| Plenty o‘ air up there - Capitol
Jen and I have been keeping up a good climbing pace this year, but we're worried that the Colorado monsoon season may throw a wrench into our pedal-to-the-metal plan of furious fun. Luckily, we've been able to squeeze in climbs around the bad weather. This climb was one of those instances.
Enter: Big, bad Capitol Peak. A mountain with more "air" than rock. Our first "official" Class 4 climb.
Saturday morning, for the umpteenth time this summer, we headed west on I-70. While answering Nature's call at the rest stop in Edwards, we stumbled upon a Farmers Market and picked up some juicy, super-ripe Palisade peaches and fresh-baked coffee cake. It was a nice break.
Roughly three hours from home, Jen and I met up with our climbing partner, Del_Sur (Matt), in Basalt. We heeded jcwhite's recommendation of Riverside for lunch (Jordan, thanks for the great recommendation, BTW). The three of us enjoyed some tasty food and India pale ales on the deck, just feet from the rippling creek. It was a really nice place, as was the town of Basalt. Just another reaffirmation of my belief that the pursuit of 14ers brings you to places you'd never normally visit.
From Basalt, it was just a short drive to the trailhead. The dirt road was a little rutted in some areas, but it wasn't bad enough to keep a few brave 2WD cars away.
We parked right in front of a brand new trailhead sign (which looked like the fine work of CFI). Soon thereafter we were blasting down the trail under rainy skies, eager to be on our way. After all, a long journey was ahead of us, and we could see the entire route before us, with Capitol Peak far, far away.
Moments later, things just didn't seem right, and I didn't recall the Ditch Trail going down that much in the very beginning. After putting our three rain-soaked brains together, we figured we had gone the wrong way. After climbing back up hundreds of feet, it was a "Do over."
Back at the parking lot we noticed the other trailhead (for the Ditch Trail) at the opposite end of the lot. It also had a brand new sign. At any rate, we ultimately set off down the correct trail.
Curiously, the rain started to fall when we started down the wrong trail, but it stopped as soon as we started up the correct trail. Perhaps the mountain was trying to tell us something.
The trail to Capitol Lake, our base camp, was long (about 6 miles with a couple thousand feet of elevation gain), and our packs seemed to get heavier with every mile.
We cruised through aspen groves, across grassy meadows and through dense forests. Occasionally we'd see some open range cows, and I realized they were the luckiest cows in Colorado. "Happy cows," as Jen would say. At one point the trail ended abruptly at a creek. It wasn't very deep or wide, but it was definitely an obstacle. Thankfully, we found a nice log crossing just upstream. After a short jaunt through the woods, the trail linked up with the other trail and we continued on toward Capitol Peak, which loomed in the distance like a great monolith.
After a few hours of solid hiking, we finally made it to the campgrounds just below Capitol Lake. Earlier, we had seen a sign that said, "Camping in designated areas only." Other than a couple blank posts of wood, none of the "campsites" were designated in any way, shape or form. And there weren't very many campsites, for that matter. Del_Sur made camp in a grove of trees and we found a really small spot just up the hill to the right. It was a crappy spot, though. More sites were further above, but we didn't feel like hiking up and down that hill throughout the evening.
Once we had our tents set up we hiked over the talus to Capitol Lake, where we purified water and ate pepperoni sticks and cheese. I drank a Dale's Pale Ale, and I wondered if it was worth hauling up. In hindsight, I should've brought a Gordon because it's higher alcohol.
Capitol Peak rose above the lake three-fourths the way to the apex of the sky. Excluding hanging glaciers, it reminded me of the Swiss Alps. During one moment, the clouds cleared and we were afforded an amazing alpenglow view.
That night I had trouble falling asleep. The anxiety of anticipation, more than anything else, was keeping me awake. Eventually, I slumbered. Curiously enough, during our broken sleep, both Jen and I had nightmares about airplane crashes. Mine was so vivid and realistic that it woke me up.
At 5:05 a.m., the three of us met at the trailhead junction and started up to the pass. Our headlamps paved our way and led us to the top in 35 minutes. That was the last time we'd have an easy trail to follow for the rest of the climb.
We pushed on across a bunch of gullies and over ribs of rock. Instead of descending slightly, like we should've, we actually gained some elevation. As time passed, and as our route narrowed and got sketchier and sketchier, we realized our mistake. The route we should've taken was many hundreds of feet below.
Top image: Jen, wondering if we're going to "cliff out" anytime soon. Bottom image: The route we should've been on. Climbers can barely be seen in the red circle; the arrow across the snowfield shows the route:
Long side story short, we had to backtrack quite a ways, and then down climb some "interesting" ledges to get back on track. 45 minutes later, we were golden. While it was still early, we were frustrated that we wasted precious hours of "good" weather.
From there, we knew we had to skirt around/below the cliffs and then head up toward the boulder field below K2. We didn't know exactly where that right-hand turn was. So we improvised:
Even though I was anxious and nervous about the questionable terrain ahead of us, I was still able to appreciate our surroundings. It was a spectacular place.
Our plan was to bypass K2 on the way, and then hit it on the way back. But our route somehow took us up to the top. From there, we down climbed.
The seriousness of my position became more and more real. I knew the infamous "Knife Edge" was coming, and I really wondered just how prepared I was.
That whole "climbing is 90 percent mental; 10 percent physical," very true, IMO.
Jen and Matt on the Knife Edge:
The Knife Edge, for me, at least, was an interesting experience. In some respects, it was as "hairy" as I had expected. In other respects it was anticlimactic. In general, it wasn't what I had expected. For one, I thought the left side (when going up) was the easiest way to take, but I found myself going back and forth from one side to the other, as I worked myself across. In some parts there were good foot holds and cracks on the left; in other parts they were on the right. In one section, I think I straddled for about five feet (though, I didn't actually sit on the rock; it was just frictioning with my shoes). Then, even though the exposure was great, the rock was solid (can't say the same for the rest of the route).
At any rate, the Knife Edge surely demanded attention, as any fall would probably entail death, as there are ~1,500-foot drop-offs on either side.
The big air all around was frightening, yet tasty. I did my best to drink it all in, but it was like standing five feet away from an IMAX theater.
Beyond the Knife Edge, it was more rock scrambling with big exposure. Some of it was as exposed, if not more than, the Knife Edge.
Below the summit, routefinding became quite the challenge. We knew, more or less, where we needed to go, we just didn't know the best way to get there. Rock fall from climbers above only added to the challenge and danger. The three of us climbed apart, which was a great idea, as we each set rocks free, inevitably. Jen set a basketball-sized boulder my way, which exploded just 20 feet to my left. I almost pissed my pants (but, not to worry; I was wearing wicking underwear).
After a good bit of slithering up sketchy rock, we gained Capitol's east ridge. The climbing was steep and exposed, but I was just glad to be on solid rock. From there, we gained the summit ridge, which was yet another mental test to the summit. Some of the exposure was just as high as the Knife Edge. Jen and Matt made the summit as I was still making my way. I kind of had a "moment" there. As cheesy as it may sound, I felt a real connection to the mountain, and I was in a flow (albeit, a slow flow). I was methodical in my movement; not because I was scared or anything, but because I kind of wanted it to last. And I was soaking it in. I could elaborate, but I digress in the interest of keeping your attention.
The three of us on the summit (top) and climbing back, with K2 in the distance (bottom):
Jen down climbing:
Coming back across the Knife Edge:
On the way back to K2 (on the right):
We went low around K2, and I'm not sure it was the best idea (probably better to re-ascend it). After traversing over a rib and then down and up, we found ourselves far below where we wanted to be. So we climbed up a ridge on the north side, which wasn't so friendly. Large rocks were loose. Not the greatest holds.
After that short up climb, we climbed over and found ourselves back on the boulder field. It was a comforting feeling to be back on that field of rock, as I knew the hardest climbing was over.
We descended down the easier part of the gully, just to the left of the snow. Then we continued the long voyage across rock (take the Boulderfield on Longs and then multiply it a few times). Not sure which route we took back up the ledges, but we ended up on some very steep switchbacks. Jen scouted out the perfect route and got us back up to the pass. About that time, a few drops of rain descended upon us.
While painful on the knees, the 900 vertical feet back to the campsite went pretty fast and well.
Wildflowers were amazing, as expected:
Moments after arriving at camp, rain fell. But it only fell for 30 minutes. A couple faint rumbles of thunder later, we were heading back down the trail, with our 35-pound packs pressing on our backs.
The hike back to the trailhead was uneventful. Just long and grueling. The trail seemed like it went on forever. Thankfully, we eluded the rain completely on our hike back.
Back at the parking lot, we shared beers and stories under the Xterra's lift gate, as the rain fell heavily around us.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):