| Capitol Dreams
After almost a month out of the mountains, I was finally able to get out after work for a quick jaunt up Squaretop A right before Memorial Day weekend, and after what promised to be the toughest work week for me yet, I knew the Elks were in my future. The original plan involved the Bells Group, but with weather and snow conditions looking poor, we shifted our attention to another common goal; Capitol Peak.
I did my first 14er last June 24th on Grays Peak (didn't make it to Torreys that time!) and Capitol had always been one of those "eventually I'll have to do that" kind of things. When I finally found myself in the car on the way, any apprehension was greatly outweighed by excitement. "This is a good sign...I hope."
The partner for the trip was my friend Peter who is one of my regular climbing partners. Since our Friday night was now freed up, we took the opportunity to sneak in a 3 pitch route in Boulder Canyon before heading home to get some rest and meet at T Rex Saturday morning. The directions to the TH are a bit different than most route descriptions (or we are really dumb) and the "easy 4wd" road is doable in a car with almost no clearance, but it was very nerve racking. We wound up making it to the TH in my Subaru Imprezza. As a previous climber mentioned...you can see her from the TH and she demands your attention the entire hike in.
What a view
Capitol's North Face
The hike was scenic and relatively easy...5.5 miles over about 2500' gain. There was no snow until around 10,500 and snowshoes would not have helped. Wear boots and gaiters to keep your feet dry and the snow will just slightly slow you down. The trail was easy to follow for the most part. We arrived at camp late afternoon and relaxed. There were several other parties, and all of the campsites but one were taken. We headed to bed at 9pm.
This part of the trail was a pain
The trail goes through many beautiful meadows such as this one
The trail starts by descending into the creek. Good for the way in. Bad for the way out.
The trail literally fell into the creek
And so the ascent begins....
Peter crossing a snow slope shortly before the Lake
The alarm went off at 4:15am. Already, we could see headlamps nearing the saddle. It was also getting lighter much early than we had anticipated. We left camp shortly before 5am, and within 10 minutes my headlamp was off. The hike to the saddle is straightforward and easy on a well defined trail. It took shortly under an hour.
The trail onto the saddle
Once on top of the saddle, we looked down into a vast snow covered wilderness. There was much more snow than we had anticipated, and we were certainly glad we had crampons with us. The initial descent into the basin is on a trail with a few short snow traverses mixed in. Most will not require crampons here. As we descended towards “K2” we had great views of the Daly-“K2” ridge that had been our initial plan but abandoned due to an unfavorable weather forecast. It looks gnarly. Serious exposure on both sides with sustained Class 4 moves. It would have taken 2 hours at least I imagine, and I felt good about our decision.
Before the largest snowfield yet, we met a party of 3 who were getting into snow gear. Shortly past them the snow was continuous. After some discussion we headed out with the 3 others across the snow. Eventually Peter and I began veering right as the cliffs above gave way. Unsure of the exact route, and needing as much snow practice as we can get before we head to Seattle in just a few weeks, we decided to push a line straight up to the ridge.
"K2" and Capitol
Peter makes a difficult move
Peter traversing above the last cliff band before the exit to the ridge
Peter pushes a line towards the ridge
It was a pleasant climb on not very steep snow with 3 or so rock bands mixed in. The route was fun, and direct and did not take as long as I would have thought. We gained the ridgeline shortly before a false summit and after a short hike we had a view of “K2” and Capitol. “K2” looks intimidating with snow covering the walk-around and I think the easiest way was certainly up and over. I studied a few lines and was about to attempt one when Peter looked at me and said “You’re going to free up that in crampons instead of go around to this obvious route?” My route finding skills are not always the best. Throughout the day, I was very happy to have Peter help me find the easiest lines instead of “that’s doable.”
The other party making their way towards the standard route
"K2" comes into view. The fun is about the begin for real
What much of the terrain on the South Face looks like
Looking back down at Capitol Lake
Afetr completing the Knife Edge on the return trip
On top of “K2” the classic view looks as classic as ever.
The Classic view from "K2"
From route descriptions I had always assumed you down climbed off the back of “K2” onto the Knife Edge, but looking over that edge you see a sheer vertical drop of several hundred feet, by far the most exposed place on the route. We headed towards Capitol on the North side and found route that was mostly third and fourth class except for a single 5th class move, without a doubt the hardest move of the day. We walked around to begin the Knife Edge, which of course, to make things interesting (as if already having to climb in my Nepal’s due to needing crampons earlier wasn’t enough) there was a small snowfield leading up to the knife edge. It was easy to navigate, but now our boots were a bit wet.
Crossing the Knife Edge
Peter hangs out on the Knife Edge
Peter scrambles towards the Knife Edge. The other party can be seen on "K2"
The rock is solid, the climbing is fun, the exposure is there….what a classic route. The Knife Edge was one of the best parts of any route I have ever done. Having always thought it was the area from “K2” to the South Face of Capitol, the Knife Edge is only about 100 feet in the center of the traverse and is sandwiched between 2 fantastic sections of scrambling. The exposure is certainly sizeable, but nothing like I had imagined. A new fear entered my mind though as I stared at the South Face and the remaining route to the summit. It is steep, loose, exposed and not at all obvious. After Peter caught up and once again pointed out the route, we were on our way.
What much of the terrain on the South Face looks like
If you keep an eye out for cairns and easier areas, the route really isn’t too bad. There are a few true ledges, but usually not over a fatal fall line. The rock is sometimes extremely loose (even the bigger ones), but you are usually close enough to something solid to feel secure. A few short snow traverses were required, one in particular with a scary fall line. I got out my axe and cautiously made my way across. Peter took one look and kept walking like it wasn’t there.
Peter on the summit
After quite a bit longer than expected, we were above 14,000 ft and our goal was near. I was feeling extremely excited to be so close to the summit of such a daunting peak. After one more route finding difficulty (locating the final, steep gully) we were in a position to push directly for the ridge crest and the summit. This was another section of sustained, awesome climbing. The rock was solid, the moves were solid 4th class and there was significant exposure off to the right (not that you’d want to fall to the left either). After over 5.5 hours of climbing, we arrived on the summit around 10:30am. The view of the Capitol-Snowmass Ridge demands most of your attention with its sheer faces. My eyes followed it and rest on Snowmass, followed by the Bells Group, and Castle. Staring South into the Elk Range, a clear sky above, and the most coveted summit beneath me, it was easy to remember why we do this.
The descent was time consuming, but overall the route finding was easier as the cairns were easier to spot. The knife edge has a class 4 move on the return that we didn’t need to make on the ascent, but without too much trouble, we were back on top of “K2.”
As the storm clouds began building (it had already rained Saturday afternoon and evening), we raced down the other parties ascent route. They had turned back atop “K2,” which was a good decision based upon their rate of climb and how time consuming the route past the knife edge is. With some uphill hiking we gained the Daly saddle and ran down the easy trial back to camp. 2pm. 9 hours after we set out.
Capitol was everything it promised. I highly recommend doing this trip as an overnight as the Capitol Lake area is one of the best places I’ve ever had the privilege to visit. The climb was a true classic, and not as scary as its reputation. The hike out began in the rain, but ended with sunny skies and 3 hours later we were driving home.
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