Capitol Peak 2010
- Capitol Peak: 14,130 ft.
- “K2″: 13,664 ft.
- Elevation gain: 5,300 ft.
- Approach distance: 13 miles (round trip)
- Climb distance: 4 miles (round trip)
- Climb difficulty: Insane (Class 5)
I decided to attempt Capitol after climbing Huron and Browns Peak in early June. I thoroughly enjoyed this climb even though I was out of shape and marginally equipped for the climb. After I returned from this trip I vowed to get in shape, get the gear I needed, and climb a more physically challenging mountain. Capitol Peak has always attracted my attention because of the physical and mental challenge it presents. I first learned about Capitol on the forums at 14ers.com because of its difficulty – Capitol is regularly included in lists of the most difficult 14ers in Colorado. SummitPost.org has a stern warning to would-be climbers:
The mountain demands much of those who climb it…Any approach is long, the climb itself is equally long over countless rock obstacles above considerable exposure.
The note is warrented – many climbers have perished on its slopes. In fact, last year James Flowers, the United States Paraolympic Swim Coach, died on “K2,” a sub-peak of Capitol Peak. However knowledge of climbing safety and physical preperation drastically reduce chances of accidents.
So why climb this difficult mountain? I climbed it because of its immense beauty, the physical and mental challenge of climbing safely, and the impact the experience has on how I look at life. Higher difficulty climbs invoke a certian focus and determination, knowledge of your own mortality, and a respect for the vast expanse of God’s creation.
There was no place that this was more evident than our first glipse of Capitol not far from the trailhead.
I was joined on this trip by Travis Arment and Matt Payne (of 100summits.com). Both of these guys are fit, talented, and were committed to the climb.
We hit the trail around 10am for the 6.5 mile approach hike. Even though we were far away, we were treated to our first glimpse of Capitol right away. After a long slog on mostly level ground, we began to gain elevation and a better view of the mountain.
Our approach hike was largely uneventful, with a bit of huffing and puffing the last half mile or so. We set about pitching tents and getting settled. This was all done at around 2pm, giving us time to relax and enjoy the view.
We walked the short distance to Capitol Lake and I proceeded to replenish my water supply. I had a new device for this trip – the SteriPen. Essentially this device is supposed to use some sort of radio waves to clean your water. The problem is that the device isn’t intuitive, and I was never confident that the water was actually safe to drink. The guys spent a good portion of the rest of the trip giving me a hard time about my bad purchase. Fortunately Matt had a real water filter, so we were able to get clean water to drink with no problems.
The panoramic shot of the Capitol Peak ridgeline below is one of my favorites – it will probably be blown up to a poster size and framed in my office. What a view!
After we enjoyed the warm afternoon sun, we grabbed some supper and headed in for the night. We were in our sleeping bags at 8pm, a normally insanely early time. However we were well aware that we had a 4am wake up call and a 12 hour plus day ahead of us.
Our alarm hit and we were up right away. There were already headlamps lit and headed up the mountain, so we wasted no time in getting our gear together.
We started up the trail in pitch black night and hit the steep ridge trail straight away. The initial ridge climb is a 1000ft slog up a steep switchback. It wasn’t technically difficult but it made my lungs burn. With no training this ridge would have decked me.
At the top of the ridge we were greeted with an incredible sunrise against the peaks to our east.
I shot a few clips of the sunrise experience and some early climbing as the sun burst over the horizon.
We turned off our headlamps and began ascending the more difficult class 3 scramble that promised to lead us to higher elevations.
After climbing to the top of the ridge, we climbed to the peak of a small point of rock known as “K2″, not to be confused with the great mountain in Pakistan. At this point things started to look a lot more steep.
After climbing over K2, we set our eyes on the infamous “Knife Edge” – a sheer, pointed section of the ridge that is extremely exposed on both sides. The Knife Edge must be experienced in person to really feel the madness of looking down over 1,200 feet of exposure on both sides of you, with a thin slice of rock between your legs.
A fall from Knife Edge would probably be fatal, so we naturally decided to video tape our potential last moments. Since I own the video camera, it was decided that I should go first. What a great idea. Not.
Watch the video below to get an idea of what crossing Knife Edge was like.
Once I got onto the rock I found it was not technically difficult. I decided right away that I would not straddle the rock, but instead would use simple climbing moves to grip small cracks and handholds to stay attached to the mountain. I felt comfortable enough to stop and take a picture down the massive void on each side.
I managed to cross the exposed section with no major mishaps other than a couple times that my boots slipped down the steep rock. I felt confident once I got into the swing of crossing the thin bridge. Matt came next and didn’t have any major issues. Travis, with this being the first substantially exposed section of his life, did surprisingly well. He opted for the “crotch” method of crossing this section, which means he kept a leg on either side of the knife the entire way. This meant he got a good arm workout and risked mangling himself, but he managed to come out unscathed.
I assumed that after Knife Edge we would go back to standard scrambling up to the peak. Wrong. We continued along the spiny ridge on class 4 and lower class 5 climbing.
Another 30 minutes of climbing brought us to the foot of the Capitol summit pyramid. What a view it was!
After investigating the possibility of dropping to the left on the “standard route”, we decided to take a more direct, steep route straight up the ridge. This required some low class 5 climbing, but the route was much less loose and had drastically lower rockfall danger. Since both Matt and I prefer steeper (exposed), more solid climbing over rockfall danger, we made the easy decision to take the direct route. Travis seemed much less excited about this plan, but went along with the idea.
The route turned out to be a steep yet very solid option. At the same time we climbed this route we heard multiple rockfalls to our left, another reason I like staying above the madness even if the route is more steep.
At times the route felt very exposed and airy, but it was solid. Travis, with this being his first Class 4/5 climb, got the “Elvis shakes” a few times during the ascent, which was kind of funny, but really scary. “Elvis shakes” refer to a rapid shaking motion of your feet when your calves burn out from straining to keep your feet in small holds. Fortunately Travis’s shakes didn’t last and he made it up just fine.
I felt very comfortable on the route thanks to a lot of training I did earlier in the summer at the Palisades back home. The 5.1-5.3 moves came naturally and felt great on the solid rock we encountered.
Here is a short clip of the climb near the top of Capitol Peak.
Another 30 minutes of class 4/5 scrambling is all it took us to climb the last 500 feet of rock to the summit. My lungs, although busy, were able to keep up with the steep ascent. It felt absolutely wonderful to be climbing challenging rock above everything else in our area. As I pulled myself up the last few boulders, I realized that there was nothing left to climb. As I walked the last few feet, the mountain disappeared and an incredible panoramic view opened up in front of me. The view took my breath away as the world opened up before me.
A zoomed view of one of the Pierre Lakes. Photo courtesy Matt Payne.
For a short tour of the summit, watch the video below.
After spending about an hour on the summit, we ditched our laziness and began the long trek down the mountain. Instead of attempting a downclimb of a class 5 route with no ropes, we opted to use the standard route. Although this route was less steep, it was much more loose, and only marginally less exposed. I felt much less safe on this route, but there were no other options. So down we went.
I’m looking over my boots down at the loose rock that made the descent challenging.
The Knife Edge was there again, just as steep as the way up. We were more confident this time, although a bit more tired. The second crossing went by largely uneventfully.
After some knee-pounding scrambling for over an hour, we made it down from the summit area, and down into the valley that lead back to camp.
After dropping back over the ridge (a very quick descent!), I was greeted with this amazing view of Capitol set against a beautiful meadow filled with flowers.
We packed up camp and headed down the mountain, ready to eat some mad pizza as soon as civilization could be reached.
After another two hours of downhill walking and a lot of sore joints, we reached our car. We wasted no time in throwing our gear into Matt’s Jeep and burned it to the pizza. We were so excited to eat pizza that we didn’t document the experience. I assure you it was tasty.
Climbing Capitol was an incredible experience. It had all the elements of a great climb: physically and mentally challenging, technical (for my skill level), great company, and incredible weather. I’m blessed to have experienced what I did, and I hope it inspires others to go beyond what is comfortable and experience God’s amazing creation.
I’ll leave you with one final shot of the peak that captivated all of us.