Capitol Peak

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?

Little Bear Peak

Little Bear Peak is Colorado’s most dangerous Fourteener. The Peak is located deep in the Sangre De Cristo Mountain Range, towering above the San Luis Valley at a height of 14,037 feet. True to its name, you should not poke this cute bear, nor climb all over it because you may just anger the beast.

Lake Como, also known for being the most difficult road in America, is a 5 mile hike into the lake, where we were setting up camp that night. The sun was setting Thursday evening as we began the long journey into the dark. Headlamps guided us in around 9pm and we attempted to sleep despite the 30+mph winds.

We set out at 5:30am, a little later expected after a night of restless tent-flapping. The trail felt all too familiar, after all, we were just there three weeks ago climbing the adjoining fourteener group: Blanca and Ellingwood Peak. Little Bear Peak is 14 miles roundtrip from the bottom of the parking lot, and we were grateful to get the first 6 miles out the night before. Funny how easy a map can make the last mile to summit appear. We had at least four obstacles that laid ahead: The Talus Gully up the west ridge notch, the long walk across the south ridge, the famous Hourglass, and the ugly, exposed remaining route above the hourglass.

Kelsey and I began the ascent into the Talus Gully with little optimism, attempting not to look at the loose rocks above. With each step we took, a small mountain of scree would slide below our feet. The occasional larger rock would fall and everyone would simultaneously scream “ROCK!”.

It continued like this for over an hour, and we quickly made friends with the young climber coming up below us. Liam was a junior in high school from Fort Collins, and shared the same goal of bagging this difficult peak. We fell into the saddle with surprise, watching the early morning sun peak its head above the valley. There were jokes of this mountain being the only bear I will probably ever see in Colorado. Crazy how I have lived here four years and never seen a bear in the wild.

Let’s just skip the long, enduring walk across the south ridge, as it was a series of elevation de/increase, leaving us a bit deflated for the hourglass. We approached with confidence, relieved to know we were the first to summit and therefor nobody would be above us. The most dangerous part of this section, and the reason for previous injuries and fatalities.

Nearly an 800ft vertical climb through a chute of slab, loose rock, this section really requires technical skills. The routes are unmarked, requiring you to determine each hand hold as it comes. There is a measly rope, however the other broken ropes at the top remind you to not rely on it.

Larger rocks drop, regularly and unpredictably into the steep, narrow section below, potentially resulting in fatal falls. There is no avoiding this unfortunate part of the climb, and for that reason, every climber spaces out and gives other groups room to safely climb.

Just out of the hourglass it begins to open up into another large field of loose talus. At this point we are straight bouldering without ropes and cautiously practicing three points of contact.

I step up onto a slab, sending a small rock down the gully. Panic ensues as I yelled “ROCK!” loudly several times, hoping that the two guys below were no where near. No bigger than a book, I sincerely hoped it would fuze out and stop after a few plunks down. However, the rocks on this mountain are like dominos, each one setting off the next rock tumbling down. It picked up speed, hitting another rock and combusting into five smaller astroids down the opening until you could no longer see it through the angle of the steep slope…

The next few seconds of stillness were nerve-wracking. The three of us quietly listened for any sign of good/bad news. Not hearing a thing, we continued up the steep wall of focus. We were in the home stretch, and the peak loomed over us from above, tempting us to come closer.

At the summit, I felt accomplished, and cute. I would not recommend this mountain for everyone, because it’s not just the technical nature of the route that makes this climb so formidable, but the unpredictable nature of rockfall risk. I was so proud of myself for finally tackling it and proving to myself that I was ready for the route.

I can understand why the hourglass is difficult to share amongst other climbers; I learned how to plan for rocks that ricochet, and how to accept those who consider themself too experienced to ever drop rocks on someone else.

As always, the climb down was exhausting. It is often overlooked that just because you can get yourself up, doesn’t mean you don’t have to climb back down. The hourglass down was challenging, and ran into another group where we paused and encouraged them on. It took us another a couple hours to back-climb down the gully and across the talus field.

We reached camp a little after 12pm and quickly packed up, knowing full-well the hardest part of this journey was going to be the brutal 2.5 hour hike down Lake Como Road again. The rocks rolled my ankle across every switchback and my mental energy was just as low as my physical.

We stayed optimistic, attempting to soak in the last views of Blanca before jumping on the road again. One quick food pitstop in Buena Vista (2.5 hours north) before I would drive another 2 hours toward Aspen. I was planning to reset my body clock and repeat the climb, just with the most technically draining 14er in all of Colorado – Capitol Peak.

When do you make the SOS call?

🚨
My voice echoed throughout the gullies as I shouted for @sturgeon.dan – my hiking bud had been missing for 30min.
🌨
We were last together on Kit Carson, our attention on the clouds. They were unlike anything I’d seen, playful pillows hiding behind the summit. I saw another cluster in the distance. Were they closing in on us? I warned Dan that we had about 30min – whatever was coming, we would be in the eye of it.
πŸŒͺ
I paced the avenue as 1/2 blizzards dumped, debating on if I should go back to search for him. The snow was hitting from all directions & I lost vision. My heart pumped as a memory of my CapHill 1BD entered; Matt and I playing rummy in front of a fireplace. I could hear the fire cracking as my toes soaked through a 2nd set of socks. I could feel the purr of Chip as my fingers became numb from scrambling. I wanted so badly to be on the couch with them.

🚁
The 2nd blizzard hit & the reality of the situation settled in. Dan may not get off this mountain. If he is in need of help, rescue could take over 12hrs & the snow could cover him. Screw the fees, how can you put a price on someones life? My hands shook as I held down the SOS button on the Garmin InReach. Then watched the 20sec countdown commence.
πŸ†˜
Better to search for 1 person than 2. I marched across the ridge line, bullied by wind. It blocked all sound, except for the GPS device, which synced morbid beeps to my heartbeat. I constantly looked behind me for a silhouette. BREATHE. Finally saw a figure & broke down in tears. HE IS ALIVE! I quickly cancelled the call for emergency rescue.
πŸ—»
3/20 hikers summited this snowy class 3. The other guy began at 2am. 15mi post-holing over 14hrs.
Looking back I am not regretful nor wiser. We had the energy & skill to accomplish, but losing a hiker is unspeakable. A truly remarkable, memorable hike that left my bones rattled and mind full of gratitude.
🀯
πŸ·πŸΊπšŽπš›: Challenger + Kit Carson
π™΄πš•πšŽπšŸπšŠπšπš’πš˜πš—: 14,081’ + 14,165’
π™»πš˜πšŒπšŠπšπš’πš˜πš—: Westcliffe, CO
πšƒπ™·: Willow Creek
π™³πš’πšœπšπšŠπš—πšŒπšŽ: 15 miles
π™΄πš•πšŽπšŸπšŠπšπš’πš˜πš— π™ΆπšŠπš’πš—: 6,250’
π™²πš•πšŠπšœπšœ: ♦️♦️♦️