| A Game of Thrones
MOUNTAIN(S): Castle Peak (14,265'), Conundrum Peak (14,060')
ROUTE: Northeast Ridge (standard)
RT DISTANCE:~11 miles
RT GAIN: ~4,300'
RT TIME: 8.25 hours
CLIMBERS: Jeff (SurfNTurf), Dillon (dillonsarnelli), Brian (Brian Thomas), Greg (gregory_fischer)
(Disclaimer: Nerdy references throughout. Shut up. I was an English major. I like books. So what. Get over it.)
(Disclaimer 2: Dillon's timestamps are one hour behind actual time. All photos by Dillon and Brian.)
As Brian Thomas pointed out ad nauseum, and contrary to popular belief, Castle Peak is the King of the Elks. Or, as the hours passed and Brian droned on and on, the Monarch of the Elks. The Lord of the Elks. The Sultan of the Elks. The Emperor of the Elks. You get the picture.
From the summit of 14,265-foot Castle Peak, one looks down on frightening Pyramid, jaw-dropping Capitol, white-clad Snowmass and the majestic Maroons. All of those mountains are more famous, and despite its height Castle and neighboring Conundrum are often overlooked by tourists and climbers. I was guilty of that myself. When the forecast called for a 60 percent chance of rain/snow, I changed my plans from the Bell Cord to Castle/Conundrum. What better way to spend an otherwise wasted weekend than an easy, safe, Sawatch-style Class 2 road hike?
Both my expectations and the forecast were proven drastically wrong.
Joining me and Brian, who shall henceforth be referred to as The Usurper because it amuses me, were Dillon (dillonsarnelli) and Greg (gregory_fischer). Dillon was recently re-released into the wild after working something like 160 hours a week during tax season. Greg, like me, is trying to finish the 14ers this summer. It was an easy sell.
We took Independence Pass to Aspen, which had opened for the season only about eight hours before. Others will argue (and use Google Maps as an infallible reference) that reaching Aspen takes the same amount of time via I-70 or Independence Pass, but in my experience that’s not the case. At the very least, Independence Pass at least FEELS much faster. Even in near-whiteout conditions and stopping three times along the way, Dillon and I reached Aspen in my Mazda3 in only 3.5 hours.
Opening Day on Independence Pass, in a near-whiteout.
The Usurper was waiting at the TH and Greg arrived at 12:30 a.m. from Colorado Springs. The weather wasn’t exactly encouraging. The sky was completely gray, the ground was soaked, and a steady rain was falling. We split some Independence Pass Ales from Aspen Brewing Company because, well, duh, and went to sleep around 10:30, right as some stars were starting to shine through the gloom.
When we awoke at 5:30 a.m., the clear weather astonished us. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The Usurper ferried us in his Honda CRV from our campsite (a little less than one mile from the paved road) to the stream crossing with a footbridge. A 4WD vehicle with good clearance likely could have made it around the bridge through the stream, but snow drifts started showing up less than half a mile later. The road was an easy walk. I’d suggest parking at the stream crossing unless you’re lazy, like Lord Wyman Manderly or Magister Illyrio.
Starting from the parking spot.
The easy road to the Pearl Pass turnoff was mostly dry. Some snow was present and we did posthole at points, but only for short sections. Immediately beyond the Pearl Pass turnoff the road became a river from all the snowmelt. It wasn’t very challenging to leap from rock to rock or just walk on the drier edges.
Pleasant surprises: clear road, clear skies.
Dillon and the road in the Avalanche Gully of Death (that thank-God wasn't holding much snow).
The road was basically half snow and half dry. It remained a very easy walk all the way to its terminus at 12,800’. The headwall above the end of the road looked about as accessible as Harrenhal, but it ended up being easier than expected. Snowshoes were not necessary either in the morning or the afternoon; we also never broke out our crampons. The few sections we did experience crotch-deep postholing were easily escaped.
Dillon taking over the trailbreaking.
We reached the upper basin at around 10 a.m. Both Castle and Conundrum Couloirs were on our radar, but with building clouds, warm temperatures and the late hour, we decided to stick to the standard route. A large group of skiers were also on the route, and two of them climbed and skied Castle Couloir. They reported decent conditions. Both snow routes were filled to the top, with Conundrum Couloir looking puffy and Castle Couloir looking thin.
The standard trail to Castle’s ridge was covered in a thin layer of snow from the previous day’s storms. It will probably be dry by the time you read this. The views from the ridge crest were stunning, especially with a low-level cloud layer in the Sawatch. We capitalized on the ensuing photo opportunities.
Castle's standard Northeast Ridge.
Me, Greg and the Usurper nearing the ridge crest.
Dillon in a definitely-not-staged candid photo on the ridge crest.
Up until the ridge crest Castle had been a hike, as anticipated. From there it becomes a climb. I could see how it could be kept Class 2 in the summer, but as conditions stand now you should be ready for snow, Class 3 and even the possibility of Class 4. I was relieved to reach the final 200’ snow pitch to the summit. Per usual, Dillon and Greg topped out a few minutes before I showed up at about 11:15 a.m. The Usurper arrived shortly after me. He’d done Castle/Conundrum before and elected to call it a day there. With an eye trained on the weather, Dillon, Greg and I wasted little time beginning the traverse to Conundrum. Precipitation was starting to fall to the south and west, and it looked to be heading our way.
The Usurper beginning the scrambly-bits.
Me and Greg on the surprisingly challenging ridge.
The final snow pitch to the summit.
Views from the Iron Throne.
Greg, me, Dillon and The Usurper on Castle's summit.
The downclimb to the saddle was again covered in a thin layer of snow, making it a bit treacherous. We managed to stumble upon one 10’ section of Class 4 rock to downclimb, but other than that one difficult area it was Class 2. Watch out for cornices on the traverse. They’re everywhere and sometimes hard to discern. Once we started regaining elevation up to Conundrum, things went quickly. We were on top at about 12:15 p.m. The true summit of Conundrum is the farther one, so keep going. Luckily the weather afforded us clear views of the Bells, Pyramid, Snowmass and Capitol. Storms were present in about every other direction. We paused long enough to catch our breath and take a few pictures, then started down.
Traverse to Conundrum.
Soaking in the Elks from the saddle.
Greg and DILLON nearing Conundrum's false summit.
Dillon traversing to the true summit.
A look back at Castle, from Conundrum.
The better-known Elks: Pyramid, Snowmass, Capitol, the Bells.
Dillon, me and Greg on top of Conundrum.
The three of us as seen from Brian in the basin.
Racing the clouds down.
The Castle/Conundrum saddle is no longer guarded by an overhanging cornice. It is, however, steeper than I expected. I’d wager it reaches 40 degrees or so. We downclimbed a bit until we found very soft snow with no runout, and decided a glissade was in order. I wasn’t very concerned with wet avalanches because of the cloudy skies and stiff wind chill. Obvious debris was apparent throughout the basin, though.
We rejoined Brian at the bottom of the headwall, took a nice long break under surprisingly sunny skies, and began the road walk out. It didn’t rain or snow on us once. We got to Brian’s car slightly before 3 p.m., making our RT time a hair over eight hours.
Glissading down from the saddle (photo by Brian).
One last look at Castle.
Group break in the sun. Forecast says what?
Greg managed to find the one area on the whole route to posthole.
The Usurper departed early, while Greg, Dillon and I stopped for a late lunch at Little Annie’s in Aspen. Fittingly the cruxes of the entire day came on the way home: some jackass driving 15 mph over Independence Pass who flipped us off when we passed him even though he wouldn’t pull over in any of the 1,789 pullouts, and the driving rain that was present from the Eisenhower Tunnel all the way to Denver. At any rate, another memorable day with good friends and two new summits to boot.
16 to go…and Winter Is (Not) Coming.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):