Peak(s):  Castle Peak  -  14,265 feet
Conundrum Peak  -  14,060 feet
Date Posted:  07/10/2009
Date Climbed:   07/04/2009
Author:  KeithK
 What a Difference a Year Makes  

Castle Peak (14,265') and Conundrum Peak (14,060')
July 4, 2009
Castle Peak Northeast Ridge Route with traverse to Conundrum; descended Northwest Ridge Route from the saddle.
Elevation Gain: ~3,400'
Round Trip: ~8.5 miles

"Ability is what you're capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it." - Lou Holtz

It's 8:30 p.m., and I'm in Montrose, Colorado without a plan. Having determined that I did not feel comfortable with an attempt at El Diente on Saturday, based on weather and suspected snow conditions, I was drifting almost aimlessly, pondering my options. Consistent rainfall was discouraging, and I decided that I would just make my way east, and maybe camp at a Sawatch trailhead somewhere for a climb on Friday. By the time I reached Gunnison, I knew what I wanted to do. Sleep in a bed. So, a marathon drive ensued; neither a Starbucks Frapuccino nor Monster Energy could keep me fully awake on the long haul across Highway 50, but I managed to grit it out and arrived back in Parker at 2:30 a.m.

Friday morning, I instantly knew what I wanted to do. Needing to head west by Sunday no matter what, it made perfect sense to get as close to Rifle, Colorado as possible, which meant the Elks! Having dismissed Castle Peak earlier in the week due to reports of a washed out bridge, I decided that I'd go see the damage for myself after all. Sluggish traffic on I-70 eventually gave in to open Interstate, and I was parked and ready for sleep right at dusk, about a half mile from the last good parking spot below the bridge in question. I awoke to light rain.

Uh oh...

Oh, that's all? Not a problem...

I was frustrated that no one seemed to be able to say just how much distance the bridge would add to the hike. I heard two miles, another person said a mile. As I gained the switchback above the bridge at the top of the headwall, the question was answered. Maybe one quarter of a mile above the bridge sits the standard trailhead, where the road forks, left leads to Pearl Pass, right points at Montezuma Basin. That was silly! Feeling very positive about the day's possibilities, I continued up the rocky road, across the wide stream on scattered, partially submerged rocks, and made good time up into the valley.

What's up, pika?

Malemute Peak...

Conundrum Peak makes its debut...

Looking back down the valley, Taylor and Star Peaks form the horizon...

What more can you say about walking up a road? After Thursday's jaunt up Mt. Sneffels, I felt like I was doing it all over again, but for some reason, this road seemed like an easier hike. As I reached the end of the road, rock turned to snow, and I was able to see Castle Peak for the first time. I found a nice sitting rock, strapped on my crampons, and began the climb of the headwall. It felt good to have traction; there's something about wearing crampons that really bolsters the confidence, and I'm looking forward to more snow climbs in the future.

Approaching the headwall...

The day's primary objective rises in the distance...

I want someone to climb that interesting couloir...

Castle's North Couloir route; it just didn't look filled in enough for my liking...

An easy climb led into the basin, with most of my intended route, Castle's Northeast Ridge, fully in view. I considered the possibility of the North Couloir, but for some reason, didn't really feel up to a solo attempt. As it would turn out, I would have had company. Assaulting the loose trail leading to the ridge, I ground up the scree, finally reaching more stable ground, and heading for the low spot on the ridge where the climbing would begin.

At the saddle, I realize why I have to be out here...

A more complete look at Conundrum Peak and Conundrum Couloir...

Easy hiking before the ridge's difficulties emerge...

I was excited to be climbing in the Elks! My only previous experience was on Mt. Owen and Ruby Peak, far off to the west. I found this ridge to be very similar, with broken dinner plate shale everywhere. For some reason, I find that kind of rock to be interesting, and climbing on it certainly makes for a different type of experience. I'm quite certain I won't be so confident once I step onto the side of Pyramid or Maroon Peak, though. Looking back, two lone climbers had arrived behind me. One was clearly headed for the North Couloir, the other following my route to the ridge.

Huh? Where?

I think I recognize something over that way...

Negotiating the first section of the ridge was fun, with some light scrambling making for a welcome change from walking up roads. In a few spots, it was necessary to consider the route, as it wasn't as well cairned as I expected, but there would usually be an obvious line around or over each obstacle. I was having a good time, until one spot higher on the ridge led me to confusion. The route description says to bypass some rocks on the right side of the ridge, and I could see a trail below the cliffs in front of me. What looked to be a faint trail continued to follow the ridge crest, and I really wanted to stay on that path, but in the end, decided to follow the route description. What is life without some regret?

There really is a good route through there...

Looking back at the first section below the ridge proper...

See? I'm not crazy, someone else did it!

The trail was, to say the least, sketchy. Predictably difficult snow marred much of the route, with a solid layer of ice acting as a base layer underneath. The slope was steep, loose, and I found myself really wishing for a nice stroll on top of a ridge. I carried my axe, and used it, as I delicately traversed from gully to gully, sometimes facing into the cliff with one hand on rock, the other firmly planting my save-myself-from-certain-disfigurement device. More than one area had me down climbing for a short stretch with four points of contact, my free hand using my most recent boot step for as much safety as possible. Time moved by quickly, while my progress did not. Hearing a voice, I looked up to see the lone climber on the ridge with me passing me, seemingly skipping along the ridge crest. Great choice, I thought, this trail from hell of mine. Wasting at least half an hour, probably more, I finally reached the North Couloir, where I had to climb up steep, nasty scree, using my hands most of the way for balance and purchase. Reaching the ridge again was a triumph in and of itself.

At the top of the North Couloir...

The Northeast Ridge...

Approaching the final class three move to the summit...

I eyed the two climbers on the summit, the fellow with the red helmet that had climbed the couloirs, and the guy that passed above me on the ridge. They beat me to the summit by a good 20 minutes, and I knew they'd be long gone before I arrived. Peeking back over my shoulder, I was borderline stunned to see a new arrival, a guy wearing cargo shorts with his shirt tied around his waist. I love that contrast, as I'm climbing this peak wearing all synthetic clothing, gaiters and mountaineering boots. This guy didn't even carry a water bottle. At least I beat him to the summit.

Maroon Peak, North Maroon, Snowmass Mtn., Thunder Pyramid, Capitol Peak and Pyramid Peak...

Objective number 2...

My new friend's name was Ollie, and he was climbing his first fourteener with some friends who were still way down on the saddle before the ridge. They had his water... He was obviously young and in great shape, and the altitude was not affecting him. I told him that I was headed for Conundrum, and he seemed surprised that there was another summit to be had, but was more than excited to go for it. We started down, and I found the Northwest Ridge to be about the most annoying, loose and unpleasant route yet. It took me far too long to get down; I couldn't decide if trekking poles were helping or hindering, and when I missed a turn on the trail, I ended up facing about an eight foot down climb between two boulders separated by a horn. I hoped it would be solid. Flinging my poles to the trail below, I figured out the move. Class two plus? I think not! Back on trail, the bottom of the ridge was a very welcome relief. Cruising across the saddle, it was not long before I began the climb up Conundrum.

Conundrum Peak from the saddle...

The short stretch of airy ridge walking...

Conundrum Peak is a short, easy climb, with only one or two minor cliff bands that block continuous easy passage. There are no tricky moves, and after the initial grunt up onto the summit ridge, it's a pleasant, airy walk across to the lower summit, before dropping a bit down onto the Col above Conundrum Couloir. An accident occurred here last summer, when a hiker got too close and went for a ride down the gully. There weren't any footprints near the cornice on this day! Winding around the west side of the summit block, I immediately recognized the white shirted ridge walker that had passed me earlier. "Hey Aaron!" I exclaimed. CUAaron25 in speak, Aaron and I had hiked together on Humboldt last summer, almost one year ago. We did some quick catching up, and I promised that I'd hurry back down to join him for the glissade into the basin. Turning the next corner, the red helmeted climber met me, sporting a nice looking blue long sleeve Patagonia shirt with a logo emblazoned upon it. "Nice shirt!" "Nice hat!" he returned, referring to my customary ball cap. Bobo's real name is Bob, and the theme of the week continued, as the growing popularity of is undeniable. A few more steps found me on the summit with Ollie, and we took a few pictures, chatted a bit more, and headed down.

The West Elks...

A broad look at the bad boys of the Elk Range...

The Holycross Wilderness...

The central Sawatch; La Plata Peak to the left, with Mt. Harvard pointing tall just left of center...

On this same day, one year ago, I stood on the top of Grays Peak. Nearly five hours after I started hiking, with a heavy blue cast protecting my freshly broken wrist, I barely had enough energy for that singular peak, yet still appreciated that I made it to the top under the circumstances. Now, on my second summit of this day, with plenty left in the tank after my 6th fourteener summit in five days, I couldn't help but consider the past year's journey. It may be the most significant year of my life.

What a difference a year makes...

Preparing to speed up the descent...

I've definitely seen this tarn look nicer...

My backside's kinda wet...

The hike out was much more pleasant after the two glissades, other than the tedious side-hill traverse along Conundrum's lower flanks above the sinking basin. Regrouping with Aaron and Bob, we stripped off a layer, got comfortable, and began the warm hike down the road, discussing, of all things, fourteeners the entire way. There's definitely a benefit to conversation on the trail, and the descent was much more tolerable for it. Taking our time to admire and appreciate the day, it was a leisurely walk down hill.

A glance back at the beautiful basin...

Interesting how there is less water in the creek during the heat of the day...

Wishing Bob and Aaron happy future endeavors, it felt great to be back at the truck. It felt even better to crack open a cold beverage, possibly the kind that kids can't legally purchase. As I began to crawl down the road, I came upon a hiker, partially jogging down the road. I offered a ride, which he gratefully accepted. I was hardly surprised when I asked him if he was on, and the answer was, what else, yes. Wisco (Lawrence), it was nice to meet you and I hope your journey back to Denver went well.

For the second straight year, I'd spent the Fourth of July climbing a fourteener, or two, and I think I've started a very fitting Independence Day tradition. Next year I'll once again climb solo, but I'm sure I won't be alone. I'll probably even run into some familiar faces again. It started to rain as I stared at the massive bulk of Pyramid Peak during its brief appearance through the Maroon Creek valley, and I was happy to be headed for some rest and relaxation. BeauJo's has taken over the old Buffalo Valley Restaurant south of Glenwood Springs, and a pizza buffet lunch sounded like a no-brainer to me. I think I'd earned it. Six fourteeners, 31 miles and 13,400 vertical feet in five days. Not a bad "first" vacation. A very memorable vacation, to be sure.

The waterfall above the bridge, a wonderful reminder of the rugged splendor of my first journey into the Elks...

 Comments or Questions

07/11/2009 09:47
Keith, fantastic TR, as usual, and awesome pics! I whole-heartedly applaud your tenacity, and WOW, what an incredible contrast between last year and this year! Awesome job!! I can‘t think of a better way to get into shape than to be surrounded by the incredible beauty that is the highpoints of Colorado!


You are on a roll....
07/11/2009 13:48
Trying to finish?


Great Job!
07/11/2009 16:41
You‘re really taking after these lately! We‘ll have to get out and hike again sometime.


07/11/2009 17:08
Love the contrast pics from last year to this year--certainly something of which to be proud. Nice work.


Great Job Keith
07/11/2009 17:58
Congrats on the summit(s) and way to get on it.


Good seeing you!
07/11/2009 21:36
Good TR as usual. Good seeing you on the mountain that day! I enjoyed the company on the walk out. See ya soon!


Awesome report..
07/11/2009 22:21
as usual. In answer to your comment in your report...I climbed that couloir last year when I summited Conundrum. Very fun and steep! Looking forward to next weekend.



Nice Job Keith...and a great week for you!!!
07/12/2009 00:03
Hey, is that me in picture 26 ? It was nice meeting you and sharing the hike out. I‘ll let you know my plans in September, and maybe we‘ll meet again.

emcee smith

Great Report
07/12/2009 17:19
Nice read. I stayed up on the ridge last year, and seemed to be quicker than dropping down to the right. If I can do it, it is very doable. Love the comment about missing the trail, throwing the poles. The only thing missing is how obvious the trail around those rocks is viewed from below.


Very much appreciated!
07/13/2009 02:26
Thanks for the comments. It is really fun to climb 14ers, and wake up the next morning completely functional!
Dave, the only think I‘m trying to finish is my next beer... as long as it‘s fun, I‘ll be out climbing as much as possible, though! ;)
Derek, I‘ll send you a PM with some upcoming plans, and we‘ll have to see if something will come together.
Emcee, I did notice the trail once I down-climbed, but hey, why not have some fun with gravity?
Bob, Aaron, I‘m sure we‘ll meet again!


Awesome TR
07/13/2009 03:26
You have a nice gift of gab that makes a very descriptive TR. Your pics are awesome as well. Plan on doing this trip in two weeks, so I appreciate the beta from your report. Was thinking it would be a walk-up for my wife but the snow wont make that possible.


07/13/2009 15:55
NICE!!! Lean and mean!!! Way to go KeithK! Looks like you had a great day.. Hope to climb with you at some point this summer..

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