Peak(s):  Castle Peak  -  14,265 feet
Conundrum Peak  -  14,060 feet
Post Date:  06/12/2013
Date Climbed:   06/08/2013
Posted By:  SilverLynx
Additional Members:   wildlobo71

 Forward Unto Victory   

Forward Unto Victory

Mountains: Castle Peak and Conundrum Peak
Date Climbed: June 8, 2013
Partner: wildlobo71
Time: 13 hours (5:00am-6:00pm)
Special Gear Used: Ice axes, trekking poles, crampons, climbing helmet

Before I begin this trip report I just want to say thank you to Bill (wildlobo71) for all your help this past weekend. I have been struggling to find work for the last 8 months and it really keeps me uplifted when someone like you can help me continue to get outdoors and enjoy the mountains during such a trying time. I had a lot of fun, and once again I’m glad we made it happen over the weekend.

Castle and Conundrum are two fourteeners that have been on my mind since May of 2012. Somehow they didn’t make my docket last summer, so I then made plans to do them this year at the Spring Gathering. When the Gathering itinerary changed to Shavano and Tabeguache for safety reasons, I knew I had to make my own plans for C & C.
A map of our route.

I decided to write a trip report for these peaks since the climb was such a milestone for me in many ways. Castle Peak was my first Elk Range 14er, the first time I used crampons, and the location of my first actual glissade descent (I had experimented on San Luis two weeks prior but it was only a slide of about 40 feet or so). I am just starting to feel like I am making headway on my goals for this year, which is very exciting!

Friday, June 7, was getting ready day. I made my last trek to R.E.I. before the weekend and rented a pair of crampons. As Bill tried to finish up a few things at work before the weekend, I spent the morning packing. We did not leave for Aspen until 3:30 or 4:00 that afternoon. Our drive along I-70 was pleasant and sunny as we listened to a lot of songs from the 70s and 80s. iPods and satellite radio come in handy on long mountain drives!

As we neared Glenwood Springs, I noticed the incredible sedimentary layers of the canyon. It reminded me of compressed cardboard boxes – layers and layers! And the thin “sheets” were stacked on top of some other kind of rock below, and we both wondered how many millions of years it must have taken to create both of the rock types and meld them together. It is remarkable to see the age of the Earth revealed to you so clearly, and on such a large scale. How large were those cardboard-looking rock layers when they were full of water? How long have the striped walls towered over the Colorado River? There were so many things to ponder, and this is why I am so fascinated by nature. You could stare at clouds, rocks or stars for a long time and just contemplate everything, and it brings a certain kind of peace.
The sedimentary layers of the canyon walls.

When we reached the Castle Creek Road, I remembered last November and the awful experience with an unexpected road closure when I was with Kyle K., Nicole L. and a friend with his dog. We had hoped to get C & C as a late season climb before the avalanche danger became an issue, but the recent snow had already transformed the hike into a 17 mile ordeal because of the road closure. It was not very nice to have to turn around that day, but we had no choice. It just wasn’t my day. This time was different, and my luck had turned.
The turn-off to the dirt road.

I felt my heart beat a little faster when we hit the dirt road to the trailhead. We were on our way to the Castle Creek crossing, where Bill hoped to forge the river with his trusty Jeep Rubicon in order to reach Pearl Pass, our anticipated camping site. However, when we reached the creek crossing, the rapids were raging. The water was easily 8-12 inches deep in the path of the car (however neither of us could decipher the depth to be certain), turbulent and moving fast. Bill worried that the water may splash up inside the engine compartment and stall the Jeep, while I wondered if the creek depth would be enough to catch the side panel of the Jeep and have enough force to push it into the rushing whitewater and get us into a bad situation.
Bill tests the waters of Castle Creek.

Castle Creek at high volume.

We both erred on the side of caution. I was frustrated at first, but in retrospect, I realized that the extra time required to walk to Pearl Pass paled in comparison to the time it would take to rescue a stuck Jeep. I did not want to sacrifice this climb to a hasty decision, and I’m glad Bill made the move to back away. One other thing to note is that while the stream may be passable in the morning, it will have much more volume in the afternoon from all the newly melted snow. So even if we could have crossed it the next morning, we would not have been able to make it back over at the end of the hike. We drove a little ways back down the road and camped at the first available spot, where we could hear the sound of the stream rushing outside. I must be crazy I thought. This is how I spent my Friday and Saturday nights during the summer: going to bed early and sleeping outside so I can walk 10-16 miles the following day.

At 3:15am Bill’s alarm went off. After another 20 minutes of snoozing, we decided it was now or never. Get up and hike or call it and go back to bed. Here I go again! I thought. It is amazing how early you will find yourself getting up in the morning when you are after a 14er summit. The air outside was cool, but not cold. This made getting dressed less of a chore. We groggily began our routine of rummaging around for water, food and clothes. Without any moonlight, it was hard to find things quickly. It took us longer than usual to get ready since we had to pack up the Jeep and drive as close to the creek crossing as possible before we began walking. The hike commenced at 5:00am, right about the time that headlamps were no longer necessary.

The walk to the stream crossing was only about a hundred yards. After that, the trail curves around and goes through a meadow. Shortly after we crossed the meadow, the alpenglow began to light up the mountains. This was the Elk Range! I was really there, finally.
A mountain lights up in the morning sun.

Onward through the meadow and into a forest where Bill noted an avalanche slide – a large swath of snow that had recently thundered down the hillside and taken out several trees.
Destruction from a recent avalanche.

The snow here had the consistency of concrete. Seeing the devastation to trees (which ordinarily a car has trouble knocking over) gave me a healthy respect for the force and power behind avalanches. I am grateful I was not around to witness the event, and I hope that I never have to.

In the woods, I could hear the calls of robins, ruby-crowned kinglets, chickadees, and another bird that I could not identify.
After a little more than a mile, we crossed the Pearl Pass Bridge where there is a beautiful waterfall. The morning sunlight made the dancing water sparkle as it began its journey to the Pacific Ocean. Mountain streams are symbolic of renewal; a reminder that all things old are made new again. Water from the ocean falls from the sky as snow, and after the long gestation of winter, spring arrives and ancient water is reborn into an alpine stream with the energy of a child.
Dancing stream.


During the early hours of the day, mysterious clouds lingered over the peaks. Some looked fluffy and harmless, but others looked like they may become rain clouds. There was a palpable tension in the air as Bill and I waited to see what would become of the clouds. I feared that a thunderstorm was in my future.
Dark clouds in the early hours.

We hoped they would burn off as the Sun went higher in the sky. I found myself silently praying for them to disappear, and after a while, they did. No thunder all day, and no rain. Just clouds rolling in front of the Sun occasionally.

Montezuma Basin is spectacular. There is snow everywhere this time of year, and it makes for some very striking photos of the mountains.
Not sure what peak this is but it was pretty!

There were some large rusty cables draped over some of the rocks near the Montezuma Mine at 12,700 feet. Not too far after we passed the Montezuma Mine, we opted to use crampons and ice axes to traverse the snowfields leading up to the upper basin. This was the first time in my life I have ever worn crampons. Bill instructed me on how to attach them to my boots and helped me make sure they fit snugly. They were surprisingly not as awkward as I thought they’d be. The only trick is making sure you swing your downhill foot out far enough so that the spikes don’t snag your other ankle. The crampons did make my feet heavier, which probably contributed to making snow travel a bit more exhausting that walking on a dry trail. I didn’t notice it in each step, but after a 100 steps I could tell that it was harder.
Me using crampons for the first time ever.

Bill the mountain climber!

We went left around a bowl-shaped area with a small lake at the bottom, and traversed the side of a snowy slope. I was feeling exhausted already and needed to flop down and crash for a couple minutes, crampons in the air, face in the snow. When we reached the edge of the upper basin, we could see that the remainder of the trail along the ridge was mostly snow-free. So we removed our crampons and stashed both crampons and snowshoes under some nearby rocks.
Castle Peak.

We began to make our way up to the ridgeline after a short break and noticed a marmot scampering up the flanks of Conundrum. A few minutes later, while we were gaining the ridge, a skier descended Conundrum couloir.

Somewhere along this ridge, my left knee started to hurt badly. I twisted it the wrong way on a recent hike and I suspect the pain could be leftover from that… I made the best of a dysfunctional knee during the short scramble sections along Castle’s northeast ridge. It was also around the same time that I felt the onset of a massive altitude headache. I knew the traverse to Conundrum would not be easy. As I scrambled along the ridge, I noticed that the rocks I above my head were resting precariously in a haphazard pile. I put on my climbing helmet to be safe.

Castle has some very interesting rocks toward its summit – they are uniquely purple and green striped. The section with these colored rocks is where the Class 2+ comes in. It’s what I would call light scrambling. You use your arms, look for solid steps, and trekking poles would just get in the way.
Climbing up the ridge rock.

Bill taking a breather.

The crux of Castle is a short section on climber’s left. If you fell to your left, you’d tumble down a steep snowfield into God knows where. It looked like a long way down from the ridge. There was some room for error, but not much. My ice ax clanged against the big pile of rock I was hugging as I wedged my fingers into some cracks and slowly edged my way through the crux, feet firmly planted in the snow.

The summit is a short ways from the exposed section, and we were glad to see it.

My ax in the summit snow.

We were both very tired and opted to nap for a few minutes before doing much else. Only about five minutes had passed when suddenly a long, soulful howl rang out from somewhere down below. Was it the two people half an hour behind us? Or a coyote? We didn’t know for sure. The wind picked up and motivated us to move again. It was time for some food and a few pictures before we left the summit…
Can you see the other Elk Range 14ers?

A marmot took this picture for us.

Then we were off to Conundrum.

My head was pounding, and descending to the saddle was tricky due to the loose “shattered” rock, for which the Elk Mountains are notorious. There was no exposure per se, but I got frustrated on a section where I tried to downclimb an 8 foot tall wall. Bill had to help me place my feet. The rocks are so loose along the saddle and on the way up to Conundrum that several of them at a time readily slipped out from underneath my feet and caused me to get irritated in a hurry. It helps to look for big rocks to step on and keep your body straight up and down so your center of gravity is not behind you or in front of you. Heavy exhaustion was really setting in, but we pushed on.

There is an obvious cairn on the first hump in the ridge leading over to Conundrum. That point is not the summit, but the summit isn’t far beyond. The higher point is on the other side of the ridge.
Cairn - almost there!

It was then that we realized what had been howling earlier – the dog belonging to the two guys behind us. It sounded scared, and its whimpers and whines echoed across the basin.

Conundrum was only minutes away now. Our energy was quickly waning, but I was determined. I knew we could make two summits on this day, and I wanted Bill to share the feeling of victory with me on summit #38. There was some minor scrambling over to the high point, but the trail was easy to follow. Walking up to find the summit register brought a smile to my face. We did it!
On the summit of Conundrum with Castle in the background.

The other hikers and their dog had finally caught up to us, and we learned that the dog’s name was Fiona. She was very nervous and reluctant to get close to us. We sat with her next to the cairn for a few minutes while her owner went over to tag Conundrum.

After almost falling asleep standing up, she decided to run over to Conundrum, howling all the way, her cries reminiscent of a humpback whale.

The four of us hikers and Fiona the dog returned to the saddle at the same time. It was time to decide if we were reascending Castle Peak (ugh!) or glissading. My aching knee seemed to be making the decision for me. Bill and I waited and watched the other hikers glissade first. The first guy made it all the way down very quickly, and his friend and Fiona soon followed (though the dog was quite reluctant). I figured if the dog could do it, I had nothing to worry about… I remember saying to Bill “This is the scariest thing I’ve ever done!”

Bill showed me how to use my ice ax as a brake, digging the spike into the surface of the snow and rotating the handle back and forth as needed. I was terrified… I didn’t want to get going too fast and lose control, or watch Bill descend completely only to be left on the saddle all by myself, clueless and frightened. We began to descend side by side with our ice axes. I think I had a death grip on mine. The snow under our butts was very cold. “Just let go!” Bill shouted. He stayed close for the first 50 feet down, then at some point he took off down the hill toward the green alpine lake or “tarn” in the bowl of the basin. I was petrified. I inched along at first, clinging to my ice ax… then I tried to let myself go faster but it was a scary, new feeling. I could hear Bill reminding me I had nothing to worry about. Before I knew it I was halfway down the hill. I had to keep clearing snow out from between my legs and my butt felt numb from the cold. I continued to slide down, and in the last 30 feet or so I realized that glissading was actually kind of fun. As I reached Bill I felt a lot of tension release from my arms and abs. “I need a margarita!” I remarked.
My face after the glissade.

If anyone knows about the mysterious tarn below Castle and Conundrum, please let me know… Apparently it’s a large sinkhole, and photos from past years have hinted that the earth seems to be unstable there.
The alpine lake that sits below Castle and Conundrum.

Acrosternum hilare, I presume.

While trekking across the upper basin, we were pleasantly surprised that we did not posthole in the snow very much – it was in great condition. As I looked back up at 14,265 foot tall Castle I was grateful that we chose to glissade instead of going back over its summit.
Looking back at where we descended.

We collected our crampons and snowshoes from the stash, said goodbye to Castle and glissaded once again, this time on a less steep slope. A great deal of arduous hiking was cut out by glissading these snowy hillsides. The air temperature had warmed up significantly and our return hike to Pearl Pass was just a fun romp through the snow.

By this time in the day, the waters gushed from the hills. It trickled down from every point where there was snow, and the stream had spilled over onto the 4WD road.
We couldn’t help but get our feet wet – it was inevitable.

The falls at Pearl Pass Bridge were roaring now, brimming with snowmelt from the intense June sunlight.
Lovely waterfall at Pearl Pass Bridge.

The Sun was getting lower in the sky, and its light illuminated a stand of aspens in the valley.

Our hike was a complete success and well worth the drive to Aspen and the 13 hour trek from car to car. It was a gorgeous day in the Rockies filled with new experiences for me and great photo opportunities for us both. We knew it would not be long until our next adventure, but for now it was time to fill up on Taco Bell, drive back to Denver, shower and pass out.

And that was our climb of Castle and Conundrum.


Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

  • Comments or Questions
Craig Cook

Great job!     06/12/2013 07:48
What a beautiful area. Great job snagging two peaks!


Nice job and thanks!     06/12/2013 11:33
Nice climb and report. our team of three passed you one our way to setting camp as you were on the way down. Thanks for the beta on the snow conditions, it made our climb the next day more enjoyable. I posted a trip report, too, that may have been a bit different without the info you and Bill provided.

Brian Thomas

VICTORY     06/12/2013 13:31
Smart move not driving through the creek, the last time I rode with someone who did turned out to have very expensive consequences.


Can't hide in this TR...     06/12/2013 15:36
Good report Jenny! It was fun talking you up the scramble and down on the glissade - looking forward to more! Brian, I got through the crossing the last two years but the volume was definitely lower and there was a new log obstacle in the way that created a pinch point - just enough to tell me I love my Jeep too much to risk it.


Great pix!     04/02/2015 19:45
Nice work in the Elks Jenny & Bill!


”A marmot took this picture for us.”     06/12/2013 17:28
Lies!!! I can see Bill's hand reflected in his glasses.

Congrats on a lot of firsts, Jenny! Great trip report in a beautiful area. I particularly like the pic of the other Elk 14ers, very cool.


NICE!     06/12/2013 19:52
Castle was my first successful summit, and that second section you talked about, my first gilssade. Pics bring back great memories. I'm still kicking myself for not going over to grab Conundrum while there.


Jenny     06/13/2013 05:46
Just wait for the glissade on Snowmass! It's a blast! Love the TR - looks like y'all had a great day!


hmmmm     06/14/2013 03:11
did you happen to see 2 dudes high up on the ridge crest of Malemute Saturday morning as you were heading up through the ”valley of death”?

Congrats on a job well done!


Sweet     07/03/2013 15:57
Looks like a great trip. Might be headed that way this weekend!

Thanks for sharing!

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