Triumph on Capitol
Pam Rice paused to contemplate her next move – and question her sanity.The 40-year-old Boulder resident had no intention of summiting Capitol Peak, widely regarded as one of the state’s most demanding fourteeners. Last week, when friends Pete Sowar and Frank Konsella first discussed the idea of tackling the famed peak with Rice’s husband, former Aspenite Chris Webster, she figured she’d just tag along. Maybe she’d climb to the end of the famed Knife Edge, then wish everyone well before retreating to the gentler slopes of Pierre Lakes Basin to await their return.She would merely be an innocent bystander. There was no way she was going to ski from the summit. No way.”There’s no reason to ski that mountain,” said Rice, who recently celebrated her 40th birthday. “No logical reason, anyway.” But Monday afternoon, as she and Webster idled at the top of the Secret Couloir, they weighed their options while peering toward the jagged summit cutting through clear blue skies some 400 vertical feet away. Friend and accomplished Crested Butte mountaineer Sean Crossen, who has climbed and skied every one of the state’s fourteeners excluding Capitol, already had opted to turn back. “I’ve got a kid, it changes you, it just does,” he told the group, according to Konsella’s online trip report.
Webster, who failed to summit 14,130-foot Capitol in his only other attempt in the spring of 2006 because of scarce snow, left the decision up to Rice.”We knew going up would be reasonably easy for us, but the whole time I’m looking up and thinking, ‘How am I getting off this mountain?'” he said. “At that point, we really had to make up our minds. Are we going to do this or not? You can go back down the couloir and back to camp. … From there, it starts getting more technical with [Class 4] rock climbing.”It’s one thing to put your own life on the line. When your wife is out in the chopping zone, you’re going ‘OK, the margin for error just got a lot slimmer.'”Encouraged by the favorable conditions, Rice and Webster, skis on their backs, pushed onward. For three hours, with crampons attached to their ski boots and ice axes firmly in hand, the four cautiously negotiated the rock-strewn path to the summit.A 1 p.m., some 1012 hours after Webster’s iPhone alarm erupted into a Latin marimba – arousing the camp, which was situated near Moon Lake – they had reached the top.”It’s unbelievably spectacular,” said Rice, a cancer researcher at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. “It was like being on top of the world.”Rice reveled in unobstructed panoramic views of the Elk Mountain and surrounding ranges. Webster lounged on a rock outcropping with a copy of The New Yorker.For years, Webster lived in the shadows of the Elk Mountains’ commanding peaks. Still, he said the thought of climbing, let alone skiing, them never once crossed his mind.”I didn’t even know what backcountry skiing was,” said Webster, a software engineer for The National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder.The 43-year-old was deeply immersed in the kayaking scene throughout the 1990s, crisscrossing the state in pursuit of raging whitewater. After a back injury in 2000 made boating difficult, Webster focused on a higher calling. He spent his weekends on peaks instead of in river valleys.
Nineteen years ago, Webster scaled his first fourteener – Torreys Peak on the Front Range – while a student at CU. In the years since, he has scaled 51 of the state’s highest peaks.Webster first met Rice, a California native, at CU. In subsequent years, the couple’s shared love of the outdoors led them from backpacking excursions to rock climbing and mountain biking. Rice decided to give ski mountaineering a try, too. She has climbed “36 or 37″ fourteeners to date.”She has no sense of fear,” Webster said.At least until she stood on top of Capitol for the first time.”It was definitely intimidating,” Rice said. “It was steep, and you didn’t see the consequences. But in the back of my mind, I knew they were there.”Webster, too, was taken aback. “This is one to survive, not to enjoy,” he added. “We had an ecstatic time climbing it, but the ski down really squeezed the comfort zone. … It’s like Chris Davenport said: This mountain really is like skiing off a bowling ball. It just keeps going until nothing is left. You fall right off the edge.”Joy gave way to apprehension as the group prepared to descend. Konsella and Sowar were first to push off – one of Konsella’s first turns triggered a wet slide on the east face, according to his trip report. Consequently, the two made deliberate ski cuts as they continued downward, and encountered little residual snow movement.
Sowar and Konsella quickly disappeared out of sight.Webster was next to drop in, pausing after some 50 feet to relay a message about conditions up to Rice. Four inches of soft corn shifted to wintry, chalky hardpack as the group made their way from the sun to shade on a traverse back to the couloir across 50-degree slopes. Next came a 100-foot rappel down the narrow upper portion of the Secret Couloir, before the group clipped back into their skis for a jaunt into the Pierre Lakes Basin.Finally, a moment to relax.Finally, a moment to admire their ski tracks and the accomplishment. “This is absolutely, unconditionally the hardest,” Webster said. “This is the kingpin. … We’re lucky to have pulled this one off successfully.”Lucky – and maybe a little insane, Rice joked.”Instead of the usual pumped-up ‘I just skied from the summit’ part-on feeling, I am humbled,” Rice wrote. “‘That was completely retarded,’ is about all I can say. While proud of my accomplishment and facing my fears I can’t help feeling it is the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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