Peak(s):  Capitol Peak  -  14,130 feet
"K2"  -  13,664 feet
Date Posted:  09/12/2014
Modified:  02/24/2016
Date Climbed:   09/01/2014
Author:  ameristrat
Additional Members:   4thPlaceAtFieldDay, Tony1
 Beneath the Eyes of the King   

Beneath the Eyes of the King



Such is the aura of this peak that I had developed an awe for its lofty summit bordering on unease long before I even began climbing 14ers. I remember overhearing "crazy people" who spoke of crossing the forbidding Knife Edge with (what I considered to be) a flippant disregard for their lives.

The fact that a climb of Capitol kept being pushed further back into my fourteener journey added to the growing trepidation with which I viewed the peak. I visit the Aspen area frequently, and it seemed like each time I entered into Capitol's domain, it distanced itself further from me - an unattainable goal just beyond arms' reach of an attempt.

And so when I sat atop the summit of Mt. Eolus having just completed the Chicago Basin 14ers, I evaluated my remaining fourteeners with more than a little apprehension. I had marked off Holy Cross as the peak I hoped to finish on very early in my trek through these peaks, but Capitol now stood in its way - a dangerous sentinel: proud and seemingly insurmountable.

I had remarked to several people that summitting my 50th fourteener marked the first time that I felt like I was close to finishing. Now at 56, I had never felt further. Sitting atop Mt. Eolus, I gazed unseeingly at Pigeon Peak rising dramatically to the north, thinking of the route description for Capitol which I had nearly memorized. The sum of the respect that I had accumulated over the years for the King of the Fourteeners solidified into lurking doubts about my abilities. Was I experienced enough to try Capitol? How hard would it be? Capitol is widely regarded as one of the hardest fourteeners: many call it the most difficult. Was I preparing for a marginally more difficult peak, or was I in for a climb that would test the limits of my skill and experience? The "thrill" of the unknown felt more like a stomach-ache.

We originally planned to attempt Capitol Peak the weekend of August 23rd. Though I had my reservations, I was excited for the trip. I knew that, whatever the climb turned out to be, I was in for a memorable weekend. A deteriorating weather forecast turned that excitement into apprehension and soon to cancelled plans. The Elk Range had received several inches of snow above 13,000 feet, and none of our group felt comfortable attempting a difficult peak in such conditions. We tentatively planned to head to Capitol Lake on Sunday, August 31st with a summit attempt on Labor Day, September 1st.

The forecast was far more amicable for Labor Day weekend, and our only concern was now if remaining snow and ice on the route would force us to turn around with the summit in sight.

I arrived in Snowmass Village with Lizzy on Saturday afternoon just in time to watch the opening weekend of college football for 8+ hours. Nothing like preparing for a physically strenuous trip by vegging at a professional level, huh?

I dashed out during commercial breaks every so often and hurried down to the end of the street from where I could see the top several hundred feet of Capitol. Aiming my camera at the summit, I would zoom in as far as I could in attempt to evaluate conditions on the route.

The view of Capitol from Snowmass Village

No snow on the SE Face; some snow on the north side. We should be okay... I think.

I excitedly texted my findings to Taylor and Tony who seemed far less concerned with the conditions than I was. Taylor is a far more accomplished climber than I with nerves of steel - the prospect of snow was not going to get in the way of an attempt for him.

Tony was planning on finishing the fourteeners in Chicago Basin just days after our attempt on Capitol. There was never a chance that he wouldn't at least give it a shot.

To be fair, I knew that Capitol in dry conditions would be something I could accomplish. The thought of ice and snow on the route, however, unleashed hordes of butterflies in my stomach as my mind conjured visions of navigating terrain so exposed, the merest slip would lead to certain death. My imagination is a scary place to be.

Emboldened by the sight of an apparently dry route to the summit, we met Taylor and Jessica - who was attempting Capitol as her 58th fourteener summit - in Aspen for a late brunch (what kind of barbeque place continues to serve only brunch after 12?) before setting off for the trailhead in the early afternoon. It rained briefly but heavily along the way, and the slick mud leading to the trailhead seemed to mock us. You can't even drive up this hill, how could you be so bold as to believe that you can summit this mountain? Upon seeing the dramatic north face of Capitol from our parking spot at the trailhead, I was inclined to agree.

Capitol from the trailhead

"Definitely one of those peaks that looks impossible from the start, isn't it," commented Taylor with a smile.

Yes, yes it is.

Thankfully, upon seeing the summit, my stomach did not drop in apprehension, but rather swooped with excitement. This was it. I was at the beginning of an incredible journey to the summit of the most difficult fourteener, and it looked nothing short of magnificent. I smiled. We climb for feelings like this.

Someone screamed in the distance, and we looked at each other uneasily.

"Well, someone just fell off the Knife Edge."

We burst into laughter, our nerves effectively neutralized, and set off for Capitol Lake, quickly identifying the screamer as someone overcome with joy at the sight of cars at the trailhead.

Our first impression of the ditch trail could be summed up in one word: sloppy. We staggered through over a mile of squelching, uneven, and slippery mud. This was surely the crux of the entire trip!

As we traversed the forested hillside and descended towards the creek, Capitol Peak glared imperiously at us, its impressive shoulders thrown back in pride, and its north face dominating the views from the surrounding valley. No matter how far we walked, the peak never actually seemed to get closer.

Daly and Capitol grows as we approach Capitol Creek

After crossing the creek, we gained elevation steadily under the west slopes of Mt. Daly before switchbacking up a short headwall. Upon breaking through the trees, Capitol immediately commanded our attention - so much so that I was guilty of tripping over stray rocks in the trail, my gaze rarely dropping below the behemoth before us. Before just a looming presence in the distance, Capitol now absolutely towered over us, swelling threateningly as we continued our approach.

We saw few people on the trail, quickly found a large campsite (#2), and set up the tents as the remaining daylight dwindled . Taylor's suggestion that we take our dinner to Capitol Lake was met with unanimous accord, and we enjoyed a short stroll to the lake before eating under the vigilant gaze of Capitol's emotionless face. The sun sank below the peaks to our west, and we watched in awe as an orange glow enveloped the peaks around us. The moment was spectacular.

Tony looks for that perfect shot

Capitol as the last rays of sun illuminate its face

Agreeing on a 4:00 wakeup call, we fell asleep to the sound of our rainflys snapping at occasional gusts of wind.

September 1, 2014

We rose quickly the next morning, and were on the trail by 4:25 rapidly becoming acquainted with the term "elevation gain." Taylor led us to the saddle just as total darkness began to lift from the horizon. A stiff breeze greeted us as we crested the low point between Capitol Peak and Mt. Daly, and we carefully avoided mentioning it to each other, hoping for different circumstances as we neared more exposed sections of the route.

The next quarter mile of the route is exactly as described in the myriad of trip reports before this one - hard to find in the dark. We traversed across several gullys on a solid trail before running out of cairns and climbing a 30 foot, difficult class 2 gully before finding a cairned route that lazily dropped us several hundred feet to easier terrain. On the way back, we realized that the standard route actually drops down a steep slope into the second or third gully after the saddle. There is a trail, and with light on the route, it shouldn't be too hard to find. The confusion stems from the fact that the trail traversing across the gullies from the saddle continues beyond the point where the correct trail drops into the gully.

Regardless of the way you choose to go, the easiest way to K2 is to drop a few hundred feet of elevation from the saddle while crossing the gullies and then aim just left of a small high point on the ridge against the horizon in front of you, turning right once the slope up to your right eases significantly. A cairned route exists and is fairly easy to follow once through the gullies; sunlight makes this portion astronomically easier.

The sun rose over the horizon just before we reached the route around "K2," and by unspoken agreement, we all decided to first take the class 3+ route to the summit. The climbing to the summit of "K2" was fun, solid, and the views were stunning.

On "K2"

Snowmass Mountain and the rest of the Elks just before sunrise

We retraced our steps opting to traverse around the north side of "K2," and encountered what we agreed was the sketchiest part of the entire route. A bit of snow and ice lingered on the ledges, and though an obvious climbers trail led the way, the exposure to our right was significant.

We carefully maneuvered around the icy ledges and the exposure quickly lessened. With the impressive, vertical southwest face of "K2" hanging over us, the route forced us onto the ridge and we traversed mostly class 2 terrain with an occasionally harder move before encountering solid scrambling leading up to the Knife Edge.

Scrambling along the ridge before the Knife Edge

Ever seen a finisher have this much fun??

This portion of the route is exactly what you expect it to be: solid, simple, and very exposed. In retrospect, I felt that the Knife Edge was one of the most enjoyable portions of the entire route. We made our way across its expanse quickly, taking pictures from the safe vantages at either end. The route proceeds along the ridge for several hundred more feet before dropping into a small notch. From here, gain fifty feet along the ridge on fairly stable class 3 rock before traversing out onto Capitol's east face.

You will traverse across several shallow, talus-filled gullies before coming to a last wide, shallow gully with solid, purplish rock rising up above you. We gained about fifty feet before crossing this purple rock and then climbed steeply to meet the SE ridge. Scrambling up most of the SE ridge, we exited left and soon found a short chimney to gain the NE ridge. From here, it was a simple, exposed-but-enjoyable ridge scramble to the summit.

Three steps from finishing...

I reached the summit first and quickly got out my camera to get a few shots of Jessica as she took the last steps to the end of her fourteener journey. The smile on her face conveyed a giddy sense of accomplishment and pride, but the overarching emotion was joy. It was a gorgeous day; Capitol is a superb peak, and summitting it is great accomplishment. Tony and Taylor joined us just after Jessica and we basked in the splendor of an incredible day.

It's official!


The Elks in sun (and haze)

I have noticed that for each additional summit I've climbed, the marginal sense of accomplishment I've felt upon reaching the top has diminished. While many of the first fourteeners I summitted felt like herculean achievements, class two walkups now feel routine. Certainly there is satisfaction and pleasure in the views, the joy of spending time in nature, and the physically engaging activity, but that once-common sense of pride in gaining a summit has become far more elusive.

I did not have this problem on Capitol. As I surveyed the other Elk Range summits - the twin peaks and white walls of Snowmass, the red hues of the Maroon Bells, the jagged ridge leading to Pyramid Peak, and the hulking outline of Castle in the distance - my heart seemed to lift into my throat, and I blinked back tears. How blessed was I? The sun warmed my face as remembered the difficulties presented by each of the peaks I could see; and now I stood with the King of the Fourteeners.

How many times have I heard someone tell me they "conquered" a fourteener? I imagined Capitol laughing with me at this thought. God never created us to "conquer" his mountains - He equipped us to stand with them: to scramble to their highest vantages only to be struck by the vastness of the creation He set before us. As I stood on the summit of Capitol, I felt as if a steadying hand rested upon my shoulder, telling me that I could never conquer so much as a grain of dirt, but that I had been judged worthy to stand atop the giants.

I saw Snowmass, the Bells, Pyramid, and Castle. I saw the Pierre Lakes glittering below us to the right and Capitol Lake glowing turquoise to the left. I shielded my eyes from the sun burning brightly to the east, and smiled.

Sometimes, the difficulty and inherent danger of climbing the tallest mountains begs the question, why climb? The answer hovered, crystal clear above me in the rays of the morning sun.

We climb to feel small.

The Elks

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 14 15 16

Comments or Questions
Wish I lived in CO

Really Enjoyed the TR
09/12/2014 12:34
Nice story. Your sentiments at the end often match my own. Congrats to Jessica on finishing!

Thank you for sharing
09/12/2014 16:21
Thank you for your moving words and such an amazing write up. Looks like everything went perfect for you.


Excellent Write-Up
09/12/2014 17:11
You have a way with telling these stories, Teddy. It was a fantastic day on Capitol, and you and the others were fantastic company, as always. Good luck on Holy Cross this weekend my friend!

J Carm 75
We climb to feel small.
09/12/2014 17:36
Excellent choice of words to describe the vastness of the Rockies. I feel extremely lucky to have friends in Colorado that give a flatlander like me from Illinois an opportunity to get out there and experience such grandeur. Congrats on your accomplishments.


Great report
09/12/2014 18:13
I'm planning to climb Capitol this weekend - thank you for the update and great TR!


Small 2
09/12/2014 18:41
Very nicely written and felt. I join you in basking in the feeling of smallness when among the giants. Thanks and congratulations!


If by "unspoken agreement" to go up K2
09/12/2014 20:30
you mean ”Taylor didn't do his research and assumed that was the route”, then yes . This report is so well-written, and I share many of your same sentiments at the end. Best of luck this weekend; I'm so sorry I can't join you.


09/13/2014 05:43
As Tony noted, you have a great way of telling stories, Teddy. I hope to keep seeing more trip reports from you despite being a finisher soon! Looking forward to joining you on Holy Cross tomorrow!




09/13/2014 20:16
This was a very enjoyable read along with some really nice pics. Congratulations!


09/18/2014 16:55
Yes, Capitol is not one you feel commonplace with. It is an amazing mountain and a very special one at that. I was hoping to repeat this one again about a week later but it has been a tough summer to plan an attempt. Glad you made it and congratulations again!


09/19/2014 05:17
Thank you for all the kind comments! And Ryan, of course I'll keep climbing and writing!

   Not registered? Click Here

Caution: The information contained in this report may not be accurate and should not be the only resource used in preparation for your climb. Failure to have the necessary experience, physical conditioning, supplies or equipment can result in injury or death. and the author(s) of this report provide no warranties, either express or implied, that the information provided is accurate or reliable. By using the information provided, you agree to indemnify and hold harmless and the report author(s) with respect to any claims and demands against them, including any attorney fees and expenses. Please read the Safety and Disclaimer pages for more information.

© 2021®, 14ers Inc.