| Capitol in a Day
Capitol in a Day
The first thing that came to mind when I saw Capitol was the comment I heard in Yosemite while on a climb up Half Dome with my Brother-in-law. As we neared the base of the last push to the summit where you get a solid in-your-face view of the cables on the exposed face, I vividly recall the words of a local teenager as he walked up in sneakers to the base of the final pitch up Half Dome; he sat there, quietly staring at the cold granite face, then remarked (turn on Surfer-speak): “Dude, that’s gnarly man!”
From whatever angle you view it, Capitol Peak is gnarly:
What does Capitol Peak and the Far Side have in common? Cows.
As I am reviewing this climb, I realized that the one key photo I didn’t include (a photo I forgot to take) in this write-up was a photo of a cow; which we ran into (almost literally) along the trail. It is like taking a photo of New York City without the pigeons. For those who’ve been on the trail to Capitol you know how integral cows are to the Capitol experience. Walking in the city, you need to watch out from what comes down from above...on the Ditch Trail, you need to watch where you step.
After turning around in 2011 twice, first by massive thunderstorms and then by newly fallen snow, good friend Zack (and much better climber than me) and I were going to attempt this again, initially thinking to do this as an overnighter, camping up high to break up this otherwise long climb. The original strategy was to hike in on day one, set up camp and go for a summit attempt the next day; the rationale being to split up the long approach and give us fresh legs and more time for the tedious and time consuming climb higher up, particularly with the recent volatile weather.
Capitol blanketed in fresh snow, September 2011
As is usually the case in the mountains, the original plans had gone awry with continued storms coming through our planned approach day and then as we’d discover later, dropping some new snow on Capitol and other nearby peaks in the Elks. We waited another day as this is one peak that you want insofar as possible, blue bird skies and solid weather on your side.
Running out of time and despite the risk of fresh powder on that infamous ridge, we decided to just give it a go anyway, hoping any snow that fell would melt off in the next 24 hours. Opting now for a single day climb also meant it would be a longer day; 17 miles roundtrip and +5,400 vertical on tough terrain make for a hard day, moving quickly to get it done in time should any weather move in while up high.
We got to the trailhead and starting out from the car at just past 4:00AM and moved up the trail under a full moon which nearly provided enough light under which to hike. For the first time all week, the sky appeared clear, but noticeably colder than in prior mornings. Cold versus thunderstorms? I’ll make that trade any day of the week. My long lost friend Orion watched overhead.
Temperatures started out just above freezing at the trailhead, but dropped as we gained elevation as the surface of the ponds higher up were covered in a thin coat of ice. A third layer soon went on and stopping for any rest brought a quick chill, so we kept our rests at a minimum until sunup and kept moving. The fact that the beginning of this trail doesn’t really gain any elevation made us colder as we didn’t really burn anything until the terrain got steeper.
Given the amount of rain recently and the ever present cows on the trail, the approach was characterized by ample mud and large pudding-like cow pies-right from the trailhead. The cow pies made every step into a potential messy face plant starting from the parking lot. When you get home from this trip, don’t walk through the living room in these shoes.
The below shot was taken on the return, but was a magnificent view of Capitol reflected in a still pond just below the high meadow.
Ever paranoid for creatures of the night and always on the lookout for large ravenous felines or crafty bears watching me, I nearly had the crap scared out of me when a huge black shape appeared just off the trail. The eyes of the nocturnal beast locked on to me like an F-16 locking onto a hapless MIG fighter. We were too close to escape at this point I was thinking…this was it and no ice axe in hand for defense.
A muffled grunt later and the behemoth moved, turned slightly and was finally revealed; It was a big black cow, not Bigfoot nor that elusive last remaining Colorado grizzly in hyperphagia looking for an easy meal before hibernation. My heart rate dropped, we moved on.
Occasionally on the approach up, we would get an eery glimpse of Capitol in the distance, silhouetted against the black night night sky illuminated by the pale waning moonlight. It made for a surreal setting.
A view just before making the left turn up the switch-backed slope. You’ll gain just under a thousand feet of vertical in this slope (photo taken on the way back).
We were cognizant of the time that the roundtrip would likely take and kept up a steady pace on the approach but slow enough to not break a sweat (beyond that which resulted from the encounter with the huge aforementioned cow).
Shortly after sunrise, we passed a few tents in the grassy knoll area just before the turn off to begin the cardio-taxing ascent up to the Mount Daly-Capitol saddle. It appeared we'd have some company higher up. The quickly rising sun warmed our backs as the west face of Capitol dominated the view.
From this angle, Capitol seems un-climbable.
Enjoy the trail while it lasts
This is the last part of the route where there is a nice, well defined trail so savor this portion of the day, for the rest of the terrain will require more focus and some routefinding to move across.
In the early morning, the Daly-Capitol saddle proved to be a nice sunbaked spot to warm up and have a snack before moving down into and then up the boulder field.
Appropriately named moon lake appeared, fitting for the lunar landscape that opened up before us. Below, a nice view of Capitol Lake from high on the grassy slope ( This pic was from Sept 2011-my pic from this trip was massively overexposed but pretty much looked the same with a thin dusting of snow on top).
Descending into the valley moving south-southeast towards the talus and boulders, there are initially some areas you can discern a trail of sorts, but this soon disappears when the boulders predominate where spotting cairns becomes more important. Traveling over this terrain is not hard and has no exposure but is time consuming with several boulders being loose, so tread with care. Not the best place to turn an ankle or face plant on granite. Pika and marmot periodically made themselves known with their characteristically sharp chirps.
While there are cairns placed here and there, there is more than one way up and through the boulder field including staying high on the ridge, which seemed like it had more exposure but avoids dropping into the "valley of boulders". As we moved up, I kept nervously wondering what the terrain looked like on the other side, how much snow remained, was it iced over in bad spots and whether it was climbable or if there was new powdery snow and just not safe enough today to climb. Fingers crossed, we moved onward and upward.
A lone climber soon came down, remarking that the terrain and exposure around K2 and thereafter was too much for him to do alone though as his team moved ahead quickly, so he opted to turn around. We thought it odd his team didn’t wait for him, but not knowing all the circumstances we exchanged niceties and moved on.
Finally getting to K2, we saw some fresh snow on the west side, so we opted to just climb up to its summit starting from left-center as the snow on climbers right was in a bad spot that made that option pretty sketchy especially while still shaded in the morning.
K2 showing some snow on the typical way around, making this a sketchy proposition
The first couple of moves are the hardest and primes you for the exposure that you will soon deal with on the remaining route. While the exposure here is high, the rock here is pretty solid and holds are decent. Care is needed on the descent coming over the other side. This “little” peak makes a nice climb in and of itself.
Close-up of the rock on K2.
Getting up and down K2, brings you to the lead-in and mini approach to the Knife Edge. As people are aware this section is the most hyped of the mountain and I wasn’t sure what to expect once finally on it. There is a great view here:
The Pierre Lakes:
From this point on the terrain is more serious; The summit comes into view now.
I would add that when standing on top of K2, there is an awesome view of Capitol and its northeast ridge. Regrettably, I didn’t take this photo though on the way up despite being lit up perfectly in the morning light, but think I captured an ok view showing the nice aggressive lines of Capitol:
We can see the remaining snow now which fell the day before, which was largely limited to the west face, while the eastern face saw most of it melt off thankfully, as this was what stopped us and turned us around in 2011.
The sky was a solid blue, wind was manageable and for once we had all systems go! Third time's a charm.
I love this shot:
Closer view of the ridge to the summit. The route followed is first on the ridge, then left of center, below the ridge moving towards the top.
The terrain immediately after this point was rough but from an exposure standpoint, nothing compared to the exposure once on the sharp ridge that defines the Knife Edge. This section will cause some people pause.
I like how “forbins_mtn” described the next section in his trip report and I will quote him here: “The views that come into play after K2 are the real deal. You’re faced with the infamous Knife Edge and then a daunting climb to finish the peak”. Couldn’t say it better myself. As I peered down the steep, towering North Face of Capitol, my thoughts were with the climber who lost his life around this section in late July, Ryan Joseph Palmer.
This is a No Fall Zone. As others have commented there are four basic ways to traverse this exposed section: on the left side, on the right side, straddle the top or walk across the top. I opted for a combination of the first three. The left side was more manageable at first then alternatively straddling the sharp ridge seemed the best option until my feet found more secure holds on either side.
I have no photos from looking down as my DSLR was just too big to strap on my neck and I wasn’t going to take off my pack while sitting on that edge to fiddle with it and get it out. This ridge really is as sharp as photos depict and could probably cut you if you drew your arm or bare hand too quickly across it. I was surprised at that. While there is serious exposure on this section, the rock here and hand and footholds while narrow, appear solid and strong; a departure from the normal fragile, crumbly rock that define much of the Elks.
You get a reprieve from the massive exposure right after you get off the ridge for a few yards, then it picks up again as you make the ascending traverse up the remaining route towards the summit though doesn’t have the dramatic drops that you are treated to on the Knife Edge.
Two views of K2 from looking back further along on the ridge to show scale and size of the terrain here and of K2 itself. Again, you don't necessarily have to climb K2 to get to Capitol, though depending on the conditions, the harder climb up might be safer than the terrain to either side of K2 if ice or fresh loose snow is present.
Note climbers on the summit of K2 in the second shot.
There are many cairns leading up with some leading to better options than others. There is no quick way up (or down) this mountain, movement is deliberately slow and going up and down from K2 will take a lot of time. Luckily weather was on our side, for once.
The route past the Knife Edge reminded me of a combination of the ledges on Eolus and Pyramid Peak higher up but with more sustained exposure and longer sections requiring your devoted attention. Don’t be fooled though into thinking the whole upper mountain is solid granite, for there is a lot of loose rock here waiting to fall. Wear a helmet. Fortunately, for much of the climb up and down, there won’t be many sections where people are directly above or below you given the traversing nature of the route.
The surrounding landscape up here is spectacular. It makes me want to go back and spend time taking panoramic shots and more photos in good light. I’d be dreading going through that darn boulder field again though!
After a time consuming ascending traverse up the final portion of the northeast face, the final pitch appears. This is steeper and more direct than most of the route leading up to this point. Perched here at this precarious point on the shoulders of Capitol, you can feel what an awesome mountain this is.
Soon, the summit appears, we climbed on top and were greeted with awesome views in all directions. Amazingly, a butterfly landed on the summit around the same time. Tough insect.
The Register was a welcome sight.
We briefly rested on top, sat down and took a load off our feet for a few minutes. I downed the obligatory Summit Snickers. Without further ado, we started our descent slowly down the mountain picking our way through the rocks and sporadically situated cairns back over the Knife edge and then to K2.
Views higher up were just great:
Reaching K2 on the return, we opted to go around to the northwest side (climbers left) rather than directly over the top again. There was still snow here near the base which, while softer than in the morning was a bit sketchy to get through given the moderate exposure on the left side.
Descending down the boulderfield on the return seemed to take forever and it seemed more boulders were loose coming down. The trail segments on the other side of the last ridge just before the Daly-Capitol saddle felt like a walk in the park once we reached them!
Once back down on terra firma, I filled up my water at one of the stream crossings BEFORE getting back to the cattle gate. Note while some streams were iced over in the morning, all the water sources were free flowing in the afternoon. Any ice earlier on could have been easily chipped through.
Looking back into a setting sun as we made our way back to the trailhead, Capitol reigns over the valley in a regal setting. We were just a few days shy of peak foliage here and were thinking this valley would be awesome when cloaked in the golden yellow of Aspen on either side.
Total time car to car was just over 14 hours. Taking cows (and their associated patties) off the route, I think would shave 15-20 minutes off of any roundtrip!
- Check and recheck weather forecasts when contemplating this peak. You don’t want to be on that ridge in fresh early season snow, an electrical storm, strong winds or even rain. It is worth waiting for good weather even if that means it will have wait until next year.
- Start early – especially in the Monsoon season (which, was redefined this fall I suppose..) Time your climb so you are back on the near side of K2 by midday if in summer. There is no quick or safe escape off that ridge if weather moves in.
- Set up camp unless you are up for a long day with a tedious climb to get through quickly
- If you have a phobia of livestock, you won’t like this approach
- Wear a grippy boot or ideally an approach shoe – much better than trail runners or heavy backpacking boots for all the rocky terrain from the boulderfield on up.
- Be ok with exposure. That ridge is not the place to learn for the first time that you are scared of heights.
- Travel carefully higher up as most of that ridge is a no-fall zone and is filled with loose rock.
- When filling your water up, make sure you get any water higher up, after the gate closure reducing the risk of filtering just downstream of a fat cow poop.
- Wear a helmet
The next day, before I started driving back to Denver to catch my flight home, I drove up Maroon Creek Rd and was pleasantly surprised by this fellow in the lake! It's been a long time since I saw a Bull Moose so close.
Farewell Colorado ‘till next time.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):