Two sore legs, a scratched-up ice axe, and a mountain of memories say otherwise.
Introduction: The Elk Range was calling, and I wanted to answer that call. I finally got my chance today, and against all odds, considering a gargantuan snowstorm had been predicted for the area yesterday. I had along two other Elk Range newbies, Georg and Betsy, with whom to share the adventure.
Prompted by reports that the Aspen area had not received as much snow as anticipated in yesterday’s storm, we set out from Boulder at 0300 for the long drive to the Castle Creek Trailhead. The wind in the Front Range was mean, and the snowy-icy interstate from Loveland Pass to Vail was not much nicer. However, from there to Glenwood Springs and Aspen we had no issues.
The road was once again a slick layer of ice as we neared the ghost town of Ashcroft, and it was actually a relief once we were finally on the dirt road leading up from the Castle Creek Trailhead, where there was just a dusting of snow. My jeep forded the first creek crossing with no problem, but as we were halfway up the steep slope opposite the creek, my tires started spinning and my 4WD was useless without chains. I backed up and tried a few times, but to no avail. Finally, I returned across the creek and parked just before it.
I relate all of the above because that had a lot to do with our hike today. Parked at 10,200 feet, we still had several miles and thousands of slippery vertical feet for our approach through Montezuma Basin. The time was 0830 when we finally had all our gear packed and we were on our way. Much of our day would be spent walking that road.
We opted to leave our snowshoes in the jeep, considering there was very little snow as far as we could tell. The higher we went, however, the deeper the snow became. Fortunately, a number of other vehicles had made the ascent of the road earlier this morning, and we were able to walk in the tire tracks the whole way to where the final truck was parked, at about 12,000 feet. From there the road was totally drifted over with deep snow, but some skiers and hikers had already cleared out somewhat of a path ahead of us.
Thus, the walking wasn’t bad for much of the way up the road. However, Betsy’s feet and boots did not agree with each other today, and she was hiking in pain the entire time.
Conditions became much tougher once we reached the 12,800 foot snow-covered 4WD parking area. After a short rest, we pressed on along the trail, which was covered in even deeper powdery snow, and we were postholing like mad. What’s worse, the area contained a mine field of rocks which were an invisible hazard underneath the snow.
The worst section was the flat area leading to the base of the slope between Castle Peak and Conundrum Peak. As we were working our way across this, several skiers were yee-hawing down the snowy slopes above us. Boy did that look like fun! As we continued our ascent, we would see numerous such adventurers, including some impressive wipe-outs! Later we would learn we were the only people in the area today without skis.
Anyway, our main ascent began as we opted to go straight up the outcropping of rocks to the left (east) of the ski slopes. This was surely steep, but it was much easier than postholing our way up the switchbacks to our right. Indeed, we were finally gaining quick altitude, and at last on our way to our main destination.
Betsy’s feet were not getting any better, and she said she was only going to go for Castle Peak. Our plan was to ascend the Conundrum Couloir, summit Conundrum Peak, and then complete our traverse up Castle’s west ridge to its summit. So, we told her to go straight up to the Castle/Conundrum saddle, while we ascended Conundrum, then we would meet her to go up to Castle Peak’s summit together.
Already our plans were beginning to break apart, but Georg and I were both looking forward to ascending the Conundrum Couloir, and that’s what we were really striving for.
As we came to the 13,400-foot basin between Castle and Conundrum, Georg and I began ascending the steep snow slopes toward Conundrum. We had a great deal of discussion about which couloir was the correct one, and we eventually concurred it was the largest, most obvious couloir with a split in it about halfway up and an apparent wall of ice near the top.
Betsy continued her ascent toward the Castle/Conundrum saddle while Georg and I put on our crampons and began our steep ascent in the Conundrum Couloir. With the fairly soft fresh snow, our ice axes were useless most of the way, but the crampons did seem to help a little, though we were incessantly having to knock off all the caking snow from their spikes.
The first section, up to the split in the couloir, was very wide and at a moderate angle. The angle steepened and the chute narrowed as we took the right side of the couloir, and it remained at this grade for perhaps 100 feet before returning to a lesser angle.
It was about here that I stopped to rest a moment and felt a sudden, very sharp pain in all of my fingers. It lasted for a minute or more, and afterwards my body was suddenly sapped of all energy and I became very dizzy. At about 13,800 feet, I was thankful that we had just made it to a shallower grade, because I basically lay prostrate against the snow and hoped I didn’t black out. It was a terrible pain, from allowing my hands to get too cold I presume (though I was wearing gloves), and I imagine the bodily effects were amplified by the altitude. I lay there for about five minutes before slowly and cautiously continuing up the slope behind Georg. I would remain weakened from that experience for the remainder of the climb.
We had taken turns leading, by the way. The leader had a difficult and strenuous job of vertical postholing in the mostly-soft snow, while the follower had a great set of stairs to walk up.
Then we came to the crux of the route: a vertical wall of ice, which tapered down on its right side. Georg decided to go straight up over it, where it was about eight (vertical) feet tall. He got his ice axe into the upper part of the shelf, then slowly and carefully rammed his crampons into the ice wall and made his ascent. I walked up to the wall and made my decision right away: no way! With basically no experience using an ice axe or crampons, the exposure was just too much for me. One slip and I would have been flying down the couloir.
Thus, I decided to try to climb my way around the wall’s right (lowest) side. This, I found, was not much safer. I was basically climbing on steep snow-covered slabs of rock and then over the very edge of the ice wall. I did have one slip but stopped myself, and the ice axe was key to getting around that obstacle. Other than using it to knock the snow off my crampons, this was the only time I used my ice axe today, but I definitely was glad I had it along!
The maximum angle of this couloir’s 600-foot slope, from what I’ve read, reaches 48 degrees. It was definitely a fun first snow-climb for me, and first couloir-climb for both of us. The snow climbing was pretty much over at this point, and we did some steep class two scrambling to make it up to the actual summit of an unofficial fourteener, Conundrum Peak.
It was such a clear day, and the views of the Elk Range were spectacular! Unfortunately, my camera’s batteries decided to run out at this point, and I was not about to take my gloves off with already cold hands and bitter cold, gusting winds hitting us from every side. For this reason, we also did not bother signing in at the register. Having arrived at the summit at 1450, we both decided we were not going to go for Castle Peak today; we had already had plenty of adventure!
Descending the narrow, choppy ridge to the saddle (afraid many times of the wind blowing us off the mountain), we could see Betsy was still far below in the basin. It was a horrid mess of snow on the steep bank below the saddle, and postholing here consisted more of steep downhill waist-deep wading through snow. After all we’d done already, this was quite tiring.
We met Betsy in the basin and she related to us how she had tried to make it to the saddle but that the snow was too deep and upward travel was impossible. Then she tried to make it up the rock cliffs, which were indeed cliffs to her unhappy finding. She was in a tricky spot there but was able to get back down to the basin again safely, where she waited in the cold for us as the wind continued to increase and the sun waned.
Having all decided to call it a day, we first had to descend the steep snow slopes below us. Georg and I did some glissading, which was fun but not as fast as it could have been: the fresh snow made it difficult to gain any speed. Then we made the long event-less trek down the dirt/snow/ice road. Most of the snow was still there until we got down lower. We arrived at the jeep at 1745 and the long drive home involved no ice or snow for a change. Which is a good thing, because I think we all had had enough of that for one day.
Conclusion: I have come to realize it’s not so much the peak I am climbing (i.e., a 14er); it’s the climb itself: the experience, the journey, the adventure, the memories and comradery while in the great outdoors. I just got back from an awesome time with new friends on an arduous hike and snow climb, and I will always fondly remember this first experience in the Elk Range. And just to think, it wasn’t even on a ‘real peak.’