Capitol Peak P1K

Sun, Jul 19, 2020

With: Tom Becht

Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPX Profile


Capitol Peak lies near the center of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness in the White River National Forest. It is considered one of Colorado's most difficult 14ers, class 4 by the easiest route along the Northeast Ridge. Tom and I would both agree that the technical difficulties were overstated, finding it on the tamer side of things. Still, it was a decent outing and a full day, with more than 16mi roundtrip and 5,500ft of gain. There were concerns for weather developing during the day so we got a sort-of early start from the Capitol Creek TH just before 5a. With sunrise coming around 6a, that meant about half an hour by headlamp, after which it could be dispensed with. There are two trails one can take from this popular TH. One drops about 300ft to Capitol Creek and then follows the watercourse upstream. The one we used stays high on the west rim of the creek, joining the other trail in about 4mi at the 10,000-foot level. The creek crossing near this junction was a bit dicey on some small logs, but the only real danger was getting a soaked boot or two in the wide but shallow stream.

The route becomes more scenic as one climbs higher, emerging from the forest above 11,200ft as the trail climbs to the upper reaches of the Capitol Creek drainage. There are a number of popular campsites on the righthand (west) side in some small tree pockets before reaching Capitol Lake. We saw several groups at the stream here, filtering water before starting their own climb up to Capitol. With clouds developing overhead, we couldn't help but wonder why they had taken so long to get going this morning, seeing that it was past 7:30a. We turned left at an unsigned junction (continuing straight, or south, would take us to Capitol lake) to start up the grassy slopes via switchbacks, leading to the saddle between Mt. Daly and K2. The former was a bonus peak I thought we might have a chance at, the latter a minor bump NE of Capitol that we had to go over. The easiest route goes over the saddle to the east side of the ridge, skirting low in the cirque on that side to get around difficulties before climbing talus and boulders up the ENE side of K2. The trail ends somewhat mysteriously soon after crossing over the saddle, leaving the unfamiliar with various choices on how to negotiate through the cirque. We met a solo climber at the saddle who had been following another pair but stopped when the going got too difficult. He was looking for someone else to follow at an easier pace, but Tom and I would not prove to be very helpful. Where the our trail thread ended, we crossed a bit of hard snow and went up a short class 3 block on the other side. This dissuaded the other fellow for a second time and he went back to the pass to wait a bit longer. For our part, Tom and I realized we had to drop down further than we had initially thought, and once this was done, we began to find ducks leading south across the cirque along the base of the ridge. This took us across a good deal of talus and five snowfields still lingering in the basin. After the last of these, we turned to climb more directly up the talus slopes to K2. Behind us, Clark Peak rose prominently to the east, another bonus peak I had been considering. In the end we would get neither of these as they seemed like too much additional work.

Shortly before reaching K2 and a bit ahead of Tom, I came across the first climber on his way down. He was dressed more like a trail runner and had evidently made good time up and down Capitol. Somehow he mentioned taking the direct ridge route, which I mistakenly took to mean Capitol's NE Ridge. "Yeah, it has some tough parts, including a few 5.7 moves." Evidently he was talking about the North Ridge of K2 coming from the saddle, which Roach describes as class 4 in his 14er book. It made me suspect the fellow was over-selling himself. Before leaving he gave the usual warning about "Watch the weather closely, you may need to turn back." One thing I've noticed about 14ers with uncertain weather - folks seem to think everyone heading to the summit later than themselves has questionable judgement. I had thought this very thing myself back near the campsites when others were filtering water. Tom caught up to me below K2's summit, as a party of five were just descending from it. At K2's summit, one gets a first view of Capitol's NE Ridge, and our first impression was that it looked easier than the previous day's Snowmass to Hagerman traverse. As I was dropping off the west side of K2's summit, another climber below offered that I might want to reconsider my choice and go the easier way around that he had used. I thanked him for the suggestion but continued down my intended route, a short bit of class 3 work on slabs to drop about 60ft to the start of the traverse. "Too many helpful people on this route," I thought. Tom followed, and we were soon ahead of the other climber and his party, heading across the infamous knife-edge section. The rock is pretty solid here and the scrambling good fun, but hardly up to its notorious reputation for one with average scrambling experience. Beyond that, there is lots of broken rock as the route grows steeper. Ducks are plentiful, simplifying the route-finding as one looks for ways around several obstacles along the ridge. Clouds began to envelope us, a rainbow appeared to the west where it was obviously raining some, and a few snow flurries began to come down during the last 15min. None of this lasted very long, and though it gave some concern, it never developed further.

We reached the summit shortly before 10:30a. The helpful fellow back near the start of the knife-edge was only about ten minutes behind us with his Indian girlfriend, who, despite looking nervous earlier, was moving quite fast across the rock. Tom recognized the pair as the couple camped next to us at the TH, having gone to bed early the night before and gotten an early start in the morning. After being atop Capitol for maybe 15min, we packed up to head back, taking a photo of the couple with their phone before starting down the ridge. We paused at the knife-edge to allow a party to finish their crossing (the last guy was doing the awkward, groin-threatening, leg-on-each-side manuever which takes a bit more time to accomplish safely). The weather continued to improve as we returned to K2, Tom choosing to explore an alternate route that completely bypasses K2's summit, describing it afterwards as "loose shit." We returned back to the cirque and snowfields that we'd crossed earlier, the snow softer and sloppier than it had been in the other direction. In the confusing section nearer to the saddle, we found another couple higher on the side above us, wondering aloud if we were on a trail. "Yes! Plenty of ducks down here!" I offered. They had traversed high, as we had initially, but missed the switchbacks leading down to easier ground. We were soon on the trail and back at the pass by 12:15p, where we settled in for the long, 3hr return back down the Capitol Creek drainage. We continued to come across other parties still ascending as we went by the Capitol Lake turnoff, the day turning out to be quite forgiving for late-starters. The clouds would crowd in once again during our return, alternating with sun and shade on Capitol, now far behind us, but there was never any thunder or lightning strikes and only small amounts of light rain.

It was after 3p by the time we returned to our fine campsite back at the TH. We would shower there before heading to Aspen where we would meet up with Eric in a few hours. We had a full agenda of more 14ers over the next ten days and Eric was eager to join in the fun...


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