Some of my recent trip reports have focused on my changed impressions of areas that I had previously dismissed for varying reasons. Here is another. This trip report is at once an acknowledgement that I was wrong, an exhortation to others not to make the same mistake, and an encouragement to all to get out here and personally experience the magic of the Elk Range.
In a trip report on Static Peak in the Tetons
, I wrote that the Tetons had long turned me off because of their crowds, their overused images, and the pretentiousness of Jackson. Well, I could say essentially the same things here by just substituting the Elks for the Tetons and Aspen for Jackson. And, again, I would be wrong, about the mountains, anyway.
The Maroon Bells belong in any debate about this country’s and maybe even the world’s most beautiful mountains. They also appear in advertisements, calendars, and postcards ad nauseam
. One can therefore tire of these mountains very easily without ever setting foot in them, without even seeing them with his own eyes, in fact.
A bad, bad idea.
Snowmass Lake, where I began to realize there might be a bit more to the Elks than the tired image of the Maroon Bells from Maroon Lake
In August 2000, I hiked to Snowmass Lake, a very popular Elk destination, but at least not one so endlessly shown as to lose its ability to thrill and inspire. The quiet I enjoyed almost the entire time and the stunning scenery at the lake itself forced me to admit that there was more to the Elks than I had been willing to concede. When I visited Colorado in 2004 with the intention of climbing the highest fourteeneer in each of the state’s fourteener-bearing ranges (I ended up doing those six plus thirteen others over nineteen days spent in Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming), Castle Peak therefore called. Armed with hiking boots, peakbagging hunger, and ice axe and crampons (neither of which I had used before), I answered.
The Roof of the Elks
Castle (left) and the snowfields Conundrum Peak and the Conundrum Couloir as seen from the snowfields Castle Peak from the Castle-Conundrum saddle
At first, I thought that maybe the Elks were rejecting me for all the bad remarks I’d made about them. On the day I reached Castle Creek Road, a torrential thunderstorm raged all through the late afternoon and into the evening. I had wanted to drive all the way to Montezuma at 12,800’ and make the climb a simple one, but Castle Creek was too swift and deep for me to risk taking my rented SUV through; instead, I parked at one of the campsites before the ford and got settled down for the night. It was still raining heavily when I fell asleep.
By early morning, though, the rain had stopped, though the sky was still overcast. I drove to the ford again, but the swollen crossing still seemed too deep, so I parked nearby, got all my equipment and supplies together, and started out over the footbridge. It was about an hour before dawn.
It took about an hour to reach the road’s end just past Montezuma, and by then the sun was up, clouds were moving out, and I was admiring the unimaginably beautiful high country of the Elks--- a realm of steep, rugged, and bare rock; silvery waterfalls; snowfields; and alpine wildflowers. The real Elks were so much better than the postcard impressions and my memories from my drive out to Maroon Lake back in 1996, the year of my first trips into the great American West. Had I simply hiked to Montezuma and back and done nothing more, I still would have walked away a convert to the allure of the Elks, which vie with the San Juans for the honor of being Colorado’s most beautiful and challenging range.
Shortly after reaching the end of the road, I got out the ice axe and put on the crampons, quickly getting a feel for the devices even though I couldn’t quite figure out (and still haven’t) how to adjust the crampons so that they would not loosen and slip off. That first snow slope was somewhat steep but short and easy, and I wondered what all the hullabaloo about the snow climb was. But then I entered the basin below Castle and saw the snow slopes; the novice snow climber in me gulped a little bit but felt mostly excited.
I had no trouble getting up. The snow slopes are moderately steep and wide open, and there is therefore little danger (in summer) from avalanches and ice. My only trouble, if you could call it that, was in keeping myself from stopping every five or six steps to gape at the scenery and shoot off all my film before reaching the summit. One of only two errors I made was in heading for the lowest point of the Castle-Conundrum ridge as suggested in Gerry Roach’s book. Had I gone straight west instead of angling northwest, I would have had steeper climbing but could have followed continuous snow all the way to the ridge instead of dealing with the loose, muddy scree below the Castle-Conundrum saddle. The wish to avoid that scree on the descent was why I took the Northeast Ridge route back down from Castle instead of climbing Conundrum after Castle and returning the way I came (I didn’t want to downclimb the Conundrum Couloir), and skipping Conundrum was my other mistake. I rationalized my decision by reminding myself that Conundrum is not an “official” fourteener, but that hasn’t sat well with me over time. Now I feel I must get back to climb Conundrum. That’s not such a bad thing to have to do, though.
From the saddle, the Class 2 trek to Castle’s summit was easy. The view, trite as this sounds, was breathtaking. Standing atop the Elks’ highpoint, I could see all the other Elk fourteeners--- Pyramid, the Maroon Bells, Snowmass, and Capitol (and Conundrum, of course)--- plus the centennial thirteeners Thunder Pyramid, Castleabra, and Cathedral. The view ignited a passion to climb the Maroons for the challenge and for the view, a much harder undertaking than Castle but not (by description, at least) as bad as some of the other things I’ve done. When or even if I’ll climb them I can’t say, but even if I don’t, my climb of Castle has turned me into an admirer of the Maroons and all the Elks, and that, over time, will mean more to me. And I hope, even more so, to explore the remote, beautiful area around Capitol Peak someday, where one of Colorado’s few pockets of truly wild mountain wilderness lies.
The Elk fourteeners from Castle-- please click for IDs Conundrum from Castle
The standard route up Castle is a great way to learn a little about snow climbing without putting yourself at major risk. The experience and confidence I gained on the route have helped me climb harder snow slopes since in the Sierra Nevada and the Wasatch Mountains. I took the Northeast Ridge, a rocky Class 2+ route, back down, and I did a fun glissade once that route joined the snow slopes above Montezuma. Speeding down the snow while others trudge slowly up it next to you is always a cool experience.
Some words about the road--- some SP members have described the road as being easy or as a good 4WD road. I would say they are both right and wrong. For the most part, the road, though steep and rough and often very narrow, is usually free of major obstacles, but there are two places to exercise extra caution. The first is a chewed-up area shortly after the second creek crossing (that one is bridged). I drove up the road in 2005 in my Nissan Xterra, and when I went through that rough spot, I was glad I had skid plates. I’m not sure I would want to take a vehicle without similar protection, though. The second spot is right at the very end, where the road becomes extremely narrow and there are some large potholes and rocks to negotiate. Make every effort to make sure no one is coming the other way when you take on this stretch; there is no room to turn around, and in most places it is too tight for two vehicles to get by.