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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

8 Peaks in 6 Days Part 2: Conundrum, Castle, Pyramid, Snowmass

Peaks: Pyramid Peak - 14,018 feet
Castle Peak - 14,265 feet
Conundrum Peak - 14,060 feet
Snowmass Mountain - 14,092 feet

This report is the second half of the trip that involves the portion of the Elk range 14ers. To read the start of this trip with the San Juan half please click here
This report is the Elks half continuing on the 6 day journey to grab 8 14ers.


Dates:6/9 to 6/17
8 14ers: Sneffels, El Diente, Mt. Wilson, Wilson Peak, Conundrum, Castle, Pyramid, Snowmass
Total Mileage: 63 Miles
Total Elevation Gain: 46K feet
GreatTraverses: Diente to Wilson 4th of 4.
Partners: 3
# of peaks solo: 1
# of fish caught: 10
# of lake jumps: 1

Part 2: The Elks

Day 4: Conundrum Peak (14,060’) and Castle Peak (14,265’)

Route: Castle Creek Trailhead 4wd to 11,000’ (a ways below the Pearl Pass turnoff) and hike to ascend Conundrum Couloir and traverse across the ridge/saddle to Castle and down the Northwest Ridge route on Castle back to Castle Creek.
Mileage: ~9 Miles
Elevation Gain: ~3,500’
Partners: (url: Note: Any pictures with the date in the bottom right corner are courtesy of KansasHiker.
Start:5 AM Finish 1 PM
If you have read any of my older trip reports, you would know that my vehicle of choice for 14er travel as well as get to work on a daily basis has been my 1970 red VW Bus, Pabst. I recently picked up a Toyota Tacoma with a topper since I have that little one on the way. I still have the bus but it is for sale so I didn’t want to haul it around the state on this trip. Anyhow, my new little toy is what allowed me to shave a few miles throughout the week for accessing places I haven’t been able to before.
I awoke at 3:45 am in the back of the truck to a surprisingly cold night. Usually, I just use a tiny blanket but I found myself shivering most of the night in my 30 deg bag with the blanket over that. I guess I should have used the 0 deg down but didn’t feel like getting out. Maybe tomorrow night if I feel like it I will get it out to use. I started the morning with some hydrogen peroxide on my monstrous blisters and doing my daily prep and dressing before getting dressed and getting my approach shoes on. After making my coffee and loading back up the truck, we were driving up Castle Creek road by 04:30AM in the dark. A few years ago around the same time in June, I found myself hiking from the very bottom here, the first river crossing was so deep, it was impassable to vehicles and the second river crossing before pearl pass, the bridge was completely washed out. Since I already hiked this from the bottom once, and I was only back to get Conundrum since the Avy conditions made me uncomfortable to continue on from Castle that time, I did not feel guilty driving a ways. I wanted to play with my truck anyhow and enjoy the fact that I made a smart decision last time to not take the risk and live to climb another day. That said, I was still determined to not cheat. By 4:55 we found a nice spot at a sharp turn at about 11,050 not too far below the pearl pass turnoff. By 05:00 AM, we were on our way with plans to climb Conundrum Couloir first, ridge run to Castle and take the standard route down Castle.
In what seemed like no time at all, we were approaching 12,800’ where the road traditionally ends and even the elite 4X4 cheaters have to start using their own legs. The red line is our approximate path up and the green is down.

After hitting the snow, I had to do the dreaded deed and switch from my approach shoes to the boots that gave me blisters just a few days ago. Immediately after putting them on and 4 days of the blisters being rubbed the wrong way, I was in pain. After a quick adjustment to my boots, we donned the crampons and began our snow up the snowfield to the right. At first, my plan was to contour the snow to the right by the rock for possible escape but we quickly learned that the snow was almost bombproof so we went straight up. I normally use the toe in kick steps technique but with my heel’s conditions, I was forced to use the duck/French step method to make my way up comfortably. It was good to practice something I don’t usually do. We quickly reached the bottom of Conundrum Couloir and the snow was rock hard. Not quite Ice, but definitely rock hard. I was feeling that it was my 4th day in a row “off the couch” for the trip as we began to make our way up.

KansasHiker snapped a photo of me just before we hit the section that was still in shadow due to the reclusive nature of the couloir.

At around the same time. I managed to get one of him.

And he got one looking back…

I was still resting so got one more of him to stall a bit.

Finally… We made the shady section. There were slight remenants from kicked steps on a softer day and even some ski tracks from the past. This snow still in shadow was even harder as expected.

With great pain in my heels, I continued my way up stalling as much as possible while I sucked wind and thought about how much of a couch potato I have been recently.

Almost out of the snow, we made the ridge under the cornice that was solid enough to provide a nuclear shelter. We took our crampons for the short almost 3rd class finish to a beautiful summit.

Conundrum is not on the 54 list of 14ers that people use because there isn’t 300’ rise between the saddle from its big sister Castle to the summit or something like that. Anyhow, the climb of Conundrum couloir is a climb worthy of a 14er and demands its own respect. My theory with the whole list thing is that if it is a mountain, you should climb it. That means there are a lot more than 58 but since I did the 4 great traverses, 3 of those wouldn’t have counted the mountain I traversed either 2 or from either. Numbers are numbers but I personally user the 58 list which seems to be rather standard on . That said, Conundrum makes 54 of 58 for my checklist.
Anyhow, this is looking towards pyramid which is tomorrow’s goal. Pyramid is the closest red one on the front right. I will let you make out the Bells, Snowmass, and Capitol.

A look at me with Castle in the background.

Headed back up the ridge to Castle, there is a decent view of the ridge route on the way down. It appears as if there is a deep notch in the ridge that will require you to eventually pass down to the left of the ridge cliffs but when you get there it is rather apparent that going below would be loose and dangerous and that the notch isn’t really that deep and you should maintain the ridge proper coming down except where the trail skirts a few feet below at times.

In little time with KansasHiker kicking my butt, we make Castle and make return to my first Elk mountain ever. I had already done it a few years ago but this makes 6 in 4 days for me still. We met a couple of skiers on top who climbed Castle up the ridge and were hoping Conundrum Couloir would soften up enough for them to ski it. I would love to ski that couloir but the snow seemed very firm for my liking. After our summit break and a shot of whiskey, I sent an ok message to the several folks tracking me on my borrowed SPOT tracker and we were headed down.

At the start down the ridge, you must stay to your right to keep it at class 2+. Once you make the top of Castle Couloir (the obvious gulley), you should just stay on the ridge for most of the way down.

Making our way down, KansasHiker was hoping we would see the skiers descent but it looked like they may wait a while and we didn’t want to provide and eager audience that would cause them to make any decision they wouldn’t have without one. They seemed like smart guys but we all are guilty of pushing things a little harder when people and were walking. Nonetheless, we weren’t interested in a rescue mission that day so we continued on.

Once we got back to the road below 12,800’ we saw them safely descending to the bottom of the snow and we knew they were good. We made quick work of the switchbacks to the car just below pearl pass. Alright, it was just before 1 PM and we already made the truck. With a quick descent back down the 4X4 and through the river, we made it back to where the pavement meets the dirt and KansasHiker got his vehicle. We agreed to meet at Maroon lakes that night and to start the next day at the same time. I drove straight to Maroon lakes, paid my $10 and parked in the overnight lot. I cleared out the back of the truck, licked my wounds and passed out for a few hours in the cool afternoon breeze. Eventually, I awoke, cooked up some dinner and decided I would have 2 hours to go fishing from 5 to 7 PM in Maroon Lake. We had great luck here a few years ago after the Maroon Traverse pulling out several rainbows so I was excited to try again. I iced my feed in the water as I fished and within 30 minutes I had 2 rainbows that were both about 14” a piece. Since I had no ice, I felt like I couldn’t eat more than that and didn’t see any reason to keep fishing. I cleaned the fish in the river by the car because I didn’t want to leave fish parts in this beautiful lake and then headed down to call the wife to check in real quick. After coming back up, I fried up my fish and talked with KansasHiker about Pyramid the following day. We went to bed around 8PM. The signs indicate that you are not supposed to sleep in the overnight lot and the campground host just happens to be parked right there at the front of the lot. We remained quiet about what we did and didn’t advertise “camping” and no one bothered us.

That is until at about 11:30 at night when I hear knocking on the window on my truck. I thought we had been made and they would make us move. Turns out it was KansasHiker. He was saying the porcupine was chewing on something under his vehicle and he was moving to the day lot to finish out the night. I went back to sleep to be awoken less than an hour later by scratching and chewing sounds. I peered under the tailgate with my headlamp in one hand and .357 in the other. That sneak was now under my vehicle. I didn’t want to fire to scare it and cause a racket so I just kept banging my hand on the truck until he went away. An hour later he was back and we played the same thing again. After 3 times of this I threw a rock at him and he took off not to be seen again by me for the night.

Day 5: Pyramid Peak (14,018’)

Route: Northeast Ridge (Standard Route).
Mileage: ~9 Miles
Elevation Gain: ~4,500’
Partners: KansasHiker Note: Any pictures with the date in the bottom right corner are courtesy of KansasHiker.
Start:4:30 AM Finish 2:30 PM
By 03:45AM I was up again with a poor night’s sleep doing my blister patching routine again. I was pondering my October Adventure when there was probably more snow than at any given time throughout any part of winter.
We got started just about on time and were off up the trail. Being that I have hiked this a couple of times to crater lake, I put my headlamp on dim and let my partner take the lead. Before long twilight was revealing things around us. It appeared we were facing back down the valley and we were at a small lake I had never seen before. Something didn’t seem right. After a bit of back and forth and the GPS showing we were right near the actual trail, we couldn’t figure out what was wrong. We wasted a good 45 minutes before I said we had 2 options. 1. Turn around and go back to Maroon lake and start over. Or… 2. Bush whack up until we met the trail to pyramid somewhere. I knew we would hit it somewhere in the low 10’s. We opted for the bush whack as I commented that the original hard men did it this way without the trail. Turns out as I was making the comment about the deadly bells sign and making my partner feel uneasy, it caused us to miss the split right behind it at the lake. How dumb we felt. That’s navigation 101 right there. This pic is on the way back
After meeting the trail and regaining our composure, we made hasty work of the steep switchbacks between 10,200 and the next 1000’ or so.
We finally had our first views of Pyramid. Looking at the snow on the standard ascent to the right and not knowing how solid it was, we decided to brave the talus hop up the left side to our route making a bee line.
The talus hop wasn’t too gruesome up to 12K where you take the nasty scree to 13K. I called this the stairway to heaven… (without stairs of course). Ascending this sucked and all I kept thinking was that what goes up, must come down.
A short ways up, we found ourselves already taking a break while I adjusted my bandages a bit.
Up, up, and away.
Left, Right, Left, Right and almost there. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
Our approximate route is made apparent for the finish minus the route finding across the backside through the narrows to get to the bottom of the infamous green gulley.
As we ascended the Ridge, Capitol and Snowmass kept growing as though they were telling lots of lies to us.
Making one of our only snow crossings of the day, we navigated to the left of the 15’ ice cornice left just above the saddle that blocks passage to the narrows. Going left and below makes you have to traverse back up along and below it until you regain the trail. If you don’t find the trail, you will cross too low because it looks like the way. We were headed that way until I spotted a cairn and we decided to go check it out. Following the trail up and over, you have to go up some and eventually, you will spot the Narrows. The route finding between the saddle and the narrows seemed to be the crux of the day. It is not super important you find the exact route but finding the Narrows is actually a comforting bonus knowing that you have found safe passage across to the Green Gulley. Here is KansasHiker crossing the narrows. There is some exposure below but it is like walking on flat ground and getting to grab super big super solid hand holds.
After crossing the narrows, we finally made it to a good point where you traverse back across one snow gulley and find yourself on the green gulley. At this point, I decided to leave my boots, axe and crampons tied together and weighed down by rocks. There didn’t seem to be a lot of Marmots here and I figured at least if they chew, they won’t send my stuff careening into no man’s land. Looking at the green gulley from here, it doesn’t even look 4 class. It looks like loose nasty 5th class. This was the first time in my 14er career, traverses included that I felt like I may not do a peak due to difficulty. I contemplated the fact that I may go home with a list of 57. I have never quit at anything in my life but that was scary looking. I figured the best thing we could go do is go at least up to it and look. As soon as I was standing there touching the Green rock, I realized it wasn’t so bad. I began to scramble off to the most fun part of the day with KansasHiker right on my heels.
I would make a few moves and stop as he caught up so we weren’t kicking rocks on each other. Eventually he stayed to one side and me to the other so we didn’t harm eachother. This wasn’t so bad. I was feeling more like we would make it now.
Right on queue, we found the exit to the left of the green gulley well before the end as we spotted a cairn to the left.
From there to the summit it was zig and zag. It is somewhat difficult to follow the cairns if that’s what you are into but just look for the path of least resistance and exposure and bob and weave your way up to the summit. Even for the best of route finders (coming from the guys who couldn’t find the trail to crater lake) it was somewhat challenging to find the right way. I made several mental notes on the way through there of what things looked like to remember for the descent.
We made the summit and I tore into my canned Oysters. #55 of 58 for me. My traditional shot of whiskey took the edge off enough for me to take the dive… NOT. I carefully mounted the diving board for my picture and carefully made my way off. Even though hundreds of folks have stood there, it still looks like it might break off at any time. I just had to do it though. Sorry mom!

And what summit photo from Pyramid wouldn’t include this beautiful Massif. Here is where I tell you that while hiking up Pyramid, KansasHiker asked me what I thought was the hardest 14er thus far barring the added winter difficulties of some of my minimal winter experience. I really couldn’t answer because I felt like all 14er routes were fun. After summiting Pyramid, I would disagree with the general consensus of 3rd place to Capitol and then Little Bear as far as difficulty. Pyramid Peak had the hardest moves, the loosest rock, and the most sustained climbing of any standard 14er route. On top of that, the route finding on this peak is more difficult than any other peak I have seen. It is a real mountain and I confidently told my partner that this was it after being there. Roach is right when he says that a fall anywhere in the last 1000’ will most likely be fatal. I just kept thinking all the way up and down that every step must count and that there are no unimportant steps. Ever since stepping on the Green Gulley, I didn’t lose my confidence in my abilities again as we made our way up and down. I felt confident about the rest of the route from there on out but the mountain tested all abilities.

With wonderful weather and the mountain to ourselves, we began to descend.

In no time at all we were back at the gear stash below the green gulley.

A friend stopped by to visit to tell us we were not alone up there.

Just below the cornice, my phone dinged with a message. I had 1 bar of AT&T service right at about 13,200’ there so I called the wife to let her know I was OK and the hard section was over.

From there we found the top of my stairway to heaven to be what KansasHiker called the Highway to Hell. We made our way back down our least favorite part of the day, hopped the talus, switch-backed the slope and were back to Maroon lake, this time on the trail. We passed several tourists as we returned to the car. After relaxing, eating, cooling off in the river, and re-hydrating, we agreed to meet in Marble where the road turns from paved to dirt for day 6 on Snowmass from Lead King basin. Is it pronounced lead like leader or lead like lead pencil? I made my way back through Carbondale where I picked up some Ice for my beers and back to Marble where I found that where the road turns to dirt is beaver lake. I was a bit early so I tossed a line in the water as I cooked myself some dinner. Within 5 minutes I had another 14 incher. I had some fresh fish to accompany my mashed potatoes. By the time I was done eating, I had a second fish. I cleaned it up and put it on ice to take home since I already had my fill. We agreed that KansasHiker would take his vehicle as far as he felt comfortable where we would then car camp for the night before doing 4X4 to the Lead King trailhead. With some daylight remaining, we decided venture on up the 4X4 road in my rig. Not too long after the river crossing, we found a split in the road. Going right looks immediately intense and left looks more mellow. I decided on right which took us through some gnarly stuff that I don’t think any stock vehicle other than maybe a Jeep Rubicon would be happy on. We went all of the way to 10,700’ before finding a snow patch I didn’t feel comfortable crossing. After turning around and finding the other road again, we tried that one. 35 minutes later, we were near the Trailhead looking at the mountain and noticing that there was almost no snow as we suspected. Glad that we didn’t have to find the unexpected split in the morning we made our way down noting that we would be taking the left there in the morning.
(h2)Day 6: Snowmass Mountain (14,092’)(/h2)
Route: West Face/Gulley/Ridge
Mileage: ~9 Miles
Elevation Gain: ~4,500’
Partners: (url: Note: Any pictures with the date in the bottom right corner are courtesy of KansasHiker.
Start:5:30 AM Finish 3:15 PMish
With a good night’s sleep without the porcupines, I was up at the usual 3:45AM readying myself. By 4:25, we were 4X4ing back up the road. 45 mins later, we arrived at the trailhead to find only one other vehicle. By 05:30 AM we were on the trail. My knee was hurting but the waterfall was beautiful.

3 miles later, we made the dark green Geneva lake. We sipped some water and continued on spotting a good route for the planned S. Ridge.

As we continued up to Gem lake, no good way stood out for making the 12,200’ start on the north side of the ridge so we decided to go with the west face/gulley route since there was still a trail there. We followed the trail back to the river crossing and began our 2,500’ boulder crawl on loose talus and boulders. From near gem lake, the remainder of the route is more or less visible although not apparent at the time that it is the route. The red line is our approximate route up and back.

Once you cross the river, you will see a couple of carins on the other side and then it is pretty much a free for all. There is no perfect route back there that we could find. Make your way up the grassy slopes as you point towards the middle of the far left gulley.

As always the red is our approximate line. As soon as my make the gulley, stick left up to the ridge to maintain easier ground.

As you follow on and off the ridge you see what is to your left. I won’t say what I am talking about but if you are interested, you will know what the picture is and no words of description are required.

Maybe this one will make things a little more clear on what I am talking about.

Continuing to follow to the ridge sometimes wandering the face, the ridge becomes more jagged. We stayed left and then soon crossed over to the right just below the top of the ridge. The red is our approximate line. It is tempting to aim for the left hump, which is not the summit. Aim for the saddle between and do a somewhat committing traverse or cut much loser and right until you find a safe ridge that provides safe passage to the summit.

Here is some of the last bit to the summit.

And looking back at North Snowmass alternate summit that we decided not to hit since 6 days hiking was already enough.

If you are going to take a summit photo, you must be on the summit proper… My rules. We took our turns getting our summit proper photos and then relaxing.

One last day of great weather while we enjoyed Snowmass Lake with the other mountains in the background. #56 was under my feet.

Smooth ground was just a 2,500’ talus hop away.

By the end of the hike, the clouds were coming in darker and greyer. This was the first time I had any storm clouds all week and I didn’t like what I was seeing. Getting back down to Geneva lake, it was almost a race from the storm. At this point I decided I had enough hiking and would save Holy Cross for when I didn’t have to do 27 miles and could have a partner. We drove 4X4 back to KansasHiker’s Car and back to the lake by Marble.

I did it. 60+ miles, 6 days and 46+ thousand feet. Truly amazing. Other than having the extra oxygen, I climbed the equivalent of Everest Sea to Summit one and a half times. What a great week. With only 1 fish in the ice chest, I thought it would be lame to bring just that home so I decided to throw another line in the water. Within an hour I had caught a total of 6 more fish. One snapped my line and one I threw back because it was so small. What great luck. As fast as I could get my bait out there, I was snagging them. I have never had this kind of luck.
By 1030PM I was back home in Colorado Springs soaking in my hot tub and telling my wife the stories of the week. Another journey came to an end and provided me with just another level that I was able to push myself too and many more beautiful scenes and good times with old friends and new. I’m sure I will get Holy Cross sometime this summer and plan to save Huron for September when the thunderstorms calm down so we can bring that pony keg up there and have good weather for the finishing celebration. It will celebrate the end of one era and the beginning of a whole new world for me as I have my first child as well as venture out to see what else this beautiful state has to offer. As always. Thanks for reading and joining in on part of the adventure.
Thanks to my partners who were safe and friendly. Good partners make Great adventures and that is exactly what you guys did. Thanks to summitbound who I bailed on for the wilsons because I couldn’t start that early as well. I apologize for abusing your hospitality in letting me join you guys and not showing up.
See you at the top!

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