There’s two things to know about 14,130 ft. Capitol Peak before you climb it. One, there’s no easy way up. And two, not surprisingly, there’s no easy way down.
Capitol Peak can be a worrisome summit for those looking to stand atop every Colorado 14,000 ft. peak. Unlike the hiking and light scrambling found on the majority of 14ers, Capitol Peak is regarded by some as having the most difficult standard route of all. In the conversation are also Little Bear Peak, Mount Wilson, the Maroon Bells combo and Pyramid Peak. So what sets Capitol Peak apart? Is it really the king of 14ers?
The entry to Capitol Peak belies the challenges ahead. The peak looms in view during the entirety of the 5.5 mile hike into Capitol Lake, a popular camping spot and staging area for summit attempts. A gentle, very well maintained backpacking trail roves above a deep, colorful aspen lined valley. Even though there’s over 2,500 ft. of elevation gain, it comes gradually. Friendly cows moo their support as you transition from aspen to pine forest, then finally top out at timberline camp at 11,600 ft. at the lake.
Even the first part of the actual summit hike begins on a well worn trail, complete with helpful, lung-preserving switchbacks. After reaching the saddle between 13,300 ft. Mount Daly and Capitol Peak, it’s time to get to work. Before one reaches the ridge proper to Capitol, there’s a pair of options: stay high on ledges with some surprising exposure and difficult class 3 and 4 moves or sacrifice elevation and drop into the talus strewn basin. The lower route stays class 2 but is dangerous due to constant rockfall. The higher route is difficult to suss out and has sections of loose, unstable rock – so pick your poison.
Both options merge on a high talus field below the sub-summit of Capitol Peak, the 13,664 ft. dome known as “K2”. Climbers can go up and over K2 or skirt around the north side. Both scenarios confirm the presence of serious class 4 moves with big fall potential. Shortly past K2 begins what for many is the crux of the entire line: the infamous knife edge.
It’s not that there’s anything particularly harrowing about the geometry of the knife edge. At any time, a climber can safely straddle the triangular rock and relax for a bit. There’s even a few healthy foot-friendly ledges on either side of the ledge that come and go. If it was located at sea level, children would giggle across with arms spread out no problem. However, the only salt water in this neighborhood is the sweat on your brow as the drop offs on either side plummet 1,500 ft. to rocky boulder fields. You’d be broken like a porcelain mouse dropped from the Eiffel Tower if you blew it. So yes, it does get your attention.
After you’ve hiked/scooted/scrambled across the knife edge, the standard route is a half mile of unrelenting class 4 terrain. Most climbers stay below the summit on the south side of the peak, opting to scramble across semi-stable rock rather than deal with the highly exposed spine of the mountain. It takes expert route finding to reach the safest way to the summit but wow, what a view! The Elk Range is a spectacular sight from Capitol’s apex, with Snowmass Mountain and the Maroon Bells dominating the skyline. Capitol Lake is a moonboot-print in the hard rock below. Several hidden lakes on the south side of the mountain appear, one resembling a heart on the verge of breaking.
Glory is short-lived on the top, for of course you need to still get down. Tricky class 3 and 4 face-in downclimbing keep your nerves on edge. And of course, there’s still the little matter of re-crossing the knife edge and skirting K2 back to the boulder field. Just to throw in a little bonus, you’re once again faced with the choice of losing and regaining about 600 feet of elevation in the valley or scrambling high back to the Daly-Capitol saddle.
Survive all that and you’ll once again enter the world of peaceful, easy trails and calm alpine streams. The juxtaposition is reminiscent of the famous shift in perspective passing through the Key Hole on Longs Peak. No doubt the hike back to the trailhead will take a bit of time but in the midst of welcoming aspen forests and carpets of wildflowers, it’s easy to relax.
So is Capitol the hardest 14er? It may very well offer the most exposure. The route finding requires a keen eye. I’d put in league with Little Bear as the top two toughies. And it depends on the day. If your head is in the right place, you’re feeling strong and the weather cooperates, Capitol can be a memorable and thrilling experience. If high exposure wrings the adrenaline out of your guts and your inner voice is screaming like John Madden on a 747… then Capitol is going to be a trial.
Like many worthwhile experiences, it’s not supposed to be easy. If you’re ready for big thrills and want to test your meddle in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, Capitol is waiting.