Peak(s):  Castle Peak  -  14,274 feet
Date Posted:  01/28/2015
Modified:  12/14/2015
Date Climbed:   01/25/2015
Author:  SnowAlien
 Castle Peak from Tagert Hut in Winter   

The fearsome Elks - the place where winter and ski mountaineering dreams are made and dashed. Back in September when a friend sent me an invite to stay at Tagert hut in late January, I was highly interested, but unable to commit. What if it snows big time that week? Still, I made a mental note of dates of the trip, hoping for the stars to align. Continued mild winter with avy danger rated "green" at least below the tree line, report of two successful attempts on the peaks in the past 2 weeks, and the successful foray in the San Juans on skis the week prior, put Castle and Conundrum at the top of my wish list this winter. I checked with my friend Dave if they were still going on a hut trip this weekend, and sure thing, they were. Moreover, they had a spot open up, as his girlfriend fell and broke her tibia skiing in Montana just a couple of weeks before. Unable to find partners for Castle on such a short notice, but anxious to at least check out the storied hut with the group, I got ready for the trip. There was at least one complicating factor though - my 3-week old cold/flu just won't go away, and in fact, it was getting worse as the week dragged on. I re-stocked the dwindling supplies of pills before leaving Denver, and made my way to Ashcroft by 10 am on Saturday morning, sneezing and coughing up a storm. No time to watch the X-Games, but the stage sure looked impressive on the drive-by the Snowmass. All 3 trailheads by Ashcroft were almost full! Aspenites know their winter sports. After repacking my overnight pack, I started skinning at 11am.

Day 1

Tagert Hut (elevation: 11,240 ft) from Ashcroft
Vertical: 1,900 ft
Mileage: ~5 miles
Time: 3 hours

Toto, we are not in Sawatch anymore

Aaaaand, welcome to the Elks! Avy path #1 our of ......

Thankfully, below the treeline, danger is low (CAIC rating: green).

Creek crossing

The hut doesn't disappoint. Albeit small (it cozily sleeps 7), it is lovely. Not feeling too swell, I decline the invitation from my ski friends to tour on the Pearl Pass, saving some energy for tomorrow. Priorities...They return a few hours later, reporting thin, rocky conditions on the pass and some new core shots to their skis. It's funny to wear different hats depending on the activity. As a skier, I am sad to hear about thin ski conditions, but as a hiker, I am pleased. Maybe the Montezuma basin will be rocky tomorrow too?

These are huts the way huts should be. Tagert and Green-Wilson Huts are located just below timberline in vast Pearl Basin, at the foot of such grand peaks as 14,265-foot Castle and 13,521-foot Star. You can enjoy all manner of adventure while based at these hostels, from mellow treks through the hills of alpine basins, to extreme rated descents on the precipices of nearby alps and ridges.

Tagert Hut is named after old-time Aspenite Billy Tagert (1873-1976). Tagert ran away from home as a child, came barefoot to the Roaring Fork Valley in 1883, and worked ranches in the Capitol Creek area as he grew up. He became an entrepreneur, and in 1905 started a stage line to Ashcroft and Dorchester in Taylor Park. Tagert contracted to carry the mail between Dorchester and Ashcroft.

Tagert liked to recreate in the upper Castle Creek valley, and in the 1920s he and friends formed a casual winter club known as the "Eskimos." Somehow Tagert took ownership (or at least control) of the old dam tender's cabin at the head of Castle Creek (later used by Otto Schniebs, see chapter introduction). After being used for many years by hunters, skiers and mountaineers, the cabin became decrepit and was replaced by the present Tagert Hut structure in 1960, which was then refurbished in 1995. Green-Wilson Hut was built near the Tagert in 1978, for added capacity, it is also recently refurbished.


Day 2
Castle peak from Tagert Hut and ski out
Mileage: ~13 miles
Elevation gain: 3,900 ft, elevation loss: 5,600 ft
Continuous ski descent from 13,000 ft
Max speed: 32 mph
Time: 13 hours (11 hours for Castle from the hut, 1 hour to pack and 1 hour to ski out)

Given the favorable snow conditions encountered the day before, I decided to give Montezuma basin a shot, even if I was solo. Honestly, after recent events, I am not keen on jeopardizing anyone else's life, except my own foolish self. Besides, being fairly light and on very light and fat skis, I thought I'd have a better chance to sneak by the fearsome avalanche paths in the "Valley of Death" as anyone else out there. Still, over-thinking caused a delayed start and I didn't leave the hut until 7.25am. The valley's avalanche paths take you in their grip from the get-go. I could discern the week-old snowshoe track of the previous parties for about 0.5 mile, but once out of the trees, it disappears. The morning started as cloudy and I was traversing the slopes through the clouds and fog. Maybe it's better not to have the full visibility.

Avy debris (old)

I tell myself if the weather doesn't improve, I am turning around. The clouds eventually part. The snow conditions appear fairly stable, but seeing avalanche slides and debris on every aspect for what seems like miles, doesn't let me relax. I have my heart in my throat the whole time until I reached the NE ridge on Castle. I travel quickly between "islands of safety", but the exposure is significant. I chose to travel closer to the summer route on the right (south) side of the basin, and in the process one traverses either under or above significant avalanche paths.

I am a little scared. Slopes seem to be holding up, but taking chances seems to be unavoidable in that basin. Not soon enough, I arrive at the beginning of the Northeast ridge. I don't want to take the summer route, as it will expose me to more avalanche paths.

Like this one - and it doesn't look like it ran yet.

I skin up to the beginning of the ridge, ready to ditch the skis at 13,000 feet. It is 10am and about time to start breathing, right?

Heading up the ridge, ~10am

Not so fast. Somehow, I cannot find a good route up the ridge. Snow blocks easy passage, and it being the north aspect, I don't trust it. The rock is loose and steeper than I hope it to be. I am convinced I am off-route. I try a few bypasses, but back out after a few tries.

Too steep and just doesn't feel right


Oh the irony! To navigate through all the avy paths just to be stumped by the NE ridge. Clock is ticking. Eventually, after making 3-4 tries, I find the line that is acceptable. I am ready to write-off the trip as a recon mission, but I am determined to get it "right" and not take unnecessary chances. I traverse across a few shallow gullies to arrive at a rocky gully. This looks like it may go.

As I look at the standard route, I suddenly realize there is an old crown to the left of it, with avy debris at the bottom.

Higher up in the gully

I still don't know what the gully exit looks like and if it connects to the ridge. Thankfully, it does. I finally see the standard route. It's almost noon and I just spent 2 hours getting to this point from my ski stash.

Standard route

I push on, but the route is a bit more challenging than I remember it. Again, it is a slow going.

The ridge to the false summit

What I see from the false summit stops me in my tracks. Steep snow. If something breaks off in that section, I'll be taking a long ride down the East face.

Thankfully, nothing does (albeit again, it's a slow going), and I finally arrive at the summit, greeted by Mike's cairns.


The incredible Elks

Almost on autopilot, I continue to Conundrum, but about 100 feet down stop and evaluate the situation. It's 2pm, I haven't eaten anything since 10am, my water is frozen because of the wind and my energy level is low. The round trip to Conundrum will take 1.5-2 hours, which means I'll be downclimbing the ridge in the dark. No thanks. I need to give myself a wider safety margin. I am content with this decision. Not feeling 100% and some route finding errors cost me a few hours I needed for another peak. I make my way up Castle again and slowly downclimb the ridge. Again, I am surprised how much time it takes.

Conundrum looks wind loaded

Summer route looks tempting, and probably is faster, but I like the look of the gully better. Although it's steep and loose, it's mostly dry.

Traversing the rock ribs back to my stash. The route makes much more sense on the return.

Back at the ski stash I have a pep talk with myself. You cannot fall! No matter how variable the snow conditions are, you can't afford to faceplant under the avy paths. I think it worked, because I didn't. To be fair, the snow conditions were much softer and nicer than in San Juans the week before, so my skis handled it pretty well.

Start of the ski line

I tried to move quickly through the basin on the ski out.

On the ski out

The Pearls at sunset

I reached the hut with the last rays of light, at 5.45. After taking an hour to pack, eat meal and hydrate, I hit the road again at 7pm. It wasn't a full moon, bit strangely enough, it was really bright and I didn't need a headlamp. I reached the car in just over an hour, which was probably the most enjoyable ski out from the hut so far, and a little older and wiser. I am finally starting to realize what the "winter 14er project" involves. Maybe I should pick up knitting. That said, the snow in the Elks felt incredible... for skiing...

P.S. The following day, Monday.... around 11am a party triggered a slab avalanche near 11,800 ft in Montezuma basin. It was a very warm day with temperatures in the 40ties.

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

Comments or Questions
Gorgeous pics, Natalie!
01/28/2015 16:11
and a nice narrative. As usual.

Well done!
01/28/2015 16:40
Got a winter Elk! Nicely done!

Were you solo? You narrative made it seem like there were others, but you write in the singular.

Steve Climber
Congrats Nat
01/28/2015 17:48
Looks like you’re getting back into the saddle nicely.

Super Work
01/28/2015 18:22
Great work as usual, exceptional photos. Wicked cool.

Good job!
01/28/2015 20:43
Nice write up! I had a blast in that basin back in October (a lot of snow on the ground but not as much as what you dealt with). Congrats on the trip!

Dad Mike
01/29/2015 03:08
Well done Natalie. Good to see my cairns are still standing...barely.

01/29/2015 08:50
Good write up. I enjoyed the history of the huts you included in your trip report.

Well Presented
01/29/2015 17:44
This TR gives a realistic idea of what to expect in winter. Stunning scenery, but danger abounds...

I Man
Nice work
01/30/2015 19:50
Glad you got Castle. Happy to help you with beta. Hope you are staying well. Have a safe and peaceful rest of your season.

Climb on, my friend.

02/02/2015 05:32
Correct me if I am wrong, but the two Huts in this area can only be rented outright? They will not take reservations for one or two people?

04/02/2015 19:45
Mike – thank you for inspiration. This trip won’t have happened without your report.

Matt – thank you for your support. Much appreciated. Well done on your own recent Castle/Conundrum trip!

jrs1965 – you are correct. Those 2 huts can only be rented at full capacity (i.e. 7 spots at Tagert and 8 at Green–Wilson). Therefore, it really made sense for me to join a group of friends who were already staying there that weekend (reservations made back in September) and had a spot opened up.

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