Two of my best friends from back in the days of living in Chicago were getting married in Aspen this past Saturday. They live in Denver now, but several of our other friends from home were coming up for the weekend's festivities. I figured that Labor Day would be a great chance for me to try and sneak in an Elk Range peak. In my search for Monday partners I came across a couple of people who were looking at getting into the Elks on Sunday instead, one of which was Jamie (shanahan96
), whom I have climbed with before. I decided that since the wedding was an afternoon affair, I would be able to make it to the trailhead and head up to camp that evening and climb Sunday morning before heading back for dinner with my friends. A good plan, but the timing wasn't quite there. I ended up hanging out in Aspen until almost 9pm, and not getting to the trailhead until nearly 10! Needless to say, I wasn't going to make it to camp that evening...
I woke up in my XTerra in the trailhead parking lot at the ripe hour of 2am. To my disappointment the moon had already set which meant I was going to need the light of my headlamp to guide me along the Capitol Ditch Trail in the dark. This proved to be an interesting task. Not even a half hour into my hike I already made my first mistake, I completely missed the cut-off for the trail off of the irrigation ditch. I got to the stream crossing and crossed only to be in a mess of trees and bushes, guess that wasn't the right way! I crossed back and saw a small use trail paralleling the creek uphill. I followed it and a few minutes later was greeted by the ditch trail and a lovely stone crossing. Back on track (for now) I continued to follow the trail. The going was good, but I got off track again in a large meadow near the Capitol Creek Trail. I kept going straight, but I was supposed to go left. That trail fizzled out too, but I kept on parallel to the creek hoping the creek trail would present itself soon. After 10 minutes I gave up and pulled out the map which revealed I needed to be on the other side of the creek. The next opportunity I crossed the creek and found the creek trail. The going was much easier and more straight forward now and I arrived at the campsites at 5am to meet Jamie. We had said we would leave for the climb between 5 and 5.30, so I sat at the base of the trail to the Daly-Capitol saddle and had some breakfast. It was now 5.45am and there was still no sign of him so I decided to head on alone.
Left at the Cows! Route finding sure is easier in the daylight...
Climb to "K2"
I made quick work of the trail climb up to the Daly-Capitol saddle, I don't think it took even an hour. I took a short water break and watched the sun rise before continuing on. I contoured around the cliffs of K2's ridge and was soon in the talus basin below. I passed a few climbers here and topped out on a slabblier section of rocks when I heard someone calling "Mike". I turned around and just off to my left was Jamie having a short break. He said the other guy we were meeting (Jesse) and him left camp at 4.45am, I missed them by only 15 minutes, all of which can be accounted for due to route finding issues on the Ditch Trail in the dark. Those darn headlamps don't have good peripheral lighting! We climbed on and reached the top of "K2" expecting to find Jesse waiting for us, but alas no Jesse. We figured he just headed on alone and we stopped for a quick snack break admiring the view. As we rested SarahT (14ers.com and fourteenerworld) and her finace Dominic caught up and said hi.
Along the way to "K2" we got some great views of the surrounding peaks in their early morning alpenglow, including this shot of Mount Daly:
The Knife Edge and Ridge
After our break we began our descent of "K2". You definitely want to drop to the RIGHT
on this, going straight towards the knife edge would be curtains for any climber as there is a horrendous gash in the ridge that drops straight down to oblvion. Even going right we had a few tricky class 4 moves. I chose to decend a crack system, Jamie backtracked slightly and found a nice chimney instead. After a few introductory moves on the ridge we stood at the beginning of the fabled knife edge where another climber was contemplating his future as a party ahead of him climbed on. He let us pass where we each tried to do our best to "balance beam" the ridge. This is actually not too difficult of a proposition as the rock is really solid and in someplaces wide enough to get two feet next to each other. Still, neither of us could stay vertical the whole way across and occassionally I had to use a crack to side smear while holding the ridge crest with one hand as a sort of handrail. I found this much more natural and comfortable than trying to go the traditional way of side stepping while facing the ridge crest.
(Click photos to enlarge for better detail)
Pondering the knife ridge (l), me on the balance beam (r)
The remaining sections of this traverse provided plenty of interesting scrambling. We tried our best to follow directly on the ridge crest the entire way, and were pretty successfull at that but occassionaly decided it was best to drop a few feet and avoid some of the unnecessary extra exposure. Some of these sections were almost identical to the knife edge, just shorter. We exited and considered the route that lay before us, stay on the ridge or climb the standard route up the face. We saw SarahT and Dominic on the direct ridge crest variation and we decided to give that a shot.
NE Ridge - Direct Variation
Now this is where the fun begins! As if Capitol Peak isn't hard enough, there is a way to make it even harder. The standard route skirts the difficulties of the NE Ridge by contouring around and using a system of dirt and scree covered ledges and semi-loose class 4 blocks on the face to the left of the ridge. There is something about words like "loose" and "dirt" with climbers above that seems less than appealing on a class 4 face. The NE Ridge direct is solid rock, similar in quality to the knife ridge traverse, but we weren't sure what it went at. We expected to find some 5th class sections, but from what we could see of Sarah and Dominic it seemed like the route finding was going well and this would be a viable climb. We started up the ridge crest and quickly found that the exposure here is equal if not more intimidating than the knife edge. The rock was good, however, and we were able to keep the difficulties mainly at class 4 through the first section. There were also at least 2 other short, exposed knife edge sections. These were both wide enough to walk across standing up, but take care to watch your steps carefully for its a long way down! The exposure on the Capitol Lake side is quite impressive!
(Click photos to enlarge for better detail)
Scrambling on the NE Ridge (l), Jamie showing off on a knife section (r)
We were now nearing the technical crux of this route. To take the ridge crest direct at this point involved a small overhang, which neither of us were too interested in climbing after seeing just how
far down Capitol Lake was. We skirted just to the left where I found a nice system of cracks on the slabby face. Some made small ledges (maybe and inch wide) that made for great footfolds using the sides of my boots. Placing the left side of my body against the slab and feeling around the rock I found a few nice side pulls and worked up the 30 or so foot slabby face back to the ridge crest. The holds were solid and plentiful and I would say this crux section went at probably about a 5.3, maybe 5.4. Jamie decided I was thoroughly insane and went up and adjacent 5.0 chimney instead. Both features are clearly visible in the image below:
Crux on NE Ridge Route
Above this point it was more of the same elegant exposed class 3 and 4 scrambling we had experienced at the start of this ridge. Soon we found ourselves at the ridge crest with just a short ridge walk over to the summit. Along the way we saw Sarah and Dominic again, and also Jesse who was on his way back down as well. We made the summit by around 9.30am.
The day was absolutely beautiful and we were able to spend a good half hour or so on the summit snacking and admiring the view. We shared the summit with Sue, who was finishing the 14ers that day, and Mike who was celebrating his birthday among the other summiters. At 10 we decided to start heading back, this time opting to by-pass the NE Ridge, (fun as it may be we didn't really want a 5th class downclimb) and descended the standard face. The route wasn't too bad really, not too loose but not as solid as the ridge crest. There were a few other parties both coming down and up the route and we were all careful not to knock any rocks on each other although I did occassionally hear some smaller pebbles trickling from above. That is why we wear helmets in the Elks!
Downclimbing the Face
Right before the final downclimb onto the knife traverse we heard a large crash of rocks. A gentlemen climbing less-than-carefully had knocked several blocks off to the Capitol Lake side, they fell for several minutes before I could see them crashing into the talus and scree surrounding the lake. We could smell the dust and smoke as we passed the area he triggered the rock slide. Scary stuff, but at least no one was under him and he didn't go with the rocks. The rest of the downclimb was uneventful, some more practice of our balance beam technique on the knife edge and a short skirting of K2 put us back on the talus. From here we contoured higher and found some nice ledges below the cliffs on the "K2" ridge that deposited us on a climbers trail just above the Daly-Capitol saddle. By 1.30pm we were back at the camps where Jamie broke his camp while I headed over by Capitol Lake to get the obligatory Lake-and-Peak-together shot:
Capitol Peak and Lake
The walk out was beautiful and the bright sunshine clearly exposed to me all of my earlier mistakes in the dark. We passed a few groups of cows grazing along the Ditch Trail and were back at the car by 4.30. All together for me it was 17 miles, over 5000' and 14 hours since I had left the trailhead. It didn't even feel like it was the same day! It was a great day though, and Capitol lived up to the expectations I had for a fun, exposed, challenging climb. If you haven't climbed Capitol yet, I highly recommend the trip! The aspens will be changing soon too, all the more reason to head up there!