I have common sense, I understand that standing on top of a fourteen thousand foot mountain is not the best place to be as lightening bolts thrash from the sky above. Especially if those fourteen thousand foot peaks happen to be in the Elk Range. ESPECIALLY if those fourteen thousand foot peaks happen to be Capitol and the Maroon Bells.
Hi everyone, it’s been a while. I have not stopped climbing mountains, I have just stopped writing about it, because climbing is more fun than writing about climbing. I have since summited more peaks in Wyoming and Idaho and added some fascinating climbs in Montana and Alberta, Canada to my list. But every once in a while finishing the Colorado 14ers floats effortlessly into my mind and I entertain the thought. So here is the story of #46 (Capitol Peak).
Capitol Peak as a Day trip (if you craze, or smart, depending on how you look at it)
17.7 miles/5,400 feet of vertical gain
I do not like carrying a lot of stuff. Not a fan, never have been, never will be. I will backpack if it is absolutely necessary or I want to go somewhere and chill, but 9 times out of 10 anything up to 30 miles is a nice solid day trip. However, there is always room for an entire loaf of sourdough bread.
This is my best friend who also hates carrying a lot of stuff and considers 30 miles a day trip. We had four days and four Elks to capture, the weather disagreed, we compromised and got two. With such an unsettled grim low pressure system hovering directly over the Elks, I did not think we would get Capitol Peak on the first try. I was convinced we would have to death march through explosive cow diarrhea more than once to make the summit. Both Chris and I run ultra distance trail races (his first 100 mile race is a few weeks away) so every single outing is training. With that mentality it doesn’t really matter how many tries it takes to get a summit. If we are gaining vert, miles, and experience while staring at gorgeous mountains, all is right in the world.
Capitol Peak can be summed up in one word, shit, figuratively and literally. All day the terrain will make you scratch your head and say, “shit” and all day you will be stepping in literal shit.
Start time 3 a.m.
The trail is very easy to follow. Simply locate the string of neon green cow diarrhea and follow it all the way to a gate. There was one creek crossing with no crossing so we took off our shoes and forded our way through squishy plops. It was so pleasant I dry heaved for a few miles. There are cows everywhere, they are gnarly, fat, and super destructive. But watching beautiful meadows of wildflowers be eaten and trampled by an animal that only exists because of human over consumption is one of my favorite things to do, so I was having a blast.
We made it to the Capitol/Daly saddle as daylight broke, spectacular.
I believe the gully we were initially supposed to drop into was full of snow. I really can’t describe what we did, it probably, no definitely, wasn’t “right” but we ended up on lots more snow, pulled out our ice axes, put on our spikes, and plugged along. We were both happy to have snow gear and used every available snow patch to keep off the loose rock. It’s pretty crazy how much snow the east bowl holds well into July.
Next we exited the snow, I lost a soft flask, and we turned right towards K2. Looked like this for a while.
K2 looks like nothing from this vantage point but we were nervous about the moves it would take to climb it. Turns out those moves were simple enough. I am not quite sure why it is rated class 4. Snow completely blocked the “easier” class 3 way around, so we went up and over on the ascent and descent. I utilized the slide down on your stomach and jam your hand in a crack to stop yourself from sliding off some steep slabs on the north side of K2 move. I highly recommend this for those who are 5’4 and under. Sure to make rock climbers all over the world cringe. By any means necessary.
This is the point where we decided the weather was great and we would keep going. I crossed the knife edge first. I can’t really explain in words what it was like. I am afraid of heights but I was not at all, not one bit afraid to cross it. I think your mind understands when your body is in a precarious situation because mine shut off and I just did what I needed to do. It was an invigorating experience. This is the moment I decided this mountain was better than any other I have climbed. He’s real and demands your full attention and respect.
Chris crossed next. We have different ideas of what scary climbing is. None of the climbing on Capitol or the approach scared me but it got his heart beating. Chris is very good at climbing straight up things with his back toward gnarly exposure while I enjoy stemming, maneuvering and exposed ledges much more. About half way across the knife edge his go pro fell out of his vest pocket and slid down the knife edge about 10 feet before calmly stopping on a teeny tiny little crack. We stared each other directly in the eye for what seemed like 20 minutes before he quietly asked, “should I go get it?” There is no way that go pro should have stopped, he carefully retrieved it. Chris caught some pretty unique shots from his crossing before the go pro almost met its maker.
In my opinion the hardest part of the climb is after the ridge and knife edge. Enter, negotiating the south face. There are cairns and there are route descriptions but it is up to the climber to figure it out and it’s not easy. We took zero photos from knife edge to summit. We were uber focused on remembering our route for the way down. The sky was darkening and we did not want to turn around and have to repeat the following day. Basically we would climb up a bit and then traverse exposed ledges in a westerly (left) direction. Rinse repeat three times and we ended up on the southwest ridge crest where we directly scrambled to the summit. We summited just before 10 a.m. I wish I could say we were elated but we knew we had to reverse every move we had made to get back to safety…and the sky was dark and full of terrors.
Carefully reverse the entire route. We glissaded quite a bit on the way down. We never found the right gully to regain the saddle and ended up on some ridiculously steep snow. We death marched out, rejoined the trail O’ shit and made it back to the car in time to watch Capitol being struck by lightning. (3 p.m.) We spent most of the de-proach wondering how Abe climbed this mountain in the middle of winter, not once, but twice.
Thunder bolts and lightning very very frightening.
“It always seems impossible until it is done…”
Next up…..South Maroon…..