| Finishing the14ers: Capitol Peak
Finishing the 14ers:
Route: Capitol Peak, Northeast Ridge
Approach: Capitol Creek TH ("Ditch" Trail)
Length: 18 miles RT
Vertical: 5400 feet
Ascent Party: Dancesatmoonrise
Capitol Peak in early autumn attire.
Prologue: Capitol Peak, the PLB, and the 14er Quest
Before I knew there would be any fourteeners in my future, Iíd already gazed in awe, wonder, and fearful respect upon Capitol Peak and the Snow-
Cap Traverse. In those days I used to enjoy getting into wilderness places where most folks didnít or couldnít go. When Iíd heard about the Pierre
Lakes Basin, I was excited, but couldnít find any reasonable access on the maps. Initially I thought it would mean rappelling in from somewhere
around Siberia or Avalanche, so I shelved the idea for the time being.
No trail to the PLB, but gorgeous wilderness.
I think it was 2001 when I first gave it a go up Bear Creek. It didnít go. Two tries later, I made the day hike; it was a long one, but well worth it.
Iíd seen this incredibly pristine place for the first time, and could not believe the awesome magnitude of what I was witnessing. By 2008, I went
back up for an overnight trip. I was smitten with the idea of doing the Snow-Cap Traverse from the PLB. It looked blissful and at the same time
positively frightening. Capitol Peak reigned supreme over the entire huge cirque. It seemed like an impossible dream to ever step foot on this mountain.
I had no actual plans for it, though passion for this mountain remained securely in my heart.
This is what North Snowmass Peak and the lower PLB look like under a Harvest Moon.
Snow-Cap traverse: "The ridge becomes an absolute nightmare, with car-sized teetering gendarms and huge scalloping flakes on the walls below them..." (MP)
Point 13,431 on the Snow-Cap ridge, looking majestic as it towers over the lower Pierre Lake.
Another year passed. In late 2009, the summits of Yale and Belford beckoned. I had never considered 14eríing because Iíd always heard the 14ers
were crowded. But to my surprise, I had these summits to myself. The trick was a late start under great weather Ė everyone had this curious
compulsion to be off the summit shortly after Noon, and I found myself basking in the sun around 1:30 pm with the summit all to myself. I enjoyed
it a great deal, but had no plans to complete the 14ers. After two more in October that year, I figured the season was pretty much done. That is, until
Steve Gladbach took six of us up Quandary Peak on Halloween, 2009.
Capitol Peak's NE ridge, as seen from the PLB, Fall 2008.
The other end of the Snow-Cap ridge: taken during a May 2010 ascent of North Snowmass Peak.
For me, that totally demolished some mental barriers. In one short trip, the mental connection was made that 14ers can be done during
the ďoffĒ season. I got more interested, and Steve helped me with advice on which ones would be reasonable to attempt next, as winter
approached. Yet, I still had no plans to do all the 14ers. By the time winter was over, Iíd had a dozen calendar winter ascents, and maybe
twice that many 14ers in all. It started to dawn on me that maybe I could polish off the list. By summerís end, Iíd had 50 in the bag. Then a
curious thing happened. I didnít want to finish. I was having too much fun, and was worried that Iíd lose motivation by wrapping it up. By winter,
the second go-round added another thirteen ranked 14ers to the winter list, and one new 14er (Little Bear) to the overall list. It seemed
reasonable to finish out the overall list next summer or fall. Some difficult peaks remained, as well as a choice for a finisher.
Capitol Peak above the expansive lower Pierre Lake.
By this point there was plenty of experience, and though the remaining peaks were among the most difficult, none would be an unreasonable challenge.
Yet, Capitol Peak, alone, stood as the magnificent, penultimate, and covertly terrifying quest that lay ahead. Clearly, Iíd long ago elevated it to the
status of impossibility. Would it be too much pressure for this mountain to be my finisher? Still, what more worthy way to celebrate completion
than with this noble peak?
Waiting out an unusual September
In early August, great weather graced a fun road trip to polish off the remaining pre-finishers: Mount Wilson, Wilson Peak, El Diente, and
Maroon Peak. I had banked on typically warm, dry September weather for the Capitol Peak finisher, but was rebuffed with torrential rains the first
half of the month, so I waited. Then by mid-month, it snowed a foot in the Elks: most unusual. I really didnít think I was ready for Capitol in
anything resembling winter conditions.
The Capitol Creek drainage with Capitol Peak in the background.
Every year, it seems to take the first good snow to bring Indian summer. Iíd hoped to wait for decent melting on the difficult fourth class sections
of the route, since much of it is south-facing, and Indian summer had come into full swing. Yet the nagging reality remained that it was only getting
later in the year, with colder night-time temps and an ever-increasing likelihood of a shut-out snowstorm.
By Saturday, September 24, 2011, a developing weather window for the following week appeared to be faltering. I wasnít taking any chances with
this one. I quickly threw a pack together, got groceries, went over to say good-bye to the new GF, and came home for a relatively sleepless night.
I canít imagine Iím the only one that wakes up before the alarm on peak-day. Definitely dragging at 4am, Iím out the door at 5, and making record
time to the TH, given a surprising lack of traffic on this gorgeous Sunday morning.
Pulling into the TH parking, the north side of the peak looks depressingly snowy, but I know the south side will be better; maybe even passable.
By 8:40 Iím moving. The Capitol Ditch trail is not bad at all this time of year. Much of the water is gone, and so are the cows. Iíd hoped to hit
peak colors; the aspens are just now turning in the Elk range. By 10:55 Iím at Capitol Lake, about six miles in.
Fall Colors on the Capitol Ditch Trail.
At right skyline is a 5.9 Gr IV which ascends the NW Buttress.
The Capitol-Daly saddle is seen at top left.
The new GF had been worried and wanted to at least join me for Capitol Lake. I can see why Aaron did all, and Steve most, of the winter 14ers solo.
Sometimes when youíre worried about things possibly being sketch, itís just easier to go alone. She and I can start with something easier after
the finisher. Meanwhile, I break personal tradition and carry a cell phone for the first time on a 14er, so I can check in with her.
North side of K2.
The Capitol-Daly saddle.
Up ahead I see what looks like a group of two or three making way for the Capitol-Daly saddle. By 11:20 am I find a half-open day-pack at
the saddle, and no people. I also find lots of snow on the back side. This is not looking so good. At the least, the fast pace to this point is going
to take a back seat.
This is not going to be fast today.
Entering the huge field of talus blocks partially covered in snow, Iím not enthused. I aim for tracks across a snowfield. This turns out to be a mistake.
An older gentleman with a young woman tells me the way is straight ahead (due south) and that the snow becomes slick and difficult, to the point
that they had been forced to turn back. I figure he knows what heís doing because this is his third time on Capitol.
The old manís steps lead toward the prominent notch on the Clark-Capitol ridge. As I approach, the snow indeed becomes slick and difficult
in approach shoes. I stop to don spikes and axe, which helps. Stopping again, I need gaiters. Halfway up the slope I know this isnít correct,
though I want a view of the Pierre Lakes Basin through the notch. The approach shoes really arenít kicking steps in this slick stuff very well, and itís
getting late, so I reverse course and make for the dry stuff to the west, heading up toward K2.
You canít see K2 from here, but thereís not too much thatís higher elevation that isnít on-route, so you just head west toward the ridge, and K2
appears. With the southern exposure this time of year, Clarkís ridge shades much of the terrain near it, so the trick is to stay further north,
out of the shadow of the ridge, while heading west toward K2. There are some beautiful, very large orange-colored blocks here that are almost
like walking on sections of concrete side-walk: a welcome relief from the grind. Higher up, itís easier to approach the ridge for views over the other
side, where I discover dry conditions and three climbers on the infamous knife-edge of Capitolís NE ridge. Iím excited to finally be entering
the business district. Itís nearly 1pm. With a calculated cut-off for the summit by 3pm, time is a little tight, but the rest of the way looks clear, dry,
Dry, beautiful, and close: Now we're talkin'!
The phenomenal Pierre Lakes.
Looking up from the Pierre Lakes to the ridge near K2 where the prior photo was taken...
Approaching K2, top left.
Capitol peeks out from behind K2.
K2 as seen from North Snowmass, May 2010.
K2 has this reputation for being the hardest part of the route, but it looks fairly benign. Still, I already know I donít want to go around the north
side of it due to the snow. To my surprise, the south side seems to ďgoĒ Ė at least for a ways, until clearly 5th class terrain is reached, where
one then experiences Sudden High Altitude Realization. In this case, the realization is that while fifth class climbing ability can be helpful in the
alpine, it can also get one into trouble in the alpine. The rock over here is dry, itís solid, itís fifth class, and itís getting steeper. I turn up to gain
the top, where the crew of three is directly ahead, just having completed their return across the knife-edge. Turns out itís Nick (Roguejackalope
on 14ers.com) with Ben and Alli. Nick, great meeting you guys!
Peak Moment: The "Knife-Edge"
Capitol's NE ridge is reminiscent of the Mama Bear Traverse, between Little Bear and South Little Bear.
The crew tells me thereís one more party of two just getting to the knife-edge now, and after that Iíll have the mountain to myself. At the knife-edge,
I meet Bryan and Connie, who graciously offer to get photos across the knife-edge. (Bryan and Connie, nice meeting you guys, and congrats on
finishing the 14ers last week! Interesting that all four of us were on Bierstadt that dayÖ)
This is Capitol's infamous knife-edge. Bryan is seen coming across, as Connie looks on from above.
Connie tells me she wants to wait till I go. Am I ready for this?
Itís 1:30 pm. The section ahead is everything Iíd anticipated Ė steep, exposed, solid. The knife-edge is reputed to be the most difficult part of
the route, yet most trip reports say that either K2 or the ridge and face below the summit are. Without question, though, the knife-edge is the
most dramatic feature of this incredible route. With nearly two thousand vertical feet of exposure on either side, many people do the butt-scoot
across this section, throwing one leg over either side of the knife-edge, and scooting across. Others traverse slightly below the top, using footholds on
the south (left) side, while using the top of the knife-edge for hands. A few stand up and walk across the top. Connie, still on the other side, tells
me to go first, as she wants to take her time with it.
At the moment, the knife-edge ridge speaks to me. Iím feeling good; I want to man-up and walk across. Capitol Lake, two thousand feet below,
is to the right. The Pierre Lakes are incredible, 1400 vertical feet below, to the left. As I gaze into the PLB, time takes me into the past, back to
the basin, looking up at Capitol Peak and the NE ridge. Can I see a tiny dot a few years into the future, about to walk across?
Seen from the PLB, K2 is roughly at center; the knife-edge is to the left of K2.
Peak moment: With over 1000 vertical feet of exposure on either side, Capitol Peak's infamous "Knife-Edge" requires intense focus and concentration to stand up and walk across.
There would be no dishonor in resorting to the "butt-scoot" here.
Capitol Lake, below to the right.
Come on, stick it!
What "down" looks like from here.
OK, you know you're having too much fun when you can get a little off-kilter over big exposure and still smile... : )
The butt-scoot is a highly valued mountaineering technique in this setting. Here's Connie demonstrating the technique in a most elegant fashion, as Bryan, only slightly nervous, looks on.
Approaching weather? Time to get moving...
Iím in a dream. Can I actually summit Capitol Peak? Will it happen today? The knife-edge goes smoothly. I get some shots of Connie crossing;
we say good-byes. I turn to the mountain, alone, in awe and respect, and ask permission to gain the summit this day.
I know route-finding will be difficult. All that has been done to this point has been preparation for this impossible goal. I chose to do the
route-finding for our group on Pyramid Peak last year, knowing that it is one of the more difficult routes, and also knowing I was blessed with
very competent partners who could spell me in the event of error. It was like a safety net. Last month I did the route-finding for a small impromptu
group on Maroon. Maroon was the most difficult, for me, of the standard 14er approaches, in terms of route-finding, but it went without a hitch.
Today, Iím alone. Everyone is headed down off the mountain. Itís late. Itís quiet. I take a quick inventory.
Letís see. Summit ridge; check. Only 400 verts to the summit; check. A steep face on the sunny side, with ledges for traversing; check. Solid rock
ribs leading back up to the summit ridge along the way if needed; check. HmmÖsounds not a great deal different from the other 58 fourteeners Iíve been
on. Letís roll.
The route to the summit goes smoothly, until the very last section. Iím in a steep gully, and cannot discern a definite route either cresting the far rib
out of the gully, or one heading up the somewhat loose gully to the summit ridge. The summit is close, so I get past some loose stuff to get on
one of the steep but more solid ribs and take it to the summit ridge, where the actual summit is only another hundred yards or so of pleasant scrambling
along the ridge-top. A mood of business-as-usual does not seem to give way to the realization that Iíve just summitted Capitol Peak, and just
finished all 59 fourteeners (58 + North Massive.) As Iím later to learn, itís going to take a few days for this to sink in.
Capitol Lake as seen from the summit of Capitol Peak.
What does sink in is the incredible alpine terrain in this part of the range. Iíve dreamed these views for so long, and now Iím here witnessing Snowmass,
North Snowmass, the entire Snow-Cap traverse, the majestic Pierre Lakes Basin, the Maroon Bells in the distanceÖ
The Maroon Bells.
North Snowmass and Snowmass Peak.
The legs are hot to descend into the traverse, while the olí brain says, ďHold on there, pardner, itís 2:15pm, and you still have to get down!Ē
The start of the Snow-Cap Traverse.
The Snow-Cap Traverse with North Snowmass and Snowmass in the background.
Detail of a portion of the traverse.
So what does this remind me of, sitting in the warm late-season sun on a summit, all to myself? That first trip up Denny Creek two years ago,
witnessing the last of the Indians marching off the summit ridge saddle, while ascending into the awe, beauty, and solitude of a high alpine summit.
This one was a little harder, but they are all mountains, and they all sort of work the same way. The long-term mental block has suddenly been
blasted free, on this, the last new Colorado 14er summit. Ken Nolan is right. Fear Confrontation Therapy really does work. He is also right,
that this moment is not so much a finish, as it is a beginning, a birth - the birth of a mountaineer.
Some quiet reflection in the warm sun, a brief supplication of gratitude, and itís time to reverse steps with the hope of making it back to the car by dark.
In the days following the finish, the accomplishment finally begins to sink in. That I have been able to witness such an incredible journey has been
only by His blessing and grace. I am humbled to be a 14er finisher, to have witnessed the great high works of His hand all around us, to have journeyed
to the highest places where Earth meets Sky.
A few words about the descent, just to finish the story, and to perhaps offer some beta for future travelers attempting the route. Getting off the
summit and back across the knife-edge goes without a hitch. The same is true for K2, despite some snow on the north side. There is a nice
rock rib at the easternmost extent of the north face proper on K2, which remains relatively dry in current conditions, allowing access more or less
along the standard line up and back over K2.
K2 at top right, Daly at top left.
More fun coming back across the knife-edge: Capitol lake to the left.
Upper Pierre Lake to the right.
Descending into the talus field works best staying toward the left (east) side of the gully, particularly when thereís snow in the shadow of the
Clark-K2 ridge. Large flat red-orange blocks are found in this area, facilitating travel. The best line for cutting below the Capitol-Daly ridge remains
debatable. Benners and USA Keller prefer a line somewhere below the cliffs and above the lower gully. Staying high on the traverse back over works
relatively well, though after a bit, Iím into crossing ribs and gullies. One of the ribs works well to get back down to the upper gully, nearing the Capitol-
Daly saddle. Iím surprised to find a fixed rope here. The snow and ice is a little troublesome, as is some loose talus, occasional remarkable for its size.
Should I be here without a rope? Oh, good; here we go...
Finally nearling the Capitol-Daly saddle, and the end of difficult terrain.
A look back at this beautiful mountain...
At the Capitol Daly saddle, difficulties are essentially over. I dig out Redís cell phone and give her a call. I know little about cell phones, so have no
reason for surprise when the darned thing actually works. Descent off the saddle is graced by the warmth of the southwestern sun, now nearing
the horizon. Calculations put me at the car at last light. Perfect. I holler over toward the small mesa above the lake where Nick and his crew, and
Bryan and Connie, are camped, and wave good-bye, as I start the long trail back.
Sure enough, I avoid pulling out the headlamp only by mere minutes, arriving back to the car at last light, and thinking about that sweet strawberry
blonde cutie waiting on my return. Somehow, no matter how many of these you do, the last mile will forever be the longestÖ
I wish to thank all of you, our mountaineering and climbing community, for having made such a positive impact on so many of us in terms of our
growth as mountaineers. I know that I personally will be forever indebted to many who have come before us, offering their advice, encouragement,
and camaraderie. A warm thanks, guys.