Posted by: joshrduncan | August 20, 2012

2012-06-22 Castle and Conundrum Peaks

In time of trouble . . . He shall set me upon a rock.  Psalms 27:5

  • SUMMIT ELEVATION(s): 14,265 feet and
  • TRAILHEAD: Castle Creek, Approximately 0.4 miles from junction with Pearl Pass at @ 10,900 feet
  • ROUTE: Northeast Ridge
  • ELEVATION GAIN: 3,650 feet
  • ROUND-TRIP LENGTH: 9.5 miles
  • ROUND-TRIP TIME:  8.0 hours
  • CLIMBING PARTNER(S):  Matt and Betsy


Oh, climbing new 14ers… how I had missed you.  It had been awhile since you and I had spent some time together.  In fact, it was August of last year since we truly spent some quality time together.  I had actually forgotten what you look like!  “We need you.  Heck, I need you.  I’m a mess without you.  I miss you so dang much!  I miss being with you.  I miss being near you. I miss your laugh!  I miss your scent.   I miss your musk…When this all gets sorted out, I think you and me should get an apartment together!”  I love Anchorman and felt this quote was perfect.

I had not climbed a new 14er in some time.  The last peak I had the pleasure of summitting was Mount Sneffels.  It was with my little sister and that was last August. Since then I had ventured to above 14,000 feet on peaks I previously summitted and that I am familiar with; however, I have missed the adventure of new terrain, the thrill of a new mountain, and the exhilaration of a fresh summit.

This last year had flown by like a no other one that I can remember.  It had been filled with so many great memories.  I was married last September to the most beautiful woman, on the inside and out, that I know.  My wife and I purchased our first house together, which added an exciting component to our first year together.  I started a photography business as a side project from my daily life as a water resource engineer.  The photography fulfills the creative side of my mind that isn’t always accessed as an engineer.  The list goes on even further.  God has blessed me with some amazing, positive moments and memories.

With the good sometimes comes the bad though.  That very idea is represented in the physical component of climbing; peaks and valley.  There are easy portions and then there are difficult segments.  In my mind, the good and the bad are blessings from God as well; that is if we allow them to be and our perspective is in the right place.  I will be rigorously honest though, I don’t always view them that way.  It is especially hard for me to view them that way as I am going through them.  I imagine I am not alone in that way of thinking and feeling.

With all of the amazing blessings this last year had bestowed upon me, this has also been a difficult and trying year with work.  Unfortunately, I let those difficult times bleed into my personal life.  I guess I had a hard time letting work be work; a hard time of letting go of things.  The challenge at work caused me to question who I am.  Am I a honest man with integrity? Am I a man willing to fight for what I believe is right?  Do I have the strength to persevere?  This year has answered a lot of those questions for me.  To be honest, I am thankful for my climbing experiences because it had provided me firsthand experiences that I relied upon immensely.  It’s given a valuable perspective. Without them, I am not sure I would truly know what being courageous, persevering, and overcoming obstacles may require.

As it had been some time since my previous climb, I had doubts regarding my ability.  I belive this was one of the side effects from my last year.  Unfair and unyielding attacks from external sources made me begin to question myself which lead me to question my ability.  I guess I would say that I lacked confidence and thus it made me doubt who I was.  Honestly, I was fearful that I had lost my physical and mental capability to climb.  I didn’t trust in myself enough to believe that I could accomplish climbing another 14er.  This feeling had happened to me before, typically at the beginning of each climbing summer; but this year was different.  There were several factors for this; work being the obvious one.  But I also had some of the most difficult peaks remaining.  That was frightening in itself.   Peaks like Capitol, Little Bear, Pyramid, the Wilson Group, the Maroon Bells and the Crestone’s are all summits that I pray to enjoy.  But these peaks are not easy and deserve respect.  Oh, it should be an interesting summer.

Through the struggle I found myself rereading the scripture Psalms 27:5 – “In the time of trouble…He shall set me upon a rock.”  To get to the point, this trip to Castle and Conundrum was to revive the desire, squash the doubt, and to feel alive in a way that only the thrill of a climb can give me.  My climb of Castle and Conundrum accomplished all that and more…

The Climb…

Castle Peak and Conundrum Peak are situated in the Elk Mountains.  The Elk Mountains are rugged, rotten mountains comprised of some of the most spectacular peaks in the United States.  Castle and Conundrum Peak are the southernmost peaks within the Elk Mountains.  Castle Peak rises to 14,265 feet in elevation and Conundrum Peak is situated 14,060 feet.

For this hike, I easily recruited my co-worker Matt and his fiancée Betsy.  Neither of them had ever climbed a 14er but were excited for the opportunity.  Furthermore, they didn’t appear to be fearful of the Difficult Class II designation.

Our plan was to take off from work on Thursday and head up Castle Creek.  We would take my Jeep Liberty as far as I felt comfortable, camp, and then climb Castle and Conundrum on Friday.  We planned on taking the Northeast Ridge route, which is the standard route.  This would take us up Castle Peak first and then we would traverse along the ridgeline to Conundrum Peak.  From Conundrum Peak, we would descend the saddle between the two peaks.  The Difficult Class II hike would require approximately 3,600 feet of vertical elevation gain and 9.5 miles of hiking.  This hike would also require us to navigate through snowfields in order to achieve these mountains.

We successfully left Denver at 4:30 pm on Thursday and made our way up the mountains. We drove over one of my favorite passes in Colorado, Independence Pass.  As always, it was such a beautiful place and made the drive fun.  We arrived in Aspen around 7:00 pm and attempted to find a decent and inexpensive place to eat.  Although Aspen is significantly wealthy, I thought it would still have some places meeting our expectations.  However, this was Aspen…everything just seems to be a little nicer, a lot more expensive, and it is not your typical mountain town.  I should have known better.  After searching, we finally asked a local and he told us of a pizza joint in the middle of town.  It was perfect and had incredible New York style pizza.  We ended up leaving Aspen around 8 pm and began our journey up towards Castle Creek.

We arrived at the Castle Creek lower trailhead shortly after 8:30 pm.  We then began the journey up the 4WD trail (FR102) that parallels the drainageway. Approximately 1.3 miles up the road we encountered a creek crossing.  The stream widens out at the crossing so the flow depth was approximately 4 to 6 inches in depth.  The difficult piece to the crossing was the entrance and exit.  There was a small rock ledge on both sides that confined the creek.  This required a slow drop down into the creek to avoid bottoming out the Jeep.  It wasn’t horrible but just required caution.  Nonetheless, the Liberty handled it and we continued up.

As we continued driving up the trail, I told Matt and Betsy about stories I have read regarding porcupines. I had explained to them that I previously read on that porcupines were known for ransacking cars and sometimes peoples gear.  I explained that for some reason porcupines are attracted to brake lines and salt.  I read firsthand stories of people who had their brake lines cut by porcupines and they had to either have their vehicle towed (if even possible) or pay for a mechanic to fix their vehicle where it was.  Either option was not cheap.  Telling the story made me realize I had forgot to bring the chicken wire I had purchased as a perimeter defense for the Jeep.  What I didn’t realize was what was in store for me later in the evening.

We ended up driving approximately 2.6 miles up the 4WD road.  It was approximately 0.4 miles from the Pearl Pass junction and an estimated elevation of 10,900 feet.  We arrived later than anticipated as it was now approximately 10:00 pm.  Because it was late in the evening, I decided to car camp in the Liberty in lieu of setting up my tent for a short sleep.  I had never car camped before.  What can I say, it was late and I was lazy.  I barely fit in the Liberty and actually had to keep my legs on the center console if I wanted to be fully extended.  My 6-2 height was really not conducive to car camping, especially in a Jeep.  Although not the most comfortable as I am too tall, I was thankful I did.

I went to bed at about 11:00 pm.  It took a little while to get comfortable. As I entered into sleep-you know the point where you are technically sleeping and your mind functions at 5% awake-I heard a unique sound.  The sound was like a “click, click”.  That is the best description I have.   At first, I thought my mind was imagining things.  I thought I was dreaming.  Then I heard it again…”click, click”.  Now, the mind games really began.  I started to wake up now and I really disliked being woken from sleep so quickly.  I knew I heard something.   At first I thought it was maybe a chipmunk outside the car.  I shined my headlamp towards the window and was blinded by the reflecting light.  I thought to myself “nice work smarty”.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to see outside the vehicle so I waited to see if it happened again.

“Click, click”…ok, at this point I realized it was likely coming from under the vehicle.  “Click, click, click…”  I started to shake the car and it stopped for about 3 minutes.  Then it began again… “click, click!”  At this point I knew there was something under the vehicle, that my mind was not hearing things and that I  needed to find out what it was.  So, I mobilized and went into action.

Prior to exiting the Jeep, I got my knife out, my trekking fully extended and grab athletic tape in the event I needed to create a make-shift spear.  I was ready for war.  I figured if it was  between me, the Jeep, and a porcupine; the porcupine was going down.  I opened the door to the Jeep (and this is a little embarrassing to admit) and jumped as far as I could away from the Jeep.  I wanted to be safe in case a porcupine attacked.  Please remember, at this point I still didn’t know what I was dealing with!

After jumping to safety, I slowly and bravely looked under the Jeep.  To my amazement and complete displeasure, I saw a tail and only a tail.  A porcupine had literally climbed up and decided to snuggle with the undercarriage of my Jeep.  It was getting ready to comfortably rest while using my brake line as a pacifier.  At this point, I decided to wake up Matt just in case I needed some reinforcements for what was about to go down!  Matt awoke to my voice and was surprised when I told him there was a porcupine under the Jeep.  He said “Seriously?”.

As Matt examined the situation, he actually thought that what we were seeing was a small pine branch that somehow got stuck in the undercarriage of the Jeep.  I thought sarcastically, “we didn’t drive over any trees to get here!”  At that point, I took my trekking pole and hit the metal plate adjacent to the tail.  All of a sudden, the tail came alive.   Slowly the porcupine revealed itself by climbing down from the undercarriage of the Jeep.  I never realized how big porcupines are until I had this showdown with one.  They are big, at least this one was big.  The porcupine just looked at me, turned and then slowly walked away.  It didn’t run.  It didn’t appeared scared.  It looked mad that I had inconvenienced his warmth and ability to chew on my the wires of my vehicle.  Sorry for inconveniencing you porcupine!

After the porcupine casually strolled away, I completed a post porcupine encounter inspection of the vehicle.  Luckily I didn’t see any car fluids beneath the vehicle.  So I fired up the vehicle to make sure it ran okay.   I figured I would complete a more comprehensive inspection during the daylight but I at least wanted a little peace of mind knowing the car may be ok.  I then hunkered down and hoped to get some sleep before my 5:00 am wakeup call… It was wishful thinking.

Approximately 2 hours later I awoke to a familiar sound… “click, click!”.  I thought to myself “you have got to be kidding me, again!”  I decided not to mess around.  I grabbed my trekking pole, my knife and my keys.  Sorry porcupine, but I was done with your shenanigans!  First I fired up the Jeep hoping it would scare it off.  Then I got out of the Jeep and investigated under the Jeep.  By this time, it was long gone; turning on the Jeep had worked.  I then pillaged the forest looking for down tree branches and logs to pile around the vehicle.  I realized that it probably wasn’t going to be effective if the porcupine came back but I decided it was better than nothing.  I then attempted to go back to sleep; however, sleep was hard to come by when I was constantly on edge.

The rest of the night, I guess now morning, went without further incident.

I easily awoke to my alarm at 5:00 am.  I actually was already awake and just biding my time until it went off so that we could begin our day.  The three of us quickly assembled and we began our journey towards the summits of Castle Peak and Conundrum at 6:00 am.

The beginning of this hike was very simple and along an old mining road.  Debris and remnants of mining lay along the roads edge in places.  What amazed me was the wild Columbine flowers.  They were abundant and flourishing.  I do not recall ever seeing so many Columbines before. I also realized how beautiful the basin and valley were.  There were numerous waterfalls and the mountains provided a spectacular backdrop.

As we hiked along the road, we still could not see Castle Peak as it was hidden behind its own ridgeline and its smaller siblings.  We hiked along the defined abandoned mining road from 10,900 feet to approximately 12,800 feet before we hit our first obstacle of the day, a large snow field headwall.  The headwall often remains covered by snow throughout much of the year.  This headwall has a moderate to high avalanche condition depending on the conditions so care should be exercised when navigating this terrain.  It is also moderately steep but the snow makes it concerning, especially without the proper equipment.

We exercised a lot of caution when we started up this portion of the hike as we did not have crampons or microspikes.  This was also the first time Matt and Betsy had climbed a snow field.  I was feeling nervous for them as I considered it a fairly intense snow climb for a beginner and a fall could send them sliding quite some distance and into a boulder field.  I taught Matt and Betsy how to methodically overcome the snow, that it was important to dig your feet in and test your foothold before shifting your entire weight.  I was not sure I was helpful but I figured I would let them know.  I didn’t want to spend more time on the snow field than necessary so we navigated to our climbers left where talus awaited.  This was the short, more direct route off the snow.  Because we didn’t have microspikes, we traversed back and forth in order to acquire the rock.  Microspikes would have been nice and I regret not bringing mine but we were able to safely acquire the talus.

It unfortunately was loose and moderately steep once on the talus and off the snow.  We used additional caution up the headwall to avoid rockfall.  This path felt more secure than the snow.

We reached the top of the headwall at approximately 13,300 feet at 8:05 am.  We decided to take a short break and fuel up.  We were greeted to the breathtaking view of Castle and Conundrum Peaks accompanied by its intriguing ridgeline and unique sinkhole. The basin felt like an enormous amphitheater.  I also obtained my initial view of our descent route from the saddle of Castle and Conundrum Peaks into the large snowfield and sinkhole beneath it.  Approximately 75% of the route was covered by snow, which provided an opportunity to glissade, but it looked steep; in my mind it looked really steep for when I considered Matt and Betsy and the limited (I think actually zero) experience they had glissading.  I questioned if I was going to feel comfortable going down this and so I put myself in their shoes in order to gain perspective.   I would have been extremely fearful looking at the descent route of this mountain thinking of it as my first and second 14er.  I would have also asked myself, what did I get myself into and why did I decide to follow this guy!  From our vantage point, I wasn’t sure if we were going to stick to our original plan.  I knew we needed to get closer and wait to fully assess it from the saddle.

After our short break, we began our ascent from the basin to the Northeast Ridge of Castle Peak.  A formal trail was carved into the rocky side of the mountain and clearly guided our way up the mountain.  This engraved trail was pronounced and I personally thought it was visually intriguing.  We ascended from 13,300 feet and acquired the Northeast Ridge at elevation 13,700 feet.  From there, the remainder of the hike was along the ridgeline to the summit.

The ridge of Castle Peak is actually quite fun.  It is considered Difficult Class II terrain, but I felt as though there were definitely some Class III scrambling moves.  I am no expert and that is just my opinion.  Nonetheless, it was fun.  I also think Matt and Betsy were really enjoying this part of the climb and now embracing the experience of climbing a 14er.

As we ascended Castle Peak, I was truly treated to the most beautiful views of the Elk Mountains I have ever had.  From the ridge, I could see the spectacular Maroon Bells, the formidable Pyramid Peak, the massive Snowmass Mountain, and the daunting and intimidating Capitol Peak.  They were all grouped together so perfectly.  It motivated me to reach the summit even more.

Along the ridge, we reached the small false summit approximately 250 feet below the summit.  From here we could see the remaining route to the summit.  We were almost there.  We descended from the small false summit and began our ascent.

We hiked the final pitch to acquire the summit of Castle Peak at approximately 9:20 am.  This was my 41st 14er and my first 14er in the Elk Mountain range.  It was a beautiful, perfect morning.  This was also Matt and Betsy’s first 14er.  Congratulations to the two of you.  I am lucky to have shared in your first 14er.  Thank you for letting me be a part of that.

We enjoyed the summit together with 5 other people.  They were introduced to my typical celebration of a Fat Tire, pictures and a little prayer to myself.  They were also treated to a common celebration of 14er summiteers with the Which Wich sandwich bag.  You may not know this, I didn’t until I started seeing people do this on summit, but if you take a picture on the summit of a 14er holding a Which Wich sandwich bag, they will give you a free sub.  One of our fellow 14er climbers had a Which Wich bag and gave our group one to photograph with.  Matt, Betsy and I all took our individual shots with the bag.  This was the first and likely the last time I will do that.  I still have yet to claim my free sub.

After approximately 20 minutes on the summit, we decided to leave.  We had another peak to reach…  ConundrumPeak, here we come.

We began the traverse towards Conundrum by descending Castle Peak along the ridgeline.  The ridge was definitely loose but manageable.  It was similar to the headwall we had previously climbed but this portion at least had a more defined route.  In particular areas, I choose to stay on some of the rock outcrops for the enjoyment of climbing.  Matt and Betsy followed suit.  They were troopers and I was impressed by their resolve and the enjoyment they were having on these mountains.

I arrived in the saddle, which was at an elevation of 13,790 feet, ahead of Matt and Betsy.  I wanted to get there and scope out our possible descent route.  From the saddle, it looked better than my initial view.  It is amazing how perspectives can change one’s assessment of a situation.  It was still steep and we would have to exercise care, but I thought it would be achievable.  I wanted to get Matt and Betsy’s opinion of it first before we collectively made a decision.  The alternative would be to reascend approximately 450 vertical feet to the summit of Castle.

Matt arrived at the saddle a little before Betsy.  I asked him how he and Betsy were doing.  He stated good and he was amazed at how difficult climbing a 14er was.  I asked him about Conundrum Peak and he initially stated that they may just wait in the saddle and forgo the summit. Matt was being considerate and I think protective of his fiancée.  You are a good man Matt.  Betsy then approached and we asked her if she wanted to climb Conundrum.  Without any hesitation she said yes!  Sweet!  You are a true trooper Betsy and I appreciate your enthusiasm.

We decided to wait to make a decision on our descent route until we returned to the saddle.  By then, a couple climbers ahead of us were likely going to descend the saddle so we wanted to see how they did.  So, we continued onwards towards Conundrum Peak.

The ascent up Conundrum Peak was fairly obvious as a defined trail guided our way.  Our route continued to progress over loose talus material consistent with everything else on Castle Peak.  We passed the small rock outcrop and made it to the ridgeline of the first false summit.  The ridge was flat, thin and long at approximately 14,000 feet.  It dropped off on both sides so the view from the ridge to the west was dramatic.

The wind made its presence known once on the ridge.  Up till that point I do not recall even a small breeze but once we were on the ridge, it was pretty windy. We continued on the ridge until we reached the false summit.  From the false summit we dropped approximately 50 feet to the notch.  This is where the Conundrum Couloir connects the ridge.  The Conundrum Couloir is a classic snow ascent that one day I would like to attempt.  From the notch, we ascended the remaining portion to the summit of Conundrum Peak.

We arrived to the intense summit of Conundrum Peak at approximately 10:30 am.  It was downright WINDY!  The summit is actually pretty small so it felt like we had to be careful not to get blown off the mountain.  I actually struggled getting my Fat Tire shot because my can kept getting blown over.  Actually, at one point my can fell over and a small puncture hole was created when it hit a rock.  Fat Tire was squirting from the side of the can.  It made for a different and I think interesting Fat Tire shot.  Capturing the Fat Tire spurting from the can is just another memory stored for me!

It appeared as though Matt and Betsy were both intimated by the wind and rightfully so.  They were hovering low to the mountain and were always keeping three points of contact.  We only stayed on the summit for a few minutes so we could take cover from the crazy wind.

We quickly made it back to the saddle at 10:55 am. At this point, three guys were making their way up the route.  They were originally doing a snow climb and were deceived by the mountain into thinking there was a couloir to ascend towards the ridge of Castle that would daylight along the traverse.  However, there was no access but fortunately they were able to make their way along the base of the cliff wall to our descent route.  They had to work hard to ascend the steep, very loose scree.  We waited patiently for them to ascend.  At this point, Matt and Betsy decided they would give this route a go.  I was thankful because I really didn’t care to ascend Castle Peak again unless we had too.

We systematically descended the steep route.  The route required us to spread out and really be focused.  The small material slid beneath your feet so we would have a hard time not creating a rock slide on this material.  As such, I would ride the rock slide slowly down the mountain.  I would then plant my feet and butt in the event it started to move fast.  The material reminded me of the traverse between Harvard and Columbia Peaks.

The most difficult portion of this segment was a small cliff that required us to downclimb.  It wasn’t horrible but a fall here would really hurt.  Once through the cliff, we were basically at the top of the snow field.  Once again, we were really careful as we entered the top of the snow field.  This would not be a place you would want to fall as you would slide, and slide fast for that matter, for approximately 500 feet towards the sinkhole.  Along the way, you would have to avoid the large boulders that have fallen from above and are sporadically positioned throughout.

At this point, I gave Betsy my ice axe and Matt one of my trekking poles.  I was planning on teaching Matt and Betsy how to do a controlled glissade.  As I started my instruction, I unfortunately didn’t have my backpack on correctly so I found myself starting to slide down the mountain as I fought to strap my backpack in place.  Shoot!  I didn’t really give them great instructions.  In fact, I didn’t give them any constructive input.  I guess by showing them how not to do things they can still learn!  Anyways, I stopped below them and yelled back up towards them.  Although I had poor execution, I explained to utilize the axe or pole as a breaking system along with their feet.  Both of them slowly glissaded down successfully and at a pace they felt comfortable with.  We glissaded down in three segments instead of just one really long glissade to be safe.

From here we hiked around the perimeter of the sink hole.  We decided to glissade a little bit and took advantage of the snow on the headwall.  The best part of glissading is how quickly one descends.  For me, it was fun and made life a little easier on my knees.

After the glissade, it was all hiking from there back to the Jeep.  We ended up arriving back at the vehicle at 2:00 pm.  It took us eight hours to cover he 9.5 miles and approximately 3,650 vertical feet. We hit the 4WD trail, crossed the creek and headed home.  With the light now upon us, I once again checked the vehicle to hopefully make sure it was safe to drive.  I didn’t see any fluids on the ground and the brakes seemed to function adequately.  I think we were lucky.

I really enjoyed Castle and Conundrum Peaks.  It provided a great variety of hiking and easy climbing.  The snow fields were entertaining to navigate up and amusing to navigate down and the scenery was awesome!  I really enjoyed my first up-close view of the Elk Mountains from an elevation of 14,000+ feet.  The other peaks are truly strong in stature and beautiful in appearance.

Finally, I really enjoyed hiking with Matt and Betsy.  I hope you both enjoyed the hike and climb.  You guys did great on a moderately difficult route.  I loved watching you two work together and enjoy your time together.  I look forward to more peaks with you two in the future and to your wedding in September.

So, what did I take away from this journey?

  • Porcupines are punks!  I have decided I have a new beef with these little rodents.  Actually, I really don’t but I learned that I will be better prepared when traveling to the Elk Mountains.  In the future I will bring chicken wire or other defense mechanisms in order to at least gain some peace of mind and comfort.
  • I missed the mountains. Man have I missed them!  It was great to reconnect with some beautiful peaks and to spend some quality time in nature.  So much enlightenment can be acquired from just a little time in nature.  I need to experience it more often.
  • Mountains are vital to my physical, emotional and spiritual well being.  In time of trouble…He shall set me upon a rock.  Thank you God for humbling me and providing me wisdom through the beauty you have created.  I grow closer to you with each mountain!

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