Jessica and I set off Sunday morning for our first trip to the Elks. Our objective; the easiest 14er we could dig our boots into, Conundrum and Castle. Wanting to do a snow climb we set our sights on the Conundrum Couloir.
800 feet, 48 degree max slope angle and some of the most spectacular views imaginable. This would make for one hell of an introduction to the Elks.
We made our way leisurely out to the Montezuma Basin 4wd road, with a mandatory stop in Carbondale for Whitehouse Pizza. This made for a perfect late lunch and the extra was dinner, much better than Cup-o-Noodles. The last report on the TH status said the road was closed at the creek crossing so we were unsure how far we would get. When we arrived at the crossing it was late afternoon and it was flowing fast!
I am new to having a lifted up Jeep so I worried I might drown my ride if I tried it. So now the question is posed; turn around here and just set up camp, assume that it was the right call and be glad to still be driving home tomorrow? Or say f*** it, put it in 4wd low and go for it. Well I went with number two, after walking out into the crossing and seeing that it wasn't more than 3 feet deep in the middle I figured we could do it. Let me just say, 4wd low is like having a tank, my Wrangler didn't even flinch despite the fast flowing, deep water. The adventure had begun! The rest of the way up the road we scouted campsites, many were flooded. The road is pretty rough but nothing a stock SUV couldn't handle. We went past the turn off for Pearl Pass and set up the tent right at treeline on a nice shelf below a pull off.
We had some pizza and cooked a little instant risotto (not good by the way) and climbed in bed. We left the door to the tent open and were treated to the an amazing sunset from our high country hotel.
Later in the evening we took a bathroom break and saw the milky way for what felt like the first time. Because we drove so high we got to sleep in a bit and got up around 4:30AM. After a little breakfast and gearing up we were on our way as the sun rose around 5:30AM.
The hike up the remainder of the 4wd trail was full of slopes that made me glad to have my axe and we made pretty quick progress into the lower basin. Here we put on the crampons as the headwall loomed above and the rest of the trip looked like it would be on snow.
Here we are working our way up the headwall.
The right side made for a fun snow climb in itself and was obviously going to be a nice glissade on the way home. Once we entered the upper basin we knew that we were somewhere special.
The views of Castle and the lake were powerful and it is easy to see that this is a well named mountain.
Finally we had a view of our main objective, the Conundrum Couloir. The top seemed so close from here.
I believe the correct expression is; short to the eye, long to the foot.
The bottom of the couloir is pretty gradual and the snow was perfect for kicking steps in. I tried to make them nice firm platforms for Jessica to follow. Here she is making her way up the start of the couloir.
If we could do it over again I would have started up the couloir a little bit later. We were here at around 8AM and there were two sections still covered by shade. When we got to the shady sections it was much harder to get firm footing, it was too steep to use French technique and too hard to get more than the points of our crampons in so the nice steps I was kicking in stopped. The only saving grace that gave some level of comfort was that using previous folks axe placements we could get a good self belay and continue moving. I went ahead so that if the route became too difficult and we needed to turn around Jessica would have less to down climb. Next time we will stay closer together. After getting through both sections she started to follow me up.
I suppose it is just because it was icy but it felt like the middle section was the steepest. The cornice was easily avoided on the right side but it was obvious that it would make for the crux of the route if it were still full. Here is Jessica topping out in the couloir, what a girl!
The view you are rewarded with at the top of the couloir is breathtaking.
The summit is not far off and the view from there is even better. One of my favorites so far.
I knew before now that it would be a difficult sell to get Jessica to join me on the trip to Castle, in fact, I knew that I would have trouble getting her to join me for the traverse over before we left Fort Collins. So I pushed a little, she pushed back, "No way am going to go up there, you can go though." After several, "are you sure it's cool if I just go real quick?" and a few, "you should just come with me, it's much closer than it seems.." we agreed that she would stay on the saddle and nap while I went and tagged Castle's summit. It was nice because I could see her almost the entire time, here she is napping as viewed from Castle's summit.
When I arrived at the summit very shortly after leaving Jessica I ran into the first people we had seen since Sunday afternoon and caught them in a comical position to say the least. We'll just say that it was a photo opportunity you can't blame one for taking advantage of and I just happened to interrupt it. A full moon with the Bells for a backdrop would be hard to resist though. These two were on their first 14er summit and took a quick picture of me. Thanks fellas.
They asked about our route and I proudly pointed out the couloir we took up.
The rest of the day was full of some fun glissades down the basin and a short walk to the campsite.We packed things up and headed home, but this day had more in store for us...
We stopped in Glenwood for a delicious burrito at Fiesta Guadalajara which proved detrimental. After dinner we tried to get onto I-70 and were one of the first vehicles turned away and told that the canyon was closed both directions due to an accident. Oh well, gotta roll with the punches. After checking for an alternate route we just saddled up to wait. I pulled in line with all the truckers, I figured they would know before anyone when it was open. One truck pulled out, then two, more were coming. Time to go, we were now one of the first through the canyon. There were countless other lane closures thrown at us but we finally made it home at around midnight. Just in time to go to bed and get up for work tomorrow. We are so lucky to be in Colorado where you can leave a place like Montezuma Basin and be back at work the next day. Thanks Mom and Dad for breaking 100 year history in Philly to come here. (No love lost for Philly, just a little extra love for CO.)
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
Caution: The information contained in this report may not be accurate and should not be the only resource used in preparation for your climb. Failure to have the necessary experience, physical conditioning, supplies or equipment can result in injury or death. 14ers.com and the author(s) of this report provide no warranties, either express or implied, that the information provided is accurate or reliable. By using the information provided, you agree to indemnify and hold harmless 14ers.com and the report author(s) with respect to any claims and demands against them, including any attorney fees and expenses. Please read the 14ers.com Safety and Disclaimer pages for more information.