Castle & Conundrum Peaks
Peaks: Castle Peak, Conundrum Peak
Routes: Ascent via bowl, descent via NE Ridge
Date: July 13, 2010
Length: 12 miles
Vertical: 4500 feet
Total RT time: 5.5 hours
Ascent Party: Dancesatmoonrise
"I'm feeling mighty lonesome
Haven't slept a wink
I walk the floor and watch the door
And in between I drink
Love's a hand me down brew
I'll never know a Sunday
In this weekday room"
When Ella Fitzgerald sang Ray Charles' bluesy tune, "Black Coffee," she didn't know that all you had to do was climb a 14er in summer to see all your friends! (Hear Ella at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KRxS7Q64xUQ) Yeah, well, what about when a guy needs some quiet time? (Guess that's what 13ers are for!) I couldn't believe all the folks up there on a Tuesday. Not that I didn't enjoy the company – and met a couple of very cool folks on the way down.
OK, I guess you can tell I don't have a whole lot to say about these two peaks. Except that they're checked off the list. Well, that and maybe the road would be a fun XC ski in winter – maybe next March or April, when the approach can be done on skis and one of the couloirs can be done as a snow-climb. Really, I've wanted this one since we did Snowmass in May, but it just didn't happen in time for great conditions. In fact, the conditions were a little spooky if you ask me. More on that later.
The Wrangler-Bronco team walks up the road as cotton candy rolls over head.
I arrived at the first stream crossing, and, heeding Bill's admonitions, decided to walk from that point. It was a couple years ago that I figured the Honda Pilot would be a safer car, and a lot more comfy on the aging spine – but I sure miss that Grand Cherokee with the Bilsteins and big AT tires. Darn that Honda - anything that doesn't have 4-Low can't be a real 4wd, right? After getting it stuck last February on the 390 road – in the track, no less – I've been thinking I need a 4Runner like everybody else.
Those rocks on the far side of the stream crossing sure looked like stuff I'd have done in the old Jeep – and not something to tackle in a puffball SUV that's a reworked family mini-van. This is especially unfortunate, because I actually got up at 4:00 am for this – from the house, anyway. So now it's about 8:00 am, and the blue sky is occasionally splashed with low cotton-candy clouds brewing over the peaks at this early hour, testament to the NOAA forecast out of Grand Junction.
Looking back down the first steep pitch beyond the road.
The NOAA guys (back when there was money to pay them to talk to us) told me that the GJT, PUB and BOU guys were pretty much all supposed to agree on things, but that once in a while they didn't play nice. Today was one of those days. Here's a tip. Take a look at the point forecasts around Climax, Colorado – The three forecast areas converge there. If they're all in agreement, that's usually a good sign. If they are not, then it's best not to take on anything where you really need a long clear day. True, sometimes conditions are different west or south – but by checking all three forecasts for roughly the same area, you can ferret out the "spin" each forecast office puts on the basic GFS models.
I once asked them, what the heck does X% probability of precipitation mean? Does it mean that X% of the coverage area will get rained on? Or does it mean that there is X% chances for the whole area to get wet? There is really no good answer for this – but from a practical standpoint, I've learned through the years that when they say 20-30% in summer, it means a 50/50 chance of storms. 30% or more means it's more likely than not to happen. 40-50% means you're almost safe from lightning, because it's going to be raining all day - no thermal drive. I've also learned the Junction guys love to say it's going to be clear and sunny a few days from now. Then as we get closer, they'll put in the real forecast. I've been nearly certain it's because the beautiful people in Aspen want nice weather.
So when all three were saying a nice weather window for Tues/Wed this week, I figured to heck with driving there the night before – I'd just drive from home, head up late, and not worry about storms – till the Junction guys bumped pops to 30%. The Denver-Boulder office was still saying clear; Pueblo compromised at 10%. Sometimes it's best to just look out the window. With that concept in mind, I decided to head out and see for myself how things were shaping up.
Base of Conundrum Coilour.
It's 8:15 am. I'm milling around at the car where I'd parked just before the first stream crossing. A Jeep Wrangler and a Ford Bronco drive by. I'm thinking I should stick my thumb out. By 8:25 I'm crossing the first footbridge and wondering, really, how much faster are they going to drive up a "nasty" road than it would take to walk? I don't wonder long, as the road looks so good after the creek crossing that I almost go back for the car. By 9:05 I'm at the upper creek crossing and there's a stock Honda CRV parked there. Dang. But the thing that really gets me is the Subaru Forester, stock, all season tires, at the Pearl Pass turn-off. OK, that does it, the Honda's getting a work-out next trip!
I find the Wrangler and the Bronco parked at around 11,800, about an hour after starting from the first creek crossing on foot, and wonder how much time they saved driving. Apparently not much, because I find the occupants on the road before it ends at 12,800. So I'm feeling better about my lengthy morning stroll, but not so good about the developing grey-bottoms that keep rolling overhead.
Base of the upper bowl.
The darkening clouds lend a definite spring to one's step in the alpine, and in a quick two hours I'm at the upper basin. I can't believe the sky looks so sketchy at 10:30 am. My goal is both peaks and start descending by Noon – an arbitrary goal, considering how quickly atmospheric conditions seem to be changing.
There's a lot of rock laying around on the snow at the run-out of Conundrum Couloir – and a few rocks are spitting their way down from the slopes just left of the col. It's late morning, but the snow is still so hard in spots that it's tough to drive the axe in. I figure ascending near the glissade track is a good bet – but not only is it trickier than anticipated, the last 100 feet up top is most unpleasant. Loose rock held in place by mud and dirt on a 40 degree slope about half a rope long. In the event of a fall, one could only hope not to get cheese grated too badly before getting to the snow to arrest. After completing this section, I was fairly certain I did not need to see it again any time before next Spring.
Castle Peak. Two climbers are standing on the summit.
At the saddle, the weather starts looking serious. The winds kick up and the grey-bottoms darken. One can already see rain to the northwest; fortunately there's no lightening. It's 11:15 am, so I'm on track to get both by Noon, given just a little more mercy from the heavens.
I drop everything at the saddle and go get Conundrum first as a quick way to secure at least one peak this trip. The weather is still gaining ground, perhaps a bit more slowly now.
Looking back at most of the ascent route.
On the summit of Conundrum Peak, as the weather begins to improve.
Greybottoms to the NW.
Twenty minutes later and one peak in the bag, I'm back down at the saddle. It's decision time. Downclimb that 100 feet of steep loose rock, dirt and mud? Or humbly ask passage over Castle for the ridge descent? The memory of that nasty section below, conspires with desires for the summit. I make quick work of the climb up Castle's northwest ridge.
Needless to say, the summit celebration is not terribly leisurely, given the circumstances. Still, I'm here before Noon, and conditions appear to be improving. The wind has died down; the sun has come out briefly. I'm not looking askance at this gift from above, and get started down the NE ridge. The route is completely straightforward. To my surprise, the Wrangler-Bronco team is making their way up the ridge. I'm happy for them, as the weather is turning for the better – though I begin to wonder if my earlier concerns were ill-founded. Meeting up with some folks that skipped one of the peaks due to the weather concerns, I realize I wasn't the only one with an eye on the sky. How often have all of us been there! We know it can sometimes be a fine line between drive and reverse.
On the summit of Castle Peak.
Castle's fun NE ridge.
The upper basin seen from the NE ridge. I took the line up the glissade track to the saddle at left.
The descent is uneventful, sunny, warm, beautiful. Back near the car I bump into Brandon and Marcy – they just moved to Colorado Springs this week, and have been on 14ers for a while. Great folks. They offer a ride, but I'm nearly back at the car, the sun is out, I'm enjoying the walk, and get some shots of the wildflowers near the first stream crossing.
Brandon and Marcy sitting on the rock at the first stream crossing.
All in all, not a bad day, but over way too quick. There's still plenty of daylight, and the weather is cooperating. I toy with the idea of hitting La Plata on the way home, but the comfy seat, and the slow cars now behind, make a strong argument for getting to dinner at a reasonable hour.
Lots of wildflowers near the first stream crossing.
I must confess that this final image was not taken on Castle/Conundrum, but rather the next day, on Pikes Peak. Hope you like it!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):