Climbing Capitol Peak: Advice for Colorado’s Most Difficult 14er

Capitol Peak is notorious among the Colorado fourteeners for being the most difficult of the fifty-eight peaks to ascend. The challenges on this mountain abound. There’s a long, 8.5 mile approach hike requiring backpacking skills. The rock is loose and rotten, making rockfall risk significant. And then there’s the infamous Knife’s Edge ridge between Capitol Peak and K2. This mountain has taken many lives over the past several decades. Do not attempt climb Capitol Peak without serious preparation and a lot of scrambling and climbing experience. Get started with your planning below at your own peril with my route guide.

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Climbing Capitol Peak: Fast Facts

Climbing Capitol Peak - Northeast Ridge

NOTE: Capitol Peak is the most difficult and dangerous Colorado 14er. Do no attempt climbing Capitol Peak without proper planning, a partner, helmet, and experience. 

You can take either the Capitol Creek Trail or the Capitol “Ditch” Trail to reach Capitol Lake. This route guide describes climbing Capitol Peak via the increasingly popular Ditch Trail alternative.

At the west end of the trailhead parking area, you’ll find the signed ditch trail, which follows a water ditch. Continue along this ditch for about 1.2 miles until you reach a junction at 9,500 feet. Cross the ditch, then keep hiking along the trail. Move through the forest for a bit and cross a stream before entering the Maroon Bells Snowmass wilderness. Keep going to reach a wide-open area. Keep along the hillside for a mile and a half before moving down to a meadow near the creek. Move left, cross this stream, and cross the main Capitol Creek trail on the other side.

Turn right onto the Capitol Creek Trail. Cross several streams, climb a hill near 10,800 feet. Eventually, cross to the west side of Capitol Creek, near 11,000 feet. At 11,400 feet, turn right to gain the basin below Capitol Lake. I recommend camping in sites below the basin to the right of the trail.

Near 11,600 feet, just below the lake, take a left on a thinner trail to keep moving southeast toward the saddle between Mt. Daly (a thirteener) and Capitol Peak. Hike up 900 feet to reach the saddle. The easy hiking ends here.

From the saddle, it’s an option to turn right and climb south up the Class 4 ridge, but the easier, standard route described here involves circling the east side. From the east side of the saddle, begin traversing south. Be careful and move slowly, making a point of not losing elevation as you cross several gullies. The initial section can be confusing to some people as it does not have one obvious trail.  (Don’t climb the steep terrain/cliffs up to your right). After traversing .25 miles, the route becomes more obvious – continue south across talus.

Around 12,700 feet, angle up to the right where you’ll see “K2” to the southwest, another thirteener. Follow the cairns or take your own line up rocky terrain to reach K2. You don’t have to summit K2 while climbing Capitol Peak, but I think it’s worth the effort because of the wonderful view of the summit. 

If you climb K2, you can descend around 50 feet of class 3/4 terrain off its west side to get back on the route. The easiest way (requires careful maneuvering on loose rock) around K2 is to turn right just below the summit and move around to the west. Once on the west side, Capitol’s northeast ridge comes into view. Drop into a notch and climb onto a rock tower at the start of the ridge.

The rest of this route has a lot of exposed climbing along the ridge. This is a perfect spot to take a serious look at the weather and decide whether or not to keep going. While the summit isn’t far away, the remaining climb is time-consuming and a dangerous place to be in bad weather. If you see storms on the horizon, descend and come back another day.

From the first tower, scramble on the ridge for a time until you reach the infamous Knife Edge. This is the crux of climbing Capitol Peak. It’s actually a concise section of the ridge, but it’s very exposed and requires concentration and comfort around cliffs. If you are worked up by exposure, this area may really wreak havoc on you. Scramble along the crest or walk along the left side while holding onto the ridge. The last portion of the knife is very “sharp,” so the easiest way around is to walk along the left side while holding the top. This is the crux of climbing Capitol Peak.

Beyond the Knife Edge, scramble on or along the ridge towards the summit. Roughly 1/10 mile after from the Knife Edge, find a notch with a steep gully down to the left. Cross the notch and start climbing along the left side of the ridge. Above 13,800 feet, the best and easiest route is on the upper east face and not on the crest of the northeast ridge. Begin to move left away from the ridge crest to climb steep rock and reach a small ridge on the upper east face. Take a right to ascend less-loose rock to reach the summit ridge.

Enjoy your views from the summit of Colorado’s most dangerous and difficult fourteener, and enjoy your accomplishment. Be sure you head down with plenty of time to reach the tree line before afternoon storms become a hazard. Many people have died descending Capitol Peak because they took a gully shortcut, including 5 people in 2017. You MUST take the standard route back to the lake. There are no shortcuts. 

I hope you found my Capitol Peak route guide helpful and informative. I highly recommend also reviewing the route info and pictures on 14ers.com here. Good luck climbing Capitol Peak, and safe travels on the trail!

It’s critically important to have a good topographic map of the route with you while climbing Capitol Peak. Download it on your phone and print out a paper copy so that you have a spare just in case anything goes wrong. Click on the map below to view it larger.

Capitol Peak Route Guide Map

Before climbing Capitol Peak, you should research the weather conditions for your climb from multiple websites, so you can pack and prepare properly. Here are two dependable options to start with.

Mountain Forecast Capitol Peak – Click Here

NOAA Weather Forecast Capitol Peak – Click Here

Capitol Peak is the real deal. You cannot afford to slip and fall along this seriously exposed route. A good pair of hiking boots is a necessity for a safe and successful ascent. Here are my top hiking boot recommendations.

You should always bring the ten essentials with you on your trip (see the infographic below). This is especially true on a dangerous peak like Capitol Peak. Most people backpack in to this peak, so you will need a tent, sleeping bag, and stove. To carry this all, bring a backpack with 50-70 liters capacity. These are several good backpack options that won’t break the bank. 

While trekking poles are not a necessity for those climbing Capitol Peak, I use them myself as they offer many benefits and make hiking easier. If you want a pair, I share my personal favorites here

Don’t forget to bring 2 liters of water and a filter or purification tablets, and a good bit of snacks and food for the trail. Learn more about packing for a 14er here.

Climbing Capitiol Peak is very dangerous. It’s a good idea to give yourself more time to acclimate by staying nearby the trailhead for 1-2 nights before you begin. Here are some options to choose from.

Camping near Capitol Peak:

There are also many dispersed camping opportunities along forest roads near the trailhead ideal for those climbing Capitol Peak. Note that camping is not allowed at the trailhead. Learn more about dispersed camping near 14ers here.

Lodging near Capitol Peak:

There are many cabins available via Airbnb and other services in Aspen and the surrounding area, ideal for those climbing Capitol Peak.

Capitol Peak is one of the few 14er areas to have largely avoided overcrowding, due to the long approach hike serious class 4 risk. Help maintain the wilderness nature of this beautiful area by following these critically important Leave No Trace practices while climbing Capitol Peak:

  • Plan ahead, review the route and pick a weekday or day in September to hike.
  • Stay on the trail, and keep dogs leashed on and off-trail to reduce trampling of alpine grass.
  • Leave your Bluetooth speaker at home and let nature’s sound reign.
  • Urinate off-trail, and pack out your waste – a cathole won’t work at high altitude.
  • Give wildlife a wide berth – 100 meters if possible. If they approach, back up to keep space.
  • Take nothing but pictures, and leave nothing but footprints.

Safe travels, and good luck climbing Longs Peak! Learn more about LNT on 14ers here.

Capitol Peak was named by early explorers who thought its soaring face was reminiscent of the U.S. Capitol building. It is the most difficult Colorado 14er to ascend due to a long approach hike, serious exposure, and horrible, loose rock that collapses around you. Making it to the summit of this dangerous mountain is a significant achievement in and of itself.

Many have died while climbing Capitol Peak, especially during their descent. One gully, in particular, has claimed several lives, tricking climbers into thinking it leads them quickly back to camp. They end up cliffed out, with loose, gravel-like scree above them that makes it impossible to escape. Stick to the standard route – there are no shortcuts for those climbing Capitol Peak.

The most infamous section of the route is known as the ‘Knife’s Edge,’ a seriously exposed blade of rock with 1,500 foot drop-offs on either side. While this is the most well known part of the climb, the actually most dangerous part of climbing Capitol Peak comes on the final ascent up the ridge. Loose, rotten rock is everywhere, making it very difficult to reach the summit. This is by far the mostt difficult part of climbing Capitiol Peak.

Climbing Capitol Peak is an inherently high-risk activity – do so at your own risk, and use the following best practices to help keep yourself safe.

  1. Research your route and bring a compass & topographic map.
  2. Check the weather forecast and stay home during inclement weather.
  3. Bring the Ten Essentials and the knowledge/skill to use them.
  4. Leave your plans with someone back home along with a detailed itinerary.
  5. Start early, and end early: Be back at tree line by noon to avoid lightning.
  6. Bring a buddy on your first ascent, preferably someone experienced.

NEW TO 14ERS? CHECK OUT MY BEGINNERS GUIDE FOR A SAFE FIRST SUMMIT!

Climbing Capitol Peak is an inherently high-risk, dangerous activity. There is a significant risk of injury or death, even with proper planning and experience. Those using my guide accept all risks associated with climbing 14ers and do not hold this website or any information they obtain from it liable for any accidents or injuries that occur while engaging in these activities on Colorado’s high peaks. It is each hiker or climber’s responsibility to research their route carefully, bring the ten essentials, and practice other safe practices, though even these precautions do not eliminate risk and danger. Visit these summits at your own risk.

Alex Derr, Creator of The Next Summit

Alex is an Eagle Scout and mountaineer living in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. You can subscribe to his Next Summit Newsletter here.

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