Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Capitol Peak (14,141 ft.)
“K2” (13,664 ft.)

3 August, 2012: Some climbers consider Capitol Peak to be Colorado's hardest fourteener. (I know I said that about the last one, but it's true of this one too.)
We'd put this one off as long as we could because the exposure on the Knife Edge Ridge really pushes Trisha's limits. But this was our last difficult peak, so that we can both finish the fourteeners with nice, easy walk-ups. So it was time.
Trisha got the time off from work, and very wisely allowed for our spending two nights camped out (one before and one after the climb), so we went. I drove up to Greeley on Wednesday, basically packed and ready to go, and we headed up into the mountains Thursday morning.
We drove through Aspen, through Snowmass, and finally up the Capitol Creek Road to its end on a bench overlooking Capitol Creek at roughly 9,400 ft. a bit after 4 pm MDT. There were half a dozen other vehicles already there. It would have been nice to get there earlier, but one of the built-in difficulties with these last few trips to finish the fourteeners is that they involve long drives and the logistics are getting harder all the time. So we worked with what we were dealt...
The net result was that it was basically sunset (8 pm MDT) before we could reach the area of designated campsites near Capitol Lake. Accordingly, we decided to stop somewhat short of that area, and found a serviceable campsite just off the trail at about 10,800 ft. We made our dinner in the gathering dark, and hit the sack as quickly as we could. Trisha set her cell phone alarm for 4 am MDT, the idea being that we would try to get on the trail by about 5 am.
We got up pretty well, but still needed until about 5:30 before we could actually start our climb. As a result, we only needed to hike by headlamp for about 15 minutes before we broke out of the trees in the growing light. We passed the two turnoffs for the lake camping sites, and arrived at Capitol Lake—11,200 feet and very scenic—before we realized that we had to have missed the trail that leads up to the Mt. Daly/Capitol Pk. saddle.
We backtracked a short distance and glimpsed the trail above us, so we free-lanced our way uphill until we intersected a switchback on the trail. Shortly thereafter, we saw a small family of deer grazing right along the trail. They let us get amazingly close before bolting off. We could also see a party of climbers above us, confirming that we were on the right path.
About 7:30 MDT, we reached the saddle and came into direct sunlight. Trisha's cell phone had service here, so we called Suzanne to let her know that we were making good progress.
But that is where the “good” progress stopped. The standard route involves dropping off the saddle into the boulder-filled basin on the other side (the upper part of the West Snowmass Creek drainage), and passing under the cliff bands which mark the east side of the ridge leading up to Unnamed 13,664, better known as “K2.” There is no trail. There are cairns, but they dot a multiplicity of routes through the rocks. So basically, we slogged on, first slightly down and then increasingly upward, for two and a half hours (!) until we finally got back on the ridge, and approached K2.
Here, we finally encountered some other people. They were descending, having already reached the summit of Capitol and heading back. We took the opportunity to chat with them and pick up what useful information we could.
Near the summit (unranked, but still worth climbing), we finally crossed over onto the west side of the ridge. This was accomplished via a difficult spinning move right on the ridge crest which lead down into a narrow crack, and down to a small level area. From there, a clearly beaten path led steeply up to the summit. I went first, and got a nice picture of Trisha making the final climb.
On the summit, I stumbled on Tony (never did get his last name), a very experienced climber who was watching a group of friends coming back over the Knife Edge. He was quite happy to show us (and demonstrate!) the easiest way down off the summit to the beginning of the Knife Edge. From above, it looked to me only a step or two better than the impossible wall that is K2's south face, but he scampered down it like Spider-man, and we both soon approximated his descent. This 40-foot (or so) downclimb was the beginning of Class 4 work, which would scarcely let up the rest of the way.
Of course, in truth, the traverse of the Knife Edge is technically only Class 3. Its real challenge lies almost wholly in the psychological power of the awesome exposure it presents on both sides. If you can focus and keep your wits about you, it quickly becomes apparent that we've already done much more demanding sections of rock climbing. That's a big “if,” however. It's a long way down. And the rock is solid (everything which could possibly break off has long since done so!), but it's also smooth. Develop even a smidgen of downward momentum, and there's absolutely nothing you could possibly grab to stop yourself.
So, we focused. I went first, scouting section by section. Trisha followed, just a few feet behind, determinedly overcoming some of her deepest fears. We used a mix of three different techniques: 1) straddling the top and scooting along on our butts (sometimes aided by partial purchase for our boots or knees and sometimes not), 2) grabbing the top while planting our feet on tiny ledges or protrusions just below the top on the east side while basically walking sideways, and 3) “walking,” rather awkwardly, on all fours, where the ridge top actually offered more than a couple of inches of flat space. We were across in 15 or 20 minutes.
From there, it's possible to follow the main ridge right up to Capitol's summit, and doing so eliminates any possible problem with route finding. It also maximizes the exposure, occasionally requiring low Class 5 moves, so this was not for us. The easiest route holds everything to Class 4, and veers off the ridge crest to climber's left (east).
You pay two things for this ease. First, you completely lose sight of the summit, adding uncertainty to the route finding. (There are some cairns, but they're often hard to spot.) There's a persistent temptation to break up and to your right too soon, because it keeps looking like that would make things easier, even though the truth is that it would just make things harder. Second, it becomes necessary to cross one major gulley of loose scree and dirt, where slipping and sliding suddenly become serious problems.
Thus, doggedly finding and following the cairns, we spent the better part of an hour making the 600-foot final climb. Just before 2 pm MDT, we finally topped out of a shallow gulley and onto the small summit ridge. We could finally stand and stroll the few dozen yards southwest to the true summit.
The Elk Range was finished. All the hard fourteeners were finished. The relief and euphoria were palpable, and impossible to convey in words. Except, of course, that we still had to get down!
But get down we did. We downclimbed the solid Class 4 rock without a hitch, and made it back across the Knife Edge in just about the same time as on the outbound leg. We skirted the summit of K2 to our left instead of re-climbing it, dropped down into the boulder field, and found a section of faint trail heading back toward the Daly/Capitol saddle. Eleven and a half hours had passed since we had been at that same place on the way up. We were tired to say the least.
We were still more tired over an hour later, when we finally arrived back at camp. We still enjoyed the gorgeous view of the lake basin as the last of the day's direct sunshine fell on us.
Some of the pictures I took are at:

That's 50 out of 54 for Trisha, 51 out of 54 (and 56 out of 59) for me. One trip to the Handies group, and this long quest will finally be completed for me. Then a quick day trip up Mt. Sherman, and Trisha, too, will have the whole thing in the bag. Maybe very soon (if the summer weather holds out). Stay tuned.
Long life and many peaks!