- Date: August 25, 2019
- Partner: Michael Levy
- Height: 14,130 feet
- Range: Elk
- Route: Northeast Ridge (Class 4)
- Overall Distance: 17.00 miles
- Elevation Gain: 5,300 feet (TH to summit)
- 14ers climbed: 34 separate climbs
- 14ers remaining: 19
- Road Condition to Trailhead: Getting to the Capitol Creek trailhead is a fairly benign 4WD journey. From CO 82, it’s about 10 miles to the trailhead. Drive ~2 miles miles to a junction and turn right on Capitol Creek road. Then drive ~ 6.5 miles where the road turns to dirt. Continue to reach the trailhead.
Let me just state from the beginning that this has been the toughest 14er I have done, and it’s not close. It gets a 10 out of 10 on the scale of Colorado 14er difficulty. This climb requires complete focus. Danger due to rockfall, route-finding, and exposure are all high. Novice and experienced mountaineers have died on this mountain, including 5 alone in 2017. In addition to the rockfall and exposure, I believe there are a couple of other reasons for this. First, I believe that some people, seduced by the siren calls of social media, take this mountain too lightly and are not prepared. Second, I believe that other people exert so much effort to get to the summit that they make some poor choices getting back down due to exhaustion. These are just my personal opinions.
My climbing partner for this journey was Michael Levy, fresh in from Seattle, Washington, a great guy who is in tip-top shape and experienced in mountaineering and long-distance hiking. I’ve climbed with Michael before so I knew he had the great judgment and even mental keel to attempt to do Capitol Peak.
We arrived mid Saturday afternoon to the trailhead and had a sunny and pleasant 6.5-mile hike alongside Capitol Creek to get to Capitol Lake (11,600′). I wouldn’t say this was too taxing but there was some elevation gain. We were impressed with the amount of wildflowers in full bloom along the way. It took us a little while to find a suitable campsite once we got to the lake. After setting up our tents, we nibbled on some dinner, watched a great sunset, and settled in to catch some sleep.
The next morning, we were up and after it well before dawn. From the lake, there was a very steep climb east for about 0.5 mile to gain the main ridge. Once there, we were treated to a beautiful sunrise along with some wind. From here, we headed about another 0.5 mile on the east side of the ridge. Several times we had to cross expansive snow fields and I was glad I had brought along my spikes.
The trail made a right and headed up a boulder field to K2. From this point forward, there would be nothing ahead but serious climbing, or as Michael said, “the no mistake zone”. We elected to go up and over K2 and had some Class 4 down climbing off the back side. This put us right above the infamous Knife’s Edge.
The Knife’s Edge is a sharp ridge line roughly 200 yards long with extremely steep drop offs on either side. Any fall here would certainly be fatal. Michael went across first so I had the opportunity to study his line. I decided to do a combination of “pommel horse” moves and a bit of sidehill moves where I had any footholds at all and could trust grabbing the ridge top. It felt like time was suspended and I used mindfulness to suppress any panic — I did not look down at any time and I counted from 1-to-10-to-1 over and over again to keep my focus.
So much is made of the Knife’s Edge that it is easy to not anticipate what came next. What came next was two solid intense hours of true Class 4 climbing of ascending exposed traverse and route finding over crumbly rock and boulders, often unstable, to gain the northwest ridge. Man, I was so glad to have Michael as a partner, the two of us putting our heads together to solve problems and find the route. Both of us agreed that this part of the climb was actually harder than the Knife’s Edge. It was certainly somewhat of an emotional moment for me when we summited.
I hope if you are reading this post that you take a moment to check out the pictures below I took from the top — they are truly spectacular 360 views of the Elks. This time, Michael and I lingered a little bit longer to savor this magnificent mountain.
As you might anticipate, getting down back to camp was also very slow going. Michael and I took great care to exactly retrace our steps. We were in no hurry anyway, stopping frequently to take in some snacks and water. To make a long story short, it was quite sometime after lunch before we arrived back at our tents. We had just spent ~ 8 hours on a two-mile out-and-back route! After packing up our portable homes, we sauntered back to the trailhead, arriving late in the afternoon with smiles on our faces …
What can I say? This mountain is my favorite 14er so far, not because I am an adrenaline junkie (I’m not), but because it truly tested me and I have so much respect for it. I will not soon forget this climb.