Peak(s):  Castle Peak  -  14,265 feet
Conundrum Peak  -  14,060 feet
Capitol Peak  -  14,130 feet
Date Posted:  12/30/2009
Modified:  10/10/2011
Date Climbed:   12/29/2009
Author:  sgladbach
 Christmas break in the Elks  

Christmas break in the Elks – One disappointment one success

Capitol- No summit
West Snowmass route
17.2 miles 5800', 3 days
(managed 14 miles, 3600')

Montezuma Basin route
16 miles 5000+ feet, 11 ½ hours

Trying to climb the 14ers in calendar winter takes a lot of patience and often involves frustration. Following suit with Aaron Ralston, I'm shooting for 59 14ers by the following standards: "What determines a winter Ascent?

Here is the frustration. This winter, a gorgeous weekend preceded the winter solstice which occurred at 10:47AM, Dec 21, 2009. Had one hiked in a day early, the 21st would have been a good summit day. But, if you waited until 10:47AM to leave your car, there was no chance to bag Capitol the same day.

Tuesday, the 22nd was forecast to have a 70% chance of snow, to be followed with a 30% chance on Wednesday the 23rd. I figured my only chance was to establish a camp on the 21st, break trail on the 22nd, and attempt a summit on the 23rd (if winds and accumulation didn't significantly raise the avalanche potential.) I had three partners lined up, but the poor forecast and subsequent poor chance for a summit bid, soured their desire to go.

At the proper time on the 21st, I left the winter TH to get as high in the West Snowmass drainage as possible before nightfall. Moon Lake, the highest common winter campsite, was about 7 ½ miles from the last legal winter parking.

The first 1 ½ miles of the trail are quite easy. Snowmobiles have packed the trail to the wilderness boundary. The next 2 ½ miles climb established trail to a large meadow where the built trail climbs toward Haystack Mountain. The trail breaking was rough, but not insurmountable. Now, the summer route to Moon Lake forks off from the Haystack Mountain trail and becomes a game trail which is very difficult to follow in the winter. I dropped through the meadow to the creek bottom and worked very hard in sugar snow to put in two more miles of track to reach a campsite at 10,400'. That's all I was able to do alone in one day.

Looking up West Snowmass Creek from the Wilderness Boundary

In west Snowmass Creek, looking down-valley

Daly Peak from low in West Snowmass Creek

Camp had flowing water 1/8 mile away through thick willows, but it was definitely preferable to wasting time and fuel melting water.

Bill Middlebrook's nomination for tent of the decade

It did not snow Tuesday night as predicted. It was not snowing Tuesday morning when I got started at 7:00AM to break trail to Moon Lake and beyond (trying to reach a point under the K2/ Daly saddle where I could see the conditions to K2.) I couldn't start any earlier because I had only put in 1/8 mile of track the night before which could be followed in the dark. I needed to wait for daylight. It was a tremendous effort to climb the next 1.5 miles and 2000' to reach a small saddle about 200' above the sinkhole which is directly below the east side of the K2/ Daly saddle. It took 5 hours to put in this 1 1/2 miles of track. I was exhausted and the 12PM arrival precluded a reasonable possibility of safely summiting. Too bad; against predictions, Tuesday had been a very reasonable summit day. The route to K2 was very promising and it looked like a summit attempt for Wed was reasonable.

Campsite from 11,400'

Daly Peak

K2/ Daly saddle from Moon Lake area

Close-up of K2/ Daly saddle

The route to K2 looks to be much easier than what was behind me. Unfortunately, I had no view of the knife-edge or the final 800' (some 5th class climbing on the winter route) to the summit. Taken from 12,300' under the K2/ Daly saddle

Since Tuesday was predicted to be the poorest weather of my climbing window, I believed the predicted storm had missed me and just didn't make it very far north. Wed was supposed to have a much lower chance of snow.

Waking at 3:30AM Wednesday and planning on a 4AM start, I rolled over to check out the weather. There were a fresh 3" at camp, and it was coming down pretty hard. I slept in until 7:30AM and got out of the tent to take a look. It was still snowing pretty hard, and there was very little visibility up-valley. I guess the storm didn't miss me; it was simply delayed by a day.

Wednesday morning view up-valley

It's snowing pretty hard at 10,400'. Here's the view down-valley.

Jessie, the abominable snow-cousin of Nessie

A "Special Needs" aspen

Well, I had to come out or I'd miss Christmas Eve with the kids. The drive home went from Aspen to Glenwood, Minturn, Leadville, Buena Vista. Hartsel, Canon City, and then Pueblo. It was treacherous the entire way; the road was icy w/ poor visibility; it took 9 hours to get home.

It was not a total loss, I hoped. I planned to come back on the 26th and take advantage of the broken trail. However, the weather forecast for the 26th-29th had -10F overnight lows and 15F highs. Strong winds, cloudy days, and 20-30% chance of snow made me accept the fact that I would not be summiting this Christmas break. I had to be back on the 30th to watch my kids.


My girl's mother encouraged me to look at some other options for the days I deemed too cold to camp; something I could as a day-hike. The other winter 14er in the Elks which held interest was the Castle/Conundrum pair. This would mean that Cooper (my dog) could join me. He'd like that!

My kids needed me to sit them till 5PM on Monday the 28th, so I figured I'd try to leave town on Tuesday and make a summit attempt Wednesday. Again, the weatherman had different ideas. Although not perfect, Tuesday was predicted to be mostly cloudy with a high in the higher teens, a 30% chance of snow, and VERY LOW winds! I could deal with that. Wednesday had an 80% chance of snow with 20mph winds. Tuesday was definitely preferable, but it meant starting my drive to Aspen at 5PM. Easy road conditions put me in bed (back of the Jimmy) at 11PM. I was parked Ashcroft, the highest point you reach on the Castle Creek road in winter.

Cooper showing off the Christmas present he received from my daughters.

Cooper and I left the car at 6:15AM and made quick travel the first two miles on snowmobile-packed road past the Pine Creek Cookhouse and on to the end of the paved summer road. Three well packed miles later, the snowmobile trail ended at the 5 mile mark. A well traveled ski trail took off to the left up Pearl pass while the real road disappeared as it apparently forked right. I was lulled into following the ski track, but about 1/8 mile later, I discovered my error as I passed the Tagert and Wilson-Green huts. I knew this wasn't right, so I oriented myself on the map and was able to do a traverse back north to catch a switchback on the road leading into the correct basin. Dawson suggests considering renting space in these huts for your winter climb of Castle.

View of Castle taken a few miles above Ashcroft

View up the Pearl Pass valley taken from Tagert hut

Back on track in Montezuma basin. Can you pick out the true road bed?

For the next 1 ½ miles, I alternated between the creek bottom and the 4WD road as I worked to reach the highest point of the summer 4WD road. This section had no broken trail and therefore was the toughest travel of the trip. The trailbreaking averaged about 6" and rarely was more difficult than creating a 12" trench. It was 11AM, The 6 ½ mile trip to the upper 4WD parking area at the Montezuma Mine took 4 ¾ hours.

Now is a good time to note the inherent dangers of climbing Castle in the winter. Lou Dawson (quoting an un-named source) called the travel up Castle Creek to the Montezuma Mine, "the journey through the Valley of Death!" The entire route (starting at the hospital in Aspen) crosses one avalanche slope after another. Several places on the road are marked "Avalanche Zone- No Stopping." Dawson suggests travel only during stable periods. Today, the route at and below timberline was rated "Natural Avalanches Unlikely, Human triggered slides Possible." Even though my route choices were as conservative as possible, there are still avy slopes left and right along the entire route. There were signs of natural releases pulling away from warmed cliffs, but there were no natural releases from the tops of cols.

Slide debris coming off Malamute peak

With the weather forecasted as mostly cloudy and the temp not expected to exceed 20F, things had a chance of staying in place. Pits dug in lower Montezuma basin revealed that this area didn't suffer from the extremely weak base layer that is popping up in basins all over the state. Still. It was freaky crossing the run-outs of some of releases from cliff faces.

If you negotiate the maze of slide potential to the true NE facing upper Montezuma basin, the "Above Timberline" avy rating goes higher. There is good news however. The normal route up the NW face of Castle to its NE ridge is often blown clear. This week it was virtually dry. It was very easy to find a route up to castle and over to Conundrum which had no potential for slides. The literature states that this is pretty normal; dangerous territory to the upper basin and safer travel the last 2000' to the summit(s.)

Upper Montezuma basin and the Montezuma mine

Looking down-valley from the Montezuma mine

Looking up-valley into the Castle/ Conundrum cirque

NW face to reach the NE ridge of castle

Castle/ Conundrum saddle

Conundrum Peak and the Conundrum Couloir spring ski route

The last 2000' was covered in about 1 ½ hours; I topped Castle at about 12:30PM. The limited views were eerie and awesome; the surrounding peaks and basins had an ethereal quality that was hard to capture in photos, but an honor to experience.

A view east off Castle's NE ridge

Glacial moraine in Castle/Conundrum cirque

View of Conundrum from Castle

The trip to Conundrum was quite cold (for the first time today) and it took about ½ an hour. The winds, even along the ridge, were quite mild for winter.

Castle from Conundrum

Cooper checks in w/ his friends from the summit of Conundrum

I was back to the basin floor before too long.

The trip out was peaceful and uneventful as a snow that started light grew increasingly heavy, falling on an already silent valley. About two miles shy of the car, I was passed by the first person I'd seen today, the hut caretaker. At 5:45PM, after an 11 ½ hour, 5000+ foot day, Cooper and I arrived back at the car. Noise and activity buzzed the parking lot area as employees of the Pine Creek Cookhouse snowmobiled to their cars to go home for the night.

Again, the incoming storm made the long drive back to Pueblo slow and treacherous. I joined Kiefer and Kevin8010 (fresh off their overnight attempt at Holy Cross) for dinner in Vail. I got back on the road at 11PM and climbed into bed at 4:40AM.

I didn't get my BIG goal for the holiday break, but I can't complain; my day on Castle/ Conundrum was a special, quiet day in the Elks.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

Nice TR Steve
12/31/2009 16:11
This is the first Castle/Conundrum winter summit TR I‘ve read. Great job and thanks for posting. Sorry the Capitol plans didn‘t work out for your break, I‘m sure you‘ll have another opportunity soon enough .


12/31/2009 16:05
this is a trip I have one my high priority list this year, and it was a great report with nice photos.


12/31/2009 15:47
Great to see Cooper again! (love that dog ). Really nice trip report ... great photos ... nice insets showing everything (like where your campsite was from above). Thanks for taking the time to post. Happy New Year and Happy Trails!


12/31/2009 15:47
”...trips must begin after the hour and minute of the beginning of winter (winter solstice), and end before the hour and minute of the end of winter (spring equinox).” That‘s a new one on me! I always assumed the *summit* had to be reached after calendar winter began, or before it ended. Interesting... I‘ll consider this in my future winter ascents. Thanks for that link.

This looks like one of those trips, Steve... there‘s magic in that solitude up there.


You‘re not too bad either.
06/02/2011 14:57
Looks like a great Christmas break. Cooper is quite the climber! I like his gift that he got for Christmas.


Bloody marvellous
12/31/2009 15:06
This TR is marvellous. Difficult to comprehend 57 minutes from New Year in Hong Kong where we are all wrapped up like Eskimos for the the expected 0400 hours 10 degrees centigrade ‘chill‘ but still marvellous. Hats off to you Sir, Happy New Year and keep the TR‘s coming.


Great work!
01/01/2010 18:45
Pictures are beautiful and clear -- looks like some nice solitude -- that is what mountaineering is all about!


Very Nice!
01/01/2010 20:11
Great report and pics. You have my full respect. Sounds like you and Cooper had a good time. That Cooper never ceases to amaze me. I like the pic where he is using mind control to activate the Spot. Just amazing.


Beautiful hike to the Summit
01/02/2010 02:45
You rock! Thanks for the winter inspiration.


The end is nigh!!!!
01/02/2010 18:45
Steve! That was an awesome job on Castle & Conundrum. With the mind-numbing walk in, having that ridge clear (mostly) must have been really nice.
Cooper I believe is getting high on his 14er list also, isn‘t he?
Keep that well developed sense of tenacity alive!! Capitol is going to demand it!
We gotta make that one work.
When you finish these bad-boys in calender winter, won‘t you be the 4th person?


01/03/2010 05:05
I was thinking to myself, ”man, Steve‘s really got some drive!”....When it occurred to me that Steve also really had some driving!
Way to hang in there through this frustrating weather period we‘re having.
And good to see Cooper out enjoying the mountain with you!


01/03/2010 15:52
What you consider ”uneventful” would be the toughest trip for 98% of the population. You ARE the man. Congratulations, Steve. I think you are down to six to go. The ”peaceful” ending to your climb was beautifully captured. Thanks for taking the time to include the rest of the world on your adventures.


Great TR!
01/03/2010 17:32
Congrats on a beautiful climb in the Elks!
Love your humor re: Nessie and special needs aspen, Cooper sending spot msgs
Thanks for some great reading and photos!


White Christmas?!?!
01/04/2010 08:33
Sorry you missed out on Cap Steve. That one this time of year is about as dicey as it gets. I would be secretly thankful if I was blown back to a warm house and family. Excellent work on Castle/Conundrum. A nice consolation prize for sure. Your drive is admirable, as is your prose.


04/25/2013 17:29
Wow! What a great TR. Looks like you and Cooper had a blast on Castle/Conundrum. Hope the weather holds out next time for Capitol! It is no stretch to say that what most people would consider their ”worst nightmare”, you consider your dream winter vacation. BRAVO!

Oh, and by the way, the ”Special Needs” aspen is a classic!


Great TR
02/10/2010 03:20
I found this TR while looking for beta on winter summits of Castle/Conundrum.

Thanks for posting it! The photos are extremely helpful and I enjoyed your story. Congrats.

   Using your forum id/password. Not registered? Click Here

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. 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 and the report author(s) with respect to any claims and demands against them, including any attorney fees and expenses. Please read the Safety and Disclaimer pages for more information.

© 2017®, 14ers Inc.