Rotten, horrid, loose, dangerous--even downright shitty. These are all adjectives I have heard used when describing the rock that composes the Elk Range. They are all accurate.
I didn't really have plans to climb Castle Peak this season, but earlier in the week, Nicole let me know that she would be accompanying a group of co-workers of hers up to Conundrum Hot Springs, and that I should consider coming up there as well. What a terrific idea! Not only would I get to spend a couple of nights at the notorious Conundrum Hot Springs, but I would have an excellent opportunity to climb Castle Peak. I made arrangements for a dogsitter, and I was ready to go!
Instead of driving through Glenwood Springs to get to the Castle Creek Road turnoff at Aspen, I decided to go over Independence Pass; I had never driven it before, and I was curious what the hoopla was all about. It was a pleasant drive going up the east side, but then, on one of the switchbacks, I was presented with a great view of La Plata Peak. I didn't even have to look it up; the famous Ellingwood Ridge was instantly recognizable.
It was already looking up to be a fantastic weekend!
Anyhow, I drove over the pass, descended the beautiful west side, drove through Aspen, and arrived at the Conundrum Creek Trailhead, where I fortunately found a spot right next to the gate. Nicole and the rest of the Lockheed Martin group had already hiked in earlier, so I had to make good time to be able to enjoy some time at the campsite. The hike in was spectacular, and also gave me the opportunity to preview some of my summit plans. Here are some views of the hike in:
I made the the 8.5-mile 2400-feet ascent in three hours, arriving at 6pm. Perfect! The rest of the day was spent setting up the tent, some time in the hot springs, and dinner with the Lockheed Martin group, which apparently know how to enjoy themselves. It was a pleasant evening.
Okay, so I already had a route in mind to climb Castle Peak. I was going to climb up the West Face of Castleabra, follow the ridge to Castle Peak, descend into the saddle between Castle Peak and Conundrum Peak, and hike down the unnamed gully west of Castle Peak. About five miles or so; should be easy. Since I wasn't sleeping well, I ended getting up early and starting my casual jaunt at 5am. (I was planning on a 7am start, for such a short hike...)
So! Here I go! I easily hiked past the hot springs to the base of the rock gully of Castleabra's west face. I was quickly introduced to very unpleasant scree! I have 2500 feet of this? Oh well...
Daylight came upon me, which afforded me a good look of Conundrum Pass behind me.
Three quarters of the way up--especially after having to look for handholds and footholds on a scree slope--I had the idea that ascending this scree would be easier near one of the sides, where there should be some solid ground to hold onto. I saw this rock formation in the middle of the scree field, whose lowest point appeared to be giving me the finger!
I'm not sure how smart this next decision was. At some point, I decided that I would rather climb the ridge than further experience the scree field. Although probably more difficult--and still on some loose rock--this was much more fun. However, this is where I also discovered what the "rotten, horrid, loose, dangerous--even downright shitty" rock of the Elk Range was referring to. On one of my first class 3 moves, my right handhold--which was initially attached to the mountain--was suddenly in my hand. I had visions of Wile E. Coyote momentarily suspended in the air staring at a chunk of rock in his hand, just before plummeting 1000s of feet and creating a "dust circle." However, although challenging, from my perspective, the ridge was better than dealing with the scree, and much more fun. Basically, I gave up the scree field for this:
I finally reached the Castleabra summit four hours after my start. This wasn't going to be an easy hike after all!
It was good to finally take a little break and enjoy some of the views! Cathedral Peak:
Conundrum Creek Basin:
The ridge I had to follow to Castle Peak:
AFter a short break, I resumed my "not-so-short-after-all hike" towards Castle Peak. Reputedly, there is a summit register on Castleabra, which I didn't bother to look for, because I don't typically sign them anyway. (I know where I've been.) From Castleabra to Pt 13820 was a relatively pleasant walk, but not long after coming off of Castleabra, the Class 3 fun begins anew. The saddle between Pt 13820 and Castle Peak cliffs out in either direction. Good routefinding is key here. I negotiated the saddle on the south side, because I had better visibility to that side. The only two other gentlemen I saw on the ridge--who were on their way to Castleabra from Castle Peak, and then back--did south side then north side on their way to Castleabra. They summited Pt 13820 rather quickly, so I believe they made the better choice. From this vantage point, and at this time of day, Castleabra looks inviting.
However, the cliff bands on the ridge to Castle Peak, did not look quite as inviting.
Also, from here, the saddle between Castle Peak and Conundrum Peak doesn't look that bad:
After circumventing the cliff bands around the north side--which although easier, were by no means easy--I finally summited Castle Peak. Two and half hours after leaving Castleabra! This ridge had been fun!
From the summit of Castle Peak, the rest of the majestic Elk Range is fully visible! From left to right, you can see the Maroon Bells--including the famous traverse between the bells--Snowmass Mountain (in white rock just behind North Maroon,) Thunder Pyramid, Capitol Peak (in white rock, all the way in the back, and Pyramid Peak.
There is also a good view of the Conundrum Couloir, which after negotiating Elk Range rock, is a very enticing route to climb Conundrum Peak on next year. (I couldn't see anyone climb this couloir, although there still appeared to be quite a bit of snow on it for such late summer day...) This picture also gives the illusion that Cathedral Peak is taller than Conundrum Peak, although it obviously is not.
I was also able to identify Mount of the Holy Cross, Mount Massive, Mount Elbert, La Plata Peak, and several of the other southward Sawatch Range peaks. Unfortunately, the viewfinder on my cool underwater capable camera had somehow developed a crack, and I couldn't adequately use the zoom function. (I hope it is still under warranty!) This lofty perch rewards you with some incredible views, and I had to tear myself away to begin my descent, which no longer looked that easy:
Descending towards the nadir of the saddle between Castle Peak and Conundrum Peak, I came upon what I would describe as a blind Class 4 drop on precarious rock. It was the scariest moment all day.
I didn't see it then, but after looking at the picture, I wonder why I didn't realize I could just circumvent the drop around the west side...sigh...
On the way up to Castle, I could see many locations on my planned descent that cliffed out. Since I already knew it was a huge scree field, I knew that I had to carefully pick my descent so as to not end up on a "ball-bearing" slope over a cliff. As it turns out, descending this scree field was much more tedious than I expected.
Nearing the base of the scree field, I knew from studying the map all week that I wanted to circumvent the heavy vegetation areas around the south side. I guess at this point nearing exhaustion, I was even dumber than usual, and when I didn't just plod through the vegetation, I veered right (north) instead. Although descendable, it is not only much more difficult, but also increases the probability that you will intersect Conundrum Creek at a cliff (as I did). I managed to ford the creek with only one wet foot. (Dead trees half underwater tend to fall apart quickly!) Twenty minutes of serious bushwacking later, I was on the Conundrum Hot Springs trail, and back to my campsite ten minutes after that. It was 5pm, twelve hours after setting out. I'm glad I couldn't sleep that well, or I would've made it back after dark!
By the way, I had an awesome campsite location!
Right next to Conundrum Creek...um...except for the elevation difference. I like camping next to rushing water, because the "white noise" tends to drown out all other noise except for the noise I really need to pay attention to.
After eating a relatively enormous meal amidst the Lockheed Martin gang, I of course headed up to the hot springs to recuperate from all the bruises and cuts I had received during my "easy little hike." The hot springs were abuzz with jovial banter! There was even one lady from a group of six which had visited the hot springs for 18 consecutive years! It certainly was a very entertaining time.
Once I finally looked like an albino prune-like figure, I decided to get out. There was quite a party going on now! People had brought wine, tequila, and even home-brewed beer!
A really beautiful sunset was clearly visible north of the hot springs:
I don't recall when I finally hit the sack, but I do know I didn't have that much trouble sleeping this night, as I woke up at 7am. I had breakfast, packed all 42 pounds of my gear, and after a brief stop to say thank you and goodbye to the Lockheed Martin crowd, I proceeded to the trailhead 8.5 miles north of me. Surprisingly, after the workout the previous day, it only took me two hours and fifteen minutes.
Okay, so I know there routes up the east side of Castle Peak that are much easier--some even have trails all the way up--but I'm certain that the sense of accomplishment I know feel would be quite diminished had I taken one of those. From Nicole's invitation, I created an opportunity of an adventurous self-discovery that I will certainly remember each time I see a Roadrunner cartoon! (Beep! Beep!)
-Hike (distance) into Conundrum Hot Springs: 8.5 miles
-Hike (elevation gain) into Conundrum Hot Springs: 2400 feet
-Hike (time) into Conundrum Hot Springs: 3 hours
-Hike (time) out of Conundrum Hot Springs: 2.25 hours
-Climb (distance) Castleabra-Castle Peak tour: 6 miles
-Climb (elevation gain) Castleabra-Castle Peak tour: 5180 feet
-Climb (time) Castleabra-Castle Peak tour: 12 hours
-Time spent in Conundrum Hot Springs: Um...stopped caring after the first three minutes...
-Thoroughly test all your handhold and footholds in the Elk Range!
-Class 3 routes take much longer than Class 1 routes!
-When near exhaustion, take your time to making wise decisions to avoid hasty wrong decisions.
-Even if the water in the hot springs is hot, wet clothes can get pretty darn cold in a hurry. (This certainly supports enjoying the hot springs "commando" style, as many visitors did.)
-I don't like scree.
-It's amazing the music that runs through my head while climbing; I distinctly recall Rush (I just saw them at Red Rocks on 8/8), some Salsa band, some Heavy Metal band, and I probably shouldn't admit the Village People ("In the Navy?" Really? What brought that on?)
-Conundrum Hot Springs can be more than a curious adventure; some people approach it as a tradition or even a culture!
-I don't like scree.
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