It’s very nearly one year since my first attempt on Capitol Peak; as it was I intended to summit the glorious and dangerous peak as the 28th 14er on my 28th birthday. Things went awry, to say the least, kicking off what would turn out to be a long and tumultuous quest to finally stand on top of the mountain I now love the most.
So if you’ve been reading for a while you might remember that last year’s birthday Capitol attempt failed because the Elks got 3 feet of snow the day before. It became my first winter camping trip, and going up on that class 4 ridge drowned in snow was maybe the biggest risk I’ve ever taken.
Because of my fanatic single-focus Nolan’s training this year, I didn’t even leave the Sawatch until the end of August when I made a glorious and successful attempt on North Maroon Peak, one of my favorite ascents of all time and my first class 4 Elk summit (the “Maroon Bells” along with Capitol are recognized as both the deadliest and most technical of the 14,000+ ft mountains in Colorado). Naturally, now free of Nolan’s (for the rest of this year anyway), Capitol was scheduled and I was so ready to get back to that magical valley, which has definitely become my favorite place in Colorado.
Maroon Bells 💙
I made two unsuccessful attempts on Capitol with the toughest mountain runner I know, my friend Trish. I believe that Mama Elks was physically shaking us off the Northeast ridge with the loudest, wildest thunder you’ve ever heard. [okay listen, did you know if you can hear thunder then lightning is less than 10 miles from you? And even crazier, if there’s less than 30 seconds between the thunder and lightning then it is less than 6 miles from you…ipso facto if there’s only a few seconds between…I’m just saying it’s fucking close! Also, we apparently know now the talus in our beloved mountains conducts lightning (because of the indirect lightning strike on Handies during Hardrock this year) but I couldn’t find any full explanation]
After a week including two trips to Aspen (and beyond) and two sadly unsuccessful attempts (that were still most excellent days in the mountains AND we discovered CP Burger so really great days overall) I have to admit I was more crestfallen than ever before. Capitol looms like a beast from Lord of the Rings over the Capitol Creek valley and you can see it from the TH and almost the whole way in. Honestly there is no place more epic, this mountain is just it.
Hayden Survey named Capitol Peak in 1874 (which you may remember was during the gold rush in the High Rockies), comically because of its “resemblance to the Capitol Building”. No one attempted to climb it until 1909, because it appeared to be an impenetrable fortress and it wasn’t thought possible. Percy Hagerman and Harold Clark of Aspen summited for the first time on August 22, 1909. These pioneers also gained the first ascents of North Maroon Peak, Pyramid Peak, and many of the treacherous 13ers in the Elks (yes, Hagerman and Clark Peaks are definitely named after them). Hagerman said later “there is one rather sensational bit of 40 ft where the ridge is so sharp that one must get astride of it and move along hands and knees…the drop here is something like 1,500 feet, not straight but appallingly steep and smooth”
I attempted Capitol a fourth time by myself. The result was a hyperextended knee, my first real knee injury and let me tell you it struck terror into my heart. I’ll talk about this more at some point in the future, when writing about it becomes cathartic instead of heart wrenching.
Anyway, still injured I saw what appeared to be one last glimmer of hope in the form of a 3-day weather window, which will probably be the last before the Elks are covered in snow for the year. I got up balls-ass early (I don’t understand what that expression means either) and Hooptie and I drove to Aspen (then 14 miles North, and something like 12 miles west until the Jeep road ends…) and I got out and started walking. And boy has it been a long time since I WALKED a trail! It takes for fucking ever, just sayin. It was a perfect clear sunny day and I couldn’t help but see it for what it was- Mama Elks was finally saying I was worthy. Not gonna lie, my knee hurt and it was disconcerting. But I kept on; I knew it was my last chance this year and I wouldn’t give it up for anything (if you’ve read this blog before we all know how irresponsible I am, and you guys I just don’t care). The first time things get weird is downclimbing K2, especially since that was the only part of the route with snow on it. Shortly thereafter you see the “baby knife edge” and you’re like REALLY!?! No way…then you get to the real Knife Edge and you’re like OHHHHH ok I get it. And you throw a leg on either side and squeeze your knees into the rock and cross the thing on your hands. So, I’m not afraid of heights. And by the end I was gasping for breath. I wasn’t SO freaked out that I DIDN’T take a Knife Edge selfie though
The worst thing about solo ascents of Capitol is being alone on the Knife Edge/not having a buddy to take a sweet badass picture of you on it (ok I’m kidding…I really think the exposed scary bits would have wreaked less havoc on my nervous system if I had a friend). So Mr. Badass Hagerman says that after this point the climb is “arduous” and I think that’s a beautiful euphemism. This sums it up, I think: the route on Capitol is great because for hours you’re like ok I’m on route, climb, climb, super exposed, where the fuck is the route, nbd I guess I’ll just traverse this cliff until, infinity later, you’ve nearly circled the summit it seems like and you’re finally there. I summited to greetings from two friendly gentlemen, who immediately asked me where my helmet is and ARE YOU ALONE!?! I wasn’t even initially annoyed though, they weren’t being condescending at all (like the usual tough guy mountain nit wits) and I don’t think it had anything to do with my being a small girl.
The weather was a real treat-above treeline lately it’s been winter for sure but today with the perfect sun and no wind it was warm and sweet. Those guys told me they’d been napping and I believe it. I have to admit it was anti climactic. I was content but not deliriously happy. Maybe I knew the way down wouldn’t be easier?
I peaced off the summit first and in a hurry. It was all going great, and actually the return trip over the Knife Edge I kind of spidermonkeyed super fast with some kind of renewed confidence. All was well until below the ridge after K2, where you have the high road/low road options and I chose high because it’s faster. The high route is harder to find, in fact I’ve never been able to keep it on the return trip but I was overly confident because I’d followed it all the way in. The trouble here is that it cliffs out between, and if you’ve chosen the high road and lose the route you’re…fucked.
I don’t know what happened, it’s safe to say that at this point I was a little mentally exhausted. I was following cairns and the route disappeared. I climbed up and down looking all over for it and suddenly I was stuck. And for the first time I can understand why someone might call Search and Rescue…they’ve backed themselves into a terribly dangerous corner that will require some serious climbing to get out of…and maybe they’re alone and without ropes. And then they[I] panic. Huddled on a ledge, shaking so violently I bumped my head, I was desperately trying to calm down and get enough courage to turn around and start the long climb down. I kept hoping to see ANYBODY descending appear at the top of the rock field, but I had apparently put myself over an hour ahead of them. I turned my phone on and by some luck I had service. I called a friend and immediately burst into tears and told her I was in a bad climbing situation and I needed to calm down. I also swore I was giving up mountains, and I was going to be a nurse and have a normal life and watch Netflix (BWAHAHAHA YEAH RIGHT. Look mountains, I’m really sorry for those crazy things I said but you know they’re not true). The phone call worked though and four minutes later I was shaking much less and steeled to climb down to (eventually) solid ground.
So basically, MAD respect for Capitol, who makes every other ascent (including North Maroon Peak) look like child’s play. After so many hours of exposure, my nervous system was just fried, but now I know it’s that much stronger. By the time I was back to Aspen I was thinking about my next ascent (yeah when I got back to Hooptie I was still decompressing) and by the time I was home I was ready to say THAT WAS AMAZING. Hard earned, to say the least, summiting Capitol felt like a real accomplishment. 77 miles on foot, 20+ hours of driving, every kind of storm, lightning, hail, an avalanche, a sprained ACL. 💙 You Capitol.