Take a Peek at Capitol Peak
I'm in a reminiscing mood; how about a change from riding and visit one of Colorado's loftier heights? Capitol Peak is a 14,130-foot peak located in west central Colorado's Elk Mountains. Capitol is the third-highest peak in the Elk Range and one of the reigning monarchs of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area. The peak is located 39 09.012' N, 107 04.970' W. and is the 29th tallest peak in the state. As the crow files, Capitol is 14 miles northwest of Aspen, 20 miles north of Crested Butte, 79 miles east of Grand Junction and 119 miles southwest of Denver.
The peak is considered one of the more challenging 14ers (a peak over 14,000 feet in elevation) to scale, if not the most difficult. The complexity has something to do with a tasty knife-edge arête separating its upper northeast ridge and point 13,664 (known as “K2”). By its easiest route, Capitol is rated class 4 when dry; you'll be doing some hand and foot work. Some parties pull out a rope. On the other hand, the airy ridge has been "tight-roped" by a handful of fearless souls. Personally, I thought the knife edge to be solid and fun. I had more concern with the crumbly upper east face. In any event, Capitol is a time-consuming peak and should not be taken lightly. Unlike the reddish, diseased and rotting terra of the Maroon Bells, Pyramid and Castle, which touch the clouds several miles to the south, Capitol boasts several technical routes on its stunning north face. Nonetheless, the rock is still quite loose.
The tall grass and meadows of wildflower displays in this range are eye-catching. Former Aspen resident and
singer John Denver had it right when he penned "Rocky Mountain High".
Following is a fun write-up from my mountaineering past.
13 July 2003
Capitol Peak, 14,130 feet
My climbing partner Todd and I have been hoping to ascend Capitol for a while, and a climbing club trip report further fueled the desire. Zeus and company always beat us back on previous attempts. We decided to try and climb it as a day trip. On Sunday, July 13, we attained our goal.
At 11 p.m. Saturday, we left Grand Junction, Colorado, and headed toward Aspen and the Capitol Creek trailhead. At 1:45 a.m. we entered the quakies via the ditch trail under a fantastically bright full moon. Our headlamps were left off much of the time, and the tug of a moonlit Capitol Peak was not only strong, but bordering surreal. After crossing Capitol Creek, we entered a small clearing in the riparian area. In the dim, creamy light, the clearing was speckled with odd, yet similar rocks rising about three feet. "Weird," I thought to myself. At that same instant, all of the dark shapes changed form, catapulting upward in a chaotic flurry! Having jumped out of my shorts, I was already halfway to the moon. In our game of "I spook you, you spook me" we realized we had startled a group of bedded cows and couldn't have been more centered amongst them. Turning on headlamps, Todd offered me one of his walking poles as we worked our way through the bovine without getting squished.
At 4:15 a.m. we arrived at mystical Capitol Lake (11,580 ft) and stared in awe up Capitol Peak's glowing north face. After pumping water and savoring a snack, we headed up to the pass that splits Mount Daly (13,300 ft) from Capitol. So far everything had been smooth sailing. We continued up onto the snowfields of the basin leading to "K2" (13,664 ft) and found the snow had somewhat froze overnight and required a bit of care. We had ice axes, but not crampons.
A little after 7:00 a.m., we topped "K2." The view is something you have to see for yourself — pure and simple. This was the farthest I had ever been, and I was excited for the remainder. We dropped off the north side of "K2" and swung west around to the famous knife-edge ridge. The knife was easier than anticipated and a lot of fun. However, throw in some weather, et cetera, and it may be another story; you are very aware of the exposure. After the knife-edge ridge we worked our way up the east face. Several routes were cairned. We followed a route that heads out onto the east face at the same elevation and slowly works its way up to some sandy, debris-covered ledges. From the west end of the knife ridge, there is another cairned route that works its way up the ridge a short distance before heading out onto the east face. We used this latter route on the descent, and I thought it went better. However, it looks worse when viewed from the end of the knife ridge. Both routes merge in the vicinity of the debris-covered ledges. The view of Snowmass Mountain, Pierre Lakes and the Maroon Bells from this perch is astounding. At 9:10 a.m. we reached the top after taking an airy route along the upper portion of the northeast ridge. For me, scrambling up the east face was dicier than the knife ridge. The views from the summit are worth every drop of sweat shed to get there. The first peak to catch our eye was 14,092-foot Snowmass Mountain. I climbed Snowmass in 1993 and often get the urge to visit again.
Four Elk Range 14ers rise left to right: Pyramid Peak (14,018 ft), North Maroon Peak (14,014 ft), Maroon Peak (14,156 ft) and Snowmass Mountain (14,092 ft).
This is a nice tidbit. Minutes after reaching the summit, a young guy came flying up the northwest ridge. We knew of another party doing the Northwest Buttress route, and this guy wasn't part of them. As it turned out, he had soloed the Northwest Buttress route. The part I like is that he left Capitol Creek trailhead at 5:00 a.m., started climbing at 7:00 a.m., and reached the summit at 9:10 a.m. Four hours! Yeah, that's motoring! Soon it was time to go. Todd is seen finishing a descent of the knife edge with K2 in the background.
The trip back to the trailhead was enjoyable; yet, the tired bug was beginning to have a strong bite. All in all it was a fantastic day, mosquitoes not-withstanding. We didn't hear a gurgle of thunder until we were well into the trees. Our total trip time was 14:20 hours over approximately 17 miles, including 40 minutes of summit time, and some lounging and playing during the descent. If you do this in a day, state law requires you make sure you have a barley pop waiting so you can sip and savor Capitol from the trailhead — an excellent savoring site in itself.
Capitol has a very rugged south face as well.
I hope you enjoyed Capitol Peak!