Peak(s):  Capitol Peak  -  14,130 feet
Daly A, Mt  -  13,300 feet
Date Posted:  06/13/2018
Modified:  06/15/2018
Date Climbed:   06/04/2018
Author:  bmcqueen
 Getting to the Top is Optional....Capitol & Daly in Late-Spring  

Getting to the Top is Optional....Capitol & Daly in Late-Spring

Summer of 2017 was the worst one I can remember on Capitol. I offer my sincere condolences to the friends and family of the climbers who did not return from their climbs of this daunting peak. I don't want summer of 2018 (or any future year) to be like that. If this trip report helps even a single climber avoid a fatal mistake, it is well worth it to me. Ed Viesturs says it best in No Shortcuts to the Top, "Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory."

None of us know exactly what transpired in the series of accidents from summer 2017. A common theme though in 3 of the 5 deaths and another helicopter rescue was climbers off route. If you're thinking of climbing Capitol and have already grown bored with this Trip Report, please at least look at these first two photos.

I believe this is the incredibly deceiving (and fatal) shortcut that several attempted to take. It looks like it goes, right?

Now check out the same spot viewed from Capitol's neighbor, Mt. Daly. It doesn't go.

Another perspective of the same spot. There are no shortcuts off of this mountain.

Shocking change in perspective, right? I couldn't get my head around where or why people were trying to take a shortcut last summer and it was really disturbing to me. My wife pleaded with me to not go up last fall to check it out myself - it seemed Capitol needed a little "alone time". I could wait no longer this spring and headed back up to Capitol. If you have a short attention span, you can be done after looking at the first two pictures. Maybe a few will keep reading about the full climb.

Day One - Sunday June 3, 2018

I hadn't done Capitol since 2011, but from what I remembered, I didn't want to be on it with very many other people. An early-June summit takes care of most of that, but just to be sure, I decided to pack in on a Sunday and climb it on a Monday. Mission accomplished - I had the lake to myself aside from a family from Virginia (non-climbers) and saw no one else on the mountain. I also hoped to get a better look at Capitol from its neighbor, Mt. Daly A, which I had not yet climbed.

Car to camp at Capitol Lake - 2:50
Camp to summit of Mt. Daly - 1:57
Camp to camp RT for Daly climb- 3:37

Overcast skies kept it nice and cool during my pack in up to the lake. Capitol looked a bit menacing as a result.

Capitol on the pack-in Sunday.

I had read a couple of trip reports for Daly. It sounded like more than I wanted to bite off in a single day with Capitol, so I decided to climb it Sunday evening once I got my camp set up. The advantage of doing so was getting to climb it in the daylight (vs. a sub-alpine start for an ascent of Daly before a climb of Capitol). I found the trail mostly dry up to the Daly saddle. I turned left at the saddle and bypassed the first obstacle on the left (west side of the ridge).

First obstacle - I bypassed on the left (west side).

I had read about a window in the ridge at the end of that first bypass - quite unmistakable.

The window to get back to the ridge crest.

I continued on for some class 3 traversing across the ridge without gaining any elevation for a while. I expected the rocks to be pretty solid on the ridge crest. Some were, but others weren't. Welcome to the Elk Range. For the most part, I stayed on the ridge crest and if something looked like it would go, it generally did. If it didn't look like it would go, there was a logical way to bypass it without dropping more than 20 feet from the ridge crest.

Traversing across Class 3 sections.
Finally up a ways on the ridge with one last set of Class 3 defenses.
Looking across at Capitol from the summit of Mt. Daly A

Day Two - Monday June 4, 2018

Camp to Capitol summit - 5:15
Elapsed time until I was back below K2 on descent - just under 8 hours
Camp to camp RT - 9:39
Pack out from camp to trail head - 2:57

My alarm went off at 3:30 AM Monday morning and I launched for Capitol at 4:19 AM after oatmeal and coffee. I ascended to the Daly saddle in the dark and was greeted with a couple of nice views from the top.

First light from the Daly saddle.
K2 and Capitol from the Daly saddle.

From the saddle, I walked a few feet to the right towards the gully to descend down into the basin. This is another area where fatalities have occurred - there is likely to be snow here - maybe into July and August. Bring traction - for Capitol, I think crampons are warranted over spikes.

First gully crossing to get into the descent gully.

Once down the steep descent gully, I turned and started traversing the great early-morning spring snow up into the basin.

Looking up into the basin. K2 and Capitol are out of view to the right.
The sun finally makes its welcome appearance.
Looking back at Daly and the saddle at sunrise.
Turning the corner in the upper basin and heading for K2 (small point at right center).

Once off the snow, I took off my crampons and continued up towards K2.

Capitol and K2 from the base of K2.

The easiest way to get by K2 is to descend a little bit off to its north (right) side and go around the corner to the west side to bypass the steep Class 3/4 rock. You can also down climb that pitch. I've opted for the K2 down climb each of my first two Capitol climbs, but decided to check out the "easier" way this time. Unfortunately, K2's north side was still covered in snow (it was early June after all). I put my crampons back on and got my axe back out. I took my time and carefully descended 10-15 feet, then traversed across the steep snow slope to the rocky rib that marked safe passage to the west side of K2.

K2's summit and north side.

From K2, it is a short climb back up to the ridge crest, then some gentle scrambling on solid rock to get to the famous knife edge. I took my crampons off and didn't need them again until my descent.

Looking at the rest of the route from just past K2.
The knife ridge (taken on my return).

The knife ridge gets all the hype on Capitol. Yes, a fall from here would be very bad. If you don't like exposure, you will hate it of course. It's a long way down in either direction. The rock is solid though and there are plenty of features just below the ridge on one side or the other such that you can just keep your hands on the top and walk your feet across below you and be just fine. The thing I like about the knife ridge is I feel like my safety is within my control. As long as I take my time, test the hand holds and choose foot placements deliberately, I'm not going to go anywhere. Beyond the knife ridge, that changes dramatically.

Snowmass and Pierre Lakes Basin.

Once you reach the end of the flat traverse (of which the knife ridge is the middle), it's time to gain the last few hundred feet of Capitol. She does not give up those last few hundred feet easily however. The standard route goes well below the ridge onto the face on the east side. The ridge direct also goes, though I have not done it yet (planning that for my fall trip).

Capitol's upper NE ridge and the loose mess that is the loose face east of the ridge.

Here's another look at the upper part of the route taken from North Snowmass last week.

Capitol, K2 and Daly from North Snowmass

The face is the most dangerous part of this climb in my opinion - especially if you have other climbers above you. A few minutes on this face and you will quickly be longing for the solid rock from the trusty knife ridge. The standard route traverses most of the face, crossing loose gully after loose gully (which I found with some spring snow in them which wasn't very keen on staying on the mountain - my trusty axe came out each time). Despite the traffic that Capitol gets as a 14er, there were still plenty of loose rocks eager to make their exit from the upper peak. Most of the cairns were visible in traversing across the face, but even on route, this is no fall zone where you need to take your time and pay attention. Finally at the rib in the picture above, I turned uphill on more solid rock and gained the summit.

Capitol's summit - optional half of the climb done; mandatory part remaining!

I didn't linger long. I was anxious to get back down the loose stuff, back across the knife ridge, up and over K2 and onto more forgiving terrain. Going down that loose face is even more tiring and exhausting than going up since gravity is now working with the rocks and encouraging you to go places you don't want to go.

Almost down off the face. The deep notch visible in the center of the picture is the area discussed below.

I got back down off the face to the base of the ridge traverse and felt a sigh of relief. Right where you come off the upper face before going back across towards the knife ridge is where I took the first picture in the TR - of what I believe is the tantalizing apparent shortcut back down to the lake. Here it is again. BEWARE OF THIS SPOT AND DO NOT DO NOT DO NOT ATTEMPT TO DESCEND FROM HERE.

That super deceptive looking spot - it DOES NOT GO.

This is what you're looking at. It DOES NOT GO.

The view from Daly for perspective.

On my descent, I chose to climb up and over the top of K2 (a fairly straightforward Class 3 climb). Thrilled to be back down onto easier terrain, I cruised back down into the basin and to the gully I needed to ascend to get back to the Daly saddle. This last photo shows the slope angle a bit better with the snow and might help convince you to bring crampons and an axe along.

Gully to get back to the Daly saddle. You can see the trail switchbacks in the tundra above and right of the steep snow.

In Closing

My intent here is not to try to analyze last year's accidents or second guess any decisions made. Those are things I can't control. What I can control is trying to get information out there for future climbers that might help someone prepare a little better or make good decisions on the mountains (like "descend your ascent route"). If you are heading out to climb Capitol, you can control a number of things - the right gear (helmet, crampons, axe), the right research ( route descriptions, trip reports, topo maps), the right partners (experience counts), the right environment (a weekday climb with a good weather forecast), etc. Some things are outside of your control like the loose rock. Remember, you're in the Elk Range - check everything you touch before weighting it if the consequences of a mistake are severe.

Ed Viesturs has it right - getting to the top is optional; getting down is mandatory.

Thanks for reading, and as Melissa tells me every time I set off, have fun and stay safe.

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25

 Comments or Questions

06/13/2018 20:41
Thanks for the trip report. Planning to do Capitol in early August! I also frequently quote Ed Viesturs


06/14/2018 09:39
Fantastic pics and great write-up. Love the "P.S.A." photos of that tantalizing "no-go" gully near the knife edge. Great help for the community.


Nice Service
06/14/2018 16:42
Nice job servicing the 14er climbing community by informing them of the deceptive gulley. Hopefully those thinking about Cap will read and see this.


06/19/2018 13:19
Thanks for the Daly info and pics, appreciate it.

Brian Thomas

death isn't worth it
06/21/2018 20:15
If you are a millennial, and you moved to Colorado post-MJ legalization, please read and re-read this TR and think about it for a while. The social media "likes" are just. not. worth. it.


Great Detail...
06/21/2018 20:20
Thanks Brad. Lots of great detail and instruction. Its on my list to get done this summer.

Thanks for this report bud.
06/30/2018 23:42
Thanks for your report and your big heart my man. After last summer on ole Cap, there's a lot more conversation needed like this. I've spent a lot of time on these Elk peaks. I live near Cap and look at it every day. My first and only time up there was 9/11/10. I loved this climb and feel connected to this mountain. That being said, Cap won't let anyone climb it without a ridiculous amount of (mostly) mental and physical energy. Some have lots of each, others have varying levels. I'm just a simple guy who loves the Elk range, and to anyone interested in this mountain as a challenge, please never forget the advice in this report, "getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory". Thanks for your report my dude. Ohh, and I'll say what so many have said, no shortcuts on Cap.

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