Climbing “fourteeners”, or mountains over 14,000 feet, is a uniquely Colorado past time. In a state boasting 54 peaks meeting this definition, Colorado residents and visitors alike spend summer weekends gasping for air, admiring fields of wildflowers, and taking victorious photos at the top. Fatalities and injuries are not infrequent, including 2019 in which there have been numerous incidents already this year. Fourteeners are hard. But which of the 54 is the proper hardest?
Mt. Bierstadt is by far the most-hiked of the group, with around 40,000 people summiting in 2007, but according to the peak baggers’ go-to climbing resource, 14ers.com, it sits very low on the list of challenging climbs. But if it’s not Bierstadt nor any of its popular and accessible front range companions – Longs, Pikes, Evans, Torreys, and Grays – which is it?
To answer the question of which is hardest, I started my quest by logging on to 14ers.com where many climbers assured me that the distinction of hardest fourteener belongs to Capitol Peak – a jagged line in the sky in the Elk Mountains range, due west of Aspen. When it received its name in the 1874 Hayden Survey, a team member reverently explained that its “prism-shaped top and precipitous sides forbid access.” Though it has indeed since been successfully scaled thousands of times, climber Zach Beasley agrees with the sentiment that the mountain limits access to all but a very-prepared few.
Now knowing that Capitol is the hardest, I wondered what climbing it is like, and Beasely agreed to tell me about his experience on the mountain.
After discovering the lure of fourteeners as a young adult, Beasley began to climb them zealously, “bagging” 17, 14, and 11 peaks in his first three climbing summers. It wasn’t long before Capitol’s reputation as a challenge of epic proportions drew him in. “It’s like the siren from the old story,” he says. “It’s a little dangerous, and the views and features are awe-inspiring.”
With great respect for the mountain and its obstacles, Beasley got in the best shape of his life and rehearsed skills that would be necessary for the hike far in advance. To make sure he had the endurance for the journey, he worked out until he could confidently run (in addition to hike) 17 miles and practiced scrambling over rocks during other excursions. Moreover, he made sure that “by the time you arrive, you have the whole route memorized – trails, junctions, which way to turn, etc..” He continues, “It’s not the day that you climb, but the preparation that determines success or failure. – you have to do your homework. Your trip doesn’t start that day, it starts weeks prior.”
The trek itself is characterized by 17 miles round trip, extreme exposure, traversing snowfields, boulder fields with loose and wobbly rocks, and, likely the most infamous feature of the hike – the “knife-edge”. Beasley and the companion of another hiker, Britt Jones, had the seat of their pants sliced open as they were shuffle-straddling across this sharp ridge with a 2,000-foot drop on both sides to get to the summit. Beasley celebrated his achievement of arriving at the top with a quick look around, but “no champagne popping” because he had an eye on the clouds filling the horizon and wanted to get back down before foul weather blew in – which he did.
Britt Jones had a much more harrowing descent. While carefully navigating from large slab to wobbly boulder, the refrigerator-sized rock beneath Jones’ feet slid free of the mountain and crashed 900 feet to the ground while Jones managed to hold himself in by just his hands. Not an hour after his brush with death, a smaller rock rolled out from beneath his foot causing him to fall into a hole and possibly tear his ACL, necessitating a painful and grueling 6-mile hike back to the trailhead. Overall, Jones considered his climb a huge success, but can’t help but feel that only divine intervention saved him from an untimely death.
Disaster on the mountain is far from uncommon. If the name rings a bell for even those outside of the hiking community, it might be because it’s featured in the news unfortunately often for its many tragedies. Despite the proportionately small number of hikers each year (1,000-3,000), from 2010-2017 Capitol claimed the lives of 9 people – a surprisingly high number considering Longs Peak holds the record for deaths (10) but has over six times the number of hikers per year (15,000-20,000).
2017 was a particularly tragic year, taking the lives of five hikers within 41 days. Beasley’s climb took place within this deadly period and reinforced his belief in the importance of “respect” for the mountain. He explains that the components of his successful hike included deep familiarity with the route, testing every rock before putting weight on it, keeping an obsessive eye on the weather, having sufficient food and water, and being in good enough shape for the challenge.
He can tell an unsettling number of stories about people who died within days of him hiking the same mountain. The causes range from lightning strikes, being struck by boulders, and, in the case of a woman he met and encouraged to turn around on Maroon Peak because she didn’t have much water and was venturing into poor weather, falling to her death later that same day.
Despite the danger both men were aware of going into and out of their hikes, Beasley and Jones speak with awe and fondness of their trips up Capitol. Mentions of the alpenglow at dawn, the dizzying vastness of the landscape, and the magnificent sense of achievement upon arriving at the top of one of the steepest, most difficult hikes of their lives show that they do not regret their decision to challenge the fickle mountain.
For those considering the hike this summer, take a page from Beasley’s book and research the hike with dedicated fervor before even setting foot on the trail. Hiking Capitol Peak is a feat of body and mind that leaves hikers thrumming with an enormous sense of accomplishment. The mountain demands respect, however, so if you value your bodily health and soul, don’t forget to give it its due.