Peak(s):  Capitol Peak  -  14,130 feet
Date Posted:  09/15/2020
Date Climbed:   09/03/2020
Author:  HikesInGeologicTime
Additional Members:   SpringsDuke, xDoogiex
 Razorburn for the Revenged   

Notes: Once again, my buddy SpringsDuke already detailed our adventure(s) with lovely photo documentation in a way that would actually be useful to future Capitol climbers looking for actually useful route information. His report from our failed attempt is here, and the follow-up about our successful summit outing is here. We also found bdloftin77's trip report from 2014 invaluable in strategizing for our revenge...uh, I mean, return...trip, so you might also want to peruse that for helpful info on the portion of this route above the ridge crossing.

If, however, you want extraordinarily logorrheic navel-gazing plus an assessment of what is widely considered to be Colorado's hardest fourteener from the perspective of an unathletic weenie roast with 14,000'-high aspirations and a fear of heights to match, read on!

I cannot recall what possessed me to decide that 2020 was going to be the year I climbed Little Bear and Capitol.

My goals for 2019 had merely been to get comfortable with Class 3. I had climbed Longs twice before, but my first time started with a busted insulin pump and ended with a two-day hospital visit. While I went back and did it the right way a year later (no ambulance rides and only half a value-size bottle of ibuprofen consumed!), memories of my first summit had still sunk in deeply enough to give a climber a complex, despite the fact that the incurred trauma had precious little to do with that peak's rating.

Once I ran out of easier peaks to do in July of last year, I started branching out gingerly: Wetterhorn, Lindsey, Kit Carson, Sneffels. I suppose the fact that I didn't have to make any emergency medical visits after any of those Easy-Peasy Class 3s that I nonetheless did spice up via the NW Ridge route up Lindsey and the SW Ridge both up and down Sneffels must've given me a complex of an entirely different sort, because I don't think it was too long after I had the beginning stages of a panic attack coming down the crux Sneffels' SW Ridge that I messaged SpringsDuke to gauge his interest in climbing Little Bear sometime in 2020.

The fact that we were - specifically, I was - able to summit that beast despite conditions being "spring-like" at their most euphemistic (and as my first new fourteener of the season, no less!) did nothing to deflate my newfound cockiness, and so it really wasn't long after returning from that trip that I messaged SpringsDuke again: "Hey, I see you also haven't done Capitol yet..."

He was down to his last three by the time the fates seemed to align in late July. I hadn't had as prolific a summer as I'd hoped, considering COVID had shut down the film festivals that had typically taken me out of town for at least a week a month in previous years.

My history with the Elks in particular was worrisome: I'd driven to the Castle and Conundrum trailhead before the first day of summer, only to wake up feeling too ill to risk going to higher elevations; the hiking boot that had served me well on Little Bear had declared war on my ankle on my first attempt of Snowmass, leaving the flesh too swollen and tender for me to risk aggravating it further on the scree and snow above the lake; I hadn't even been able to fit a boot over the still-inflamed area before my second attempt; and I'd let my buddy from an attempt at S. Maroon go on solo after we hit 13,000 feet and it became clear that he would have plenty of time to summit (then do the Traverse, then catch up to me) and descend by the time his parking permit expired at 4:30, but I would not.

It might be a slight exaggeration, then, to say that I had desperately piled all of my hopes, dreams, and goals for the summer on my ability to complete Capitol, but only a slight one. The four-hour-plus drive from Denver gave my anxiety plenty of time to go to town on all the things that could go possibly go wrong - this would be my first time backpacking, so what if I keeled over dead on the approach to Capitol Lake from the extra weight? Or what if the altitude got to my poor overwrought brain cell at the lake and I couldn't remember how to set up my tent, despite all the practice I'd done at home? Our third Little Bear partner TallGrass wasn't going to be around this time to literally pull my butt out of (up to?) a sling, so what was I going to do if there was an unfortunately-placed sheath of ice like there had been in the Hourglass?

Not enough ice left to go skating on the lake, though.

Fortunately, while my backpack was heavy, the approach trail is mild. And while my tent isn't one of those that you simply lay on the ground, pull a string, and presto! Magic tent!, REI did figure on its users being altitude- and fatigue-addled and so made this tent assemble-able (that's a word now, dangit, and yes, I have returned to a mere mile high and gotten some sleep!) by even the half-brain-celled. There was snow on the east side of the route past the K2-Daly saddle, but it was easily manageable with microspikes and trekking poles.

The only challenges left would come on the meat of the climb. I'd seen enough videos of Knife Edge crossings that I wasn't too concerned, despite my fear of heights, but stories I'd heard of downclimbing K2 made me worried that I would be setting myself up for a repeat of my Sneffels freak-out. A merely cursory search of YouTube, however, had led me to this video, and while I wasn't nearly as fond of the last two moves down to the start of the ridge in real life as I had been when I'd watched the wonderfully helpful vorticity4 handle them, I felt I'd seen and done worse on the likes of Sneffels and even Longs' Chockstone. And when it came time to cross the dreaded Knife Edge, I did find myself crawling for want of continuous footholds that would give someone with my lousy balance a reasonable margin of safety, but I overall found the passage far more annoying (it's been years since I've had to crawl on a sustained basis!) than scary.

It looked like nothing was going to stop us now - why, there were even large, well-constructed cairns past the ridge leading to the face! Some of them even had orange tape trailing off the top! And they were lining either side of what even looked like a trail! Clearly this was the route someone with knowledge and experience wanted us to take!

And then the last of the cairns - a pair on either side of the trail, appearing rather like sentries guarding a forbidden route - stopped us abruptly at the lip of a heinous gully. We cautiously ventured out into the scree littering the gully in search of the next one; no dice. We tried clambering directly up the rib on which the cairns sat; no luck there, either. We traversed back to where our path left the ridge once, twice; the second time, we elected to stick closer to the ridge, only for SpringsDuke to examine a smooth, sharp fin and declare, "I don't like this." If he didn't like it, I knew I wouldn't, either, so we vowed to make one more attempt at the lower route.

Once again, we found ourselves stuck between the orange-flagged guardian cairns, staring helplessly at the gully above. SpringsDuke's reminder of what happened to climbers who'd tried getting creative on Capitol held me back from venturing once more unto the breach in search of my own path up. We stared back and forth between those cairns and the loose face above. It felt to me as if those siren-like cairns were presenting us with a riddle that, if we could only answer it, would unlock the secret to the so-close-yet-so-distant summit.

Alas, we could not solve it that day. We were too exhausted and demoralized by that point, so even when we encountered latecomers crossing the ridge who offered for us to tag along with them, we had to shake our heads and vow that we would summit, but it would not be that day. We lamented our Hike of Shame and fantasized about quitting fourteeners entirely on the way back to camp.

The pretty sunrise pictures were a fractional consolation prize.

But of course we couldn't quit. SpringsDuke only had three fourteeners left, and I had successfully navigated the (allegedly) hardest parts of the (allegedly) hardest of them, which meant that, in theory, there was nothing stopping me from summiting all of them...including this one.

We had to wait over a month for the fires ravaging northern Colorado to quit wreaking havoc over the whole state, or at least run less rampant. But September opened up sparkling - quite literally, as it had snowed in the high country the last weekend of August - and conditions looked good for a summit on the month's third day.

My backpack seemed even heavier at the start of its second use, despite my attempts to cut weight, but I reached Capitol Lake all the same. We'd left earlier in the day to avoid the scramble for campsites we'd dealt with on our first try, and we wound up with a shady site that had the most direct path to our route the next day. I couldn't help but murmur my concern over the glimmers of ice and snow lingering in shaded areas of the mountain's flanks, but I had brought my microspikes, and anyway, as I assured my partner, if I didn't have something for my anxiety to chew on, my brain probably dissolve into entropy.

It had something entirely new to work with when I struggled out of sleep a good half an hour before my alarm was set to go off. "Sleep" was a rather exaggerated term; just about every time I'd started drifting off, my own snoring woke me up. Now, at 3:30 in the morning, my throat and sinuses throbbed dully, my vision swirled when I sat up slowly, and every time I forced myself to swallow, I had the decidedly pus-like aftertaste I'd long since come to associate with an infection.

I buried my face in my hands and laughed quietly in hopes that doing so would help me avoid either waking up SpringsDuke in his tent or worsening the soreness by screaming. To have come all this way, only to get turned around for the second time this summer due to illness, turned around for the fifth...sixth?...time in the same period due to my own body's failings in general! But at least when SpringsDuke did rouse minutes before my alarm was set to raise hell, I was able to give him the good news: "I'm pretty sure it's not COVID."

I hemmed and hawed over what to do while I nonetheless joined him in getting ready. It would hurt mentally to turn around here (after a few additional hours of sleep, of course); it would hurt mentally as well as physically to get higher on the mountain before having to retreat. As he pointed out, however, I could see how I felt after going as far as the saddle, which, while on top of the steepest sustained segment of the peak, was serviced by a well-maintained trail.

I did not feel better at the saddle. I definitely didn't feel better when I regretfully informed SpringsDuke as well as xDoogiex, who was attempting to avoid the nasty-looking downclimb above which we were perched, that I was pretty sure that this was indeed our path. I still wasn't feeling better when we started playing hopscotch across the boulderfield strewn below the ridge, even though, as SpringsDuke pointed out with no small degree of astonishment, my routefinding was pretty spot-on, especially considering how dark it still was.

First light, halfway across the boulderfield. The downclimb into that sketchy gully past the saddle did look slightly better in the dark...

I still felt lousy when we reached the base of K2, but it was a different sort of lousy: that typical of ascending over 13,000 feet after a terrible night's sleep capped by a not-the-crack-of-dawn-or-even-the-cheek-of-dawn start. While I did request a water and snack break so I could do a serious assessment of my life choices - "Once I get over K2, I am in it to win it," I warned my partners - there really, truly, swear-on-my-dead-grandmother didn't seem to be any reason not to summit this day. Hell, despite my wobbly head and addition of only an hour to our previous start time, we were *two* hours ahead of our schedule for the last go-round!

This time, our downclimb of K2 had an added dash of frigid spice; we'd followed cairns to a different, easier route back up than the one we'd descended the last time, and my two buddies were happy to let me lead us back down it in such a way as to avoid ice to the maximum extent. I did have more of an attack of the willies as I paused before the Knife Edge this time around, but the knowledge that I'd already done it helped somewhat to temper my internal grousing as I scraped, snatched, and snagged my poor pants along its blade.

I'd offered to take the lead again past the ridge on this occasion, as my physical laziness occasionally serves a useful function in magnetically directing me toward the path of least resistance. We were armed this time with studies of previous summiters' pictures and trip reports, particularly those of bdloftin77, and while we knew we'd be able to blunder our way up from where we'd ended our journey last time, we also hoped that we could find the mythical higher route that would allow us to avoid as much scree as possible crossing Capitol's smug face.

I successfully ignored the obvious cairn that led us astray previously, climbed higher on the ridge, and got us to some smaller, subtler cairns. These led to more cairns still, and it wasn't too long before I pointed downward and behind me as I called out to SpringsDuke - now comfortably leading our group - "That's where we stopped last time!"

Apparently the way to solve the sentry cairns' riddle was to not engage with it at all, for while the remainder of our path to the summit was not without its minor trials and tribulations - staying above the looseness in the gully required hugging tight ledges, and I somehow found the top of the summit ridge more daunting than the Knife Edge - it was clear-cut and offered no obstacles I couldn't climb over or around. I patted myself on the back for reaching the summit just under five hours after leaving camp...nothing to write home about for an average or faster climber, but better than I had expected of myself, especially given the morning's sinus inflammation that appeared to have been a wasted plot point!

Snowmass pictures from the summit make for a much better prize than sunrise pics from the saddle...even though I have a bone to pick with Snowmass still.

I was further impressed with how quickly and smoothly the descent back to the ridge went. I'd had yet to encounter a Class 3+ descent that hadn't left me concerned about the state of my clothes' backside; while I did have to sit or crouch a handful of times to best position myself for the next move down, the route my companions and I found was solid enough that I could avoid concerns about needing to dab sunscreen on places where the sun usually doesn't shine.

Photo courtesy of xDoogiex. I may have managed this section by the seat of my pants, but at least they survived this encounter.

And then came the return trip across the Knife Edge. On the way up and out, I'd managed to find a few stretches where I could comfortably remain on my feet to keep the torment minimal. On the way down and back, however, I was more interested in efficiency than in comfort or the dignity I'd like to say I abandoned with my first flesh-rending on Longs' Homestretch but which in reality I never possessed.

In any event, suffice to say that the Knife Edge succeeded at getting into my pants and leaving me with a scarlet scribble of shame or several. I was too exhausted when I reached its end at long last to properly curse it, though I did take TallGrass' advice of taking a good, hard look at the exposure I'd otherwise shielded myself from on my prior traverses and so ensure that this peak was going in my One and Done file.

Photo courtesy of xDoogiex. I figured I could at least make it look like my one and done was fun.

After a brief Class 4 downclimb immediately afterward that I'd forgotten about, likely because it offered such spectacular hand and footholds to seem inconsequential; a re-ascent of K2 in which I was unable to fully repeat that morning's successful avoidance of the lingering snow but said snow was also inconsequential; xDoogiex smiling as he offered me a moment to have K2's summit all to myself while I used one hand to record my feelings about Capitol and used the middle finger of the other hand to express them; and then the short Class 4 downclimb toward the boulderfield, on which I was able to remain facing out this time around, we were technically home free.

A more polite expression of my feelings than the one which wound up on my Instagram.

We exchanged numbers with xDoogiex, who then took off, and while I managed to find several boulders that hadn't been anywhere near as wobbly on the way up and I groaned in affirmation as SpringsDuke remarked on how 5-Hour Energy could be easily counteracted by "2-Hour Boulderfield," we made the saddle - then camp - then the trailhead in record time.

Leaving no rest for the weary, SpringsDuke finished Colorado's 58 highest only three days with a bottle of champagne on top of San Luis Peak. I myself have 13 remaining, but at least now, as I make more-hopes-than-plans for the rest of this year (thanks, early snow dump!) and definite plans for next, I can at least plot out the rest with some semblance of solidity grounding my ever-inflating ambitions.


Capitol for Crummy Climbers?

Before I pass judgment on the viability of doing Capitol if you are far from being a rockstar of the rocks, a few disclaimers: obviously, I do not claim the ability to weigh in on any one individual's abilities or personal feelings of readiness, especially over the internet. That is for you and maybe your prospective companions to decide. If you've climbed the other 57 fourteeners highlighted on this site but your gut tells you still don't have this one in you yet, don't do it just because some verbose yahoo with a keyboard planted the idea in your head! It'll still be there if/when you change your mind.

Taken just past the Knife Edge. The exposure is nothing to sneeze at.
Looking down the other side. Exposure and ice - what a delightful combination!

Furthermore: My own judgment as to what is and is not sketchy climbing has gotten skewed over the summer. Successfully climbing Little Bear despite some of that day's conditions being decidedly suboptimal gave me a, shall we say, new perspective, and subsequently climbing Class 5 Cents Teakettle and Dallas, despite the fact that I would have had no chance at either summit had it not been for my far more experienced partner, also got me to look at lower-rated pitches differently. I'm still an anxious, acrophobic mess, in other words, but I'm a more contained one than I was last year.

Finally: ...well. Let's just say that I think the word "overhyped" gets tossed around on the forums too easily and too frequently by some of the more experienced climbers. I think it does a disservice to less-experienced hikers and climbers as well as those who, for one reason or another, will likely never summit one of Colorado's highest mountains - I've met people for whom Bierstadt will only ever be a pipe dream. Hell, I think it does a disservice to my *own* experiences leveling up to peaks of Capitol's caliber; my trip report from Sneffels attests to the likelihood that, if I'd attempted to go beyond K2 a year ago, I most likely would've had to ward off a panic attack!

Photo courtesy of xDoogiex. This brief Class 4 jag between the Knife Edge and K2 almost certainly would've made me cry a year ago.

I also think it does a disservice to the inherent dangers of this mountain. Climbers have died on it, and my buddies and I could see where and how they got led astray. Others have gotten injured, and those injuries, too, are not hard to fathom: there's loose rock on some of the steep and narrow sections, the ridge and upper face are no places to slip up, literally or figuratively, and the 7 or so miles before you reach Class 3/4 are more than sufficient to have you good and fatigued once you start scrambling. And as SpringsDuke and I can verify, the routefinding above the ridge can be frustratingly tricky.

With all that said...I don't think Capitol Peak is the nightmare fuel it's sometimes made out to be. Yes, for reasons outlined above, you want to take it seriously, just as you want to take all fourteeners - hell, all outings in the Rockies - seriously. But it is my opinion that if you've got some experience with Colorado Class 3 scrambling (Longs' Keyhole Route, Sneffels' SW Ridge, Lindsey's NW Ridge in particular come to my mind), a bluebird forecast, and an experienced and patient partner or two, it's doable.

I do recommend you stock up on Neosporin and wear hiking pants that were hanging on by a literal thread anyway, however. Whether it scares you or not, the Knife Edge demands payment for passage.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions

A dish best served cold
09/16/2020 03:08
Vengeance is sweet. Great job

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