A beginner's introduction to the ElksI had climbed Quandary and Sherman on my first two days in Colorado. Day 3 I took a rest day, drove over Independence Pass and into Aspen. I took the customary pictures of the Maroon Bells and Pyramid Peak, and then checked out the Castle Creek trailhead 12 miles south of Aspen. Everything seemed pretty straight forward, so I returned to Aspen, got myself some McDonald's, discovered the wonderful Motel rates in the town, and relaxed until it was time to get some rest.
I checked out of my room around 4:30 AM and was on the trail a little after five. There was no need for a flashlight since the sun was already lighting the way somewhat. Plus, the 4WD road was pretty much impossible to lose. I made good time on it, reaching the Pearl Pass junction in an hour. The scenery was amazing, but the mountains were so far off, and there was no sign of my ultimate destination, Castle Peak. Having done only the easy 14ers thus far, Castle was the great unknown, and I had no clue whether my limited abilities and experience would allow me to even get close to the mountain.
The approach was sublime thus far. At one point I walked out of the trees and into a meadow, only to see a deer staring at me with trepidation. I'm not sure who snuck up on who first, but it watched my progress with giant eyes, craning and turning its head to follow me until it was corkscrewed at 270 degrees.
The 4WD road became more and more tedious after the junction. That's not to undermine the scenery, of course. What I found especially amazing was the beginnings of Castle Creek as it gently breezed around the pebbles and the rocks above timberline, the perfect definition of a mountain stream.
As long as the 4WD road was, its end was sudden and welcomed, signifying the arrival into Montezuma Basin. For the first time, I felt I was truly in the wilderness, even though that wasn't really the case. Since I was ill equipped for snow travel (no crampons, no ice axe), my plan was to climb the Northeast Ridge while avoiding as much snow as possible. Instead of bearing left towards the snowfield at the bottom of the basin, I hopped through a large, flat boulderfield for as long as possible, until the snow was unavoidable.
From here, it was about 500-600 feet to the upper basin. The lower part of the climb was on snow, which was just soft enough for me to kick reasonable steps into. It was fun, but after about 150-200 feet into the slope, I jumped at the first opportunity onto the scree. The climbing was loose but challenging, and I found it to be very enjoyable. I had three or four contacts to the ground at all times, and tested the stability of each step, whether it be by hands or feet. At one point, I felt what seemed like the entire slope beginning to slide downwards, so I quickly shifted my body weight and found a different angle for ascent. I found the bottom and the top of the slope to be fairly stable, with the middle part being the steepest and the loosest.
As I topped out into the upper basin, I took a left back onto and across the snow to regain the trail. The crux of the climb, in my opinion, was the section where you get off the snow and onto the NE ridge trail, requiring steep steps over the loose red dirt too small to be classified as scree. The entire trail section before crest on the ridge was fairly unpleasant, and I found it to be the most exhausting portion of the climb. Castle still loomed large and impossible ahead of me, and I did not yet know whether summiting was possible.
Every step, every trudge was painful, but something magical happened around 13,700 ft at the ridge crest. First off, the sight of Pyramid and the Bells peaking over the NW ridge for the first time was extraordinary, as it is your first view of those well-known peaks at this unique angle. Second, the established trail ends at the crest, as does the scree and talus. From there on out, it's solid scrambling and route finding. All traces of exhaustion left me as I found my way up the ridge. I stayed towards the right for the first half, and then found myself favoring the left side as I got higher. My strategy was to climb high and be on the crest of the ridge whenever possible, in order to avoid the loose stuff on the sides. The exposure was reasonable, but there was no feeling of vertigo at all. The rocks were pretty solid as well, especially if you stayed high near the crest.
Even at the false summit, I still was mighty uncertain about my chances of summiting. The last 250 feet of the peak looked huge and unstable. I took a quick sip of water and proceeded on. To my surprise, I topped out in mere minutes. From another trip report here on SP I knew the key was finding a chimney and squeezing through. Once that was accomplished, the summit completely snuck up on me. I had done it! With all the uncertainly behind me, and all the uncertainly of the descent still ahead of me, that moment of gaining the summit was one of the most exhilarating of my life. I did not know how I was going to get down, but for now, I had the summit, and the most amazing views in the world.
I would have loved to spend all day on the top. I had the summit to myself, and thus far had not seen another soul all day. However, the clouds were building up, and I knew that the daily thunderstorm was fast approaching. I made my way quickly back down the ridge and trundled through the dirt/scree trail back to the snow field. The skies were dark with clouds now, and somewhere on the ridge I could already hear the rumblings of electricity. I knew that descending the scree slope that I ascended would take forever, so my best alternative was to take an unprotected glissade. I had never glissaded before, and had no clue what to expect. I grabbed a sharp looking rock and figured it could help me manuever and slow down. About a second into the glissade I came to the realization that the rock was worthless. As I slid down hundreds of feet of snow in my work slacks, no less, I used my elbows and my boots to control my speed. It worked, for the most part. Soon, I was back down in the basin, and I figured, below the lightning hazards of the exposed ridge.
I hopped back across the boulders from whence I came. About 5-10 into my descend on the 4WD, I saw a solitary hiker on his way up. I advised him that he was still a long ways from the summit, and the weather was pretty forboding, but he was determined to forge ahead. I wished him the best and continued on down.
Throughout the trip down the thunder rang loudly through the sky, but I saw neither electricity nor raindrops hit the ground. Somewhere between the lower basin and timberline, my knee finally gave away. Pretty soon, the backside of my right knee was causing me horrible pain with every step I took, and I had to pretty much limp the last three or four miles back to the trailhead (by the time I got back to Aspen I could hardly walk). I met a cute lady at the campgrounds near the trailhead and chatted with her a bit before driving back to Aspen. On the way out, I saw the other hiker's van, so I stopped by the Forest Service station to let the rangers know there was someone still up on the mountain. My legs were shot, so I had a feeling it would be a few more days before I attempted my next fourteener, which turned out to be Elbert.