We were camped in the first obviously designated camp-site directly north of the huge meadow adjacent to Capitol Lake. The hiking trail to Capitol Lake is fairly steep for the last mile and being rather tired we simply found the closest available location to set up camp. The spot turned out to be pretty good because to the north almost the entire Capitol Creek drainage is visible and to the south Capitol Peak consumes the view.
Originally planned to be up at 5:00 AM but did not get around until just after 5:45 AM.
Eric nor I slept well. The weather was warmer than I expected at 11,500 feet and my new 5-degree down bag was over warm. Also, according to Eric, every time I would start to sleep I snored. I did remember him slugging me in the ribs a few times.
Quick breakfast of coffee and a pecan roll. Eric had two packs of oatmeal. The new butane stove is fast, clean and unbelievably light and compact. The piezo lighter would not work at this altitude.
Spent more time than I planned getting packs together and battening down the campsite.
We noticed two climbers about halfway up the Capitol-Daly saddle when we left camp to get water.
Took (2) 32oz. water bottles and (2) 48 oz. collapsible water bottles to the Capitol Lake out-flow near our camp and spent a few minutes filtering water. This amount of water is fairly heavy at 13 pounds but I thought necessary.
We started the climb from the outflow stream at 7:10 AM sharp. One hour ten minutes later than I had planned. Because it is only 2.1 miles to the top of Capitol Peak from this point I was not really that concerned.
The trail starts east across a meadow filled with short leafy red wildflowers and heads directly up to the Capitol-Daly saddle with Capitol Peak dominating the view to the right. After 200 yards the narrow path starts getting steep and then becomes progressively stepper on good footing. Approximately half way up this initial 1000 feet climb the narrow earth trail becomes pea gravel. At this point the trail is very steep and without switchbacks on this small lose gravel you would have to crawl on all fours for traction.
Eric and I reached the saddle in 45 minutes at 8:00 AM. 45 minutes is the normal amount of time for this section. We stopped for about 15 minutes to rest, take some photos and cached one of the collapsible water bottles. I was quite relieved to loose four pounds of water. I am packing 25 pounds and Eric only slightly less. I agreed to carry all the extra water because Eric was carrying all the food. The weather was absolutely perfect and no wind. Blue skies and few clouds. We were somewhat affected by the altitude but felt good.
The saddle is at 12,500’ with great views in all directions. North is Mount Daly looming one thousand feet directly above at 13,500’. East and five hundred feet below is Moon Lake about a mile away. Immediately south is the ridge running up to K2 with the top of Capitol Peak just visible. West and a thousand feet below is Capitol Lake and our campsite. In the distance Mount Sopris is visible northwest.
Another climber arrived at the saddle five minutes after Eric and I. We talked briefly. He was waiting for his partner, and like us, intended to climb Capitol Peak.
Eric and I left on the obvious trail that heads south on the east side of the saddle. I read in a guidebook that says this trail stays too high but I thought we would check it out anyway. Besides, I could see no other trail so the only other option is to head steeply down the east side on pea gravel
We found the trail heading exactly were we wanted to go – tending downward while skirting the ridgeline above. About 5 minutes into this trail you are presented with a problem. You can down-climb 20 plus feet into and then right back out of a deep gully or you can traverse an interesting slab and maintain the general elevation of the trail. We decided to traverse the slab. It’s not that bad and if you fall I doubt you would be hurt too badly. Probably scratched on the pea gravel when you dropped off the slab into the little gully. The new Lowa Triolet’s worked great on these slabs gripping like climbing shoes.
We are now steeply dropping south-southeast ledge after ledge into a triangular shaped bowl. After descending a couple hundred feet we avoid down climbing farther by gently re-climbing a wide thinly snow covered ice sheet. Our ice axes could not penetrate this wet gritty off-white ice. From this point until K2 is visible the route gets progressively steeper crossing and re-crossing patches of snow trapped between ribs of gray and tan rock. Scattered cairns mark a sketchy route upward through car size boulders. These gray boulders become tan rock slabs halfway up the ridge. It is slow, time consuming work, constantly planning every footstep. We are so preoccupied with route finding and photography that we don’t realize how fast time is passing. Eric and I spent almost three hours from the Capital-Daly saddle to down-climb into and up-climb out of this bowl to the ridgeline extending from Clarks Peak to K2. We finally arrived at ridgeline around 11AM, maybe a couple hundred feet below K2 and were treated to an incredible view.
I was carrying a medium format camera and Eric has a decent digital.
What a panorama sweeping 180 degrees south. Clarks Peak is visible east and in the distance the Maroon Bells. South, approximately two miles, 14,092’ Snowmass Mountain and 13,000’ Snowmass Peak are in view. Several hundred feet straight below us, three blue lakes and the four square miles of boulderfield in the Pierre Lakes Basin consume most of our mid-ground view. The Capitol-Snowmass connecting ridge frames the horizon running to the southwest. This ridge is truly a sight, appearing to be made of hundreds of thin tall stone spires compressed into each other forming a two-mile long jagged four hundred-foot high wall. Continuing southwest the mass of Capitol Peak rises 1500 feet out of the Pierre Lakes Basin to 14,130’ to dominate the landscape. West and two hundred plus feet above our position is 13,664’ K2.
The fellow we met at the Daly-Capitol saddle and his partner passed us in the boulderfield as were approaching K2. We could see them trying to traverse K2’s east side. It didn’t look pretty.
From the ridgeline upward towards K2 the large boulders and slabs became smaller three-foot diameter rocks. I suspect this indicates were snow would cover the rocks in a typical year. This being a light non-typical year in which the snow has receded from standard summer positions.
We made it to the main connecting ridgeline just below K2 at around 11:45 AM. Again another opportunity for amazing views into the Capitol Creek drainage and beyond. Took a few shots and decided we were carrying too much weight. I thought we might encounter colder air and wind at ridgeline but this day it was calm and warm. We shed coats, ice axes, water and a few other items behind a rock.
Standing on this connecting ridge looking southwest about 100 feet below the top of K2 I spotted a cairn beyond on a secondary ridgeline. A deep gully of loose rock and dirt separated us from the cairn forcing a steep re-climb to almost the same elevation as the main connecting ridge. It looked like a high energy situation. We decided to climb a little farther up the main ridgeline and drop off the southwest side higher. About 50+ feet below the top of K2 I spotted a narrow but solid ledge and let myself down and started traversing southwest. Eric right behind. We made it about halfway around on fairly good rock. From below another climber yelled up that we needed to drop down or we would get cliffed-out. We down climbed and found ourselves on a flattish ledge composed of loose and broken lichen covered flakes of granite. This ledge abuts the shear north face of K2 and provides access onto the connecting ridge to Capitol Peak. The north face of K2 is shear and drops down and back on itself toward the Pierre Lakes Basin. An opening in the rock ledge lets you look straight down and I could not see the bottom of this chasm. The rock of this ledge is simply wedged into a tight corner of the cliff face creating a bridge and is not a place I felt particularly comfortable. Once I realized what I was standing on I moved to the downside face of the ledge that is actually resting on rock.
Took a break and a few photos. Awesome views to the west and down toward Capitol Lake. We are at 13,600 feet now and I am feeling the lack of oxygen. Moving definitely takes more effort and I find myself taking every shortcut I can. Getting around K2 probably took 45 minutes and a lot of energy.
Started onto connecting ridge toward the famous Knife Edge. The route actually starts as a trail up to the ridgeline on the same broken granite shards that form the ledge at the base of K2. As you progress onto this ridgeline it narrows and the rock becomes solid granite with stretches of vertical fins. The Knife Edge is actually quite long consisting of an alternating series of sections that you must traverse or straddle. I found it quite exiting to cross. We took some photos, crossed another narrow area and ended the traverse on a flat trail composed of broken shards of granite. This trail continues on to a very narrow notch with steep drops on either side.
We stopped here to assess our progress and evaluate the route. It was 1:30 PM at this time and we estimated we had 500’ left to the top. I was able to observe a couple of climbers who passed us on the Knife Edge as they progressed to the top. One fellow from Australia with a pretty good sized backpack climbed straight up just left of ridgeline on the Pierre Lakes Basin side all the way to the summit. The second climber stayed on the Pierre Lakes side but farther down on the left until about three-fourths the way. He then traversed left and disappeared beyond another ridgeline not far below the summit. From our position it looked very steep on not the best rock. In fact the rock directly in front of us was extremely steep and looked like it was simply compressed into dirt. The weather was good with no wind but there were some seriously dark clouds heading directly toward us from beyond Capitol Peak. I was pretty tired after traversing the Knife Edge and Eric indicated he had a headache. After consideration of the task ahead, our energy level and the uncertainty concerning the ugly black cloud headed in our direction and the down climb on all that slab and rock and then deal with the Daly-Capitol saddle I thought it was not a wise risk to continue the climb. I now know why Capitol Peak is considered the hardest non-technical 14ner route in Colorado. Very disappointed, but also relieved. We turned around and headed back toward the Knife Edge. I do this to enjoy the mountains and the views not to get hurt. You could get hurt on this mountain because from what I could see, if you fell, you might drop all the way down into the Pierre Lakes Basin. Capitol Peak is very shear on the Pierre Basin side toward the top. You simply cannot make very many mistakes. You need to have good energy and not have to worry about wet rocks or lightening. One of the climbers was returning from the summit and we talked briefly while not quite back to K2. He did the whole climb starting from Snowmass Village this morning and approaching by Snowmass Creek. He also lives in Aspen and runs marathons. He told us that he had been struck by ground lightening seven separate times while climbing.The guy was a superhuman.
After working our way back and around K2 it started to rain because that ugly black cloud had moved in and above us. Luckily it did not last very long nor was it a hard rain. After the rain the sky cleared and the weather was fine. The rain did make the rocks a little slippery and as we climbed over the tan slabs back down into the bowl you had to be more careful. While trying to cross a steep snow tongue I slipped and slide about thirty feet down to some rocks. This happened pretty fast and by the time I put my ice axe into the snow I was at the bottom of this thing. I put my feet out to stop myself and it worked. No harm done. I didn’t try that again. By the time we started to reclimb the Capitol-Daly saddle I was really feeling the climb. The boulder hoping just beats the bottom of your feet to a pulp. We took a long break when we reached the saddle. Down climbing this saddle was not so easy either. It’s pretty steep and you slide on the pea gravel and have to constantly fight falling. I was very relieved when we actually hit solid dirt on the trail about three-fourths of the way down to the meadow. Back to camp – took a break and warmed some beef stew. Turned in pretty early.
My assessment of our failed attempt centers on the fact that we did not take this seriously enough to leave when I originally planned. I remember thinking “how bad can 2.1 miles of non-technical be”. After all we did McHenry’s Peak as a test peak for this kind of challenge. I had read that if you can do McHenry’s Peak you can probably do all the non-technical 14er routes. We left an hour and ten minutes later than the plan. We would have been beyond the Knife Edge at 12:30PM instead of 1:30PM. I thought, realistically, it would have taken us two hours to make the summit from the point we stopped. That would have been 3:30PM and I thought that was too late - particularly when a lot of dark clouds were approaching. If we would have been assessing our position at 12:30PM I would have gone for the summit. We could have rested a little while and pushed on. We also spent too much time taking photographs and looking at the massively dramatic views. Being a flatlander (600' in our case) is also a real disadvantage in any attempt on a 14er.