| Capitol Peak - NE Ridge
Capitol Peak - 14,130 - NE Ridge Route
Trailhead: Capitol Creek
Partner: Jeremy Mattingley
17 miles, 5,500 vert feet
Following our ascent of Twining and lunch in Aspen Jeremy and I drove up to the Capitol Creek trailhead Saturday afternoon and headed out on the Capitol ditch trail. This was a new one for me as I'd taken the Capitol Creek trail on my ascent of Capitol years ago. The ditch is dead flat for the first 1.2 miles but very scenic as it alternates between aspen forest and scrub oak/sagebrush. The lupine flowers are everywhere and amazing. This area has to have some of the oldest and healthiest aspen trees in the state. Very refreshing in the days of pine beetle destruction. Eventually the trail leaves the ditch, ascends gradually to 10,000 feet and then descends to the creek. Capitol Creek was running high but within its banks. There is a nice log bridge to cross on. Our goal was to make it as far as possible but camping below the snowline. After four miles of hiking we made camp in a nice meadow about 10,200 feet.
Capitol Peak from trail:
Sunday morning we were up pretty early and hiking by 5:30 a.m. Almost immediately we entered the dark timber spruce forest and lost the trail in the snow. Patchy at first, the snow quickly became 5-6 feet deep. It was green snow too, covered with a carpet of pine needles and downed branches from the forest. But it was fairly well consolidated and held weight except around trees. We had considered snowshoes but did not bring them. We crossed a large fresh avalanche path; it had been a rough winter up there. Beyond that there was a steep headwall below the lake which required that we put on our crampons. We then ascended to the Capitol/Daly saddle on a mix of snow and then bare trail, staying about a couple hundred feet above Capitol Lake at our low point. The lake is still frozen and the camping spots there still buried.
After a snack break at the saddle, we contoured around to the left on a descending traverse per the summer route. There are several gullies there full of snow, and that's where at 12,500 ft. Jeremy met his match and decided to abort his climb. I crossed over the first gully, about 50 feet across and full of steep, hard snow. My technique was to face the slope, plant the handle of my axe all the way down to the pick for a self-belay, kick three or four steps into the snow, traverse left, move the axe, repeat. After I was across I sat on a rock and tried to coach him for 30 minutes, but he mentally could not deal with the exposure and fall consequences. He encouraged me to keep going if I wanted to. I had to think long and hard about that. I'd done the peak already, there was sure to be more danger ahead, and I would be alone with little chance of quick rescue if anything happened. I decided to keep heading up to see what I encountered; and prepared myself to turn the climb if I got into anything too heinous.
Basin below K2:
After the mixed snow and rock gullies I was out into the basin below K2, which was buried in deep, firm snow. Crampons back on, I made good time climbing easy/moderate snow all the way to 13,500 just below K2. K2 was buried and corniced on one side, I'd have to go up and over instead of the usual traverse to the right. It was a little sketchy but I reached K2 at 10:00 a.m., got my first view of the remaining ridge to Capitol, and considered my future. As I expected, the knife-edge was pretty clean of snow. There was snow below the upper face of Capitol, and I knew I'd have to make some interesting route choices up there. The weather was still good. So I went for it.
NE Ridge from K2:
The knife-edge comes quickly after a descent from K2. It was good rock as I remembered, and thrilling to be up there. Progress was a bit slow, but I eventually finished the knife-edge portion and came to a sharp notch in the ridge at 13,700. Here there was a long sling around a horn with double twin ropes heading down the south-facing couloir. Ah, I remembered the story, this route was skied in late April, and they had to leave their ropes behind since they couldn't pull it through the cornice from the bottom. It looked like nobody else had been up here since. I looked down the gully and up the ridge and admired the courage and skill it must have taken to climb this peak in ski boots and make a summit ski descent down to this point. As I continued up from here, it was obvious I would not be able to traverse left off the ridge onto easier terrain because of the very steep snow. My only viable option was to keep following the ridge, which soon became 4th class with probably a few low 5th class moves. But the rock was generally solid and I was able to keep moving up. The pucker factor was high, some of the ridge overhanged the north face of Capitol, and a fall onto that side would probably not stop until Capitol Lake. A fall onto the south side would not be good either. So as any rock leader knows, don't fall.
Upper face difficulties:
After careful route selection I finally made the top of Capitol at 11:40 a.m. I had not seen another soul since leaving Jeremy. I had a Colorado 14er to myself on a beautiful summer Sunday. Try doing that on any of the 54 for the next 13 weeks, ha! There were great views to Snowmass, the Maroon Bells, Sopris, the lush green valleys below. The peak register had been destroyed; it was broken into numerous pieces with no paper or lid. I didn't see any evidence of recent climbs, perhaps I was the first one up in two months. There was a guy (cheeseburgler) that made K2 earlier in the week, but I didn't see any tracks in the snow past that.
Elk Range Majesty:
Looking straight down to Capitol Lake:
I left the summit at noon and reversed my route down. Some of the clouds across the valley to the NW were starting to concern me. I reached the ropes again and decided to haul them out. I recall the guys saying that they would like them back. Or if they don't I could use a pair of twin ropes. Although with unknown history and two months of ultraviolet radiation they might be best retired. Regardless, nobody would need them in that couloir again this year and I decided to clean the peak. This added about 15-20 uncomfortable pounds to my pack. As I reached the knife-edge with my now bulky pack, the weather had worsened and I was now facing a possible storm. The wind came up and it started to snow. I heard some rumbling thunder across the valley, but nothing close yet. My ice axe on my pack began to sing to me. Oh great, just what I need. Crossing the knife-edge in an electrical storm is not recommended. I waited about ten minutes and decided it wasn't too bad and I better get the hell out of there because who knows how bad it might get later. I didn't need a coating of fresh snow or ice on the ridge. I made it across and the weather improved somewhat. Back over K2 and onto the snow. Here I got some good glissading in and made quick progress back to the saddle and another glissade down to Capitol Lake. Later I learned that Jeremy had climbed the ridge to 12,900 and watched me the entire way.
The snow in the woods had softened with more post holing joy, but it could have been worse. I made it back to camp about 4:00 p.m. to a relieved Jeremy. It stormed again five minutes later. We broke camp about 5:30 and headed out. I planned to give him one rope, but in my hurry to get off the ridge I had made a hopeless mess so I carried them both. He did take my crampons, axe, and stove off me though. Adding my tent, pad, bag, etc made my pack feel like I was training for Rainier! Four weary miles later and we were back at the truck about 6:50. It had been an amazing day and only increased my sense of awe for this wonderful peak.