Intro/StatsCastle Pk (14265’)
Conundrum Pk (14060')
18 miles RT, 5500’ gain
January 2, 2012
From Ashcroft winter road closure (9460’)
Participants: Ken Nolan, Jean Aschenbrenner, Terri Horvath, John Prater, & Kevin Baker (although I’m solo most of the day)
Winter in Colorado thus far has started out very dry, which means opportunities abound to snag the harder 14ers in winter. It’s amazing how conditions can be so different from one year to the next. Castle Peak is an aptly named summit that is well guarded in winter. The standard route crosses numerous avalanche paths in Montezuma Basin and one must pick a time when stable conditions exist to safely pass through what has been called the “Valley of Death”. Stable conditions are rare as the range is routinely hammered by storms. I don’t think I would venture in this basin even when the avalanche risk is moderate. I had Castle on the short list for possible winter ascents this year, and when Dominic and Sarah said it was a very reasonable day with very low avy risk after a successful climb the week before, I pounced! What better way to start off the new year than to snag my first Elks winter 14er!
Castle is the easiest 14er in the Elks by far, but in winter one must start all the way from the winter closure gate at Ashcroft. This makes for about an 18 mile day including Conundrum! I got an email from Ken saying that he was shooting for an overnite on Castle with Jean and Terri. Great to hear I would have company! I also got word that Superman John was going to take a shot at Castle the same day after a successful climb of Pyramid the day before. He pulled up just as I was about to hit the sack in my 4runner and said he would start later than me.
Could It Be This Easy?
I hadn’t hiked in 2 weeks and figured I would be slow, so a 5:30am start was in order. Better to hike up the road in the dark in the morning than at the end of the day! It was a brisk 13 degrees when I started and the stars were out in full force, a good sign of a bluebird day ahead. I cruised the road, which in some spots was bare early on. There was a snowmobile track all the way to the Pearl Pass cutoff, which made for smooth sailing. I was feeling pretty good even though I hadn’t done much at altitude lately, and made it to the Pearl Pass cutoff in a bit under 2 hours. The road steepens a lot above the intersection as it zigs its way up to Montezuma Basin. I saw Ken’s familiar tent just a bit above the intersection and the road was tracked so well that snowshoes were not necessary. I eventually put them on for traction when the road starts sidehilling across some steep slopes.
When conditions are suspect, following the road would be like Russian Roulette. I recited Psalms 23 as I crossed the steep slopes, but there was nothing to worry about today. (“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy axe and thy trecking pole, they comfort me.”) I’m sure Ken has quoted that a few times when the banshees are chasing him in the hills. Today the risk of a slide on south facing slopes was nil, although I had to watch out for any falling rocks coming off the cliffs of Malemute above.
Chutes of death, although the danger is nil today!
The sidehilling up the road got to be annoying, but I wasn’t complaining because there was absolutely no trail breaking! I followed Ken’s tracks up the upper basin as they climbed a lower angle gully to the left of the larger lower bowl .
The gully I climbed is left of center, and was mostly bulletproof:
I crested a notch at the top of the slope and saw Ken’s group just starting out on the northeast ridge. At this time of year, the standard route up the bowl to the Castle/Conundrum saddle is very suspect and is usually loaded in the winter. We would have to climb the northeast ridge and return over Castle on the way back from Conundrum. I had done about 4000 vertical with no food break, so I stopped here and fueled up for the push to the summit. I put on microspikes for the ridge as there likely would be some sections of ice.
The northeast ridge of Castle:
The northwest facing slope up to the ridge is wind blasted and we could easily follow the trail, which made for a quick ascent to the ridge. This was my 3rd time up this ridge and the first time I turned around in a Sept snow storm in low visibility just 200 vertical from the summit. This time it was a bluebird winter day and the snow on the ridge kept you on your toes enough to keep things interesting. I pretty much followed the crest of the ridge with a few short traverses below it on the right. There is one section of the ridge that is a little narrow with some big drops off to the left. The exposure on the ridge is hardly noticed in summer.
Some brief exposure on the ridge:
As I crested a bump on the ridge, I saw Ken, Jean, and Terri negotiating the crux of the climb, which is a little 3rd class step that was a lot more attention getting in winter. I got my axe out for this last section and celebrated with Ken’s gang on the summit, topping out at around 10:40. This was my first winter summit in the Elks, and it was a glorious day indeed, feeling almost spring like at times. We could see John making his way up to the n.e. ridge and knew that he would catch us soon.
Ken, Jean, and Teri about to negotiate the crux:
We all felt good enough to continue onto Conundrum, which is a nice little side trip. We were able to follow the trail down to the saddle and made quick work of Conundrum as Ken led the way.
Nice views down the Conundrum Couloir!
We took a long break on Conundrum and John topped out about 15 minutes after we arrived. The 500 foot reclimb of Castle wasn’t too bad and we were soon back on the summit to soak up the views again.
John enjoys some winter glory:
Not too many get to visit high summits in the Elks in winter, but Castle has seen a lot more visitors this winter with the stable conditions.
John high tailed it down to get home to see his family as he would have the benefit of skis on the road and I left Ken’s group below the crux. I carefully made my way back down the ridge and back to the snowshoe stash at the notch. The hike out was long, but I wasn’t as beat as expected as I did a good job downing food and fluids throughout the day. I got to the truck at about 4:30, happy to sneak into Montezuma Basin in a rare weather window where conditions were great!