The big one. The most technical standard route on a 14er. The hardest 14er. 17 miles and 5,300 feet of awe inspiring beauty and fear. Made of granite set atop ancient glaciated valleys, Capitol Peak is second only to the Maroon Bells in terms of danger. What sets it apart though? The infamous Knife Edge. In only 10 years, this peak has claimed 9 lives. Sounds intimidating, right?
Comparatively, Capitol Peak has the longest sustained difficult climbing over a distance of 1/4 mile. Every foot of this distance is exposed enough to kill should one make a mistake. Unlike most peaks, there is no forgiveness on this route. No single move on Capitol is the "hardest" move on a 14er, but put together, no other standard route requires such balanced and technical movement for such a long period of time. With this, I begin my hike.
Saturday morning began quite late, with a 7:30 AM alarm. Alysa and I talked about the plans for the weekend, I told her when I planned to return, and finally I went on my way. Light and fast, a bag weighing less than 30 pounds, with just enough food and equipment to get me up there as quick as possible while saving energy to concentrate on the anticipated route.
I arrived at the parking lot around 1:30 PM after many delays and setbacks. With no room left to park, I found an awkward space with just enough room to fit my truck. Park, snack, water, sunscreen, shoes, backpack, hike. The rhythm by now is so familiar, I could do it in my sleep. What I did not anticipate, however, was one of the most beautiful approach hikes I'd ever encountered.
Far in the distance, Capitol Peak rose far above, looming as a sirens call to all who lay eyes on it. Between Capitol and I lay a perfectly flat river valley, stretching all the way to the base of the peak, filled with evergreens and aspens just beginning to turn color. The miles rolled by, and for the first time on a 14er, I did not want the approach to end. Every mile presented a new perspective, a new glimpse of the peak with a new foreground to add to the character of the peak.
In just a couple of short hours, I had arrived at Capitol Lake, with the lofty granite summit far above, fields of snow adding texture to its spectacular north face. With every designated site full, I opted to camp on a rarely used spot just above the lake, giving me quick access to the climber's trail. The word on the trail was that a 4 AM start was called for. So what was my plan? On the trail by 4:45 AM and just be faster than everyone else! The thought was that everyone wanted to be first so as to avoid the shooting gallery of rocks below the last couple hundred feet below the summit.
5:15 AM sharp, I was out of camp (already half an hour behind). Above me lay the 800 foot grassy slope, peppered with headlamps of those who had been on time. Being alone on this particular trip, I set a hard pace, blazing the first 800 feet in under 25 minutes. From here, I dropped my poles, anticipating a very long ridge climb. Instead, far below, headlamps of climbers made their way slowly through K2 Basin. Would it really require that much elevation loss? Surely not! I began straight across the ridge, knowing others had done the same. The going at first was fast, requiring little to no loss of elevation. But soon, the climbing became dangerously loose, exposed, harder to follow, and it seemed to become vertical not far ahead. A small group of three hikers had joined me at this point. Although we were hopeful at first, it soon became obvious our effort was in vain. It may be possible to follow a small trail in the daylight hours, but with sunrise still a ways off, we were forced to retrace our steps and descend into the basin with everyone else.
40 minutes of tedious backtracking later, I was back at the top of the pass. So much for being faster! With a great deal of talus hoping ahead, I picked my trekking poles back up, and ran down the trail. In the distance, the reddish hue of sunlight was just beginning to light up the tops of the highest peaks. Soon, I was back in the races, making surprisingly quick work across the car-sized boulders. After a few more unplanned, but necessary stops, I was on the final slope to regain the ridge just east of K2. Here was the beginning of the difficulties.
K2 may not be as high as its neighbors, but it is deceptively difficult to navigate, and a route-finding error here could be your last. Up and over I went, following the climbers ahead. Soon, we were down-climbing the west side, one at a time. From here on out, only a few narrow points to pass other climbers remained. Immediately, the ridge narrowed and the climbing more difficult. Every step was on a high angle slab, relying on good handholds should I slip. All around I could hear partners encouraging their teammates, climbers speaking quietly to themselves to psyche up. Far below to the east side lay Capitol Lake, and to the west was Pierre Lakes.
The views were stunning, but the climbing required concentration. passing whenever I could, wanting to get far ahead of the dog (yes, someone brought a dog!) as possible, I moved quickly over the pointy ridge. The Knife Edge was abrupt and obvious. No other section of the ridge was so blank, narrow, and exposed. I moved quickly across, encouraging another climber ahead of me who was having a tough time with the exposure. Once across, I passed the team of two, and I was finally alone on the ridge, only one group far ahead. Soon, a decision had to be made: the more technical and exposed ridge, or a dip below the summit, with easier climbing, but much more rockfall? Not finding an obvious way back onto the ridge top, I opted for the well marked trail below the summit.
With no climbers above, the movement up was fun and quick (a very different story on the way down!). Once on the false summit, the true summit lay only a hundred feet away. I could see about a dozen climbers on top, one large group, a group of three, and a group of two. The welcoming was warm and friendly. Although I wanted to spend some time on the summit, I wanted to make it home before dark, and I knew the longer I waited, the more climbers I would have above me kicking down rocks. I inhaled as many calories as I could take in the few short minutes I was on top, made a quick call to my family, and chased the others back down the ridge.
Once on the false summit, the true risky business began. Every few seconds, another bowling ball sized rock came careening down the slope, causing everyone to duck under cover as much as possible. Not wanting any part of the fun, I opted to stay high above everyone else, and made my own way above and to the right of the climbers. Some yelling between parties could be heard, as one climber became angry with another who had almost sent a rock down on one of his daughters. As has been said by many before, this mountain is not for beginners! Once I was back on the ridge, I was on pace with the first team who had summited that day. We made quick work together, arriving back at K2 in less than 45 minutes. I lathered on the sunscreen, wolfed down the last food I had, gulped a half liter of water, and began the talus hoping back down into the basin and across to the pass.
An hour later, I was alone, far ahead of the other climbers. Taking one last look down into K2 Basin, not knowing if I would be back, I took many photos and ran back down the slope to my tent. The day was beautiful, the longing to just sit and relax tantalizing, but I had a goal: home by dark. Keeping that at the forefront of my mind, I packed, refueled, and skipped back down the trail. A couple of blisters and hours later, I was back at my truck. Even in the short amount of time I had left the truck, it was obvious the aspens leaves were changing color quickly. Winter was coming, and with only two peaks left, would I be able to finish before it arrived, or would I be forced to ski Kit Carson before my final climb of Wilson Peak? Only time will tell!