Capitol Peak – 14,130 ft
Colorado's Elk Range
Climb Date: September 27th-29th, 2002
Video files recorded during this trip and photos can be viewed here.
Thursday; September 26th
My cousin Jim and I linked up in Dearborn Michigan and then headed off to the airport to catch our plane to Denver. After picking up our 4WD rental we took off for Glenwood Springs, where we would turn South and head to the trailhead out of Snowmass. We were using the Gerry Roach guidebook to get us there and for the description of the planned route.
From the TH the view of Capitol is inspiring and no writing here could due justice to the incredible view. Particularly, the Aspen are changing color and present the viewer a truly artistic view with the snow covered rock of Capitol as the back drop some seven miles away.
We were pumped! We had been talking about this climb every day since we conjured up this trip and from the 9400 ft TH the mountain presented itself in a way we could never have imagined. That night we set up our tent and hardly caught a wink through the night, typical of a first night at elevation.
Friday; September 27th
In the morning the skies were entirely cloud covered and it was sprinkling/raining. We knew we only needed about a four hour window to hike up to the lake so we sat out the rain in the SUV. Around 11:00am we finally put our boots to the trail and started down the 400 ft elevation drop towards Capitol Creek.
The approach is something all in itself! A beautiful hike on a well trodden path that meanders its way up the drainage. Along the way you pass through Aspen forest, cross small creeks, and pass through other types of alpine forest. The trail itself is an easy to follow footpath and would be easy to follow at night with headlamps and possibly with only moonlight.
The closer we got to the mountain the more the weather turned bad. The clouds, which had been around all day, started to darken and the temperature was dropping a bit. I reckon we were about 30-40 minutes from Capitol Lake and it started dumping snow and got very windy. The temperature dropped from mid 40's to mid 30's over a time of about 1 hour. We pulled off into the edge of the forest on the East side of the trail at about 11,200 ft. Pretty soon the storm intensified and it thundered a few times. Since there is no real cover up at Capitol Lake, we decided to set up camp in the relative safety of the tree line. Nighttime temps out side the tent closed in on 30 degrees F while inside the tent it stayed in the mid 30's. We slept with our water bladders to keep them from freezing.
Saturday; September 28th
We got up at about 5:00am and checked the skies. They appeared to be pretty dark with clouds so we turned in again and racked out. Sometime around 8:00am we got up and it was still quite overcast. I probably thought it was worse than it really was, having read endless warnings about Colorado storms and not being real familiar with weather patterns in these parts. At any rate, we agreed that we would hike up to the lake and take some photos and see what we could see. I think a combination of things had already put our previously excited psychological state into a damper. For whatever reason I wasn't even thinking of going to the summit ( boy does it hurt to write that). When we got there it was a bit windy and still over cast but no real drama. I decided that I had to do something so I started off for Daly Pass. My Cousin, for his own reasons, decided to stay at the lake and not climb.
I took 1 hour and 15 minutes to climb up the snow covered slope to Daly Pass. The snow wasn't very deep, varying 6-10 inches, and it was soft early season snow. When I got to the pass I saw a group of three starting up from down below. I radioed on the Motorola two-way to my cousin that I was going to wait for them and try and join them. They were up to the pass a little over an hour later and asked me if I wanted to join. They were going to take the NE ridge directly from the pass. To be honest, this looked a bit aggressive for me but they where locals and knew people that had done it before. A few warning lamps went off in my head that indicated I shouldn't be going out on the ridge: I had skipped breakfast, only had 1.5 quarts of water, didn't have my helmet, had just 1 cliff bar with me, and it was already late 11:00am. Basically, I didn't really have the food and water that I thought I would need for spending all day on a pretty much nonstop class 4 ridge. What ever, the chance to climb was presenting itself and I was good for it.
Off I went, in fourth position, climbing on the ridge in overcast conditions and with practically no food and water. The climbing started quickly, and didn't relent. I wish I could recall the 40ft buttress, or some of the small traverses, or even the numerous short knife edge traverses. But I can't, at least not with any note worthy detail. Instead, what I remember, was clearing loose early season snow to find reliable hand holds, testing every single freaking hand and foot hold, keeping my eyes on the rock, and wishing a time or two that I had a rope.
Progress was slow, hindered by loose rock and the fact the snow had to be cleared to find good holds. A couple times the girl that was in front of me got really scared and even shed a tear or two; but she stuck it out like a trooper and did well. To me, this was an intense and nearly non stop class 4 climb and after about 3 hours my hands and arms were getting tired and I was feeling tired. We climbed for about 3 ½ hours before the first Colorado "Boomer" rolled in on us. We were about 30 minutes shy of K2 and I had been looking for an exit spot. We found a good spot to rest and throw on some Gor for the storm. It didn't take a but a few minutes and the whole mountain top was covered in snow and wind.
One of the guys I was climbing with took off his parka hood and asked if we had heard anything. I thought I heard the sound of hard snow hitting rock, an almost crackling sound and this guys hair was standing straight up. Before we even figured it out a huge clap of thunder sounded. Yikes! We were fortunate that we had just gotten to the first part of the ridge that one could actually exit down the South East face of K2. We took off quickly, ending up near some large boulders a couple hundred feet below the ridge. Within 40 minutes the storm had rolled in and rolled out, returning the skies to there previous gray overcast with only that one thunder clap.
I was tired and down right whipped. I had no food and no water (one of the guys gave me a Power bar, thanks man) and it was already the middle of the afternoon. For me, this was a realistic time to start the return trip. Myself and the girl from the other party started to make our way down while the other two guys went for the summit. The down climb on the South face was fun and uneventful. Basically, we just had to pick our way through chutes, ledges, and traverses to get closer to the valley floor below where we began our traverse North East heading back to the saddle. We were maybe 100ft below the pass and found a good trough to scramble up that put us maybe 50 feet West of the pass and right back on the ridge.
By the time I made my way back to the campsite it was around 5:00pm so my cousin and I spent another night in the bush. It snowed a couple times that night, but again no drama.
Sunday; September 29th
I think it was around 8:00am by the time we were all packed and moving out. On the return trip we crossed onto Capitol Creek's West side and took that trail as apposed to the trail that ends with a rewarding 400ft climb. From camp to TH only took 2 1/2 hours.
This was a truly phenomenal trip, despite not making the summit. The approach was a lot of fun and even if your not a climber it would offer a great weekend hike or day hike. I have read a lot of TRs online and there seems to be mixed opinions on whether to take any pro or not. In my opinion, a short rope and small rack would not hurt. Certainly the climb can be done without it. However, if one thing were to go wrong (a slip, change in weather, etc.) then that little bit of extra gear could go a long ways.
If you take this same route, directly up the NE ridge from Daly Pass, be sure to check all your holds. The quality is mixed-plenty of good holds and plenty loose holds. If your short on time, definitely take Roach's route down into the SE valley, you will be able to move much fast compared to taking the ridge directly.
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