Peak(s):  Castle Peak  -  14,274 feet
Date Posted:  07/16/2015
Date Climbed:   07/12/2015
Author:  Greenhouseguy
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 A Double Shot of the Elks   

Castle Peak
14,265 Feet (12th Highest in Colorado)
Conundrum Peak
14,060 Feet (Unranked)
Castle and Conundrum Combo from the Pearl Pass Junction Trailhead
Trailhead Elevation 11,100 Feet
Approximately 7.5 Miles Roundtrip
Approximately 3,350 Feet Elevation Gained
Class 2+
July 12th, 2015
Partners: SenadR and Evan from Toledo


A Double Shot of the Elks


My first experience on Castle Peak came in September 2008. I reached the summit, but bailed on heading over to Conundrum Peak because of impending bad weather. Getting back to hike an unranked peak was never a high priority for me, so I moved on to other mountains. Sen had a similar experience on Castle. As he approached his 58th fourteener summit, Conundrum suddenly became a priority. Sen wanted the summit, and I didn't agonize over the decision to tag along.

The Castle Creek trailhead is a long and arduous drive from the Denver Metro area, so this wouldn't ordinarily work well as a day hike. However, there are only eight designated campsites near the trailhead. This creates quite a conundrum on the weekends when hikers and car campers vie for these valuable spots. Some may choose to backtrack to one of the campgrounds on Independence Pass. Many choose to camp farther up the road at one of many informal campsites. According to the White River National Forest's Aspen/Sopris Motor Vehicle Use Map, dispersed camping is legal along FS129. Sen and I chose the diplomatic route and introduced ourselves to some campers who graciously shared their site with us. Black bears are a reality in this vicinity, so we used a bear canister and stored food and trash more than 100 yards from our site.

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Crossing Castle Creek on FS129

Sleep didn't come easily to us, and we awoke to dismal, drizzly conditions. The skies cleared as we finished breaking camp and stowing our soggy tents. Our fellow camper Evan joined us for our journey; he had some limited hiking experience in the RMNP area, and was attempting his first fourteener. Three people and their camping gear was a tight fit in an old TJ Wrangler, but we made the best of it and headed up to the Pearl Pass Road junction to start our hike.

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The FS129/Pearl Pass Road junction at 11,100 feet (image taken September 2008)

The hike starts out on a mining road that is fine for hikers, but only marginally tolerable for capable 4WD vehicles. The road was built to service the Montezuma Mine, which was partly owned by mining mogul Horace Tabor in the 1870's and 1880's. The mine only yielded low-grade lead and silver ore that was no longer profitable to produce when the closest smelter closed. The mine reopened briefly in 1907, but storms and avalanches destroyed equipment that the owners were not financially able to replace. Ownership eventually reverted to the government, and the post office in the nearby mining town of Ashcroft closed in 1912.

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Heading up the mining road with the south slopes of Malemute Peak in the background

The terrain above treeline is overwhelmingly rocky, but many plants are adapted to living in this sort of environment. One of these is the dotted saxifrage, whose Latin name means "rock breaker."

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Dotted saxifrage (Saxifraga bronchialis ssp. austromontana) growing in its own rock garden

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Higher up in the basin, passing a waterfall on the left and under some mine tailings on the right

The mining road ended at a headwall at 12,800 feet. There is a large parking area here for those who are bold enough to drive (and don't care about the 3,000-foot rule). This was probably the parking area for the Montezuma Basin Ski Area, which was active in the 1960's and 1970's.

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Approaching the flat area below the headwall at 12,800 feet

We climbed a short rocky slope, and saw most of the remainder of the slope that leads to the basin below Castle and Conundrum. We had to traverse a snowy slope, so I used microspikes for traction. This was more of a luxury than a necessity; Sen and Evan just booted it.

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Traversing a snowy slope in the basin

As we reached the top of the slope, we could choose to top out on the snow or bear right and follow the trail through the talus. We chose the talus route, but the snow would have been just as easy.

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Nearing the top of the headwall

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Looking back at our route through the basin

When we reached the top of the headwall, we could easily see the summits of Castle and Conundrum. The trail on Castle's northeast ridge was obvious.

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Topping out on the headwall with Castle Peak's summit straight ahead

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Starting up the trail on Castle Peak's northeast ridge

Any trail can be a blessing when it comes to route finding, but this one was more of a curse due to loose dirt and scree on the lower part. The traction was much better on the upper part of the trail.

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Higher up on the trail approaching the crest of the ridge

The scree and talus on the ridge looked pretty barren, but I found a small gem growing beside the trail. The twisted draba is only found in an extremely limited range in Colorado and New Mexico, and the Biota of North America Program refers to it as rare throughout its range. It's amazing that anything could survive in such a harsh environment.

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Twisted draba *Draba streptobrachia) putting down roots beside the trail

Once we got on top of the ridge, route finding started to get a little bit messy; this is the part that awards Castle its "2+" rating. There were a few places with serious exposure. The gusty wind knocked me off balance several times, almost always at the least opportune time. I had to use my hands in a few spots, and the brittle shale could not be trusted to hold. I took an obvious trail down below the ridge for a couple hundred feet before I realized that I was off route. Getting off route on this fragile rock could be hazardous.

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Following the route on the ridge crest

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More gnarl on the ridge

The route is not supposed to be technically difficult. If anything looked tough, I just kept looking until the easier route became apparent. Finally, we dipped down into a small saddle and started our ascent of the summit cone. It looked steep, but was much easier than it looked. Sen was already on the summit by the time Evan and I reached the base.

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Starting up Castle Peak's summit cone

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Evan topping out on Castle with a backdrop straight out of Lord of the Rings

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Me and Sen on Castle Peak's summit

The Elk Range provided some incredible views from the summit. The most obvious peaks were the twin summits Conundrum and the more distant Cathedral Peak. To the untrained eye, Cathedral certainly looked like a fourteener. It's a centennial peak, and the tallest thirteener in the Elks.

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Looking over to Conundrum from Castle Peak's summit

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The frozen tarn at the base of Conundrum Peak

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Looking back down at our route on Castle Peak's northeast ridge

Evan was understandably pleased by reaching his first fourteener summit. I suspect that he'll reach many more. The wind was bothersome, and clouds raced by at an insane rate of speed. We weren't sure what kind of weather might be moving in, so we headed over to Conundrum after a brief rest on Castle.

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Sen starting down the trail to the Castle/Conundrum saddle

The trail down to the Castle/Conundrum saddle has a nasty reputation for loose rock. Its reputation is well deserved, but the trip down was so short that we really didn't have to spend much time on the loose stuff.

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Bottoming out on the Castle/Conundrum saddle

We stayed on the crest of Conundrum's south ridge and followed the clear path. If it wasn't immediately apparent which way to go, there was usually a small cairn to guide the way.

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Starting up Conundrum Peak's south ridge

The angle of the slope eventually eased up and we found ourselves on top of a very cool narrow ridge. The ridge led to Conundrum's lower south summit.

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Conundrum Peak's summit ridge near the lower south summit

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Standing on Conundrum's south summit looking towards Sen standing on the north summit

I headed north from Conundrum's south summit and descended into a snow-filled notch at the head of the Conundrum Couloir. From here, there are a number of ways to scale the summit block. Bill's route description suggests going to the left; I found an equally suitable route up the right side.

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Conundrum Peak's north summit block

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Looking back at Conundrum Peak's south summit from the north summit

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A view of Castle Peak as seen from Conundrum Peak's north summit

Gaining Conundrum's summit was a great relief for me and Sen, since it took us both two attempts to get there. We enjoyed it for a few minutes, then headed back down to the saddle for a trip-shortening glissade into the basin below. The snow was not continuous all the way to the saddle, so we had to descend some rock and soft snow to get to a suitable spot to start our glissade. Sen and I both had ice axes, and Evan used a trekking pole to slow his descent.

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Descending from the Castle/Conundrum saddle to start our glissade

The snow on the saddle was sunstruck and slightly less than optimal, but we still caught good glissades.

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Sen at the bottom of the slope and Evan in the on-deck circle

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Looking back on our glissade path

According to the route description, we should have stayed on the left side of the tarn to avoid having to regain altitude as we exited the basin. We followed boot tracks on the right side of the tarn, and dropped out of the basin in a matter of minutes.

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No, the other left. Following the boot tracks around the right side of the tarn

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Looking up at the Conundrum Couloir from the basin

Moments after we exited the basin, we caught an incredibly long glissade down what must have been an integral portion of old ski area. It was a blast, and saved us quite a bit of time and effort in getting back to the mining road.

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Sen coming down the slope

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...building speed

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...and finishing the glissade

Once we reached the mining road, it was basically just a leisurely stroll back to the Jeep at the Pearl Pass junction. I passed my time by taking some wildflower shots and jogging to keep up with Sen and Evan. I didn't see much new or different, but soaking up the beauty is one of the reasons that I like to spend time in the mountains.

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Clockwise from upper left: blackheaded daisy, red paintbrush, white Rocky Mountain columbine, yellow western paintbrush

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Clockwise from upper left: western wallflower, Rocky Mountain columbine, mountain sorrel, sky pilot

In retrospect, there was no real down side to our trip to the tallest Elk. The drive through the Sawatch and Elk ranges was beautiful. We camped with some colorful characters. It rained, but only at night while we were in our tents. The road was rough, but I enjoyed the four wheeling aspect of getting to the trailhead. We were fortunate enough to visit two spectacular summits. Glissading made it all even more enjoyable. We accomplished what we came to do, and the journey exceeded all expectations.

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GPS track of the Castle/Conundrum combo



Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
ameristrat
User
Nice Report
07/17/2015 06:34
Castle gets overlooked a lot, I think, due to the reputation of the peaks around it. It’s one of my favorites though, especially with snow to the saddle. Fun, Diet Scrambling, decent rock for the elks, and 1500+’ of glissading if snow is around – awesome!

Thanks for the recap, and nice work on that peak!


Brian Thomas
User
The wind was bothersome
07/17/2015 10:33
That’s an understatement


SES_17
User
Fun Facts!
07/17/2015 10:38
Thanks for the great pics and interesting tidbits of the area. I was on Castle the day after you and the glissading was amusment park fun!


Jay521
User
As usual...
07/20/2015 08:46
... you write a great report, Brian. I appreciate the history and the botany lessons! And I love the line "jogging to stay up with Sen". Ain’t THAT the truth! Wish I could have joined you.



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