Climbers: Zambo, Benners, and ATBaritone Conditions: The snow storm from a week ago provided a beautiful white coat to Capitol's North Face. Only seeing 1-2hours of sun per day, it is unlikely this snow will melt off until the end of next summer. The South face, however, receives plenty of sunlight and was almost 100% dry. A few snowy patches around K2 were mostly avoided by going over the top and down climbing on the right. Summary: Damn this thing got wordy, lol. Well, if you hate really long TR's I guess this one isn't for you. But I truly loved this peak and I felt like I needed to offer something worthy of it. Magnificent and beautiful, I consider climbing Capitol as a true blessing and an honor.
"Some might think that by climbing a great mountain they have somehow conquered it, but we can only be visitors here."
Capitol Peak...he may not be the most well known, or the tallest, or the most photographed mountain in the Elk Range; however, standing at the base of his massive North Face and staring up in wonder, can any man deny his sovereignty? Foreboding, lofty, and utterly magnificent, he must be the unquestioned monarch of the Elk Range.
Indifferent to our intentions, Capitol stands unchallenged in the midst his realm (photo by Benners)
For weeks I tried to drag Ben our for one last summer push on a "better" peak. Long, difficult, and conditions dependent - the greater peaks of Colorado just seem to require more effort to make a trip happen. Our goal was for a week ago, however, a foot of snow on Capitol scrapped those plans in a hurry. Yet, a week of sun and high temps followed. The season offered us an incredibly rare late-season window for a summit attempt: October 1st.
As we began our quest in the dark, it was difficult not to be filled with anticipation and nervous excitement. Capitol is something you hear much of, but I knew must be experienced. This is no Grays peak, and I was eager for the challenge. As daylight crept into the valley, the foreboding mass that is Capitol became clearer and clearer. I soon realized the true majesty of this peak, and gave him my full respect before even setting foot on his lower flanks.
Dawn offers the first real look at the peak
Ben surveys the challenges to come
Taking the ditch trail, a quick and steady pace had us to Capitol Lake is just under 2 1/2 hours. We rested, ate breakfast, and prepared for the task ahead. Staring up at the North Face from our perch, we quickly began to wonder about all the snow. While providing stunning views, would all the new powdery stuff hinder our journey? There was only one way to find out.
Our stomachs happy and lungs recovered, we made ready to move on. I knew that the approach was only a teaser; the true elevation gain starts now. With that, we hustled up and over the saddle.
With one last look before disappearing behind the ridge, Capitol's North Face asks "Are you ready?"
Views from the saddle
Making great time and with plenty of fun ahead, we opted to head up the boulder field from the saddle instead of sticking to the ridge. This was probably a good decision for my first ascent of Capitol; however, I am not sure I would ever slog through it again. It took quite a bit longer than we anticipated and progress was slow and tedious.
As we ascended, we met one fellow climber on his way down. Our hopes were almost dashed as he informed us he had stopped at K2, hindered by the snow. However, having learned he had tried to traverse on the North side, not all hope was lost. Ben offered to partner with him and show him a (hopefully) better way, but he'd had enough. Capitol had defeated him. With that, we pressed onwards and upwards.
The boulder field ahead - a veritable rock garden!
Mt. Daly from high on the field
Rounding the corner, finally K2 pokes his head up from above.
Upon reaching the ridge crest just below K2, all memory of the discomfort of the ridge was forgotten; it was replaced by sheer delight at the basin, cliffs, lakes, and beauty stretched out before us. The Pierre Lakes Basin is one of Colorado's special places.
Loving the views, and knowing the fun is about to begin. (photo by Benners)
K2 and Capitol from the lower ridge.
Reaching K2 brought us an unexpected new friend. We met Patric (ATBaritone) who had camped in and was soloing the peak for the first time. Understandably, he was all too happy to join up with us. This turned out to be a great partnership. For the next 5 hours we got to know one another quite well and and I think it's safe to say both parties truly enjoyed the companionship.
A natural staging ground, K2 allows you to sit and ponder what is to come. This is also where the fun starts. So, with a nod of the head and an encouraging word from Ben, he led us onto the back of the mountain. Things took an immediate turn for the better as we saw exactly what had turned the other hiker away. He had tried to traverse on the right, which was indeed snowy and dangerous. However, as so often happens, Ben's terrific guiding abilities took up to the best path. We down climbed right over top at the the far right of K2. The few snowy patches on this route were easily avoided by simply paying attention and taking our time.
No matter how many times I saw this exact pic from the top of K2, I just didn't "get it" until I was there in real life. (photo by Ben)
Patric and I down climbing off K2 (photo by Benners)
Now comes the knife edge. So much has been said about this obstacle - I don't know that I have anything useful to add. In brief, I felt it was a bit overrated. Upon seeing for the first time my gut reaction was actually relief. "That's all it is? I've got no fear of that." I thought. However, I also wouldn't want to paint too light of a picture.
Exposed? Absolutely. Tricky climbing? Yes, at times. But quite manageable? Yes.
Overall it was exactly as so many others have said: very solid rock and overall not overwhelming. I took my time, tested every hold, always kept 3 points of contact, and was very meticulous about my next move. All of this made for a great crossing. If there was only 2ft of exposure on either side, I would have no issue walking right over it. Of course we must remember there is more like 2,000ft of exposure on each side. Anyways, bottom line is I have felt much more scared on other peaks. For example, there are multiple places on the Bells Traverse I would classify as way more challenging and scary than the knife edge.
But crossing it for the first time feels like a right of passage only complete with video, haha. And well, here's mine:
From here the fun continued for a good long while. We followed cairns as best we could, and found that we rarely exceeded Class 3 moves. Plenty of pseudo-trails and scrambling on somewhat solid rock - it's the countless in between gulleys, chutes, and notches that have a tendency to be a bit loose. The exposure is pretty constant, but there are places of relief and I didn't find it to be overwhelming in the slightest.
What was really fun was to have Ben there. In addition to being an awesome guide for us, one of his major motivations for climbing it this time (his 4th summit) was to scope out the ski descent - Colorado's hardest and most dangerous. I had heard so much talk about it, but it was a whole new ball game to see it and hear Ben describe the route in person. Skiing Capitol is one of the most committing and dangerous mountaineering tasks in Colorado; his review on our ascent left him with plenty to think about.
Patric and I polishing off the knife edge (photo by Benners)
Onwards and upwards (photo be Benners)
Patric helps model one of dozens of similar traversing trail segments which must be taken to the top (photo by Benners)
Yep, pretty much feels like that the whole way
Funny thing, the more Ben thought about the ski descent the quieter and quieter he got...
Capitol makes sure the effort is not in vain, and he rewarded us on the top. With views of Snowmass and the connecting ridge, The Bells and Pyramid beyond, the Pierre Lakes Basin, changing aspens winding up the whole approach, and more cliffs and more gendarmes than you could ever count, this summit is a worthy crown to the king it adorns. Sunny, warm, and calm, we all sat in awe at the blessing of this October 1st ascent.
Cap-Snowmass traverse - the hardest traverse in the lower 48: "elite" climbers only! Or so I am told by one local 'expert'....
The approach stretched out beneath us. At this point it's best to not even think about how far away the cars are. (basically the furthest aspens)
The Bells and Pyramind beyond.
Ben whipped out his phone and turned on some tunes at the top; here is a video. Prolly not nearly as cool/funny as we thought it was at the time...
Loathed to leave, at some point we knew we must. And so, with that we packed up and began the traverse back. Just because we were going down, in no way meant it was any easier. It took us just as long and the difficulty was the same. Plenty of fun to be seized out there, but Capitol had a way of always keeping us on our toes. This is not a place to stop paying attention.
"Do we really have to leave?"
Traversing back. A good look at typical terrain conditions.
Climbing, climbing, climbing...
Downclimbing back towards the knife edge (photo by Benners)
Careful balance makes for cool photos.
All the nerves were gone for the second crossing of the knife edge. Now it's just fun. (photo by Benners)
The best advice I can think of for it: just pretend you are smeagol. (photo by Benners)
Now back on K2, we all passed around congratulations and joy. What a great thing to get to Capitol and back safely, and we were thoroughly loving the day. Feeling good and comfortable with the now relaxed terrain, we got downright silly. I think the relief of difficulties behind us make for slaphappieness. Ben turned on his crazy-loud cell phone speakers and we rocked out to 80's music the whole way down the Boulderfield. With Ben and I dancing, yelling in Scottish accents (who knows...??), and quoting LOTR the whole time, at this point I think it's safe to say Patric may have thought we were a bit nuts, lol.
We were back at Capitol lake in no time, said goodbye to Patric, and offered our parting farewells to the King of the Elks. No matter how many times we looked at the North face, it just simply never got any less wonderful.
Goodbye friend, until our next meeting...
Just over 12 hours of hiking saw us back to the parking lot just before dark. On the descent I was all too happy to reap the benefits of a long summer of climbing; despite the 17 miles and 5,300 vertical, both Ben and I felt great and fresh as we made it to the car. This reminds me, as always, I can't give Ben enough credit and thanks for coming with me on this. He is a terrific guide who has a unique way of instilling confidence and joy into every climb. Thanks dude!
So, was it easy? Was it difficult? I found it to be about what I was expecting in terms of the challenge. It was a thrilling climb with plenty of involved obstacles and tons of uniqueness. As Ben pointed out, it has a bit of everything. Certainly not a good choice for a starter route on scrambling, but with a bit of experience a real treat. One thing I will say is that I was always absolutely certain to stay on my toes at all times. My concentration was high and I never took any of the route for granted.
However, quite frankly I think that focusing on the difficulty is not the best way to view Capitol. Above all else, this peak earned my respect. He is massive, imposing, and majestic as he sits at the end of the approach. Everything about this place humbled me, triggered deep feelings of wonder, and left me in awe. Not every 14er is like this. Not every 14er can do that. There is just something fundamentally more grand about this peak. He is in an elite club occupied by few other peaks in our great state.
All in all this was one of those climbs that reminds me why we do it at all - not just mountaineering, but life. Yes reaching a summit is great, lists are fun to check off, and it's always nice to get outside into the mountains, but peaks like this offer something else. If we let them, they can tap something much deeper within. It is a reminder of our own mortality and that some things in life are truly worthy to be called "spectacular", "marverlous", and "epic". We live in a time where so much is taken for granted; a peak like Capitol helps me remember just how much some things make life worth living for.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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