| On Saws and Knives: Part 3
Capitol Peak – 14,130’
Elevation Gain: 5,300'
Round-trip Length: 17 miles
July 22-23, 2011
Climbers: MtnHub, Robert LeClair, and Dale M
Ever since my failed attempt up Capitol Peak in 2010, I have been planning to try it again hoping for more conducive weather. As a result, that trip has always been my priority, and one that other climbs would have to work around.
But as I planned and worked out various climbs with other partners to fill in the rest of the days of my 2011 CO vacation, it soon became apparent that the “theme” of my climbs this year evolved to be one on “saws and knives.”
In addition to a climb up La Plata as a warm-up to Capitol plus two more Longs Peak summits, I would trek over the Tour d’Abyss crossing the Sawtooth to reach Mt. Evans, the Knife Edge of Kelso Ridge up Torreys Peak, the Knife Edge up Capitol Peak, as well as the Knife Edge of Meeker Ridge. It was probably my most aggressive climbing vacation ever, but I was blessed with good or perfect weather for all of them.
III. Capitol Peak: Northeast Ridge from Capitol Lake
Robert LeClair, my previous partner along with Alan Arnette, made a Capitol summit attempt in 2010. At that time we were thwarted by bad weather -- rain, graupel, and lots of fog and mists by the time we hit K2. We stayed in touch throughout the year and kept our schedules open for another bid this season.
We reserved July 22-23 for our attempt this year, but right up until that weekend, it was looking less likely all the time. A monsoon weather pattern was holding in much of CO and with the heavy late snows seen this spring, the standard route was quite a bit different than in previous years in July. An ice axe and crampons appeared to be essential, neither of which I have any real experience with.
We kicked around the possibility of hiring someone from the Aspen guide service too. I had some serious concerns for my personal safety as I’m really only comfortable on solid rock; to say the least, my wife was even more nervous about it.
To add to this all, Alan, our much more experienced climbing companion, was still on his 7 Summits Tour promoting Alzheimer’s research, and would not be able to join us this time. Close to the date, Dale had contacted Robert asking to join us. A day before we were to leave the weather made a turn for the better and things looked much more promising.
As I was staying with relatives in Leadville, Robert picked me up that Friday afternoon. Dale was already at the TH by the time we arrived. His was one of about 12-15 other vehicles parked in the lot. We loaded up our gear and started down the Ditch Trail shortly after 3:30pm.
The view from the Capitol parking lot; I’ll never get tired of gazing at this beautiful mountain in such a gorgeous setting!
Another shot along the trail; WOW! What an amazing mountain!
About a mile below the Lake and campsites, looking back from whence we came.
Campsites were in short supply with all the backpackers around. We took probably the last 3 spots available. After setting up camp we went down to the stream below Capitol Lake to filter water for tomorrow.
There were parties of large groups, some with barking dogs. We feared the worst for a wild night, but it really wasn’t too noisy. By the time the sun set, the air temperature dropped considerably.
Everyone takes a shot of the alpenglow before hitting the sack; I’m no exception; but how can you not want this of your own?
Since it was turning cool, I turned in pretty early. Like last year, I was quite comfortable the entire night, but once again, I couldn’t fall asleep. I rested very well but didn’t sleep a wink all night.
We planned to start around 0430. Since I was already awake, I ate some breakfast and got ready by 0400. Then I just found a comfortable spot to gaze at the stars and meditate a bit waiting for my partners to rise. I could see two headlamps already moving up to the saddle, but no other activity was noted anywhere else.
We climbed to the saddle in good time. It was just beginning to get light and we could see a steep snowfield in a gully obstructing our way almost immediately. Robert gave me a quick crash course in using the axe and crampons, but I must say, I was a bit unnerved by them. We crossed it without incident and came to a second one shortly.
After that we dropped down a bit closer to the basin floor where we had to cross more expansive fields, but at a much less severe angle. I was a little more at ease here, but my preference was still to be on rock.
Dale leading with me following across the snowfield. (photo by Robert)
Looking up at the route to K2. (photo by Robert)
Just below the ridge we reached rock again and we could then shed the crampons. (Thank goodness!) Robert had been very lethargic and wasn’t feeling quite up to par so he decided to remain here while Dale and I continued the climb.
Robert just below the ridge to K2.
Looking up at K2.
The stunning view to the NW!
I felt more comfortable now that I was on rock again, and I started around K2 without hesitation. Dale followed.
Dale following me around K2.
As others have said, this is probably the most difficult part of the entire climb.
Once you get around the bend, the Knife Edge and the ridge crest leading up to the summit comes into view; it takes your breath away!
Coming around the other side of K2, Snowmass Mt. and the basin also opens up.
Dale walking up to the Knife Edge.
Dale taking on the Knife Edge.
My turn! (photo by Dale)
As we leave the Knife Edge, the rest of the route looks like a scary chaotic jumble of loose rock, but there really was a pretty distinct route marked with occasional cairns.
At the exit off the Knife, Dale contemplates the rest of the route.
Looking back at the Knife Edge and K2 from higher up; Mt. Daly in the center.
Dale goes around a rib; eventually we climb up to the ridge and gain the summit.
Am I feeling good? Take a wild guess!
The views from the summit:
Snowmass again, from the summit.
Capitol Lake and the campsites.
The valley leading to the mountain.
Dale on the ledges.
Me on the ledges. (photo by Dale)
(photo by Dale)
More fun on the Knife on the way down.
(photo by Dale)
(photo by Dale)
All in all, the climb to the summit was not nearly as bad as I expected. We found the low route to be quite definable for the most part with fairly well placed cairns. At one point we climbed a little higher and found an upper route also marked with cairns. I don’t recall a place where we found anything greater than class 3.
Looking at my pictures now, they make the route look considerably more severe than what I remember. I’m not a risk-taker at all, but I honestly felt very comfortable along the entire route. I actually was more nervous on the snowfields below but this is probably due to my lack of experience on that surface.
We returned to Robert patiently waiting for us. The climb down was uneventful. By that time, the snow had softened quite a bit so crampons were not necessary. But I confess that I still remained on “high alert,” and when I had the option, I went out of my way to reach rock and go around the major snowfields.
After breaking camp, we hiked out the 6 miles to the car. This about killed me! I’m not used to carrying a full pack, and with the entire day’s climb behind me and not sleeping at all, I was totally wasted with my adrenaline high waning. One thing to mention is that during this trip, we encountered absolutely no cows along the trail, either dead like the bloated one we saw last year, or alive. Maybe they were all vacationing in Iowa this summer.
My sincere thanks goes out to Robert and Dale for their help and patience in leading me over the snow. My deepest thanks also goes out to the Lord for blessing us with such a perfect day in which to accomplish this climb! Glory be to God!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):