We woke up later than usual and took our time packing up still uncertain of our next move. Capitol Peak was the next 14er en route, and we were still uncertain as to whether or not to attempt the summit. If you didn’t know, Capitol Peak is infamous for being Colorado’s most dangerous 14er with the crux of the hike being “the knife edge” – a fully exposed sharp ridge with severe dropoffs on either side. Many deaths have occurred on the climb including 5 in 2017 alone. Our morning was filled with a back and forth debate on whether or not to attempt the climb with both of us unable to make up our minds. We were exhausted from this long trip, my ankle was super swollen from rolling it returning from Snowmass, and the alternative, ie town and not risking our lives, was beckoning. We weighed the pros and cons multiple times before finally settling the debate. “We won’t regret doing it,” I told Sean. It was decided. We would make the attempt.
Leading up to this summit, we’d talked to other climbers along various other mountains about the severity of the climb and how it compares to other 14ers. Several times we’d heard it’s no worse than Pyramid Peak or Maroon Bells and had met dozens of people with less experience that had successfully achieved the summit. With all of that in mind, we began our bike ride towards Capitol Creek Trailhead.
The first half of the ride was super pleasant as we wound downhill for about 9 miles past beautiful ranches nestled in the valley. The second half kicked our butts as we climbed 2300 ft under relentless sunshine. The closer we got to our destination, the harder the ride became. Eventually, the pavement turned back to dirt, and the grade of the climb only got steeper. The final mile to camp contained too much sand to bike through, so we had no choice but to push our bikes up the hill. We arrived at the trailhead around 3:30 completely wiped. A group of older hikers inquired about our trip and was quick to offer a beer which we were eager to receive. After a couple podcasts and dinner, we went to bed super early nervously anticipating the climb ahead.
The alarm rang at 1:00 am, and we broke everything down and packed the bikes. I hadn’t slept too well and was ready to get going. At 1:40, the walk began. We followed the trail through the woods in the dark and not too long after starting saw eyes glowing ahead of us. A skunk had stopped in the middle of the trail, tail raised, to check us out. We waited. We played a little game of cat and mouse for an annoying amount of time. I’m not sure if we were the cat or the mouse. I think he knew he had the power. Eventually, the skunk left the trail, and we were able to continue. The first six miles of trail were easy walking with a gradual climb up to Capitol Lake. When we left the forest canopy, we felt lucky to catch some shooting stars streaking across the sky, likely from the tail end of the Perseid meteor shower. Once we reached the lake, we climbed a steep set of switchbacks to a saddle which finished the easy hiking portion of the climb.
From the saddle, the next section was spent looking for cairns as we skirted the cliffs next to the ridge. It was still too dark to see without our headlamps, so we patiently scoured the terrain looking for the safest route. The cliffside section was short, then it was onto the boulder field.
Dawn was starting to break, and we were getting out first real glimpse of our surroundings. We boulder hopped along slowly and carefully as the sun rose, the sky turning a myriad of colors. As we turned a corner, K2 came into sight. Familiar from studying the route, we knew Capitol Peak would come into view just beyond K2.
14ers.com gives instructions to summit K2 or bypass by skirting around. We decided to summit and pulled ourselves up with some Class 3 climbing. From the summit of K2, Capitol Peak rose in the distance, the knife edge connecting the peaks.
We came down slightly from K2 and pushed onward both of us checking in with each other frequently to make sure we were comfortable moving forward. We could see 3 climbers ahead of us, and we continued to gain on them. We watched as two crossed the knife edge slowly, carefully, successfully. As we approached, climber three was sitting safely cliff side and told us she had reached her limit. Sean led the way mostly walking along the left side of the ridge while holding onto the top. My turn. Gulp.
I searched the knife edge for foot and hand holds grateful the rock was solid, yet couldn’t seem to find the courage to walk. Instead, I decided to inch worm my way across in the most literal way you can imagine. The ridge was below my chest, my legs straddling the mountain, and I used my arms to pull my way across. It took me way longer to cross than Sean with many deep breaths, positive affirmations, and reminding myself not to look down. I was elated to exit the knife edge with my feet safely below me though we still had about 500 ft of Class 3 and 4 climbing to the summit. We ended up catching the other 2 climbers ahead of us and continued route finding together as a group of four. The remaining route proved not terribly difficult as long as I didn’t get too caught up in looking down. We all reached the summit together ecstatic to have safely climbed Colorado’s most difficult 14er.
After enjoying the summit, it was time to head back down the mountain. The only thing on my mind was recrossing the knife edge, but knowing I had already done it once helped calm my nerves a little.
As we neared the ridge, Sean managed to dislodge a big rock. He was completely stable, but the rock flipped over the edge of the mountain causing a small rock slide. We watched the rocks tumble down the mountain falling hundreds of feet in a snowball effect before settling out of sight far below us.
Not long after, it was time to cross the knife edge once more. The process was still time consuming, but I was able to cross without going full worm for too long. I rejoiced on the other side knowing I was almost out of the death zone.
When we approached K2, we decided to skirt the summit as instructed by 14ers.com. The route, however, proved just as difficult, if not moreso, than just going to the summit itself. After our final sketchy Class 3 / 4 moves, we finally reached the other side of K2 and let out a sigh of relief. The most dangerous part of our climb was over, and the joy of summiting Capitol Peak, #33 since we left Denver July 7, was setting in.
We smashed some snacks and then began the tedious boulder hop back to the saddle. It took some careful footing, but it wasn’t too long before we reached the cliffs. Considering we had skirted the cliffs in the dark, we really had no recollection of the route we had traversed. Slowly and carefully we crossed a couple gullies of loose rocks and gravel then, finally, returned to the saddle. We had completed all of the challenging climbing aspects leaving just the hiking portion back to the trailhead.
We retraced our way down the steep switchbacks to Capitol Lake and started on the 6 easy miles back to the bikes. As we hiked, we past many eager backpackers coming up to Capitol Lake. As with Snowmass, most people backpack into the lake and then summit the next day. We were among the minority doing the entire traverse in one day.
We were also pleased knowing that we wouldn’t be with a couple dozen climbers the next day on a summit attempt. While we were grateful to share the summit with two others, crowds on slim routes with loose rocks aren’t necessarily safe or appealing. The joy of being finished with Capitol Peak and the pride in our accomplishment only grew as we neared the trailhead. I let myself be distracted by the podcast “You Made It Weird” with Pete Holmes interviewing Josh Gad on our way back. (Another of my favorites. Click here to check it out!)
At 3:10 we made our triumphant return back to the trailhead, 13.5 hours after we had started. We slammed some cold soaked ramen noodles and started riding eagerly to town. 24 miles away, our much earned hotel room was calling.
If you’re keeping track…
834 Miles Biking / +88,100 ft elevation gain
255 Miles Hiking / +104,100 ft elevation gain
33 – 14,000+ ft Summits
We are Bekah and Sean, out on an adventure to summit as many CO 14ers as possible this summer and reaching them via bicycle! Follow along here, on Instagram, or Facebook as we complete our Summer of Summits.