What makes this mountains so formidable are the narrow ridges that sweep like buttresses from its soaring summit. The Northeast Ridge is the easiest to traverse, but it's still treacherous because of its steepness, exposure, and loose rock. There is a precipitous false summit to negotiate on the lower ridgeline, then there’s the famous “Knife Edge” section with sheer drop-offs on either side.
Begin by following the Capitol Creek Trail to Capitol Lake. This is a brushy and often soggy, but always very scenic hike on a somewhat popular trail. Good camp spots abound. Most parties choose to camp near Capitol Lake and make this summit a 2 or 3-day mission.
A climber’s trail departs the main trail just north of Capitol Lake to switchback steeply up to the saddle at Daly Pass. From here, route-finding becomes a bit trickier. Follow dirt trails and cairns on a slightly descending traverse of this ridge’s east side, aiming for the large talus basin ahead. There are a few steep rock gullies to negotiate along the way, but nothing too difficult if you are careful with your footing. Once at the talus field, pick your way across it and up the other side. The small, pyramidal false summit above is what you should aim for. This is the false summit known as K2 that marks the start of Capitol Peak’s Northeast Ridge.
Choose your plan of attack on K2 once you reach it. This is where the Class 4 climbing begins. You can go around K2 to the right, but going straight over the top is not much more difficult, and the brief satisfaction atop this sub-peak, plus the view it affords of the route ahead, are worthwhile. This is the spot to re-evaluate your stamina and the weather, because it’s the last easy place to turn around.
On the other side of K2, the ridge is narrow but not yet the “Knife Edge.” Dip through a col then up a short rock tower with easy 4th Class moves, then the real fun begins. The Knife Edge is a very narrow and highly-exposed section of about 150 feet in length. The rock is actually fairly good quality here, which is lucky. Scoot or walk along it and try to enjoy the airy exposure rather than let it freak you out. This is definitely a “no-fall zone,” though, so be extremely careful. Some parties choose to rope up here.
After the Knife Edge, the rock becomes progressively looser. It is possible to continue on the crest the entire way to the summit, but the easier and standard route is to drop down to the left (east) side soon after the Knife Edge. Follow cairns along ledges and through gullies to navigate and eventually return to the crest when terrain allows. Once back on the crest, the final summit push is all that’s left, and it’s straightforward Class 3 for just a little bit farther.
Once on top, take time to enjoy your immense reward, if you can afford to. Keep in mind that the only way back is the way you came, and you should expect the ridgeline portion to take just as long or longer than it did on the way up.
This bears repeating: do NOT attempt to take a shortcut down Capitol Peak! You MUST return via the standard route that you climbed up. Numerous people have died by attempting to take a different route down, and subsequently falling off of a cliff to their deaths.
Capitol Peak is a worthy summit indeed, and the views on top match the challenge of reaching them. You can see the mountain’s toothy ridgeline continuing southward all the way to Snowmass Mountain, and you can see straight down Capitol’s staggeringly-steep north face toward the lake more than 2,000 feet below.