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Peak(s):  Capitol Peak  -  14,130 feet
Post Date:  09/09/2011
Date Climbed:   09/04/2011
Posted By:  glodder

 Capitol - Northeast Ridge & Knife-Edge   

Capitol Peak became a potential climb for our 5-person climbing group when we all began discussing it as a possibility during our Harvard/Columbia and Belford/Oxford trip. It came to fruition as August progressed through continuing discussions between our climbing group members. However, it ended up that only Steve and I could go on this trip to climb Capitol. Steve flew out to Denver on Thursday, Sept. 1st with the intentions of renting a car, driving to the South Colony Lakes trailhead, and climbing Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle via the ridge traverse. He would return on Friday evening, which is when I would meet up with him at the airport Holiday Inn Express after driving from Topeka to Denver. The plan worked great, as Steve completed the Crestone traverse and we met up at the hotel around 9:00.

We then got a good night’s sleep in anticipation of Capitol on Saturday/Sunday. We awoke on Saturday morning, ate breakfast, returned Steve’s car to the rental car place, made a couple of other stops for groceries and gas, and then we were on our way to the Capitol Creek trailhead. We ate lunch in Glenwood Springs at a health foods grocery store. After eating lunch, we made our way to the trailhead. We easily found the turn-offs for the Snowmass Creek Road and then the Capitol Creek Road. The last mile of the road was a little bit tricky and steep but the Navigator ate it up. I believe most 2WD vehicles could probably make it to the top of this part, but it would require some clever navigation and planning up the steepness of the slope and through some of the ruts and rocks. The trailhead was beautiful with its breathtaking views of Capitol Peak and the Capitol Creek valley. After seeing what we had ahead, I felt very excited about our choice of mountain. We packed up our gear and started up the Capitol Ditch Trail at 1:40. Here is a pic of me close to the trailhead with Capitol and the valley in the background:


The Ditch Trail was relatively flat hiking for several miles, with a few more ascending parts than descending parts. It was very easy to follow. Here are a couple of pics of us on the Ditch Trail:



After about 3.5 miles of hiking, the trail descended a little bit, and then split off into two trails. One trail headed off to the right of Capitol Creek and the other continued straight and kind of left toward Capitol Creek. This is the spot where the correct trail crosses Capitol Creek. Steve and I were able to cross the creek without having to take our boots off through some strategic jumps, but we saw a few people at this point who forded the creek with their shoes off. Immediately after crossing the creek and a small tributary, we came up on a signed trail junction which represented the merger of the Capitol Creek trail with the Capitol Ditch trail. The junction was very obvious to both ascending and descending hikers. From here, the trail was about 3 miles all the way to Capitol Lake. This 3 miles was obvious and uneventful. We finally made it to the Lake at 4:40, so it took us about 3 hours to cover the 6.5 miles from the trailhead to Capitol Lake. We found a good campsite above and to the left (east) of the Lake, and we set up our camp there. Here is a pic of our campsite with Capitol in the background:


I went down to the Lake and filtered some water, and then returned to camp and basked in the sun for a while. I estimate there were about 10 other tents set up at various places around the Lake. As the sun went down, we decided to get in the tent, figure out our plan for the morning, and then try to get some sleep. We decided to try to time our arrival at the Capitol/Daly saddle to coincide with the first morning light, so our wake-up time was 3:45 a.m. After a typical terrible night’s sleep in the tent for both of us (Steve and I both have a history of not sleeping very well in tents) and at the most 2 hours of sleep, we woke up via my iPhone alarm at 3:45. We readied our day packs and headlamps and set off on the trail at around 4:15.

The trail to the Capitol/Daly saddle was very easy to follow all the way up. I grossly overestimated the time it would take us to reach the saddle; we made mincemeat of the trail and arrived at the saddle in less than 30 minutes, by 4:45, so it was still plenty dark at that time. After a short break, we both put on our helmets and decided to continue on despite the darkness, and we would just have to ensure we sufficiently find a reasonable route before proceeding too far. This was a tricky portion of the route, as the trail faded not long after the saddle, and we were forced to find our way via sketchy cairns. However, we were able to talk it out and continue to figure out the proper way to go, but it wasn’t without going the wrong way a couple of times then backtracking and figuring out the correct way. We finally had traversed across the slope and below the ridgeline far enough to a recognizable talus field as set forth in some of the trail descriptions. We crossed a 50-foot snow slope, and then began ascending to what appeared to be the route toward K2. As we ascended, we came up on a boulderfield with much larger rocks, which was much more enjoyable climbing than the ankle-breaking talus we usually encounter in Colorado’s mountains. We made pretty good time up the slope. As we got higher, I think I chose an incorrect route on the right side of the slope, but it turned out to be really fun climbing on relatively solid rock, and at the top, it put us at the same place as the correct route did. After reaching the top of this slope, K2 came into view, and we aimed for the right (north) side of K2’s summit. We decided to summit K2 on the way up, as all the trail descriptions indicate K2 is worth the few minutes to summit it, due to its incredible views of the Capitol ridgeline. It indeed was worth it. From the K2 summit, we had a remarkable view of Capitol and could see our whole route ahead. Here is a pic of me on the K2 summit with the Capitol/K2 ridge and Capitol Peak in the background:


We studied the ridge for a few minutes before backtracking down K2’s east side. We then proceeded across K2’s north side to reach the Capitol/K2 ridgeline. The route along the ridge was obvious all the way to a point where we reached a short 15-foot knife-edge. I thought initially that this was the infamous Capitol knife-edge, but it wasn’t; it turned out to be a prelude and it was an easy crossing. After a few more minutes of ridge scrambling, we reached the actual knife-edge. Steve went first as I videotaped him crossing it. I have heard many stories about the knife-edge being “overrated” and “easier than its billing”, but I don’t agree. Although I didn’t feel uncomfortable on the knife-edge, I don’t believe one iota that it is “easier than its billing”. It is a difficult crossing which should not be taken lightly. Despite its difficulty, however, the whole knife-edge is comprised of extremely solid and reliable rock, and I believe it is totally doable especially if you’re just simply careful. The first 10-15 feet of the knife-edge is an area where you can put your feet on cracks/ledges below the left side of the ridgeline, and you can hold on to the actual knife with your hands. There are several parts on the knife-edge where you can easily do this and it is straightforward to cross it that way. However, there are also several parts where the cracks/ledges are not there, and you have to shimmy your way up onto the knife and straddle and scoot across it. As I became familiar with the movements, I started to do what Gerry Roach suggests in his book, to put my feet down on either side of the knife with my hands also on the knife and shimmy across like a frog jumping. I felt totally comfortable and stable doing this. After trading off a few times between the “feet on cracks/ledges below the left side” and straddling and “frogging”, we finally reached the end of the 100-foot long knife-edge. Here is one pic of the knife (see below for a few pics going back across the knife on the return trip):


Steve and I briefly discussed our satisfaction of getting across the knife-edge, and then we continued along the fun and airy ridgeline. We finally reached a notch on the ridge which is the obvious start of the “below ridgeline” climbing on Capitol’s southeast face. We were able to follow cairns up the remainder of the route, with one section where we lost the cairns but carefully studied the route and found the correct way back to the cairns. The cairns led us to a south-to-southeast-facing ridgeline, which then took us to the final summit ridge ascent. Throughout the last part from the ridge notch to the summit, we continuously encountered sustained Class 3 and Class 4 sections, similar to the zig-zagging and “finding the path of least resistance” we encountered on Pyramid Peak in early August. In this section, a solo climber caught up with us and climbed the remainder of the route with us. We reached the summit at 8:30! There was one guy already on the summit when we arrived. This was an absolutely outstanding summit. Capitol Peak is by far my favorite summit to date. Standing on that summit felt like the greatest and most difficult accomplishment I have ever had in Colorado’s mountains. I was very happy to share the climb and summit with my friend and newest regular climbing partner, Steve, who has a love for Colorado’s mountains and summits very similar to mine. It has become one of my favorite and most cherished feelings in the world: standing on a new Colorado summit I have never visited before. Here are 2 summit pics, one of both Steve and me, and the other of me with Snowmass Mountain in the background (I climbed Snowmass in 2001):



After a few minutes on the summit, a 2-man group arrived, one of whom was completing his final 14er in his conquest to climb them all. His name is Howard and we all congratulated him on the completion of his quest! The 6 of us had a great time on Capitol’s summit. We all signed the summit register and then decided to start our descent. I felt the descent was not nearly as difficult as the descent we encountered on Pyramid. On Capitol, there was not one section where I had to downclimb it facing in, whereas on Pyramid, I remember downclimbing facing in around 4-5 times. Here is one pic of Steve descending on the face:


After a little while, we were across the face and back on the ridgeline, and we eventually re-crossed the knife-edge. I snapped a few pictures of Steve crossing the knife-edge here, as well as a few pictures of my views while on the knife-edge. Steve snapped a few pics of me here as well. Pics:





After the knife-edge, we re-traced our steps across K2’s north side and then down the slopes back to the traverse and saddle between Capitol/K2/Daly. We reached our campsite at around 11:30, broke down camp, and then began the 6.5 mile trek back to the trailhead. The trail was easy to follow, and we finally reached the trailhead again at 1:50. This was an outstanding climb, one I will never forget, and one I will always consider among the greatest mountaineering accomplishments in my lifetime.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

  • Comments or Questions

Fantastic!     2011-09-09 11:24:56
Great trip report, can't wait to jump on this mountain next summer!


Congrats!     2011-09-09 13:03:29
Yes, it's a fun mountain! Great job!

Michael J

Congratulations!     2011-09-09 22:23:13
Nice trip report! I enjoyed reading it. It was a great idea to start early. When I did it last year with a friend, he was the guide and we started a little later than I thought we should have. I know that we could have avoided a lot of problems and I look forward to doing it again someday. Congratulations!

H Man

Awesome day     2011-09-13 07:21:35
Way to go, men. Three cheers for your understanding wives watching all those kids! So great that you are getting in the mountains. It was fun to share my last CO 14er summit with you!



H Man!     2011-09-13 07:30:44
I agree, Howard, very nice to meet you on the summit. It was an outstanding day that I'll never forget!


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