Since an exotic climbing trip seemed unlikely this year due to professional commitments the search was on for mountain challenges near home. The requirements centered on a big wall in a wilderness setting that could be done comfortably in a three day weekend. Rocky Mountain National Park was too close; the Tetons, Wind Rivers and San Juans were too far. While searching through Bueller's Roof of the Rockies, I came across a photo of the Northwest Face of Capitol Peak. George Bell, a top climber of the time, had made an ascent on the wall in 1963, describing it as , "about 1800 feet of sustained but mostly not difficult climbing on generally sound rock. " This seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
On the first weekend in August I found myself at the Capitol Creek trailhead in the company of four strong partners. Alan, George and Bruce would go for the "normal" Northeast ridge while Arthur and I would try a route on the Northwest Face. The hike into Capitol Lake was one of the most scenic and enjoyable I've done in Colorado. The contrast between the green meadows and the red stone was especially striking. Near the lake, the wildflowers put on a most spectacular show.
The setting was so impressive that I had almost forgotten why I had come here. The face however , loomed large about the lake. While George and Bruce were pulling cutthroat trout out of the lake, Arthur and I scrutinized the face. From our viewpoint it looked classically foreshortened, however, we both new better. We figured between 15 and 18 pitches, mostly 5.5 to 5.6. At 2 p.m. it started to rain and continued to 5:30 p.m. This set the scenario; an Alpine start would be necessary to beat the weather. We sorted the gear into one pack while George cooked his four trout, then got to bed at 8:30 p.m.
We slept restless in anticipation. It was a relief to be up and approaching the base of the route. What's this; voices? Amazingly enough, there were two other people at the base of the face. In the dim twilight of early morning I could not see much; I might as well have been in Eldorado Canyon! We had a legitimate fear of climbing below anyone on a route of this nature. No matter how sound the rock, ledges of little climbed routes are always littered with scare which rains down on the unfortunate seconds. Beside, we counted on really moving quickly and had not planned on waiting our turn. As it got brighter, I looked over the other pair. To my surprise, one was wearing shorts and smoking a cigarette, while his partner was teaching him how to tie into the rope!
We promptly climbed solo above this pair for several hundred feet until some wet slabs forced us to rope up. My last comment to them was to watch out for falling rocks! The beginning pitches were beautiful hand and finger cracks. We decided that since Arthur was a much stronger climber, he would lead and I would follow as quickly as possible with the pack. The pitches began to whirl by. A low angle slab led to the base of a prominent white tower near the Northwest Ridge proper. The hardest move of the climb up to this point was a 5.8 mantle over a large block to gain the notch behind this tower.
At this point we faced a decision. It was twelve noon and we were 15 pitches up but at least half the climb remained! We were moving well, but at least 1000 feet of route finding remained above. The sky was already starting to cloud over, so after a candy bar and a drink of water, we continued up. While trying to move delicately over precariously balanced blocks on the ridge, a block the size of a tombstone slid off the ridge, taking several smaller chunks with it. There was the sickening smell of crushed rock dust as they cascaded down the steep slope. I screamed "Rock!" at the top of my lungs for several minutes, then said a silent prayer that the pair below were out of the line of fire.
The cloud bank was solid as we approached a 300 foot wall on the ridge. Evidence of the previous days hailstorm was found in all the cracks and ledges. Our EB's were getting soaked and I was thankful mine were large enough to wear with wool socks. Arthur was 40 feet up when the rain started. I pulled out my rain gear and stood nervously at the belay as the rain increased. It seemed like a long time before Arthur yelled, "off belay!" I climbed as quickly as possible and arrived on the exposed ridge; wasted. Arthur was completely soaked by this time. Fortunately we were well layered in polypropylene and wool. I couldn't help thinking about the poor guy somewhere below in shorts! The rain promptly turned to the small type of hail called "grapple" which continued for 30 minutes, plenty of time for us to ponder the precarious position we had put ourselves in. My worn out Gore-tex was not much help as I found myself totally soaked.
We were cold, but we had to keep moving. A large snow gully split the ridge. The wall on the opposite side seemed impossible under these conditions, but a smaller wall about 75 foot down the gully looked feasible. The belay was almost imaginary as we picked steps in thankfully soft snow down this gully in our EB's, using a large rock in each hand as a "dagger". We had hoped that once on the ridge again, the going would ease up to the summit. But the mountain was not letting us off just yet. The drizzle was continuing and the rocks were not only greasy but most holds were mere stacks of rocks balanced one on top of the other. Arthur literally had to move from the top of one pile to the next, staying in such perfect balance that he did not topple the 3 or 4 rocks he was standing on! Arthur led magnificently over several more sections that were not only awkward but completely unprotected while I sat freezing at the belay, unsure of his situation in the clouds above.
Finally he yelled down, "off belay, I'm on top!" When I arrived at the summit, the clouds were finally clearing and I watched a lurid red sun dip behind a ridge line far to the west. My watch read 8:15 p.m. The face had taken 31 roped pitches, almost twice as many as I had done before on an individual climb. Arthur had led over 15 pitches totally without protection! I was relieved to be on top, but I knew we had to down climb a complicated 4th class route before we were down.
After a photograph in the quickly fading light, we immediately started down. The south side of the mountain is steep and loose. As darkness descended on us we were forced to rope up again. I had the only head lamp, which made movement very slow. Finally, at about midnight, I found myself falling asleep while belaying Arthur. We had been climbing for 20 continuous hours on two candy bars and a quart of water; it was time to bivouac.
It was a situation where we knew we wouldn't die, but would be cold and miserable. Fortunately there was no wind. We built a small circular rock wall on a spacious ledge, sat on the rope and huddled together with our feet stuck in the Lowe rucksack. After 30 minutes or so, we would get up and pile more rocks around us to warm up, then sit again for awhile.
Around 5 a.m. it started getting light so we gathered our wits and started moving. The normal route was now easily followed, marked with rock cairns. The sun rose brilliantly in the east and we were well rewarded for our ordeal by a view one can only see if they bivouac on the top of a 14,000 foot high mountain! We also saw what the consequences of a slip would have been the night before.
While negotiating the "knife-edge-ridge", we saw a figure, then two more, on the summit of the little tower known as K2. It was Alan, George and Bruce coming to look for us. They had easily reached the summit around noon the day before; but saw no sign of us. They got as little sleep as we did, fearing an accident had befallen us. Hot drinks and snacks never tasted so good and we sat warming in the morning sun on top of K2, knowing we had made it.
Capitol Peak gave us everything we came for and more. By getting off the beaten track, we found an adventure we would have otherwise traveled great distances to get. We came away from this climb, as always, with a great respect for Ellingwood, Blaurock, Ormes and all the other pioneers who made so many great climbs with such primitive equipment. As modern Alpinists push themselves to the limit in exotic locations around the world, we were very pleased to find such an outstanding challenge in our own backyard.
Note beyond: Arthur named the route the "Himmelsleiter." Himmelsleiter, which in German literally means Heavens ladder had three meanings for Arthur. First it refers to how a mountain physically reaches for heaven. Second it refers to the dangerous nature of this route, a small mistake would have been a way to move toward heaven rather quickly for both of us. Finally it is an oblique reference to Royal Robbins legendary answer to the question, why do you climb? To which he supposedly answered for all of us "We are searching for God".