August 5th - 6th, 2005
Capitol Peak, located in Colorado’s beautiful Elk Range, rises to a height of 14,130 feet making it Colorado’s 29th highest peak. What it lacks in elevation it more than makes up for in beauty and personality. Ask most climbers who have completed all of Colorado’s fabled 14ers which peak is the most difficult by its easiest route, you will likely get Capitol Peak as your answer. With our recent success over the last month on Pyramid Peak, North Maroon, and Maroon Peak Amy and I were left with just Capitol Peak to complete all the 14ers in the Elk Range. We decided to take Friday off of work and backpack up to Capitol Lake, giving ourselves Saturday and if necessary, Sunday to summit the peak.
Capitol Peak, located in Colorado’s beautiful Elk Range, rises to a height of 14,130 feet making it Colorado’s 29th highest peak. What it lacks in elevation it more than makes up for in beauty and personality. Ask most climbers who have completed all of Colorado’s fabled 14ers which peak is the most difficult by its easiest route, you will likely get Capitol Peak as your answer.
With our recent successful over the last month on Pyramid Peak, North Maroon, and Maroon Peak Amy and I were left with just Capitol Peak left to complete all the 14ers in the Elk Range. We decided to take Friday off of work and backpack up to Capitol Lake, giving ourselves Saturday and if necessary, Sunday to summit the peak.
At 2:00 p.m. Friday afternoon we arrived at the Capitol Creek Trailhead with Capitol Peak standing tall in the distance. The skies were overcast and gloomy, setting an ominous tone to the journey. Capitol Peak would make a brief appearance before disappearing behind a dark veil of clouds. We shouldered our heavy packs, reminding me why we usually just dayhike peaks, and departed for Capitol Lake along the “ditch” trail to avoid the 400 foot elevation loss right out of the parking.
The ditch trail traverses nicely through some stands of aspen trees and immediately the bloodthirsty mosquitoes were all over me. For some reason they seemed to leave Amy alone and just harass me, I must have looked like a giant t-bone steak to them. We set a brisk pace get away from the bloodsuckers and quickly came to a small stream crossing. The trail broke out of the trees and we could see the Capitol Peak was making another appearance along the horizon.
After about 2 or 3 miles the “ditch” trail rejoins the Capitol Creek Trail, requiring us to cross Capitol Creek. There was a log over the creek to cross on and after I made it to the other side Amy tried to muster up the courage to cross as well. It surprises me that I have better balance than Amy and she struggled with this crossing. I dropped my pack, re-crossed the creek, and carried Amy’s pack across for her. She still didn’t like the crossing and resorted to the sit and shimmy method. Maybe she just wanted to practice for the knife-edge.
We continued up the valley along the Capitol Creek Trail taking in the scenery, I forgot just how beautiful this area is. The forest is quite lush with green plants and flowers covering the forest floor.
The open meadow areas along the route are abounding with wildflowers in every size, shape, and color. The meadows also give you a great view of Capitol Peak with the Mountain Gods seeming to watch your every move from their lofty perch. Capitol Peak from this vantage point is probably the most formidable looking 14er in Colorado.
We reached the lake around 4:30 p.m. and began looking for a good campsite. We initially found campsite #4 unoccupied so we dropped our packs to stake our claim as we searched for a more sheltered spot. As we were looking for a better campsite we heard “Hey Boulder Colorado” and were quite surprised to see Dirk coming down the hill to greet us. We met Dirk and his 14-year old son Derrick the previous weekend while climbing Maroon Peak. After talking with Dirk we agreed to leave around 5 a.m. for the summit and we would keep an eye out for each other in the morning. Amy and I found campsite #5 unoccupied as well, decided this was a well-protected spot, and called it good enough. Amy went to the lake to pump water while I set up the tent and got dinner ready. We wanted to retire early so after a quick dinner of flavored mash potatoes and tuna fish, we hit the sack around 8 p.m. The skies were still cloudy and overcast but we were hopefully the forecasts for good weather on Saturday would be correct.
We both slept very little and finally the alarm sounded at 4 a.m. We quickly got dressed and tried to force down some breakfast, sometimes your body just isn’t hungry at this early hour. During the evening the cloud veil lifted and the stars were out in the millions. We departed at 5 a.m. up the slopes towards the Mt. Daly / Capitol Peak saddle shown below. The photo was taken during the descent since it was still dark at this time.
The slopes up to the saddle climb about 900 vertical feet in 0.5 miles and we reached the top in 30 minutes. We could see several headlamps following the ridge up to K2 and also a large party descending a gully on the other side of the saddle. We knew we didn’t want to climb the ridge to K2 so we followed the large group down a loose, nasty gully before exiting to the right onto a snowfield.
The snow was as hard as ice so when the slopes got steeper we tried to avoid the snow as much as possible. We passed the large party of 9 people and caught up to Dirk and Derrick as well. They were the headlamps we had seen heading along the ridge to K2. Once the came to a steep headwall they realized there mistake and dropped down into the basin as well. We were glad to join up with them and we climbed together for the remainder of the day. We got tired of the rock hard snow so we left the snow opting for the rocks along the right side of the basin.
We scrambled and boulder-hopped our way up towards K2 which is the point seen in the photo below. Dirk and I forged ahead with Amy and Derrick bringing up the rear. We both wanted to make sure we stayed ahead of the party of 9 so we wouldn’t get delayed waiting for them to cross the knife-edge.
We arrived at the base of K2 and stopped to let Amy and Derrick catch up. The sun was finally out so we removed some layers and lathered up the sunscreen. We decided to head straight up to the summit of K2 shown below, which was some of the more interesting climbing along the entire route.
From the top of K2 Capitol Peak stands majestically in front of you and as Roach puts it in his guidebook, “consider you future.” From the summit of K2 we descended to the right with Dirk and Derrick taking one line, and Amy and I taking another. There was one tricky downclimb Amy struggled with because of her height, but I was able to spot her and place her feet for her.
Once off K2 the view south of Snowmass Mountain and the Pierre Lakes Basin is startling. We gained Capitol Peak’s northeast ridge and began the traverse. There was a mini knife-edge to get us warmed up for the real deal that laid just ahead.
Soon enough we found ourselves at the knife-edge, one of the most fabled spots on any Colorado 14er. Dirk and Derrick went first and I was right behind them. I started out with my feet traversing along the left side of the ridge, then had to straddle the ridge briefly for about 10 or 15 feet, then traversed with my feet on the right side of the ridge. The rock is wonderfully solid and both Amy and I commented that we were concentrating on our hand and feet placement so much that we didn’t even notice the exposure. The knife-edge wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated. A fall here would definitely not be good, but if you take your time and focus on your movement, it would be hard to fall off.
Once past the knife-edge the route follows the ridge for a little while before traversing south along the face shown below. The route is fairly well cairned across the face but the rock gets loose and crumbly.
Reminiscent of Maroon Peak, there seemed to be a high route and a low route of cairns across the face. We stuck to the lower route for the ascent and descent. Some steep gullies have to be traversed and there is a bit of exposure through this section. We did an ascending traverse left across the face, aiming for the ridge shown below.
We rounded the corner and began climbed back up to the ridge crest a bit too early. We dropped back down and traversed below the ridge crest until just before the summit where we regained the ridge.
We topped out on Capitol Peak at 9 a.m. taking us four hours to ascend from Capitol Lake. The views were some of the best I have ever seen in Colorado, almost reminding me of my beloved Wind Rivers. There were sharp jagged ridgelines, high alpine lakes, and snowfields dotting the landscape. This is truly some of the best scenery in Colorado. From Pyramid Peak and The Maroon Bells, all the way around to Mt. Sopris, the peaks of the Elk Range laid out in all directions. We took turns signing the summit register, exchanged summit photos with Dirk and Derrick, and sat down to have a bite to eat.
This was my 52nd Colorado 14er, just Mt. Wilson and El Diente to go. This was Amy’s 47th so she is almost there as well. I wandered around the summit to soak in the views in all directions. To the north Capitol Lake sat almost 3,000 feet below the summit.
Snowmass Mountain looks quite impressive and the connecting ridge it shares with Capitol Peak would be quite an achievement for some ambitious mountaineer(s).
After about 20 minutes on the summit we decided to descend. We dropped off to skier’s right of the ridge crest and began traversing back to the corner to begin the traverse of the east face.
We took our time traversing the loose face, trying our best not to kick rocks down on each other. We stuck to the low set of cairns again and didn’t encounter any route-finding issues back to the northeast ridge.
Once back to the ridge the rock quality improved again and before we knew it we were back to the knife-edge. Dirk went first taking my camera with him so he could take some photos of me as I came across. The knife-edge seemed easier the 2nd time across, maybe you fine-tune your technique on the first pass.
I was more nervous watching Amy cross but she went slow and steady and had no problems at all.
It was a quick scamper along the ridge crest back to K2 where Dirk and Derrick decided to ascend the line Amy and I used the first time, roughly shown below.
The tricky section that gave Amy problems during the downclimb wasn’t much of an issue and she climbed up this section with little difficulty. Once back on the other side of K2 we could all finally breath a sigh of relief, all the difficulties were behind us now.
The weather was fabulous so we descended straight for the snow hoping the sun had softened it up. The snow was in great shape for plunge-stepping and we made quick time back to the Mt. Daly / Capitol Peak saddle, taking advantage of the snowfields whenever we could.
As we descended back down to Capitol Lake I took a moment admire the magnificent north face of Capitol Peak. Looking up at this formidable giant, it was hard to believe that were we on the summit just hours ago. We arrived back at Capitol Lake at 12 p.m. bringing our roundtrip time from camp to 7 hours. Once back to the lake Dirk mentioned that they were not looking forward to climbing back up the steep slopes to the parking lot at the end of the Capitol Creek Trail. He was quite surprised and pleased when I told him they should follow Amy and I back out, that there was a different trail that avoided that nasty climb.
We agreed to meet at our campsite in about 30 minutes so Amy and I wasted no time in eating a quick lunch while we packed up our camp. At around 1 p.m. we all began 6-mile trudge back to the parking lot. I made sure to take advantage of all the flower photo opportunities, especially the Indian Paintbrush shown below, Wyoming’s state flower.
Thoughts of a cold beverage, warm food, and a hot shower were definitely appetizing but I was also saddened to leave this beautiful place with wildflowers and waterfalls abound.
We all talked away making the descent go pretty quickly. Dirk has done some extensive climbing including The Grand Traverse up in the Tetons so I wanted to know every detail. I always love to hear and talk about mountains in my home state. We passed through the beautiful forest with once section being of the trail being particularly enchanting covered with pine needles shown below.
We arrived back at the trailhead just before 4 p.m., tired but completely delighted with the experience Capitol Peak provided. We thanked Dirk and Derrick for making a great team and hopefully we will meet them out along the trail again sometime. I have to say that this is my new favorite Colorado 14er and one of the most beautiful areas I’ve been to so far in Colorado. The approach hike to Capitol Lake with its lush forest and wildflower-studded meadows is sublime. The scenery of the Pierre Lakes Basin, the knife-edge, and the fun scrambling to the summit definitely make Capitol Peak a memorable experience. We have now finished the 14ers in the Elk Range but I have a feeling we will be return to this beautiful corner of Colorado.