Castle Peak (14265') CO Rank- 12, CO Prominence Rank- 50
highpoint of Pitkin and Gunnison counties
Conundrum Peak (14060')- unranked
7.7 miles RT, 3900' gain
via northeast ridge
Participants: Jim Ohl, Karen Tiffany, Tony Strayer, and Kevin Baker
Castle Peak is the highest mountain in the formidable Elk range (also a 2fer county highpoint), although it is by far the easiest 14er to climb. On Labor Day weekend last year, I was thwarted by Castle on a solo attempt at an elevation of 13900' on the n.e. ridge due to slippery conditions, snow, and low visibility. Karen & Tony were also turned back one day later near the same spot on the ridge. In early June this year, Karen and I made another attempt of Castle while my wife wisely slept in the car. I foolishly forgot my GPS and map and we were turned around at the end of the road at an elevation of 12800' due to guess what? Low visibility and snow forced us to call it a day. I was not going to mess around with Castle on the third attempt, so plans were made as Karen's boyfriend Jim Ohl joined us along with her friend Tony Strayer.
We left C. Springs around 7pm Friday and met Tony at the turnoff for Independence Pass. After dodging the zoo of animals along the road, we arrived in Aspen and made the familiar journey up to Castle Creek Rd. The stream crossing was pretty straightforward even in the dark and we made camp at the exact location of my first attempt just below the 2nd stream crossing at an elevation of 10800'. Bad omen? By the time everyone had tents setup, it was 12:30am. We arose at 3:30 in hopes of getting a jump on whatever weather was in store for us today.
We left at 4:15 and began the dark slog up the now familiar road. On my previous visit, this road was drifted with deep snow and avalanche debris was everywhere. As we made our way up the lower basin, it was clear that Karen and I were indeed going the right direction, but continuing on in those conditions would have been sketchy. We made it up to the end of the road at dawn and decided to strap on crampons for the short climb of the lower snowfield to the point where we joined the trail leading to the n.e. ridge. The last time I was at this point, my hopes of summitting were dependent on who I could find behind me to go with me as a snow squall kicked off. This time, things looked good as only high clouds appeared. We took off our crampons and headed up the trail weaving through the scree to the n.e. ridge. Wow, there's a trail up here! The trail weaves through any difficulties on the ridge and moderately climbs to the false summit. Just below this false summit at the base of a rocky buttress is where I turned around the first time, just 1/4 mile from the summit. This time it was smooth sailing as Jim & Karen lead the way. I arrived at 7:25am, probably my earliest time on the top of any mountain.
The views on Castle were astounding as its' neighbors the Maroon Bells, Capitol, Snowmass, Pyramid, Cathedral, Conundrum and others were basking in the early morning light. Other than a group of 3 guys behind us, we had the summit to ourselves. Hard to believe Castle gave us so much trouble! After a long break, we headed over to unranked Conundrum at 8:07. The route was loose but well trodden down to the saddle, where we eyed our nasty looking descent route of the upper snowfield. Conundrum is a nice little extra credit peak with some fun scrambling. I arrived on the northern true summit at 8:43 and was a little confused because I could not find the register that I was told was up there by the 3 guys we met on Castle. There are two more bumps beyond this, so I headed over there to be sure. Karen soon found it when she arrived, so I retraced my steps. There are great views of Castle here as we watched other climbers making their way up the n.e. ridge across the way. Castle looks deceptively steep from Conundrum as the standard n.w. ridge route from the saddle looks to be class 3.
After a short break, we left Conundrum at 9:20. Tony was interested in glissading the steep 47 degree couloir of Conundrum, so I told him he better be comfortable with the snow conditions, steepness, and his ability to self-arrest before he tried it. I did not really feel right about him trying as I really haven't heard of anybody trying to glissade it! The rest of us headed back to the saddle and dropped down the loose scree to the snow. This section is very unpleasant to descend, but it is better than going back over Castle. As I expected, the snow was sun cupped, creating a slow, bumpy ride down to the upper basin. I was hoping for better conditions as this slope can give you an exhilirating ride! As I got down to the bottom, I was relieved to see Tony slowly still making his way down the bottom of the couloir. We then waited for Tony, who told us he had some close calls down the couloir. More than once, he lost control as he came across some unexpected ice that he could not arrest on. He was fortunant to come out of this unscathed. The glissade down the lower snowfield was fun yet bumpy. At this point, dark clouds began to build, so we made good time down the road to treeline. At noon, we started getting pelted with some hail, so we were glad we started real early as we made it back to camp at 12:15. As we ate at a bbq place in Aspen (my third visit), the heavens unleashed at 2pm, so a 4am start was not a crazy idea after all. A great time was had by all as luck was finally on our side this time!