Peak(s):  PT 13,216  -  13,216 feet
PT 13,537  -  13,537 feet
Hilliard Pk  -  13,409 feet
"Triangle Pk"  -  13,380 feet
PT 13,162 B  -  13,162 feet
PT 13,550  -  13,550 feet
Keefe Pk  -  13,516 feet
Date Posted:  10/21/2019
Date Climbed:   10/06/2019
Author:  SnowAlien
 Fall Elk Hunting III - Conundrum Creek 13ers  

Dates: October 4-7, 2019 (3 nights, 2 full days of climbing, 2 half days for approach/deproach)

~30 miles ~12,000 vertical feet

Trailhead: Conundrum Creek

Day 1 - the approach

5.5 miles, ~1,900 ft backpacking, 3 hours

Fall Elk hunting trip was overdue...I spotted this group from Electric Pass peak 2 years ago and wanted to hike it when leaves are at peak. I hiked "Castleabra" with the same approach back in 2013. With new camping reservations in place for Conundrum Creek, it was a little tricky to time it perfectly. Last year I made a campsite reservation for 2 nights, but didn't end up going. This fall, I started checking the Aspen webcams in mid-September, but the fall seemed late to arrive. So I went to the Sangres, and then did the a short climbing trip to Turkey Rocks. As soon as I got home, I checked the reservations website and the campsites were all sold out! What now? I poked some more at the website and noticed that online reservations only required for the established campsites past the Silver Dollar pond. Well, I was considering camping at Silver Dollar pond anyway because of the descent from Keefer and/or Hunter. Sounds like I'll be in the clear, the trip is on!

I packed up for 2 nights of camping and threw in a cup of ramen noodles for lunch. Given the overnight temps (20F), the pack was already getting heavy - 4 season tent, 0 degree sleeping bag, warm layers, this was shaping to be a cold weather trip, even it's only early October. The trip to Aspen at the peak foliage weekend went as expected - heavy traffic getting to the roundabout, "no parking signs" for Maroon Bells, construction on Castle Creek road, reducing traffic to one lane, and an almost full parking lot at Conundrum Creek trailhead. My goal was to set the camp before dark, so I was shooting to leave TH by 2.30pm. I was close. By 2.45 pm, I hit the trail and started the hike. I was also very curious to see the incredible avalanche debris from the historic avalanche cycle this past March. The big house by the trailhead, protected by the special avalanche fence, has survived, but they were doing some repairs to the chimney.

As soon as I hit the trail, I knew why I was here - the Elks in the fall provide an aesthetic arrest. Well, also in spring, and in summer with wildflowers, and in winter. You get the idea. First avalanche path is right off the bat. But it has been made passable (unlike the Elk Creek trail in Weminuche), probably because this trail is extremely popular with day hikers and backpackers. After about 5.5 miles I bumped into the "camping permits required after this point" sign, looked around and within minutes found a well-established campsite, complete with a fire ring. I set up the tent and cocooned in my 0 degree sleeping bag. This summer/early fall hiking is already becoming pretty technical!

First avy debris field and the trail across
2nd large avy debris field (trail goes around on the hillside)
3rd big avy debris field, right below Hunter peak and just before the Silver dollar pond

Day 2 - UN 13,216, UN 13,537, Hilliard, Keefe

~9 miles, ~5,300, 12 hours

Since I was anticipating a long day and felt pretty well-rested after ~9 hours of sleep, I got an early start. I left the camp by 6.45 am at dusk, crossed the log bridge and passed the Silver Dollar pond. Immediately there was another avy debris field, which I would have to cross 3 times in total. Yesterday approach got me only so far, and it was still about 4 miles and almost 3,000 ft vertical just to get to the Triangle pass. Don't make the same mistake like me and go all the way to the pass though if planning on UN 13,216. I did, but then spent another 45 minutes traversing loose talus back from the pass to the base of UN13,216, while I should have left the trail much earlier. This oversight definitely cost me valuable time. Just before 11am I finally made it to the first 13er of the day.

Willows heading up to Triangle pass in all their fall glory
UN13,216 ahead (red rock)
Elaborate summit cairn with UN13,537 in the distance
Looking back at the pass L->R Teocalli, "Triangle pk" and White Rock/White BM ridge

Always fun to be so close to Crested Butte! Now, I have glanced at the trip reports of my predecessors and was under impression that these were some Class 2-3 hiking peaks, with a few avoidable difficulties, so I brought my helmet along as an afterthought. And initially the ridge was pretty straightforward.

Easy and enjoyable start of the traverse to UN 13,537 (Conundrum creek valley to the right)
Summit pyramid of UN13,537

As I rounded the corner on fairly loose rock, the peak stopped looking friendly. Clearly, one option was to traverse the hillside to the NE ridge and work the ridge backwards to the summit. But I dislike traversing and also it would add extra mileage to the day. So I took the loose steep gully directly to the notch in the southern ridge (below).

Summit section of 13,537
Looking down from the notch

Initially I was hoping to scramble up to the ridge directly, but the rock quality was very poor, so I kept looking for other options. Thankfully the SW aspect of the ridge had a nice dihedral with pretty decent rock quality to the right.

Dihedral (right side rock quality is pretty solid)
Looking down from the dihedral, rock on the lookers left is pretty good

Unfortunately about 100 feet below the summit, the rock quality deteriorated once again and required careful sidestepping not to dislodge anything, particularly a ridgeline. The traverse took me almost 2 hours, so I was already having doubts if I could get Hunter. So after a short break, I continued to Hilliard. The traverse didn't look bad initially. Descent of the other side went much easier than expected.

Looking back to Triangle pass from the summit
Ridge to Hilliard and Keefe
NE ridge of UN 13,537
Further down the ridge to Hilliard

And then....pretty involved sustained Class 4 downclimb on questionable rock. From what it looked like on the other side, there's possibility of a bypass dropping to the east before the notch downclimb.

Class 4 ridge downclimb - test every hold
Looking back at the ridge and unexpected class 4 if staying on the ridge proper (bypass on the ledge to the east)
Another look from further up the ridge

But I wasn't even done with the difficulties yet. The remaining ridge looked like a maze of loose towers. I aimed for the notch, which I wasn't even sure goes, but it did. Once on the other side, it was fairly straightforward way to get back up on the ridge.

The ridge ahead
Looking down from the notch (loose class 3)
past the notch, and gaining the ridge
Finally past the difficulties
Remaining ridge to Hilliard (left) and Keefe (right)
Looking back at UN 13,537 and surprising ridge section

Once past the bent, the ridge finally relented and the rest of it took half the time of the previous section. I arrived on the 3rd summit of the day by 2.30 pm, well behind schedule. After 20 min on the summit, I started towards my next objective, Keefe. I kept wondering if there would be any more time-consuming surprises? Soon I came across something looking like a knife edge, except on loose talus :)

Ridge to Keefe (L)
Eroded "knife-edge" on loose talus

The next step is to bypass a loose 13,200 bump on the ridge on the left (west side). There's a trail at the beginning, but it quickly peters out. Eventually I picked up a faint trail at the base of the cliff and finally reached the grass...

More traversing on loose talus - Keefe ahead
By-passable loose section of the ridge - rock quality is not conducive to staying on the ridge
Final enjoyable section up Keefe with the Pyramidal ridge in the background
Looking back at the ridge traversed
Lovely Cathedral-Conundrum-Castle-Castleabra group across the valley
Ridge to Hunter

Having reached the summit just before 4pm, 2 things were certain: 1) I have had my fill of loose ridges for the day 2) I am out of time for Hunter anyway. Delorme kept acting up, so I turned it off and on again and pondered the descent. The descent didn't look bad initially, but it was a 3,000 ft drop in just a mile, typical Elk stuff. I started the hike down a quarter after 4pm, with the goal to get to camp before dark. I was able to find the grassy patches, so the first 2,000 feet took an hour. I did ran into a couple small cliff bands in the middle of the face, which I could have bypassed, but just plowed straight through them in the interest of time. The last 1,000 feet was a willow hell, which took an hour. Don't get me wrong, a very colorful and pretty willow hell, but still... Once on the trail, another 30 minutes brought me back to camp by 6.45 pm.

Start of the descent
Short cliff band section on the descent
Getting through willows before merging with the trail
One of the log bridges across the creek

Day 3 - "Triangle peak", UN 13,162 B, UN 13,550

~10 miles, ~4,800, 12 hours (excludes time spent at the hot springs)

I was hoping with 3 peaks, my day today would be shorter and I was looking forward to the hot springs. The plan was for even earlier start, but I finally got ready by 7.30 am. This cold weather camping can be rough. Willows were just as colorful, but there was more ice in the creeks. I made Triangle pass 15 minutes faster and turned left this time, climbing up the steep loose dirt slope. I wasn't sure where the true summit was, so I went over the next bump. They both looked about the same height. After a little break, by 11.30 am I started towards UN 13,162 B, which looked a bit tricky.

Fork in the road
Frozen stream in the morning
Triangle peak from the pass
Steep loose dirt up Triangle peak
ridge of the day from "Triangle"

First order of business was to skirt the grassy bump on the way and traverse to the base of the climb. So the traversing commenced. The problem was I couldn't really tell which line would "go", so I kept going towards the saddle with Teocalli. Eventually one of the gullies looked promising, so I decided to take it.

UN13,162B on far right
Traversing, Teocalli on the right
Loose gully, but finding more stable rock on the right side
Fin on the ridge

The gully did take me up to the ridge, but the summit was still a ways away, as I was just south of the summit. Gaining it required some class 4 scrambling on typical Elk rock - red, rugged and rotten, very similar to the Pyramidal ridge. But eventually the ridge relented and by 1.30 pm I was finally able to reach the narrow and exposed summit of 13,162B.

Terrain below the summit
Slanted ledges
Looking back at Triangle
Ridge detail
Ridge to 13,550 ft comes into view
Hmmm, not again!

The initial descent towards 13,550 ft went much easier, but then I ran into obstacles. Gaining the ridge directly didn't seem feasible, and I was avoiding cold and windy northern aspect, so naturally, I was drawn to the sunny southern side. Hence, the déjà vu - steep loose gully that would take me back up the ridge.

Loose gully
A little steep near the top, but beautiful rock
Remaining ridge looked a bit more friendly
13,550 looks like a smaller version of the Bells
Beautiful red rock

After some extracurricular climbing on red rock (completely unnecessary), I reached the final 7th summit of the weekend. I struggled to open the register which was screwed in very tightly by the previous party. But after about 5 minutes of banging the canister on the rocks, wedging and twisting it against the rocks I was finally able to pry it open :) Since it was already 3.30 pm, hiking 10 more miles tonight didn't sound appealing, so I decided to spend another night at camp, but not before the stop at the hot springs! Luckily I finally had some weak cell reception, so I managed to update my plans for the next day. The ridge towards Castleabra harbored a few scrambly sections, but they were fairly short, and on the descent from the saddle, I was glad to find some grassy sections as well as sporadic cairns. It might be a better way up Castleabra than the direct talus line from the hot springs.

Castle and Castleabra from UN 13,550
Ridge descent
Grassy descent to Conundrum Creek
soak in the hot springs at the end of a long day

The best part of the day was to soak the tired bones and joints at the springs and watch the sunset in the valley. It was nice not to be in a rush. Given the sold out campsite status this weekend, the springs were popular, but everyone was on their best behavior. After about an hour, I extricated myself from the pool, and started the hour and a half hike down to my campsite, crossing the last avy debris field in the dark. It was nice to get a headstart on the hike out, but I was glad I didn't have to go any further. The overnight temperatures reached 20F.

Day 4 - the hike out

5.5 miles, ~1,900 ft backpacking, 3 hours

Given the cold night and morning, I took my time getting ready and started the hike a quarter after 10 am. In daylight, I had a good look at the potential ascent and descent lines off Hunter, and they didn't look enticing. I am thinking this may be a peak for another season. Strong winds in the past several days have knocked down a lot of leaves, but it was still nice to enjoy the last few days of Indian summer, as the first snowstorm of the season was expected a couple days later... Thanks for reading!

Avalanche debris on Hunter
Raking the leaves
a happy camper in the Elks

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

 Comments or Questions

Love it!
10/21/2019 14:34
What a treat it is to read this report!

Chicago Transplant

Bad memories
10/21/2019 15:13
We ran into the same issues on PT 13537. Did it as a day trip from the CB site via Triangle Pass and after coming up via the less than stellar traverse from PT 13216 and having heard this was a class 2 peak, we started down the same ridge as you. Not seeing a class 2 route back to Conundrum Creek we just kept going and got stuck down climbing the same cliffs you did. I don't know where the class 2 route is, I must have missed something on the ridge crest. On the way back down the Copper Creek trail we then got stalked by a moose. Not our favorite day! Two cute foxes near Judd Falls helped put us in a better mood before we hit the car though.

Impressive report
10/21/2019 20:20
I am amazed and always love your brave,beautiful and adventurous reports!. I am curious to know how you descended the route down from the picture you name" starting the descent" and what you used to go down that very steep loose rock and talus. I am asking you because when I see stuff like that on the mountains, I do not know how to approach it and I have heard that using microspikes can help with traction and stability. Also, do you carry poles with you?.


Nice work
10/21/2019 20:47


nice report
10/22/2019 13:06
and nice work! also hi.


10/23/2019 21:10
@Jay - you're too kind, glad you liked it, such a pretty area
@ChicagoT - those ridges were definitely a surprise to me, I was glad I brought a helmet. There was probably a better route there somewhere, which would require backtracking and some serious route finding. It was just happening with every single peak in that loop though. No gimmies.
@mtngoat - thanks, and I definitely use poles, always. That slope was not very steep nor loose actually, there were grassy patches, it made for a quick descent. Battling thick willows at the bottom was worse.
@Matt & Dillon - thanks guys. Hi right back at ya Dillon! Hope I ran again into you sometimes!


Well done!
10/30/2019 23:13
"Intrepid," Natalie - that's you! I l enjoyed the photos and good beta. I still have to get back to that basin. It sounds like the ridge with Keefe, 517, etc. is more easily engaged going the other direction, with a descent down to the trail near Triangle Pass. Thanks for another good read and helpful report.


10/31/2019 21:03
I agree with you that the traverse is likely easier to see and navigate coming from Hunter. Wasn't quite an option for me since I wasn't sure I had the strength or daylight to add Hunter-Keefe traverse (I didn't), but if you have that option, I'd certainly do it in reverse. I don't think my line off 517 is downclimbable, but you should be able to see a better way. Hunter is probably day-trippable for me though, so it was a good tradeoff, - another day in the awesome Elks.

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