Climbing Capitol Peak

My first recollection of being inspired by mountains was as a 10-year-old in elementary school seeing a documentary of Martin Luther King eloquently speaking of having been to the mountaintop. I think it was his last speech before his untimely death.

Later, I kiddingly told my dad that a buddy and I were thinking about driving to California. We were almost 17. My dad laughed and walked away, but a little bit later he came back and said, “Are you really interested in driving out to California?” He offered to let us take one of his painting company’s old cars to the West Coast, and we quickly accepted. All kinds of visions of the mountains, valleys, deserts and other landscapes went through my head, and it was almost too much for my imagination to bear. We drove the southern Route 66 to San Diego and then came back via the northern route up through Sacramento, through the mountains where the Donner party had their disastrous run-in with the snow, and then across Nevada and along the route many of the wagon trains took westward. The ruts are still visible over 100 years later. But it was the mountains, in Colorado, that I liked best.

Skipping college and becoming an entrepreneur, and creating new businesses while still in my teens led to a workaholic existence for much of the next 20 years. As my 40th birthday approached, I thought there was no “me” time until a few friends said they were thinking about climbing Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. It’s in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Southern California and it’s a beast.

I trained hard for it by losing weight and getting in shape and found a 20-hour straight through round-trip to one of the tallest places in all of North America to be extremely exhilarating. It was quite an achievement for me at the time. After having this “taste of the top” the last 20 years, I’ve gone on many other remarkable expeditions in the mountains with friends and family. But honestly, for me, all the other treks and hikes, and even some great climbs were just rehearsals for the real object of my affection and ambition: to someday climb the most difficult of all of the 14ers in Colorado, Capitol Peak (CP). (The 14ers are the state’s 58 mountain peaks exceeding 14,000 feet.)

There’s something magical about this mountain, not the least of which is that I can see it multiple times a day when I’m at our place in Snowmass, where the majestic masterpiece takes its place front and center in the Elk Mountain Range. Twenty years ago, I played golf at the Snowmass Club in Snowmass Village 30 days in a row, which had also been a long-time goal that seemed like traveling to outer space for a workaholic like me. In 2004 I did it and probably had one of the most pristine views ever of Mount Daly and its wicked ridge connector to Capital. For sure, this is where I started dreaming of one day giving it a go.

Over the years I planned a handful of expeditions to Capitol Peak, but interruptions like my late wife Ellen‘s illness and subsequent passing, business events, weather events like snow, and other issues just always seemed to come up. They weren’t excuses because I always believed I would achieve my goal at some point. The moon and stars have to really line up for somebody who is only in the mountains part time. I would have to be in great physical shape, have trained, have lined up the perfect climbing partner, and, of course, the weather would have to be perfect. Weather is one of the biggest factors on any major mountain climb, especially Capitol Peak, because there’s no easy way out if a fast-approaching storm starts making its way towards you.

In the last 20 years I’ve been able to hike in the Grand Canyon, take multiple trips to Nepal, slogging and trekking through unbelievable landscapes and rugged mountain terrain in the restricted mustang region. In 2012, I reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro after a grueling trek and 4,000-foot single-day climb to reach a 19,308-foot elevation. I also accomplished other 14ers like Castle Peak and La Plata, and I even took a magnificent 120-mile hike across the Swiss Alps called the Haute Route with my good friend Ralph and my son, Shawn, and his wife, Jenni, a couple years ago that kept my wanderlust and my fascination with travel alive.

In the last five years I’ve had three planned attacks on the Capitol dashed by bad weather, including early snow storms that covered the mountain with ice and made them undoable. At the beginning of this year, Capitol Peak was my most important objective and priority, although I kept it to myself initially. Around the time Covid-19 appeared, I began training. I still didn’t mention my goal to anyone for fear of setting myself up for disappointment once again. I started with a simple strategy of averaging 15,000 steps a day and managing my diet better so that I could get close to my high school weight of 156 lbs. and be more ready in mid-May when we usually relocate to Colorado for more similar altitude hiking.

By May, I was on a regiment of hiking a 1,500-foot incline called Arbaney Kittle Trail near Basalt, Colorado five days a week. There are two routes and every day I chose the steeper and more difficult one that rarely has visitors. Once a week I would try something more challenging, and I was able to do a 14-mile trek up and back to Haystack Mountain using the West Snowmass Trail route, which is rugged and has 4,000 feet of elevation gain. Other regular workouts included the Aspen Mountain hike up to the gondola, which is 3,200 feet of incline and descent back down. Every week I got more confident about my physical ability to do my big climb, which I felt was all it would take to get over the mental hurdle.

Training for all of June, July and August got me to within four pounds of my high school weight and even though I had to miss the August 19 date I originally set, because of business, I still knew this would be the year.

I started communicating with a great local guy, Ted Mahon, who several people referred to as a “Rockstar” in the mountaineering business, and I hired him to be my guide. He gave me advice and pointers about preparing and asked me to do some preparation like a trial hike up to the saddle between Daly and Capitol Peak to get a flavor of what the Capitol climb would be like. Completing this hike to the saddle made me even more obsessive about attaining my objective. Finally, Ted and I set a date to go camping on September 2 and start out early on September 3 for the saddle and beyond.

On September 2, Ted led the way up to CP Lake, which gains over 2,000 feet in elevation, and we camped out near the lake at about 11,500 feet in pretty sparse style with no tents, just a pad and sleeping bag. I had my traditional mountain-climbing dinner of Kellogg Pop Tarts and tried to drink as much water as I could. I had a restless cold night under the stars and the brightest moon I’ve ever seen. It was almost like daylight which made sleeping a little bit tough. After about four hours of on and off sleep we were up at 4:30 a.m. making coffee. The weather was extremely cold but not windy.

Finally. We set out in the dark and quickly went up the switchbacks using headlamps to the saddle which took about 30 minutes and put us at 12,500 feet. (A switchback is a 180° bend in a road or path, especially one leading up the side of a mountain.) We could see other headlamps up above us and a couple below us heading for the same destination. At 6 a.m., we started off the backside where there really is no easy part left. There were a couple other small groups that we leapfrogged with along various parts of the route.

Around the Southside of the ridge between Daly, K2 (a 13er in view of the Capitol) and CP, we were traversing the steep ledge for a few hundred yards and then came to a spot where you can either go up or down and we chose ten steep switchbacks that dropped us to a massive boulder field where we began our traverse and slightly upward climb towards the back of K2. This was tough going in the dark and not-quite-sunlight shadows, but was mostly footwork until we got to the steep section where we climbed to the ridge and had to use a combination of hands and feet. I like to use poles for balance and quickly snapped one of my expensive, but worthless, Black Diamond rods into two pieces, so I reached the top with one. Gaining this first ridge, you get a spectacular view looking down on the North side to the campground and Capitol Lake below.

Directly to the left along the ridge we got our first up close, awesome view of K2, which of course looks much bigger and more frightening when you’re this near. This was the end of using any pole and the beginning of using a climber’s helmet (lots of loose falling rock), gloves, and a harness for roping us to rocks for the most dangerous sections.

After picking our way across the ridge for a hundred yards, we reached a decision point to go over K2 or around it, traversing a very steep ledge on the north side. We chose the traverse because of the snow from a few days earlier, although it had mostly evaporated and there were only small traces and pockets that we would have to step through. Though 1,000 thoughts ran through my head, I was really just concentrating on learning how this rope situation would work and listening carefully to Ted’s instructions on how not to put both of us in terrible danger.

At the traverse, you start out by sliding down a granite face where you have to carefully hit a 2-inch ledge with both feet and then let yourself sneak over to the left where you can get a good grip and drop down onto a very tight ledge where you’re literally using your hands to hold yourself up on a crack while your feet are on the ledge. You have to shimmy across 15 or 20 feet before you come to a wider place where you can actually walk a bit. Ted worked his way behind me and in front of me and then in most of the places there was a rock where we could loop the rope to keep both of us from falling. As Ted definitively said: “We don’t fall,” and I didn’t think about that again. We worked our way around K2, to the ridge that can be seen from hundreds of miles away – in the direction that leads up to Capitol, but not before you reach the famous Knifes Edge. The actual name is Knife Edge, but to many climbers it’s Knife’s Edge.

Over the past 20 years I had heard all kinds of things about the Knife’s Edge. Some climbers have written that it’s one of the most perilous places in the mountains anywhere, while others said it wasn’t that bad and they actually remembered it being pretty straightforward. When we reached this spot and I could take it in, we didn’t allow ourselves time to be frightened, we started getting into the technical effort. I listened carefully to Ted and started my way over without thinking much about it. In hindsight, looking at the photos, I probably should’ve been more frightened than I was. I had some cramping midway across at the sharpest part of the edge that has the least area to hold onto, and I did a unique belly shimmy for about 10 feet. I don’t think Ted had ever seen such a maneuver before. I recovered nicely when small footholds, ledges and granite crack handles appeared again, and I made my way across the rest of it very quickly.

In camp the previous night, one of the couples had told me that when they reached this point on their first attempt a month ago they became disoriented and got lost. I could see how that could happen. Of course, I was with a pro, so we followed the traverse to the left, but only after Ted asked me if I was sure I could make it to the top and would still have enough juice to make it all the way back down across the Knife’s Edge around K2 and back to the Lake. After the gut check, where I told Ted there was no turning back now, we started across a boulder field in the area where mostly class 4 technical climbing, hands, feet and everything else is required to go up and across, up and across, and up to the ridge just below the prize. Although this is only about an 800- foot climb, it’s tedious, hard work and took over an hour. However, when we reached the summit at 10 a.m. I was feeling good and strong.

I almost can’t describe the powerful emotion I felt at this moment for everything lost and gained in my whole life. It was a spiritual experience, from my heart. I was super proud of myself but also just reflective of all the people and friends and family who had gotten me to this point and who were surely thinking of me at that moment, praying for me to be safe as well as adding a sincere wish that I would make it. I must’ve thanked Ted five times and congratulated the other couple that had made it to the summit just before us. They were about half my age, and when I told them this had been a dream of mine for at least 15 years, they said I would’ve been better off if I’d done it when I first started thinking about it. I had to laugh and agree with their point.

Now for the part I had been thinking about on the way up -- how to get back down. But by descending with the other couple and trading spots with them a couple of times, I found the way back much less challenging than it looked and did a lot of sliding on my backpack and scampering across the boulder fields without much problem. I can definitely see how this could be very disorienting and dangerous for people that don’t know the route or can’t see how other people are going.

There have been multiple fatalities in and around this area and near the Knife’s Edge from people losing their way and getting too low to come back up. We, on the other hand, traversed right over to a position above the ridge leading to the sharp Edge with no problem. I will say I was much more fatigued at that point, and looking at the Edge from this angle gave me more pause than before. I was actually getting cramps in my arms from not having used them in this way before and so approached the Edge tentatively. But once I was on it, I was 100 percent concentration and got across fairly quickly. We took a quick rest and I had another couple Pop Tarts, the only thing I ate all day. Ted commented that I should do something for Kellogg’s, like a commercial, Pop Tarts for the mountains. I went for the brown sugar cinnamon for the extra sugar.

After about 10 minutes we started back over to the traverse on the north side of K2, which I found much more frightening than on the way up. I realized that earlier I couldn’t really see what I was doing until I was right on top of each section, but from this vantage point, I could see the whole thing and I didn’t like what I was looking at - at all. The other couple was having nothing to do with it and headed over the top, but Ted gently coaxed my confidence again and I started taking baby steps out on the edge. There were only a couple points where I really just stopped and froze until getting comfortable with stepping over spots in the slushy snow with no perfect handhold in sight. A couple times I had to look back at Ted and have him give me the nod of encouragement.

I was really proud of the way I was able to focus after doing one of the hardest workouts of my life for over six hours at this point. A huge achievement given my ADD. Once we were around at the point, I took a moment to look all the way around at the mountain range, the sky down below to Capitol Lake, and the beautiful sky above us. I had not really been taking in the views or taking photos; I only took four pictures on the entire journey. Ted took the rest, mostly while I was unaware.

Here we were able to take our safety gear off and start back down the boulder field. We were exhausted and the sun was beating down on us in a way that caused my shadow to appear in front of me, where I was headed, and this made the work quite difficult. I had a handful of missteps and stepped through a snow field where I dropped down to rock bottom, about four feet. It hurt but I was just glad there was a bottom and that I was surrounded by ice cold snow which cooled me off for a little bit. Ted just kind of shook his head and kept a steady pace for me to follow.

Once you come back around and are under the Southside of the saddle, you have to retake the ten steep switch backs about 150 feet to get up on the trail, and I had no memory of how difficult and steep that was from the morning. I’m surprised I had gotten down it so easily in the dark; the night probably did me a favor.

Once we were safely on the saddle there were congratulations to go around. All we had left to do after this first eight hours of unbelievably hard work was to make our way back down to the camp, and pack our stuff up to start the brutal trek back to the car. It was afternoon now, it was hot, and I was feeling pretty weak.

Once Ted and I broke camp I could tell he was really anxious to get back. Somehow I caught a second wind and started out the journey back at one of the quickest paces I can maintain, determined to beat Ted‘s dire three-hour prediction. Winding our way back down to Capitol Creek across the mountain side and along the ditch trail, I could tell about a third of the way in that Ted was kind of enjoying the pace and surprised by my second wind. I actually felt great, relieved, inspired, and totally energized. We made the 6.4 miles in two hours and 20 minutes.

Thanks go to my wife, Jane, and all my children for being frightened but supportive, and to my Chief of Staff, Nancy, and other longtime friends who were so positive and knew I had to go. And especially my son, Shawn Clark, who told me as I departed for the trip, “If there is a step in front of you that you think might kill you, don’t take it.” Thanks also to all the people I know that were encouraging me from afar, out loud and quietly, and to Ted, to whom I own a debt of gratitude. I hope we will be able to maintain a friendship forever.

It was worth it.

Gear: Solomon (Speed cross 4) (not high-top), (2 pairs) Darn Tough socks, Kuhl renegade rock-climbing pants (unbelievable -- did not tear), jetboil flash cooker (w/ proper attachments, which I didn’t have), MAMMUT lightweight helmet, Headlamp, I-phone, Mechanix gloves Mfr#: MF4X-75-008, Osprey Exos 48 super lightweight backpack, 1.5 liter water bladder camelback, Toilet trowel, eye drops, sunscreen and Chapstick, sleeping pad, One tee, one shirt, one pullover all synthetic wicking, MACPAC. Puffy coat and Arcteryx lightweight waterproof shell, for sleeping, New Zealand Possum socks, 30-degree lightweight sleeping bag. Kellogg Pop Tarts, nuts and granola bars. NEEDED and SHOULD HAVE: one-person shelter/tent, proper cup, water filter (Ted had one that worked great), small rollup sitting foam pad. Better night sandals.

This story highlights commitment, dreaming, achieving, accomplishment, perseverance, teamwork, willpower and heart, planning, strategy, gratitude, fortitude, character.

This article has also been featured on Construction Forum.

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