Peak(s):  Castle Peak  -  14,274 feet
Conundrum Peak  -  14,037 feet
Date Posted:  02/08/2021
Date Climbed:   01/15/2021
Author:  supranihilest
 Ice Castles   

Castle Peak and Conundrum Peak were my second and third fourteeners. I climbed them in August, 2015 and found them crowded and crumbling. I didn't particularly like them and hadn't really even noticed that under that thick layer of choss were a pair of magnificent and beautiful mountains. I obviously didn't consider climbing them in winter, either then or for a while, but as I chipped away at the snowflake list they crept into the back of my mind as the two easiest Elk fourteeners in winter. I knew I could do them even if I couldn't or didn't want to do the others, I just had to wait for the right conditions. Castle and Conundrum are serious mountains in winter. Not that they require difficult climbing or overnight approaches, but they pose a significant avalanche risk, spending hours in avalanche terrain and crossing many nearly unavoidable avalanche slopes. Some have even ominously called Montezuma Basin the Valley of Death in winter...

So naturally when conditions were ripe I had to go check out what all the hubbub was about, right? They won't climb themselves! Fortunately I didn't have to do any real research on these two, since they follow the standard northeast ridge of Castle up and down. I arrived in Aspen the night before and drove the long road to Ashcroft. I'd been here in December for an attempt on Malemute with Whiley and was amazed that they plow the road the 12 or so miles to Ashcroft, and amazed that they don't plow the additional two miles to the end of the road, but do groom it. I guess it's left unplowed for snowmobilers and skiers, but it just seems like they're the same amount of work to not make anyone's lives easier. From Ashcroft the grooming makes things go quickly at least, and with an early start in darkness I arrived at the 2WD Castle Creek Trailhead in short order.

I had a good ski track to follow from the Castle Creek Trailhead and hadn't even thought about putting on spikes or snowshoes. Partway up I ran into a mostly eaten animal carcass, only bones remaining.

A sign of things to come?

I continued past my warning sign on the still good track, which I was lucky enough to have go all the way past Montezuma Basin Road. I was able to boot the first five or so miles to the turnoff! What a time and energy saver! When I was here in December it took four hours of plowing through knee deep sugar in snowshoes as opposed to two hours booting today, so I was very happy to have the track in place. There was evidence of an old trench up Montezuma Basin Road, but I took about three steps off the main ski track and immediately was postholing to my knees, so I stopped to throw on my snowshoes.

Soft light on the approach.
Greg Mace Peak's north face.

I followed the obvious trench on the obvious road as it wound its way up into Montezma Basin. From the moment I left Pearl Pass Road my head was on a swivel. Alertness level 11. To this point there was indeed some avalanche danger, as evidenced by the huge paths that crossed the road lower down (likely from the historic 2018-2019 season), but this is where it really began.

Map I created showing most of the avalanche danger on the route. The purple line is my track and the Pearl Pass/Montezuma Basin junction can be seen on the lower right. There's some low probability slide areas on the lower approach and I didn't draw in the obvious upper basin areas near the peaks; Conundrum was super loaded and Castle was mercifully dry. Do not misinterpret the green area in the middle, IT IS NOT SAFE. Source map:

Directly west of the road were walls steep enough to slide if they were to hold enough snow. I quickly gained ground and got views of the real issue with this route - Malemute Peak's south slopes.

Malemute Peak.

I approached slowly as there were also loaded north facing slopes to my left. I was really in the Zone now. The Avalanche Zone.

Some evidence of avalanches here already.

I crept up the road and into the flats between the far north side of Castle and Malemute's south side. The old trench took me dead ahead while the road switchbacked off to my right. I followed the former, no reason to waste time on the road if I didn't have to.

Up the middle.

This is where things started to get spicy. Now the trench went directly up a steep-looking slope. I say steep-looking because even if it wasn't actually steep, it damn sure looked like it. Everything looks steep in winter and I pretty much always go by the rule of everything is steep even if it isn't.


I engaged the heel bars on my snowshoes, took a deep breath, and started up the slope. I went quickly and turned off the trench onto the road when they met, but wasn't out of the woods yet.

Back on the road.

I sidehilled along the road and was pleased to find the snow seemed very stable. Much of it was powdery and non-cohesive, but there were occasional hard slabs as well. I reached another set of switchbacks and followed the track directly between them and onto another longer section of straight road.

Between the switchbacks.
Less concern here sticking closer to the rocks on the left.
Still a long way to go. Conundrum looming in center.

Though the sidehilling on the drifted snow on the road was annoying, I was feeling a lot more confident about its stability. Every step was a re-evaluation of the snow, but signs were "go". Eventually I got to a point where I was forced across a steep, loaded slope. This was the first time I hesitated. Do I go back...

The "road," if you will.

... or do I go ahead?


There were some rocks poking out of the snow so I kept my hands on them just in case, and slowly made my way across the slope. I didn't like it, but it was stable just like everything else, and soon I was across to the flats below the headwall.

Breath of fresh air after crossing so much nasty snow!

There was one final questionable snow slope, again unavoidable. Straight up to the safety of rocks was the best option, so straight up I went!

More snow, this time north facing.
Conundrum Peak! Conundrum Couloir is off on the left.

Trail segments through the rocks helped speed things up so I wasn't clanking and clanging up them in my snowshoes. As I rounded the top of the headwall I got my first views of secluded Castle.

"Peaking" out.
Castle's north face in full, looking exceptionally dry (sigh of relief).

The trail up the ridge was also looking to be in good shape. Snow on the trail itself, dry elsewhere. I could finally let my avalanche guard down some.

Trail across Castle's northeast ridge.

I started up the trail on my snowshoes and eventually took them off and left them behind. The trail was too dry, and there was some scrambling ahead. I had forgotten how rotten Castle was, but the scrambling was no more difficult than Class 2+ until the final summit block. Winds in the upper basin were cold and biting, and my hands felt half numb. It was manageable and I was glad the climbing wasn't harder!

Start of the ridge proper.
Steep slip'n'slide ahoy!
There are trail segments along the ridge to bypass most of the crumbling gendarmes.
Almost at the summit!

About 100 feet below the summit there was a short section of Class 3 topped with a snow climb to the summit. The cleft I scrambled up was rotten and unpleasant with a steep, cliffy runout below, but the alternatives on the north face were worse. I took my time with it and made sure everything I grabbed was definitely attached. The snow covered loose talus but wasn't much of an issue, and a minute or two later I had breached the Castle.

Doesn't look like much but the runout to the left was no joke.
Conundrum Peak from Castle.

The traverse out to Conundrum and back to Castle was easy and fun and made for a nice cherry on top of the Castle climb. There was some loose rock and a bit of Class 2+ scrambling, but it was a breeze, and by now my hands had returned to a normal temperature.

Looking up Conundrum's southeast ridge. Nothin' to it.
That's some fine lookin' Elk choss if I do say so myself.
Conundrum's summit ridge.

Conundrum has two summits, the northern of which is the true summit. A notch separates the two, with Conundrum Couloir dropping into Montezuma Basin to the east.

Conundrum's true northern summit.

The views in the Elk are really something else in winter. I was glad to have them to myself.

Castle Peak's north face.
Cathedral Peak.
Maroon Bells and Pyramid Peak.
Conundrum's southern summit.

The return trip to Castle took a little longer, but not by much.

Castle's northwest ridge.
At the saddle.
Montezuma Basin from above.
Ramparts to the southeast of Castle.

The Class 3 scramble that seemed difficult before was easier on the way down, though the exposure was still something to be careful of.

Just a wee dropoff.
A body length or two down, then skirting to the left.
Back on the ridge proper. The trail down the lower ridge can be seen on the left.

The hike back into the basin went quickly and I was once again faced with all of my snowy death traps. This time I didn't have a choice but to continue, it's not like I could spend the rest of the winter up there! I tried to go as quickly through the basin as I could so as to spend as little time on suspect slopes as possible. No mas por favor!

Some of the terrain in the middle part of the ridge. Giant heaps of talus everywhere.
Lower ridge back to the top of the headwall.
Into the basin, staying on rock as much as possible.
I love snowshoe tracks.
Endless avalanche terrain.
Final bit of clenching to get down to the flats and easier road. Note the numerous small avalanches in the shadows.

Once back to the lower basin I again lowered my guard. Not much to worry about now, just a long hike out. I took my snowshoes off when I reached Pearl Pass Road, then booted back to Ashcroft. It was nice to again have it all to myself. I hadn't seen a single other person all day, even on the well traveled road.

Greg Mace Peak.

Light was beginning to fade when I got back to Ashcroft, as was my energy. Castle and Conundrum had really taken it out of me! I felt good having gotten these two though, even if they're "easy," given the consequences of misjudging the conditions. It also puts the bigger, harder peaks into perspective. It takes guts, skill, and luck to climb those ones. I don't know if I'll ever get there, but I got these and I got back. That's all I could ask for.


Climbers: Ben Feinstein (myself)
Trailhead: Ashcroft Townsite (two miles from the 2WD Castle Creek Trailhead)

Total distance: 18.18 miles
Total elevation gain: 5,888 feet
Total time: 10:30:05
Peaks: One ranked fourteener, one unranked fourteener

  • Castle Peak, 14,265'
  • Conundrum Peak, 14,060' (unranked)


Starting Location Ending Location Via Time (h:mm:ss) Cumulative Time (h:mm:ss) Rest Time (m:ss)
Ashcroft Castle Creek Trailhead (2WD) 0:44:46 0:44:46 0:00
Castle Creek Trailhead (2WD) Montezuma Basin Road 1:15:31 2:00:27 0:00
Montezuma Basin Road Castle Peak 3:28:07 5:28:34 0:00
Castle Peak Conundrum Peak 0:38:36 6:07:10 0:00
Conundrum Peak Castle Peak 0:47:37 6:54:47 0:00
Castle Peak Montezuma Basin Road 1:53:23 8:48:10 0:00
Montezuma Basin Road Castle Creek Trailhead (2WD) 1:03:24 9:51:34 0:00
Castle Creek Trailhead (2WD) Ashcroft 0:38:31 10:30:05 Trip End

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

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59

Comments or Questions
02/08/2021 17:29
Love the pictures

Nice Double
02/08/2021 20:39
The photographs are wonderful, especially the picture of the bells and pyramid.

Nice pics
02/08/2021 21:32
Great shots, much clearer than when I was up.

02/08/2021 22:08
Thanks all!

@Will: what a difference two days makes. You were up there just before me and it's a whole different mountain.

two lunches
better call kenny loggins
02/09/2021 11:24
cause you're on the hiiiiiiiighway to the avvy zone

*chugging guitar*
02/09/2021 13:19
*doing backflips all the way up and down C&C*

I missed out
02/09/2021 14:25
Great report! I should have gone on this one.

02/11/2021 08:33
Danger Zone!!!! hah

Ze Zone of ze Daynjah
02/14/2021 22:44
@Judd: You'll get these amigo, I know it!

@Trotter: *jets and missiles and aerial maneuvers*

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