Castle & Conundrum Peaks
September 14, 2003 - North Face Direct & Connecting Ridge
The thought of climbing Castle Peak for a third time was tempered only by the opportunity to climb Conundrum, the adjacent sub peak I skipped twice before. Conundrum in an of itself was not sufficient to bring me from Cheyenne to the Elks, instead the opportunity to help “Reach Around” nab two more 14’ers was the draw.
The day before, we had attempted the North Bell with a group of four but failed due to snow conditions and fatigue. Two members of the group were one-day climbers, leaving Reach and me to climb Castle the next day and giving him his 27th 14’er, i.e. the halfway mark of the quest. After getting some feed in Aspen, we camped on the road leading up to Castle and were out by ten p.m., comforted somewhat by the late start we planned . . . on the trail by 6 a.m.
The alarm went off at 5 and I debated a return to the ways of the Cottoneer but within a few minutes we were both able to bring ourselves to dress, drink some juice, eat day old donuts, and head for the trailhead. Of course you can drive to 12,500 feet on Castle but I’ve always made the climb from the 11,000-foot contour and Ed agreed that since he was officially peak bagging, he had to do the same. We parked the Blazer in a wide spot and after pumping a bit of water for the nalgenes; we were on our way at just a few minutes after six. The morning was cold and crisp, about 20 degrees but the weather forecast promised a sunny day and the abundance of stars in the clear sky led us to believe this would be the case.
Our walk up the road went quickly and we were soon at the high flat spot where multiple trucks are usually parked in the Cottoneering season. The snowline began at just over 11,000 feet but the road was fully melted off but for the last half-mile or so. We climbed the mound at the fore of the parking area and found a vista of white and generally well crusted snow. A line of tracks snaked their way up the first moraine and after stumbling over and into a few post hole leg breakers, we hit a packed trail and a set of well kicked steps leading to the top of the first rise. Once atop the rise, we had to decide whether to take the ridge route or continue up the valley to climb the headwall separating Castle from Conundrum. The ridge route looked a bit snowy and rather than fight a snow sloped trail, we took the straight-ahead option and headed toward the headwall.
As we rounded a curve in the trail and dropped off some rocky high ground, I turned to Ed and suggested that instead of taking the headwall and the well-traveled path up to the saddle, that we instead take a direct route up the north face of the peak. I had read of a route up the face in Dawson’s guidebook but instead of taking the couloir that provides a route up the left side of the face, we chose the center couloir and the challenge of breaching some small cliff bands either by climbing or various slot moves through weak areas in the cliffs. Now the cliffs are not that large and from a distance it appeared that we could meander our way up and around while still holding a fairly well centered line.
We cut a gently climbing path across the snowy bowl, aiming for a band of exposed scree below the main face. The scree was semi frozen but we did not come there to climb scree, so we went over to the adjacent snow. The snow was in fine shape, a single layer, no facets, not obvious signs of instability and still frozen enough to take a good kick or two to set the foot halfway in. Up we went, passing off the lead once or twice before we reached the first obstacle to our progress. The ten to fifteen foot rock band consisted of two five-foot pitches, separated by a snowy slope. Ed made the first climb and I followed, we then shifted a bit left and made our way up the second half of the move. Then more snow and another similar but higher and tougher band to cross. But . . . after looking left, we saw a narrow cleft that would provide a means of bypassing the steeper ground. We waded through the slot and took off upward on more snow to the base of the summit itself.
At this point, just below the summit, we were looking at a solid class 5 pitch versus a jog to the left and completion of the climb on the final few feet of the ridge route. We chose discretion over valor and moved left to finish up the climb. The summit was soon ours and we took a break before down climbing the ridge to the saddle and adjacent Conundrum Peak. After a bite and drink, we were off and within minutes we were at the base of the climb up the flat-topped sub peak. There was snow for almost the entire ridge and with little additional effort we both scored this subsidiary highpoint. However, we spent little time on the flat ridge summit before moving back down our route and dropping down into the valley below via the snowy headwall. We stepped lively, planting our heels with every bound until we arrived at the flatter ground below.
We paused to look at our route and to chat with the skiers and boarders heading up to the saddle to carve turns through the season's first real snowfall. Then we dropped some layers and headed for the parking bench and road march below. Both came and went soon enough and after just 7 hours, we arrived back at the truck, giving Reach #27 and me a third climb of Castle, by yet another route, and the sub peak for the “base 58” 14’er tally.
Alternate routes . . . Northeast Ridge and Northwest Ridge