Castle Peak has the distinction of being the highest peak in the Elk Range and also the easiest. Castle Peak is usually recommended as an introduction to the loose rock that makes up the Elk Range. It's lower neighbor Conundrum Peak is debated as being a true 14er, since it doesn't rise 300 feet above the connecting saddle it shares with Castle Peak. Conundrum is a short distance from Castle Peak, it's over 14,000 feet, and it's an easy climb so we thought why not take the extra 30 minutes to climb it too.
August 8th, 2003
The weekend adventure began leaving Boulder around 5 p.m. and heading towards Aspen. There was the usual congestion on highway 93 between Boulder and Golden but after Golden it was smooth sailing. We made it to Aspen around 9 p.m. and took the Castle Creek Road turn from the first roundabout in Aspen. After 11 miles we passed the town of Ashcroft and proceeded an additional 2 miles to the dirt road National Forest 102. After 1/2 mile the road steepens and gets a little bumpier. We crossed Castle Creek and proceeded to about 11,000 feet where we parked just beyond the 2nd Castle Creek crossing and waterfall.
Our water jug had got tossed on its side from the rough road and 2.5 gallons of water were now soaked up in the back of my 4runner. Only about 20 ounces remained so it was fortunate that Amy had already filled up her 100 ounce Camelbak. After removing all the soaked mats and blankets we set up camp in back of the 4runner and hit the sack.
August 9th, 2003
The alarm sounded at 5:15 a.m. and after a quick breakfast we were ready to hit the trail. We noticed that its staying darker in the morning and the sun was just rising as we departed.
It was a very short distance up the road where we came to the junction of Pearl Pass and Montezuma Basin. We proceeded right at the junction and continued up the road passing many parties camped out. We arrived and the end of the road at 12,800 feet and decided to take the Northeast Ridge instead of the Northwest Ridge. Misunderstanding the guide book, instead of ascending into the upper basin, we headed to the saddle between point 13,780 and Castle Peak from the end of the road. We would learn that this isn't the best way to go to gain the Northeast Ridge. The photo below shows our route in yellow and the correct route in green.
We kept ascending the slopes trying to find the trail with no luck. The slopes started out pleasantly covered with grass but soon turned to really loose rock. Everything was sliding, little rocks, big rocks, I had no idea what was holding this slope up. The photo below shows the slopes we chose to ascend to gain the Northeast Ridge.
Luckily we were gaining elevation quickly and reached the saddle the guide book was referring to. From here we realized there was a really good trail up the other side of this ridge. We would have been much better off continuing into the upper basin and then heading left on an extremely obvious trail to gain Castle's Northeast Ridge. Oh well, all roads lead to the summit and up will always get you there. The photo below shows Castle's Northeast Ridge and the remaining portion of this route.
The trail stayed pretty much on the spine of the ridge and there was a couple of super easy class 2+ sections shown in the photo below.
Continuing on the ridge the route heads to the left side of the ridge just before the summit. We arrived on the summit at 9:15 a.m. taking us about 3 hours for the ascent. The views of the Elk Range were pretty spectacular. All the peaks from the Maroon Bells and Pyramid, to Capitol and Snowmass were in front of us. Right above my head in the photo below are the Maroon Bells with Pyarmid just to the right of them.
We were joined on the summit by a couple who remarked how easy they thought the climb was. We asked them where they started from and they told us the end of the road, well geez, most 14ers would be easy if you started hiking from 12,800 feet. On the ascent the ridge between Castle and Conundrum appears pretty thin and jagged but from the summit we realized it was really mild. The photo below shows the route from Castle over to Conundrum Peak with our descent route in green.
We departed from the summit and began the traverse over to Conundrum. The traverse went really quick and soon we were on Conundrum's southern summit with Castle Peak in the background.
Conundrum Peak offers a little better view of the Maroon Bells as well, they are the first peaks on the left side of the photo.
The guidebook noted that the northern summit is 40 feet higher, although from the southern summit is doesn't appear higher at all. We headed over to the northern summit and got good view down the Conundrum Couloir. Once we arrived on the northern summit it became obvious why this peak is called Conundrum in the first place, it's a conundrum to tell which summit is higher. From this vantage point the southern summit appeared to be easily higher than the northern summit. We didn't find a benchmark or a register anywhere so we didn't stay long. We arrived back on the southern summit and had to take a 2nd look back at the northern summit. The photo below shows 2 people standing on the northern summit, and if it's higher, it's really subtle.
We began our descent and opted to peel off the ridge and descend into upper Montezuma basin shown above. The snow was melted out several hundred feet below the saddle and was extremely loose rock and dirt. Amy and I were about midway down to the snow when I had to cross back to the other side of the gully. There was a guy climbing above us who stopped to talk to a man on his way up. I thought he wasn't moving so I tried to hurry across the gully. As I proceeded into the gully I heard him yell rock and I bolted for the other side. Right behind me came a couple of rocks crashing down, the biggest one about twice the size of a car battery. I'm glad I didn't waste any time glancing up the slope when he yelled rock or I might have been creamed. He apologized but we decided we didn't want to be below him anymore so we allowed him to pass.
Crossing the snow was relatively easy except for one section that was still quite icy. Right above the icy section Amy slipped and started sliding down the slopes. Luckily she was able to dig in with her feet and poles and stop herself just short of the icy section. Another crisis adverted, the descent had became really interesting in a span of about 5 minutes. We made it down the rest of the snowfield without incident shown in the photo below. Just above the snow where it turns to dirt is where I almost got creamed by the boulder.
We crossed the upper basin and descended the steep boulder slope to arrive back at the road. We were relieved to be on stable ground again. It was a very quick stroll down the road where we arrived back at the car just before 1 p.m. bringing our hiking time to about 6.5 hours. If this was our introduction to the Elk Range, I can't wait to see the loose rock and boulder dodging we'll have to do on the Bells and Pyramid. We departed the Elk Range and headed over for a climb of Holy Cross on Sunday.