Peak(s):  Capitol Peak  -  14,130 feet
Date Posted:  08/17/2010
Modified:  08/06/2014
Date Climbed:   08/11/2010
Author:  Michael J
 Capitol - The Big Elephant  


This is my first trip report and my 12th 14er. I'm calling Capitol the "Big Elephant" because that's what it looks like to me from the trailhead. I want to preface the report by giving a background of myself and my climbing partner for this trip.
I started climbing 14ers last fall and I have fallen in love with it. I've lived in Glenwood Springs for the last 20 years and can't believe that I have missed something right in my own backyard! My climbing partner for this trip was Cliff. I asked him to be my guide knowing full well the dangers of a peak like this. He was the perfect leader because of several things: He grew up in this valley near the base of Mount Sopris, He has climbed Capitol 3 times, and most importantly he was severely injured on this mountain back in 1978 in a way similar to last weekends tragedy on the Bell Cord Couloir. I don't believe anybody could have more respect or seriousness to bring to the task at hand.
We planned this trip for months, but left a whole week open so we could "cherry pick" the best 2 weather days of the week. The weekend of the 7th and 8th was not good so we waited until Tuesday for a 20% chance of scattered afternoon showers and a summit day of Wednesday at 10% chance in the afternoon. We hiked the 7 miles into Capitol Lake on Tuesday afternoon and set up camp in the well maintained campsites around the perimeter. Our packs were heavy but we lightened up considerably for the early morning summit.
We felt comfortable with a planned start of 5:30 a.m. because of the weather forecast but didn't get going until 5:55 a.m. The plan was to summit by 9:30 and get back down below the Knife edge and K-2 by noon. We headed up to the saddle between Capitol and Daly and arrived shortly after sunrise.
The route finding from the saddle to K-2 was a little more difficult than I expected but we were comforted by the occasional cairn. I was surprised by 2 things up around 13,000 feet; the ruggedness and beauty of both K-2 and Clark's peak. One person headed up behind us angled off in the direction of Clark's but soon corrected and headed our way. The exposure on the west side of K-2 was also unexpected because I had never seen pictures of it. Amazing!Image
West Side of K-2
Capitol from K-2

We started across the knife edge and I was surprised at how sharp it can be in places. As we got about halfway across we realized for the first time that there was a fast moving storm coming in from the west. Image
Storm looming

We reevaluated on the other side and decided to turn back. Image
Cliff on the knife edge

I was disappointed but thought it would be better to be safe than sorry.Image
Me on the return trip across the knife edge.

Just as we got back across the storm rolled over us and dumped rain and snow on us. Image
Storm getting closer
Scary Cloud

I was shocked at how fast it moved. We took shelter behind some rocks and felt fortunate that there was no lightning. We had a snack while waiting for it to pass and as I finished my banana it occurred to me that I could dispose of it just about anywhere except on the knife edge. No need to make it any more dangerous than it already was.... Image
Back across the knife edge-and yes I am wearing a bike helmet-long story...

When we emerged from behind the rock we were startled to see clear skies again!Image
After the storm

After a discussion, another attempt at the summit was in order. By now it was already 10:09 a.m. and we scooted across the knife edge for the 3rd time. The route finding and loose rock from the knife edge to the summit turned out to be slower than I expected. We finally arrived at the peak at exactly 12:00 noon. The view was incredible and picking out the other Elk range 14ers was a real treat. Image
Capitol Lake

We headed back down at 12:35 as we noticed another storm coming our way quite a ways off in the distance. We judged that we had enough time to get below K-2 before the next storm hit and we were wrong again. Within 15 minutes it started raining and snowing with wind gusts for added flavor. Once again it was slow route finding and I watched every hand hold and foot placement as if it were my last. A couple of times I grabbed a rock to hold onto only to watch it sail down the mountainside. Cliff and I would yell "Rock" as loud as we could even though we knew we were the only ones remaining between the knife edge and the peak. The rain let up as we were crossing the knife edge for the 4th time. Image
Cliff on the wet 4th trip across the knife edge

That sharp little thing was getting fresh with me in the only place that was still dry. A careful traverse around K-2 and we were finally out of the woods.
It should have been uneventful the rest of the way down but I rolled my ankle on the boulders between K-2 and the saddle so I was slowed down just as I wanted to speed up. We arrived at the campsite at 5:00 and debated about spending another night. I thought it would be better to hike out on my ankle that night rather than allowing it to swell overnight and maybe not be able to walk on it in the morning.
We packed up our gear and by now everything seemed like it was moving in slow motion. We headed down the trail at 7:00 p.m. and got about halfway to the trailhead as it became dark. The last 3 miles were quite interesting as the rain settled in to a steady drizzle. My headlamp strap was busted so I put the headlamp in my mouth to free my hands to hold trekking poles. I didn't use the poles to summit but they were invaluable for the hike out.
We arrived at our vehicles at 11:17 p.m. in total exhaustion but satisfied with 2 days of exhilaration, excitement, angst, fear, and rugged beauty. Total time hiking and climbing: 21 hrs in 2 days. I believe we could have done it in 12 to 14 hours had our conditions been different. And that is the real value of these trip reports: When we read them we are able to see the realities that occur and just how many things can go wrong even under the best laid plans. Good Luck to all in future attempts on the "Big Elephant"!

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

08/18/2010 12:42
You're incredibly lucky to not have had anything bad happen. You made an excellent decision to turn back. Bravo to you and your team.

PS I hope you carried the banana peel out. Pack it in, pack it out!


08/18/2010 17:03
Thanks for an informative narrative. Kudos, also, as I would never have considered Capitol for my 13th 14er (of course, I didn't have an experienced guide, either!).


08/18/2010 22:57
Way to get the summit under less than ideal conditions (your patience paid off ... I've certainly spent my fair share of time on the mountains waiting out the passing storms)! Hope your ankle is okay. Thanks for posting. Happy trails!


Banana peel
08/20/2010 02:57
Leave no Trace ethics -- Pack it in, pack it out. Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled foods. Pack out all trash, leftover food, and litter.

Nice job, however, on your summit - and good decisions on that. And, very nice informative pictures. Thanks.

Michael J

08/20/2010 04:42
Banana peel on the knife edge? Somehow nobody picked up on the joke....

MUni Rider

Climb On
08/21/2010 08:27
Nice trip report and congrats on the summit.

Cudos on paying more attention to the sky around you than the clock. climbing is all about constant re-evaluation: Every day brings it's own weather pattern. Glad you enjoyed your time on the mountain.

ps.... you banana peel comments brought memories of the final scene in ”It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.” Thanks for that.


11/04/2010 00:01
I think that was a funnel cloud i saw one like that in denver and then the sirens started doing off

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