Altitude: Castle Peak: 14, 265. Conundrum Peak: 14,060
For detailed information on driving directions, hiking distances, and routes, visit : http://www.14ers.com/photos/peakmain.php?peak=Castle+Peak
It’s cool and quiet and dark when we wake up at 5:20 a.m. to get ready for our first (and probably last) 14er hike of the summer. Without too much conversation, our group of six starts the drive up the rough road toward the peaks. We drive a couple miles up the road and find a spot to park; jeeps and dirt bikes have the freedom for a further journey on the bumpy road, but we can only go so far. By the time we start hiking the sky has lightened, and the higher the climb the more we can see the sun bringing pink light to tops of the Elk Range. The skies are crisp and blue, just what we want as we climb toward the treeline.
The first part of the hike is spent getting to the end of the road. The trail begins in a scree field, which is, I’ve learned, a clumsy gal’s enemy. Carefully and quite slowly I choose my footing on each rock, moving quickly away from those found to be unstable. I love to scamper on big rocks, but little rocks that slip and slide beneath me… not my favorite. But little did I know that this was sturdy ground compared to the scree still to come. So up and up the scree field we went until we reached the backside of a ridge that climbs to the summit of Castle Peak. Here we went along on small, tight, steep switchbacks that led to a relentless, steady, climb to finish off the stable trail section of the ridge. At the top of this ridge we stopped for a moment to enjoy views of the Elks all around us, the sun still settling into the lower valleys. Then began the little bit of climbing, at which time we realized how crumbly this mountain is! The rock climbing was fairly easy, more of a mental challenge than a physical one as the path began to narrow. In times like this, I am always ultra-aware of my big, clumsy feet and hands! And after a bit of narrow traversing and climbing over jagged rocks, it was a 15 foot scramble on loose gravel to the top. I suppose if your body is moving faster than the gravel underfoot, you’re going to be just fine.
Of the few 14ers I’ve climbed Castle, and the upcoming Conundrum, were
definitely the least crowded. Sometimes the thought of the 14er crowds are enough to keep Alex and I away; we’d rather go find quiet places in wilderness most of the time. There were only three other people on top of Castle Peak and we stopped briefly for a snack and pictures.
“Cece, do you want to go on to Conundrum?” Alex’s uncle asked as the group discussed our next step.
“Sure,” I shrugged. Then two in our group headed back down to the car and the rest of us went down the other side of Castle toward Conundrum Peak, at 14,060 feet.
The scree on this descent was much scarier than the first batch, and there’s also that thing called gravity that can be quite unfriendly when you’re going downhill on unstable trails. With caution, we made it to the saddle and began to cross toward Conundrum Peak. The comparative flatness of the saddle served as a bit of a break from the leg-shaking downhill, and on the other side of it we of course began to go up. Again, we climbed tight switchbacks and then crossed a flat boulder field on top of a peak. We then went down the other side of that peak and up the loose back of Conundrum. This journey was well worth the extra bit of effort to be on top of a second 14er before 10 a.m.
Now, for our final descent we had two choices: go back across the saddle, up Castle, and down the trail we came up on or descend from the Conundrum-side of the saddle. In the interest of not back-tracking, the choice was obvious. So, we reached the saddle and instead of going across we began to go down.
Behold, batch number three of scree!
This is where I employed my Yoga/Pilates breathing. Deep breathing is how I stay mentally calm in physically intimidating situations. If you’ve climbed harder 14ers than this (and there are many) you might think I’m a bit wimpy. Then again, I have employed my Yoga/Pilates breathing in situations that I now look back on and don’t find scary at all. This is great because I know I’ve grown a bit in my outdoor pursuits! But really, I had seen people on the saddle as we were heading Castle and I had wondered how in the hell they were going to get off the saddle; it was one of those bits of trail I had looked at and thought, ‘I would never want to do that,’ but then here I was about to do it. So, getting down off this saddle was like snowboarding on foot. I put my right side downhill, side-stepped when possible, and mostly slid with the ground below me and aimed for larger, stable rocks to wedge my foot onto and take breaks. And, of course, there was a lot deep breathing. When we reached the bottom of this we got to have a little fun and relief: my first glacade down a snow field!
After watching Alex to get an idea, I plopped down and went sledding down the 100 (ish) yard-long snow field on my butt. From there it was just more rock-hopping and scree-navigating and one more glacade until we were back on solid ground and cruising down the road to our car.
Besides getting our 14er hike in, this was the weekend of Alex’s family’s second annual family camping trip, so we got to come back and relax in a camp full of friendly faces and good food and booze!