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Northwest Buttress 

YDS: 5.9 French: 5c Ewbanks: 17 UIAA: VI ZA: 17 British: HVS 5a

Type:  Trad, Alpine, 13 pitches, 2000', Grade IV
Original:  YDS: 5.9 French: 5c Ewbanks: 17 UIAA: VI ZA: 17 British: HVS 5a [details]
FA: unknown
Page Views: 11,918
Submitted By: Julian Smith on Jul 5, 2003

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Luke Laeser working his way through the first pitc...


The Northwest Buttress is a fantastic journey up a crack system that turns into a steep arete going up the north face of Capitol Peak. It is among the best of the technical routes to be found in the Elk Mountains, but it still has loose rock in some places. From Capitol Lake, continue south around the lake on a pack trail to Capitol Pass at 12,080. From the pass, work up talus to the southeast or left until the bottom of the face is reached. Traverse left for 30 feet to the beginning of an obvious crack system that leads to a chimney. Fixed gear may be visible.

Pitch 1 - Climb a finger crack that ends with a traverse left to a roof. Crank through the roof to gain a stance. From the stance, clip the old fixed bolt, and climb into a crack system that begins almost horizontal and arches up and to the left. This section is wide. From the top of the crack, crank through another small roof to a stance. Jam the off-finger crack (crux) above the stance to a belay of fixed slings beneath the chimney. 5.9.

Pitch 2 - Get into the chimney with a hard move and continue up to the end of the chimney on a slab. Belay at an anchor of fixed slings. Be careful of loose rock on this pitch. 5.8.

Pitch 3 through 5 - Scramble or simul-climb a low angled slab and gully system for 400 feet to the base of the Unicorn Spire. Through an easy, but obscure line, climb past the Unicorn Spire on the right and continue up and right past a rotten spire to regain the crest of the arete.

Pitch 6 through 10 - Climb the steep arete for several pitches to gain a small saddle on the ridge proper.

Pitch 10 to 13 - From a fixed piton belay at the end of the saddle, climb a crack system up to a very loose roof. Crank through the roof and go up and right. We belayed from a fixed piton. Continue up over slabs to the summit.

The Knife Edge Ridge is the descent route. It is a good idea if someone in the party is familiar with the descent. It is long and complex. The Northwest Buttress route is very committing. After climbing the 1st 2 pitches, you are pretty committed to climbing the whole thing and coming back down the other side. Use Lou Dawson's guide as a reference with a topo. Roach also gives a good description, but has no topo. The route gets sun hit fairly early, with the bottom of the face getting the sun the latest.


Take a light alpine rack and a bigger piece, maybe a number 4 Camalot for the 1st pitch.

Photos of Northwest Buttress Slideshow Add Photo
Rock Climbing Photo: A rough topo of the route. Dawson's 14er guide has...
BETA PHOTO: A rough topo of the route. Dawson's 14er guide has...
Rock Climbing Photo: Roland heading up the 4th class ramp to get around...
BETA PHOTO: Roland heading up the 4th class ramp to get around...
Rock Climbing Photo: Extremely loose roof after fixed pin belay on sadd...
Extremely loose roof after fixed pin belay on sadd...
Rock Climbing Photo: View down the Northwest Buttress of Capitol Peak
View down the Northwest Buttress of Capitol Peak
Rock Climbing Photo: The first two pitches
BETA PHOTO: The first two pitches
Rock Climbing Photo: Use the large ledge to access the first pitches.
BETA PHOTO: Use the large ledge to access the first pitches.
Rock Climbing Photo: The ledge to the start of the climb.
BETA PHOTO: The ledge to the start of the climb.
Rock Climbing Photo: On the summit.
On the summit.
Rock Climbing Photo: Final 5.7 corner and small roof above. Roof has to...
Final 5.7 corner and small roof above. Roof has to...
Rock Climbing Photo: Looking down at Unicorn Pinnacle from the low 5th ...
Looking down at Unicorn Pinnacle from the low 5th ...
Rock Climbing Photo: Looking into the wet, lower part of the second pit...
Looking into the wet, lower part of the second pit...
Rock Climbing Photo: View looking down from the top of the 2nd pitch.
View looking down from the top of the 2nd pitch.
Rock Climbing Photo: Aaron Taylor at the blast off ledge for pitch one.
Aaron Taylor at the blast off ledge for pitch one.
Rock Climbing Photo: Flavor country on Capitol Peak.
Flavor country on Capitol Peak.
Rock Climbing Photo: Summiting.
Rock Climbing Photo: Overlooking Capitol Lake before the weather starte...
Overlooking Capitol Lake before the weather starte...
Rock Climbing Photo: Northwest Buttress of Capitol Peak, July 2003
BETA PHOTO: Northwest Buttress of Capitol Peak, July 2003

Comments on Northwest Buttress Add Comment
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Comments displayed oldest to newestSkip Ahead to the Most Recent Dated Aug 8, 2013
By jayci
From: Flagstaff
Nov 30, 2003

I want to hit this route next summer. If anyone could give some pointers or a heads up for what to look out for, that would be awsome, thanks.jayci
By Anonymous Coward
Feb 25, 2004

Wear a helmet.
By Matt Juth
From: Evergreen
Sep 15, 2004

If the wind is roughing up your tent in the morning from the pass.... Don't bother hiking to the base. Do the Knife Edge and go home!
By K Trout
From: Golden, Colorado
Jul 24, 2006

Capitol's NW Buttress is one or maybe two stars. A beautiful sight, like Mt Morrison in the Sierras, but too rotten.

7/12/2008: The summit and descent on Capitol are really cool too. It's good.

By Julian Smith
From: Colorado Springs, CO
Jul 24, 2006

That's a fair assessment Ken is making. The mountain/route is very characteristic of the Elk Mtns... as in it is loose... however, different strokes for different folks. Thankfully, where the route is hardest is also where the rock is the best, on the first pitch that is.
By BJ Sbarra
From: Carbondale, CO
Jul 12, 2007

This route is great fun, as long as you can handle the choss. The first pitch would be classic at most any crag. After that, expect some loose but easy climbing. We simuled everything but the first pitch and the 5.7 roof pitch up high. This is a good mountaineering route in the Elks, and you'll most likely have fun if you look at it as such.

A friend did a route on the southeast side of the mountain that he said followed good rock the whole way, but I don't have any further details.
By Peter
From: Tempe, AZ
Aug 27, 2007

You don't need a #4 Camalot on this route, unless you want to carry extra weight. the wide section is easy, and, anyway, it is too wide for #4.
By Mike McKinnon
From: Golden, CO
Aug 3, 2009

Just did this route this weekend. The first 2 pitches are wet, really wet water running down the 9 crack at the top of p1 and water gushing out of the chimmney.

With that said, what a route. It is long, loose and chossy. It just keeps going and going. We had snow on every pitch, loose rock everywhere.

This route is not for the faint of heart. Every pitch is S and some are VS all 5.6 and above. The descent would be hell for a party that did not know it and could be consdered the hardest part of the route:).

There is no one route of this buttress. Just use your route finding skills and try to keep the easiest and cleanest line. Simul-climbing could be done on some of the pitches but we opt-ed not to for safety reasons. Simulclimbing with no gear in between you since all gear is in choss and nothing is really bomber is not a good recipe for safety - you mine as well just each solo it. On average, I would say I got 2-3 bomber pieces in each pitch and 4-6 so so pieces.

Do not take this route or this mountain lightly. But if you are prepared - it is quite the accomplishment.
By J. Albers
From: Colorado
Aug 27, 2009
rating: 5.9 5c 17 VI 17 HVS 5a

I was about to disagree with Michael about the 'R' rating, but...I do remember climbing a bit of loose choss where I am not so sure gear would have held. That said, most of the loose stuff is on terrain that is pretty darn easy, and you should be able to carefully (and safely) dance your way up stuff.

I would disagree that overall the gear was not good. Except for the 4th class section (maybe 400 feet or so) right after the crux opening pitches and maybe a 50 foot section (mentioned above) getting onto the ridge proper in the middle of the climb, the gear is pretty good. I never had problems finding good gear and good anchors. If some of those pitches were at the crag, then sure they would get an 'R' rating, but this is the mountains (The Elks for that matter) which kinda implies that you have to watch what you touch, though this route does have WAY more crap rock than up in the Park.

The first couple of pitches, a couple in the middle, and the final headwall (i.e. all of the parts with any real technical climbing) are solid enough. Everywhere else is definitely scary loose choss (some of it BIG). Two stars because the line is so compelling and combined with the great descent makes for a great outing, just don't expect a clean climb (if it was, I would give it 4 stars).
By Mike McKinnon
From: Golden, CO
Sep 8, 2009

I would only submit that just because the climbing is easy does not mean it is not 's'. I never had problems finding gear either but it was because as you stated the climbing is really easy for the most part. I did not stop to look around and only took what was staring at me in the face.

My post was simply meant to warn people that were hoping to climb this route where 9 was their limit and who were not comfortable running it out on 7s. I see more and more of these type of people in the mountains everyday. "Oh, I climb 5.10 at the sport park, let's go do NW Butress, it's only 5.9" :)
By Stich
From: Colorado Springs, Colorado
Jul 25, 2010
rating: 5.9 5c 17 VI 17 HVS 5a

Dawson's 14er guide has a useful topo for the route. As described, you ascend the 4th class ramp to the right of the Unicorn Tower and then continue up more ramps down and below it to get higher. This side of the buttress has very steep cliffs and an arete. You can penetrate the arete at several points via low 5th class climbing from the ramp.

Echoing Michael's comments about the rating, it is a very psychologically demanding route with the loose rock and seeping water.
By Max Kendall
From: Ouray, CO
Sep 4, 2010

When I climbed this route in the '80s, I was at the belay near the top not paying attention to the weird, popping noises. When my partner Mark Venery got near me, there was a loud crack. He jumped on me and the belay, and where he had been a rock the size of a VW bug landed spraying us with shrapnel. We were sooo lucky that day, not even a helmet would have helped. I shook my way up the rest of the climb. I remember the lower pitches as quite nice but overall loose rock.
By Marc Venery
Apr 8, 2011

Good memory, Max - I remember that day well. That was the first time I had the strange, stinging taste of metal and copper in my mouth. We were lucky, no doubt.

I remember the bottom 2 or 3 pitches as being the best quality climbing on the wall, some traversing 5.9 hand cracks? Anyway, that was a great day, for sure.
By Stich
From: Colorado Springs, Colorado
Jun 8, 2011
rating: 5.9 5c 17 VI 17 HVS 5a

Do you guys have any idea where the rock peeled off from?
By coop Best
From: Glenwood Springs, CO
Jul 21, 2011

Anybody been up this summer yet?
By Brian McMahon
Jan 24, 2012

So, I've never been on this route. Looking for beta for a January or February ascent. Do any of you guys who have already climbed it have any thoughts on how it would be with big boots and ice tools?
By slim
Jan 25, 2012
rating: 5.9 5c 17 VI 17 HVS 5a

The main thing I remember from doing it ('98 or so) was that it was loose, on-the-fly sort of climbing. We had a rope get chopped by falling rock. I'm not sure if snow would help keep it together better, or if it would just prevent you from being able to see landmines. If you haven't done the route before (as well as the descent), it might be a good idea to do them both in good conditions and make some mental notes.

My gut feel is that it would be pretty hairy.
From: Santa Monica, Ca.
Jan 25, 2012
rating: 5.9 5c 17 VI 17 HVS 5a

Yeah, I agree with the above ^^^^^+++

I'm also thinking that the approach could be epic, that's a pretty long ways in. I'm imagining breaking trail, whether on skis, shoes or postholing could be an arduous task, and then the real fun begins! (guess I'm just an old wimp)
By slim
Jan 25, 2012
rating: 5.9 5c 17 VI 17 HVS 5a

I almost commented on the aproach, but I didn't want to admit to myself how out of shape I am these days when it comes to approaching something, but yeah, it would probably be pretty rugged.
By Ryan Jennings
Jan 25, 2012


Old roomate here:) I have been wanting to do a winter ascent of this for some time. Let me know if you need a partner. I just climbed it this summer and have a good memory of it all. Climbing wouldn't be tooooo bad. Pro was limited on everything above the first two pitches which could prove exciting with crampons on but never harder than 5.6-5.7 so.... Descent could be the most exciting and time consuming part. Approach would be long, even on light skis, and dangerous as you cross a few avalanche paths. Timing is everything! I believe Mike Kennedy did this in Winter once and might be a good source of info. A fair bit of logistics. In a day????? :)
By Brian McMahon
Jan 27, 2012

Hey Ryan- Good to hear from you! Hell no, not in a day. You must be in great shape these days.
Thanks for the beta. Since I've never been up there, it sounds like a good idea to get up there together - onsighting the walk off will probably be an adventure. I already floated the idea with one buddy (another old roommie from the Gillaspie days- remember Steve?), but if he bails, I'll letcha know. Are you around Boulder? For some reason, I thought you were in Jackson.
Do y'all think the approach will be fairly obvious without a packed trail?
By Ryan Jennings
Feb 2, 2012

Yeah, definitely remember Steve. Those were the days:) I'm in Carbondale now. There are actually a few approach options. Two different trails up the valley to the lake and another approach from the Snowmass ski area side that comes up to the ridge of K2 then drops into the lake. This second option may be better in winter, since it get's more travel typically. This year is a fluke with the snow conditions, and not many folks are venturing out due to danger. Up the Valley to the lake would require skiing first to the summer parking lot then heading out of the lot on the "Ditch trail" at the high end of the parking lot. This trail traverses the right side of the valley eventually dropping in. You'd probably just pick the path of least resistance and avy danger. Would be a bit hard to do in the dark if you've never been there but otherwise obvious. Doubt there would be much of a "trail" anywhere. Email me for phone number if you wanna talk.
By Brian McMahon
Mar 8, 2012

Ryan- I know winter's almost over, but if you still think you might be into this, shoot me an email.
By Rob Griz
From: Frisco
Aug 8, 2013
rating: 5.9 5c 17 VI 17 HVS 5a

Great first pitch with massive, hollow flakes. Amazing that they are somehow glued to the wall. Wet chimney 2nd pitch, unroped running to the headwall and a great simul to the summit. Funny wearing a helmet as most of the stuff that could come loose would rip off limbs or crush you. Car 2 car in 10hrs. Forget the #4 cam, keep the rack light and the rope short (50m 8mm). Fun alpine adventure!

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