As I staggered my way down from the summit of Capitol Peak the hallucinations seemed more and more real. They started out simple enough in the form of other hikers on the mountain, which I began to see well below Capitol’s summit in the Pierre Lakes Basin. Then, I saw what appeared to be a giant turtle—perhaps of the Teenage Mutant Ninja variety? Eventually, I made it below treeline and saw a giant bull that looked straight out of a Texas rodeo. Next, was a woman in a bikini at a campsite less than twenty feet off the trail (why couldn’t this one have been real?). Most trippy of all were the detailed faces that materialized out of splotches in the trail or in the bark on the sides of Aspens. It’s pretty amazing what forty-plus hours (mostly) alone in the mountains can do to a person. I was almost positive that I was losing my fucking mind…
It had been almost two days since I woke up in the Capitol Creek horse trailer parking lot and prepared my gear for a second attempt at one of the burliest routes around—a single push enchainment of the seven Elks Range 14ers. The Elks Range is well-known for its awe-inspiring beauty, which is probably only matched by its mostly shitty rock quality on some of the most technical 14ers in the state. Even the more stable rock around Snowmass and Capitol is still surrounded by shockingly unstable boulder and talus fields and steep, loose scree slopes held in place by rock hard dirt. The recurring theme is that everything seems to move in the Elks. All of these factors probably have something to do with the traverse only being completed twice prior (in 1996 by Neal Beidleman and Jeff Hollenbaugh and in 2013 by Jason Antin and Brandon Worthington).
I spent the day of August 8th (my birthday!) preparing my food and gear for the long outing I’d begin early the next morning. Bacon/bagel sandwiches, pretzels, dried fruit, trail mix, cookies, gels, coconut water, Gatorade, and canned espresso drinks would be fueling me through these 60+ miles and 25k feet of vert—in total, about 10k calories or more. My buddy John “Homie” Prater and I had decided to link Capitol through Pyramid together, which allowed me to pack a drop bag for his van that would be at the Maroon Lake trailhead. My intent was to keep going from there and tag the summits of Castle and Conundrum to complete the Elks 14ers traverse. However, on the drive to Aspen Homie realized that he possibly wasn’t fit enough to do the planned route. After some thinking, I decided to revert back to my original plan of an east-to-west traverse starting from Castle Creek and have Homie meet me at Maroon Lake with my drop bag. The route begins with the easiest terrain and gets increasingly difficult, but allows for an up-climb of the cruxy sections on the Maroon Bells Traverse. My primary fear going into this traverse was downclimbing the Bells Traverse since I had only completed it once prior.
On the morning of August 9th I woke up around 1AM after an unexpectedly decent 2-3 hours of sleep. About thirty minutes later I was dressed, caffeinated, and ready to roll. I hopped into Homie’s adventure mobile and we drove to the Castle Creek trailhead. I used the drive time to fully charge my phone (camera), down about 1,500 calories, and guzzle the remainder of my coffee.
At 2:25AM I took off from the end of the paved road heading up Castle Creek. The morning was pleasantly warm down low allowing me to be comfortable in shorts, a t-shirt, and arm sleeves. When I reached the end of the jeep road and began ascending the snow field to upper Montezuma Basin there was a noticeable breeze and chill in the air. I used this as an opportunity to put on my wind pants and heavy shell before cruising up the snow in Microspikes. During my first failed attempt three days prior I found myself wishing for Microspikes as I carefully climbed up the icy snowfield as though it were a Flatirons slab. From the upper basin it’s a relatively painless trip up to Castle’s Northeast Ridge, which deposits you on the summit before you know it.
Without wasting much time, I began the short traverse over
to Conundrum. The talus was covered in a thin layer of frost leaving me a bit
concerned for the shitty descent down into Conundrum Valley. Exercising a bit
of caution led me to the summit of Conundrum about 26 minutes after leaving
Castle—over ten minutes slower than normal. These first two summits were cold
and windy, which motivated me to get my ass off of them as fast as possible. I
turned around almost immediately and headed to the Castle-Conundrum saddle for
my descent into the valley.
At 3:16 hours into the day I began my first big descent of
the route. During my first attempt I ended up staying way too far to the north
(descender’s right) and got tangled up in a bunch of cliffbands and steep,
loose gullies. Once clear of the cliffs and gullies I found myself on seemingly
endless steep, loose talus and boulders. I certainly didn’t want a repeat
performance of that descent this time. So, I made sure to swing way out to my
left (south) in an effort to avoid the cliffbands and stay on the less steep
talus/boulders. Apparently this worked because I found myself on the trail
leading to Conundrum Hot Springs in 4:58 hours versus 5:55 on my first
attempt—almost an hour difference.
Once on the Conundrum Hot Springs trail I was greeted with
over 13 miles of cruiser singletrack over to the Maroon Lake trailhead. The
initial few miles were a bit chilly being in the shaded creek bed, but later on
in the day I would have traded anything for those chilly conditions. I mostly
power hiked up to Triangle Pass where I relaxed for 5-10 minutes to soak up the
sun and enjoy a bacon and ham bagel sandwich. From Triangle Pass to Maroon Lake
was a pleasant mix of trotting with short walking breaks every now-and-then.
Near Maroon Lake, I took a wrong turn on the trail that brought me out to the
main road by the West Portal trailhead. I stayed on the road and hiked up to
the lake parking lot.
After 9:02 hours on my feet I was happy to sit down at
Homie’s van to refuel, resupply, and change shoes. To this point, I had been
wearing Hoka Rapa Nui’s for the easier terrain. Now, I would change into La
Sportiva Bushido’s for some stickier rubber on the more technical portion of
the route; mainly the Bells Traverse. I spent about 40 minutes at the van,
mentally preparing for the rest of the route, eating anything in sight,
guzzling Gatorade, two cans of coconut water, and two doubleshot espressos.
Homie and I discussed how realistic it would be to get off the Bells before
dark; it would be possible assuming I didn’t bonk, but difficult.
|A nice view of essentially the entire Elks Traverse from Castle's summit. Taken during a scouting run.|
|Conundrum from Castle's summit. Another scouting run photo.|
|Sunrise view from Conundrum looking towards Castle. Photo taken during the Traverse.|
|Taking a dip in Conundrum Hot Springs during a scouting run.|
|Pyramid's east face. During my first attempt at the traverse (three days prior to my successful attempt) I spent almost eight hours trying to force my way up this nightmare.|
|Getting a little chossy on Pyramid's east face during my first attempt.|
|View of the Bells while ascending Pyramid's west face during a scouting run.|
|Goats everywhere on Pyramid's west face during a scouting run.|
When I finally hit the trails again I set off towards Pyramid like a man on a mission. In my attempt to finish Pyramid as quickly as possible I neglected keeping up with calorie intake and hydration. I managed to get up Pyramid in under three hours and back down to the South Maroon climber’s trail in 2:39 from Pyramid’s summit. These times even included stopping to talk to 3-4 groups of people along the way. During one of these conversations I was told that a helicopter rescue just occurred on the Maroon Bells Traverse, which didn’t exactly put my mind at ease.
The east slopes of South Maroon are a devilish grunt on
fresh legs. Today, it seemed to take everything in me to get up to the south
ridge of the peak—the heat and lack of calories/water were finally starting to
take their toll. Every step of the way left me wondering what the hell I was
doing out there. I wanted to quit so badly, but the best option I had was
returning to the Maroon Lake trailhead and sleeping in the bathroom for the
night. That bathroom smells like a cattle lot on a good day. So, I continued
onward and upward.
About halfway up the slopes I talked to a climber whose
partner was the person rescued on the traverse. He told me their original plan
was to just climb North Maroon, but on the summit they met an Aspen mountain
guide who talked them into joining for the traverse. It seemed that maybe the
guide was a little too encouraging on one of the crux downclimbs and eventually
the climber just fell. With the thought of falling on the traverse fresh on my
mind I began questioning my motives for doing this route. What was I trying to
prove, anyways? On the summit of South Maroon it became evident that should I
choose to continue I would be doing the Maroon Bells Traverse entirely in the
dark—only my second time ever doing this traverse.
I took a little time on the summit to really think about the
upcoming terrain. A fall on the Bells Traverse is bad enough, but falling at
night seemed much, much worse. No one would be around to help and I would be
counting on friends watching my progress on the Delorme GPS thingy to realize
that something happened. After some deliberation I decided to push on with the
traverse at least until the base of the first crux and see how I felt. I stood
at the base of the crux for a while trying to clear the negative thoughts from
my mind. I was finally able to relax and focus on the immediate task with a
clear mind and relaxed body. I followed this process for the next two cruxy
sections and was on easy terrain in no time.
I was rather pleased with myself at being able to get
through this section when it seemed that circumstances were plotting against me
(or at least in my mind it seemed that way). Sometimes it’s easy to convince
yourself that the universe is conspiring against you and that you were doomed
to fail from the start. The tricky part is overcoming those thoughts when
you’re all alone.
|Heading up Pyramid's standard route during the traverse.|
|Approaching the last grunt up to Pyramid's summit during the traverse.|
|Some goats guarding Pyramid's summit.|
|Standard Pyramid summit shot with the Bells in the background.|
|Enjoying a few minutes of rest on Pyramid's summit during the traverse.|
|Making my way towards Crater Lake during the traverse.|
|A nice view of my next two objectives--The Maroon Bells.|
|Paul Hamilton making his way up South Maroon during a scouting run.|
|Capitol and Snowmass off in the distance as I make my way up South Maroon during a scouting run.|
|The sun setting as I ascend South Maroon during the traverse.|
|Ascending one of the cruxy sections of the Bells Traverse during a scouting run. (Photo: Paul Hamilton)|
On the summit of North Maroon I was still confronted with negative thoughts. This was basically my last logical bailout point. Descend the standard Northeast Ridge route and I can bail back to Maroon Lake. Descend the Northwest Ridge towards the Gunsight and I’m in it for the long haul. There was still a shit load of tedious terrain between me and the summit of Capitol, but the truly dangerous terrain was behind me. Which way I descended basically just boiled down to how far I was willing to go mentally and physically—how much exhaustion was I willing to endure?
Of course, I descended towards the Gunsight. I had already
made that decision almost twenty hours prior when I set off from the Castle
Creek trailhead. After bailing on my initial attempt a few days earlier I had
decided that any second attempt would either end successfully or with my
friends hiking in to retrieve the gear I borrowed off of my mangled body. Maybe
that’s a bit overly dramatic, but I was certainly willing to take more than the
usual amount of risks to finish this line.
|Looking back at the summit of South Maroon from North Maroon during a scouting run.|
|Looking back down at Crater Lake and Maroon Lake from North Maroon during a scouting run.|
The segment from North Maroon’s summit to just above Snowmass Lake had me a bit worried. I was totally unfamiliar with the entire portion of the route. Things started off alright with my onsight descent to the Gunsight going much smoother than anticipated. From here, I started dropping towards Snowmass Creek where I would begin a large contour around the basin trying to stay around 11,600’ elevation most of the way. Homie warned me about a cliffband below the Gunsight, which I successfully avoided. Near the creek I spotted about 5-10 ghostly white objects that seemed to hover in the air; eyes glowing brightly as my headlamp hit them. Frightened, I stared at these things for a solid five minutes before realizing they were just mountain goats. Whew…
In the pitch black darkness I missed the small pass to the south of Snowmass Lake and continued contouring around for a while. The GPS route on my watch wasn’t working at all as it kept pointing me in the wrong direction. Maybe I needed to recalibrate the compass? With no real idea where the hell I was I decided to quit wasting energy wandering around lost and just lie down. I opened the space blanket that I’ve owned for four years, yet have never used, and curled up in the fetal position on the ground to shiver uncontrollably for a few hours. In all, I rested about two hours, though sleep never actually came.
When the sun finally showed I felt a renewed energy, but that could have been the bacon and bagel sandwich I ate. I could finally see where I was and where I needed to go. It’s hard to describe the relief one gets when he’s lost in the mountains for several hours at night and then finally realizes where he’s at, but it’s one of the greatest feelings in the world. Invigorated and with a newly found sense of purpose I began making my way to the west side of Snowmass Lake for the shittiest ascent of the day.
The east side of Snowmass Mountain sort of sucks, especially
if you opt to ignore the standard trail and choose a more direct line straight
to the summit. This direct line puts you on a generous helping of snow and steep,
loose scree and talus that results in the old one-step-forward- two-steps-back
progress up the mountain. Morning temperatures were quite warm, resulting in
crappy snow that I kept punching all of the way through. After a few hours of
enduring this slow progress I found myself on the summit enjoying the company
of a few guys who were the first people I had seen in fifteen hours. One of the
guys broke out a pipe and offered me a hit, which I was tempted to take. My left
Achilles had been hurting since heading up South Maroon and I wasn’t really
eating anything at this point, but one toke would probably have knocked me out
cold as tired as I was.
The exercise in frustration continued as I descended the
loose pile of shit that is the west side of Snowmass. Rather than trying to
contour to the north on extremely loose boulders I decided to descend to where
the boulder field evens out a little bit. This allowed for some easier travel
towards my ascent of a pass just to the west of the Snowmass-Capitol ridgeline.
At this point any progress at all (up or down) seemed to take an extraordinary
amount of time and effort. From the summit of Snowmass to my crossover point on
the Snow-Cap Ridge took 2:36 hours.
|View of Snowmass Lake during a run of the Four Pass Loop.|
|Near the summit of Snowmass with Capitol in the distance. Photo taken by Paul Hamilton during a scouting linkup of Capitol and Snowmass.|
|View of Capitol from the summit of Snowmass during the traverse.|
I probably chose the worst route possible down and across Pierre Lakes Basin. This was likely due to confusion/disorientation on where I needed to go for access to the Wandering Dutchman. I wandered around confused on where the hell I was for about an hour-and-a-half before finally getting my bearings. During that time, I ascended a couloir that led to a route called The Cleaver—apparently a 5.8 route that looked rather terrifying. Realizing that this was definitely NOT the way, I retreated back down the couloir and proceeded to have a mild panic about how I would find my way. I debated messaging Gerber with the Delorme to see if he could tell me where to go, but decided against it. After some thought I decided to try the GPS waypoint on my Ambit and see if that would work. Turned out that even though the route navigation was screwed up I was able to successfully navigate to a specific way point.
Finally, standing at the base of the Wandering Dutchman couloir I knew that the end was getting closer. The slog up the Dutchman, to K2, and on to Capitol’s summit took 1:53 hours, which surprises the hell out of me because it seemed to take so much longer when I was doing it. I didn’t linger on the summit long with my main goal being to get down to the campsites near Capitol Lake before darkness. I opted for a direct ridgeline decent back to the Capitol-Daly saddle versus trying to follow cairns on the standard route. Although this is a harder decent than the standard route I felt it provided fewer opportunities for disorientation in my state of extreme exhaustion.
I began to experience mild hallucinations between the summit
and saddle; seeing people who weren’t there, mostly. The loneliness that comes
with a solo 40+ hour effort in the mountains is hard to suppress and seems to
manifest itself through seeing these people who aren’t there. I proceeded to
stagger drunkenly for way longer than necessary, reaching the saddle in 2:04
from the summit. Looking back, it seems that my body chose the summit of
Capitol to begin shutting down almost entirely. I tried running the descent
from the saddle, but my completely trashed quads weren’t having any of it—they
were finished running for the day.
From the saddle to the Capitol Creek trailhead proved to be
6.5 of the longest miles of my life. My average pace ended up being less than
1.8 miles/hour for this stretch. The fatigue and hallucinations continued to
get worse. I kept seeing more and more people camping alongside the trail and
even began seeing detailed faces on the sides of Aspen trees. There were at
least a few times where my body was so overcome by exhaustion that I actually
fell asleep while hiking.
|All that remains between me and the summit of Capitol after topping out in the Wandering Dutchman. Photo taken during the traverse.|
|The ridge leading to Capitol's summit. Photo taken during scouting run.|
|Paul Hamilton scoping out the Pierre Lakes Basin from just below Capitol's summit. Photo from scouting run.|
|Finally sitting atop the summit of Capitol 39 hours after leaving Castle Creek Trailhead!|
|Finally on smooth trail just below the Capitol-Daly saddle. Photo taken during the traverse.|
Less than two miles from the trailhead I saw a headlamp looking back at me. Initially, I wrote this off as another hallucination. However, as I got closer I could hear a voice. When I finally realized that this was a REAL person I almost lost it; it had been over 12 hours since my last human interaction below the summit of Snowmass. Joe, the hiker, saw my headlamp coming down the trail and decided to wait for me to have company for the hike out. He was out taking photos of the sunset and stars and just assumed I was another hiker out for a casual stroll. Honestly, I have never been happier to see another person out in the mountains.
With less than a mile to go, Joe and I came across two other hikers and chatted for a few minutes. As much as I wanted to linger and talk I could feel my body on the verge of a complete shutdown—everything was starting to tighten up. If I stayed there too much longer I wouldn’t even be able to hike another step.
So, I pushed on until I finally began to recognize certain parts of the trail. I could tell the end was near and even began to hike with a little more pep in my step. It wasn’t much longer until Joe and I found ourselves at the trailhead. I’m still not certain what the better feeling was: hitting stop on my watch after 44+ hours on the move, knowing that Joe was there to give me a ride to my truck two miles below the trailhead, or finally taking my shoes/socks off?
It certainly wasn’t pretty or easy, but after 44+ hours of slogging along I found myself at the Capitol Creek Trailhead with the third known completion (fifth person to complete the route) and potentially the first person to complete it solo.
Without a doubt, this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done…
Splits—Location—Total Time (Split from Last Location):
Start (Castle Creek Trailhead)—0:00
Conundrum Peak—3:01 (0:26)
Castle-Conundrum Saddle—3:16 (0:15)
Conundrum Hot Springs Trail—4:58 (1:42)
Triangle Pass—5:57 (0:59)
Copper Pass—6:20 (0:23)
Maroon Lake Trailhead—9:02 (2:42)
Pyramid Peak Trail Turnoff—10:13 (1:05)
Pyramid Peak—12:42 (2:29)
Pyramid Peak Trail Turnoff—14:38 (1:56)
South Maroon Peak Trail Turnoff—15:21 (0:43)
South Maroon’s South Ridge—17:06 (1:45)
South Maroon Peak—18:02 (0:56)
North Maroon Peak—19:48 (1:46)
Snowmass Creek—21:54 (0:56)
Pass Leading to Maroon-Snowmass Trail—28:13 (6:19)
Beginning of Snowmass Ascent from Above Snowmass Lake—29:14 (1:01)
Snowmass Mountain—31:26 (2:12)
Pass Leading to West Side of Snow-Cap Ridge—33:43 (2:17)
Snow-Cap Ridge Crossover—34:02 (0:19)
Pierre Lakes Basin—34:34 (0:32)
Base of Wandering Dutchman—37:09 (2:35)
Top of Wandering Dutchman—37:33 (0:24)
Capitol Peak—39:02 (1:05)
Capitol-Daly Saddle—41:06 (0:58)
Finish (Capitol Creek Trailhead)—44:10 (3:04)