Castle and Conundrum are a peculiar mix of stark beauty, terrifying exposed steep and loose scree/talus, and incredible photogenicity. In retrospect, I truly loved climbing these peaks and the manageable technical challenges that they present a climber. While I was on the mountains, all I wanted was to do was get the hell out of the loose crappy rocks and onto level ground. How quick we forget the bad stuff after the hike is over.
From stepping onto the trail outside of our tents to the summits, this trail is rather steep. It is unrelenting. It starts steep and then gets steeper.
Don and I started on Friday the 20th. I worked in the morning from home and got some miscellaneous stuff finished. Don took two half days off on Friday. We met at Don’s house around 12ish and began our trip down to the trailhead over Independence Pass, through Aspen, arriving at out campsite at 11,500 feet at about 5pm.
Our campsite at 11,500 feet. Right off the road and great views.
The campsite was fine. While not huge, it had great views and presented us with two places to set our respective tents. The weather forecast for the next day was superb. And the skies were clearing as we readied our meals, took pictures, and otherwise prepared for the next morning.
One of the spectacular views we had as the sun set and the clouds cleared
Don and I woke up at 4:30am and consumed our usual; Starbucks canned latte for me and VIA for Don followed but some sort of repellent (at least at that altitude and time of day) oatmeal bar thing. It was still predawn and the Milky Way spread over the camp site in brilliant luminosity. Dawn quickly approached and the stars washed away. The temp was in the upper 30s and just a very light breeze. We started up the trail, which is actually an old mining road all the way up to 12,800 ft where there is a substantial parking area.
At 5:30 we were able to chuck our headlamps and muddle our way in the dim morning light. Don and I had travelled about 20 minutes or so and when we saw a bright light in the sky traveling roughly from the Northwest to the Southeast. It appeared very high and looked like an airplane with its landing light on. However, as it traversed overhead it remained bright. Don commented, after some observation, that he thought it could be the International Space Station (ISS). Judging the direction of travel I determined that the inclination generally made sense for the ISS and Don, checking after he was home much later that evening, confirmed that the ISS was indeed making an overhead pass at that time. How cool is that? Seeing this space-bound sentinel also set the stage for other space related oddities to happen later in the hike.
Don and I continued our way up the road all the way to the parking area at 12,800 feet. Here we got a good look at the 600 foot “headwall.” This part of the climb is nasty. No matter how you go up this thing you will have to negotiate very steep, very loose, very sharp scree and talus for 600 vertical feet. There are some faint trails winding their way up the slope. Don and I were able to meander along these trails, somehow, and climbed our way up.
Don looks up the 600 feet of talus and scree leading to the bottom of the basin
Upon reaching the top of this nasty heap of busted-up rock we hiked the short distance to the base of the trail that takes the hiker from the basin to the ridge top ultimately leading to the Castle summit. This trail is also steep (have I mentioned that this hike is steep?) but it is obvious as it switches back and forth directly up the slope towards the ridge. The trail then cuts across a straight climbing stretch where it finally brings the hiker to the ridge crest proper.
The trail leads from the basin (lower left) up to the ridge crest (center right) providing access to Castle’s summit. Steep…Isn't it?
This hike really begins to get far more challenging and fun as you attain the ridge crest. To this point one has essentially been steeply grinding up busted up rocks or hiking on a mining rode. The surrounding terrain is quite beautiful. However, the hike itself is somewhat…ah…well…a trudge.
As you reach the Northeast ridge the hike becomes a climb. The NE ridge embodies what really sets “walkups” apart from climbs. The climbing class along the ridge to Castle’s summit varies between class 2 to class 3+ with exposure. Good Times! There were sections that bordered on class 4ish but perhaps I exaggerate for effect. But truly there were short sections where one must hunt around a bit for solid (emphasis on solid) hand and/or foot holds. All the while the slopes careen steeply away from you and downwards into the basin far below.
A look back down the ridge crest. You can clearly see how broken up and exposed the trail is.
Looking up as a lone climber negotiates the ridge with Castle’s summit, (adorned with other successful climbers) appearing right, background.
Don, being afraid of heights, was not as expressive in his enthusiasm with the ridge section. Don is of course entirely competent in his abilities but simply needs some painful prodding and ridicule now and then. We had reached a point on the ridge were we just needed to sit and collect ourselves. And as oddly as it seems, there was just such a flat and stable area just below 14,000 feet. From where we were sitting the route seemed a little more than Don wanted to deal with.
As luck would have it another climber came along (I did not get his name). We talked a little while and explained the situation. He volunteered to blaze ahead so that we could see him make his way up a technical portion and onto the trail above. And he did so. We saw that in reality there were just a few simple technical moves and then there was a pretty stable trail nearly all the way to the summit. That climber is pictured above. Thanks!
Both Don and I made the rest of the climb to the summit with nary a problem. There were just a few other folks up there at around 9:30 am. The weather was still perfect and the route over to Conundrum looked more doable than ever.
Climbers on the summit of Castle Peak ponder the route over to Conundrum
Of question throughout the day was how we might descend. Of course one may either climb over to Conundrum and then reverse the whole trip back over Castle and down the ridge back to the trail head. I was of the mind to descend directly from the saddle between Castle and Conundrum. There was a LOT of loose talus and some snow/ice. From the ridge this route looks completely insane and steep. However I had climbed and descended the saddle route years earlier and knew it was less steep than it looked. This route is very popular earlier in the year when there is still plenty of snow on this route, which makes for a great glissade. In late August unfortunately the snow is mostly replaced by ice and liberally peppered with rocks.
Don and I watched from the ridge and summit as other climbers made the saddle descent with what appeared to be little trouble. Also, as one changes their viewing orientation to that slope you can see that it is not as steep as it appears from across the basin. We now accepted that we would descend the saddle route even if it meant some limited ablative self-arrest.
The saddle between Castle (left) and Conundrum (right). From this view the descent looks crazy steep and loose. And indeed it is. It is however possible to descend this route with care.
We both stayed on Castle’s large summit long enough to recharge with some food and drink. We took our summit shots and chatted it up with others on the summit. The views were incredible adding to the panache of these two fine peaks.
We wanted to get started towards Conundrum so we did not stay our usual 40ish minutes. We had studied the route over to Conundrum. The second peak seemed closer than ever. This was number 28 for Don but I had already been on top of Castle.
A good look at the route from the summit of Castle all the way over to Conundrum Peak
We met up with another climber as we headed down and across to Conundrum as we left Castle’s summit behind. As climbers do, we ended up hiking about the same speed and generally becoming engaged in conversation. We were talking about hiking and mutual interests, hometowns, and work. I mentioned, in the context of conversation, that Don was “actually a Rocket Scientist”, which Don actually is. The other guy (Scott as we would learn later) thought that was pretty interesting. He then mentioned that his grandfather was an astronaut. As it turned out…Scott’s grandfather is James (Jim) Lovell. Jim Lovell was the commander of Apollo 13 (and Apollo 8) and the astronaut who spoke the famous words, “Houston, We've had a problem.”
A look at climbers ascending the ridge towards Castle Peak taken from the connecting saddle
Jim Lovell's grandson! Perhaps others may not see this chance meeting as pretty darn cool but clearly Don and I did. And from Scott’s point of view, the chance to actually meet two random people on a mountain at nearly 14,000 feet…two people who were not just acquainted with the space program during the 60s and 70s, but darn near experts. At least we thought we were experts.
We all hiked over to Conundrum in what seemed like minutes. It was a perfectly pleasant hike. We also got a good look at the descent route as we traversed the point where the descent joined in with the saddle and confirmed that it indeed was not terribly steep and appeared quite doable.
In a short while we were on the smallish summit of Conundrum Peak. That made number 29 for Don and 39 for me. Scott graciously humored us by posing with me and Don in our usual “we made it” summit picture. The weather was still great. The really challenging parts of the hike were behind us, and it was still rather early in the day. We had nothing but time…and the descent down the saddle route.
Don (left), Scott (center), and Me (right) on the summit of Conundrum Peak
Don and I headed downwards towards the saddle after some relaxed refueling and rest, picture taking, and talking on the summit. At the beginning of the saddle descent we could see that there were trails leading down the saddle face at least as far as we could see. Eventually the slope was steep enough that the lower part of the descent was not visible. Thinking about this later I realized that the trails that we saw were the paths that hikers would use to connect from the top of the snow field (present in the spring) to the top of the saddle.
We coordinated with some other climbers on the saddle to go down together so that we would not kick rocks down on each other. The slope was steep and very loose so sending rocks downhill was inevitable. Coordination between the climbers was mandatory and the resulting cooperation incredible. Everyone was working together and it made the descent MUCH safer.
Looking back up the steep and nasty descent route
As it turns out there was, after all, a good bit of “ablative self arrest.” It was not possible to avoid. The poor condition of the slope dictated it. The slope was variously steep loose dirt/rock, or subsurface ice with a semi-frozen crust of dirt and rock. Of the six or so folks that hiked down the saddle together, most, if not all, ended up falling and sliding down on some part of their body, unexpectedly, and ending up with various minor injuries involving scrapes, gouges, and blood. But it was agreed by all that these injuries were well worth the time and mileage saved on this route versus climbing all the way around and back over Castle.
Ablative self arrest…Its not without risk
The only – somewhat – unexpected danger was a crevasse at the base of the slope. I ended up traversing a loose slope about about 12 feet above the dangerous looking crack. I could not see down into it but I could gauge it was about 2+ feet wide and perhaps 12 feet long. Just as I was about half way across the short traverse my footing gave way and I was headed for the crevasse. I started clawing madly (somewhat in a panicked way) at anything that might stop me before I slipped into the menacing and mysterious maw. There was nothing but sliding dirt and rock around me but something I grabbed eventually stopped me. I was saved. From my somewhat uncomfortably closer position I was now able to look into the crevasse and saw that it was about 8 feet from the surface down to water. I could see and hear the delightful plinks and plops of debris that I had kicked loose in my fall as it slipped over the edge of the crevasse and into the water. Who knows how deep the water was. I didn’t find out. The sides of the crevasses were liberally sprinkled with embedded rock. Falling down that thing would have been a nasty ride!
The crevasse as seen from above on the connecting saddle. I identified the terrifying crack later when look at my images.
From here back to camp the hike was uneventful. Hiking over more giant piles of busted-up rock until we finally made it back to the upper parking lot at 12,800 feet then followed the road back down to our camp site. We were back at camp around 2pm. A great day. A challenging, interesting, and beautiful hike, in retrospect.
Don and I packed up camp and eased our way down the long and rough road back towards Aspen. We ate at a place called “The Grill” in Leadville where they served up a decent burrito and then all that was left was the drive back to Denver.
The GPS track for the Castle and Conundrum Peak hikes. Red is up, Blue is down.
Next up is Blanca Peak.