| Winter Daytrip: Castle and Conundrum Peaks
Castle and Conundrum Peaks
Approach: NE ridge from winter closure at Ashcroft
Length: 16 miles RT
Vertical: 5100 feet
Ascent Party: Mountain_Ninja (Brad,) Areed20 (Andrew,) Muzik83 (Bobby,) Dancesatmoonrise (Jim)
Conundrum Couloir in afternoon light, as seen from Castle Peak's northeast ridge, 12-26-11.
Two weeks before Solstice. We’re planning Longs North Face, first full day of winter. Things are looking great. A few days before our trip, the CAIC avy rose goes green, top to bottom, all aspects. This is too good to be true, right? I mean, we all know the rules.
“Aspirations for the first day of calendar winter shall be met with cold and snow occurring precisely on Solstice day.”
Like clockwork, Old Man Winter sends the first storm, right in the nick of time to squash the best laid plans. By summit day, the avy rose skips yellow, going straight for orange. Single digit highs and a fifth class route have us wondering if we’ll return home with the full complement of appendages installed by the Manufacturer. We skip it. A few days later my partner is off to much warmer places on the planet. Sigh. Back to the forecasts.
Bobby decides on skate skis.
The 6-10 and 8-14 day outlooks call for warm, dry weather. GFS models hint at a nice window following the storm. The Elk Range gets through practically unscathed. Castle and Conundrum start sounding pretty good. In a normal snow year, the standard approach for these peaks is a bowling alley of avalanche debris, crossing numerous runouts through avy terrain. But making some local inquiries confirms belief that the area is currently experiencing unusually low snow conditions. Worth a shot.
Bobby, Andrew, Jim. Photo by Brad.
I post. Soon we have a party of four. The avy rose actually improves slightly, with green, all aspects, below and near treeline, and green from west to south aspects above treeline. We decide to drive from the front range very early Monday morning.
The crux of the route turns out to be the 9-10 hour round trip drive from Colorado Springs. I actually drive over and drive back the same day. Or at least, in the same 24 hour period. OK, next time it’s the Honda Hotel, with the zero degree bag.
We meet around 7 am, and get started by 8. Bobby and I are on skis. Bobby decides to leave his fat skis in the truck and goes for the skinny XC units. I try to warn him. Apparently the packed snowmobile track is too much to resist. Brad and Andrew take up the rear on snowshoes. After an hour, Bobby and I wait at a knoll, and the four of us decide to go as two groups of two, though we end up staying together to the headwall.
The lower Montezuma Basin, beyond the hut turnoff.
The packed trail turns left about 4.6 miles up from Ashcroft, heading for the huts. We take the right turn up the Montezuma Basin. Although now devoid of sled tracks, the route is still packed out like a highway. We’re making pretty good time. But after a bit, I’m concerned Bobby may have trouble on the skinny skis, descending in the dark, so we stop to change out to boots and snowshoes, while Brad and Andrew catch up.
Brad and Andrew. Photo by Bobby.
Sarah and Dominic.
It’s a gorgeous, calm day. Before long we bump into Sarah and Dominic. Congrats, guys, on #43 in winter. And a most Capitol Christmas present!
The headwall below the Conundrum Cirque is gorgeous this winter day.
The road is so well packed we question if snowshoes are really needed. Soon we’re at the north-facing headwall below the Castle/Conundrum cirque. I’d had some concerns about this section. Apparently they were not shared by many skiers recently visiting. Still, we decide to take the exposed rocky rib up the middle, between the two gullies, just to be on the safe side. We figure snowshoes are cheaper to replace than body parts.
The headwall. Photo by Brad.
Making progress toward the cirque. Photo by Brad.
Looking down from near the top of the headwall.
The headwall and the cirque above are beautiful in winter. Our northwest face is fairly scoured, as expected, and grants safe access to the northeast summit ridge, above.
Gaining the northwest face. Photo by Brad.
Ascending the face to the summit ridge.
Looking back down the face from the beginning of the summit ridge. Photo by Bobby.
The summit ridge. Castle Peak is at top right.
The ridge itself gets a little interesting in places. One section crosses narrow snow over steep exposure to the southeast, but it is not difficult. Bobby and I start pushing hard, as we’d like to get both peaks and be off the ridge by dark. Soon we’re at the Castle summit.
(Photo by Bobby.)
For whatever reason, I’m feeling the climb a lot more than usual. Bobby is looking fresh as a daisy, as we crest the summit. We push on for Conundrum.
The two summits of Conundrum Peak.
Looking back to Castle Peak from the false summit of Conundrum.
I’d forgotten about the false summit, but the true summit is not far beyond. Thanks, Bobby. We get some shots but don’t spend much time, as the sun’s getting low. We spy Andrew and Brad on the Castle summit and wonder if they’re coming over. It’s not long before we see them making their way back down the northeast ridge.
Two dots on the Castle summit.
Beloved Elk range 14ers.
The climb back up Castle seems to take forever. We’re rewarded with some nice late day views. Soon it will be alpenglow.
We reverse the ridge and get onto the face as twilight fades, making the snowshoe stash at the top of the headwall by last light – perfect timing. Bobby and I capture a setting moon and evening star just above the headwall, as Brad and Andrew make their way down.
Conundrum, the Conundrum Coulior, and the Conundrum-Cathedral ridge.
The Conundrum-Cathedral ridge catching last rays from the west.
The road is well-packed; I’ve opted to put snowshoes on the pack, where they will stay till we pick up the skis. Skiing out by headlamp is not bad at all. After a long day, it sure is nice to sit back and ride most of the way.
Cresent moonset and evening star above the headwall. Composite photo, Jim and Bobby.
On the road below, Bobby experiences a typical winter 14er phenomenon: WFHSS. It goes something like this: “Are we on the right road? I don’t remember any of this. What if we’re going the wrong way.” I laugh out loud, not being able to contain myself. Not at Bobby, but at myself, for having had these very same thoughts on more than one winter 14er. It’s worse when you’re solo. It can be quite disturbing! I assure Bobby it’s only Winter Fourteener Headlamp Slog Syndrome, a very common affliction, which usually resolves in about thrice the time anticipated.
Sure enough, eventually those darned cars show up.
Thanks for a great trip, gents!