Friday, July 24, 2015

Capitol Peak - 14ers Finisher

Route Name: Northeast Ridge from Capitol Lake

Trailhead Elevation: 9,479 ft.
Camp Elevation: 11,489 ft.
Summit Elevation: 14,130 ft.
Distance: 17.56 mi. (my GPS)
Elevation Gain: 5727 ft. (my GPS)

Capitol Creek Hike In:
Start Time: 6:15pm
End Time: 9:13pm

Capitol Peak Climb:
Left Camp: 4:24am
Capitol-Daly Saddle: 5:09am
K2 Summit: 7:35am
Capitol Summit: 9:40am (23 mins)
K2 Summit: 11:49am
Capitol-Daly Saddle: 2:05pm
Camp Return: 2:35pm

Capitol Creek Hike Out:
Start Time: 3:27pm
End Time: 7:17pm

Trip Report:

Some Introduction
This hike has been a long time in the making. As the reality of finishing the 14ers looked as though it would actually happen the debate began as to which one it should be. We seemed to have the crazy impression that the choice would be ours. As we saw our peak list begin to narrow down we came to the conclusion that Mt. Evans would make a good choice for our finisher. With the road it would be easy for non-hiking family to join us on the summit, and the short approach from Summit Lake would allow my younger kids to even hike part of the way with us. That plan changed however with the damage to the Evans Road this spring and the subsequent closure/non-opening of that road this summer. We found out about this in early July when the word was it might open by late July. We held out some hope. As the beginning of our trip came we realized that it was unlikely the road would open. To add emphasis to our changing plans, the weather looked like crap the first few days we were to be in Colorado. Our intention of hiking Capitol, then North Maroon, and then finish on Evans was crumbling.

Flexibility became the name of the game, something that all avid mountaineers realize is in fact always the name of the game. We shuffled plans around on Sunday night as I flew into Denver and decided to hit Evans via the Sawtooth on Monday. That worked like a charm and we got out of the difficulties before the weather hit. We held to North Maroon on Wednesday and that set us up nicely for Capitol on Friday July 24. The weather reports for Jul 23-24 were near perfect. It seemed that perhaps it was meant to be that Capitol would be our finisher. It would be hard to celebrate much on top with such a challenging and dangerous downclimb, but that moment of return to the camp would have to be wonderful, knowing we'd finished on the granddaddy of them all.

On to Capitol Creek

The views are beautiful even at the trailhead
The drive along the Capitol Creek road was great. Its paved most of the way and even when it turns to dirt it goes pretty well. We had plans work in our favor to get a Chevy Tahoe to rent for the week, a vehicle we thought and assumed would have 4WD. Oddly enough, it did not. We were hopeful from what we'd read about the last mile and a half on the Capitol Creek road that even without 4WD the Tahoe's ground clearance and V8 engine would do the job. And it did. I was doing the driving for us and aside from the sun hitting me in the face most of the drive up the road and blinding me from several shadowy spots, we did well. It gets steep for awhile and there's a few medium-sized rocks and holes, but nothing too crazy.

One of many beautiful meadows we passed
We arrived at the trailhead around 6pm and found a good handful of cars up there. We had some concern about what the campsites would look like up by Capitol Lake. Our packs were mostly ready when we arrived so we took a few pictures, double-checked the car and headed off on the trail. The views ... were amazing! Its really something iconic about being able to see Capitol right from the trailhead and for most of the hike in.

We opted on taking the Ditch Trail in to Capitol Lake as it is reported to be a bit more level and doesn't lose and gain as much as the Capitol Creek Trail. The CC Trail loses about 400 feet right off the bat which all has to be gained up later on. This is even worse on the return trip as you have to gain that 400 feet at the very end of a long hike. Both trails meet up just after the main creek crossing just over 3 miles in.

Looking back towards the trailhead.  Its on the near side of
the ridge in the center of the photo.
The first 1.4 miles of the trail are in the woods and for a large part of it do follow the "ditch" from which the trail gets its name. We found a few muddy spots already and the trail was rutted up in parts from the horse travel. At that 1.4 marker on the way in you pass a wilderness sign and then through a meadow where we spotted our first cows of the day. One of the group discussions we had on this hike, especially on the way out, was the nonsensical nature of having a beautiful, pristene wilderness area ruined by the presence and the destruction of the cows and horses on the trail. When our hike out became a rainy, muddy death slog this fact became even more apparent as the trail condition went from bad to awful.

After this initial meadow the trail for the next 2 miles becomes a mixture of open meadow and occasional passage through trees. In these heavily travelled areas from the cows there is also more braiding of the trail. While for the most part the whole of the Ditch Trail would be fairly easy to follow in the dark, should one want to do so, this braiding would offer the occasional challenge. Best we could tell, the braided trail always met up again with itself. In this area we also met a handful of groups still on their hike out. We asked them for a bit of trail and camp beta and most mentioned the snowfields after the Daly saddle. Nobody could tell us for sure what campsites were still available.
The "Y" junction just before the creek crossings
Just after 3 miles in comes the major crossing of Capitol Creek. We had done a bit of reading on this ahead of time. You'll know you've arrived as you enter a flat meadow and the trail will suddenly hit an obvious "Y" junction. The left choice takes you directly to a stream crossing that is at least 15 feet wide through almost knee-deep water. We had read a trip report that had suggested that the "right" choice would take you to another easier crossing just up trail. Well...we tried to follow that advice seeing the initial crossing as a no go if you want to stay dry. However, we looked and looked and went upstream more than a tenth of a mile and did not find any passable crossing to stay dry. If something was there it washed away or we flat out missed it. Seeing time and daylight fleeting on us we finally found a narrow spot in the creek, took shoes and socks off, and walked it. We did our best to dry our feet and put shoes and socks back on and continued. We had to bushwhack a bit but I used our GPS to get us back on trail which was the Capitol Creek trail now.

After the crossing we saw that the time was 8pm and we still had a solid 3 miles to go. At this pace it would surely be after dark by the time we'd make camp. We debated our situation and how to improve it and finally came to the conclusion that I would move forward at a quicker pace to try and scout out the campsites before it was too dark. I was chosen as I was in decent enough shape and even moreso, I was the best GPS navigator to ensure nothing went wrong. We had a pair of two-way radios along which was a God-send and used them to communicate in case of emergency. We ran through some thoughts of just camping lower on the trail below Capitol Lake, but this involved finding a site from scratch, in unknown terrain, and in twilight, plus it would mean a longer hike the next morning in the dark.

Plenty of cows in this upper meadow

After we opted to still shoot for the lake campsites, I did my best to push the pace ahead to save as much light as possible. The trail had some more badly braided areas and I was hopeful all roads led to the same spot. At just over 4 miles in we passed through another large meadow area that had several dozen cows grazing. As I first entered this area I actually had a mother and baby cow blocking trail. I made enough noise and approached them slowly and they did move for me. My brother David took a video of this area and I share it here:

Somewhere within about a half mile after the large cow meadow we met a gate in the woods. This gate thankfully keeps the cows from ruining even more trail higher up in this beautiful basin. The gate isn't hard to unlatch and there is signage kindly asking hikers to make sure its closed and latched after passing.

Around 5 1/4 miles in I encountered a big ascent of switchbacks. It was starting to get darker on me now and I had pulled my headlamp out to help. I also pulled out the bear bell on my large pack as I was alone to give a little extra warning to the forest. As I passed through here we did a radio check and I was impressed that I was able to communicated with David and Dad who were possibly a half mile or more behind. In this area the trail just continues to ascend and treeline is quickly reached. At just over 6 miles in the area gets much more rocky as the trail finds passage through some gullies where the creek and other drainage must pass. And then finally everything opens up just before Capitol Lake. It was 9:13p when I arrived and I had twilight at best. I had previously held some concern that the designated campsites wouldn't be easy to find or be obvious as to where they were. When I entered the meadow before the lake that anxiety was put to rest when I noticed the signage pointing to camp sites 1-4. I quietly checked them out with my headlamp leading the way and found sites 1, 2, and 4 all occupied. I couldn't find 3 at first but then realized it was a bit more hidden, and small, and available.
I headed back to the main trail and followed it further up til I found more signage for sites 5-8. They were more up on a hillside and I headed that way. I found 5, 6, and 7 all occupied and a fair distance up the hill. By now it was getting really dark and I wasn't sure how much further 8 was so I bailed and decided on site 3. I headed back to the meadow and played the waiting game for the other two. I'm not ashamed to admit I had pulled my ice ax out in one hand while I talked to the other two on radio to get updates. I figure if I saw an undesired pair of eyes in the dark at least I'd have something to play defense with.
David and Dad arrived around 9:50p, it was very dark, and we quickly worked to setup camp. We were also being very cognizant of our food at this point in the evening. We pooled it all together with our bear can and kept things in sight. We each had an MRE that David had supplied and ate some of the foods from that before getting ready to call it a night. It must have been past 11 by the time we had everything in place for the night and all food in the bear can. Of course, we didn't expect to sleep much anyways with Capitol coming up in the morning.

Capitol Peak - It's Finishing Time
One of the many fascinating debates about climbing Capitol is the question of when to start from Capitol Lake. Much conventional wisdom would tell you to go as early as possible to get through the technical terrain before any chance of weather. However, there are some conundrums on the way to K2, and the following technical terrain, that give climbers reason to want some daylight well before. We had decided to shoot for a 4:30am departure from camp hoping for a 5:30am arrival at the K2-Daly saddle. We had read that after the saddle a bit of twilight at least helps with the initial route-finding. We were about 6 minutes early in leaving camp.

Just reached the Cap-Daly saddle. It was still a little dark
We almost missed the turn in the dark for the hike up to the saddle. When one reaches the intersection where the signage points to the lake (straight ahead) and to camps 5-8 (to the right), we figured out that to the left at that intersection is the hike up to the saddle. This trail up to the saddle is very well constructed and it doesn't waste any time in getting you up there. We took plenty of rest breaks as we worked the switchbacks and I genuinely thought we were taking our time, but we made the saddle in 45 minutes. We were up a bit earlier than we had planned and it was still pretty dark.

The trail moves out of the saddle simple enough, but we had read that one needs to look for a steep set of grassy switchbacks that head downhill. If you miss them the trail proceeds on fine for awhile but then begins to cliff out. Another gentleman who had joined the saddle same time as us found this latter half out. As he was running into trouble we were slowly looking for the grassy switchbacks and found them. They were narrow and steep but do-able. They dropped us down to near the bottom of a gully with very steep sides. As we intersected this gully we saw a small snowpatch with tracks leading through it to a class 3 climb out of the gully. A tough class 3 climb! We could also see others had descended the gully further to an easier ramp exit and we opted for that. We tried to make some good mental notes on what this exit looked like for the return hike but would find later in the day we had some trouble locating it.

In the graphic below, I try to illustrate what this area looks like. Its unfortunate Google Earth still has it all snow colored, but this still works. The light yellow highlighted area is where the grassy switchbacks descend. They are like a side gully that feeds into the bigger one. The gray rectangle illustrates roughly the steep gully. The two arrows attempt to highlight the two lower exits from this gully. Of course, viewer be warned, all of this is approximated based on a GPS track and Google Earth so use this only as a general outline.

A look at the traverse on the "back" side
After exiting this initial gully the rest of the hiking becomes more straightforward. For the most part you're making a traversing ascent along the east side of the ridge between K2 and Daly. We found that there were a fair amount of cairns giving us something to shoot for as well as tracks across snowfields that gave us an idea of where others had gone.

The following YouTube video taken by my brother David gives a visual look at what some of the early traverse looks like.

Looking back on the traverse as the sun begins to take hold
There are some areas on the traverse, especially as you get higher
where the rock steepens up. This challenged us on the descent as we
worked to find a way down through the large steep rock
As you near the south end of this basin the "trail" starts to
right turn (head west) up the slope towards "K2"

Working up the ever-steepening snow in the upper basin

Because of the snowfields we really couldn't tell for sure if the cairns we saw would give a good route across. We did find ourselves east and downhill slightly of the standard route GPX but that didn't seem to be an issue. We were glad to have brought our snow gear along as crossing the snowfields without protection would have made us a bit uneasy. The other gentleman we bumped into crossed the first two, lower snowfields without any gear but deeper into this basin as things got steeper he ended up climbing higher to gain the rock closer to the ridge to avoid the snow as much as possible. This offered more challenging rock scrambling but less snow. We used our microspikes and ice axe and actually had a pretty good time negotiating the snow. It was soft enough to gain a bite and kick steps, but this early in the morning not so soft as to become mush on us.

It was a beautiful morning.  We did notice however, for a day
forecasted for 0% precip there were more clouds than expected.
First look at the approach up to K2
As we began to "round the corner" we did finally get our first look up at K2. You can see this look in the following photo and K2 becomes a noticeable nob at the top of the rock slope. At this point David had hiked well ahead of my Dad and I and he had worked straight up the snow that was covering the center of the slope. We started to head that way but I punched through the snow a few times near rocks and decided that I had had enough snow for the day. We opted to hug the rocks at the right edge of the snowfields at this point. And as the ascent goes up to K2 this proved to be a relatively easy path.

Working our way up to K2
We were pleased to find that the approach up to K2 was not very steep and, praise the Lord, not nearly as long as we had anticipated. We were picturing a lengthy scramble up the rocks but it just didn't feel all that long. You can see from the photo on the right that much of this area is large slabby rocks which make for excellent hiking. As you near K2 the rocks get smaller but there are some trail segments that appear.

We made this mental note on the ascent that you want to head somewhat
in the direction of the arrow on the descent.  Too far left and you risk
cliffing out as you drop into the basin.
The "dirty" trail segments as you head up to K2
K2 is in sight. You can see the snowpatches blocking the
path that would avoid the summit around the north (right) side

The classic shot of the class 4 climb up to K2. This is my Dad actually
descending with David spotting him a few moves.  With them in
view it helps offer some more perspective as to what this area is really like
When one arrives at the class 4 blocks guarding the summit of K2 there is usually the decision of whether one wishes to summit K2 or to traverse to the right (north) around it. As of late this decision was made easier by the presence of snow patches making the bypass more dangerous than one would like. We'd also read reports that the bypass was arguably one of the most exposed and difficult parts of the entire climb. Either way, we were convinced we wanted to summit K2 either way, if not just for the views and to say we'd done it. When we had finally reached this area, we took a brief look at the bypass area and it did appear as though the snow had melted back some. I gave it a few moments thought that this way would go today, but we still opted for the climb.

Just after the class 4 climb to the K2 summit
I went first and the climb up and over, while fairly exposed, was not too difficult. A couple of careful climbing moves and I was up. I had, sadly, forgotten to ditch my ice axe before this section and so I carefully placed it out of the way up in the K2 summit area (didn't want it getting in the way for the rest of the climb to Capitol). Dad and then David came next and then we were all up on K2 without much trouble.

The classic view of Capitol from the K2 summit
To stand atop K2 is such an amazing place. To get there alone is quite a challenge and then to take in the views of what is still to come on the approach to Capitol and then everything else in the Elk Range is really something. I wanted to immortalize this view for my own part and so I tried to capture it in a photosphere:

Looking down towards a snowpatch on the connecting ridge towards Capitol.
It doesn't get in the way and was easily missed.
Looking down K2's west face to where the route heads next
Getting down from K2 offered in our estimation some of the most challenging and steep climbing of the day. There were a couple of ways to attack the west face on the descent, we steered towards our right as we descended and followed a bit of a rib which seemed to offer some protection as we maneuvered our way down. You have to drop at least 100 feet in here until it mellows out just enough for you to start moving southwest onto the connecting ridge.

David's video here offers a look from K2's summit and gives a few glimpses of the top of the route down the west face of K2.

Here I am working the descent off K2. It really was about that steep.
This is now lower on K2's west face, you can see how the terrain
mellows about enough for one to make easier moves onto the connecting ridge
Beginning the connecting ridge from K2
Once you're off K2's face you enter the next section of the route which I would call the "K2 Connecting Ridge". The route follows the very narrow ridge that heads from K2 to the massive east face of Capitol. The route is very straightforward in this area as you can really only go forwards and backwards. For the early part of this section there is enough room on either one or the other side of the ridge to make fairly comfortable moves. There is wild exposure all throughout however and so we were constantly checking handholds, and just in general, were hanging on tight to any solid rock we could find.

As the exposure was becoming constant and the difficult moves frequent we found that this actually worked to ease our nerves about the "knife edge". In mentally preparing for Capitol over the previous weeks and days the thought of the knife edge and its exposure was a constant anxiety. I had seen other parts of 14ers that looked so much worse in person than I had anticipated and certainly was concerned the knife edge on Capitol would be the same. I was finding however that these earlier challenges on the connecting ridge really got my game going and eased me into the slightly bigger challenges as they came.

David's video here shows what we dubbed the "mini knife edge" which is encountered on the K2 Connecting Ridge before one gets to the main knife edge. As you can see, while it does narrow things up, it was fairly easily skirted on the side with plenty of places for the feet and hands to go.

Not long after the "mini" knife edge comes the real thing. Its one of those parts of the mountain, you'll definitely know it when you see it. The exposure and the difficulty gets real all around you. While I had long thought about what that moment would be like as I would first approach it when the time finally came I was absolutely ready for it. I was first in line and I just hopped right into it, figuratively that is.

Mark on approach to the knife edge.  The first half is somewhat "easily" done on the left side.
The first part of the knife edge has just enough breaks in the rock on the side that hugging the left with hands on top works pretty well. We also found that the left side isn't quite as steep and sheer as the right side, though the exposure is still very much there. For me, about 20 feet in was where I finally began to straddle the top. As the foot holds became fewer there were times where it was just most comfortable to squeeze that rock with my upper legs and scoot along. There are a few bumps and rises as you proceed so you have to change technique at times as you move along. The good thing is there are plenty of places where you can just stop and catch your breath. I found as I neared the end that I had been so intensely focused on what I was doing that I really didn't have time to be scared and I hadn't even noticed how heavy my breathing had become.

I'm the type that certainly doesn't beg or seek out the thrill of exposure, and generally it makes me apprehensive as I think about it ahead of time. But I found myself in the moment on the knife edge just doing my thing and moving through it rather well.

Below, you can see video David took of my entire "climb" across the knife edge as well as my Dad's. Of course there are dozens and dozens of these on YouTube, but here is our perspective. It wasn't shot with a GoPro or any odd fisheye lens, it was a pretty regular digital video camera with typical settings. I think the perspective it gives on the steepness and exposure here is pretty much right on with what we experienced live:

Still shot of Dad working his way across the knife edge
After the knife edge you're certainly not out of the woods yet. In fact, the K2 Connecting Ridge still continues with some more narrow sections. The knife edge proper may only be 50-60% of the way across the K2 Connecting Ridge. There is actually a 2nd knife edge area you encounter before the big face traverse begins. The video David shares below gives you a look at this area. The good news is that it can be skirted around on the right side as you're ascending. There was a small ledgy area on some slabs that got you off the edge. Exposure there, of course, but not terribly difficult. This area is also much shorter than the main knife edge.

Not long after that shorter second knife edge you will find a brief ascent on the K2 Connecting Ridge and then the ridge will narrow out to a small notch. It is here that the second half of the Capitol climb begins: the Face Traverse. Getting to this point still involves minimal to no route-finding. But, after this point is where route-finding becomes the key to the game. The picture I share on the right gives you a look at the approach to this area.
In the picture below you can see the beginning part of the face traverse. For the most part, no matter what you've done up to this point from K2 you will reach this area. We had seen someone else's photos of this area show a route going up halfway in that photo and then traversing a ledge to the left and that is what we did. We started looking for cairns and found them. We used the cairns to guide our initial traversing direction.

The next photo shows us working our way along the lower face traverse. Most of the progress looks just like this. There are a few upward climbs but really nothing more than moderate class 3 scrambling. The majority of the work is the ledge-like work that we are doing below. This is an area where we began to take great care not to dislodge boulders or rocks. We found we were probably on one of the lower routes across the face. If you find yourself taking a higher line, as a pair of guys did while we were on our return trek, you have to be extra careful not to send anything below.

Working the ledges on the traverse across Capitol's East face
As you work across the face you will cross over a few ribs and through a few gullies. None of this proved terribly difficult but at times it would affect how far ahead on the route you could see. For example, in the photo below we are working close to a few of the smaller ribs and it becomes a challenge to see "around the corner". This is where working towards the next cairn becomes a great help. It also was nice having three sets of eyes to evaluate everything.

More ledge work as things begin to get even steeper
The views down to the Pierre Lakes basin were fantastic
As your elevation gets close to 13900 and you begin to near the ridge the east face of Capitol gets even steeper. This last area is one of the other big challenges on this peak. Here the route-finding becomes pretty important unless you just want to class 4 and 5 yourself to the summit. We read through a lot of other's trip reports on this area and actually had a handful of printouts with other folks routes drawn on them. Between seeing roughly what others had done and evaluating what our own eyes were seeing we put together a pretty comfortable route.

In the photo on the right you'll see a line in red approximating what we did. I had seen others draw a line roughly straight up the left side of the visible snowfield and then into the gully we climbed. As we entered this area we saw several dirty ledges to the right of the snow patch that we could switchback through and this worked very well. Above the snowpatch is where the real exposure remained. Some folks have referred to this as the purple rock band and while I didn't fully see the purple tint, we definitely could see the challenge. We found a very narrow ledge system in this rock and carefully picked our best line through it. This led us to a class 3 gully that we ascended to gain one more broader ledge system that took us to a cairned notch in the ridge. I would be comfortable in saying we probably kept this route to class 3 working through here and didn't have to work any obstacles that could arguably be called class 4.

In the following video, David gives another look at this steep area where great care must be taken:

Dad works the ledges in the "purple" rock area mentioned above.
It was pretty exposed here as you can see.
More of the ledges as seen in the previous photo.  This is the
area just above the snowpatch seen in the previous photos
and video. Our target was the gully just to the right of the darkened rock on the left.

In this video David gives a look at the narrow ledges above the snowpatch on the very steep east face of Capitol. Not only did we work laterally across the ledges but worked a bit upwards to higher ledges as it went.

One more still shot of the ledgy rock above the snow
Looking back towards where we've come while
in the cairned notch on the ridge
Once we reached the cairned notch on the ridge we weren't quite as close to the summit as we had hoped. We knew there was still a ridge ascent and then more work on the summit ridge to gain the summit but it was a bit further than we anticipated. From this cairned notch we looked "around the corner" having read that there was some dirt trail that would work up towards the summit ridge. We saw this, but found that to get to it from where we were involved more difficult moves than we wished to make.

This meant we would ascend the ridge and so we did. It was steep but still not quite class 4. We scrambled up to what was a higher notch and here we found a place to break left off the ridge proper and into slightly easier terrain off the south side of the ridge.

David's video below shows much of what comes next far better than I could explain it. Looking straight on you can see what the scramble up the ridge looks like. When the video peers left you can begin to see the remaining terrain before the summit. Its worth noting, however, that the video never quite pans far enough to the left to see the actual summit. 

Another look at the scrambling on the ridge
This was taken on our way down, but it gives another
perspective on the climbing on the ridge. This was definitely a don't fall
forward place or you might go a long ways.
Working the summit ridge. Getting close now.
Now that we were on the south side of the ridge heading upwards we could easily see the remaining terrain to the summit. We found ourselves in a spot where we could choose to gain the summit ridge proper and run that or drop a little and work some lower and slightly less exposed terrain towards the summit. In the picture to the left I found myself already on the summit ridge proper and decided to go with it. The first several moves were quite airy but it improved as I progressed. David followed me on the summit ridge crest while we sent Dad on the lower route. His route was easier at first but as it neared the summit he had a loose scree gully to ascend to gain the remaining elevation.

David's video below here also shows the area just off the south side of the ridge on the east face. As you watch it shows me gaining the summit ridge proper. It also pans to the left to show the terrain just off the ridge where we sent Dad.

And just like that, at 9:40am, we topped out on Capitol Peak. On the last 20 feet David and I let Dad have the honor to set foot first on the summit. I have to admit, I long wondered what the emotion would be like in this moment. A part of me had hoped that if Evans were our finisher we could really celebrate up top and let down our guard and just enjoy the moment. I knew with Capitol ultimately taking this place the room and the time for celebration would be brief as on a mountain like this, you're really only half way done, and the hardest is yet to come.

Nonetheless, it was still a bit emotional to know we'd hit the top of #54. I called Sarah to let her know we topped out and I told her a day later I had to choke back a few tears as we talked because of the joy that was filling me. We took a number of good shots on the summit to remember things and downed some snacks and drinks. As you can see in some of the photos this was also when we really started to notice that the weather was not the bluebird sky that the forecast had told us. We would later find out from some folks during our descent that the forecast seemed to change this very morning or perhaps the night before to a rainy day. Nobody told us! We still enjoyed a good 23 minutes on the summit which is more than we'd usually been doing lately.

Finishing the 54 together. Wow!
The rugged Elks. Pyramid, the Bells and Snowmass
Had to show off the "54" in this one.
Looking to the north to where we started from
We all worked the summit ridge proper back to the ridge on the east face and then back down to the cairned notch we had found earlier. It was some real careful work getting back down to the narrow ledges on the "purple" rock face above the snow. As we worked our way back across the east face traverse we just worked to continue to find the cairns and retrace our steps. One big thing we noticed as we were making our return is a few random droplets of rain. We knew the weather wasn't far off and we were praying that it stayed away at least until we were down from K2.

We didn't have any trouble getting back to the narrow notch where the K2 Connecting Ridge becomes the adventure. It wasn't long and we found ourselves back at the knife edge proper. I had bad dreams before this trip of being so scared about the knife edge that I just wouldn't be able to do it on the way down. Thankfully, those were just dreams. We hopped back on to the knife edge and slowly inched our way back as we had done on the way up. It did feel like some of the moves were harder on the return but we made it without any trouble. We were truly humbled when a pair of guys came not long after us and each tightrope walked the entire knife edge, one of them did it while hoping a selfie stick with a GoPro on it. Wow, didn't realize it was *that * easy.

When we got back to the K2 climb we took our time retracing our route back up the very steep west face of K2. This may have been the only borderline class 4 climbing on the whole trek. It isn't *quite* as exposed as many of the sections on Capitol but the climbing is for real. Once atop K2 again we didn't waste any time and kept moving. I grabbed my ice ax and we made the downclimb off the front of K2. David went first and he was gracious enough to help spot a few blind steps for Dad and I as we came down. This class 4 downclimb takes some care as a few of the footholds are a bit blind, but we made it.

We watched our GPX track carefully as we headed down from K2 to make sure we "rounded the corner" properly into the basin. As we began to hit some of the first snowpatches we found they had really softened out and I postholed into one of them. This led us to decide to avoid as much snow as possible. As we entered the upper part of the basin we opted to traverse higher on the rocks to avoid the steeper snow ascent we had come up on. This ended up being more challenging than we had expected and we had to make some steep descents through some rather large boulders. What made things worse is it started to shower finally. This started to make the bigger, slabbier rocks slippery and got us all wet. This rain would continue on and on.

As we returned to the lower snowfields we found them to be firm enough still to make traverses with our ice axes. We still attempted to follow cairns much as we could but probably didn't do as good a job as we had done on the ascent. When we began to near the final gully we clearly missed the turn to head down towards the lower exit ramp. We followed a dirt trail which led us to a high point in the gully where we cliffed out. We worked to descend lower and then found the class 3 exit point which still didn't look fun. So we had one more descent til we found our earlier exit ramp.

In the darkness of the morning we didn't fully realize how steep and loose that gully near the Daly saddle is. This gully was no fun. David ascended first and he moved up quick enough that he actually missed the turn off for the grassy switchbacks. Dad and I caught them and hollered at David to rejoin us but he followed the steep gully higher and found his own exit point. When Dad and I made it to the top of the grassy switchbacks we joined up with David who said his exit was tough. He highly recommended not working the upper part of that gully.

When we finally reached the K2-Daly Saddle we were pretty soaked, despite our rain jackets. It had been raining for an hour already. We moved quick as we could down from the Saddle and to make matters worse the winds picked up. We were now cold and wet. Talking about raining on our parade! It was 2:35pm when we returned to camp and everything around us was wet and muddy. We hopelessly tried to develop a plan to get our gear packed up. Dad entered the tent to roll up sleeping bags and mattresses and tossed gear out the door at us to be stuffed into a pack. I grabbed the bear can and strapped its wet body to the top of my pack. The tent was soaked all over from the take-down process and so it was strapped to the outsides of packs. We had hoped the return to camp would be a celebration, but it turned out to be a survival exercise. I was freezing from standing around at camp in the wind and rain and needed to get moving.

It took us 50 minutes to strike camp and finally we were on the trail heading out. What was a wonderful trail the day before was now softened and getting muddy and all wet. We were so soaked that the thought of getting a camera out for pictures or the GPS out to take a track was out of the question. We just got into "death-march" mode and made our way out.

Raining on our Parade
One highlight of the return trek was when we were coming down off the big switchback, just over a mile from camp, where we spotted a bear out in the meadow. This was our 2nd bear sighting of this year, what a thrill. He had to have been at least 100 yards off. We watched him and he watched us. The rain had mostly stopped but we were still too wet to think of pictures.

When we had passed the cow gate things got worse. The rain showers were still off and on and the sky was just white as far as the eye could see. Here with the cows now about the trail was just as muddy and mushy as could be with the added fun of random cow pies all over. This would be the case for the remaining 4+ miles. It was pretty close to a nightmare.

When we got to the stream crossing our shoes were so wet and muddy it was actually a no-brainer to just walk right through the stream with shoes on. They really couldn't get any more wet. When we encountered another easy stream crossing within a mile or two of the trailhead we did this again just to wash the shoes off. With the rain and the death march in the mud our celebratory day really didn't end with any other great memories until we finally made the car and could rejoice, that it was over. We did have some concerns about what the road would be like having heard is was slippery when wet, but we managed to get down without much trouble.

Praise the Lord, we managed the 54 without any harm and we did it all together. Its now on to the big question, what's next?

Trip Report:

I have a track and waypoints from the hike all contained in a KML file that you are welcome to download and use (at your own risk).  

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