Peak(s):  Capitol Peak  -  14,130 feet
Date Posted:  10/15/2020
Date Climbed:   09/02/2020
Author:  JROSKA
 Capitol Peak - a Team Effort  

I haven't added a trip report to this site in a few years (looks like Wilson Peak in 2016 was my last), and this summer I didn't do a whole lot, reaching two 14er summits. I had a nice solo hike of the new CFI trail up Columbia in June, and summited Capitol on September 2. This peak is worthy of all the attention it receives, so here is my addition to the Capitol Peak trip report catalogue.

I opted to go with a guide for this trip, Amos Whiting from Aspen Expeditions. I'll get into some of the rationale behind this choice. In short, at 51 I'm not getting any younger, I've wanted to try Capitol Peak for a long time, and I did not want to let another year go by without attempting Class 4, something I'd still never done since hiking my first 14er back in 2010. I've detected somewhat of an "anti-guide" sentiment on this site over the years and I can definitely relate to wanting to feel like we can do things on our own. I'd reached the summits of 37 14ers prior without a professional guide, and about 15 of those (including Long's) were solo efforts. But experience has taught me that something like Long's is probably at the upper end of what I'd want to be attempting solo. So there has never been any consideration toward attempting Capitol by myself. I've got a solid network of regular hiking partners, but over the past few years no plans for Capitol seemed to materialize. There's "Climbing Connection" of course, but in the end, given what I've gathered over the years about Capitol (2017 still fresh on my mind), I opted for the stability, experience and known quantity of a guide service. I was a bit hesitant to make the final choice but I reached a place where I saw it as the best, safest, and most reliable way to accomplish a goal much more difficult than anything I'd attempted before. I'm thankful that for this summer at least, I had the financial means to make this choice, and look back at it with no regrets.

After my 5th "failed mission" to reach Kit Carson / Challenger in late July and a subsequent shoulder injury which caused me to cancel the first attempt at Capitol a week later, along with new unexpected approach hike struggles and a fair degree of mental exhaustion, I mulled over calling it a year in terms of 14ers. Thought and prayer led me in a different direction, and Aspen Expeditions was extremely forgiving and accommodating about rescheduling when they were under no obligation to do so. My fate was in their hands and when the offer was made to reschedule to September 1/2, I was enthusiastic to regroup and prepare. Given that I had made Willow Lake with camping equipment, I wasn't too concerned with the hike in to Capitol Lake. However, I had serious doubt over the 3,000 feet or so to the summit on the second day, and that's what I'd need to prepare for. I spent one day every week in August over at Falcon Peak in Morrison, actually doing it twice in one day during the 85 degree afternoon heat about 10 days before the scheduled climb, and I believe that's what made the Capitol summit possible for me. From that day forward, I felt very optimistic that a Capitol summit could occur. A friend from back home (Wisconsin) who has been out here to attempt a few 14ers, Brian Roe, provided me with lots of encouragement in this period when training seemed like pure drudgery, but I knew that without it, Capitol was not going to happen.

OK, onto the actual trip. With 3 full days off work (Monday 8/31-Wednesday 9/2), I took Monday to relax and get everything packed; I did this relatively quickly so I could tell that I was really excited for this trip. I had a nice talk with Amos on Monday night to discuss gear, ropes & harnesses etc. and some minor weather concerns with a dusting of snow up high that night. We agreed to meet at 1 PM on Tuesday and that morning I headed west on I-70. After stopping for lunch in Glenwood Springs and heading east on 82, I got an unexpected pep talk from Sean Flohr, who I've climbed several Class 3 peaks with. Upon meeting Amos, we headed up to the trailhead and reached it just after 1:30.

20812_01
First view of Capitol

While I had always looked forward to my first view of Capitol from the trailhead, this view wasn't entirely welcome. Amos had sent me a text very early Tuesday to remember my microspikes (which were already packed), and the reason was now apparent. Looked like a 2-4 inch snowfall, as opposed to a dusting, and the summit was still socked in. I asked Amos if this summit climb would still happen and the basic answer was "we will see". I could tell that there was a bit more snow up there then he had expected, and I assured him that I'd submit to whatever decision he made, go, or no-go. We agreed that at the very least we'd have a nice hike in to the lake and then to the Daly saddle on day 2, and just go from there based on conditions.

20812_13
Clouds lifting from the summit while still at the trailhead.

Even before starting the hike just after 2 PM, the clouds left the summit and the afternoon sun was able to go to work on the snow up high. We knew there'd still be something up there in the morning but things were definitely looking more promising.

20812_02
The view from about halfway to the lake, around 4 PM.

Amos told me early on that this would be his 51st trip up Capitol and that gave me a strong sense of security. I'm thinking that when someone has that amount of experience on a specific peak, certain features on the difficult terrain are probably known almost by heart, it's second nature, and essentially just another day at the office. I'm not going to say that I walked the approach with "nothing bad can happen with a professional guide" because I know there are no guarantees. I will say though that I was very comfortable. Amos was friendly and personable too. As advertised, Capitol is fully visible for almost the entire approach hike. While I wasn't feeling much anxiety (maybe just a little from the snow), being engaged in conversation kept my mind focused on the current day and not the following one.

20812_03
Campsite below Capitol Lake

Aspen Expeditions had tents set up at a designated site below the lake, and I appreciated not needing to carry one of my own. Amos had done a nice job at the trailhead helping prevent me from doing what I always do, carry too much weight. The weight I carried to the lake was minimal, and it almost felt like a regular day pack. There was also a sleeping bag in the tent, in addition to the one that I brought, which was helpful as temperatures dropped into the low 30's that night. I'll throw in here that I really respect anyone who is capable of doing Capitol as a day trip. Once upon a time (it was 7 years ago that I did Long's as a day trip) I could have at least considered it. I suppose that to pull it off here, you'd need to start at 2 AM, and be fast, and strong in terms of endurance with a relatively tame weather forecast. For me, I humbly admit those days are over. I'm really starting to enjoy camping, and splitting up the event into two days and as I keep plugging away, that's my future. It's odd but I just cannot go from sitting on my couch one day to climbing 5,000 feet the next. But 2,500 feet on back to back days is still doable for me.

20812_14
At the lake, around 6:30 AM on summit day

I digress. Amos and I had both seen the same weather forecast for summit day, 0% chance of rain all day, and very little wind. So the decision was made that we would not need to start until 6 AM or even a bit later. This was a welcome development for me and the end result was a solid 7 hours of sleep at the campsite. Have to give God the credit for this as it's by far the best I've ever slept while camping. Anyone who has ever climbed with me knows that it's generally 2-3 hours, a groggy start and "let's do the best we can". This was a gift and for a change it resulted in me with a charge forward, let's do this, morning mentality as opposed to "I wish I could go back to sleep".

20812_15
Past the Daly saddle at 7:45

We started off around 6:20 on Wednesday 9/2 and this is where all of that sleep, combined with the August training really paid off. I didn't need to rest much on the hike to the Daly saddle, or in the boulder field afterwards. Seemed like in no time at all (about 8:30, just over 2 hours), we reached the base of K-2 and roped up.

20812_04
Amos nearing the top of K-2

I do not know the proper terminology because I'm generally a hiker, not a climber. What I do know is that we were roped together with a 60-foot section, and the basic rule was, Amos led and climbed while I stayed put, until he could secure the rope around a stable rock, at which point I would climb up. This was the first time I'd ever done any type of roped climbing and while I was aware there was some security in that, I didn't allow myself to rely on it and stayed focused on footholds & handholds, "not needing the rope", so to speak. I really enjoyed the climb to the top of K-2, and if this was indeed my first official venture into Class 4 climbing (it did seem steeper than Crestone Needle), it was a success. It was also necessary too because the standard bypass to the north side (if going around K-2) was still covered with a few inches of snow.

Onto the Knife Edge. I hated it, and this reaction caught me off guard and still makes me a bit sad. Because I've seen my share of exposure (Long's, Wetterhorn, Needle, Kelso Ridge, Wilson Peak) and nothing has ever gotten to me. When I was on the Narrows at Long's I didn't even realize it until I was almost past it. I loved the "ladder" type exposure on Wetterhorn and Wilson Peak and enjoyed the down climb. I noticed the exposure at the crux of the Needle (gully crossover) but it was just a passing glance. But I do vaguely remember the knife edge of Kelso bothering me just a little.

20812_05
The Knife Edge in all its glory

Unfazed when I first came upon it, that would quickly change. With Capitol's Knife Edge, once you're on it, there's just no escape from the exposure. So for me, it's the "double-sided" exposure that finally caused some mental issues when I'd never experienced that before. You cannot back away from it, you cannot ignore it because it's always visible, and there's nowhere to go to avoid it. So in that sense it's not comparable to the other types of exposure I'd dealt with before. Amos explained that with the tethered rope system, the safest way across was for each person to be on either side, and gently leaning into, and holding onto the edge while finding footholds on the side. On the approach to the summit I was on the south side (away from the lake). I got about 80% of the way across but I kept lacking trust in the technique and eventually, not finding (in my judgment) adequate footholds. In hindsight the technique was sound but my fear got the best of me and caused a situation where the muscles were tense and emotions were fragile, never what you want in the mountains. I remember thinking just before completing the traverse, "I'm dangling off Capitol's Knife Edge by a rope. I want to go home". I got across. While I couldn't always see him, Amos provided valuable coaching from the other side. Again there was absolutely nothing wrong with the technique and I've seen plenty of pictures of other people using it. The "scoot across" method wouldn't have made it any easier for me, it would have actually been worse due to taking more time. I can say that on the return trip, when I was on the north (lake) side, I did infinitely better. The footholds in the cracks weren't huge (maybe just over 1 cm), but just big enough to where I was comfortable. I was much better with the technique on the return trip too, which tells me that what got me the first time across was mainly my lack of experience. I'll never forget seeing the lake, about the size of my boot, right next to my left foot as I looked down (sorry, no picture). Still, there really wasn't any moment on the Knife Edge where I wasn't thinking, get me off of this thing. I hope and pray that this section of my report doesn't scare anyone off, I'm just giving a personal account and I do like to be genuine in my writing. Everyone is different though. Countless others (including Amos 51 times) have traversed this feature without so much as batting an eye. There's no shortage of pictures in other reports of people enjoying the Knife Edge, smiling and posing so I'm probably in the minority. Just be aware that this type of double-sided exposure is a bit different than the other types. I was relieved to be past it.

20812_06
Taking a short rest, and trying to regroup for the summit push

Past this point, snow was a slight issue from time to time. Never really enough to put on the microspikes, and it was melting rapidly. But there was just enough for it to be a slight annoyance. I've always assumed that everything past K-2 was a strict no-fall zone but I did fall backwards a few times up there, probably because the boots got a bit wet. No worse for the wear and thankfully, every fall occurred on flat ground. I have to give Amos all of the credit for the route-finding here, because he always seemed to have us on stable and reliable rock. We were not usually on the ridge direct (to my memory) but we were not on the standard route either. Basically we stayed very close to the ridge at all points past the Knife Edge.

20812_07
Amos leading the way up a rock wall back up to the ridge, just below the summit

And this is exactly where there's a benefit to climbing with someone who has experience on this peak. Based on accounts I've read, I expected everything past the Knife Edge to be a loose mess of rotten rock, where literally every foothold and handhold needs to be tested to make sure it won't move. Not the case on the route Amos used. There were maybe brief moments where we traversed some loose stuff, but for the most part he had us climbing up walls of surprisingly stable rock just below the summit. There were steep sections for sure but never once did I think "this is too much" or "I can't do this". My first Class 4 peak (other than the Knife Edge) was a blast. I loved it.

20812_08
Me, climbing up the same rock wall just below the summit

We didn't shoot straight up to the summit at the end of the ridge, rather, we traversed just below the summit and went up the other side, so I guess that would be the standard route. And at 11:20, exactly 5 hours after setting out from camp, I stood on Capitol's summit.

20812_09
On the summit with Snowmass and Maroon Bells in the background

I'm still amazed that I was able to get there. Between the new conditioning and approach issues I experienced this year (I never was able to do more than 4,400 feet in one day in 2020), some the angst and frustration I felt with that, struggling generally with enthusiasm, only one 14er summit this year prior (Columbia in June), absolutely nothing technical in 4 years since Wilson Peak in 2016, and zero Class 4 experience, on top of the usual challenge to sleep at altitude, on paper, there was really no reason to expect a summit on this trip. But somehow, it happened.

20812_18
Castle / Conundrum at right, Princeton in the distance at far left

Capitol Peak is a serious peak and I'd recommend attempting this peak with a trusted and experienced partner. I'm not suggesting that anyone who wants to climb Capitol needs to go with a professional guide, but for me personally, I believe it was almost essential given the nature of this peak and some of the motivation and other issues I've faced this year. And while my route-finding has improved over the years, my skills in this area are still a bit sub-par.

20812_16
The "unseen", more rugged side of the Maroon Bells.

I can't think of a better way to end the 2020 season, and to keep me "coming back for more", than a Capitol Peak summit and credit goes to God first and foremost. However, for me, this also wasn't going to happen without Amos and Aspen Expeditions. I've got enough experience (both solo and with partners) to know almost exactly how this trip would have commenced in other situations. Had I been solo, I'd have been too nervous to sleep much and would almost certainly have topped out somewhere near or on K-2 just to get some cool close up shots of Capitol. Had I been with one of my regular partners, the day would have ended with me a few steps onto the Knife Edge, and turning back, gently stating that it's a bit too much. And I'd have been content with that. I think that Sean (who I mentioned earlier and climbed the Needle with) would have spent some time trying to coach me across like Amos did and that might have helped, I don't know. My profile does say "push myself to the upper limits of what I can physically and mentally accomplish", and Amos and Aspen Expeditions assisted in that, and made a huge difference in terms of reaching this summit. For me I don't think it would have happened otherwise. And this experience kept the fire burning for me when just a month earlier it seemed to be flickering out. Last thing I'll say here is, remember to put in the time and effort to achieve something. Despite the good that was done for me on September 2, no way would this trip have resulted in a Capitol summit, had I not been willing to put in the grunt work of conditioning throughout the entire month of August. Nothing was going to be handed to me if I didn't put in the effort necessary to make it possible.

20812_10
The gully that several climbers attempted to descend in 2017

We descended via the standard route, and here's a picture of the gully from just below the summit where all of the problems occurred in 2017. I have to say, this looks extremely enticing. And as someone who had an aversion to the Knife Edge and wasn't overly fired up to see it a second time, I can relate to why this descent option appears inviting. Even from my desktop it's tough to see any visual evidence that this gully essentially leads to nowhere but cliffs. It looks like it walks right down to the lake. I guess if you study closely it's evident that the rocks near the lake are much farther away than the rocks in the foreground, but wow, it's tough to decipher that. This one is an optical illusion for the ages. It just shows why there needs to be some awareness of the mountain beforehand, since looking up from the lake does indicate nothing but cliffs all around the peak. Even on this descent, just after we removed the ropes and harnesses after getting below K-2, Amos & I watched a solo climber go to the edge of the ridge and seriously contemplate dropping down right there. As I sat stunned at what I was observing, Amos yelled over to him, "don't do it, if you want to live" right before the guy did an about-face and went down the boulder field back to the saddle. It's been said again and again about Capitol, but it's the truth. There is one way up, and you must take the same way down.

20812_11
Capitol Peak above Capitol Lake, on the descent

Going down from the Daly saddle was perhaps the best I've ever felt descending a peak, physically and mentally. There would be a long hike back to the car, but I was off of the difficult terrain and now it was time to celebrate. I titled this report "Team Effort" because it really was. I put in the conditioning work and and did the hiking and climbing but I needed God's help every step of the way. I'd have had a nice time, enjoyed the outing but come up a bit short of the summit had I not gone with a guide. And beyond that, I needed the encouragement of Brian Roe (mentioned earlier) to keep my chin up with the August conditioning when I was somewhat down and considering quitting. The half hour talk with Sean Flohr (one of my regular climbing partners) just before reaching the trailhead really got me feeling enthusiastic. And even my most frequent partner, Mark Alderton (psahiker954) contributed to this success as I knew that he'd be basing a decision to make his own trip out there a few days later in large part on my report (he would also summit), and this nudged me to forge ahead, and as I was able to text him from above the Daly saddle, he offered prayers in the very time where I was struggling across the Knife Edge and falling down a few times on or near the ridge. Both Mark and Sean have helped me up peaks (Harvard and Crestone Needle) when I was almost certain I'd need to turn back.

In summary, I'd just like to convey to anyone reading, that if there's some goal that you'd really like to accomplish (not just the mountains), but it feels like it might be a bit out of reach on your own, don't be too proud to ask for help. Sometimes we need help above and beyond our own efforts. It's not easy to face that, and I'm no exception, it's really tough. It's hard to admit that we can't achieve something on our own. But I look back at my experience on Capitol Peak and I know that. I couldn't have achieved this goal by myself. Wetterhorn will probably always be my favorite, but Capitol Peak has earned it's place just behind it. This was a very satisfying and enriching climb.

20812_12
Capitol in the alpenglow, back at the trailhead around 7:30 PM





Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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 Comments or Questions
Will_E

Awesome!
10/16/2020 06:40
Nice work, glad you got the summit!


hellmanm

Lots of great decisions
10/16/2020 08:34
I love this report. You were humble and realistic with your own ability/limitations every step of the way. There's no shame in hiring a guide, waking up a bit later, acknowledging some fear on the knife edge...etc. If anything, planning with a good knowledge of what you needed was what allowed you to be more ambitious. It's also cool to see someone keep at it in their 50s. I hope that when I'm that age I'll still be climbing routes like this. Congrats on your summit!


greenonion

WAY TO GO!!
10/16/2020 09:53
Jeff - I am very impressed! You did everything needed to get to the top of Cap, and then back down. Way to go in doing the research, the vertical grunt work in advance, securing a good guide, working through the exposure on the KE as I too had to do, and especially for taking that photo of the ominous gulley while warning others. Super job, and super experience I'm sure!


Tornadoman

Great report!
10/16/2020 10:19
It was fun to talk with you about this a couple weeks ago. Thanks for putting out the report, I think it's so important on these peaks to find a system that works for you (Camping vs. day trip, etc). Now onto those nemesis peaks (Challenger/KC)!


HikesInGeologicTime

Way to go!!!!
10/16/2020 19:04
Excellent work - it is quite the accomplishment to reach Capitol‘s summit!

Now I‘m wondering if we crossed paths on 9/2...my partner and I headed up to Capitol Lake that day in preparation for our (also successful ) summit day on 9/3. I think we got up to camp around 4 or so...?

At any rate, congratulations on your first Class 4 peak, and great write-up of the experience!


JROSKA

Thanks!
10/16/2020 23:01
Thanks for the nice responses. I really enjoyed the experience at Capitol and had a lot of fun writing the trip report.

@Tornadoman (Andrew), yes it was fun to talk to you about Capitol a few weeks ago and now I'll look forward to KC / Challenger (only 9 months away!)

@HikesInGeologicTime, I'm trying to review the timeline, (the times on the descent are vague) but we could have crossed paths near the lake. The time stamp on the 2nd to last picture in my report (Capitol towering above the lake as we neared the campsite) is 3:00 PM. I was completely out of water as we got back near the campsite below the lake, and I stopped at the stream below the lake to fill up my water bottles for the hike back to the car. That was probably between 3:30 and 3:45. I remember seeing a few people coming up around then so it would make sense if you were in one of those groups. So you may have seen me around the lake, or just below, as I was filling up the bottles in the stream. I think we were the only people descending to the lake around that time.


ltlFish99
Excellent report
10/19/2020 23:50
Congratulations on a wonderful accomplishment.
Thanks for posting this, and all of the beautiful photographs.



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