skied before.
“The crown jewel that everyone is trying to find on the fourteeners is something that’s not a bulls— route, you know?” Jordan White said.
White and Colter Hinchliffe had both been on Capitol Peak numerous times before, in both summer and winter. They had skied the standard route, known as the Secret Chute, and a harder route known as The Plank.
On this trip, with colleague Riley Soderquist, they wanted to ski a line on the north face next to The Plank. But after all the hard work to get to the summit, their goal appeared unattainable.
“When we got up there and got to the start of the line, I definitely was not stoked about the line anymore,” Hinchliffe said. “The top of it looked super scary.”
The three men agreed to check out a different, apparently never-before-skied line on the west face. They discovered the rock wasn’t solid enough to trust holding an anchor for rappelling. “The skiing below didn’t look that inspiring, just kind of mellow,” Hinchliffe said.
He acknowledged their confidence “really dropped for a second.” It wasn’t a good feeling at 14,131 feet in elevation.
“It was, ‘Oh, s—, how are we going to get down?’” White said.
The standard route was east-facing and not a good option that Thursday, one of the first hot days this spring. The west-face route had rotten rock. The north face route was “gnarly.”
Their instincts led them back to the north face. They eventually found a rock suitable to provide an anchor for rappelling. Two rappels took them down about 200 feet over extremely steep terrain.
“That turned out by far to be the spookiest part,” Hinchliffe said. It’s a bit unnerving to place your life in the anchors set for a steep rappel in the notoriously questionable rock of the Elk Mountains, he said. “That’s kind of the crux of the operation.”
“I think the (descent) is where we got our pucker on a little bit,” White said.
Four hours of exposure
After the initial rappel, they reached a snowfield suitable for skiing, offering roughly 1,500 vertical feet.
“You’re not carving turns. You’re still jumping turns,” White said.
At one point on the trip down, he got out his slope meter and measured the slope at 58 degrees. Higher up where they were rappelling was greater than 60 degrees, they said.
After skiing, they faced a final rappel out of an ice chasm and over an overhang of rock. There was no way to avoid rappelling down a waterfall to the apron of the mountain.
“It was so damn relieving to be on the apron. The tension drops,” Hinchliffe said. “We were on the face for four hours, which is a long time, but we were moving efficiently.”
Once to the apron, Hinchliffe retrieved a ski that he dropped at the start of the final rappel. It fell 400 feet but was salvageable when he reached it. The trio skied to Capitol Lake, where they rendezvoused with Hinchliffe’s roommates, Brad Unglert and Adam Cachey. Unglert took photos of the epic journey from a nearby peak, and both men were spotters that guided the skiers via radio for the rappels. Their help was invaluable, Hinchliffe said.
Word travels fast
Word of the first descent went viral on social media within 24 hours. Big-mountain skier Chris Davenport of Aspen gave the trio a shout-out on Facebook. “This is the raddest first descent done in Colorado in the last few years in my book,” Davenport wrote.
“Davenport put that out there and everybody in the ski world follows Davenport,” White said.
Freeskier, Powder and Ski magazines interviewed the skiers and posted stories about their epic descent. Backcountry magazine also is working on a piece.
White recalled that a different first descent that he and Hinchliffe achieved a few years ago was barely noticed outside of a few friends. Social media has changed the picture.
“We’re just doing it for ourselves,” Hinchliffe said. “We weren’t expecting so much hype, so much stoke.”
So what’s their motivation? “Just the mountains themselves inspire us,” Hinchliffe said. “You look at something and you want to ski it because it looks so rad.
“From there, you try to do something harder and harder and harder. When you have success, it feels great and feels rewarding. If you think you can take the next step, you do.”
Neither man takes a devil-make-care attitude to the slopes. They know better. “You have to make decisions with a very level head because it you bite off too much, it would kill you,” Hinchliffe said.
White climbed his first fourteener in Colorado at age 5. He survived a fall at the Maroon Bells in 2005 in an accident that claimed the life of his father, Kip White.
The tragic ordeal didn’t snuff Jordan’s passion for the mountains. In 2009, at age 23, he became just the fifth person, and the youngest, to ski all 54 of Colorado’s fourteeners. The ski mountaineering he is undertaking now is tougher than his earlier descents of the big peaks, he said.
“When I (first) skied Capitol, I skied that Secret Chute and skied the easiest damn way I could get down that peak,” White said. “When I was skiing the fourteeners, I was still very much learning how to ski properly.”
The men don’t ski much together during the heart of ski season because of busy schedules.
“It’s when the axes and ropes come out that we do a lot of stuff together,” White said. That typically means trips between April through June.
The first descent of the Capitol Peak line ranks among their three toughest ski-mountaineering feats, they said. They earned naming rights. They dubbed the line Peg Leg in keeping with the pirate theme of the adjacent Plank line and in honor of Hinchliffe temporarily losing a ski.
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