| Castle and Conundrum - Northeast Ridge
This is my first trip report, sorry if it's not up to par with some of the 14ers pros on here.
My initial reason to travel to the Elks was to tackle Pyramid, however with a sketchy weather report (50% chance of T-storms by late morning), a less ambitious climb seemed like the smart choice. This turned out to be the right call, and the fact that we were able to get to the Pearl Pass junction shortened the length of the hike in considerably. I left Colorado Springs at about 1500, driving through terrible weather the entire way, and got to Aspen at about 1900 under cloudy skies. Meeting up with Dave, who drove in from Utah with his family, and after getting in a quick dinner, we left for Castle Creek later in the night.
Just outside Buena Vista, on the 24.
The adrenaline fueled drive up Castle Creek Rd in the middle of the night was intense, since off roading with just a headlight view of the upcoming terrain made the drive tedious (especially going around corners), and we also had no idea what the surrounding area looked like. We crossed Castle Creek, which was pretty fun as the water level was low. There were several cars parked at the campsites just shy of the creek. We continued up to Pearl Pass Junction at 11,200 feet, where we got a few hours of shuteye...
Unable to sleep, we were both up and awake prior to 0400. This worked out well, as we were trying to stay ahead of any nasty weather, and wanted to get an earlier start. Aiding our quick ascent was our awesome camp at 11.2k, which shortened the route from over 14 miles to just over 8. We set out in the dark at quarter to 0500, and made quick work of the road up to the mine basin. It is somewhat eerie hiking in the dark, as the soda straw view of the path that the head lamp affords doesn't give you a very good idea of what's around you. Dave was great company, and the hike up flew by, and we soon soon found ourselves in the bottom of the first basin at 12,800.
Now, all of the TR's I had viewed up to this point had shown a snow covered path leading out and up to the trail to gain the ridge. Well, being mid-July, the snow was all but gone, and boulder-hopping ensued.
Our first glimpse of the terrain leading up to the basin...we elected to take the boulders over the snow on the way up.
There was one snowy traverse that had to be negotiated, but it wasn't too bad, and was quickly over. For the most part, we avoided the snowy fields, and opted to pick our way up the loose scree and boulders instead. It was steep at times, and there were a few boulder surfing moments as the seemingly sturdy boulders rocked, rolled, and sometimes slid a bit bit down the slope. After about a half hour, we found the trail that led up the ridgeline.
The day's first objective
The ridge up Castle has some interesting features
Upon gaining the ridgeline, the real fun began. The ridge is not technical, and not too exposed, just enough to make you double-check your hand and foot holds before moving forward. Several times, several handholds became dislodged when pressure was applied. There is a constant drop off to the left, but the trail keeps you safely away from it, instead letting you choose your path over fun features that you encounter along the way. There is even an 8ft wall that must be climbed, adding to the excitement of the route.
On the ridge...I was a little excited to be here
This is the type of loose rock found along the ridge
Climbing the wall
Don't fall here!
Conundrum across the basin looks impressive
The ridge does not go on for very long, and before you know it, you are facing the summit push. It looks like there is no trail to follow, but as you descend a little ways to get close to it, a faint trail does appear that seemingly goes straight up it. In reality, there is a system of little ledges that are traversed until a short scramble gets you to the summit.
There's a trail that leads up and to the left, just right of Dave's melon dome.
What a view! In all directions the rugged Elk peaks rise up, with lush valleys and razor thin ridges connecting them. Off to the Northwest, the famous 14ers are displayed in a row before you. After reading so many TR's about Pyramid, and deciding to climb Castle instead only a day prior, it was somewhat bittersweet to see that peak in the distance. One day, Pyramid, one day... The Bells looked impressive, and the traverse impossible. It was clear that Snowmass was free of snow for the most part, and Capital brooded ominously just down the connecting ridge. Definitely the coolest view I've ever had from the summit of a 14er.
The other Elks in all their glory
Looking at the next objective.
After enjoying the summit to ourselves for about a half hour, we did see a few people in the basin below, steadily marching up the boulder field. We fueled up, and since the skies were not yet threatening, we headed off for the saddle to Conundrum. The rock was no more rotten than the way up Castle, but still loose, and we quickly descended to the low point of the ridgeline.
Stepping off Castle
Looking at the low point of the ridge
However, there was one point where I made a poor decision. We were having such a good time with the route finding, that when confronted with a rocky notch on the ridge proper, I decided to head through it, instead of following the easy path around, on the way down. The exit through the notch is via a 10 foot wall, with bad exposure on the right. A fall could possibly mean a long tumble down the face of Castle. While still at the top, and looking for a way down, I dislodged a few rocks which went tumbling down the notch, picking up speed before coming to a stop at the bottom of the snow field below. With footholds a long ways down, Dave helped spot for me, and I was able to negotiate the feature.
The ridge up Conundrum proved to be as fun, if not more, than the ascent of Castle. Once again, rugged ledges and short scrambles get you to the false summit.
Terrain up Conundrum (or, 'tearing' up Conundrum)
Off to the West
Looking back at the imposing face of Castle from this point was awesome. There is something aesthetically pleasing about it - it's not quite a symmetrical summit, but I have no other way to put it than it looks like a "perfect" mountain. The ridge looks impressive from this vantage point as well, and I felt almost euphoric, looking back at it. We continued along the ridge, and following a quick descent leading to a 50 foot ascent, the true summit is gained. We looked back down to the basin and noticed a third party heading up to Castle. The other party had gained Castle's ridge, and were picking their way over and around the many features. Every now and again, the loud clack of rocks falling into the basin echoed up to us. What an awesome place to be...
Awesome view of Castle!
Nice ridge profile
Time to head down. We easily descended Conundrum, and found ourselves at the low point of the ridge, looking for the best way down. There is a weakness to the cliff bands, characterized by reddish dirt, which is where we began our descent. It quickly became clear that this would be the crux of the route. Normally, snow covers this portion of the wall down into the basin, affording an opportunity to glissade down. Unfortunately, at this point in the season the snow had melted considerably, leaving about 200 feet of dirt and rock between the top of the ridge and the snow below.
Back to the saddle, looking for the weakness to grant us passage down
Note cliff band below scree slope.
Dave went about halfway down, slipping and sliding towards a minor cliff band with small gulleys in it that had been gutted out by water and snow melt. He had trouble finding a good way through it, so after he found some protection, I headed down a different line. After negotiating a narrow, loose gulley, I found myself surfing scree and dirt into the basin below. Good times. After making it to the snow line, I waited for Dave to pick his way down a similar section, joining me at the top of the snow field.
Dave attempting to find a way down.
Cliff bands in both directions
Looking up from the snow field
Dave making a move to get down it.
There were rocks falling down from the ridge above, so with haste we carefully made our way down the snow field to the green pool in the basin. While there, we heard a crash coming from the direction of Conundrum, and we saw a refrigerator sized rock pin balling it's way down the couloir. It knocked off several other appliance sized boulders until sliding to a stop at the bottom of the snow field. These mountains are slowly crumbling, and this was just a reminder of how you want to get out of the way of such a process.
The weakness in the ridge.
Close up of the route we chose to descend the ridge
We high tailed it out of there, as darker clouds were approaching, and made quick work of the trail back to the FJ Cruiser. We were feeling pretty good about ourselves, until a lady with two dogs came running past us down the rocky trail, putting us to shame. Dave and I are both nursing bad ankles after suffering bad sprains from before, and were amazed at how she was crushing the trail with no difficulties.
The meandering mining road trail leading back to treeline...note clouds moving in.
More of the trail.
A marmot talking trash as we passed by.
Made it back!
All in all, it was a great trip, with great company. A good amount of scrambling, a bit of exposure, and decent weather made it my favorite 14er ascent yet. I think the fact that we made it to Pearl Pass Junction may have had something to do with, but it still would've been a nice hike up to that point as well. I can't wait to get back to the Elks to tag the other 14ers in the range.
Thanks for reading.
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