Peak(s):  Conundrum Peak  -  14,060 feet
Date Posted:  06/01/2010
Date Climbed:   05/30/2010
Author:  d_baker

 A Last Minute "Conundrum" on Memorial Day Weekend  

May 30, 2010

Climbers: Earl Jones & Darin Baker

Conundrum Peak (14,060'/unranked)
Elk Range

Trailhead: Castle Creek TH
Route: Conundrum Couloir
Distance: ~8mi (RT)
Elevation Gain: ~3800'
Time to Complete: ~8.5hrs

Gear: day-pack w/Essentials, avalanche gear (beacon, probe, shovel), ice axe, crampons, helmet, snowshoes (which we didn't use due to the still-firm snow on our descent from upper Montezuma Basin)

Resources Used for Trip Planning: Roachs' 14er guidebook, NOAA weather forecast (accessed from, recent trip report on 14ers (used for current snow conditions)

Current Snow Conditions (on the approach): Snow banks ~100yds beyond first stream crossing would be an issue for anyone looking to drive further up the road; beyond these first snow banks, the road is spotty (w/snow) until ~10,500' when the road reenters the trees and becomes (mostly) continuous snow; two trees are down across the road near the camp on the N side of road just below the second stream crossing.

A Last Minute "Conundrum" on Memorial Day Weekend
co-nun-drum: any puzzling question or problem (Webster's)

Plan A
Early Friday morning, drive to San Juan's & pack into Bilk Basin, climb Gladstone & Wilson Peak on Saturday, and then climb the Snake Couloir on Sneffels the next day, come home that day.

The "Conundrum"
Partner 1 bails at the last minute (Friday morning) due to sickness;
Partner 2 bails when Partner 1 bails, because he hasn't climbed with Partner 3 or 4 (Me) before, and his main goal was Wilson Peak, not so much the rest;
Partner 3 wants to stay until Monday to climb additional peaks, but I can't stay until Monday, and, I can't afford to make the drive by myself. For these reasons,
Partner 4 (Me) bails on Partner 3!
However, Partner 3 still had potential partners in the San Juan's to climb with, on the same peaks we had planned on climbing together (except for Wilson Peak).
This is thanks to 14ers & 14erWorld connections, two great sites!

A Last Minute Solution to My "Conundrum"
I couldn't make the trip to the SJ's anymore, but I still wanted to get out and climb a peak. Thanks to having multiple partners I can rely on, I quickly called Earl on Friday morning to see what his schedule looked like. He just got back from a windy sandfest biking trip in Moab a couple of days before, but he was willing and game to go for a peak this weekend. Sweet.

Plan B
Earl had never climbed in the Elk's before, and I still needed Conundrum Peak to finish off the Elk Range (for the centennials anyway).
Therefore, I suggested the Conundrum couloir, and from there we could go over to Castle Peak so Earl could get two new peaks. Sounds like a plan!
I did some quick research online to find out current conditions and weather, in addition to making sure Independence Pass is open. Everything looked good, so we made plans to leave from Manitou at 2pm on Saturday, car-camp that night, and climb the peaks on Sunday.

The Approach
We car-camped at a campsite along Castle Creek road on Saturday night; and we set our alarms for 3am to leave by 3:30am Sunday morning.
The approach took us longer than I anticipated, as I was hoping to be at the base of the couloir by 6:30. As it turned out, we hit the "headwall" in upper Montezuma's at ~6:30.
No problem though, because the overnight freeze was decent and the snow was in good shape. Plus, the couloir's aspect is slightly protected from early sunlight.

Earl on the approach…

Early morning sun…

…and a waning moon...

…guides us to the headwall.

Above the summertime parking at 12,800 feet, we stashed our snowshoes, lathered up in sunscreen, and had a snack. We also put our crampons and helmets on here, and grabbed the axes before we headed for the climb of the headwall.

Above the headwall, looking NE/E…

The Climb
We stayed on climber's right going up the headwall, knowing we had to head that way anyway for the base of the couloir.
We arrived at the base at 7:30, assessed conditions (which still appeared to be pretty good), and headed up.

Sun-cups at the start of the climb...

I led the way up the couloir, staying climber's right in the shade where the snow would stay firm, which it did throughout our climb.
There were steps from previous climbers that I used as well, which made for a nice staircase in places.

Earl and the Snow Sphincter below…

Looking up the couloir and at the cornice…

The snow was firm styrofoam going up the couloir, which was great cramponing for our climb.
Climbing under what looked like a huge cornice was a little unnerving though. Plus, it was in the sun. Let's hope it wants to hang on for a bit longer!

Where the hell is Earl?!

I hope the Sphincter didn't get him.

One more corner before the final push to the summit…

I waited here (in the above picture) for Earl to catch up. This was his first peak of the season, and he told me he would likely be a bit slower than me.
As it turns out, his quads would start to cramp up shortly after this corner, which almost turned him around.
But this area is real close to the summit, so it only made sense to continue on, ever so slowly and carefully, meanwhile trying to hydrate and take in some snacks with salts to help alleviate his cramping.

The cornice…

I reached this point of the climb at 8:20, and waited here for Earl to climb through the final steep section, in addition to work through his cramping problem.

Sawatch Range on the horizon to the east…

…and more Elk to the northwest.


(ahem….the dust layer)

Final steps to the summit…

The summit was a bit windy and cool, so we didn't stay too long. Earl was in better shape at this point, but not in the mood for another peak. He offered to descend from the saddle of Castle & Conundrum and wait for me in the basin while I went over to Castle Peak; but since I've climbed Castle before, I wasn't interested in a repeat at this time.
However, someday I would like to come back and climb the north couloir on Castle.

Skiers (on the saddle) eyeing their line down the N couloir of Castle…

Earl descending from Conundrum's summit...

En route to the saddle for our descent…

The descent from the saddle was an easy plunge stepping affair, getting us safely to the bottom and around the left (north) side of the Sphincter (but it's actually a tarn:-).
We continued down to the snowshoe stash, talked to a gentleman there for a bit, and then headed back down the basin.
The snow was still firm and supportable, so we didn't need to wear our snowshoes.
We were back to Earl's truck by 12:30pm.

Hindsight & Personal Notes
Although I was looking forward to going to the SJ's for Plan A, this substituted plan worked out just fine.
Partner 1 apparently recovered from his sickness in time to search for climbing partners on Saturday;
Partner 2, well, I have no idea what he did;
Partner 3 still went to the SJ's and climbed a variation of Plan A;
And I got out on some local rock for some quick clipping, in addition to getting out with Earl for his first trip to the Elk's. Plus, like I said, I finished off the Elks with a fine climb!

Plan A, or at least the part with Gladstone Peak, will have to wait for another day, possibly with plans of a Dallas climb, sometime later down the road.

Earl, it was good climbing with you again, and thanks for solving the "conundrum" in my schedule!

Thanks for reading,



 Comments or Questions

Great Beta
06/02/2010 00:08
This is the mountain I need to summit to complete the 58 peak list. Thanks for the great beta. Looks like there is plenty of snow and it should be around awhile.

Glad you got to get out to the mountains for a climb even with your partners bailing. It is amazing how fast a trip can collapse when one person changes their mind.


Massive Cornice!
06/02/2010 01:02
I heard about that monster cornice hovering above this couloir, looks like a beast! You took some excellent pictures, especially the shot with the moon and looking down at the ”Snow Sphincter” from high in the couloir! Glad you were able to get some climbing worked out this weekend. Good report!

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