Peak(s):  Capitol Peak  -  14,138 feet
Date Posted:  03/09/2023
Modified:  05/23/2023
Date Climbed:   09/26/2020
Author:  Gandalf69
 The Dark Side of Capitol Peak   

Capitol Peak seen from k2 9/28/2022

On August 26th, 2017, Zachariah White, 21 years old, found himself on the summit of Capitol Peak. The time was 310 in the afternoon, and while late in the day, he was in luck. White was not alone, his climbing partner had completed 42 of the 58 named 14ers in the state, and the weather was holding with no signs of a storm. As they went down the mountain, White thought he saw a easier way down to Capitol Lake, where the two had camped. This gully looked like a shortcut. His partner warned him...

"There are cliffs that way."

"How do you know that?"

"I will show you when we are back at camp."

"No, I'm going to go down this way a little more and see how it goes...."

His partner waited for him back at Capitol Lake until well into the evening. White was not seen again until SAR personal recovered his body below the north face. He was the fifth person to die on Capitol Peak in 2017. Before 2017, in fourteen years, four people perished on Capitol Peak....

Percy Hagerman, sorry Percy

Disclaimer: This is from a few years ago that has been gathering cosmic dust. After reading Kiefer's excellent trip report on Holy Cross I became inspired to share as well. I want people to remember the mountains can be dangerous, and we need to remember and be respectful to those who have fallen. P.S. Disclaimer All of the information used was read from the Aspen Times, the Summit Daily, and

the knife edge, July 11th, 2020. 3 climbers are just about to come back across

In 2017, an unexpected five people fell to their deaths on Capitol Peak in one season. Four separate incidents, much like the 1986 season on K2 which was not one bad incident, but many. Dramatic disasters such as the 1996 storm on Mt Everest have plagued the mountain, but in 1986 K2 had many different disasters by many different expeditions. The four deadly incidents happened over about six weeks. Capitol Peak, once just “another 14er” was suddenly thrown into the public eye. I believe as with many traumatic incidents, the individual people and their stories are sometimes forgotten or lumped together. These people and their experiences must not be forgotten but knowledge will not make the mountain safer.

Looking back, knife edge, July 11th 2020

In 2021, a man fell to his death around the knife edge area. When the search and rescue went to recover his body, a massive landslide was triggered, sending the body farther down the mountain and injuring some SAR personal. His body is located in a crevasse along the face, and will remain on Capitol Peak forever. In 2022, on September 3rd, just before 800am, a woman climber fell about 1000 feet to her death on Capitol. She was holding onto a rock for support when it broke away, taking her down the mountain. She had climbed all of the 14ers, except Capitol. In theory her climbing experience should have protected her. As of the fall, 2022, a newer white cross has been erected on k2 to honor to fallen.

sunrise rainbow in Capitol Valley 9/29 2022

The first death in 2017 was a young man, Jake Lord, 24. He and his climbing partner went up Capitols Ridge Direct route. Lord and his partner had trained especially for the exposure on Capitol Peak. The route has been described to me as “cliffy”. The Ridge Direct route is not as traveled as the loop into the basin while approaching k2. It is believed they mistakenly took the ridge direct way as they left the saddle. They made their way along the exposed and loose ridge when it happened. As Lord reached to grab hold of a boulder sized rock, the rock suddenly became unstable and slide down the east side of the ridge taking the climber down as well. His partner downclimbed to him, preformed CPR and called for help. Lord passed away while his partner was trying to save his life.

looking back, skirting the cliffs below the ridge direct route above. Sept 26 2020
looking down. 3 climbers can be seen on the standard route below
past the "sketchy" areas, almost across. the ridge direct route still looms right above you in this area, to the right

What ultimately happened? A boulder sized rock, a huge rock, which looked stable, was not. An accident that could happen to anyone, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have gone the ridge direct way, modified, and I can say that rock is definitely loose and dangerous. Loose rock is also dangerous on any mountain, let alone Capitol. The ridge direct way is seldom taken by any groups of climbers, so what is dangerous in that section is made even more dangerous because other people aren't breaking things away and such. How long can a rock sit on the edge before tumbling down? Hundreds or thousands of years? Lord and his climbing partner were experienced, and as mentioned had mentally prepared for the exposure and harder hiking required on Capitol Peak. They were hiking together, he wasn’t solo. The weather was good, by all accounts he just had some bad luck.

The ledge section. climbers can be seen on the other side.

The accident occurred July 16th, or from one source I found, the 15th. Because Lord and his partner were taking the ridge direct way, the death did not cause much of a stir as the other deaths later in the summer. At the time, especially on the news, they stressed that it was not the “standard way” up the mountain. When I went that way, modified, skirting the cliffs, I thought the route doable, but the terrain is definitely dangerous. I was worried that before I got to K2 I could easily fall in this area as well. I also recall sending a huge boulder crashing down towards the basin, and thinking that the people down there must think I was crazy to take such a route. I don't think they planned on taking the “ridge direct” route, but I also don't think that taking such a route going up was a fatal decision.The first death was first, many people were sympathetic, but at the time it was considered “one of those things”, because people die in the mountains all the time. As soon as many people heard “Capitol Peak, off route fall”, they already knew the whole story, and that was that.

returning across the knife edge Sept 26 2020

The next fall happened when 35 year old Jeremy Shull slipped off the knife edge and down the east side. He might have fallen somewhere between k2 and the knife edge, which contains some dangerous moves. He was experienced, and similar to the first death, wrong place wrong time. Other people have fallen off the knife edge before he did. Any sort of moisture can make the rock slippery, even if it's from the night or day before. The day before he fell it rained heavily in the area. Shull left behind a wife with a 2 month old son. He fell on August 6th while going up. Shull was also with a group of people. Reportedly he was ahead of them and out of sight when he fell. This fall was later documented quite by accident by other climbers who were doing the peak that same day. These climbers posted a youtube video of their climb. When they are done, at Capitol Lake, you can see the helicopters and a plane in the background. They then tell the camera that someone fell off the “knife ridge.” They mention search and rescue but then quickly mention its most likely a body recovery operation. The video was posted the next day, August 7th. The youtube video calls it the complete experience, and indeed it was, although from their speaking to the camera at the lake I don't think they saw Shull fall. Capitol Peak had shown its slopes to be treacherous and deadly, but more was to come. Because the knife edge is so exposed, (or the area before the knife edge…) many people did not view this death as “unexpected”, a climber fell in a dangerous part of the mountain. Just like the first, it was considered “one of those things.”

a crowded summit. The climber in red finished the 14ers this day, July 19th, 2020.

The next accident changed everything. This time it was a “double event”, that is, two people lost their lives. Ryan Marcil was 26, his girlfriend was 27, Carlin Brightwell. They were a couple, in love, and locals from Aspen. The couple had only been dating for a few months but had moved it together and were clearly happy together. While they had not done many big dangerous hikes like Capitol Peak, on August 20th, they reached the summit. Other hikers reported talking to them before they headed down. They were tired, but reportedly in good spirits and ready to descend. Just as they reached the start of the “ridge proper”, they seemed to see another way down to Capitol Lake. They took the mystery way down instead of going back over across the knife edge. It was a fatal decision. They descended a gully which is steep and dangerous, and ends in a massive cliff band well over 600 ft high. There is no way around this except to climb up and regain the ridge, and the standard route. The only details we have about their deaths is people at the lake reported hearing screaming, and the sounds of massive rockfall. Three different parties of people camping at the lake heard signs of disturbance on the mountain. One person reported hearing a woman and man screaming at each other, rockfall, and the woman screaming for a full minute. Another person reported the screaming and the rockfall, but had no time estimation. No one saw them go down the “death gully”, no one saw them fall, but their bodies were recovered below the north face, below the gully they thought was a shortcut. It has been speculated that the couple just wanted to avoid the knife edge, and ended up off route.

two climbers atop the death gully, to the left. k2 looms ahead Sept 26 2020

While all death is tragic, their story is especially so. They were locals, reportedly some of the search and rescue people knew them. They also were in love, and had to suffer before they died. We can only imagine how it was up there when they were trying to climb down, but we know they did not fall right away after going down the gully. That means they were climbing around extreme terrain for hours, already tired from having made the summit earlier, before they finally fell. It was also reported that the sounds of screaming and of rockfall did not occur til closer to dark. Three different groups camping in the area called in the sounds of screams and rockfall, and these groups heard those sounds as the darkness was falling that day. The screams were heard around 620, and again at 710 pm. Some people speculated that if they had headlamps, they could have signaled for help or something. The couple did not have headlamps, although I'm guessing they had some light source, because they had done smaller hikes before this. Either way, no one at the lake or anywhere else saw lights high on the mountain, signaling for help. Their bodies were not recovered right away, because according to the couple's friends, their hiking plans were “tentative”. That weekend there was a solar eclipse, and some thought they were staying out in the wilderness longer to see the event, until they were reported overdue. The very definition of a tragedy, and it would not be the last of the summer.

from just below the lake Sept 2020

This gully has been since nick named the “death gully”. It took another death to solidify the name “death gully”. Not long after, that is six days, Zackariah White, 21 died in almost a identical way. While descending from the summit, at 445 pm he went down the same gully, and eventually to his death.

“There are cliffs that way.”

“How do you know that?”

“I will show you when we are back at camp.”

“No, I'm going to walk down this way a little and see how it goes.”

Sunset from 13er k2, 9/28/2022

White had a partner who was experienced and knew the route, and although they did not know each other, they had made the summit together. His partner hoped desperately to meet him at the lake ok, but most likely he had already died by then. It takes a good couple hours to get back to the lake from the top of the gully, going down the standard route. The standard route takes you away from the north face once you leave 13er k2, so the likelihood of his partner reaching the lake and somehow helping White down was very very low. The last accident occurred on August 26th. Despite what had happened a week before the same mistake resulted in death. Despite living in the “information age” the same mistake was made. White went down the gully, believing it to be a short cut, an easier way down to Capitol Lake and like the couple from Aspen, was never seen alive again.

the upper mountain. the death gully is just to the right of the 2 climbers in the right corner July 19 2020

His climbing partner waited for him for hours back at the lake. In the morning when White had not returned, he called it in. Like the couple a week before, it's estimated he fell an incredible distance, causing his death. Where White's body was recovered was not more than 100 yards away from the Aspen couple's body locations. Did White, who had never climbed a 14er before Capitol feel he knew better being only 21? His partner, who I shall not mention, had climbed 42 of the states 58 14ers. In the climbing sense he was WAY more qualified than his partner. Of course in today's age (21st century) of “touchy feely” where everyone's opinion matters, even when it's wrong, his partner may have been afraid to argue with White, the 21 year old. I don't know, I was not there, and can only speculate like everyone else exactly what was said between the two. They did also not know each other before the hike, and reportedly White replaced his roommate on the trip. Many crucified his hiking partner for not keeping him on the standard route. White also had on shoes meant for skateboarding. However he had made it to the summit in those shoes, it's possible if he stayed on the route he would be alive. The shoes weren’t the deciding factor in his death, it was going off route. Whites climbing partner had to think about what happened on the long seven mile hike out from the lake, and probably still thinks about it to this day. I believe his climbing partner could only do so much, if the young man was that determined to “go that way”, then I would have let someone do the same thing. The ridge of Capitol is not a great place to be physically fighting over differences.

Exposure on the east side of the ridge

In about six weeks, five people had died on Capitol Peak. According to records, before 2017, four people had died on the mountain in 14 years. Many people do not even attempt the peak, and many who do try, turn around at k2 or the knife edge. Many people can’t handle the constant exposure of thousands of empty feet below you as you make your way on the mountain.

2 climbers summit the North Face, 2 more were behind them. Aug 2, 2020

At the Capitol Creek Th, where many people who climb the mountain park, there is a sign. On the sign it reads “Technically difficult terrain ahead. Loose rock causes unstable footing. Routes are not maintained. Route deviation may result in death.” Each of these sentences, or phrases is paired with a little symbol. The most alarming of these symbols is a person falling, like as if falling off a cliff. Below this the sign also says “Hiring a guide recommended for all climbs in the Elk mountain range.” There are some guide services out there, one of them is located in Aspen and it takes people up Capitol Peak. For a modest fee of course. Some guides will “strap in” with ropes for the knife edge part, and other exposed parts on the route. I have seen such groups in action climbing about. Personally I think the rope part is a bit ridiculous, but I’m sure they are doing it to “assure safety” for their paying clients. Through use of online websites some people are able to guide others on mountains, again for a fee.

Capitol from k2, fall 2019

After the five deaths in one summer many people argued that something should be done to make the mountain safer. Some argued for a sign at the top of the death gully, or to somehow restrict who can climb the mountain. Some feel that a sign warning of danger would ruin the “experience” of being on a mountain like Capitol Peak in the wilderness. Despite the discussion, Capitol is still as dangerous as ever. I know some people do not take advantage of great resources such as don't know what to do about that. Even putting a sign at the top of the death gully would not mean that someone sooner or later would say “screw it” and go that way anyway. has added at the start of the Capitol page a note about how dangerous it can be, and reminds people to be prepared. Everything I have ever seen on Capitol Peak, published or from people, is that there is one way up and down, and no shortcuts.

Capitol Lake, and Peak BC, before covid
the knife edge, again 8/2/2020

After the dangerous summer of 2017, Capitol took a couple of summers off before adding two more fatalities in the next two years. One such body was not recovered from the mountain, which is very rare for mountain body recovery operations, whatever you call it. This person has come to rest at a point below the knife edge on the east side, but not totally into the bottom of the ridge. The accident occurred on August 1, 2021, and the victims name was Kelly McDermott. McDermott was 32, from Wisconsin, and according to those who knew him loved being in the mountains, and had experience. His body is located 1200 feet below the knife edge on a small shelf, and as mentioned, will rest there forever. During the first attempt to recover the body it is believed that climbers above triggered a massive rock slide that injured three of the SAR personnel badly. From the route above, his body is not visible.

the ledge section Sept 26th 2020

The other death was recent, September 3rd of 2022. This second person fell just below the summit area, well past the knife edge. Had this person lived they would have completed the 14ers. Her name was Sarah Beechler. As she was nearing the summit, a rock she grabbed on broke loose, and she fell around 900 feet into the Pierre Lakes Basin. I believe she was around the ledge area, but it's hard to say, I was not there. Past the knife edge much of the rock can be loose and dangerous. As mentioned before, she had done all of the 14ers in the state before finishing on Capitol Peak. The weather on September 3rd 2022 was clear, bluebird skies. Many other 14ers such as Little Bear and the Maroon Bells are notorious for rockfall. Sarah was reportedly a strong and cautious hiker who didn't take stupid chances high in the mountains. Her hiking solo was also not unusual for her, she was prepared, and she was wearing a helmet. Many guidebooks and such encourage people to wear helmets, in case someone, or something, like a mountain goat, knocks a rock off above you. Its believed she was slightly off route and trying to regain it, but in that area the route can be hard to follow. Most of Capitol Peaks route is not as defined and clear as the knife edge.

from the Capitol Creek th, Sept 2020

These are the stories of the next chapter in the mountain's tragic history of death, and being dangerous. Despite one death or many, Capitol Peak will always attract anyone who wants to complete the 14ers.

RIP for all those who have died on Capitol Peak

“I am fain to confess a deplorable weakness in my character. No sooner have I ascended a peak than it becomes a friend, and delightful as it may be to seek “fresh woods and pastures new”, in my heart of hearts I long for the slopes of which I know every wrinkle, and on which each crag awakens memories of mirth and laughter and of the friends long ago. As a consequence of this terrible weakness, I have been no less than seven times atop of the Matterhorn.” A. F. Mummery 1874

the halfway point

Be careful out there

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
Thank you
03/10/2023 10:40
This is very well done. Analytical yet neutral and somber.

03/13/2023 14:07
I had a close call on Capitol myself two years ago. I was repeating the route for a partner and fell on the descent, on the steep segment between the summit and the ridge at around 13,800'. Some climbers were working their way up a little chimney bit between ledges, and as a courtesy I descended a slightly less traveled chimney nearby to stay clear of them. I stepped down onto a very solid looking horn jutting from the choss, and the damn thing cracked in two! I had a 10' to 15' sliding fall before I landed feet first on a small ledge, while the rockfall I triggered went another 1500' into the Pierre Basin. My hand had some minor crush injuries from rockfall I bandaged, but I was otherwise unharmed. I remember the group near me saying something like ”I thought you were a goner”. Probably very similar to the accident that happened last September, and I just got lucky with my landing.
The first time I climbed Capitol was on 8/19/2017. On the way out, I remember talking to a really nice local couple. I was shocked to see their photos in the news later that week.

Death Gully
03/19/2023 11:47
I climbed Capitol in 2017, one week after the last person perished on the mountain. I remember it was a challenge mentally, because I couldn't help but think about all the people who died in a matter of weeks. Once we crossed the Knife Edge, we looked for the Death Gully. It does indeed appear as if it would ”go”, but the 500' cliff below is what makes it deadly. I think there is an old thread on the forum where someone reposted a picture I took that day, showing the gully and Capitol Lake below it.

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