Capitol Peak Panorama
Capitol Peak Panorama, Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Colorado
Capitol Peak is reputed to be the hardest Fourteener in Colorado. From a technical standpoint, that may well be true. As I pursued my Sunrise from the Summit project, however, I found peaks with difficult route-finding in the dark to be more intimidating than Capitol. With my extensive background in high-standard rock-climbing, I didn't expect to get stopped by fourth-class moves. And after all, once I was on the famous Knife Edge, the exposed granite arête on Capitol's northeast ridge, there would only be one possible route. Since I planned to shoot sunrise from the summit, I expected to be back down in camp long before the usual afternoon thunderstorms fired up. What I hadn't anticipated was bad weather at sunrise.
After my Eolus and Sunlight shoots, I spent a couple of days photographing abundant fields of lupine in the Sneffels Range near Ridgway, then backpacked to Capitol Lake, basecamp for Capitol Peak, in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness near Aspen. By 1 a.m. the next morning I was ascending the serpentine trail constructed by the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. A short ways past the Capitol-Daly saddle, I encountered the first of a series of steep, snow-filled gullies that cut across the traverse into the basin below K2, the bump on Capitol's northeast ridge that marks the beginning of the serious scrambling. These gullies, and the rocky ribs that separated them, turned out to be the first route-finding challenge of the night. I quickly decided it was time to strap on my crampons and deploy my ice ax, as the snow was very firm just an inch beneath the barely-frozen surface. I left my crampons on as I crossed the remaining granite ribs and started up the long snowfield leading to K2. I shed the snow gear a few hundred vertical feet below K2 and arrived on top of this steep, rocky knoll as the first faint light began to show in the east. That dim glow revealed that ominous clouds were already building to the west and north of the peak. This was not going to be a day to linger on the summit.
I tried one route down from K2 to the Knife Edge and backed off - too steep and gnarly in mountain boots with nearly 20 pounds of camera gear on my back. I tried a second line and backed off it too. The route-finding was starting to look more challenging than I had anticipated. I considered traversing around K2, but the traverse still held a 50-degree patch of snow perched above huge exposure - no place for a single ice tool and soft leather hiking boots even if I had put my crampons back on. I tried a third line down the rock. Now everything clicked. Holds led to more holds and soon I was confronting the Knife Edge. It was still dark enough that I could see clearly only within my headlamp's 20-foot range. On either side, cliffs and slabs dropped off into a dark abyss. The granite arête is truly a knife edge, sharp enough to be a great handhold as my boots sought out small footholds with friction slabs in between. For me it was exhilarating but for someone not used to exposure the Knife Edge could be terrifying.
Now the climb became a race between the rising sun and the gathering storm. The base of the clouds was only slightly higher than the summit of Capitol - a sure sign that abundant moisture in the air was likely to fuel a vicious cycle of thunderstorms. The scrambling over talus, cliff bands and loose blocks was tedious but not too difficult and I arrived on the summit half an hour before sunrise. That gave me just enough time to set up the tripod and panorama head for two 360-degree panoramas, followed by some single-frame shots of the enormous, snow-filled Pierre Lakes cirque and Snowmass Mountain as the sun danced in and out of the billowing clouds.
After a short and hurried call to my wife Cora to let her know where I was, I headed down, glancing nervously over my shoulder every minute or two to see if I should start donning rain gear and safeguarding camera gear. The weather threatened again and again, but the dark clouds kept passing north and south of me. Three hours after leaving the summit, I reached my camp just as the darkest cloud yet rolled down the valley toward me. But it too missed, and the sun soon made my tent sweltering. I gave up on napping after a sweaty hour, packed up and headed down to the trailhead six miles away. The weather didn't truly cave in until I was driving through Glenwood Springs, heading home after an 11-day shoot that had been the most productive I'd had in years.