Deep in the heart of the Elk Mountains lurks a route so fearsome, people only whisper its name in conversation:
“I hear it’s a tottering pile of choss.”
“I hear you don’t get any good gear for 1000 feet.”
“I heard Michael Kennedy soloed it naked in mountain boots.”
I can’t vouch for the last one, but I can tell you that the Northwest Buttress of Capitol Peak in reality is a worthy alpine climb, and not as loose and/or dangerous as many people make it out to be. Of course, this is the Elk Range, not the Sierras, so if you go expecting pitch after pitch of perfect granite you will be disappointed. But if you are looking for a longer technical adventure in the mountains and can deal with some occasional loose stuff, this should be right up your alley.
After hiking to Capitol Lake (6.5 mi), you head up to Capitol Pass and then scramble to the base of the obvious buttress. It’s the only part of the massive North Face that actually looks somewhat solid. Standing below the first pitch on your first time there, it’s hard not to get excited and wonder what all the hype was about the “loose stuff.” Before you is an incredible 150′ of excellent crack climbing on perfect granite that would be a worthy pitch at any crag. But then you get to the belay, and just above is a seam where the rock goes from bullet to fractured. It’s almost as if God said, “The good rock shall goeth no further, this is the Elks after all.” The next pitch is a funky and somewhat loose chimney, but thankfully the climbing is easy. The shattered rock will be a little unnerving after the glorious first pitch, but as long as you pay attention, you shouldn’t knock anything down on to your belayer.
Next up comes several hundred feet of 4th class to gain the ridge proper, which reminded me of a steeper version of the knife edge over on the other side of the mountain. Several fun and mellow pitches take you up this feature, on mostly solid rock, to a big ledge. From here, we did some more 4th class, and then one last pitch through a very loose roof, thankfully it’s only 5.7. Some more 4th class then brings you to the top. Soak in the incredible views of the Elk Range, Pierre Lakes, and the dreadful ridge connecting to Snowmass Peak to the south. If you thought what you just climbed was child’s play, maybe you’re ready to step it up to that challenge.
So there you have it, about as good as it gets for technical climbing in the Elk Range. In California they probably wouldn’t even go near this peak, but this is Colorado, and it’s a gem in the sea of choss that is our state.