Friday, January 11, 2013

PEAK OF THE WEEK: Castle Peak (14,265' / 4348 m)

Castle Peak and the Montezuma Basin
At 14,265' (4348 m) Castle Peak is the tallest mountain in Colorado's prestigious Elk Range and is the 12th highest mountain in Colorado. It is also the easiest 14er in the Elk Range to climb and a rough 4WD road stretches all the way to 12,700'. Fans of the abbreviated 14er experience who have a rugged off-road vehicle can shorten this mountain to a relatively short hike with only 1,500' of elevation gain. Using this method, Castle Peak is one of the easiest big mountains in Colorado to climb in terms of overall effort. However, Castle Peak is not immune to the Elk Range's infamous terrible rock quality, and the route itself does have some exposed and loose class "2+" sections. It is important to emphasize that it is not a walk-up in the same sense as the choss lumps of the nearby Sawatch Range. There is a  trail for most of the climb, but there is usually a permanent snow field to cross as well as several rocky sections that will require the use of your hands and careful attention to footwork.

While overshadowed by its much more famous and impressive Elk Range siblings (the Maroon Bells, Capitol Peak, Snowmass Mountain) Castle still reigns as a sort of redheaded stepchild who happens to be the oldest and biggest. The views from the summit are good and the basin between Castle and Conundrum is well worth exploring. There are several excellent couloirs on both peaks that allow for easy to moderate snow ascents as well as high quality back country skiing descents. Both Conundrum and Castle Couloirs have become more popular in recent years for this purpose.

Hiking along the approach road around 12,000'
Castle Peak is reached from Highway 82 just north of Aspen. From a large roundabout, take the Castle Creek Road turn towards the Aspen Music School, Aspen Hospital and Ashcroft. Follow this winding road along beautiful Castle Creek past the music school campus and some well to do homes. After 11 miles you will reach Ashcroft, a mini-hamlet with an excellent restaurant (The Pine Creek Cookhouse) and some other development. Continue for another two miles to a turnoff at a dirt road (FR 102) before a bridge over the creek. This is your turn. Follow the deterioration dirt road as it parallels the creek. Many passenger cars will park after only about a half mile. There is some free camping available in here as well. This is at around 9,800' elevation. If you decide to continue to the 4WD trailhead, continue along the road as it makes a tough creek crossing that will deter most passenger cars and station wagons (and all vehicles at high water). About two miles further is a common parking spot near the turnoff for Pearl Pass at 11,160'. Only the most rugged vehicles will want to continue past here. Don't go to Pearl Pass (a left turn) but continue along the road for another 2.4 miles to the highest trailhead at 12,800'. This makes your day very short and makes Castle Peak one of the fourteeners you can climb with the least amount of elevation gain.

As previously mentioned, although Castle is technically the easiest 14er in the Elk Range, it is still home to the same notoriously rotten rock that has made the Maroon Bells, Pyramid Peak, and Capitol so infamous. This rock has cost a large number of people their lives throughout the Elk Range. Although Castle is not as exposed or difficult as these other peaks, it is still vitally important to tread very carefully on this loose mountain.


Northeast Ridge (Standard Route)
The Northeast Ridge route on Castle Peak became the standard summer route after a solid trail was constructed through the loose talus on this ridge. From the Castle Creek (standard, see above) trailhead, follow the road to the highest parking lot at 12,800'. Hike south from the parking lot towards Montezuma Basin between Castle (visible ahead) and Conundrum (to the southwest). There is usually a snowfield just past here to ascend. The snow is not particularly steep, but depending on conditions a ice axe might come in handy. After the snowfield follow the distinct trail through the talus as it enters the basin. Soon it will veer left and start to wind up the slope to where it reaches the ridge proper. From here the route gets a bit rougher and more exposed, though with careful routefinding should never exceed class 2. The last bands of rock are a bit steep but not too technical. Enjoy the rounded summit!
blue=Northeast Ridge; green=Castle Couloir; red=Northwest Ridge

Northwest Ridge
Before the construction of the good trail the winds through the talus on the Northeast Ridge route, this used to be the standard way to reach Castle's summit. Today it has fallen out of favor, largely due to the moderate snow climb to reach the saddle between Castle and Conundrum. When the snow melts at the top of this climb a steep, horribly slippery slope caps this route, presenting an even less attractive option. In the winter or spring, however, is snow is abound on both routes, this is probably the easiest and fastest way to reach the summit of Castle Peak. Follow the Northeast Ridge route past the 4WD trailhead and past the first snowfield into Montezuma Basin between the two mountains. Skirt a sinkhole/lake at the base of Conundum Couloir that formed a few years back (some unstable-looking geography through here). Climb the snowfield to the saddle between Castle and Conundrum at 13,800'. This is easiest when there is snow all the way to the saddle, for when the top section melts off (as in the photo above) the last hundred feet or so is on steep, dangerous ball bearings. From the saddle for the blunt ridge to Castle's summit. The terrain shouldn't exceed class 2.

Castle Couloir
A high quality snow climb on Castle Peak when the conditions are right. Follow the Northwest Ridge route into the basing between the two peaks. As you near Castle's North Face, locate the obvious couloir on its east (left) side. This couloir is only in good condition if it has snow for its full length. Climb this couloir for nearly 600 feet where you join the Northeast ridge at about 14,100' for the last pitch to the summit.

West Ridge
The West Ridge on the right skyline
This wilderness excursion offers a unique and exciting way to reach Castle's summit. This would be a good way for the mountaineer that is less concerned about ticking as many 14ers as quickly as possible but really getting the most enriching experience as possible from their mountaineering adventure. This route takes you to the Conundrum Hot Springs, one of the many wonders of the Elk Range. This route is almost certainly done as a backpack as it is 21 miles in length and gains nearly 7,000' of elevation. Most parties will camp at the Hot Springs and attempt the route the following day. While this is a wilderness trek into one of Colorado's most amazing and special basins, don't expect solitude. The Conundrum Hot Springs are notorious for crowds. Avoid holiday weekends and perhaps peak season if don't want to fight for campsites.

From the Conundrum trailhead (see this link for directions to this famous trailhead), hike for 8 miles along the well-defined trail to the Conundrum Hot Springs. This wonderful location is home to two nice hot spring pools at 11,200'. It is hard to beat the hot water at this high altitude. There is also good, designated campsites around the springs. This makes for a dreamy basecamp for your ascent of the West Ridge. Just past the springs, hike along a talus field into a bowl. Continue up along loose rock to a saddle at 13,600 west of 13,803' "Castleabra" (Colorado's 105th tallest peak). Climb up and over "Castleabra" to a 13,600' saddle at the top of "Cunning Couloir" (a reticent and climbable couloir that is also accessed from the Conundrum Trailhead). From here route gets a bit more difficult. Scramble up some class 3 to the summit of unranked Point 13,820. Descend yet again to another saddle at around 13,550' and scramble the last ridge to Castle's summit. Remember, if you are going to descend this route you have to return over Point 13,820 and "Castleabra".


(none available at this time)


Castle Peak on
Castle Peak on

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