| Castle, Conundrum, and Dessert
For my first ascent of an Elk Range peak, I chose the Castle/Conundrum combo, but with a little twist – adding Malamute (Malamute, Malemute, whatever…) Peak to the end of it!
I left Boulder Friday evening and arrived at the trailhead parking area 4 hours later. It was there that I caught a few hours of sleep, woke up and ate some food before driving up FR 102 towards the creek. I turned around at the creek crossing and parked the truck a block or so down in a pull-out and started hiking up. Later that day, I saw a Ford Escape on the other side of the creek crossing, so if you want to go further, at least have a clearance and wheel base similar to that of an Escape and you should be fine. I left the F-150 before the crossing due to only having decent 4x4 experience and not wanting to risk it.
Start time: right about 6:00 AM. Up and up the road I hiked, past the trail junction just above 11,000’ and up above timberline into the open air. I kept walking up to the end of the road where the actual trail begins and took a short break. Just after arriving, a silver Rubicon made its way up the road and parked. Cheaters! Kidding.
After starting the actual hike up through the initial rocky talus parts, I decided to take this cool picture of Malamute:
Morning in the Elks.
Just after that, I was greeted by a small snowfield. The snow was definitely frozen, and I had to watch my step so I didn’t slip. Spikes of some sort may be helpful, but it’s more than easily doable without. The snow sections are pretty short, and the route after this point was entirely snow-free.
After crossing the snowfields, the trail fades into the mountain and you basically just choose a way up the hill and take it. There are cairns scattered about and probably 10+ trails you can take to the top of the round little hill before ascending the scree slope. The talus is stable for the most part, but you can never be too careful. I reached the top of the hill and descended about 20 feet or so into a small gulley then started to ascend the scree slope. It starts out very steep but then mellows out. Here’s a picture a good ways up the slope:
Looking back at the ascent so far.
As soon as the scree slope starts, you reach the top so it goes by rather quickly. After then, it’s class 2+/3 until you reach the summit of Castle. Here’s the beginning of the more technical part of the hike now:
First class 3-ish areas.
You have 2 main choices how to continue once the hike toughens. You can stay on the ridge crest or you can continue to the climber’s right of the crest and end up at this orange-colored gulley:
It’s a fun ascent, but I would not recommend descending it. Be super careful, as all your handholds will be on the walls and the dirt is very slick. I recommend one climber at a time through here because it’s easy to kick things loose.
From there, the route to the summit is more simple and straightforward. Just the obvious “make sure the rock is stable before using it” advice is what I can give here.
I reached the summit of Castle Peak at 9:00 AM, a good 3-hour trek up from the river crossing. The moment I walked up to the summit, the view became my favorite from a 14er so far. It’s incredible! Some summit pictures:
Maroon Bells, Snowmass, and Capitol
King of the world!
After a 30-minute break, I left the summit of Castle to continue on to Conundrum. The whole way over is rather simple except for one rocky area just below Castle’s summit. As long as you hold on tight and carefully step down, you’ll be okay. Ascending this part is very easy.
Near the bottom of the saddle, I took this picture down into the bowl:
Then I started to ascend Conundrum, which took all but 5-10 minutes. After the long false summit, you descend down a few feet to this, which is actually easy to navigate through:
I then reached the summit of Conundrum at 10:00, 30 minutes after leaving Castle. I stayed for about 15 minutes then decided how to make my descent back towards the top of the 4x4 road.
Castle Peak from Conundrum Peak.
Now, while I was climbing the scree slope after the snowfields on the Castle trail, I heard the sounds of rockfall every couple minutes or so coming from the bowl. A couple times, I was able to spot out where the rocks were falling from and watch them tumble down the mountainside towards the small alpine lake. Let me tell you, those things are MISSILES. I concluded that there was no way I was going to risk descending from the Castle/Conundrum saddle and traversing through that bowl filled with human-killing flying boulders. I was definitely the minority in that decision, as most people I talked to ended up descending from the saddle themselves.
I re-summited Castle at 10:50 where I took another 15-minute break. I met some cool people during this – there was a 12 year old boy who, after summiting Castle, had climbed his (if I remember correctly) 14th 14er! He was hiking with his father, who had taken him on such peaks as Holy Cross and Longs. What an inspiration! There was also a young woman whose friend had taken her up Castle for her 1st 14er ascent. She was tired out by it, but nevertheless excited to have summited a great mountain. I must congratulate her, not many people’s first 14er is a mountain like Castle!
So at 11:05 I started the descent from Castle, and stayed on the ridge crest this time to avoid having to crawl down that slick gulley.
The gulley is the easily-seen orange stripe.
On my way down, I noticed some of the people I met descending from Conundrum via the saddle. Here’s a picture of what they faced. I’m still glad I chose to simply re-trace my steps back.
A train of people descending that nasty slope.
After hiking down and enjoying a glissade shortcut across one of the snowfields, I arrived back at the top of the 4x4 road at 11:55.
Now starts my detail of Malamute Peak for those interested in climbing it. I’ll start off with a picture of my route outlined on the peak:
Yellow is up, red is down.
I started the ascending traverse from what looks like a trail near the top of the 4x4 road, it’s pretty easily seen. The slope is loose and slippery, so care must be taken not to fall. Once you reach the rocks in this picture, it gets easier:
Straight across and up.
Then climb to the ridge crest, using the rocky outcrops as your guide. Once you get to the ridge, Malamute’s summit can be seen not far away:
Apparently Roach describes this route as class 4 but I thought it wasn’t any more than class 3 hiking and rock climbing. It’s not too difficult to find where a trail has been formed into the scree and small talus from the few hikers that have ascended this peak. The exposure can be a little big at times, but nothing approaches class 4 unless you want it to. The most difficult part of traversing the ridge is finding your way through places like these:
Over to the flat rock, down from there (not steep) and back up again.
Go straight to the left of the rock in the center.
Before I knew it, I was on the final push to the summit:
I stepped onto the summit at 12:35 PM, signed the register and ate some lunch while enjoying the great weather and view. Here are Castle and Conundrum from Malamute’s summit:
And there we have it! Malamute Peak is actually a fairly simple mountain for those with class 3 experience – the most difficult part is getting yourself across the traverse from the top of the 4x4 road to the rocky outcroppings. Everything from then on is simple talus hopping and mild rock climbing.
I’m going to go into a spiel here. Do NOT descend this mountain a different way you came up through rocky, talus areas. I made this mistake because I didn’t want to walk back to where I gained the ridge crest, walk down, and have to backtrack myself while walking down the road which is parallel to the ridge. What I did was I descended from the summit on the ridge a little bit and try to downclimb through a rocky gulley. When I stepped on a large-ish rock, it gave way and started to slowly slide down the 40-45 degree slope, pulling a good amount of small talus with it. My left leg got sucked into the mix, and the living S**T was scared out of me as the rocks rolled over but left my leg unharmed. Needless to say, my heart was pounding as I carefully picked myself back up the rocks and back onto the ridge, where I scolded and cursed at myself for not going down the same way I came up on a mountain that has no trail. Lessons learned, I guess… So then, I continued to a point closer to where I gained the ridge and started to make my way down a mellower scree/small talus slope that was much safer and easier to manage. The way down was roughly halfway split between walking and purposely sliding/surfing/whatever you call it.
Looking up about halfway down a slope that was a lot safer to descend.
A few minutes later, I was back on the road, and gee was I happy to be back on that road after that little ordeal! Malamute’s summit was left at 1:00, and I reached the truck near the creek crossing at about 2:20. All in all, it was almost an 8.5-hour day for two 14ers and a 13er. Pretty decent if I must say so!
I carried my helmet with me for this route, but only felt the need to wear it while on Malamute Peak. For the others, it’s really a matter of how comfortable you feel. If you plan on descending from the Castle/Conundrum saddle, however, I definitely suggest wearing one!
With all that said and done, I can’t wait to go back to the Elk Range for some more climbing. The views of the other 14ers from the top of Castle Peak are incredible, and the area in general feels nicely secluded and isolated without truly being so. For anyone wanting to summit their first Elk peak, I suggest Castle/Conundrum as a great introduction, and for those who are feeling slightly more ambitious, why not add Malamute? It’s on the way!
Thanks for reading and have a wonderful day!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):