| Castle, Conundrum, Castleabra - A 3-Peak Day in the Elks
My friend Chris and I climbed these three peaks yesterday. It was a fantastic day. Chris wrote up the TR, and I added the photos.
Peaks: Castle Peak (14,265 ft), Conundrum Peak (14,060 ft), and "Castlebra" (13,803ft)
Date: August 11th, 2007
Round Trip Time: 11 hours
Total Distance: 12 Miles
Vertical: 5300 ft
Steve and I were driving up the Castle Creek road at 5:15 AM. Literally every campsite was taken on the road. It was going to be a busy day. We found a nice pull-out to park at a switchback at about 11,000 ft. We started hiking up the road at 5:30 AM. There air was nice and cool and the skies were crystal clear. Our wishes for a nice day in August stood a good chance of coming true. We made it to the 12,800 ft parking area by 7:00 AM. We now had a good view of Castle's summit and our next challenge. The Montezuma Glacier, or what's left of it, was filling in the right side of the slope up to the top of the next bench. The main trail keeps left of this. But, our plan was to climb up to the connecting ridge between Conundrum and Castle because we wanted to climb Conundrum first. To do this, we left the main trail that leads up the Northeast ridge of Castle and proceeded up the glacier hugging the right side of the valley. We stepped onto the snow; it was very firm and icy in sections. I was able to kick good enough steps in the soft sections of the glacier while avoiding the icy hard packed sections. Steve chose to climb the talus in the middle of the valley. We met up at the same point on top of the bench where we could see the next obstacle. This obstacle was a permanent snow field blocking easy passage to the obvious gully leading to the saddle above. We decided to give the snow field a try. It was now 8:00 AM, as we made our way across the flats over to the snow field. Our first steps proved to us that the snow was starting to soften up enough to be able kick steps. Although, above us there looked to be some 5 to 10 foot sections of icy snow that we would have to navigate through. When I came across a firmer section, I was able to chop steps for safe passage. I angled our path up to the where the snow met the exposed rock. There was a nice gap between the rock and snowfield's edge where we could traverse the rest of the remaining snow field up to the gully. The gully was steep, loose, and filled with scree (class 2+). Steve and I took turns climbing sections of the gully to avoid knocking debris on each other. I reached the saddle at 8:45 AM. When I climbed over the saddle (13,820 ft), the rest of the Elk range came into view. Pyramid, the Bells, Snowmass and Capitol stacked from East to West in their signature Elk Range fashion. Climbing up onto the first saddle of the day is always an amazing sight, and always my favorite part of the climb. It feels like I'm freed from the enclosure of the basin below and views are always spectacular.
From the top of the saddle we headed north to Conundrum Peak. The mellow climb up Conundrum's south ridge led us to the false summit, down into the Conundrum couloir, and finally up to the actual summit. We gained the summit of Conundrum at 8:50 AM. We took a short break to refuel, and snapped some pictures. We left the summit of Conundrum at 9:10 AM heading south to the mighty Castle Peak. The climb up Castle's Northwest ridge becomes steep and loose in a couple places, but for the most part, pretty non-eventful. On our way up, we crossed paths with a couple of solo climbers that were making the traverse to Conundrum. One the solo climbers, which came we came to find out once we read the summit resister on top of Castle, was none other than Teresa Gergan. I wanted to wish you congrats on climbing all the 13ers! We reached the summit of Castle at 9:40 AM. The weather was still looking excellent, and we determined we had a good shot of making it over to Castlebra. Just before we left a man was climbing back up the west ridge. He said, he attempted Castlebra, but turned around just before the first saddle. He said, he turned around because he was cliffed out. He said, safe passage around the cliff obstacle was probably to the south down a steep slope, but wasn't feeling up to the challenge.
We left summit of Castle at 10:00 AM, heading down the West ridge. We encountered several cliff bands that required careful class 3 maneuvering. One of the cliff bands is not passable at the ridge crest. This cliff becomes much smaller about 50 yards to the right, but is very loose above it. We treaded very carefully here. Once below this cliff band we made our way back to the ridge crest by traversing below the cliff band. We stayed on the ridge crest until the final obstacle was reached at the saddle. I could then see what the man we had spoken to earlier was describing. Fortunately, there was another climber across the saddle from us. He could see the safest route from his perspective. We down climbed left of the saddle, down a steep scree covered slope (class 3) to a grassy bench, (this was the crux of the climb) then traversed right, around the headwall, and back up to the saddle low point at 13,580 ft. We passed the climber at the saddle, and thanked him for the beta. From the saddle, the climbing up to point 13,820 was steep and loose. We gained the summit of point 13,820 at 10:45 AM. We opted for a short break here, and then headed down to the final saddle before the climb up Castlebra. The descent from point 13,820 was much easier than Castle's slopes. There are less cliff bands and the slope is not as steep. Just before the saddle we went left to avoid a small cliff. We were at the final saddle (13,380 ft) at 11:20 AM, and preparing ourselves for the final push up Castlebra. The climb up Castlebra was the easiest part of the traverse. The west slopes are gentle and there are sections of grass to climb up. We finally made it to the summit of Castlebra at 11:40 AM. The weather was still holding strong, so Steve and I took an extend break here. The views were spectacular of Castle and Conundrum to the east and rest of the Elks to the west. After our lunch break, we signed the summit register, packed up our packs and began our demanding journey back to Castle at 12:10 PM. The journey back was much quicker and efficient because we knew the route. We knew how to navigate through the various cliff bands which saved us time. After another 1,125 vertical feet, we were back on Castle's summit at 1:35 PM for the second time today. The weather was still stupendous, and it was hot. I was baking in the sun at 14,265 ft. What a beautiful day. We took another short break, and left the summit at 2:00 PM. For our descent, we decided to take the standard route down the northeast ridge. This trail is well defined and easy to follow. We were down to the 12,800 ft parking by 3:45 PM and back to the car by 4:25 PM. We were exhausted from the long day, and were looking forward to some good food and beers in Aspen.
My (Steve's) comments and pics:
Nice trip report Chris. I enjoyed the day immensely, you are always a good companion on the peaks. That was quite a ridge traverse to Castleabra. I got to repeat the highest mountain in the Elks (first time up was 1993) as well as climb the soft ranked 14er Conundrum and a bicentennial Castleabra for the first time. Wish we had known that was Teresa when we saw her on the Castle-Conundrum ridge. (Teresa, have you run out of peaks to climb or just having fun on some repeats?)
Note: We also met Scott (aka Floyd on 14ers.com) on Conundrum and hiked with him and dog Floyd over to Castle. Great guy!
As we climbed up above the Montezuma glacier I pondered its fate. Not much left of it with another month of melting yet to come. It's definitely still a glacier, with several crevasses and permanent ice. I suppose some hot summer following a low snow winter it may melt away for good. Or maybe not, I'll let the climatologists debate that one. But it's hanging in there for now.
It was a great day in the Elks. Here are some pics I took:
The Mighty Montezuma Glacier:
Castle Peak from Conundrum:
The Ridge to Castleabra:
Looking back at Castle from Castleabra:
Stormy alpenglow on the ride home (East of Independence Pass):