As I hiked the 7 miles to Capital Lake, I met several parties returning from their climb. One said "I turned back at the Knife Edge, just like last year, I just can't do it." Another, a woman who had just finished her last 14er said "I am so glad I am done with Capital." And with that, I continued, alone, considering my attempt of arguably, Colorado's toughest 14er.
I have climbed it twice as of 2012. This report is from my first climb in 2009.
Click on any picture to enlarge it.
Capital Peak is a quiet giant, hidden from view deep in the Elk Rage just outside of Aspen, It had been on my list forever and this mid 2009 September felt like a good time to go. My regular 14er partners had other obligations and I needed to get on with my climbing of the more difficult peaks so I elected to go it alone but with the option to bail at the first sign of trouble.
I easily found the trailhead at the end of a dirt road most any vehicle could make in dry weather. The Ditch Trail started at the west end of the parking area. After changing from driving to hiking clothes, I hoisted my fully loaded pack and arrived at Campsite number 5 just below Capital Lake about 2.5 hours later. Along the way, I was constantly teased with unobstructed views of my objective. I was completely alone in this secluded area of the Snowmass Wilderness.
The most talked about feature of climbing Capital is the Knife Edge section of the summit ridge. This is a short section, maybe 100', with steep drop-offs on both sides. A fall would most likely be fatal. On 14ers.com, the route description simply says "It’s a short, exposed section on the ridge that requires concentration and solid nerves. If you are spooked by exposure, this area may twist you in knots. Scramble along the crest or walk along the left side while holding onto the ridge. Experienced climbers can carefully walk across most of the Knife Edge.
My plan was to begin the climb at 5:00 AM but at 4:40 it was raining - so I slept in to 6. I was not going to attempt the ridge in wet conditions. But the rain had stopped and I promptly left my cozy campsite. The first section is simple enough, climb about 900' on a grassy slope to the saddle between the 13er, Mt. Daly and Capital. I made good time to the saddle. Near the top, I heard voices and saw two climbers in the valley below, near my campsite, and felt a bit of relief that I would not be completely alone this day.
I made the turn south from the saddle on a good trail that led me to a huge area of talus - rock fragments from rockfall that is larger than scree or pebbles but not as large as boulders. The good trail soon faded but the occasional carin showed the general direction and it was clear where I need to go.
I stayed high on the slope versus taking the easier but longer lower route. This complicated route finding a bit but not too much. At this point neither K2 nor any of Capital's summit ridge was in view. I crossed a couple of solid snowfields and made the turn west onto another huge boulder field. The feature K2 appeared as a bump on the ridge and I set my course accordingly and started gaining altitude towards the ridge. I was a little surprised how far it was and long it took to reach this area.
I climbed steadily to gain the ridge holding K2 at 13,000'. K2 is larger than it appears upon closer inspection. And it is the troll to the Knife Edge, the final ridge and the summit. Climbing to K2's proper top can be easily avoided by taking a western route around the base but that wouldn't be any fun, so I climbed to the top, maybe 30' and took a nice picture of the remaining ridge line and of course Capital's summit. I downclimbed a short section of class 4 rock back to the ridge, crossed a short notch and came face to face with the ridge. By the way, crossing the notch revealed an incredibly deep gully to the east that warrants a pause.
Much to my surprise there are actually two Knife Edge sections. I quickly approached the first. The west side was smooth flat rock ending in a sharp edge. However the east side was more tame. I firmly placed my hands on the top of the ridge, my feet on small flakes below and walked across this section thinking I was crossing the Knife Edge. That wasn't so bad, I thought.
I continued along the ridge only to come upon another Knife Edge section. Oh, I thought; this is it. Without a lot of thinking I climbed on the ridge and started my crossing. With a lot of hands on top-feet on the east side, short top waking (albeit in a crouched position) and a wee bit of straddle just to please the mountain Gods; I made it safely across. Upon the completion, about 2 minutes, I looked back with satisfaction knowing I had done the crux - so I thought.
However, now the summit ridge now starts playing tough. There is no trail per se. Just a series of carins, mostly knocked over by wind, snow or "playful" climbers. The route descriptions say take a direct route about 80' below the ridge. And that I did. The climbing was a nice mixture of class 3 with some 4 thrown in due to exposure. I took a more direct line near the summit and probably approached high 4. And it was fun. This was climbing and I was thoroughly enjoying it.
The final climb to the summit was the steepest. About this time I heard voices again. My shadow climbers were on the ridge, past the Knife Edge. I gained final short section to the summit. Actually it was the false summit so it took a few more minutes of easy scrambling to reach the true summit and then I was there. It had taken about 3:45. A nice feeling.
I enjoyed the views and solitude for a while then welcomed my new friends, father and son, Scott and John Scott from South Carolina, on the summit. They were on their annual 14er week and had done many 14ers over the years.
We exchanged views of the climb up and agreed the climb from the Knife Edge to the summit was challenging and enjoyable and the Knife Edge was easier than advertised.
After a few pictures and a bite to eat, we left the summit together and downclimb back to the campsite area taking slightly less time than the ascent. Crossing the Knife Edge was almost second nature at this point. John Scott took a video of me on the way back crossing the Edge.
Capital is one of the toughest 14ers for many reasons. First, it is remote requiring a long hike in or a backpack for an overnight. Then there is the Knife Edge (or two) that requires careful attention to footing, handholds and confidence to negotiate. Finally, the actual climbing and route finding from the Edge to the summit is some of most challenging (and enjoyable), other than the Maroon Bells traverse, I have done in Colorado.
I enjoyed Capital. it had a little bit of everything you want in a challenging climb - remote, steep, difficult and rewarding. This should not anyone's first serious climb but don't let it be your last. It is a great 14er to check off once you have the proper experience.
I summited for the second time in August 2012.
Warning: Capital is serious mountaineering and climbers have died on the route I described in this trip report. It is a climb to shown the utmost respect and preferably with experienced partners, not solo as I did. If the conditions are not perfect - dry, little to no wind, no threat of thunderstorms, no ice or snow; I would not recommend climbing this route until conditions improve.