OverviewShapley and majestic, Capitol Peak is my favorite 14er in Colorado. It is located in the rugged Elk Mountains and the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area. Among the most beautiful of the Colorado 14ers, Capitol Peak owes its shapely lines, faces and ridges to glacial chiseling and smoothing. While the Maroon Bells and Pyramid Peak are roadside attractions and photographed often from a roadside overlook, spectacular Capitol Peak is a bit more elusive.
Capitol Peak is known by many as the most difficult 14er in Colorado. Some may dispute that fact, but for sure Capitol Peak is one of the most difficult of the Colorado 14ers. While all routes are fairly challenging, the standard route does go at Class 4 and the standard route is not desperate. I climbed the peak with my eight year old son and a seven year old girl on one sunny September day.
Despite the relative ease of the standard Knife Edge route, many epics have unfolded on Capitol's elegant slopes and ridges and the peak should never be underestimated. No routes are easy to bail off during bad weather and the peak has claimed several lives.
Unlike the nearby and more famous Maroon Bells, Capitol Peak has at least a few classic technical rock climbing routes and its north face is one of the highest mountain walls in Colorado. For those looking for a different type of challenge, climbing Capitol Peak in winter certainly rates as an epic adventure.
Getting ThereCapitol Creek Trailhead
The first destination is the tiny hamlet of Snowmass (not Snowmass Village), which is located on SH 82 28 miles south of Glenwood Springs or 13.1 miles south from Maroon Creek Road in Aspen. Turn west at Snowmass onto Snowmass Creek Road. After 1.7 miles from SH 82, turn right onto Capitol Creek Road. Stay left at 1.9 miles (all measurements from SH 82), left at 3.2 miles, right at 4.7 miles, right at 5.9 miles where the pavement ends (which is also the winter closure).
Follow the road to its end (9.5 miles from SH 82). The last 1.5 miles or so of the road are fairly rough, but passable to most cars if driven slowly.
West Snowmass Creek Trailhead
The first destination is the tiny hamlet of Snowmass (not Snowmass Village), which is located on SH 82 28 miles south of Glenwood Springs or 13.1 miles south from Maroon Creek Road in Aspen. Turn west at Snowmass onto Snowmass Creek Road. After 1.7 miles from SH 82, turn left. 7.3 miles from SH 82 the pavement ends. At mile 10.7 the road crosses Snowmass Creek and reaches another junction after 10.9 miles (from SH 82).
Turn right and follow the road to its end. This is 11.3 miles from SH 82. In winter you can usually drive to within a mile of the trailhead.
Routes OverviewCapitol Peak offers a variety of routes, all of them at least Class 4 in difficulty and each route has its own advantages and disadvantages. A helmet should be standard equipment on all routes.
Below are summaries of many of the route possibilities.
Northeast Ridge (Standard)
This is the standard route up Capitol Peak and the routes that most people use to obtain the summit. The route is also known as the Knife Edge route and can be approached from either Capitol Creek and Lake or the West Snowmass Creek route.
Capitol Creek is scenic and the easiest approach route in summer or fall. West Snowmass Creek is a more rugged route in summer, has a tricky stream crossing early season and offers more summer solitude. It is also the preferred route in winter and spring since it allows a safer and more direct approach to K2 and the Knife Edge.
Both routes converge at or near the Knife Edge. From here on the route is Class 4 in difficulty.
This route is 17.0 miles round trip from the Capitol Creek Trailhead and 16.0 miles from the West Snowmass Creek Trailhead. Both routes have about 5800 feet elevation gain. Most climbing parties take two days for the round trip via either trailhead.
See the route page for details.
Northeast Ridge Direct
The Northeast Ridge Direct is a variation of the standard Knife Edge Route from Capitol Lake. Instead of traversing below the ridge between the Daly-K2 Saddle (above Capitol Lake), this route climbs the ridge directly to K2. With careful routefinding, the route can be kept at Class 4 in difficulty. Because of exposed routes on early season snow slopes, a rope is needed for this route in winter, spring and sometimes early summer.
See the route page for details.
If you want a solitary route to Capitol Peak, this is your route. On this scenic route there is only a slim chance of running into other climbers even on holiday weekends.
Available information on this route is scant, but several parties have climbed Capitol Peak from Pierre Lakes. Note that the route page covers only the route to Pierre Lakes and does not cover the routes up the peak itself.
Northwest Buttress (a.k.a. Northwest Ridge)
The Northwest Buttress, a.k.a. the Northwest Ridge offers the most practical technical routes up Capitol Peak. This route and its variations offer what are probably the best technical climbs in all of the Elk Mountains.
Although some of the rock is solid (especially by Elk Mountains standards), much of it is loose and there is still rockfall danger, especially in the Slingshot Couloir.
The Slingshot Couloir version of the climb is slightly easier (5.7), but is plagued by rockfall in the couloir. The direct start is a bit more difficult (5.9), but is safer from rockfall because it bypasses the rotten couloir.
Each main variation (there are several minor variations) of the route is about 13 pitches and is a very committing alpine route. Descent is usually via the standard Knife Edge route.
See the route page for details.
On paper and from the summit of either peak, this looks like a nice route and is occasionally talked about as a route to go try. In reality, the route is almost always described as dreadful by those who have completed the route.
Even if you are up to the exposure, extremely loose rock, tricky routefinding and serious commitment, few that have completed this route recommend doing so.
If you still want to try your luck, see the route page for details.
Warning-Deadly RouteRecently, several climbers have been killed trying to descend a gully from the summit ridge on the standard route. From above, the gully appears to be a route down to Capitol Lake, but it is not. A social trail is developing. The gully becomes impassible farther down. If you ascended the Knife Edge route, use the same route of ascent for your descent and be careful to stay on route.
Here is a photo of the deceiving gully where the accidents took place:
What appears as a viable route cliffs out farther down.
The gully is negotiable with passes almost down to the snow/icefield at the base of the north face of Capitol. Unfortunately, a cliff blocks further access and it is impossible to reach the lake without technical gear. Also unfortunate, you have to climb all the way back up to the summit ridge in order to escape the gully and this would take several hours.
DO NOT DESCEND THIS GULLY!
Several people have been killed trying to descend the cliff bands down to the lake. Please stay on the established and known routes!
Red TapeFree permits are required for overnight trips within the Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness area (which encompasses Capitol Peak. Campsites around Capitol Lake are limited to designated sites only.
Typical Wilderness regulations are in place. See below for links to rules and regulations:
Wilderness Rules and Regulations
Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness
There are no official campgrounds close to either trailhead. The Capitol Creek Trailhead is on public land and people do sometimes camp there (but only do so after reaching the Forest Service Land, which is not until you are close to the trailhead). The Snowmass Creek Trailhead is on private land, but public land is barely up the trail. If you want to camp legally near the West Snowmass trailhead, you may have to walk a very short distance up the trail.
There are several campgrounds along Maroon Creek and Roaring Fork. Some are first come, first serve while Silver Bar, Silver Bell and Silver Queen can be reserved.
See below for the Forest Service Link:
Maroon Bells Scenic Area
There are many backcountry campsites along both the Capitol Creek Trail and the West Snowmass Route. Note that backcountry campsites around Capitol Lake are limited to designated sites and they can fill up quickly on summer weekends, especially on holiday weekends (we got one of the last campsites over Labor Day Weekend 2010).
When To ClimbSummer
The Elk Mountains receive more snow than many of the other mountain ranges in Colorado, so the season that Capitol can typically be climbed without snow climbing equipment is short. Every year is different, but mid-July through mid-September is the normal climbing season for Capitol Peak. Expect to take and use an ice axe before mid-July.
Winter and Early Spring
Winter and spring ascents of Capitol Peak are possible, but challenging. Capitol is a serious climb in winter and spring and typically has high avalanche danger. Perhaps as important as climbing skills is being able to hit the mountain under good conditions.
The traverse from the Daly Saddle to K2 is extremely avalanche prone (the direct route on the ridge is very exposed and requires a rope in winter and spring) and the Knife Edge Ridge beyond that is often heavily corniced. Via Capitol Lake, you must add 7.2 miles round trip. The route from West Snowmass Creek is the most practical since you avoid much of the Daly Saddle-K2 traverse and you can get a more direct shot at K2 first thing in the morning and before the sun hits. This is also a very serious route and you must add 2 miles round trip in winter.
For best results, use the West Snowmass Route and plan on camping as close as possible to the base of K2 and climbing the steep slope to K2 very early in the morning. The slope below K2 can have extreme avalanche danger, so proceed with caution.
The approaches to Capitol Peak are beautiful when fall colors are present (mid-September through early October, depending on the year). Capitol Creek may be one of the best fall hikes in Colorado. Expect cold and snowy weather at any time during this season, but under clear skies during an Indian summer day Capitol can be a very enjoyable climb.
June and early July is usually less crowded than mid and late summer and more snow can make the climb more aesthetic An ice axe and crampons should be standard equipment during this season. Be aware that during heavy snow years, wet slab avalanche danger can persist until well into June. The Knife Edge Ridge can also be corniced in June during heavy snow years.
Mountain ConditionsClick Here For Area Weather Forecast
Weather and climate data for Independence Pass 5 SW Station at 10,510 feet elevation is below. *National Weather Service Data 1948-1980. Expect daytime temperatures to be 12-15 degrees colder on Capitol Peak than at the Independence Pass 5SW weather station.
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