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Capitol Peak

August 22, 2001 - Knife Edge Ridge

Capitol Peak as seen from Capitol Creek trailhead

Gary and I were back from Bolivia and I was chafing to go climbing.  I had a few weekdays off and headed to attempt Capitol Peak in the Elk Range.  I had seen Capitol from a far distance but to date not even gotten as close as the trailhead.  I took off from Cheyenne despite an iffy weather forecast and made the five-hour run to find the peak covered in clouds illuminated by occasional lightning.  I sat in the truck, watched the peak appear and disappear, and shrugged my shoulders at the other group considering the climb as well.  At about 3 p.m., the clouds lifted and both I and the other group convinced ourselves that the weather would hold off long enough for us to do the overnight approach and climb.  I hefted my pack and set off down the ditch trail toward Capitol Peak.

The flank of Capitol from climb above Capitol Lake, fresh snow from yesterdays storm

I chose the ditch trail, as it seemed like a flattish route that intersected with the valley bottom trail a few miles in toward the peak.  The approach to Capitol is a wonderful hike of about 6 miles that places you at or near Capitol Lake, below the northern flank of this impressive mountain.  The weather cleared and I made the hike in the dry and found a good camp spot in the woods off to the side of the trail but about ½ mile shy of Capitol Lake.  Freeze dried dinner (ugh) and the surprise of a Thermarest pad gone bad before but now sported a major failure, well beyond the means of the supplied repair kit meant it was going to be long night.

The climb to the summit as seen from K2 point

Surprisingly, I slept like a log and was up and ready to go at the usual five in the morning.  I climbed up to the meadow surrounding the lake and took the trail leading up the slope toward the saddle on Capitol’s lower flank.  I did not see the other group from the parking lot and figured they were behind me as I had gotten an early start.  Once across the saddle, I made my way up the valley toward the K2 point but to do that you must traverse a bit on marked trail, down climb a steep couloir and then slowly wend your way up the valley by climbing over large boulders and slabs.  The valley steadily climbs and then turns right and climbs to the K2 point.  As I made the turn, I spotted the other climbers ahead, just reaching K2.  I met one of the other group on the flank of K2 and he explained that his two partners were crossing the knife edge but that he was having an off day and chose to head back in lieu of climbing higher.

View into Capitol Creek drainage from Capitol Ridge

I climbed up K2 and did not like the look of the down climb to the knife-edge, just too damn steep and exposed.  I thought that this could not be the route so I backed off, looked for another route around, and found a trail around the base of the K2 point.  I made the crossing to the knife-edge and again stopped to scope out this short but airy pitch.  Walk across?  Straddle it?  Feet on one side and hands on the crest?  I just did not like the looks of it at all.  Instead, I looked for an alternative and spotted my route down perhaps 15 feet from the crest and within minutes, I was comfortably on the other side.  The other group was still about ten climbing minutes ahead and we had made contact by wave, i.e. “OK, we both know another group is on the climb.”  The route up Capitol is a wonderful assortment of zigs and zags that wends its way via class 4 pitches steadily directly upward until a far ridge line I reached.  Then the route climbs upward before making a final zig to the summit.  I reached the summit with the other group and we spent perhaps 20 minutes on top and agreed to join up for the descent.  The other two climbers were ticking Capitol off their 14’er list, number 50 for one and 54 for the other.  Sadly, they noted that their other partner was seeking number 54 but had been turned by the knife-edge ridge for the second time. 

We made our way down the peak without difficulty and crossed off the knife-edge.  Then up and along the side of K2, down through the slab filled valley and up the couloir to the saddle above Capitol Lake.  At the base of the saddle, I came across an Austrian looking for a ride to Snowmass.  He had yet to break camp and noted that he would be a while as he was carrying a 35 kg. pack.  I told him I too had to break camp and that he should just meet me at the car park and I would give him a ride.  I set off on the five-mile hike out and figured I would make good time with my 30 lb pack as compared to him with his much heavier load.  Of course, I was wrong and I had a Euro ready to go when I got to the truck.  The Austrian had already done the Bells, Snowmass, and Pyramid, just knocking them off day after day, a regular climbing machine, but he also had about 20 less years on his physical plant.  A summary of the Capitol climb – Wow.

Capitol Peak – August 15-16, 2004

(Knife Edge Ridge)

Packing light means a Megamid camp

My promise to the wife was that after Peru 2004 I would take a break from climbing for the month of August.  I was not good to my word but I had a worthy excuse, Capitol Peak.  Ed expressed a wish to go climbing and I was willing to repeat a 14er for his sake (peak bagger) but not just any peak.  He had his sights set on something a bit closer but I tossed out the idea of making the trip to Aspen and climbing Capitol as an overnight.  He bit . . . and brought Reed along for the ride.

Oh what a view

Ed and Reed were on a roll having scored the North Bell but a few weeks before therefore I had no doubt that confidence would be an issue on what many consider the hardest of the 14’er trade routes.  I offered to take the lead and we made plans accordingly.  We left Ed’s place in Denver early on Saturday morning, three stuffed in the extra cab Tacoma for the 4-hour ride to the trailhead.  We made a quick lunch stop in Glenwood and then onward to start the hike.  We were far from the first to arrive at the road’s end as there were about 30 other cars parked at the terminus of the ditch trail.  We added one and began packing for the hike in.  I advised Ed on going lightweight but he needed little help as a prior trip to the Tetons finally brought him over in to the alpine light camp.  Reed was another story with his large pack; extra summit pack and the plethora of gear folks just seem to want to haul along for the ride.  We stripped him like a FNG right off the plane and he was happy for it in the end.

Crossing the knife edge

This was going to be a gourmet light trip.  I ditched all the cooking gear but for a knife, a small container of oil and believe it or not. .  a single large fry pan.  Heavy, sure it was but it was the only piece of cooking gear and we were sure going to eat well for the weight.  I packed the still frozen dinner in the top of the pack and with the shelter for the whole gang, a BD light Megamid.  Our now lightweight crew headed off down the ditch trail, taking sight of the target peak, Capitol at the end of the Capitol Creek drainage.  The hike in via the ditch trail avoids the drop into the valley and is a fast hike until the path cuts up a bit before later intersecting Capitol Creek.  We crossed the creek, rested a bit and moved on from this more or less half way point.

Summit ridge traverse

The path now takes on a bit of grade as it weaves along the creek, up through woods and across small meadows.  Before too long, we arrived at the creek that denotes the turn up toward Daly Peak and the saddle dividing Daly from Capitol proper.  We chose one of the campfire sites below the climb to Capitol Lake proper, figuring there would be fewer folks in this vicinity.  We spotted a site with a suitable flat for the Mid and made camp.  Once the tent was up and the bags lofting, I set about dinner.  The fry pan received a 2 lb. load of previously marinated beef strips; freshly sliced onions and green peppers.  Once the whole mess was hot and thoroughly done, I issued tortillas and the fajita fest began.  Three guys and three pounds of food will fill your stomach and get you to the top of Capitol with a jet assist.  Sure, we could have gone freeze-dried but I still had some 15,000-foot acclimatization left so why not eat like kings.  Oh, we did . . .

Summit trio

My plan was to get a start that would put us on the Daly/Capitol saddle at first light.  I had been up the route before and I knew that the only route finding issue would be the drop down the couloirs on the backside of the saddle.  I was not keen to do this in the dark so we figured to get a 4 a.m. departure.  Well, that was exactly one hour too early and although we were not the first set of lights going up to the saddle we were the first set to have a clue about the route in the dark.  We took a brief break at the saddle and then I found the route I was after to drop down into the valley a bit before traversing on a contour on up toward the endless boulder hop that leads to the K2 point.  Now bear in mind, one can drop and then bounce right back up but I did not know that at the time.  I was repeating a past route that I knew would get us moving in the right direction in the dark if need be.

Summit in hand and knife ridge bound

We dropped the couple of hundred feet, did the contour traverse and then did the boulder hop.  We passed one group who failed to respond to our morning salutations; hence we knew there was at least one guided group on the route that morning.  We hopped and hopped and hopped some more but eventually made it to the K2 point for a break before we tackled the Class 3 and Class 4 terrain leading to the knife edge and summit beyond.  This time, however, I did not repeat my past error in ascending the K2 point but instead took the traverse to the side, stayed a bit too high and then dropped onto the path leading to the knife edge.  This is a nifty little traverse with a bit of exposure all along and a winner of an exposed spot at the notch defining the far side of the K2 point.  From that spot, we scrambled up and along the ridge to the knife-edge proper. 

An afternoon's hike out

I’m not sure what gave me the willies about the knife-edge a few years back but it was not there this time around.  Actually, it was just a few more years of climbing that did the trick, experience.  We all went right across with little effort and then scrambled along the remainder of the ridge beyond.  The knife-edge is just the hardest part of the connecting ridge but there is enough exposed ground to keep one occupied for a few more minutes at least.  Once off the ridge we started the upward traverse that leads to the summit.  The route, for me at least, is clearly cairned but I’ve now been up the path twice.  Now that does not mean we took “the” route as some folks stick high on the ridge while others seem to find some middle ground.  We made our way on up toward the far ridge where one scrambles up a couloir and onto the exposed ridge proper.  Once on the ridge, we simply climbed to the top and then traversed over to the summit a few more scrambling minutes away.

The long boulder hop back to the Daly saddle

Ed and Reed were happy with having scored one of the harder ones of the bunch and in good time at that.  Of course, then a group of four showed up wearing cotton and in the case of one young lady, Teva sandals.  Not a bad trick so long as the weather and every other factor holds in your favor.  We left the summit after perhaps 20 minutes headed down, passing the guided group as they carefully achieved the top of the exposed portion of the ridge.  This time past, the guide would give us the time of day; I guess we’d made our bones.  (Read . . . what a piece of work).  We made our way back to the knife-edge, which was experiencing a minor traffic jam as groups of climbers and bozos converged on the edge for their photo ops or rope protected traverses.  We got a chance to play through the players and took a breather at the far side of the K2 tower skirt.

A Colorado Classic

From there it was little more than a boulder hop as we retraced the upper portion of our route before deciding to stay high on a well trodden path.  The path took us to the top of the couloir next to the one I’ve down climbed both times.  The route took a sliding path down perhaps 100 feet and then took off back up the route I had previously used.  Hey, it worked . . .   We made good time to the saddle from there and on down the switchbacks to the rise near Capitol Lake.  We were outbound that afternoon so there was no time wasted dropping further to our camp, breaking camp, and getting packed for the hike out.  We loaded up and made a well paced retreat for the truck, arriving in just over two hours after leaving camp, six miles or so away.  I’d now been to the top of Capitol on a semi solo basis and with two other guys seeking to eventually round out their collection of 14’er summits.  I also think I’ll be heading back another time, hopefully on snow . . .