| A conundrum on Castle
Not all 14er climbs go so well. Have to chalk this one up as one of those not-so-smooth climbs.
Late Friday night we made our way to the trailhead, hitting mad traffic on I-70. Ended up driving up the Castle Creek 4x4 road in the pitch-black darkness. After evaluating the creek with my headlights and a flashlight, we pushed on through without a problem. Maybe a half hour or so later we pulled into a spot at the Pearl Pass junction, being careful not to drive over the cliff. We then spent a restless night of sleep in the back of the Xterra at 11,200 feet.
Light started to break into the sky at about 6 a.m., which was about the time we started hiking up the road. Neither of us felt 100 percent. For some reason I felt very sluggish and grumpy, and I really didn't feel "into the climb." But we'd come this far, so I pushed on through the cold air, under cloudy skies.
Once we made it to the end of the road (at 12,800 feet) it started to sprinkle on us. Somehow the rain didn't dampen our already-weakened spirits.
The fog sure did create an interesting scene. Here's a picture of the lower basin taken from the parking lot at the end of the road:
We continued to push on up the talus, toward Castle's northeast ridge.
Here's a picture of the main / upper basin and the snowfield, with the ridge between Castle (out of view, to the left) and Conundrum (out of view, to the right):
After gaining the ridge the weather gods ratcheted up the fury and unleashed some sleet and granular snow on us. Still, this didn't stop us. We pushed on, carefully climbing up the rain-slickened rock.
Here's a picture of some climbers descending Conundrum:
The nasty weather really slowed us down quite a bit. Some of the rocks were rather exposed – and wet – so we had to take extra care. Often, we found ourselves on all fours, climbing up and/or around steep rock faces, making it feel more like class 3 climbing.
Just a few hundred feet (of vert) from the summit we heard a faint, low-pitched rumble of thunder. Both of us stopped in our tracks, trying to better hear what we thought we heard (not easy to hear anything when you're wearing a hooded jacket and winds are blowing 30 mph). A quick scan of the sky led me to the culprit, a mess of dark clouds to our northeast. The storm appeared to be far away (and skirting to our side, moving northward) and we never saw any lightning, so we decided to give it a few minutes and see how things went. We were also comforted by the fact that the wind was blowing east-northeast, pushing that storm system away from us. Unfortunately, those "protective" winds were bringing another system directly our way. We continued on toward the summit at a fast clip.
On the upside, there were some beautiful views:
Just before the last pitch to Castle's summit we ran into a couple on their way down. Their evaluation of the sky/weather matched ours, adding more validity to our decision to push on. However, just a few minutes later the snow really started to pummel us. Winds must've been in the 30- to 40-mph range, as the big snowflakes were blowing sideways and my backpack was acting like a sail. As we ascended, we quickly made the disheartening decision to bail on our Conundrum summit bid. The weather seemed to be getting more and more ferocious by the minute. At 8:50 a.m. we tagged the summit of Castle, snapped a couple quick pics, and then started hauling ass back down.
The following pics were taken on the summit. You can't really see the snow too well (horizontal streaks in the pics), but just know it was coming down pretty heavily.
A long five minutes later, Jen, who was just below me, told me to come down and take a look from her vantage point. After scrambling around the bend, I had a clear, snow-less view of Conundrum. Literally within minutes, the weather went from blizzard-like conditions to open and relatively calm skies. With this new window of opportunity, we switched gears yet again and hustled back up Castle. Shortly after 9 a.m. we were back on the summit for the second time of the day.
From there, we cruised on down the ridge to the saddle between Castle and Conundrum, which was mostly easy. At one point we did tackle a tricky little down climb … but after making it down we noticed a much easier route that bypassed that trickiness. Made it up to Conundrum by about 9:40.
Had some great views of the Elks, and then got to witness a pretty good rockslide on Castle's north face, which was initiated by some climbers on the northeast ridge. It was impressively loud and lasted for well over a minute (I filmed about 30 seconds of it).
Didn't waste any time as we made our way back down Conundrum's ridge and on to the snow. I was looking forward to doing some glissading, but it wasn't really in the cards. The snow was lumpy and covered with rocks. Not to mention, there were some large sections of ice to make things interesting.
We started our climb down the snow at an angle, in a northeast direction, choosing a path between rocks and ice. We didn't have crampons but we did have ice axes, which were pretty much a necessity given the current conditions, IMO. In its current state, I definitely wouldn't recommend climbing up or down the thing without an ice ax. There were some solid-ice areas, and if you started sliding, there'd be a huge probability that you would run into recently fallen rock (on the surface of the snow) or melted-off areas of exposed gravel. We slipped on the ice and had to self arrest more than once (but it was easy, and the axes dug in without any trouble). I only found a couple short sections where I could glissade safely.
Beyond the snow, we basically just talus hopped all the way back down to the road. There was some snow to our left, which we probably could've glissaded down, but at that time we really weren't in the mood. Funny enough, the temps really warmed up and I ended up changing into shorts and a t-shirt.
Stumbled down the long road, hoping that tomorrow's Holy Cross would be a better day, and that I'd be in a better mood. Made it back to the truck at 11:40 a.m.
Capped off the not-so-smooth day with some smooth mood juice – a couple pints of beer at Glenwood Canyon Brewery in Glenwood Springs.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):