| Conundrum Creek Epic
"Castlebra" – 13,803 (via the Cunning Couloir)
UN 13,162 B (via the "F" Couloir)
"Triangle Peak" – 13,380
From Conundrum Creek TH
18.3 mi, 2600 ft backpacking; 13.1 mi, 6600 ft climbing
Partners: Dominic & Kevin Baker
Number of bridges built: 1
Number of unintentional dips taken in Conundrum Creek: 2
Number of expensive electronic items lost or damaged: 3
This winter I made a wish list of the top three snow climbs I wanted to try when spring rolled around. Now that summer is here, let's see how I'm doing… Obstruction Point (aka "Kat Carson") via the Outward Bound Couloir? Check. Snowdon Peak via the Naked Lady Couloir? Check. "Castlebra" via the Cunning Couloir? Still on my plate. Luckily there is no lack of snow in the Elks and Dominic and Kevin are both up for a three day weekend. We make plans to spend it in Conundrum Basin.
Friday, June 27th
Although the trek to Conundrum Hot Springs is over eight miles, Dominic and I had done it last fall as a day trip and knew that they were fairly easy miles on a nice trail. We figured that even if snow plagued the upper portion, it would be well tracked by the crowds who had surely been visiting the springs. Since it was going to be a rather easy day, we decided to take a quick jaunt up the Geissler's near Independence Pass on the way to Aspen. This turned out to be a nice morning trip, and we enjoyed some tasty barbeque at the Hickory House for lunch in Aspen before heading up to Conundrum Creek. Kevin inquired as to whether there were would be any creek crossing to negotiate, but I quelled his fears by explaining that there were very solid bridges build over all of them… at least there had been last September. I assured him that it was a very popular trail and there was nothing to worry about.
By 2:40 we were packed up and ready to go. We encountered the debris from a monstrous avalanche, the first of many, just minutes up the trail. The gentle ups and downs of the first few miles passed by quickly and it was quite exciting to be finally venturing back into the Elks. Then…the insanity began. You see, Conundrum Creek has had quite a bad temper this spring, ripping EVERY SINGLE ONE of those damn well-built bridges out and erasing any signs of their previous existence! AND it continues to rage. Our trek to Conundrum Hot Springs will live in infamy.
The first crossing wasn't all that bad as somebody had managed to position a group of rather puny trees across the wide expanse. They were barely above the water and each one on their own was useless, but together they got the job done in an uncomfortable sort of way. After that there was so much water everywhere and so many side streams that posed their own difficulties that its all jumbled in my head and I can't say for sure how many crossings we officially had to deal with. The bottom line is that there was no way to stay dry and the going was slow.
At mile seven or so came the nastiest obstacle we would encounter until our return trip – a very wide section of Conundrum Creek with a wooden sign: "FORD ". Huh? The creek was so dangerously high and tumultuous that fording was clearly not on option. Was this some sort of joke? A large tree had happened to fall across the creek nearby, and it seemed like the natural solution. However, I took two steps out onto it and got so dizzy by the crazily swirling water below that I had to do some fancy footwork to hop back onto dry land before plummeting into the creek. Whew! Even worse, water was splashing up and over the log near the middle, further complicating the task at hand. Dominic managed to cross without issue, but Kevin was having the same problem I was. We decided to put on our sandals and try to scoot on our butts across the log. A combination of our feet dangling in the all too icy water and our heavy packs making scooting extremely awkward left us searching for a plan C.
We set out downstream in search of a better crossing. The banks of the creek were flooded here and there was a bunch of still water standing between us and the raging part of the stream. It appeared that the water was a foot or two deep at worst and I stepped out onto a log to make my way to the creek proper. Once I got my full weight on it, it began to sink, slowly at first, and then BAM, I was up to my shoulders in frigid water. All I could think about was the sleeping bag and clothes in my pack that were totally submerged, but with Kevin's help I was back on land before too long. Brrrr. The freezing water was a shock to my system and I was a little shaken up. Promptly, I took a few steps and fell over a bunch of deadfall and into some nasty brush in such a position that I couldn't even get up. Once again, Kevin helped me out. What a nightmare! We turned around and plodded upstream through the brush to try to find a better place to cross, but there just wasn't one. OK, now what? We've gotta make plan A work somehow…
It was Dominic's turn to play hero. He dropped his pack and successfully re-crossed the log. After giving us a pep talk and offering to shuttle our packs across, Kevin and I agreed to give it another try. I went first and it was substantially easier without the extra weight to throw me off balance. When I started getting dizzy, I'd just stop, take a deep breath, look straight ahead at the forest for a while, and then continue on. The creek got less deep toward the other side and once I was able to reach the bottom with my trekking poles it got a whole lot easier. Kevin also made it across without incident and Dominic made two more successful trips with our packs. Luckily the contents of my pack hardly got wet and I was able to change into dry clothes. I wish I could say the same for my dSLR – it still works to some extent, but is seriously malfunctioning and nearly worthless. Also, Kevin had his cell phone in his pocket and after wading in to help me out I'm sorry to say that it could not be resuscitated. Incidentally, we then watched a girl .who was hiking out get dizzy and slip in – luckily it was in the shallowest part and she was able to get back on the log quickly. Apparently the creek had risen significantly since her hike up that morning. Another girl we met on the hike out reported that she had fallen off the log with a large backpack and had been swept underneath it! This is one nasty crossing!
After that there were several more tricky crossings, and we finally arrived at the camping area shortly before 9pm, much later than anticipated. We were absolutely exhausted and I was mentally spent from all of that rushing water but we managed to cook up some dinner before passing out. Worries about the return trip plagued my sleep.
Saturday, June 28th
After a short nights sleep we resumed our epic quest for the elusive Cunning Couloir. Wouldn't you know, this would require crossing the creek AGAIN, TWICE. That thought was quite maddening after what we'd been through the night before. However, we'd scoped out the route on the hike up, and it had looked somewhat encouraging. But wait, could we be smart about it and cross the creek zero times instead of two? You bet we were going to find out. From camp, we hiked back down to the last creek crossing and instead kept on going through the snowy trees. We were on a roll until we found ourselves at a dead end surrounded by steep cliffs on three sides. So much for that brilliant plan. We backtracked to the creek crossing and Kevin went first, jumping and almost clearing the water. As I got up the courage to jump myself, Kevin appeared to be in position to grab me if need be once I reached the other side. I don't know exactly what happened, but I cleared the creek just fine, and then lost my balance a bit and fell backwards. I think Kevin grabbed my trekking pole as if that was going to help, and after having a seat in the creek, I quickly sprang back out. That cold water has strange effects in the early morning. I took one look at Kevin's terribly muddy eye (don't know how that happened), and stood there laughing uncontrollably. I couldn't even speak. Dominic joined us and we didn't dawdle as I needed to keep moving to stay warm.
Half a mile or so from camp we came to an open area near 10,850 ft where Roach recommends crossing the creek to gain access to the basin east of Castle Peak. It seemed that we were going to be blessed with a snow bridge, but our hopes were dashed as we neared the creek and it became apparent that the bridge no longer extended across the creek. Not this again, now what? We were surrounded by avalanche debris so we set about constructing a bridge. Ten or fifteen minutes of work yielded something that was good enough and we crossed without incident. Our creek crossing worries behind, a straightforward but steep climb over talus and hard snowfields delivered us to the upper portion of the basin where we found ourselves embraced by the steep slopes of Castle, Conundrum & Castlebra. The snow was hard and steep enough to warrant crampons.
The narrow, very deeply inset, oddly shaped Cunning Couloir which leads to the Castle – Castlebra saddle was obvious and turned out to be an interesting climb. The walls were so high and the couloir so narrow that I felt totally surrounded. We passed by interesting spires and rock towers along the way. The snow was very firm and averaged around 45 degrees except for a short 50 degree section near the top. This steepest section was extremely hard and very difficult to kick steps into. It definitely added a little spice. A slip here would likely mean becoming a human pinball.
After climbing only about 600 feet in the couloir, we arrived at Castlebra's 2nd class east ridge and followed it the short distance to the summit. It had taken much determination and effort to get here, and we settled in for a long, very well deserved break to thoroughly enjoy the fruits of our labor.
We knew that the traverse from Castlebra to UN 13550 wasn't going to be easy, but we hoped it would go as long as it wasn't made too much more difficult by the remaining snow. Routefinding was very complicated and the scrambling rotten and often exposed. We were forced to drop down onto the west side of the ridge and traverse on nasty scree for a short period to avoid an extremely rotten and exposed knife edge. Shortly before the saddle we found a hidden ledge on the east side that was very helpful.
From near the saddle it was a relative stroll for a while and we thought we were home free… until we discovered that a series of towers were in our way. We slowly and carefully made our way up and over them or across exposed junky ledges to pass by them. Snow complicated the route in one or two places, and routefinding was tedious. The climb to this point had been 4th class, but we ended with a few 5th class moves right below the summit to avoid the obvious route buried under a steep snow slope. The traverse, although less than a mile long, took 2:30!
We had been considering going on to UN 13162, the next summit along the ridge, but it didn't look like it was at all possible. We were tired and this wasn't too big of a disappointment. The hot springs were calling. Unfortunately there was no choice but to run the ridge back to near the saddle. We found a workaround on the east side to avoid the 5th class downclimb and carefully made our way back through the numerous obstacles.
From the saddle we descended west down a broad, low angle couloir on snow and talus and it delivered us efficiently to Conundrum Basin. We worked our way across the soft snow and swampiness to the trail and returned to camp. A trip to soak in the hot springs was in order and luckily the bridge used to access them was still somewhat intact. We had them to ourselves and the temperature was perfect! What a feeling soaking there while staring up at mighty Castlebra.
As we were getting out three forest workers arrived and chatted with us. We discussed the creek crossings and they said that it was going to be a major effort to rebuild the bridges and that the project probably couldn't start until August. They mentioned that the first creek crossing had been super sketchy today and that the final one that had given us trouble was easily waded. Clearly conditions had changed. They gave us a tip about using the horse route near the first creek crossing. This is a wider section a few hundred yards downstream from the trail where there was reportedly a hand line across the creek. Little did we know this tidbit would be a vital piece of information on the trip out. The soak did our sore bodies good, and after a quick dinner we went to bed early.
Sunday, June 29th
We planned what we hoped would be a relatively short climb of UN 13162 and "Triangle Peak" before embarking on the long trek out. Dominic and I had climbed Triangle before and knew it wouldn't pose any problems, but we weren't sure what to expect from UN 13,162. It looks very rugged from many angles.
We hiked up the trail, studying UN 13162 along the way to determine the most promising route. Kevin pointed out a couloir that ended just east of the summit and we wondered if it would work. Its always so difficult to judge angles from far away. It had an interesting shape and I occupied myself with trying to imagine what it resembled. After a few minutes it hit me – it looked like the letter F and that's what I'm naming it – the "F" Couloir. Now we had to climb it! Unfortunately Kevin soon realized that he'd left his helmet back at camp since we hadn't planned on a couloir climb. There was a moderate, open snow slope northwest of the couloir that he decided was a safer option for him and we split up with plans to meet near the summit.
The "F" Couloir was rather shallow and had the strange property of being steepest near the bottom instead of at the top. It was an easy, enjoyable climb and the snow was in very good shape – not as hard as it had been in the Cunning Couloir. The slope averaged around 40 degrees and may have been 45 degrees at its steepest. After a quick 400 feet, we topped out on the northwest ridge of UN 13162 and immediately saw Kevin approaching us. It couldn't have worked out better! We made the remainder of the climb to the incredibly airy summit together, arriving at 7:30. There were thick clouds lingering over Castle Peak and they were blowing in from the east. It was windy, chilly, and uncertain.
Since it wasn't so comfortable on the summit we moved on after only a short break. We'd had hoped to be able to negotiate the ridge from UN 13162 to Triangle Peak, but it looked really gnarly and its north side that may provide passage when dry was very snowy. We descended the northeast ridge, put our crampons back on, and descended moderate slopes near Kevin's ascent route. Contouring around UN 13162 to Coffeepot Pass was easier than expected and we were soon faced with the final, mostly dry ridge run to Triangle Peak. It was an easy climb and we enjoyed our last summit for a while before making the easy descent back to camp.
I had been dreading the pack out for more reasons than one. Eight miles on already tired feet and endless creek crossing weighed heavily on our minds. Surprisingly, the most feared creek crossing went better than expected. The water was substantially lower and less violent, and although we watched two coupled ford the creek, we were successful in using the log and staying dry. However, we did have one more electronic fatality. Just as Kevin reached the far side of the log, his camera fell into the swirling water, never to be seen again. This was getting to be on expensive trip!
After various other lesser obstacles, we finally got to the point where we knew there was only one creek crossing left – the one that had the makeshift bridge made out of puny trees. Well… here was the creek, but where was the bridge? No wonder the forest workers had thought it was sketchy the day before – it was in the process of being swept away! Nothing remained and the creek was ferocious. There was no chance of crossing here. We headed downstream in search of the horse crossing, but after some nasty bushwhacking we found nothing. At this point we were joined by a couple also trying to get out and together we looked again. The creek had split and we waded across the minor arm to get a look at the main arm. Low and behold, there was the hand line. The water was flowing fast, but one of the hikers bravely went first and made it without too much trouble. The water was thigh deep. The three of us clipped ourselves to the line with biners and carefully made our way across. The current was very strong, but with the hand line it felt OK. If we hadn't known about this, I'm not sure we would have gotten out of there that night. This was the first time I've ever felt it wise to "protect" a creek crossing!
Squishy wet boots aren't nice to walk in for miles, and I now know what it feels like to have blisters on the pads of my feet. At least the last few miles went quickly and we were back at the car after 4.5 hours. Wow, what a memorable trip! We returned to the Hickory House where I enjoyed my 2nd rack of ribs in 3 days!