| Conundrum Couloir, and Castle
What: Conundrum/Castle combo
Who: Me, Barry (Johnson) and Gary (Unclegar)
Round trip time: 10 hours, 15 min
Round trip mileage: Over 10
Weather: Unheard of, absolutely amazing
I’m not much of a “14er” guy, meaning my primary goal in climbing is not to summit all of the ranked 14,000’ peaks in Colorado. My personal idea of climbing, is to climb whatever appeals to me at the time. This has taken me from the east ridge of Bancroft, Eva, to Grays and to Big Rock Candy Mountain with Tom Pierce on a technical rock climb.
However, when Barry (Johnson) invited me along on one of his 14er endeavors, I was pretty interested. Having never been to the elks and never really climbed much outside of the Front Range area, this really appealed to me.
First things first. The drive up there is LONG. If you’re a peak bagger enthusiast, I now completely feel for your misery when it comes to the long drives which sometimes make these peaks so painful to visit. Fortunately, I was in good company and we were on our way to a new area I had never set foot in. To travel this far and not be able to gain the summit when peak bagging your fourteeners, is a horrifying thought: to drive this far again? Yuck. I guess any day in the backcountry is a good day, but traffic and semi’s in the left lane KILL me.
Needless to say, when Barry invited me along to hit Conundrum Couloir with a summit of Castle included, I was pretty ecstatic after researching the peaks a bit. The Elk’s are amazing, I don’t care what part you’re in. There are so many treats, (12ers and 13ers alike) all of which I will probably never climb.
Leading up to the day of the climb, the night prior, I had developed a bad chest cold. The next morning I woke up feeling weak, coughing regularly and hacking up gunk. I called Barry and let him know I thought I was out for sure. The plan was to meet around noon and drive up together. I was sad I had to back out, mostly because I hate backing out at the last moment and crashing people’s plans. It’s hard to set something up like this, in accordance with days off and different schedules.
As the morning progressed, I felt better after I took some day quill and tried to lay down and rest for a bit. It seemed to help and I was feeling better around 10am. I called Barry again and told him I was in, and I would go with him most of the way and wait for him at a designated point if I was feeling too ill to summit. Sometimes you have to make the call. It’s tough to go out and do something like this with the possibility of turning around because of sickness, but what an opportunity. I also thought I would be possibly feeling better the next day, which I was.
Some photos from the drive up:
We got to camp around 1900 hours that evening. After stopping at a local deli (Greatful Deli) in Aspen, I built a fire while Barry and Gary (Unclegar) setup their humble campsites.
A view from our campsite
Garry’s tent, he was trying to get away, didn’t want his nose in the photo. He just had some questionable skin frozen off, he’s a 14er finisher and I guess that goes with the territory!
Gary hiding his nose, Barry providing moral support.
I slept in a sleeping bag by the fire I had built. Got a solid 4 or 5 hours of sleep before revile at 0315. Was actually one of the best nights of rest I had at such altitude. Our GPS’s measured we were at about 10,250’, just before the first creek crossing and a large avalanche run-out.
Making the way up the road
Once back on track we made relatively quick work of the 4wd road, which was more of a 4wd river from all of the melting snow pack. We eventually got to tree line as darkness started to fade and the sun came up. Once in the basin, it was almost impossible to keep track of where the road was. There was SO MUCH SNOW. Believe it or not, the snow was firmly compacted and snowshoes were not necessary.
Once morning came, we cooked up our own breakfast’s and headed out shortly after. We were on trail by 0415. After the first creek crossing we came to a large avalanche run-out area in the dark. It took a little navigating but we were eventually able to find the road again underneath all of the snow and downed trees. Here is are some photos (from on the way back) of the run-out area. The power of mother nature absolutely amazes me. I counted a 44 year old aspen tree that had been snapped like a twig.
In the basin
On the way up to the peaks after several gear adjustments, the sun finally came out. Believing it would make the conditions in the couloir worse than they were, I was a bit discouraged we didn’t get an earlier start. However, the snow turned out to be absolutely borderline perfect on the ascent of the couloirs.
I think we’re on top of the road?
Barry’s “microsuprise” notice his left boot, chain link failure.
Castle and Conundrum not in view yet, as the basin is long and raps around.
Finally Conundrum comes into view. Still a ways to go. The Conundrum Couloir is not yet visible at this point and is around and on the left side of the mountain. It leads almost directly to the summit.
Conundrum/Castle connecting saddle
Looking back down, Gary in the picture for scale.
Me with Conundrum in the background.
Barry and Gary making their way up
Closer view of the saddle, lots of snow. We glissaded down the portion on the right.
Castle reveals itself
Barry enjoying the beautiful day
A cool picture of Gary with the connecting saddle in the background
Finally, the base of the couloir.
After ascending the basin and several steep snow slopes, we finally came to the base of Conundrum couloir. What a beautiful sight. Gerry roach calls it a (at the steepest) 47 degree climb which goes almost directly to the summit.
I started leading the way with Barry in second, Gary in third. After getting about a third of the way up the couloir we rotated and Barry kicked steps. The snow was firm and perfect for kicking steps. It was also perfect for self-belay with the ice axe. The snow was like cement and it would’ve taken a lot to remove the axe from a good solid placement.
Barry leading the way
Looking back down
Close to the top
The snow was near perfect condition
Really enjoying myself
Our tracks back down
Topping out, Barry searches for gold with his leg. No Barry, there is not gold at the top of couloirs, only rotten snow surrounded by rocks. ; )
Looking back down what we scrambled up, below a snow bridge to the shorter side of conundrum
Our summit shot with the bells, pyramid and capitol looming in the distance. This was one of the more enjoyable summit’s I’ve experienced, all in good company. The Couloir was an absolutely amazing climb with perfect snow. Very efficient climbing and very rewarding.
Now Castle was up next. Crossing the saddle was pretty much uneventful. It was a class 2+ scramble on loose talus to the summit of Castle. I think it probably took 45 minutes but I’m not sure if that’s longer or shorter.
Summit register of Castle
Just a little ways to go, Barry!
Barry with Conundrum in the background
Barry topping out
Summit shot, Castle!
A wet slide that wasn’t there on the ascent
Once we topped out on castle, we came back to the saddle and Gary started the glissading, giving us a track to follow, although we didn’t because of the sheer steepness. We glissaded down on suncupped snow, gaining some decent speed. Once at the bottom of this glissade, it was only a short walk to the next, and then the next. The stroll back was uneventful. We did run into a group of five making their way up to the base of the peaks in the basin. They inquired how long it would be, which is hard to give an estimate given all of the different variables. Several of them were from Texas and it appeared to be their first fourteener. They were still a ways out and we were a bit concerned for them, being it was already after noon and one of them had already turned back to wait on the rest of the groups return. I hope they made it out safely without too much incident.
And one last photo, Barry is the man. Happened to bring a cooler full of ice just to keep three cans of the very best Dale's Pale Ale. We cooled our lips and our feet at the same time.
All in all, an amazing climb in good company, Thank you Lord for allowing us to enjoy your creation.
Here are links to a couple of videos.