Capitol Peak carries a mystique among hikers and climbers in Colorado. First climbed in 1909 by Percy Hagerman and Harold Clark, Capitol Peak is often revered as the most difficult 14er in Colorado. Capitol Peak towers above treeline in the Elk Mountains of Colorado, a crumbling mass of granite, shaped into a rugged pyramid with spiny ridges. While I have a great respect for Capitol Peak, I felt that I had personally prepared myself for the climb through graduation along the difficulty continuum of climbs in Colorado. Having summited several of Colorado's harder Centennials (highest 100 mountains), including Crestone Needle, Crestone Peak, Vestal Peak and Little Bear Peak, I felt that I had the skills and mental toughness to complete Capitol. Capitol is well-known for its "Knife Edge," a 150 ft. narrow and jagged section found on the main route of Capitol Peak. The Knife Edge is very exposed on both sides, making it a mental challenge for many climbers. Many personal friends and family members as well as reports on the internet had built up Capitol's Knife Edge's difficulty in my mind; infact, YouTube is full of videos of people climbing the Knife Edge, some recklessly crossing it like a tightrope. I was hopeful that it was more hype than people it made it out to be...
Here are some meaningful metrics from this amazing trip:
Capitol Peak: 14,130 ft. (ranked 29th in Colorado)
"K2": 13,664 ft. (unranked)
Total elevation gain: 5,300 ft.
Total distance hiked: 17 miles
Total time hiking: Approx. 14 hours
Total photos taken: 356
Total distance driven: 520 miles
Trip duration: 1 day, 19 hours
K2 (far left) and Capitol Peak (far right) seen in this dramatic panoramic. Click for high resolution version (15 mb).
That being said, Capitol Peak was not without other dangers. Many climbers have perished on Capitol over the years, oddly enough, very few of the deaths have occurred on the Knife Edge. In 2009, James Flowers, the United States Paraolympic Swim Coach, perished on the Northeast side of "K2," a sub-peak of Capitol Peak, as reported by the Aspen Times. Needless to say, great caution, respect, and preparation would be required if I were to successfully climb Capitol. First on my list for preparation was to find capable partners. This is often difficult in the mountaineering community, since many climbers inflate their abilities or do not disclose their limitations to potential partners.
Earlier this summer, I climbed Huron Peak with Mike Vetter, a Sioux Falls, South Dakota resident and an up-and-coming star in the IT realm and CEO of DataSync. Mike and I made plans to climb again this year and we set our sights on Capitol Peak. Mike invited his friend, Travis Arment, an avid marathon runner. Neither Mike nor Travis had extensive experience climbing class 4 peaks; however, having hiked with Mike in the past, and knowing that Mike was a comfortable and avid rock climber, I knew I could trust him to make solid decisions and that they would both be personally responsible enough to turn-around if the climb became too difficult. We all exchanged plans via Facebook, ensured we all had the proper gear and knowledge, and established ground rules for the climb in case something unexpected happened. Travis and Mike flew in to Denver on Friday, August 13th. I picked them both up from Castle Rock, where Travis' aunt lives, on Saturday morning and we departed for Capitol. The total drive from Colorado Springs was approximately 260 miles and took roughly 5 hours.
We arrived at the trailhead for Capitol at about 10:00 AM and were hiking by 10:30 AM. As usual, my pack was the heaviest and largest, weighing in at just over 50 lbs.
Mike's pack was medium-sized and Travis literally backpacked with a daypack. We made sure to give Travis a hard time for having the smallest pack, and Mike was quick to point out that he was carrying half of Travis' stuff. Travis was a great sport about it and agreed to share his tasty snacks on the hike up.
There are two trails for Capitol Peak - the standard trail and the "ditch trail." We chose the ditch trail due to its lack of elevation loss and gain at the start of the hike. The ditch trail is aptly named, following an irrigation ditch along the side of a ridge line which wraps around towards Capitol Peak. The irrigation ditch is used to provide water for cattle, which are known to graze this part of the Elk Mountains in large numbers.
The topo map of our route. Want to make your own maps like this? Check out the TOPO! program from National Geographic!
Capitol Peak seen from the trailhead.
Matt Payne and Travis Arment on the Capitol Peak Ditch Trail - photo by Mike Vetter
After about a mile and a half of hiking on the trail, it leaves the ditch and heads uphill, gaining half of the ridge to the west. Before we knew it, the trail meandered into a great opening, revealing Capitol Peak. Capitol Peak remained in view for much of the remainder of the hike up to Capitol Lake.
Matt Payne on the trail
Capitol Peak, about 1/3 of the way up to Capitol Lake from the trailhead.
On the way up the trail, we passed many raspberry plants, sometimes stopping to grab a snack to help fuel our ascent.
Wild Raspberries - photo by Travis Arment
Matt Payne braves the spiky bush to score some berries.
Travis Arment reaches in to score some berries.
Eventually, the trail reaches the Capitol Lake basin and intersects two side trails leading to two campsite areas, each split into four campsites (#1 through #4 and #5 through #9). We found ourselves camped at site #6, a quaint spot in the trees up on a hill.
Mike Vetter unpacks at our campsite.
After we got situated at our campsite, we took a small nap. The hike up to Capitol Lake was pretty exhausting for all of us. After our short nap, we took a walk down to the lake with our cameras and took pictures. The lake rests right below Capitol itself and was a great area to relax and take in the afternoon sun.
Capitol Lake sits beneath Capitol Peak in this 1800 panoramic photo taken above the shore.
Mike went down to the lake to fill up his water bottles, using his steri-pen to sterilize the water. Unfortunately, the steri-pen bested Mike's weary intellect and he gave up on the endeavour, conceding that my Ketadyn Hiker Pro filter would later suffice. Mike and I went down to the stream near our campsite before cooking dinner and refilled all of our water. The area surrounding Capitol Lake is really quite gorgeous, with Capitol looming over the whole area like some kind of ancient protector of its treasure.
Mike Vetter filling his water up at Capitol Lake.
I pulled out my food for the night - a custom-made soup with dehydrated vegetables and pasta with chicken. Mike and Travis were somewhat jealous of this fancy treat at first; however, the meal was about the saltiest thing I've ever ate. Mike and Travis cleaned up on their Knorr Pasta side meals and we all hit the sack at around 8 PM, with the alarm set for 4 AM.
4 AM came all too soon, despite the long night of sleep we all enjoyed. I scarfed down some homemade zuchinni bread that my wife made for me and we all grabbed our backpacks and headed for Capitol. The trail for Capitol happened to be the same trail used by our campsite, which perpendicularly intersects the Capitol Lake trail just below Capitol Lake. We made our way up the switchbacks in quick order, passing several groups. Being that it was quite early in the morning, we could see all the other hikers in the area ascending beneath us and above us. We counted about 15 to 20 other headlamps heading up.
Travis Arment (left) and Matt Payne (right) excited to be on the trail to Capitol Peak.
We reached the Mount Daly - Capitol Peak saddle about 30 minutes into the hike and enjoyed some pretty awe-inspiring sunrise views from there, which Mike documented on video:
Clouds rest in the light of sunrise to the east.
We continued up and over the ridge and descended a well traveled gully to reach the beginning of a very long stretch of boulders to the north and east of K2. The trail here mostly consisted of cairns and boulders, making for fun travel in the early light.
Mike Vetter hikes up the immense boulder field.
Out of nowhere, as if we were not expecting it, the sun blasted alpenglow onto the mountains surrounding us.
Mount Daly basked in alpenglow in the early morning.
Mount Daly in Alpenglow.
The trail eventually lead us to a snowfield, which was mostly ice. I had been warned by the snowfield by a fellow hiker, Terry Mathews. We tested our footing on the snow and ice and decided to cross it, cautiously. There were great footsteps already kicked into the snow, and the relief was not terribly steep at this point. We all made it across quite easily and continued up the boulders. We saw a large snowfield at the top of the basin on the K2 - Clark Peak saddle's face and knew that we needed to turn right before then to reach K2. We decided to head up a very solid class 4 section.
A snow and ice field adorns the face of the saddle between K2 and Clark Peak.
Travis up-climbing the solid Class 4 terrain leading to the base of K2.
Once reaching the top of the ridge between K2 and Clark Peak, we realized that we still had quite a ways to go before reaching K2. The terrain became much flatter and we were able to get to the top of K2 in short order. Many parties opt to skip K2, arguing that the approach is more difficult; however, we did not want to miss out on the views from K2's summit.
To reach the top of K2, we broke off from the main trail just after it winds itself to the right of K2 and climbed a steep but solid dihedral to the summit. Capitol Peak looked ominous from K2, dwarfing it's surroundings.
The down-climb from K2 was trickier than expected, and it forced us to backtrack a little bit to meet back up with the proper trail which winds around the side of K2. The terrain here is steep, loose, and slightly exposed.
Matt Payne downclimbing from K2.
Downclimbing K2 to reach the K2 - Capitol saddle.
I had read some reports of people dying near K2 in the past, and had always wondered how this was possible. Undoubtedly, there did not seem to be any obvious threats to one's life until we reach the backside of K2 and saw the impressive cliffs surrounding K2 and Capitol Peak. One false move and a climber could find themselves in a world of hurt.
A huge cliff greets climbers reaching the base of K2. Don't slip here...
The remainder of the climb was amazing. Capitol's ridge is a spine of crumbling boulders and jagged knives, a real tribute to the harsh and remote wilderness that the Elk Mountains call home.
Mike with K2 in background.
At this point we knew we were quickly approaching the fabled Knife Edge. The North Face of Capitol Peak shot up like an angry beast from the pits of hell. Ok - maybe not that freakish, but it was sincerely one of the more impressive rock faces I've seen. Either side of Capitol presented thousands of feet of exposure and immediately reminded you of the need for caution and careful routefinding. A fall anywhere from here on would almost certainly be fatal.
Capitol Peak's North Face - not a good place to fall.
Fortunately, the views from this part of the climb were unreal. The sun slowly rose above, providing light for the most incredible vistas of the Elk Mountains.
Snowmass Mountain, Capitol Peak's closest 14er neighbor.
We traversed across small ledges and quirky chimneys and found ourselves with what must have been the Knife Edge. K2's previously daunting surroundings now felt much easier.
Nearing Capitol Peak's Knife Edge
Looking behind: K2 and climbers reaching it's summit.
We finally reached the Knife Edge, gathered our wits about us, and gave it a go. The plan was for Mike to go first, and then to take video with his camera of us crossing. We watched the group before us, and they mostly employed a mix between the 'scoot on your ass' method and the 'hang from one side like monkey bars' method for crossing. We figured to follow suit, as both strategies seemed to appeal in their own ways.
Mike Vetter ready to cross the Knife Edge.
Mike made it across without a hitch and took this revealing photo while crossing, looking down one of the sides. It goes to show how freaky and exposed it really was.
I crossed second, making sure I had perfectly solid holds on the rock as I crossed. I employed a mix between scooting and hanging from a side and made it across fairly quickly. The technical nature of the crossing is not terribly difficult or physically demanding; however, the mental requirement to cross was great, knowing that one mistake meant death. Needless to say, don't get yourself too hyped up for the Knife Edge. It is dangerous but the risk is quite manageable with caution, careful movements and mental toughness. I did find myself breathing heavily at the end, mostly from the excitement of the whole thing.
Matt Payne starts the Knife Edge - photo by Mike Vetter.
Mike compiled some video of our crossings of the Knife Edge and placed them on YouTube:
After the Knife Edge, the going got much easier, mostly a Class 3 / 4 scramble across a fun boulder ridge. We reached somewhat of an impasse about 3/4 to the summit, having to choose to either continue straight ahead and around the left side of Capitol per the standard route's description, or to head straight up to the ridge, ascending Class 5.2 / 5.3 terrain. Being the adventurers we are, we chose the latter and went straight up. The route was solid, challenging, and enjoyable, with minimal exposure and many places to rest. All in all, I would recommend taking the upper ridge route if you feel comfortable with light Class 5 climbing and steeper terrain. Never did any of us feel unsafe on this section; although, Travis did mention later that it was somewhat spooky for him. Fortunately, Travis is an excellent athlete and managed to power himself up the steep section without any problems. We were very cognizant of the rockfall potential, taking special caution not to pull rocks down on people below us.
Once reaching the ridge again, we stopped to rest and recoup our strength for the final summit push.
Matt Payne with Capitol's summit block. Almost there.
From here, the summit push was quite fun, with Class 4 and low Class 5 moves required. We were quite pleased with our choice to go the high route, enjoying both the challenge and the solidness of the route. We watched several climbers take the lower route, a looser, chossier, and less enjoyable section of the mountain.
Mike and I took some video footage of this section:
We reached the summit at 10:15 AM as one of the first groups up. The views were outstanding and the company was superb. A group from Ft. Collins joined us on the summit, and conversation quickly went to skiing Capitol Peak. Being probably the hardest 14er to ski, theorized on the possible ski routes and I swapped stories and names of climbers we both knew of that had either skied it or attempted to, referencing Brian Kalet and Jordan White of 14ers.com fame.
The summit party. Travis tinkers with his cell phone while Matt converses with fellow climbers.
After refueling with Resees Peanut Butter Cups and Raisins, I went on a photo frenzy.
A 3600 view from the summit of Capitol Peak. Click for high resolution view.
A panormaic view of the Pierre Lakes, Snowmass Mountain, and the rest of the awesome Elk Mountains.
A panoramic photo looking north and west from Capitol Peak. The Snowmass - Capitol ridge strikes me as being quite impressive.
A massive panoramic photo of the Snowmass Basin, K2, Maroon Bells, and Snowmass Mountain. Click for high resolution version (26 meg file). How many climbers can you count?
A zoomed in panoramic photo of the Maroon Bells and Pyramid Peak. Click for full resolution version.
A super zoomed in view of the Maroon Bells.
A zoomed in view of one of the Pierre Lakes.
Mike Vetter on the summit of Capitol Peak.
Matt Payne on the summit of Capitol Peak.
A panoramic view looking down at Capitol Lake, Mount Daly, and across Capitol's ridge to the Pierre Lakes and the rest of the Elk Mountains. Click for high resolution version.
Mike was able to capture some video from the summit as well:
With no threat of weather in any direction, we decided to hang out on the summit for about an hour, enjoying the views. We eventually headed down and chose to follow the standard route. The rock was nasty through this section of down-climbing, and required good concentration, footing tests (make sure the rock does not fall when you step on it), and patience. Most accidents occur on the way down, so we were vigilant and cautious. Travis was able to capture this perspective of the rock and exposure beneath us on the down-climb.
Travis plants his foot firmly on a ledge during the down-climb from the summit of Capitol Peak.
Matt Payne carefully down-climbs from Capitol Peak.
Matt Payne with one of the Pierre Lakes in background.
About halfway back to the Knife Edge, a group of climbers were coming up Capitol below us, without helmets. They asked us if this was the way to go and we responded that it was one of the ways up. It surprised me to see how oblivious they were that we were climbing above them on loose rock. I ordered my group to stop moving until they were in a safe location below us. It really is no wonder that more people do not perish on these mountains. Ironically and sadly enough, we later learned that a 20-year-old hiker died the day before on Maroon Peak from rockfall that had come from above him. Even though he was wearing a helmet, the rock that struck him had enough force to knock him loose from the mountain and caused him to fall to his death. I strongly believe that if people took more caution and paid attention to their surroundings and used some common sense, there would be less deaths. If you need a good climbing helmet, check out this one.
We reached the Knife Edge at approximately 12 PM and crossed it in much the same fashion as before, except this time, I went first. I generously used the 'scoot on your butt' maneuver to get across.
Matt Payne crosses back over the Knife Edge on Capitol Peak, heading towards K2.
Mike captured yet another great shot from the Knife Edge, looking down at Capitol Lake:
The climb back down from K2 was fairly straight-forward but tiring. We were ready for some pizza at Beau Jo's Pizza, no doubt. We finally reached the snowfield again, and it was much softer this time, with rivers of slush flowing down it. It was somewhat scary, but I tested the footing and it felt great, so we crossed again.
Travis Arment crosses the snowfield beneath K2. Photo by Mike Vetter.
We made great time back to the Daly - Capitol saddle and I sprinted the last stretch to the saddle, anticipating the victorious beer that would be consumed once back to civilization.
Matt Payne runs the final section on the back side of the ridge between Capitol and Daly. Photo by Mike Vetter.
On the way down the hillside, Mike stopped to take some great shots of the wildflowers found on Capitol's northeast shoulder:
We made it back to camp at 2:15 PM and packed up. We refilled our water and headed out. Travis and I were motivated solely by the prospect of cold beer and fresh pizza.
I hope you enjoyed this trip report. We surely enjoyed the trip and I personally can't wait to join Mike and Travis for our next adventure.