Conundrum Peak

Trail: Conundrum Couloir, Class 2, ~ 3 miles,  ~2000 ft elevation gain

After a spring and summer of snow, rock, mixed, and international climbs I have decided to get back into 14er bagging.  The fall season is just about perfect for me. The crowds are gone and the conditions are a bit bit harsher making the hiking and climbing up the 14ers more interesting.  My initial goal for this weekend had been to slog up Columbia peak and finish the Sawatch 14ers but reports of good snow conditions in The Castle/Conundrum area changed my mind.  Castle Peak was the first thing I did that felt really alpine and got my blood boiling for harder climbs and I wanted to see how it would feel after a couple years of experience. For my perspective on this climb when I was a gumby check out CASTLE  I think the clothes I was wearing are the funniest part.

My initial goal for the 14ers had only consisted of the list of 54 peaks but when I learned that El Diente and North Maroon weren't 'official' 14ers I switched over to the list of 59 14er's which also includes Conundrum Peak.  For people unfamiliar with the 14er lists there are certain rules such as needing to gain 3000 feet to consider a peak climbed or requiring a 300 foot drop between summits to consider them as separate peaks.  Since something like 70 percent of 14ers are simple walk-ups or people consider Lincoln and Bross separate peaks but not Massive and North Massive I find it hard to take these rules to seriously and have aimed for a broader list of 14ers which include five more peaks (OK, even I have a hard time counting Cameron).

The choice between slogging up another tedious Sawatch 14er or getting a good couloir climb in (IN OCTOBER!) and finishing the Elk range was easy to make. Not only had I not been to the Elk range in 2 years and not only was it my favorite range but it is pretty rare to get good safe snow climbing in October. With this decision made all that was left was to see if Dave Pneuman and my wife would switch over as well. After a bit of pleading everyone was on board and we met at my house on Friday the 13th, October, 2006, at 5:00.  

We packed up my truck and headed out. The drive itself went pretty smoothly and we arrived at the trailhead around 10:30 at night. Amazingly enough the road was dry up to 12,00 feet but there was nowhere good for Dave to set up his tent so we drove back down to treeline where we found a decent spot. Jen buried herself in her sleeping bag and went right to sleep.  Dave and I hung out and drank beers until around midnight and then turned in.  

We all woke up at 6:00 am and gathered our gear. We then hopped back in the truck and drove another 1.3 miles up the road to about 12,000 feet before finally stopping.  The road past treeline is a pretty rocky 4wd road and requires some care to navigate but is much easier than either South Colony Road or Lake Como Road.  I never see any point in adding hiking up a dirt road to a climb if it can be avoided.  We took our time and made breakfast before setting out.  I'm not really sure when we started but it was probably around 8:00 or so.  At one point a truck loaded up with skiers passed us (they parked maybe another quarter mile up the road. I would later find out one of them was the guy who gave me the beta on both the road conditions and snow conditions.  He goes by ISKIBC on Teton Gravity and it is well worth checking out his trip reports, he has skied various lines like the North Couloir on Pacific and the Landry line on Pyramid peak, these are tough enough climbs let alone ski descents so I tend to accept his judgement calls on snow conditions.

A Beautiful Sunrise

Starting The Day

The Views Along The Road

As it turned out it was a good idea to stop where we did because the road became too snowy to drive in another half mile and we had found a pretty good pullout. The walk up the road was uneventful but the views were spectacular.  The clouds overhead made it pretty clear that we would be spending our day getting snowed on.  After a short while we came to the base of Montezuma Basin and the first snowfield.  I could see the skiers already on top of the Castle/Conundrum saddle. These guys moved like animals.  We plodded along much more slowly than these guys but being in deep snow, in October, made it too much fun to care what the pace was. I postholed up the right side of the field until reaching the basin below the peaks.  The snow here went from knee to thigh deep and was strenuous to climb but the new gaiters I was wearing kept me dry. 

The First Snowfield

Posthole Fun

It's Hard To Believe This Was October

Once Jen and Dave and I all regrouped at the top of the first snowfield we decided to throw on a few more layers of clothing.  The wind was picking up and it was beginning to snow harder so we figured goggles and jackets were a good idea.  After layering up we turned and headed up towards the couloir.  Dave started up the couloir first and broke trail about a quarter of the way up.  At this point we noticed that the skiers had already come down the North Couloir on Castle Peak and were below us.  I inquired about the conditions of the couloir they skied and they said it was slabbing and dangerous.  Dave and I had thought this might be the case but figured it was worth checking.  Our original plan (if the weather held) was to summit Conundrum , climb over to Castle, and then come down the opposite ridge back to the first snowfield.  I had been optimistically hoping to glissade the couloir on Castle but this was clearly not a good idea.

Our Goal,  The Conundrum Couloir

Starting Up The Couloir

Jen Coming Up The Couloir

After Dave broke trail up the couloir for a time I took over and kicked steps up to the first constriction.  At this point the snow really deepened and I let Dave take back over.  Being taller it was easier for him to work his way through this section.  Once we were passed the deep stuff we waited for Jen to rejoin us and then continued up.  When we were about three quarters of the way to the top I took the front again and kicked steps up to the ridge at the exit.  The snow in the couloir was really good (except for maybe 30 feet of hollow sounding stuff) and did not require crampons.  I'd say it might have gotten to 50 degrees for maybe 5 feet on occasions but was probably 40 degrees or less for most of the stuff above the constriction.  My only complaint with this particular couloir is that it is quite short.  If there is a lot of snow at the base this might be a very good first snow climb for people.  If the snow at the bottom is melted out or if the temperatures are high enough that rockfall is a hazard then it would not be a good beginner climb.

Some Steeper Stuff

Jen Topping Out

Dave At The Top

Once we had exited the couloir it was pretty clear that conditions were deteriorating rapidly.  The snow was worsening and the wind was really picking up. Fortunately for us the summit of Conundrum was a quick hop, skip, and a jump up some snowy rock.  We paused briefly enough to say a round of congratulations then headed towards the saddle between Castle and Conundrum.

Heading Up To The Summit Of Conundrum

Heading Towards The Castle-Conundrum Saddle

The Weather Was Pretty Obnoxious

As we were making our way towards the saddle I told Jen and Dave it was entirely up to them if we went up Castle, I was really hoping they would veto this idea but having summited Castle before figured I shouldn't offer any input one way or the other.  Thankfully Dave left it up to Jen who opted to return another day.  Since it was windy, 20-25 degrees, and snowing pretty hard I was happy with this decision.  Before leaving the saddle we spoke with another group of skiers who were skiing down the slopes beneath the saddle.  Two of their friends were heading up to the summit of Castle to ski the couloir on it.  They had not returned by the time we passed their friends parked on the road an hour or so later so hopefully made it out OK.

We all plunge stepped down about 100 feet to a rock band below the saddle.  At this point the the angle eased and we were well protected from the wind.  I glissaded down to the basin and was joined by Jen and Dave shortly.  While waiting for them to paddle down the deep snow I was witness to a huge rockfall from the cliffs below Conundrum.  It was pretty impressive and scary to watch the rock hurtle down 500 vertical feet and land a hundred or so yards away from me.

The Saddle Between Castle and Conundrum

Once we were back in the basin it was pretty straightforward but still quite strenuous to posthole our way back down the first snowfield to the road.  The hike out on the road was pretty easy and the hardest part of  the day was actually driving down the 4WD road which had picked up a good bit of moisture.  As usual I had to get a picture of a stream crossing.

Another Fun Stream Crossing

The drive back to Boulder took around five and a half hours but I stopped frequently for coffee, food, and gas.  All in all it was a great day.  I got to go up a snow couloir in October.  I got to finish the Elks (only the Sawatch and San Juans left), and I got to revisit a place that really started my enthusiasm for technical mountaineering and find that it was now a pretty mellow experience for me.  Next week I plan to hit Columbia and finish out those accursed Sawatch 14ers.  If Dave is free we'll be heading up in his camper so I'll get to sleep in a bed and cook food indoors before the climb.
Many Pictures Courtesy Of Dave Pneuman

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