| Milking the Cow (Northeast Ridge)
Capitol Peak. The mere mention of the name has been known to strike fear in the hearts, minds, and indeed souls of many a peakbagger. The 14er community consistently ranks this imposing behemoth of white granite as the most difficult Colorado 14er. In fact, when I first started working my way through the checklist a few years ago, the two mountains I assumed I would never be able to summit were Capitol and nearby North Maroon Peak. The fact that I climbed both within the span of two weeks is a modest personal victory.
Anyways, on to the story. On Saturday I met Len (msianmama), Alli, Liv, and Tom at the RTD park-and-ride in Lakewood. From there, Tom whisked us to the trailhead at a very high rate of speed. Upon arrival at the Capitol Creek trailhead we had to squeeze into one of the few remaining parking spots.
From the trailhead, you can catch the first view of elusive Capitol Peak.
View from the trailhead
The 6 mile trek up to Capitol Lake was not too strenuous and the weather was perfect. We were all disappointed that we didn't see any of the trademark cattle known to graze in the area.
Heading up the trail
After setting up shop at camp site #5 we had plenty of daylight left to enjoy the late afternoon and evening.
Filtering water from Capitol Lake
We each had several servings of Liv's wine and my Glenlivet 12, leading to some fun rounds of invented card games. While playing we started brainstorming a theme for the weekend to keep us motivated during the intimidating climb ahead. Alli won with "milk the cow". And so it was.
The wind picked up as the sun went down, rapidly dropping the temperature. Tom was able to get a call through to his wife to get an updated weather forecast. Things were looking good for Sunday. We found our sleeping bags at about 9.
The wind throughout the night was relentless. I didn't manage to get much sleep with my tent being continually buffeted. The same seemed to be true for the entire group.
The alarms started going off at 4. Len was the first one brave enough to "break the seal" and stick her head out of her tent. Much to our surprise she reported a perfectly clear sky. We got ready and were on the trail by 5. The giant silhouette of Capitol's north face loomed above.
The climbing begins immediately above the lake. The trail is fairly solid and thankfully easy to follow by headlamp. Another group of 5 headlamps was about 15 minutes ahead of us. We hiked along in silence, the wind growing stronger the higher we got. My SPOT transmitted its lonely OK message to the stars above.
It didn't take too long to ascend the 900 feet to the saddle between Capitol and neighboring 13er Mt. Daly. Once at the saddle, the trail skirts below the ridge on the east side. This thankfully protected us from the westerly wind. At this point we had caught up with the group in front of us and the crowd proceeded to the boulder field below K2.
The large, blocky talus leading up to K2 was very solid and route finding was not difficult. The sun finally rose over Clark Peak, clearly illuminating the path ahead.
The route finds the ridge just under K2. We chose to make the short side trip to the top to get a better look at the route ahead. This is the point where Gerry Roach in Colorado's Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs suggests to pause and "consider your future".
The route over K2 is the first taste of "real" climbing on the route. From here the infamous knife edge is only a few minutes away. Probably the most exposed part of the route, the knife edge is a 100 foot section that represents the very sharp apex of the ridge, with very steep (and smooth) drop-offs on each side.
Knife edge traffic
There was a small traffic jam at the start of the knife. This gave me a few minutes to prepare myself. Tom was already across, waiting to document my journey with his camera. I finally started across. It quickly became apparent that the rock was very solid – it was just a matter of finding places to put my feet. I was able to cross most of it in a hunched walk, favoring the left side because a fall that direction may actually be survivable. Len, Alli, and Liv followed close behind.
Len moving along the knife
At one point I annoyed the ladies by stopping to take a picture of my feet hanging off either side.
We all reached the other side unscathed. It was not as bad as I was anticipating, but it certainly kept my full attention the entire way across.
Once over the knife edge, the climbing has barely begun. Many class 3 and 4 pitches had to be ascended, along with several ledges. The route mainly stayed to climber's left of the ridge proper, with occasional visits to the ridge crest.
Final summit push
We finally reached the summit just after 9. The wind had thankfully died down during the climb, leading to absolutely perfect weather. A well-worn US flag was present, a fitting reminder of Capitol Peak's namesake.
"Heart Lake" (our name for it)
After plenty of pictures we headed back down. Initially the route finding just below the summit was a little difficult, but soon enough we found the right way down.
Liv downclimbing the ledges
For whatever reason (probably tiredness) I was a little less confident the second time over the knife edge. Butt-scooting was involved on a few of the pointier sections.
Liv recrossing the knife edge
We decided to try to bypass K2 on the way back to the boulder field. This proved to be a mistake – the only bypass route we found was extremely loose and fairly sketchy. I'd definitely recommend reclimbing K2 to stay on more solid rock.
With the technical stuff behind us, it was now a matter of talus-hopping the endless boulders back to the Capitol-Daly saddle. We took a few breaks along the way, but made fairly good time. A few groups were still heading up at this point, but they didn't feel very confident about summiting given how late in the morning it was.
From the saddle it was a very quick descent back to camp. Our roundtrip time from the lake was about 8.5 hours.
Rain clouds were brewing, so we quickly packed up camp and headed down the trail. After the morning's activities (and lack of sleep) the hike back to the trailhead seemed to take forever. Eventually we staggered into the parking lot at about 5. As we were about to drive out I gave my usual thanks to the mountain for allowing us safe passage.
On the drive out we finally met some of the bovine residents of the area. They didn't want to yield the road at first, but Tom eventually convinced them to retreat (with much complaining).
We stopped in Glenwood Springs for a dinner of margaritas and unhealthy Mexican food.
I think our entire group went into this trip not fully expecting to successfully climb this mountain. Thankfully, enough stars aligned and we all were able to "milk the cow". Climb on!
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