Capitol the easy way? Or: "How to make a difficult mountain even more so".
Capitol from the Pierre Lakes Approach June 30-July 1, 2001 by Bob Dawson
Participants: Bob, Mic, Marlene and Chris
I know this was a while ago, but I keep getting questions about this unique approach to Capitol, so here it is:
Wow. This was an adventure.... I had been looking forward to climbing Capitol for a long time, and when my pal Mic said he wanted to try an alternate approach (he had done Capitol before), I was very enthusiastic. I had about a dozen 14ers to go at this point, and I was anxious to climb Capitol.
So, Saturday morning, we headed out of Denver, making it to the Snowmass Trailhead about noon.
We started up the Snowmass creek trail until we got to the "bear creek" drainage, and left the trail. It wasn't obvious where this should be, but somehow we got it right. (Mic wasn't sure we were in the right drainage, but turned out we were).
Somewhere around the 9400' contour line is where we headed west, descending to Snowmass Creek.
A bit of background: I consider myself to be fairly fit, I hike/climb every weekend, etc, BUT I was easily the least-fit in this party, to give you an idea of the strength of this group.
Oh yeah: more background: Mic had talked me into climbing Capitol this way because he'd been wanting to try fishing the Pierre lakes for years. So, he dutifully carried his rod all the way up, but of course, never used it!
Anyway, we then made two gnarly stream crossings; Snowmass Creek followed by Bear Creek It was late June, and the water was flowing fast and deep. We managed a way across a couple of "bridges", built by us out of long, fallen trees. Don't ask how we managed this, but we did. Then we followed the bear creek drainage on the north side of the creek for many long, steep, bushwhacking miles to the lakes. Somewhere around 10,700' Bear Creek forks, and we followed the northern fork that flows from the lakes. We were basically following the classic "path of least resistance" most of the way.
I think it was about six or seven hours from the car to the lakes, maybe about 6 miles or so of hiking distance. Remember, this was a very fit group, so that gives you an idea of the physical difficulty of this approach. It was gorgeous, though, and of course we didn't see another soul. I bonked big- time near the end, presumably because I had tied one on the night before (dumb) and my bod was not in a happy place that day. That's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it.
By the way: The whole time we didn't even know for sure that it was possible to climb Capitol from Pierre lakes, at least by us mere mortals. We had heard that the dude who set the latest 14er record had hiked from Snowmass down to the Pierre lakes and up Capitol this way, so we thought we had a chance.
So, we finally got to Pierre lakes; turns out we should have stopped slightly lower where there was still grass; there was only talus at the lakes, not very comfortable to sleep on, BUT there were patches of level snow, so that's where we camped.
Funny side story: the weather had been perfect so far, and not a hint of wind. We set up our tents and started cooking supper when a big gust of wind came out of nowhere. Suddenly our tents were flying over our heads, heading right for the main lake. We scampered for them (over talus/boulders) and snagged them just in time. No more wind the rest of the night. Weird, eh? I love Colorado. Lesson learned: anchor your tent, no matter what you think the weather may be.
So, we ate and crashed and got up around 6 or 6:30 and headed towards the saddle between Capitol and Clark Peak. This is where we knew not what to expect... there was a prominent notch there, and it looked like the only way up. Turns out it was a piece of cake. Easy class three, I believe. From the notch, we had to descend a snowfield; a bit steep without ice axes, but we plunge-stepped it ok. Next came the ascent of K2; somewhere in this leg is where we joined up with the "normal" route up Capitol.
K2 was no big deal at all, nor was the downclimb to the knife edge. Nice solid rock. I had heard of non-solid rock on K2, but we must have gone just the right route; Mic had done Capitol a couple of times, and was a excellent guide.
The knife edge was much like the guide books describe it, except the exposure didn't seem as severe as I expected. It wasn't as steep off the sides of the edge as trip reports would lead one to believe. So we traversed it, mostly using footholds on the sides with our hands along the edge itself.
From here on my memory is very fuzzy; 'twas a bunch of class-3 scrambling on the ledgy south face of Capitol to the summit. No big deal, really, however, there was some rockfall danger here; next time, I'll take a helmet. Absolutely PERFECT day. Warm, no wind. Killer views of Snowmass and Pierre lakes. Really, this was probably (at that time) my favorite all-time 14er hike (The Bells with the traverse later, maybe, was even more fun).
I have little recollection of the ellapsed time, but it seemed to take only about 2 or 3 hours from the lakes to the summit. The downclimb was uneventful.
Annother funny side story.... Chris did the classic "scooting" across the knife edge on his butt, straddling it. When we were back over, the crotch in his shorts was split wide open. Too funny.
Also, I remember after returning over the knife edge; there was a dude there waiting for us so he could head over, and I offered all this "great advice" about how to do it. Well, a few minutes later, we turned around and saw him WALKING across the damn thing like it was a sidewalk. I'm so glad I offered my expert advice.
Anyway, we got back to camp, packed up and headed down the drainage. It didn't seem so bad on the way out. There IS definite route finding, though, through this drainage. Definitely places where it could cliff-out or become dangerous if not careful. There were hints of animal trails here and there.
The cool thing about this outing is simply the uniqueness of it. I bet very few people make it up this drainage to these lakes, and fewer climb Capitol this way. For two days, we owned a couple thousand acres of pristine alpine backcountry.
The uncool aspect of this approach is the stream crossings; easily the most dangerous part of this climb. Who would think that the crux of a Capitol climb would involve stream crossings? I suppose a climb of Snowmass has a similar issue (I did Snowmass from the west side from Geneva Lake). In fact, we had some trouble with one of the return creek crossings; somehow we lost our long pole used to aid walking across the single-log "bridge". We made it, finally, dry and none the worse for wear.
Finally, back to the cars, and a helluva long drive home, but with smiles on our face the entire way.
This was a very rewarding way to do Capitol, but I couldn't recommend it for anyone unless they're up for some significant adventure, and a tough physical effort. But, I had a great time, with some excellent company. Will I go this way again? Sure, why not... maybe later in the summer when the creek crossings aren't so dangerous.
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