Capitol Peak, the 32nd highest mountain in Colorado at 14,137 feet, is considered the state’s most difficult 14er to climb. Its infamous Knife Edge ridge not only inspires climbers with its beauty and exposure but also strikes fear into novice mountaineers. The 7.8-mile standard route begins at Capitol Creek Trailhead and gains over 5,000 feet of elevation from car to summit. The route ascends steep slopes and high ridges by hiking over talus and boulders, scrambling up shattered granite cliffs, and climbing short rock sections. A rope is useful for safety. Percy Hagerman and Harold Clark first climbed the peak, named in 1874 by the Hayden Survey, in 1909 via today’s standard route.
The first time I crossed Capitol Peak’s Knife Edge was on a late September morning. Clouds swirled beneath the sharp ridge, filling the glaciated cirques below. Occasionally, patches of blue sky peeked through gray mist when I reached the edge. My partner and I sipped water and split an energy bar before embarking on the ridge. Rather than straddle the granite blade, I grabbed the sharp edge and scrabbled my feet across damp rock on the broken left side. The narrowest 40-foot-long section in the middle of the edge offers the most exposure. I peeked over the north side and saw the steep face falling away 1,500 feet to glistening Capitol Lake far below. A half hour later we scrambled up the final rock pyramid to Capitol’s small summit, where the sun burst through the cloud cover, revealing a breathtaking view of the jewel-like Pierre Lakes below, and a row of red peaks, including the Maroon Bells, Pyramid Peak, and Castle Peak hanging on the eastern horizon.
- Most climbers backpack 6.5 miles up to Capitol Lake and camp for the night, allowing for an early morning start.
- When you climb Capitol Peak, reach the summit before the usual afternoon thunderstorms accompanied by lightning move onto the mountain. Capitol’s upper ridge is time-consuming and exposed—not a safe place to be in dangerous storms.
- The Knife Edge, one of the most famous features on all of Colorado’s 14ers, is a narrow 150-foot-long ridge with over 1,000 feet of cliffs and air below your boots. The best way to cross is by hand-traversing the left side of the edge with your boots smeared on footholds or to straddle the ridge like you’re riding a horse and scoot across. Ropes are suggested for safety and security.
Recommended season(s): Summer and early fall (June through September)
—Stewart M. Green