Capitol Peak via the Knife Edge

Capitol Peak (14130)

07/26/2008 to 07/27/2008

Distance: ~17 miles
Vertical Gain: ~5300 feet
Climbed With: Brian Murray

Shortly after leaving the ditch itself, the Capitol Creek Ditch trail winds its way through this beautiful lush aspen forest.
We left the trailhead at about 3:30pm for our backpack up to Capitol Lake via the ditch trail. The skies were mostly cloudy, but none of the clouds looked particularly threatening as we made quick time along the ditch and through the beautiful aspen forests along the route. We saw our first cows just past the wilderness boundary where the trail leaves the thick aspen forest and becomes more open. The skies looked a bit threatening to the west, but as we continued up into the pine forests, passing several other herds of cattle along the way, the clouds didn't seem to be moving at all. We never had any trouble finding the trail and we arrived at the lake around 6:15pm never having felt rain. Despite the cows--who really could use more fiber in their diets--this is a gorgeous trail and it's generally in excellent shape.

Capitol Peak's summit disappeared into the clouds as the evening progressed, and our hopes of summiting the next day were dissapearing right along with it.
It was pretty crowded at the lake and we had trouble finding a campsite. Anything that was even halfway decent was already taken, so we ended up with a tilted and difficult to access campsite. It did the job, though. It started misting just a bit as clouds ominously engulfed the summit of Capitol Peak while we were pumping water. As we sat around enjoying the stillness of the evening I thought for sure that our summit bid the next day would be thwarted by rain.

When we awoke at 4am we were pleased to see that the clouds had greatly thinned out and there were even some stars in the southwest sky. We started hiking by 4:30am on a morning that was warm and humid due to the clouds that hung around all night. Because of our campsite location it took us about ten minutes to get down to the trail cut-off to head up to the Daly-K2 saddle. There was one headlamp ahead of us and three more shortly behind us as we ascended into the dark. It was neat to see the campsites near the lake lit up by the headlamps of other climbers getting ready for the day.

Sunrise while ascending the snow slopes to K2.
The clouds in front of the moon cleared a bit by the time we reached the saddle and headlamps weren't really needed between the moon and the orange glow that was showing to the east over the Sawatch. We started traversing around the far side and soon came to a bit of an interesting downclimb. We would see in the daylight on our return that this was because we had missed a place where the trail descends steeply to avoid this class three downclimb. There were cairns in both places though.

Brian ascends the snowfield a few hundred feet below K2.
Shortly thereafter we got out our ice axes as we were going to be spending quite a while traversing snow slopes as we crossed the backside of K2's north ridge to get to the snowfield that we ascended. Before long we got to a point where we started to actually ascend the snowfields and we opted to put on crampons in order to speed the ascent and avoid taking a step back for every step forward. We watched a beautiful sunrise as we made steady progress to where the snowfield met K2's east ridge and gave us an amazing view in Pierre Lakes Basin. The view of this basin left me in awe as we stashed our crampons and traversed around the north and west side of K2 to reach the start of the knife edge.

The view of Pierre Lakes basin from the knife ridge is incredible.

A panoramic shot of Capitol and Snowmass shows the knife ridge leading to Capitol as well as Snowmass and Capitol's long and jagged connecting ridge. This file is a bit larger than normal (still < 1MB).
We sat eating a bit of food and considering our future next to the tremendous exposure off of K2; being in that sort of exposed position takes some getting used to, but we were more than immune to it by the time we returned to this spot... it feels quite protected by comparison. The climber ahead of us had just reached the summit and he let out a mighty victory yawp. The weather was looking great and the thin clouds that had remained when we set out were starting to burn off. So we set out onto the knife edge. We paused at first for some obligatory photos of us straddling the ridge before seriously examining the task.

Brian took this as I was actually crossing part of the knife edge. My butt scoot technique was in full swing!
While I've seen it recommended numerous places that the straddle/butt-scoot method is not the preferred way of crossing the ridge, it worked for me in most places, though I used the ledges below the ridge in a few places that it was practical. I found that the butt-scoot worked to take my mind off of the 2000 foot drops on either side of me by forcing me to concentrate carefully on the technique. It wasn't able to distract from the sharp rock of the knife edge poking my butt, unfortunately.

Brian took this shot of our shadows on Capitol's face as we neared the end of the knife edge portion of the route on Capitol Peak.
Once clear of the connecting ridge we started the arduous process of the ascending traverse to reach the summit. The scrambling across the face is generally easy and the difficulty never exceeded class 3. The cairns were plentiful and provided a good route. We came across the climber who had summited ahead of us who had the good fortune to watch the sunrise from K2. It looked like he had a fantastic photo of the alpenglow on Capitol Peak. He also advised us about one move on an exposed ledge that was a bit hairy.

A panoramic shot of Pierre Lakes Basin from the summit of Capitol Peak. You can see some of the clouds starting to build over the higher peaks. Some of the notable mountains in this shot are both Maroon Bells, Snowmass Mountain, and Treasury Mountain. This file is a bit larger than normal (still < 1MB).
We continued along a cairned route to the point where we met the ridge. The correct route from this point follows the ridge almost directly to the summit. We didn't see any obvious way to head directly up from where we met the ridge, so we continued along the south face of the peak. We came to a VERY exposed ledge that was VERY tricky to traverse and took it as the ledge that the other climber had warned us about. As we continued along the face it became quickly apparent that we were off route. Still, with some tricky routefinding and some class 4 climbing we were able to find a few cairns just below the summit. We topped out at about 8:45 to find amazing views and a cloudless sky.

Brian and I on the summit of Capitol Peak.
We enjoyed the summit for a fair bit of time and started conversing with the party of three who arrived shortly after us. We ended up spending about 30 minutes on the summit before we left. Though the clouds had almost finished burning off by the time we approached the summit, they were starting to build as we spent time up top, and for a short time we were shrouded in clouds. As the clouds moved in and out we could see that other summits were experiencing the same thing. We opted to head down with the party of three.

Brian took this very cool photo of his foot as he crossed the knife edge during our return. This shot gives a pretty good perspective on the exposure along the knife edge--the lake is 2000 feet below with not much other than air in between.
We followed them on the route that they had taken up, which followed the proper route along the final ridge. We ended up staying higher along the east face and in some places we were pretty close to the ridge, probably following parts of the ridge direct route. We talked a lot with our new partners as we descended, discussing climbs we've done and climbs we'd like to do and the reasons that climbing appeals to engineers (our common profession). Perhaps counter-intuitively I found that the conversation served to keep me focused on the task at hand by making sure that my mind didn't wander to a bad mental place where I was concerned with the danger. We made quick time across the face and my butt scoot technique was improved on the way back across the knife edge. I breathed a sigh of relief once we crossed back around K2 because I knew that the tricky terrain was behind me.

Brian descends toward Capitol Lake.
We took some enjoyable glissades down the snow on the back side of K2 and then traversed the slopes back to the Daly-K2 saddle. Brian and I took a break here to get some food and change clothes while our new friends continued back to their camp. Once we got going we made quick progress back to camp where we packed up and headed down the trail. We stopped at one of the creek crossings down in the trees to pump some water and then continued down to the car. By the end of the trek down the trail we were very tired and sore and sick of mosquitoes but satisfied by the day's accomplishment.

The complete picture gallery from this climb can be found here.