Peak(s):  Capitol Peak  -  14,130 feet
Mt. of the Holy Cross  -  14,005 feet
"K2"  -  13,664 feet
Date Posted:  10/11/2020
Modified:  12/19/2020
Date Climbed:   07/02/2020
Author:  hogantheepic
Additional Members:   CaptCO
 Climbing the Fortresses   

Climbing the Fortresses

Hogan Warlock

27/58 in 2020

All the trip reports I am writing for the summer is simply a byproduct of my thoughts, reactions, and experiences from my summer mountaineering project of climbing the 58 CO 14ers before I head back to CU in August. I hope that these trip reports help me to learn from mistakes, to document my experiences as beta for others, and to help me to think and become a better person and mountaineer. Thank you for reading and for your support!

Good morning, Capitol Peak.

A few days after climbing Snowmass with Alec (CaptCO), plans were made to head back out to the Elks for Capitol. It's a legendary peak, with a big dramatic shape that captures the attention of anyone lucky enough to see it.

Capitol Peak is one of the most exposed peaks in Colorado. It's easiest route to the summit takes you over a knife edge that has thousands of feet of exposure on both sides, and then up some class 4 scrambling with loose rock (depends on your line up this final face). It is notorious as the hardest, or one of the hardest, 14ers in Colorado to summit. Personally, I think it ranks as number 2 for being the hardest to summit (after Sunlight Peak in the Weminuche) overall, but it definitely has the most difficult exposure rating of any of the 14ers. It is a classic, pristine, beautiful mountain.

I rolled up to the trailhead around 6 pm the evening prior to the climb. This trailhead is awesome, because it's perched on a hill that looks straight through the valley directly up to Capitol. I watched the sun set on the mountain, which was the last thing illuminated by the evening sun. It was glorious. I went to sleep under the stars, excited about the day to come.

2 AM rolled up, and my alarm woke me up. Alec hadn't gotten there yet, so stayed half-asleep. When he got to the trailhead, I began to get ready. We were off and hiking by 2:30 AM, which would be the second earliest start I've gotten on this entire project.

I guess I should explain why we were choosing to day trip this peak, rather than do the usual move of backpacking up to Capitol Lake and camping there. Alec and I have come to love day-tripping. Without the camping gear, we don't have to carry nearly as much weight and are able to move super fast. We physically fit enough to do longer days like the 17-mile day that is Capitol's standard route. It is overall, logistically, a little more convenient to day trip instead of backpack if you have the option. There are more and more things that I am able to probably day trip now that I previously would have had to backpack for in the past because this summer project whipped me into shape, both physically and mentally, for doing marathon days.

We set off at 2:30 AM, and we were moving pretty quick (thanks to no camping gear). We had a 17 mile day ahead of us with 5300 ft of gain to do. There is about 6 miles of approach to cover between the car and Capitol lake. It took us about 2- 2.5 hours to do this.

The creek crossing a few miles in was difficult. There weren't any places we could find where we could step across on rocks or logs or jump across. I ended up taking off my boots and wading across. The water came up to nearly my knees at it's deepest. It actually felt pretty good, to be honest, despite the fact that it was during the coldest part of the night that we were wading across.

The creek crossing.

The first light of day was cresting just as we were reaching the Capitol Lake turnoff at the base of the mountain. The illumination of the surrounding mountains by the colors of the early light was gorgeous, so we took a small water break to enjoy the splendor of the place we were in, then began up the switchbacks leading to the Mt Daly saddle.

When we reached the saddle, we made a decision. The standard route up Capitol Peak normally goes to the saddle, then cuts down the other side into the Moon Lakes basin, and continues up from here to K2. However, this option loses elevation and then mostly cuts through a talus field. For this reason and because it is shorter, Alec and I decided to do the Capitol Peak ridge direct, which goes directly along the ridge from the saddle to k2.

This ridge was not simple. There were many sections of it that went along an incredibly loose, narrow ridge with increasingly large drops on either side. We attempted to stay as direct on it as possible, and we were able to for the majority of this section. We managed to traverse along this, with the maximum climbing difficulty at any point on this being class 3, maybe easy class 4. There is a headwall at one point that looked pretty steep, but was not nearly as bad once on it. I lead the way the whole time with Alec following. There were a couple snowfields to cross when we were close to K2, and this made the route much more varied and fun. This is a rather untouched variation up Capitol Peak, I think, and I'm glad we did this because it was super fun.

Once on top of K2, you're presented with a route-finding problem: how to progress past K2. If you were to continue directly straight off of K2 towards the ridge, you will find that it gets practically vertical and the cliff is over a large no-fall zone, so this is really only a good option if you're planning on rappelling down it. The best option to continue past K2 is to go down the right side of the peak, finding the easiest way down. Technicality-wise, I'd say this might be the hardest part of Capitol, because you end up climbing down a rather sketchy slab face that doesn't have too much for handholds and footholds. This is the reason that I suggest having at least a little bit of outdoor rock climbing experience- you are much better at hunting out places to hold on to on the camouflaged rock. (Sidenote: there may have been an easier way around this slab section, but I'm not sure since we didn't spend too much time looking. We just went right down it and then back up it on the way off the mountain.)

And at last, we were on the famous Knife Ridge of Capitol Peak. The fear-mongerers here in Colorado of exposure love to talk about this, and for good reason. After climbing all the 14ers this summer, I rate Capitol Peak at number 2 most difficult peak to summit (after Sunlight Peak). This doesn't get this rating for it's climbing technicality; Capitol receives this position for the exposure it exhibits. In my opinion, Capitol Peak has the most exposed standard route on any CO 14er. This knife ridge, and especially the crux shown in the video below, has thousands of feet of exposure on both sides of the edge and certainly takes a sort of mental fortitude to cross. It requires confidence in your foot placement. To anyone who is wanting to climb Capitol Peak, I suggest that you climb a few class 3 14ers and have at least a little outdoor rock climbing experience. Having both of these in your resume will make you much, much more comfortable on a route like this one.

After the horizontal ridge traverse, the terrain begins to climb up again, turning into true class 4 climbing. Alec and I once again attempted to stay as direct on the ridge as possible, though one section we chose to not go direct on the ridge because there were some overhanging spots. Routefinding is the other reason that I rank Capitol as number 2; it takes good routefinding skills and confidence in your climbing ability to be able to ascend this final obstacle before the summit. While the easiest way up would be ranked class 4, I believe that I chose a slightly more difficult way way a couple class 5 moves in a chimney. No regrets! It was super fun.

We popped over the top of the wall and scrambled along the final ridge to the summit. Many 14ers in Colorado have quite a large summit plateau (Longs, Uncompahgre, Bross, etc). Capitol Peak, on the other hand, is not like that. It doesn't have the smallest one, there are a few with smaller areas up top, but it was quite small. It was a unique place. You could see the upper part of most faces of the peak from the summit, knowing that just about every way down around you was cliffed out.

Capitol Peak- Ridge Direct.

As we set out back down, routefinding was just as difficult as coming up. There are some cairns, but not many, marking the way on the headwall, so we just kinda winged it and climbed down the easiest way we could see from above, mostly following close to the way we came up (the actual route was a bit further right from where we were descending).

We chose to go back to the saddle by going down the talus field, because we thought it would actually be quicker. A lot of this basin was still covered in snow, so we were able to walk pretty quickly downhill on this snow. It was too soft at this point in the day to glissade well, and we didn't have axes with us, so we walked. Before long, we were back at the saddle!

We set off down from the saddle back to the car. We moved quick, as it was mostly downhill, and made it to the car in a couple hours. We passed a ton of people backpacking up to Capitol Lake for the evening. Our choice to day trip Capitol rather than backpack up to it was good, because we didn't have to deal with finding a bunch of people at the lake. It was just easier to day trip.

Type 1 fun!

That evening, I drove out to the Holy Cross trailhead. I found a campsite up there and waited for my friend Quinn to get there.

The next morning, we started hiking just before dawn broke, and there were a lot of people up there to give Holy Cross an attempt. We passed lots of people, though we did get passed by a few groups of trail runners.

We climbed up the pass, then down to the creek, then began the climb back up out of the valley towards the summit. Down in this valley, I remember seeing a few places that would be awesome for bouldering. There was one overhanging cliff-rock that looked like it could host some famous boulders. I wonder if this had ever been done, because it was rather far from a trailhead, but then again, it is Colorado, with lots of crazy (awesome) people.

We made it up to treeline, and grinded out the rest of the climb. We summited, and took a long break to enjoy the view. Off in the distance, I could see Capitol, waving hello to me. Super weird to think that I was at the top of it the day before.

I went over and checked out Cross Couloir from above, to estimate how steep it was. I felt like I could ski it, and certainly could snow climb it, so now it is on my list for next season. I'm gonna have to do some steep skiing in preparation for it, and make sure that I stay safe, because the bottom of Cross Couloir cliffs out, so if you screw up, you're most likely dead. Gotta get that bread, though!

These 2 fortresses are amazing, and I can't wait to have more adventures on them in the future!

Routefinding on the saddle->K2 portion of the ridge.
Mt Daly.
Class 3 face on the ridge-direct.
Another obstacle on the ridge-direct.
Ridge-direct enjoyment.
This is either after the knife edge, or coming down off K2. Not sure.
Sopris in the distance.
The class 3 wall, again.
Alec on the ridge-direct.
Capitol Peak beauty.
The knife ridge.
Capitol from K2.
She's pointy!
Looking back at K2 from near the summit.
Knife ridge, again!
Summit! I look like a clown. Snowmass is behind me.
Mt of the Holy Cross. This isn't Holy Cross Couloir, btw.
We saw a Ptarmigan!
Summit pic!

As always,

Risk is for managing, not for chance.

~Hogan Warlock~

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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