Aside from Little Bear Peak, Capitol Peak, is considered the state’s most difficult 14er to climb. Scraping the sky at 14,137 feet, this is Colorado’s 32nd highest mountain. Don’t let that number fool you, the fatalities are sharp and quick.
I was already glowing with glory as I drove away from Little Bear heading toward Capitol. I couldn’t turn down the invite to climb the hardest class 4 the Colorado Fourteeners have to offer. While Capitol Peak was planned for weeks, I wanted to put my body to the test and climb them back to back, less than 24 hours apart. I’ve climbed 3 and 4 mountains in one day, so theoretically I felt prepared for this boomerang.
Began the drive into the trailhead with an exciting surprise – I SAW MY FIRST COLORADO BEAR. Only took 4 years of living here. I suppose climbing Little Bear that morning must have opened some mystic portal to all the bear viewing. Anyway I was grateful for the close encounter and found my friend Jenny. We set up camp in her fancy Tepui and quickly found sleep.
That night was restless. I tossed and turned in my sleep as my stomach growled. I had enough food. I thought I had enough water. Why did I feel so nauseous? Almost feverish, experiencing hot flashes but writing it off as the amazing insulation of Jennys’ Tepui tent.
The four of us set out at 3am, well before sunrise. Lillian gracefully lept across cow patties in the pasture, meanwhile Jenny and Brandon stared at the meteor shower above. Our goal was to meet our two friends, Dan and Katie, camping at Capitol Lake. My stomach was still hurting, as if I had food poisoning and was carrying a stone.
We found them just after 6am, when they were scheduled to leave without us. I rejoiced as we approached them waiting on a rock off the trailhead. We look behind us and another hiker is quick on our trail. Who was it? JEFF! The fun California botanist who was invited to join our group to avoid going alone.
Sunrise found us quietly and we watched the lake below wake up from our saddle perch. The group somehow grew to eight as two others from the trailhead teamed up with us. I wasn’t expecting, nor hoping for a large group, but the personalities vibed on the same frequency.
We started out giggly and eager. Each step was a brisk, yet slow roll into the morning. Meanwhile my hands were sweating and I felt much slower than normal.
We spent almost an hour crossing this field of talus. The talus turned into large boulder slabs, and we joyfully bounced across them. Everyone spread out and made their own adventure through the valley, always waiting for the group to catch up on major segments. I took a look around our group on the mini snack break and knew I had enough in me to carry on with them. The air filled with positivity and I couldn’t let myself or them down. Clearly I wasn’t sick enough to turn around, or I would have.
Eventually we approached K2 – a brief taste of exposure that requires technical climbing down. The rock was solid compared to Little Bear Peak, but we each helped one another spot the loose slabs just in case.
One tricky move before touching the lower trail toward the knife edge was to stretch your body down a few feet, hoping to find a decent foot hold before letting go of the secure slab above.
Today it was this type 2 kinda fun that kept me going! I was monitoring my breaths, but aside from that, didn’t really know what signs to look for that would make me stop and turn around. Vomiting? No way.
The knife edge found us with open arms. Literally. We hugged that skinny slab of rock like our lives depended on it. Actually, they really did depend on it.
A few weeks prior, a young man died at this exact point. Some speculate it was during the floods and the rock was slippery. A rescue team of three came to search for the body, however they were each injured by falling rocks (from climbers above) and helicoptered out. It was a tragic accident that left the body uncovered.
Needless to say, I did my best to avoid thinking about the poor guy resting below me as I battled my own health. I slowly scooted across, finding renewed energy in each burst of adrenaline. One should make it across if they straddle the rock across the entire 600 ft stretch.
After the knife edge, you mentally feel like you are already at the summit. Our group continued on for another hour or so, climbing rock after rock.
The routes are not easily marked at this point, but if you look hard, you can spot the cairns, or as our friend like to called them, “Rock Ducks”.
My stomach was not letting up despite the water, medicine, electrolytes and salt tabs my friends gave me. I had never felt this way after or during a climb and assumed it must have been something I ate between climbing Little Bear to Capitol.
My energy levels were lower than normal, despite training my body for years to survive on so little water. Something was wrong, but I was determined, and to be honest, too far to turn around now. So I sucked it up, and slowed down my breath, focusing on each step.
We made it to the top by 11am, and what felt like my last lung. It was so rewarding to soak up the blue skies and lakes below. I found my seat and sprawling across the rock, ready to fall into a deep sleep. The group trailed in, one by one, and the eight of us had the summit to ourselves!
Throughout the years hiking fourteeners, never had I found a crew so dial-ed into summit snacks. Jenny came prepared with her chocolate-dipped dehydrated fruit, twizzlers, and mini peanut butter pretzels. Dan arrived with sardines over salted crackers and wasabi peas. I felt so basic with my apple and had to laugh feeling like we were comparing elementary school lunches.
We spent a good hour at the top, enjoying each others company and cracking jokes. In all honesty, we probably were just dreading to climb back down. Eventually another group approached and we took our queue to scramble out. Somehow climbing down a summit always feels longer than climbing up. We achieved our greatness, we peaked, and now all that is left is go down.
The nausea was not fading, and each step became difficult. My stomach pounded in unpredictable pain, so much that it hurt to talk. When I finally approached the knife edge, I was actually concerned. I’ve been on 53 summits now, and never had I doubted myself on a mountain. I was scared to black out mid-straddle across the cliff. It certainly was helpful to have seven friends ahead and behind me, silently supporting as we each made our way through the trenches.
There was only one difficult spot where I became dizzy and saw spots. The mountain moved all around me and I had to stop crawling on the knife edge. I was practicing all five points of contact (hands, feet, and chest) as I took in deep breaths. I knew I shouldn’t linger long, so I kept moving, and reached the side of safety with a big exhale.
We carried on many more miles throughout the day – I started to realize that maybe it wasn’t my lunch and that I was possibly experiences symptoms of severe dehydration. I didn’t notice because I skipped the moderate signs of headaches and went straight into fight or flight mode. Yet the end was more in sight that ever, and that kept me going with each step closer to home.
We all made it back to the trailhead parking lot around 5pm. After 20+ miles of hiking that day, including the Little Bear summit and road hike down, I was spent. I bolted to the nearest town of Aspen to resupply on water and food, hoping to set myself up for the four hour drive home to Denver. I started driving only twenty minutes when my eyes began to blur and I swerved my car over the median more than twice. It was clear I couldn’t drive, so I pulled over in Glenwood Springs to car camp until morning.
I was grateful to know when to stop and rest. The next morning I awoke with 110% energy again and found myself in a nice coffee shop around 6am. Coffee in hand, I got back on the highway to make the 3.5 hour trip home. To my surprise I SAW ANOTHER BEAR CROSSING THE ROAD 20ft IN FRONT OF ME. There were no other cars on the highway when the fluffy black/brown big guy ran across the empty road. Pretty sure Little Bear Peak took my wish to see a bear and granted me with two big bears, back to back.
Moral of my story. Drink more water?