Date climbed: August 3, 2016
Elevations: Castle (14,265') Conundrum (14,060')
After an early morning ride up one of Colorado's rougher roads, a stunning view of the Elk Range greeted me at 12,800 feet. Early morning storms were on the way, but an early start would get me out in time. I was tired, hungry, and just wanted a nap, but I still had some climbing ahead of me. I left Denver at midnight and had driven in the wee hours of the morning in order to avoid the coming storms.
Thankfully I had my trusty Clif bars to give me energy and tide me over. So I hoisted my bag over my shoulders and began the walk up the (I am convinced) hidden glacier beneath the surface of the crumbly rock found in Montezuma Basin.
I had never been in a basin that so reminded me of the Karakoram. Granted, the scale was much smaller that the massive peaks found in the Himalaya, but the glaciated basin, the rugged peaks, the crumbly rock, all reminded me of the countless articles, videos, and pictures I had read about the places I would hopefully one day visit. Since I was able to start from very high up, my energy level allowed me to make quick work of the confusing, ankle-twisting, slick trail.
Soon, the sweet kiss of the warm sunlight hit my face and I had a burst of new energy. Although the trail was steep, it did allow for quick progress. I would be the first one to set foot on these peaks on this particular day! Very rarely does one get such a vast beauty as this all to oneself, but I was one of the lucky ones. The ridge (seen above) had some great exposure that was unexpected, but allowed for great views on either side, making the time fly by.
Soon enough the summit was mine, and it wasn't even 8:30! Although, getting back down would be a nightmare once I was on Conundrum (seen above). One day I would return to climb the Conundrum Couloir (the steep snow seen in the broken face of Conundrum). But with the lack of snow, I would now be descending over loose, crumbly, dangerous rock that had claimed more than a few lives in the Elk Range. Anticipating a slow descent, I dashed off for Conundrum, carefully descending the extremely steep saddle.
By 9 I was on top of Conundrum and this spectacular view was mine alone. To the right, you can see the snowfield that feeds the lake. Usually, climbers will descend this snowfield by glissading from the saddle, but obviously it had melted out, meaning I would have to down climb. So I ate a quick "lunch" of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a twix bar, and beef jerky, washed it down with some water, and began my descent. By this point I could hear the echo of distant voices, although I could not yet see them on the upper trail. As I reached the saddle connecting Conundrum and Castle, I had a choice: return over Castle which would mean going back uphill again, or descend a dangerously steep and loose scree field in the hopes that I could glissade the bottom half and save time and energy. I decided to take my chances and descended the saddle.
At first, it was not as steep as I had thought it would be. But I quickly began to descend sheer steps that required hand over foot climbing, on wet and icy rock. It took much longer than it should have, but I safely reached the snowfield and slid the rest of the way on my butt. Soaked and frozen, I stood up and let my backside warm up in the now intense sun. Overhead I could hear the almost constant click clack crumble of the thawing rock and snow that came loose from the direct heat. I quickly traversed around the alpine lake and made my way back to my atv. It was just past 10 when I reached the "safety" of my dependable Suzuki.
Although I still had to descend a rather rough and exposed road, I knew the worst was over. I had grown up on roads like this, and I could sit back and enjoy the scenery. As I descended, I passed hikers on their way up, giving me jealous looks (I couldn't blame them. Road hikes suck). As I descended, remains of old mining shafts and equipment that had been hidden in the dark littered the slopes above. Although I hold that the San Juans are the most beautiful range of mountains in Colorado, I wavered a little at the sheer prominence of the Elk Range. From the lower trailhead, Castle and Conundrum were giants of mountains that rivaled even the Wilsons and Sneffels.
My journey to Castle and Conundrum was over, and it wasn't even 11 by the time I had reached my truck. I contemplated attempting another peak, but the dark clouds and distant rumbles of the approaching storms made the decision for me. Unfortunately, summers are the busiest time of the year for Youth Pastors, so these had been my first peaks since the late spring and before that, my winter ascents. It felt good to get some 14ers checked off after such a long time. "What next?" I thought as I sucked up all the water I could find and munched on candy bars. I had a backpacking trip fast approaching, so any climbs would have to wait until next month. So I loaded up the atv, hopped in the truck and began the long drive home.