This is the roughly 2.5-mile-long ridge that connects the Elk Range's two granite Fourteeners, Capitol and Snowmass. It's far and away the hardest 14er-connecting ridge in Colorado, and likely one of the hardest ridges in the state, for a variety of reasons -- length, exposure, route-finding, loose rock (extremely loose rock, almost the whole way).
To do this as a loop trip, park at the Snowmass Creek trailhead. (From the town of Snowmass on CO Hwy 82 drive south 1.7 miles to a T-junction. Turn left. Drive about 10.7 miles -- the road turns to dirt around 7 miles -- over a bridge spanning Snowmass Creek to another T-junction. Turn right and drive to the Snomass Creek Trailhead at the road's end.) Now climb Capitol via the Knife Edge (NE Ridge), approaching from West Snowmass Creek (go 1.7 miles up the Snomass Creek Trail to the West Snowmass Creek fork on the right, which is signed; head up this trail a good three-four steep miles until you can contour along the east side of Mount Daly, near then at timberline, into the basin northeast of K2 that contains Moon Lake -- this is a good place to fill water bottles).
From the summit of Capitol, descend SW along the knife-edge (loose, exposed) until you can downclimb due south into a bowl (some 5.7ish stuff, exposed). Continue south just west of the ridgeline on good, solid slabs, which lull you into thinking that the rest of the ridge will be bomber (it ain't). As soon as the slabs end, negotiate a series of gendarmes, invariably dropping west when the ridge itself either becomes too loose or impassable. This may involve 4th and 5th class downclimbing, depending on how far you drop off the ridge, and where. Continue this way for a long way, on terrain that is so sustained in its looseness as to be psychologically wearing. (I accidentally trundled some big stuff -- not onto myself -- it works best to keep your limbs as spread out as possible onto different blocks in case one goes. They all shift.) It also seemed best to stay right on the ridgeline when possible, as this places you atop all the choss.
Along the way you'll pass various notches that allow you to bail east into the Pierre Lake Cirque, from which you could drop back down to Snowmass Creek, and your car. You can also bail west at any point, but it would put you miles and miles from your car, with your best way out at that point being to negotiate a return northward to Capitol Creek.
Just before North Snowmass Mountain, after you've negotiated a prominent sub-peak, the ridge becomes an absolute nightmare, with car-sized teetering gendarms and huge scalloping flakes on the walls below them. Drop down west via a nasty downclimb (you could rappel, I think) to the talus below and walk south 50 yards until you're beneath a huge, rotten overhanging bowl in the ridge. Climb up diagonalling ramp/cracks to the right of the bowl on the north-facing wall (5.5, very exposed) to gain a faint rib. Follow dirt, loose blocks, etc. back to the ridge proper, then a nice pitch of solid rock (5.5/5.6; pass an old piton) on white stone takes you straight up the ridge to the summit of North Snowmass.
The agony is over ... cruise over to the summit of Snowmass (3rd class), then descend via the East Face route to Snowmass Lake. An 8-mile walk out on the Snowmass Creek trail takes you back to the car.
If you do this with a partner, stay at least 50 feet apart at all times. A rope would be useful for the occasional rappel; luckily, most of the 5th class terrain is on solid rock, but this is still a big, albeit spectacular, chossheap in the sky. Tread lightly ...
The first ascent of the North Ridge of Snowmass (maybe the most technical bit of the traverse; this is where I found the pins) goes to Paul Petzold and a group of Outward Bound students he was leading on July 3 or 4, 1963, according to Gary Neptune, who was one of Petzold's students that day. "Petzold was the chief climbing instructor at Outward Bound then and led the climb for a group of the better climbing students. He let me lead the second rope," Neptune wrote in an email. "There's a photo in the store of our little group on the summit after that climb. Maybe that was the first ascent of the ridge. There were no pitons other than the ones Paul placed, and I didn't remove any. I took a nice photo of the connecting ridge and thought that it might make a great traverse, but I never went back."
As for the FA of the integral ridge? Bill Forrest and Glen Denny set out, according to Forrest, with the goal to climb "from the Outward Bound camp above Marble to the summit of South Maroon, then climb Snowmass, then on to the summit of Capitol, and then return to the O.B. camp - in less than 24 hours." Part of their monster day, then, was to traverse from Snowmass to Capitol and, says Forrest, "we didn't stay on the ridge all the way when we traversed from Snowmass to Capitol. Staying on the 'true ridge' between Snowmass and Capitol was never part of the plan. We were pretty tired when we summited Snowmass. As I recall (and remember that was over 40 years ago), we were just below the ridge most of the way as we headed west/northwest. We had to gain the ridge to summit Capitol and encountered a bit of 5th class as we climbed to the top of the ridge just S. E. of Capitol's summit."
So for now, I don't know who made the FA going from Capitol to Snowmass or how closely that hove to the ridgecrest itself. One section, to me, looked so loose as to be impassable, but you never know...
Forrest and Denny's accomplishment in 1966 is truly remarkable, a feat rarely if ever repeated, I'd imagine. Says Forrest, "It was a long day in the hills. In short, we did the tour in under 24 hours, and my knees were badly damaged in the process. It was many years before I could walk without pain again."
If you're doing this with gear: a 60-meter rope, a few extra rappel slings (and rap rings), a light rack of stoppers, cams to 2".
Footwear: Approach shoes with stick rubber and/or a light pair of rock shoes (slippers).
By Noah McKelvin
From: Colorado Springs
Sep 27, 2010
rating: 5.7 5a 15 V+ 13 MVS 4b X
This description given is not enough. I first thought it was not that bad. This thing is worse than the description above. We became the first party to stay on the ridge proper the whole time. (According to AAJ, internet and etc. but who knows?) Very sketchy and dangerous roped climbing was encountered on the gendarmes before N Snowmass. Hardly any pro that you could trust let alone that much pro. The rock was just so bad! Very scary climbing. No wonder this thing has only been recorded as being done a couple times. Still a stunning ridge traverse!
By karl gustafson
Feb 3, 2012
We did the First Traverse of the Capitol-Snowmass ridge in 1951. We=me=Karl Gustafson, and Bob Allen. I was a young Boulder rock climber and Bob was a CU student and my Boy Scout Master. I wrote a short account in the Colorado Mountain Club's Trail and Timberline 404 (1952) 119-121. As recounted there, we made a point of staying (essentially ) on top: so no basin-dropping. We made it essentially all the way through the gendarmes, including the one Noah calls Satan's Gate in his account Never Ending Punishment on Satan's Ridge. A severe large thunderstorm caused us to decide to not finish up the ridge to the Snowmass summit.
A couple of comments: Thanks Noah for doing the history and even mentioning your finding two of our cairns. Second, I would guess that Bill Forrest and Glen Denny in their second-ascent traverse (1966), did not stick to the top of the ridge, it would be much faster and very tempting to just drop lower along the west side. Third, we (not Forrest and Denny), placed the name Ridge Peak on the ridge as we climbed over and down it as we were benighted the first
night on the traverse. See T&T 1952 article for more details.
By Eric Klammer
From: Boulder, CO
Nov 17, 2016
rating: 5.7 5a 15 V+ 13 MVS 4b X
Climbed this solo in mid-September. Maximum scariness but one of the coolest things I have ever done! A dusting of snow in the shady areas and looser rock than I imagined was possible.
Took me ~5 hours to go from the summit of Capitol to the top of Snowmass. Left the ridge once at the gendarmes to takes Matt's variation around and up. This involved horrifying downclimbing and traversing and then pretty much swimming across a steep scree field to a loose and snowy climb back up the ridge on the other side (not that the gendarmes would have been any easier...).
17.5 hours car to car and memories to last a lifetime. Glad to have survived!
Also: I'll echo what Noah said, whatever you may read about this climb will not prepare you for what you will actually find. It is hard to imagine how loose it is up there without experiencing it firsthand.