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Capitol Peak -- Unforgettable!

July 23, 2006 Home

When Kevin Baker e-mailed me with an invitation to join him on Capitol Peak, I could not pass up the opportunity. In 2005, I had been part of a six man team who attempted Capitol on Memorial Day weekend. The two-day trip led us to 12,800 feet and within a mile of the summit, be we turned back due to route-finding mistakes and dangerous snow conditions. I had silently vowed to return to this majestic mountain, and at last the chance presented itself.

Kevin and I met at the Capitol Creek trailhead the night before. The place was crowded with hikers and climbers, but the view of Capitol from the trailhead alone proved to make the trip worthwhile. Unfortunately, droves of mosquitoes were all too quick to call this place home, as well. After quick introductions near 9PM, we returned to our respective vehicles to get a few precious hours of sleep before the main event.

We awoke at 1:30, both of us pumped for the climb and ready to get going by two. It was a moonless night, but the stars were out in full, spreading the Milky Way across the sky like a giant speckled blanket. The air was already warm, but mosquito-free for the time being. As we donned our headlamps and packs and started out on the trail, I had the feeling it was going to be a spectacular day.

In the dark, the hours and miles passed surprisingly quickly. The monotony of the pleasant trail put us into a healthy rhythm, and we made good progress all the way to the Daly-Capitol saddle. The final 1,000 feet from Capitol Lake took us only 25 minutes to complete. A check of the time showed 5:30, and the sun was just lighting the eastern horizon and peeking into the Snowmass Creek drainage before us.

From the saddle, we followed a climber's trail around the slopes and into the basin. We had to cross several snow slopes, the first of which was a little unnerving without an ice axe. Kevin had brought his trekking poles, and we each used one as an aid for balance across the slopes. After the first snow slope, a short talus hop led us to more snow slopes, but these all had good foot paths in them, and we made easy progress toward the Clark/K2 saddle.

We stopped for a break as we reached the ridge before K2. The views of Capitol Peak, Snowmass Mountain and Pierre Lakes were fantastic, especially in the early morning glow of the sun. We took some pictures and I changed into my mountaineering boots, then we were on our way up to K2. Monotonous talus slopes, followed by a short, interesting 4th class climb up solid blocks led us to the summit of K2.

One climber had bypassed us by taking the ridge directly from the Daly saddle to K2. We saw him ahead of us, and watched him off and on for the rest of our journey to Capitol's east face. Our first difficulty was finding the proper route down K2. We dead-ended on some steep slabs with tremendous exposure, so we re-climbed partway to the summit and found an easier route, which basically wrapped us the whole way around this mini summit's north side to get to the ridge leading to Capitol.

Once on the ridge, our route was apparent for a while, and the exposure of this narrow passageway was exhilarating. We first climbed along a mini knife edge, then rounded some rock outcroppings to come to the main event: Capitol's notorious knife edge. The whole of this 100-foot long obstacle took much more mental power than physical prowess. The exposure was awesome, and the foot-holds were not quite as plentiful as I had been led to believe. After a short stretch of walking along the edge with my hands on the crest and my feet below, I resorted to the awkward scoot-on-butt-with-feet-on-both-sides technique. After the middle section, I swung my leg back over and used a crack system on the north side to walk my way along to the end of the difficulties.

Kevin followed, and he did not like the awkward butt-scooting idea at all. He walked along the knife edge on its south side, using his feet solely for friction when there were no holds to be had. At one point, he actually crawled up on the knife edge and used all fours to make it to the next holds.

When we arrived on the other side of the knife edge, we both breathed heavy sighs of relief, but we knew our concentration, focus and energy were needed for the rest of the climb. We continued scrambling along the ridge to its final narrow point before joining up with the east face of Capitol. I took to route-finding here, and followed a series of cairned ledges, which contoured low along the face. We crossed several rock ribs, before finally arriving at a dead-end gully. I saw no more cairns, and we both agreed the easiest route from here appeared to be straight up the gully to the southeast spur. For the most part, the gully was not bad, but there was plenty of loose rock and gravel to watch out for. Also, had there been climbers above, it could have been a rock-fall nightmare. However, the lone climber ahead of us had already passed the face and was well on his way to the summit.

After gaining a good bit of elevation, we contoured to the southeast spur, and from there we had a view of the final climb ahead of us. After climbing a short distance up the spur, we met up with the climber ahead of us, who had already made it to the summit and was on his way down. From there it was an interesting 4th class scramble along large boulders leading to the summit.

We arrived on the summit at 9:30, with three others just seconds behind us. By the time we left the summit, an hour later, about ten people had made it altogether so far, and we passed several more people on our way down. Even Colorado's toughest fourteener has a good bit of company in the summer!

The views were great, and the weather was holding beautifully. I was ecstatic to finally be standing there, soaking it all in for myself. The hour-long sit was completely refreshing for both of us, but alas it came time to head back home. Because of the larger crowd on the mountain and the not-so-nice prospects of descending the gully, we stuck to a higher line this time, contouring above the gully to gain the ridge just before it narrowed. I saw people knocking rocks loose several times and I was glad we had stayed higher this time. Nevertheless, Kevin and I were surprised at how few people were wearing helmets on this dangerous route.

After the familiar scramble along the narrow ridge to the knife edge, Kevin and I took a deep breath and went for it. He went first this time, and I took several pictures of his spectacular position. I followed, feeling no less awkward or exhilarated from the movements and exposure than I had the first time.

Happy to have done the knife edge, but also happy to have it behind us, we finished the fun scramble back to the summit of K2. From here, we had trouble finding the correct descent route to the talus fields below. I managed to find the way we had climbed the first time, but descending it was not quite as easy. Kevin contoured around the south slopes and found another way around, also not easy. But, at last we were back on wide open talus, and all we had to do was walk.

Glissading would have been fun, except that we were both wearing shorts. So instead, we took the snow slopes with some short standing slides and otherwise normal walking. The snow was much softer now thanks to the hot sun, and I enjoyed descending it.

Nearing the saddle before Daly, we ran into another unexpected obstacle. A steep, snow- filled gully blocked easy progress, and we each found a different way around it, neither easy. Kevin went above the gully, and I went below it, each having to gain and lose a couple hundred extra feet just to bypass the obstacle. We had missed this gully in the morning because we contoured lower along the slopes.

Finally, we followed an easy trail to the saddle before Mount Daly, arriving about two o'clock. Kevin expressed interest in climbing Mount Daly as well. Though I was feeling great and was tempted to join him, I knew it would be late by the time I got home, and I needed to get going. We sat for a short break, then I wished him luck with Daly and started down the switchbacks toward Capitol Lake.

The views of the lake and peaks were just as gorgeous as I remembered them. This time everything was accented with brilliant-colored wild-flowers all through the valley. I could not stop snapping pictures for a couple miles.

Cows were grazing throughout the valley, enjoying the lush grass and weeds everywhere. There were plenty of flies and mosquitoes, but they were great motivation to keep moving, as they only really bothered me when I was sitting still. I made it to my jeep at 4:15 and took one last look at Capitol before leaving the trailhead. What an awesome and unforgettable mountain!