The Elk Range seemed to have it out for me. Last October Georg and I made Conundrum Peak’s summit, but missed the summit of Castle Peak. Then, a group of six of us made a failed Memorial Day attempt at Capitol Peak. While both of those trips were a lot of fun, I was looking forward to actually making it to the top of the Elks’ highest mountain, Castle Peak.
I remembered and dreaded the long, snowy approach into Montezuma Basin, but it would turn out to be much more enjoyable than it had been in October. I started from the first creek crossing at 5:30, and it wasn’t long before I came to the first snow, an avalanche debris field below Greg Mace Peak. Passing a couple scenic waterfalls, I continued up the snow-packed road into Montezuma Basin.
Bc44caesar had climbed Castle Peak two weeks ago. Following his advice, I stayed at the creek bottom instead of following the road, which was drifted over and ugly to follow. The snow in the basin was solid, and it was an easy walk upward: indeed, much more fun than it had been in the fresh powder of October.
I had decided to try the Northeast Ridge Route, but instead of continuing up to the four wheel drive trailhead, I put my crampons on and short-cut my way up the steep snow slopes leading to the first buttress, just below Point 13,780. For a while, the snow was solid, and great for climbing, but the sun was warming it rapidly, and I was having flashbacks of our Capitol trip. I had been a little leery of avalanche activity, due to this past week’s fresh snows, and above me I saw where a wet slide had occurred within the previous couple of days. However, it was very shallow, and the main snow-pack was very solid, so I had very little concern. I made my way up along the rocky breaks leading to the main buttress, alternating between steep snow and rock scrambling, all the way up to the top of where the slide had broken.
Now on the ridge crest, above the buttress, I gained my first views of Castle Peak and its northeast ridge, which I was soon to traverse. There was surprisingly little snow from here on up, it appeared, so I packed up my crampons and made my way over to the saddle between Point 13,780 and the remaining section of the ridge to Castle’s summit.
Most of the time, I stayed on the ridge with some class 2+ scrambling, but at the final couple of towers before the summit, I dropped down onto the north face to avoid some apparent difficulties. Without putting my crampons back on, I carefully kick-stepped my way across some still-solid snow slopes.
I regained the ridge by climbing up the top of the North Face Couloir. Following the final snow slope to the summit, I arrived at 11 o’clock. Triumphant at last, I enjoyed the awesome view from the Elk Range’s loftiest perch. I loved the view of all the other Elk Range fourteeners, as well as Cathedral Peak, Malemute Peak, Conundrum Peak, “Castleabra,” and many others. Snowmass Mountain and the Maroon Bells were being overtaken by snow-filled clouds, and much of the sky was turning dark, so I did not stay long. I was not too concerned though, because I knew my descent would be much faster than the climb had been.
I started down with a quick glissade via the North Face Couloir. The snow was bumpy and hard, and it was more painful than fun, but it was a lot easier than scrambling down the way I had come up. I made several more glissades to get to the four wheel drive trailhead, and then I continued out through the basin the same way I had entered. The sky was now completely clouded over, and some flakes were even falling as I met another hiker, on his ascent, at about timberline. I warned him to keep a close eye on the weather and wished him good luck, then I continued out the dirt/snow road.
I passed several other hikers on my out, all in shorts and t-shirts, having a miserable time in the snow. None of them were aspiring to climb any mountains at least, but I’m sure it was a good reminder to them that June does not mean summer in the mountains of Colorado.
I never had any need for my snowshoes. The cool weather and cloudy skies were enough to keep the snow from softening too much, so snow conditions ended up being far better than I expected. All in all, it was a nice spring day-trip to the top of the Elks.