Capitol Peak had been highlighted on my list for some time. I dreaded the “knife edge” but yet craved the chance to face my fears. When my friend, Mark was coming back from Chicago for more high-altitude abuse, we decided on Capitol Peak outside of Aspen, CO to make it interesting (hard) and meaningful (tick off another 14er). Our plan was to:
- Drive up Friday afternoon from Denver International Airport and make camp at Capital Lake,
- Get an early climbing start to beat potential weather for a Saturday summit,
- Spend a care-free night overlooking the Capitol Lake and Peak area, and
- Make an early march out to Mark’s plane for Chicago on Sunday afternoon.
What we didn’t plan on was the incredible stormy weather.
On July 25, 2003, I left Boulder at 9:45am to pick up Mark at DIA. Maneuvering through unusually heavy traffic, I managed to pickup Mark at 10:45am and we set off toward Snowmass immediately. The drive went quickly as we caught up on recent events, and we hit the Snowmass turnoff of CO-82 at approx. 2:45pm. The road to the Capitol TH was direct, short and of good quality; and after a bit of packing we were hiking at 3:30pm.
We selected the longer, gentler cow path starting at the far end of the parking area , and reached Capitol Lake at 6pm. Along the way, we had to hide from a moderate rainfall occurring between 4 and 5pm. It was a sign of things to come.
The campsite on the knoll nearest to Capitol Lake looked the best and we set up camp on a mid-level spot overlooking the valley north of Capitol Lake. In selecting a specific site, I couldn’t find an idea location. I had to choose between a site with bad exposure to wind and lightning but good drainage, or a site with better shelter but a strong likelihood of pooling of water in the tent area. In a decision to be debated over the years, I elected to risk the pooling water vs. the lightning and wind. To compensate, I spent an hour collecting and placing rocks to use as a vestibule platform and to keep the edges of the waterproof flooring off the ground. With my enhancements, I figured I could survive a puddle as deep as 2 inches.
We had plenty of daylight for water bottle filling, dinner preparation and card playing before turning in for an attempt at sleep. It was one of those silent nights where every rubbing of nylon over nylon roared in the ears. We spent most of the night listening to each other’s noises, with rare, unknown moments of unconsciousness. But time is relentless, and the alarm went off as planned at 5am. We rose and made ready for our climb. Another bottle filling exercise and other duties later, we were hiking up the Daley Pass at 6am.
The general plan was to follow the obvious north-south (as the compass reads) ridgeline of Capitol Peak that you see from the Capitol Lake in four phases (some details added based on my own experience):
- Hike up the grassy slope directly east of Capitol Lake, turn right, and within a 100 yards descend a rocky gully to reach the low angle terrain below the cliffs on Capitol Peaks ridgeline on the east side of Capitol Peak
- Make a right turn and take a direct line south-ish toward a notch in an east-west ridge connecting Clark’s Peak and K2 … aim generally for the right side of the notch and the snowfield below it. When K2 comes into view on the right (if you are not sure, keep going…when you see K2 you will be sure of it), head directly towards it. Summit K2 either by circling left just below the summit and then climbing up or by going directly up to the summit.
- Take care but move quickly through the knife-edge area. The rock is excellent on the hardest looking sections; simply straddle the rock to eliminate any chance of falling. Use the good footholds. Take care in the easier-looking sections, as obvious rock holds are often loose. Trust nothing; test all holds before weighting them. Follow the cairns to the east below the ridgeline.
- Work up and generally left through the grit-covered ledges. Step carefully and do not push off with your toes when climbing through the loose rocks as it will cause rocks to fall on climbers below you. When possible, get to the rocky edge (left side of face) of the east face below the main ridgeline and climb the bulging rocks (test every one you use). This ridge will curve back toward the main ridge; once at the main ridge of Capitol Peak, head left (south) for 100 feet to the summit area.
- The descent back to the knife-edge is the hardest part; take care to test all holds and step on solid ground. Return the ascent path; look for cairns lower than you may remember to stay on the correct path.
The route was fairly clear, from the plan gathered from multiple sources. From the top of Daley Pass, we followed cairns and footprints in the snowfields down toward the valley floor. We stopped descending at about 100 feet of elevation above the valley floor, and headed south toward the obvious notch at the backend of the valley. There was more snow than expected, but the conditions were excellent for foot travel; the snow was soft enough for secure steps, but firm enough to support our weight. Once we could see K2, we made a hard right and began a gradual ascent toward it. We summitted K2 by angling to the left (as you approach K2) and then ascending to the summit from that side; the route was obvious, but loose. I believe climbing straight on to the summit would be the easiest and safest.
We took a break on the summit of K2 and took in Capitol’s features; the view of the ridge to the summit was very impressive. It was also intimidating; Mark felt it was too difficult for a Flatlander and announced his intention to wait on K2 while I completed our plan.
Respecting his wishes, I continued, working my way down from the K2 summit via the only way I could find: a hard class 4 move down the North face. This difficult move turned out to be unnecessary, as I later found a much easier route via a ridge a bit further toward the right edge of the north face. The knife-edge was a unique and pleasing climbing experience, but did not have the exposure I had expected. I had “knife-edge” on the brain. Still, it was exposed enough that I used a straddling position with my weight on my hands to move quickly through this section.
The next section was the worst. I’ve heard it called “ledge madness” and “loose, awful climbing” and it is all of that and more. Rocks falling from other climbers, loose rocks, and pebbles on small ledges made for many minutes of intense concentration. I found that working up and left and then staying left as long as possible made the ascent the least dreadful. When it was necessary, I moved right back toward the Capitol ridgeline. Once at the ridge, I moved south (left) approximately 100 feet to the summit.
I reached the summit at 10am.
From the Capitol Peak summit, the view of Snowmass was spectacular. I noted the melt-out of the massive snowfield I had glissaded a few years before. I also took note of the cool view of our campsite…this is an incredible place.
I signed the register after a quick snack and headed back down to meet Mark on K2.
The descent through ledge madness and loose, awful rocks was worse on the way down. Controlling rock fall and avoiding a personal fall on this loose junk was taxing on my mental stamina. Getting to the knife-edge was a relief; I was tired of the stress.
Mark and I returned via our approach route and reached camp at 2pm. Due to the worsening weather, we briefly discussed changing our plan to hike out immediately. I successfully argued that a night spent outdoors would be far better than any other alternative. We filled our water bottles and crawled in the tent for a quick nap.
I awoke from my post summit nap at 6ish to find it storming; Mark told me it started at 3pm. The lightning was amazing and we were glad to have a sheltered campsite. The tent and ground were holding up well to the rainfall so far, but we hoped the flow would stop soon. About 8pm, the storm abated and we were able to exit the tent to make some dinner. The sky did not look good, so we hurriedly finished and repacked the food and gear so we could eat undercover if it became necessary. It did. The rain and lightning resumed and lasted until 10:30pm.
Me and my big mouth; we should have gone home. Or, if I had been warned by God, I would have built an ark. Approximately 7 hours of rain had overwhelmed the soil and created a wading pool upon which our tent sat. My tent and my preparations were overwhelmed, and we floated the last few hours before rising at 4am to pack up. On the good side, the continuing noisy weather drowned out Mark’s noises and I slept well for a soggy 5 hours.
We moved slowly and carefully around our mud hole campsite, and took an hour to get ready. The miserable long hike out was punctuated by the massive trail damage and fecal matter from the herd of black cattle roaming Capitol Creek. We reached the car, changed clothes and repacked in time to meet our deadline of ”driving by 8am.”
Several hours later, I dropped Mark off at DIA for his long stinky flight home. I arrived at my home at 2pm to enjoy a few final hours of weekend that started with laying out all my gear in the sun to dry out.
It was a great trip.