A strong appetite, average palate, and weak writing, mixed with outdoor adventure.

A strong appetite, average palate, and weak writing, mixed with outdoor adventure.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Capitol Peak


  • Route: Northeast Ridge (standard)
  • Distance: ~17.0 miles
  • Elevation Gain: ~5,300
  • Start time: 3:20 AM  
  • Time: 10.1 hours (including a 1/2 hour on the summit and two 15 minute breaks) 
  • Climbers: Alan and Sandy

This climb has loomed large in my mind for quite some time. The length, combined with technical challenges, has left me feeling like a kid on the way to the haunted house: trepidation mixed with excitement.

Alan and I have been discussing Capitol for a good portion of the summer. With a litany of climbs behind us we decided that a single day effort fit our strengths well. Backpacking leaves the legs weary, whereas a light and fast approach has had us completing long days with more bounce in our step. Thus, we set out from Denver with the longest hike of the year awaiting. In an illustration of geologic time and human indifference, Capitol, which dominates the skyline, sat patiently in view at the the trailhead.


With this view my trepidation turned to excitement.

It was a full moon, but we were lucky to be parked beneath aspens. So in the partial shade of a full moon we grabbed a few hours of fitful sleep. The trailhead is on a grazing allotment, so cattle are abundant, and it was the nocturnal bovine mutterings that made sleep intermittent, which was frustrating with a 2:50 AM wake up call. On top of that climbing parties returned at 9 PM, 10 PM, and midnight. I lay in the back of the truck wondering what was keeping these groups out so late. Pondering a potential epic is about as effective as drinking cappuccinos in terms of bringing on sleep. After what felt like 37 seconds of unbroken sleep the alarm sounded.

Why are we up and ready to hike at 3:16?

Capitol Lake sits ~6.5 miles from the trailhead, and given the gentle nature of the trail we reached the lake in 2.25 hours. We combined a rest break, bathroom break, food break and water pumping session in 15 minutes of frenetic activity. Hikers walked by and a collection of headlamps danced upwards, like wayward satellites, to the ridge. We set off in pursuit, looking to pass as many parties as possible to minimize rockfall risk once past the “knife edge”.

The trail leaps off the valley floor in pursuit of higher elevation, which was hard to appreciate in the the half light provided as the sun flirted with the eastern horizon. We hit the ridge with impeccable timing, as we collided with the first rays of sunshine to strike the Capitol/Daly saddle.

Capitol 005

Sunrise upon hitting the ridge

Capitol 013

Alan awash in early morning light

Capitol 040

Capitol Lake Basin (taken on the descent)

We dropped into the basin and began the traverse to the adjacent ridge to gain “K2”. We noticed two parties who were off route, not quite on the Class 4 ridge route, but not on the standard route either, but in between the two. It appeared to offer an express route to “K2”, but I think (my opinion only as this was seen from a distance and I did not speak to anyone in these parties) it becomes cliffed out as they turned back and dropped into the basin. In short, either drop into the basin as described by 14ers.com or stay high on the ridgeline.

Alan and I reached “K2” without incident and were soon confronted with the “knife edge”. This narrow ridge top is known for its exposure with a lengthy fall off either side. I took a multi-faceted approach that mixed with walking on the top, a half squat and a full straddle. Alan, who has more faith in his balance, cat-walked most of it.

Capitol 018

Alan with the ridge leading to Capitol’s summit behind him.

Not sure if I am maximizing my safety with a  mix of handholds and footholds or looking for a pose with the some “booty pop”.

Capitol 023

Alan walking the balance beam.

It was on the descent, but while discussing the topic of the “knife edge” it is topical. It was spitting rain and the rock was slick. I was leading with Alan close behind me. I was traversing with hands on the ridge top and looking for footholds. Both of my feet slipped from beneath me. My  left hand was locked in a solid crimp and my right arm chicken-winged over the ridge top, so I immediately arrested my fall. I was unshaken as I knew I had had two solid points of contact with my hands/arms. Alan, who was surprised by the sound of shoes scrabbling against wet granite, looked up to see me lounged against the slope of the “knife edge” and simply asked what the “pucker factor” was like. I appreciate a climbing partner who can mix concern and morbid humor into a single question. Back to the climb…

Route finding beyond the “knife edge” was not as bad as I feared. Alan is a great with a map, especially with photo accompaniment. In a matter of seconds he points out the route. I express doubt. He holds up the photo and says something like “See that granite with the striations trending upward from left to right? That is right there. That cantilevered rock is here. That pika is…” He was probably bored with “Where’s Waldo” at age 5, maybe sooner, but that is his problem, and frankly I am glad to have a partner who can instantly read a map. This is  main reason we hit the summit ~30 minutes after leaving the “knife edge”.

Capitol 028

Summit feast featuring fish, the world’s worst PB&J, triscuits and goldfish crackers.

Capitol 035

The view towards Snowmass, note the clouds building.

A hopeless juggling lesson.

The summit of Capitol is spectacular. Lakes drape the landscape as granitic tendrils extend north, south and east. The summit begged for an extended visit, but the sky was a mix of bruised clouds and blue sky, with the bruised clouds winning the battle. With virga on the horizon and drizzle veiling nearby peaks, the race was on. A mix of descending prowess, acrobatics and a faith based move or two (WWJD, What Would Jesus Descend?) allowed us to cross the “knife edge” as graupel began to fall.

Capitol 036

A low ceiling of moisture rich clouds which provided impetus for speed.

With the difficulties behind us we made short work of the basin and the descent to the lake, stopping only to admire the wildflowers.


Paintbrush with Capitol Peak providing a backdrop

Capitol 044

Alan knee deep in larkspur and asters

This man is more sensitive than you are likely to realize

Hero shot. Or two guys who need another hobby.

The 6.5 mile trip to the trailhead was a mix of fast hiking and trail running. Being a city dweller the cows were intimidating. Hamburgers do not exist as a wall of trailside animated flesh and frankly I would cross the “knife edge” in exchange for a cow free hike. Alas, this was not the case so we bailed into the trees as needed, stealing sideway glances at 1/2 ton beasts as we slipped downvalley.

Capitol 058

This picture does not do justice to the killer instinct that possessed these cows! Or maybe I am an urban cowboy…

Capitol 059

Idyllic aspen strewn trail


In Aspen we ate this in a matter of seconds.

1 comment:

  1. My palms got sweaty reading this one!