Monday, October 3, 2011

Castle & Conundrum Peaks - Introduction to Climbing The Elks

The mid-September storms in Colorado left our intended targets, Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle, highly technical rock/ice climbs, so we decided to change our plans and visit the Aspen area. We had passed through Aspen a couple of times, but never had really spent a good deal of time there. So we made a plan to visit for 3 nights, and explore, climb and reconnoiter the Elk mountain range, a range with some of the most magnificent (and hardest to climb) peaks in Colorado.

We really weren’t expecting much. The guidebooks say that Castle and Conundrum are the easiest of the Elk climbs. While this may be true, however, much to our enjoyment the snow left on their flanks by the September storms surely made these peaks a little more difficult and a lot more FUN.

We didn’t hit the road quite as early for this one. Our Aspen hotel’s central location had us just a short drive from the “trailhead”. Sometimes in Colorado, the trailhead isn’t a true trailhead, it’s just the spot in the 4wd road where there is a little more parking, just before the road becomes unmanageable for stock vehicles. This “trailhead” was meant to start at 3 miles up the rough road. We managed to make it 2.8 miles up before the obstacle in our way convinced us our trailhead was right where we were. It always amazes me, later in the day after the hike, the kind of jagged, jumbled, chaotic mess of a “road” that we are able to overcome with our trusty 4-Runner in the early morning hours. Maybe it’s a lack of coffee that I don’t realize how severe of four wheel driving we are doing. This was a good spot though, and left us a short hike shy of where the recognized “route” starts.

The road continues up to 12,800’, but our starting point was right around 11,000’. I like our truck too much to take it up “roads” like this, plus getting at least 3,000’ of elevation gain makes a climb feel more like a climb. We followed the road until it petered out at the old mining site in the Montezuma basin. From there we spied one of the few permanent snowfields in Colorado. Perfect. Since we spend so much time on Mt. Shasta, snowfields are second nature to us, and we were prepared, Gina with crampons and me with Yak Trax. We made good progress up the snowfield, much easier to climb than the talus and scree on either side of us.

Reaching the large basin at 13,300’, we saw to the south of us the steep trail up to reach the northeast ridge. It didn’t look good, at first glance. We’ve been on plenty of these scree tragedies that Coloradans call trails, and they aren’t very pleasurable. Much to our delight, though, we found this one frozen solid. Where there was scree, it was hard as concrete, and a good deal of frozen snow and ice still covering the rest. We made steady progress up the slope in these great climbing conditions.

The top of the ridge afforded us awesome views all the way around. The recent snow had decorated all the surrounding peaks and ridgelines splendidly. Below us, a saw first one, then another vehicle crawling up the road we had hiked. “Cheaters!” We said to each other jokingly. Oh well, if they wanted to abuse their trucks like that then so be it. It did feel a little better to know we would not be the only ones on the mountain today. Just in case - you never know. The snow and ice had the climb before us feeling a little more serious than the “difficult class 2” the guidebooks described the climb as being.

Almost immediately after gaining the ridge we ran into some class 3 hand over hand scrambling. Although this slowed our progress somewhat, it worried us not at all as the weather for the day was perfect and we had plenty of time. Very shortly we started having a great time, filming videos of each other and solving the puzzle of the ridge. Once, while I was leading, I followed a line out to a sheer drop-off. “This is NOT the way!” I shouted to Gina, and I retreated to scramble up a class 3 obstacle instead – just plain good times.

We reached the white-capped summit of Castle Peak and all around us was snowy goodness. To the north of us were the Maroon Bells, jutting out of the rest the surrounding mountains with their jagged tops and reddish colors. We took our summit photos on a picture perfect day.

Soon we made our way down the ridge to Con undrum Peak. We got a good look at the sac between the two mountains and decided we could indeed descend here, it certainly looked better than re-summitting Castle and going back down some of the 3rd class rocks on the ridge. After a little elevation gain, loss, then gain again, we summited Conundrum Peak, the 40th Colorado 14er out of 58 that we have now climbed.

Just before reaching the sac for our descent we ran into two other climbers behind us. They were nice guys and we wished them well on their climb, as they continued up Conundrum. Downclimbing the sac was very steep and loose at first. I kicked a few rocks down, had there been other climbers below this would have been a problem. Soon we were high-stepping down the slope, and a little while later I went for a nice, enjoyable glissade.

We reached the 4wd road and started walking the long walk back to our 4Runner. After about 45 minutes or so, the other two climbers caught up with us – already driving their 4Runner. They offered us a ride, and since the climbing part was really done we accepted. Talking to them, we learned that the other group (of two) who had been slightly ahead of them in the morning, had turned around. At the point where the climb started getting 3rd class, one of them had gotten a little freaked out and told them that it was “not worth it”. Well, it had been surely worth it to us. A great, fun climb that was a great way to end our 14er climbs for 2011.

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