I might have some sort of sickness because there is a part of me that just loves those rotten Elks. Conundrum/Castle, Pyramid, Snowmass, and now Capitol are all toward the top of my list of favorite climbs. So this summer I have spent much of my time in the mountains hunting these majestic Elks. It started on Snowmass' S-ridge, one of the most beautiful and exposed climbs I have ever done. We took the harder and more direct line and wound up in some awesomely exposed positions, it was quite the day and Aconcagua08's finisher, Trevor wrote a trip report found here; http://14ers.com/php14ers/tripreport.php?trip=8619&parmuser=centrifuge&cpgm=tripmain&ski=Include
Next I set my sights on N. Maroon, Jessica and I gave it a shot but unfortunately she wasn't feeling too well so we turned back before getting too far. This whet my appetite even more for these beautiful Elks.
From our N. Maroon attempt.
Capitol seen from early on hiking in.
When Trevor asked me to join him for Capitol I excitedly signed on for the trip, when Jessica got the time away from work so her and Spriggs could join for the backpack to the lake things looked even better. We got to the trailhead in the afternoon and set off on the ditch trail. From looking at the vertical gain/distance to the lake I foolishly assumed the hike in would be a breeze, it's probably this assumption that made it feel so difficult. We got to the crowded area in decent time and poached a campsite as all the designated ones were taken. We found a nice flat spot where we could minimize our footprint.
Take a left...
Trevor and Jessica on the way in.
Looking back toward the trailhead as the sun goes down.
We set up the tents and made dinner before laying down for the night, the alarms were set for 4:15… As the night went on a migraine quickly set in and made sleep hard to come by, adding to my discomfort my sleeping pad decided to leak and soon I could feel every rock beneath me. When the alarm went off I found myself frustrated and wondering what to do. I felt terrible, not only my head but resigning to the fact that I wouldn't be able to climb Capitol and that Trevor had hiked all this way and now didn't have a partner was weighing heavy on my mind. I had to be honest about how I was feeling though so I took a few more ibuprofen and set the alarm for an hour later. I don't remember the alarm going off this time, I finally found some sleep and apparently it was deep. A few hours later the sun started to light up our tent and I slowly came to, I was feeling a little better physically but worried that we had missed our chance at the great beast. I heard Trevor mention he might go try to catch some other climbers on the saddle and realizing we still had a shot I crawled out of our tent. I still wasn't feeling 100% but felt good enough to give it a go.
Our campsite and the sun setting on Capitol.
Approaching K2, it's as far and miserable as it looks. Photo- Trevor
We set off around 8:30AM on what was to be a bluebird day, the lack of clouds in the sky raised my hopes that we could still have a successful summit. At first I felt pretty awful, it was a mental battle where I would fight to make it one switchback at a time. If I could just get to the top of the saddle maybe I would feel better. My migraine waned and my legs finally woke up as we reached the top of the saddle. Here we met a couple coming up from the Snowmass side; Elliot and Danielle. After a quick chat we invited Elliot to join us as Danielle was heading down to the lake while he was heading for the summit. Not too far after leaving the saddle and starting the grueling traverse and boulder hop toward K2 it became apparent that Elliot was moving a lot quicker then us. He kept that momentum and cruised along; nobody was really solo on this day as there were several groups on the mountain. We caught glimpses of him making swift progress when we got to the top of K2. On our way up we spoke with several people who had been dissuaded at K2 and turned back, I wonder if it's the view or the actual climbing that has this effect on so many.
It's not as scary as it looks.
Roughly the route from K2... very roughly.
We went over the summit of K2 and didn't find anything terribly difficult, this could have a lot to do with the fact that we are both reasonably confident rock climbers, another reason learning how to climb class 5 rock can help on these class 3 and 4 routes. When we reached the infamous knife-edge I was surprised at how much less exposed it looked than it does in pictures. We waited for some people to cross on their way down and then made our way across; Trevor, having already crossed the knife-edge on his last attempt, gave me the honor of leading it. The straddling technique seems really awkward to me and is not one I plan on learning so I walked some, crawled some, and dropped off to the side using the edge as the wonderful handhold that it is to confidently move across this beautifully solid section of rock. Upon reaching the other side I couldn't help but ask if that was it; it was, how sad. I have a tendency to be underwhelmed by exposure, I suppose some of that is innate and some is gained from experience with exposure but I always tend to be unimpressed. Pyramid, Needle, Wetterhorn… all of them left me wondering what the hubbub was about. Capitol would be different though, it was the hardest, the most exposed, everyone seemed to agree; but there I was, I had just crossed what is supposed to be the most exposed crux on any Colorado 14ers standard route and I couldn't help but wonder why it had such a reputation. I felt like Meeker's knife edge was actually more exposed and difficult than Capitol's.
Trevor starts across the Knife-edge.
Trevor made his way across using similar technique and feeling similarly disappointed in the difficulty and exposure. If you take the exposure away from the knife-edge it would not even be mentioned in route descriptions, it is very much all bark and no bite. We both had heard that there was still plenty of exposure and difficult terrain ahead though so we set off to find it. There are a few mini knife-edges along the way that I found as fun as the official knife-edge but the route pretty quickly drops off the ridge and onto the looser face. We picked the more fun and scrambly sections when we could, there were several big rockslides set off by groups ahead of us; far enough ahead they were heard, not seen, fortunately; so we stuck to as solid ground as we could. I am not perfect, I've knocked down a rock before, but sometimes it seems to me like people are just careless, if you can't climb something comfortably without knocking rocks all over the place maybe you should bone up on your technique before trying these routes; to quote Freedom of the Hills, "make it a point of personal pride- almost an art form- to not knock a single rock loose." Of course this is not always possible, especially in the Elks, but it is something everyone on the mountain should strive toward.
As we got closer to the summit we caught up with Elliot, on his way down. He was about 40 minutes ahead of us and said the summit was probably 20-30 minutes away. We were sure that exposed, difficult climbing would reveal itself soon.
Working across the face on some easy ledges. Photo- Trevor
Just below the summit, nothing too difficult here. Photo- Trevor
We caught up to a group from out of state who were here for some serious Elk hunting themselves with Pyramid and the Bells planned for later in the week. They kindly let us pass and we cruised up toward the ridge line again, they followed our higher route and I later apologized because I led everyone up the more difficult and exposed line to the summit, fun for me, not for everyone…
Looking back at the summit ridge, the easiest route goes well below the ridge, the more fun route is higher.
The summit is distinguished by a flag that someone left up there. I regret not having carried it out as it is in terrible shape and not fit to be flown; not to mention I don't really think people should leave stuff on a mountain that isn't theirs, no matter what that stuff is. It took us 3 hours to reach the summit from the lake. We had great cell coverage (at&t) on the summit and some at the lake so we got in touch with loved ones, snapped a few pictures and then got ready to head down; we had a long hike out and then a long drive home ahead of us.
Looking out on the Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness.
The infamous one...
We made our way down and through the fun stuff all too quickly and onto the slog of a traverse across the backside to the saddle. I only brought 2 liters of water for the summit push and managed to run out just as our campsite came into view, good timing. I would say at least 3 liters is probably a good idea for most.
Trevor working across the Knife-edge on the way back.
Working my way back across the Knife-edge on the descent. Photo- Trevor
Hard to tell but this hole is on the other side of K2 and looking down it makes for the most exposed view on the mountain, careful where you step...
Looking down at Jessica and Spriggs meeting Elliot and Danielle, 40x zoom from the Knife-edge.
Reaching camp Jessica and Spriggs walked over to meet us, for me there is no better way to be greeted; well, maybe if she had a Big City Burrito with her or a nice steak... anyway, it was a nice greeting. We said hello to Elliot and Danielle again, had a little snack, packed things up and headed back to the car. The weather was perfect all weekend, not a drop of rain and after about 3 hours we were on the road to Denver and Fort Collins again.
If I go back to climb Capitol again, which is likely, I will probably allow 3 days instead of 2. Being able to get back to camp and relax after a summit would have been welcome and if we didn't have obligations the next day we probably would have stayed another night. All in all it was a great trip and an amazing summit, even if it didn't live up to our expectations in terms of exposure or difficulty. If you are one of those people who is not sure if you're capable of climbing this awesome Elk, I would say give it a shot, if you get to K2 and the down-climb off it is too much then call it a day, but don't let the view make your decision for you, take a lot of heart because the route is much easier than it looks from here. Capitol isn't easy, but it isn't as difficult as it's made out to be. Look at the number of fatalities on Capitol, according to lists of John; http://www.listsofjohn.com/Accidents/Capitol.html; there have been 7 since 1957, far less than easier mountains. This is probably a combination of things, more experienced climbers, less climbers attempt it etc. but it also is a testament to the possibility of safe and fun passage up its flanks. Give Capitol the respect it deserves, but don't give it the undue fear that it seems to strike into many climbers and you will have a fun and successful hunt of this majestic Elk.
Jessica, Spriggs and myself on the hike out. Photo- Trevor
Spriggs, living the high life near Capitol Lake.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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