| O Capitol! My Capitol!
TH: Capitol Creek
Overall Mileage: ~17
Elevation Gain: ~5,300'
Sorry, this will be a bit long winded. (If you just want pretty pictures – scroll down)
In essence, I've been preparing for this trip/climb for a decade now. When I first moved to Colorado in 1999, I went out and bought Roach's map set to the 14ers. I looked at each map, familiarizing myself with the peaks, routes and class rankings. I came up with a plan, a master 5 year plan. To climb all the 14ers before I got my PhD. Being rather new to rock climbing, I knew there were peaks that were out of my reach at that time. Or at least, I felt they were out of my reach. I like to be slightly over prepared. So in this booklet of maps, I organized them according to class difficulty. Class 1&2 on the right. Class 3&4 on the left. Capitol Peak was on the bottom of the pile. To be thought of later, much later, as I got stronger and more comfortable at altitude and with exposure.
Every week in summer, I'd look at the peaks on my "easy" list/side, and choose what I wanted to do that weekend. I worked my way up from shorter distances to longer, as my strength improved. I got a partner to help me learn how to rock climb. I figured this was the best way to get over my fear of heights. Once I got comfortable, I'd start on the Class 3 peaks near the end of my 2nd year, or maybe middle of the 3rd.
Unfortunately, you can't plan life with any accuracy. I opted out of the PhD, and got my MS instead. Needing a job, I ended up moving to Alaska. The 5 year plan was on hold, after 2 glorious summers hiking 23 peaks.
After a ~6 year hiatus, I moved back to Colorado, having only hiked one 14er in the interim. There was too much to learn about mountaineering in Alaska, to travel outside too much. There were too many amazing backpacks to explore in the vast wilderness areas. Upon return to Colorado, the list of "easy" peaks again started shrinking, and all those forgotten harder peaks had to be thought of. Capitol, after being shoved to the bottom of the pile, came back into focus as something to think about. Not that I thought I would climb it this year.
How can you be sure you're ready to climb this beast? What is widely considered the hardest and maybe scariest of all the 14ers. Doubtful that you can ever really be sure, unless you've done something harder. So I chose a partner that has done harder, scarier peaks. A partner that is a good rock climber and route finder. That way, I could always rely on him to help IF I felt out of my league. So was I ready? Read on…
Day 1: Pack in
It was nice to see the actual summit of the peak from the trailhead. Of course, that means that you must be pretty far away too.
So after eating some lunch, we packed up and started off on the trail. We met native_mntguy at the trailhead with his crew. Taking the ditch trail was pretty flat easy backpacking, so we could travel quickly. Once on the trail, surrounded by a nice, cool aspen forest the elevation gain and lost was still pretty minimal. Only downside, horse and cow crap, everywhere. Pewww!
We ran into the first herd of cows at the Wilderness sign. At the trailhead, you can smell them (and their copious amount of droppings – everywhere). In fact, the only time you don't smell them, is up on the other side of the pass going up the rock pile to K2. I started sneezing upon my arrival. Thinking it was just allergies, I take some meds, knowing I'd be running into these walking allergens for miles.
Cows in the "wilderness":
A nice view, getting closer:
At the stream crossing:
At the stream crossing, I opted to switch to my camp sandals, as I didn't think my leather boots would hold up. The water was pretty deep in places, and I missed the tree trunk crossing possibilities slightly up stream. It was nice to get the boots off, and cool off in the stream. So no bother to me, a nice break half way through the hike.
Many meadows with lots of wildflowers:
Up, up, up we go. We met quite a few groups coming down the trail. Talked to a group that mentioned they left us a good campsite. Hmmm? Farther up we pass some more hikers, not looking so happy or very talkative. Later on we find out, that there are only 8 camp spots near the lake, and that the rangers have been ticketing violators. So a $100 ticket for not using an approved campsite past 'the sign'. native_mntguy had caught up to us at this point, and promptly took off. So it was a race to see who would get a campsite, if there weren't enough! Knowing I couldn't go any faster, I just hoped for the best, and enjoyed the flowers
Smelling the flowers, while the race to the campsites was on:
Thankfully, there were spots for all of us. No worries about tickets and backtracking with a heavy pack to find a campsite below the sign. So we ate our dinner and enjoyed a nice sunset talking with our fellow campers, before calling it a night.
Day 2: Summit Day!
After hearing about the route finding difficulties on the other side of the pass in the dark, I wanted to get up to that point for sunrise. 4:30 sounded like a good time to start. As usual, I did not sleep at all that night. I woke up to some congestion, and thought it was allergies from the copious amounts of cowpies surrounding camp. Yeah, the cows come up this high too it seems. We were a bit early at the pass, and decided to wait till there was more light to see. Since the trail that started off strongly, quickly faded as it got rockier.
So we waited, and watched as the sky got lighter, and the horizon became red.
Making our way around the gullies:
Snow fields to come:
A look back at Mt Daly in the early sun:
Soon after making our way around the first section of gullies, we ran into snow fields interspersed with boulder fields. The snow was really solid and kind of icy this early in the morning. I had packed in my crampons and ice axe, so I broke them out and made easy work of the snow. Mike had forgotten his gear, and had to rock hop up. Unfortunately the snow stops too short of K2, so I had to put away the gear and make the way up on loose boulders.
Last bit of snow to climb!
Rock hopin' to K2:
Pyramid and Bells in morning light:
A giant cairn marks the way around K2, and the start of the intense climbing that never really lets up. I decided to skirt K2 just to start off slowly with the climbing and exposure.
Going around K2:
Once around, we get our first view of what we've gotten ourselves into. Up to this point, I was still in the fog of early morning. Now, I'm fully awake and aware. It's time to mentally focus on the route to come. Well, I've come this far, it's time to see if I can get through this.
The way ahead:
The Knife Edge Ridge:
I've heard the hype about the exposure. It goes on an on. It's constantly brought up on the forums and in conversation. It had been built up in my mind (and others minds) as something seriously scary. Especially for someone who is afraid of heights.
Today, this morning, it was over before I knew it. I was so mentally focused on what was immediately ahead of me, what the next task was, I never had a chance to look down or around. Without realizing it, the narrow ridge was over and the peak was ahead. I didn't even break out the camera, safely stowed in my backpack. (Thanks to Mike for taking the action shots)
The knife edge is a mental challenge, that's all. I've done harder things in gymnastics without thinking as a kid, just not perched high above a serious drop off with shear cliffs. Could you imagine doing a balance beam routine on the knife edge? Now that would be one crazy video! I guess I can dream about it, as it wasn't going to happen on this day!
Some advice for the ladies (and gents): build up your groin muscles! I know some say that it is easier to walk on the left/south side of the ridge than to "butt scoot", but it was windier than I felt comfortable with. I've been blown off the ground before; I didn't want that to happen with a 1,000' drop! So I found it easier to squeeze the ridge, and more or less, ride it like a horse. Sometimes there were places I could put my feet on either side to rise a bit over the ridge, other times not. Why squeeze the ridge? Because having the knife edge shoved up where the sun don't shine, is let's say, less than comfortable. I didn't want to get so personal with this rather sharp cold rock, but in a few places it's hard to avoid.
All I need is a riding crop...
The face of focus...
The Peak Climb:
From the end of the ridge, the continuous climbing begins. The rock is loose. Piles of loose rocks, ready to go sliding down steep slopes and gullies await you. Route finding is key, as cairns can be hidden in all the piles of crappy rock.
Start of the peak climb:
Looking back at the ridge:
Just a short breather in the relentless climbing:
Up and over and around the steep gullies we go, slowly finding our way. Nothing too difficult to climb, I focused on what was immediately ahead, or what the route to come was. When we were in what we named the grey rock gulley, we saw the group of 3 ahead of us climb up an exposed, steep rib to the summit ridge. So we had a point to focus on getting to. The general route seemed pretty straight forward. We slowly and carefully made our way to that point, focusing only on what was ahead of us, the next obstacle. The climbing came naturally to me, it was just one move at a time in a giant gymnastics routine. Soon we were going up the steep section to the summit ridge. Here we run into the other group as they were coming down. Just a little further to go…
Once on the summit, it was such a relief. Yeah, we were only half-way through this ordeal, but it was a moment of great satisfaction. I had just summitted the hardest peak to date on my climbing resume. It was time to enjoy a view that I have no plans to ever see again. This peak is a one-timer for me. Great climb, not doing it again!
View down to Capitol Lake:
A look over to the knife edge (with group #3 on the knife):
After snapping as many photos as I can, I stow away the camera for the descent. It's going to be a long and hard one. Slowly we go down and around the loose pile of rocks precariously situated on top of each other. In a few areas we choose a slightly different descent path/route. Sometimes it is easier, other times not quite so. I'm a much better up climber than down climber, so some areas were a bit more intimidating than others. I found myself doing some pretty gumby, pretzel like moves as I go over some tricky areas. Not sure how I get myself into these contortions, but at the time they seemed reasonable. I hit quite a few rocks with my knees and shins as I go lower. Bruising bruises that will pain me later on the pack out and in the days to come I'm sure.
As we approach the ridge, we cover terrain that is really steep and exposed, and I don't remember it. I must have been so super mentally focused at this point coming up, I didn't see beyond what was directly in front of me.
Almost to the ridge:
Re-crossing the Knife Edge:
I have to say, re-crossing the knife edge is harder than the initial crossing. You are very tired at this point. The mental strain from focusing on safe climbing for hours is wearing you down. This time while crossing, it goes by slower, I see more things. I have more time to think about things I didn't have time in my earlier mentally focused world. And here's the worst, I have time to look around and down!
Ouch! Take the darn photo already... this hurts!
This is taking longer than 8 seconds...
Almost standing... (If I knew Mike was taking this photo, I would have stood up and done my gymnastics dismount pose! Darn it!)
Reaching the notch before K2 is a relief, but it's not done. You want it to be over already, you want to see that giant cairn by the side of K2. Since there you know, it's all easy (if tiresome) hiking to go.
Rock hopping and snow sliding descent:
As the giant cairn comes into view, the end is in sight. Sitting next to the cairn to take a break is like relief washing all over you. You're not done, but you can relax for awhile. Take in the scenery again. The worst of the mental journey is over. I shove as much food in my mouth as it will allow, the nerves that clench the stomach are releasing.
The glorious cairn, my favorite cairn of the day:
Down to the snow, yay!
The snow has softened in the bright hot sun, so we boot glissade down as much as possible before traversing over to the pass.
Traversing on snow to pass:
At the pass we know the trail will be well established, no more route finding for us. Just finding the appropriate ascent path is tricky, with out much guidance. Seems others have had the same problem, many trails all over. The path down to the lake is beautiful. Lush wild flowers abound to the left and right, missed in the early morning twilight. Stars did little to illuminate the surroundings.
Lake, flowers and peak:
Back at camp, Mike wants to take a nap. Hmmm nap… nap? I could sleep for 12 hours if not careful. Instead I eat and take my vitamin I, ibuprofen. The loose descent has made my knees really sore. The pack out is not something I am looking forward to.
Destination - Trailhead:
After ~30 minutes of rest, we pack up camp. It is now, as I sit on the tree trunk, stuffing my sleeping bag, that it hits me. It's not allergies to animals that I am experiencing; I have the start of a cold. The congestion and sore throat were seemingly normal, until I realize the mental fog of sickness that I am slowly entering into. Great, I just climbed Capitol with a cold. Brilliant! At least the timing wasn't ahead by a day; I may have had to call the climb.
I know the pack is lighter than when we came up, but it doesn't feel that way. Climbing Capitol feels like a full day to my body. It doesn't want any more work. Being mostly out of 'real' food, there is little choice. Peanut M&M's, GU and Cliff's won't be a good dinner. We are the only group left in camp. There were only 3 teams summitting that day, and the other 2 are long gone. No one else came up during the day. So down the trail we go. The vitamin I did its job, I feel reasonably well in the first section. It goes by quickly. Mike shoes off the unwanted attention from a bull cow on the trail as we pass by my desired meal for the night: steak. Mmmmm steak, walking past all the cows, it is difficult to think of anything else to eat. That was, until we see this strange cow. It is lying on its side. What? As we get closer it becomes apparent. It's a dead and bloated cow, and it is literally ON the trail. Ok, I think I will hold off on the steak, for one night at least.
The stream crossing couldn't come fast enough for either of us. The thought of walking in my sandals across the cold stream, icing my tired and sore feet is like a dream. The reality is refreshing, and I fight my way through the numbing pain, to keep my feet submerged as long as possible. Putting the boots back on was a struggle, though the mosquitoes helped that process along.
The sun is beating down on us, and we have to go uphill for a short while. Mike's water reserves are running low, and we continue to plod forward, like the cows we see around us. We can see the trailhead, we can also see the peak. They are equidistant. No self deception possible. Finally we get into the cool shade of the aspen groves. Some reprieve from the march we are on. The merging of the ditch to the trail is a welcome site. It will be level to just downhill from here on out. Gu revives me to continue just that little bit farther down the trail. Like the Walt Whitman poem, O Captian! My Captain! , approaching the end of the trail, we die figurative deaths. The mental block on pain is receding, and all the aches and pains come to the forefront. The sore feet, knees, back, shoulders, arms, abs… they are screaming for attention. It's only a couple hundred feet to the relief of the truck. But my body wants it over with now. That last stretch is nigh impossible, but eventually it all ends. I can take off the pack and relax.
The light is gracing the face of Capitol Peak, for a final view of the hardest full-body workout I have ever experienced.
The prize we sought is won:
Was I prepared for Capitol Peak? Yes. It was a difficult peak, the hardest one I have done, but I was ready for what was in front of me at each corner. I was as prepared as I could ever be. Any more waiting and it might begin to take on dimensions of its own. While you don't need to be a rock climber to do this peak, I found the skills and moves very useful.
Was I prepared for the backpack out? Not exactly. If I could have planned a 3rd day for just packing out, it would have been less of a long hard day. I am but a mere mortal, the limits of what I can do in a day are less than some who are superhuman ;)
Was Capitol Peak my Everest? Nope, unless you consider it a forgotten and barely thought about (until the decision was made to do it) peak. This is only a stepping stone on the way to bigger and scarier peaks someday in the future, if I can be so lucky.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):