| 14er Finisher
Last summer I decided it would be nice to get my family familiar with my passion for the mountains, so I invited my parents to spend a weekend with me in Aspen. The goal was to climb my last 14er with my pops. We invited our good family friend Doug (an old Air Force buddy of my dad's) to join us for Castle and Conudrum as well.
I was a little nervous with how my dad would handle a high altitude mountain with snow travel, exposure, and a few class 3 moves (he's from the east coast and has no mountaineering experience), but he took my invitation seriously and did some training back in Virginia. I wasn't worried about Doug as he is a Leadville 100 man. It was difficult for me to decide between the NE ridge and the NW ridge since I wanted to climb both Castle and Conundrum. I ultimately decided on the NE route since it would involve less snow travel.
I left work early on Friday and met up with everyone in Aspen late that afternoon. We had happy hour and then gorged ourselves with ribs and beer at Bentleys (highly recommended for reasonably priced food in Aspen). Craig (Cheeseburglar) showed up and we had some whiskey. He kindly lent "Old Blue" to my dad. "Old Blue" is his dad's vintage ice axe from the 60's. As requested by Steph and Heather (slynn4_13run and Heather14), I had to get the Cheeseburglar lubricated for his weekend climb of Capitol Peak. I think I succeeded. Later that night his climbing girls showed up and whisked him off to the Capitol Creek trailhead. I walked back to the hotel and was in bed at a decent hour.
We awoke at 4:45 and were on the road by 5, and crossed the first creek with minimal difficulty. We crossed the second creek via a bridge and parked at the junction to Pearl Pass road at around 11,000 feet.
We started hiking under cloudy skies at 6:30am. My head was a bit stuffy from the previous night's festivities, but after I got moving it cleared up, and before we knew it we were above treeline:
The hike up to the end of the 4 wheel drive road (12,800 feet) was uneventful, and at the base of the first snow slope I gave a quick instruction in proper ice axe technique. My dad took a liking to snow travel and surged ahead of us:
Doug didn't think much of the snow, and found a mostly snow-free route through some rocks:
We arrived at the top of the snow slopes (13,300 feet) rather quickly. I was satisfied with the pace; about 1000 feet per hour, and no one was experiencing any altitude troubles. The weather forecast wasn't promising, so if we were to climb both mountains we couldn't afford a lackadaisical stroll. The views were great and the sun almost popped out:
My dad enjoyed chatting with some Army guys who were going to ski from the Castle/Conundrum saddle...he later said that one of the most memorable things about the climb were the interactions with all the friendly climbers throughout the day. We made our way up the ridge along the well defined trail:
Castle's summit still seemed to be a long ways off:
The Conundrum couloir still appears to be in:
We topped out on the ridge crest (13,700 feet) and took a break. My dad started getting tired and Doug graciously offered to carry his pack. Doug had nothing but a light fanny pack, and the additional weight didn't bother him. The Leadville 100 makes you pretty badass. We made our way up the ridge and started scrambling. The guys held their own and didn't have any problems with the exposure. We came upon a junction after a flat area on the ridge, and I decided to go right instead of left. We lost some elevation and found ourselves looking up a nasty steep loose gulley. This seemed to be the best option, so up we went. By this time I knew we were off route, as this gulley was much harder than class 2. The rock fall danger was high. My dad at the top of the gulley
The steep gulley as seen from Conundrum (the prominent orange one with people above and to the right on the correct route):
I was proud of they way they toughed this part out. Once back on route the going was much easier:
We down climbed a short section and came to the final summit pitch:
We easily gained the last 250 feet and enjoyed the views of the Elk Mountains.
The weather looked like it was going to hold so we decided to go for Conundrum. I foolishly left most of our gear on the summit of Castle with the intention of coming back and descending the way we came. We started our decent to the Castle/Conundrum saddle and my dad suddenly realized that going up was a lot easier for him than going down. It didn't help that this was the loosest trail of the day (excluding the off-route gulley). We made slow progress down to the saddle and I started to get concerned with the time, but once back on the upswing towards Conundrum my dad took off like an angry bull and charged up Conundrum.
I went ahead and a few minutes later I was taking my last steps to the summit of 14er number 58. I didn't think too much of it at the time...I just like being in the mountains, regardless if it's a 14er finisher or a lesser known peak lower than 14,000 feet. I was more concerned with making sure my companions enjoyed themselves that day. The others arrived soon after:
The views of the Elk Mountains were incredible:
The aqua lake in the basin below is quite a site:
It felt good to be up there and to finish a long standing goal, so we celebrated with a fitting beer:
We only stayed on the summit for a few minutes. It was approaching noon and I was getting concerned with the weather. I could see storms brewing in the distance and knew that one could blow in at any time. On the way down to the saddle, I made the decision to go down the Castle/Conundrum snow slope instead of retracing our steps all the way back to Castle. I've always abided by the rule of never getting separated from your gear, and I don't know why I did it this time. Thankfully Doug and I were able to climb the 500 feet to Castle and return with our gear to my Dad waiting at the saddle in less than half an hour.
Then the fun began. Neither my dad or Doug was excited about going down the steep snow slope, but they understood that this was the safest thing to do with the intimidating clouds in the distance. We all had ice axes, and it was easy to kick steps in the snow. There were some other groups glissading, and we let them go first. Our turn came, and my dad wanted to go first. Immediately he got going too fast on his glissade and seemed to forget he was holding an ice axe to slow himself. There was a lady below and he screamed to her to get out of the way. She didn't move and he nailed her. I wasn't worried...I even somewhat sadistically started laughing. In his words: "I rode her down the mountain like a sled for a 100 feet, practically assaulting her in the process." Thankfully no one was hurt and the lady wasn't angry. My dad felt bad and I felt bad I didn't give him better instructions. She understood that he didn't mean harm, and we had a good laugh afterwards. The snow slope we descended:
We made our way down the second snow slope and my dad appeared to have learned a lesson. He slipped and started sliding down the snow but quickly arrested himself and resumed his descent. Back on the 4 wheel drive road, the two tough guys started admiring the flowers:
We were back at my truck at 2:30pm, giving us a round trip of 8 hours. Later that night back in Aspen we went to a very Aspen restaurant. It was overpriced, had crappy service, and the food wouldn't even fill an anorexic girl, although the tiny little portion did taste good. But it didn't bother me, because I couldn't have asked for a better day in the mountains. The icing on the cake was when I heard my dad say it was the best adventure he has had in 20 years. We're already thinking about next summer's adventure down in the San Jaun Mountains.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):