The most shocking part about climbing this mountain is how different the experience can be for each climber in the same party. For my 3 friends, it was an incredible time, totally fun, no big deal. For me, this mountain almost killed me, and has changed my feeling towards mountains for the rest of my life. I will never climb on any rock this sketchy ever again, and will reconsider my climbing trips to mountains and routes that overtly warn against unstable rock combined with high exposure in 100% no-fall zones. This is the story of that trip.
The genesis for the idea of this trip was surprisingly simple. I was looking on google maps at mountains in Colorado and randomly clicked on Capitol Peak. I’d never heard of it before, but was immediately hooked when I saw the first photo that accompanied the Mountain’s info on Google. It was a shot of a climber walking off the knife’s edge that leads to the summit of Capitol Peak. That scene captivated me, and I quickly sent it to my friends to see if they’d be in for a trip. Without much debate, they were in and we were headed off to Colorado on a weekend in the middle of August. The four of us, Kyle, Pete, Tyler, and myself were in for a wild weekend.
Before we loaded up the truck with gear, I obviously did as much research as possible trying to understand what we were getting ourselves into. Capitol Peak sits at 14,130 feet, with 5,300 feet of elevation gain from the trailhead over the 17 miles. Everything I had read warned how dangerous this mountain is. It’s class 3/4 for most of the climb which means it’s going to cross loose rock and require scrambling and minor amounts of rock climbing (which is class 5). The people of the internet frequently mentioned how bad the rock quality is and combined with 100% no-fall zones for most of the ridge climbing, makes it especially dangerous. So we took note and packed accordingly.
The plan for the trip was to do it over 3 days. Leave Friday from SLC, camp near Fruita so that we could mountain bike Saturday morning and then hit the trailhead by the evening. Then, summit on Sunday, leaving Monday to backpack out and make the 7 hour drive back. The hike in was pretty cruiser. 6 miles from the trailhead to the designated campsites below Capitol Lake with only 2,000 vertical gain. Unfortunately, we got a late start and quickly were hiking in the dark. Luckily we found an empty spot to pitch our tents, Everest Base Camp style, at site #5.
The following morning, we awoke to the incredible view of Capitol Peak towering over us. Instead of an alpine start, we decided on sleeping in and starting mid morning. The weather was looking perfect, zero chance of the normal Colorado afternoon storm, so there was no need for us to head up in the dark. We packed up the rest of our gear for the hike/climb, knowing full well we’d need helmets, but I also made sure everyone brought a harness and I carried the rope just in case. I didn’t want to get caught in a situation where someone might need to be rescued off the side of the mountain without a rope.
The climb starts quickly, right from camp with nearly a 1,000 feet of switchbacks up to the saddle between K2 and Mount Daly. From here, the easiest parts of our day were behind us. We dawned helmets and headed onto the backside of the ridge. We were quickly met with a sketchy slab traverse across a chossy gully, then an endless slew of scree and boulders to cross. Between the balancing act of boulder field crossing, there were 3 snowfields that we also needed to cross. We all had crampons, but chose not to put them on because of how short the fields of corn snow were. It’d take longer to strap them on and off than to just risk it. Luckily, crossed the snow with minimal issues and were soon on our way up to the saddle below K2.
Slowly, but surely, we climbed across the much larger boulders up to the saddle. From here we could see far off into the distance of the Elk Mountains, down at the pristine blue Pierre Lakes, and ultimately, at what lay ahead. The rocky summits of K2 and Capitol Peak off in the distance. Once we reached the technical portion of K2, we asked parties ahead of us for Beta and they were quick to put the fear of god in our eyes about what was yet to come. Thankfully, we didn’t take their advice too seriously, and proceeded onto the the route up K2. Kyle and Pete went first assuring us that it was safe and manageable. We summited K2 with a set of bouldering moves that most anyone can do. With spirits high, we slowly moved off the summit, down to the north side slabs and then onto the ridge and eventually onto the infamous Knife’s Edge.
The rock here was awesome, and even fun. We moved carefully along the ridge, climbing up and over rock outcropping a before the Knife’s Edge. Once there, we slowly made our way across, making sure to capture as much on camera as possible. This was a photo I’d been dreaming about since the trip planning. Of course, I botched it and didn’t get the shot I wanted, but luckily Tyler got it of me instead! The Knife’s Edge was surprisingly straight forward and more secure than anything else on the route. You can either walk across (if you’re crazy), shuffle across, slab traverse either the left or right side, or a combination of all 4, which is what we did.
Then came the sea of rock we needed to cross and climb to reach the summit. Rather than go up the loose direct ridge, we chose to go left, on the south face, following carin to carin. If we were on good rock, it meant we were on route, if it started to pull out of the wall or fall beneath our feet, then we were off route. But that was easier said than done. We regularly climbed the obvious route and pulled on massive rocks that shifted under the weight of a hand or foot. So carefully, we moved over and up, towards the summit. By this point, Kyle and Pete were far ahead, climbing much faster than Tyler and I. And that was when I almost had an accident that could have killed me.
I made a move onto an exposed ledge of rock, and when I went to make the next move upward, I had pulled onto a rock the size of a keg. Thinking it was stable at first pull, I weighted it. Then, with both hands on it, the entire chunk began to move. It slowly began to fall into my lap as the momentum of my body was falling away from the wall. I scrambled as quickly as I could, trying to grasp at any rock nearby, but they pulled out of the wall as well. Nothing was stable, and I was falling backwards in slow motion. Luckily, the keg size rock eventually stopped falling at my feet, I was able to regain my balance, and at the last second, grab onto a solid rock. This whole ordeal maybe took place over the course of 1/2 to a second, but felt like eternity.
It’s true what they say, your life flashes before your eyes and the only thing I could think about was my fiancé, Courtney, and how stupid this whole ordeal was. Why was I out here, what was I trying to prove, was it all worth the risk?
I regained my composure, and the two of us climbed on, reaching the last section up to the ridge and joined our friends on the summit. I was elated to be up there but knew we were only halfway. We enjoyed summit beers in the strong Colorado sun and relaxed for a bit.
We dawned our packs once more and descended off the route we came up. To be honest, moving down off the route was much much easier than climbing up because of the simple reason that you knew what was stable because you were standing on it. I still took my time, and triple checked all rocks before loading them and made my way off the ridge. Crossing the Knife’s Edge and then crossing the bail-off route around the north side of K2.
Finally, we were out of the exposure zone and could relax much more. Only the descent down the big boulder field, crossing of the snow fields, and a few tricky sections of scree skiing, we were back onto the saddle above the camp. We had done it! It was an incredible experience, one that I’ll never forget, for better or worse. I’m glad I did it, but it was not worth it. The views were amazing, but we could have easily gotten the same views from a surrounding peak. It was more of the time with my friends that made it remotely worth it up there.
My name is Zachary Kenney and I’m an adventure filmmaker & photographer. My passion is to tell stories that will hopefully motivate you to go live a more adventurous life. Whether that is to experience the view from the summit of a mountain, or wandering through a new town on a road trip. Currently based out of Park City, UT.