| The last hard one
Participants: cftbq, trishapajean
RT: 6.2 mi., from just below Capitol Lake
Vert.: 3,600 ft.
Time: 14 hrs., 45 min.
late afternoon view from above the lake
OK. Everybody knows the routine. It's hard. It might be the hardest 14er. There's the Knife Edge. There's only one reasonable route. Yada yada. So I'll limit myself to the things which might not quite correspond to your expectations when and if you first try this spectacular peak.
First, we found the distance figures from Roach are all too low (sorry, Gerry). It's at least 13.5 miles from Aspen to the turnoff in Snowmass. When you get there, the road is not signed either as “Snowmass Creek Road,” or as County Road 11. The only sign says “Lower River Road.” It's something like 10.5 miles from Highway 82 to the trailhead, not 9.5. And we found nothing called the “Capitol Creek Guard Station” at or near mile 8.0. Still, just stay on the “main” road (after turning right onto the Capitol Creek Road, which is signed) as it turns to dirt, and follow it all the way to its end, and you'll arrive at the TH. The last mile or so is steep and rougher than the lower portion, but passenger cars can certainly make it with care, at least if it isn't wet or washed out.
Getting to K2
The trail as far as the Daly/Capitol saddle is clear and in great shape. There are several places where you can cross Capitol Creek (about 3 miles from the TH) without getting wet. It looks like CFI has built new switchbacks above the lake within the last couple of years. Once over the saddle, however, things get less certain.
The trail just disappears a short distance from the saddle, in a loose gulley. This may be the result of a fairly recent washout, as there is a clear length of trail on the other side, as we discovered on the return trip. Finding it heading out, however, is an unlikely proposition. At that point, you'll most likely just have to start freelancing your route to travel under the cliff bands to get to where you can see K2 looming ahead. There are occasional cairns, but the truth is that any path in the right general direction (south) is just about as good as any other. It's rock-hopping all the way.
The Knife Edge
To start across the Knife Edge, you will have to come down off of, or bypass, the actual summit of K2. It's not easy in either case, as the steepness starts here. There's a “low traverse” around the west side, which avoids the summit, or there's the steep descent off the summit, both of which lead to the base of a ridge point where one actually begins the ridge crossing. You can see the beaten path up the north side of this ridge point.
The ridge itself actually consists of several sections which require different techniques. Scooting along on your butt, straddling the top, may not be very elegant, or very fast, but it is clearly the most reliable method for several sections. In between, there are places where grabbing the top with one's hands, and using small (sometimes very small) ledges on the east side for one's feet works best and allows somewhat faster progress. And, toward the south end, there are sections that are wide enough to allow walking on all fours—and bold climbers might actually walk upright. None of it is really technically hard, but the exposure is no joke, so be careful and deliberate instead of trying to set any speed record. (This was my 51st fourteener, and I moved very slowly.)
The Summit Climb
My impression from reading previous reports and descriptions was that the route to the top was just off the actual ridge crest, to climber's left. In reality, the easiest route (which means holding it to Class 4) diverges quite a long way from the ridge crest, and involves some serious route finding. Here again, there are some cairns, but you'll have to look for them. Also, you'll have to cross (while climbing) one gulley of loose dirt and scree. And you can't really see the summit, so you can't tell how far away it is. The general rule is: when in doubt, resist the temptation to break upward toward the summit ridge, and go to climber's left looking for cairns. There's one major corner to turn on the crest of a small ridge. As you approach it, you'll see a cairn, but it looks like it's leading you out into thin air at the top of a cliff. Get there, however, and you'll finally see a path leading steeply up to the right, with cairns visible beyond. It's all steep, and there's a lot of exposure, but (aside from that gulley) most of the rock is amazingly solid. You should finally come to the top of a shallow gulley and out onto the summit ridge just a few yards from the true summit.
I have almost no photos of the most exciting parts of this climb, because my hands were busy doing other things. So I hope this verbal description is helpful. Some of the pictures I did manage to take along the way can be found at:
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):