| The Gods Were Smiling - Conundrum Couloir and Castle
I'm not sure if the Gods Are Crazy, but they certainly were smiling on me for this outing!
Most of us juggle the demands of work, family, etc such that we're forced to pick a date for a given 14er months in advance. Naturally, this leads to unpredictability regarding the weather. What was the forecast leading up to this outing? Rain, rain and more rain at the lower elevations and snow higher up. But alas, the night before my scheduled day to climb the clouds parted leaving me with a perfect bluebird day for Castle and Conundrum.
Photo below of rainbow heading down Castle Creek road the night before.
(My apologies, I forgot my camera at home. These are from a disposable camera.)
There are some (7) great campsites along Castle Creek road just past Ashcroft. I left mine at 6 am - a somewhat late alpine start and made it to the Pearl Pass junction at 7 am.
A little hard to make out with the grainy disposable camera, but below is a view of the trail as it switchbacks on the way to the 4 WD parking lot. Confirming what other "posters" have noted, this seems to be a ROUGH 4 WD road - not one I even considered taking with my Honda CR-V - especially after some costly mishaps last year - d'oh...
This being a mid-week and early season ascent I didn't think I'd see many people out on the trail. Just below the 4 WD parking lot I met a couple of guys who were heading back down and were nice enough to take my picture. Yours truly looking a bit rough...
I reached the 4 WD parking lot at 8:30, put on some sunscreen and my crampons and was ready to go. I was using my poles at this point - not the ice ax. Yet...
A view of snowy Castle just below Montezuma Basin.
I had planned on taking the traditional Northwest Ridge route to Castle / Conundrum, but as I reached the Basin I decided to change plans. I had my lucky rainbow sighting the previous night, it was a beautiful day and I was feeling really good - why not attempt the class 3 Conundrum Couloir in snow instead? Hmmm...
I could see snow run-out from the couloir but no rocks or debris in it so I figured my odds were good that this was still a safe route for this late in the season. Put away my poles, got out the ice ax and headed into the couloir at 10 am after a small snack.
I'm probably not the best estimater of slope angles, but if I was skiing this I would say definitely a double black diamond - very steep! A view up the couloir.
I quickly realized I needed to maintain 3, if not 4, points of contact at all time and firmly kick in all my steps. For the most part the snow was knee high and very wet, which gave me good purchase. I did hit a part of the couloir where the snow was thigh deep - deep enough to seriously prevent me from moving ahead. This was a scary point as I was pretty high up in the couloir and descending was certainly not an appealing option. I was able to side-step to only knee high snow and move ahead.
Another scary point was when snow sluff starting coming down from the melting going on above me. For the most part there wasn't much in the way of snow coming down, but one particular shower I could see bigger chunks of snow coming my way. I quickly made sure I had good foot holds, put my head down and dug in hard on my ice ax wondering if I would be dislodged and need to self-arrest. Happily, the snow all went around me or the chunks that did catch me were small. Whew...
I took the below picture when I had got myself to a secure spot and was willing to risk letting go of the ice ax and bringing out the camera. Not the greatest photo, but it gives an indication of how steep this is. Don't look down - yipes!
Having checked previous trip reports (thanks guys) I knew to stay left of the cornice at the top of the couloir. This picture was taken later that afternoon from the Northeast Ridge of Castle. It's a long distance shot and grainy, but you can see how big the overhang of the cornice is - Conundrum to the right. I certainly wouldn't want to be under that when it goes!
Anyway, not too far past this point I topped out of the couloir at 11 am for an amazing view of the Elks. Again, sorry the grainy photo doesn't begin to do it justice.
I made Conundrum at 11:30. From the summit of Conundrum I saw the only other climbers of the day on the top of Castle roughly a half mile away. After sitting and having a snack I began to realize how much the ascent of the couloir had taken out of me. With heavy legs I made my way to Castle (below) making it there at 12:45 pm.
I had lunch, put away my crampons and ice ax and still feeling adventurous headed down the Northeast Ridge of Castle at 1:15. I soon realized I needed more help than just my boots and poles to get down this ridge in snow and with the help of the ice ax and by moving very slowly and deliberately at points I got down ok.
I took a short-cut to the Basin thinking I could glissade down, but the snow turned out to be too wet to slide on. For the rest of the day: I made it to the 4 WD parking lot at 2:30, to the Pearl Pass road junction at 3:30 and back to the camp site just before 4:30. A view of the beautiful valley right at camp site #1.
All in all, an amazing day in the mountains. It was great to push myself in the couloir and try out some new climbing techniques. Wow - what a day...
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):