Peak(s):  Castle Peak  -  14,265 feet
Conundrum Peak  -  14,060 feet
Date Posted:  08/28/2011
Modified:  09/23/2011
Date Climbed:   08/27/2011
Author:  Doctor No

 Castle NE Ridge / Conundrum / Saddle Descent  

After our Harvard adventure of July, it's been slow to get traction on the fourteeners - despite good weather. With one weekend at Mount Rainier National Park, one weekend in RMNP, and two weekends working on final credentialing requirements for my actuarial certification, I was itching to get out and climbing.

With my fourteener count in the low twenties, there was still one gaping hole in my resume - no Elks to be seen. And when you've got my climbing resume, and want to do an Elk peak, you start with Castle and Conundrum.

On August 27, I woke up at 1:00am and set off for the Castle Creek trailhead at about 1:20. After reaching the roundabout, I took a bit of a nap on the side of the road - my body really wasn't feeling it, and I thought that I might have to turn around. The nap helped.

I drove all the way to the first creek crossing, and it wasn't quite light enough to see how deep it was. I'm a bit of a wuss when it comes to my Ford Ranger, so I backtracked and parked just south of campsite #7 (about 10,200' or so). I started my hiking day at 6:45am.

I made good time on the lower road, and the hike up to the Pearl Pass junction sure was pretty. I believe that this is the long ridge that extends off of Castle Peak:


The crumbly rotten rock of the Elks sure is pretty. A look back down the road towards the campground:


And the long waterfall just prior to the junction:


This is the Pearl Pass intersection, where many folks park and start their hike (it's at about 11,100'):


There is some parking here, as well as at the switchback just 100 feet or so lower. The lower road was also wide enough that cars could park along the side if necessary.

Judging from trip reports, many people take the wrong turn here. You'll know that you are on the right track if your road turns into a river:


With ATVs and cars continuing to drive up to 12,800', it was a nice mixture of diesel and dust. I bet that Peter Garrett has walked this road before:


Even though this starts as a road hike, the Elks make it a great view all around:


We near the end of the 4wd road - Conundrum Peak is on the right (Castle Peak is still hidden):


You can see at the top of the road the exact same model of Ford Ranger that I own. I like my car more than these people like their car. Good to know for future reference, though.

Here's where the hike becomes more mentally difficult, and here's where I made my first mistake of the day:


It looked like you would have to cross snow at some point to get to the higher basin, and I was watching some fellers climb up towards the right on the snowfield. They were also knocking down a lot of loose rocks, which should have been my hint.

I decided to go up the snowfield to the right, with ice axe but no crampons, and then ended up traversing left to the loose rockpile in the middle. The snow was solid enough that it was hard to kick steps.

I should have gone up the left side - it was easier to see this decision on the way down.

The climb led to the reward - our first look at Castle Peak:


For the loop I took, the climb goes up the left side of the photo, then down to the right across the saddle, up to Conundrum Peak, then down the saddle. At this point, the saddle looks impenetrable, and I have no idea how I'll get down from there. I figure that I've seen people doing it (so I know that it's possible), and that I'll burn that bridge when I come to it.

Conundrum Peak:


Looking to the left, at the bottom of the saddle (where the rock is redder), that was my descent route. The alpine tarn made for a nice centerpiece to the day's excursion.

The actual summit of Conundrum Peak is the one on the right - when you get to the false summit, you have to drop in just above the coulior, and then reascend to get to the main summit.

The northeast ridge route to Castle's summit:


The hike goes to the top of the ridge, then you have some rudimentary climbing and hiking exercises to get to the summit.

The Elks had a 50% chance of thunderstorms. A look at the thunderstormey goodness enveloping the Maroon Bells, Snowmass Peak, Capitol Peak, and Pyramid Peak:


The last few hundred feet to the summit of Castle:


You can see a couple of fellers just below the summit.

And we are now on the summit of Castle! Looking over at Conundrum:


This is the northeast ridge route - in its entirety - to the summit of Castle:




Obligatory summit shot from Castle Peak:


After descending to the saddle between Castle and Conundrum:


It's now decision time - this is where I would ultimately descend to the tarn. The storm clouds are building, both literally and figuratively. When I was on Castle's summit, the dark clouds were over Conundrum. Now they're building on Castle. On the false summit of Conundrum, however - blue skies!


Although it was still a bit of a conundrum, I decided to press onwards. (This mention of "conundrum" raises the percentage of trip reports containing this joke back to 100%).

Once you get to the false summit of Conundrum, it's an easy stroll across, and then you have to descend about 50-75 feet (here), then back up to the true summit:


The descent and ascent here had some fun scrambling, although I probably made it more difficult than it needed to be (as I mentioned, it was fun). Obligatory summit shot from Conundrum Peak:


This is my 24th unique Colorado fourteener - yes, I count Conundrum - hey, more mountains to climb! It didn't feel like a lot of work from the saddle.

A look over at a few people on Castle, as the stormclouds are now there:


Back at the saddle, it's now time to face the fears and go down:


The first manoevure is to slip and slide down to the top of the icefield. This is the only photo in the trip report where it doesn't look as steep as it actually was.

But, I made it to the top of the icy snowfield, and it's almost glissade time. This is the loose rock from the saddle to the top of the field. I would rate this as suckier (but shorter) than Columbia or Bross.


Each step on the descent loosed hundreds of rocks, and I was getting a lot of stares from climbers on the northeast ridge. If enough people descend this in the way that I descended this, Conundrum's status as a fourteener will no longer be in doubt (as it will no longer be 14,000 feet or higher).

On the other hand, if enough people descend the saddle as I did, then perhaps the saddle will drop to a level where Conundrum can truly take its spotlight as a fourteener? But enough about how I inadvertantly destroyed the environment today...

I must remember to bring gloves the next time I glissade - the backs of my hands are chewed up like crazy.

Here we are after glissading as far as I could:


I went from the top of the gully to the middle left of this photo, and then came across diagonally. It was neat to see the red dust from the Elks collecting on the snow.

What is nice about this descent route is that it's short and steep. I actually did Castle and Conundrum together faster than many people who only did Castle (and who descended via the ascent route).

Now it's nothing but road!


On the descent, I met up with two gentlemen who had been climbing Elk fourteeners all week (probably the only way that I was able to keep up), and it made the time go much more quickly. Although I think this is where I got my trademark "red neck" sunburn.

Just past the Pearl Pass junction:


Waterfall above a pretty nifty bridge, built last year, just below the Pearl Pass junction:


We speculated that this bridge must wash out quite often. I heard the first crack of thunder when I was about a half mile from my car. I managed to noot get wet until the drive home, and then the clouds opened up for the entire four-plus hour drive back to Denver.

There was a young couple still hiking up - we passed at about 12,000 feet at 12:30 pm - hopefully they stayed dry.

Last but not least, we have a moose sighting!


They were kind enough to pose for multiple pictures.

The day finished with a drive across Independence Pass, and then home on 285. Both legs were marred by speed limit freaks on single-lane roads, but Red Bull and Cherry Coke Zero got me through it.

Anyhow, I wrote this at a bit of a novice level. Hopefully it will be helpful to someone. Thanks for reading all the way through!

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions
Brian C

08/28/2011 16:28
Very cool shot of the moose (or would it be meese? haha). Also a great shot of storms developing over the Bells.

Doctor No

08/28/2011 16:30
I got pretty lucky with the meeses. With the stormclouds, I was just glad that they stayed where they were.


08/28/2011 20:09
I'm heading up tonight to do this hike. THis was a big help!

Doctor No

Glad to help!
08/28/2011 20:53
Good luck on the hike tomorrow - weather looks like it could be decent!


That Pearl Pass turn...
08/28/2011 22:41
”You'll know that you are on the right track if your road turns into a river”

Like you, I'm absent some Elks, only for the winter list. As I was reviewing sgladbach's TR, I was surprised that he missed this turn as well, and realized it when he got to the Tagart Hut. Perhaps not a bad thing...

Congrats on an even couple o' dozen, and your first foray into the Elks. And best wishes for many more safe returns!


No Elks...
08/29/2011 00:58
I am where you were, 22 peaks and no Elks (or in my case even Sangres too), hoping to fill both of those 'resume holes' next year!


Nice pics and Trip Report
08/29/2011 16:37
I climbed this same route with a buddy a few weeks ago. You did a good job emphasizing the looseness of the descent from the saddle between Castle and Conundrum. It was no joke for me, and apparently no joke for you too, especially that little 10' cliff you have to scramble down about half-way down the scree slope. Great job!


Crappy road
08/29/2011 16:45
Drove to the parking at 12,800 on Sunday, it was the worst conditions I have ever seen on this road (driven it 3 times various years). If anyone plans on driving it be sure to have a short wheel base and narrow width. Had to laugh at a parked Range Rover with a blown spare along the road before the junction We also saw the same 2 moose in the same spot swimming eating the grasses, way cool

Doctor No

Thanks, guys!
08/29/2011 19:13
Jim, I'll bet that the Elks are fantastic in the winter - I can't wait to see your photos when you do (I consider myself a decent photographer, but when I compare what I'm doing to what you're doing, it's like I'm trying to rub two sticks together and you're walking around with a Zippo lighter. )

Tornado, definitely try Lindsey when you get a chance in the Sangres. The last part is as difficult as you want to make it (and if you check out my Lindsey report, you'll see that I made it a bit too hard). Most fun I've ever had on a 14er, though!

Jhudson - you aren't kidding, that saddle descent was a nightmare. The cliff was bad, but at least it was semi-solid. At one point below the cliff and above the snowpack, I slid about 20 feet on top of a ”scree raft”. I tore my quad on Shav/Tab two years ago, and I still retweak it from time to time. My quad was not happy.

Daslug - I don't have much perspective (it was my first time on the road), but it looked pretty rough to me. Especially right after the first stream crossing. It reminded me of the Antero road up to the Raspberry Gulch trailhead.


rocks and helmets
08/29/2011 21:38
I climbed these with my wife on Sunday. Descending the saddle before the glissade, we had another group launching bowling ball sized rocks toward us from the loose rocks above...almost each move they made. I think if I were to go again I would make sure there was plenty of snow for the descent. Maybe that way I could avoid tearing my pants and avoid the rocks...but maybe that was just prep for Little Bear?

Doctor No

Agreed completely!
08/29/2011 21:45
When I was coming down Conundrum, there was a group of two coming down Castle, and I was praying that they were going up Conundrum and not down the saddle.

This seems like a better route earlier in the summer when snow goes all the way to the saddle. I'm very glad that I had my helmet for this one!


08/30/2011 14:50
I think this route is potentiall more dangerous than people think. We saw someone fall down a snowfield and the descent from the saddle was very sketchy.

By the way, that red on the snow is not elk dust, it is in fact a toxic red algae that forms on snowfields.

Doctor No

08/30/2011 16:21
It's ”difficult class 2”, but you've really got to pay attention in some places.

Good to know about the dust - your explanation makes more sense than what I'd always heard (it also explains why there's red dust but not other dust). Thanks!


08/30/2011 21:23
My plans for a first Sangres climb are either Culebra (want to do it while access is how it is, afraid that could change), Lindsey, or Crestone Peak. Got weathered off of Challenger/Kit Carson in my only Sangres attempt. Weather was so bad that after I night at Willow Lake we didn't even try to go up but headed straight down to the car.

Doctor No

08/30/2011 22:49
You make a good point about Culebra - I take it for granted right now that it's available (at a price), but you never know - we could end up with another one of these:

Challenger/Kit is on my short list - but I wouldn't want to be up on that upper massif in bad weather, that's for sure. Nowhere to hide!


The red "dust" is often called...
06/27/2015 18:06
"watermelon snow." It reportedly tastes like watermelon and will make you sick because it’s a toxic algae as djkest noted. I’d recommend folks not descend from the saddle unless snow covered due to erosion concerns. Nice report nonetheless.

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