Castle and Conundrum Spring Ski Descents

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Date: June 13, 2009
Partners: Jon Osterbrock, Matt Kamper, Nathan Hoag
Route:  Conundrum Couloir climb and ski, Castle North Couloir climb and ski
Stats:  5,300‘ climbed, 3,400‘ skied, 9 Miles, 8 Hours

Castle Peak`s North Face, June 2009. Photo by Matt.

Jon, Matt, Jon‘s buddy Nate, and I motored to Aspen this past Friday night with the intent of skiing Castle and Conundrum.  We were able to drive up the Montezuma road to around 10,800 ft (there was no use trying to get higher due to a monster snow drift blocking the road). It‘s not the best elevation I‘ve ever achieved on this road but it was good enough. Bivy sacks and sleeping bags went down next to the car and the four of us were asleep shortly after. The alarm went off at 3:30am and we hit the trail at 4:30.

Thanks to Matt‘s killer pace right out of the gate we were able to reach the top of the jeep trail in an hour and a half, seeing a sunrise from this basin is one of the better experiences I‘ve had in the mountains this year.

A crisp, clear day was born as the tips of the surrounding peaks turned bright gold one by one. A hard sheet of white stretched out beneath us and made for the perfect booting surface.

We hit the mouth of the Conundrum Couloir at 7am on the dot. Recent avy debris littered the slope, upon further inspection it was obvious that a wet slide had released from just below the cornice and cleared the entirety of the couloir. More so, the cornice guarding the finish was enormous, much larger than I‘ve seen on my previous spring outings. But just like in many life ventures, timing is everything. After poking around a bit we were very confident in the freeze, and we knew we would easily be off Conundrum by 9am, so we headed on up.

The crew in the Conundrum Couloir.

We made quick work up the couloir; good freeze or not I don‘t think any of us were fond of being under that cornice longer than we had to be. Once out of its fall line, we took a long break on a ledge just below the summit ridge.  After regrouping, it was off to the summit.

Cathedral from Conundrum’s summit.

At 8am Jon, Matt, and I were clicked in and ready to ski off the top. Nate elected to start the day a little further down on our break ledge. I know that many parties (probably the majority) ski from the top of the couloir, but skiing off the true summit adds an additional element: an interesting move on skis that was actually really fun to figure out. Off the top a few sidesteps, a glide forward, a step down, a glide backwards, and finally a jump turn granted us access to the top of the couloir.

Looking down off the top after Matt completed the move.

We then took turns skiing around the cornice.

We regrouped on our break ledge as Nate was strapping on his board. We all noted at this point that the couloir was predominantly ice, so calculated skiing was in order.

I led this time. Photo by Matt.

Jon skiing the Conundrum Couloir.

Then we had a minor scare. As Nate completed his first few turns in the upper couloir, I noticed his board chattering quite a bit. Then in an instant he was on his butt and picking up speed, then tumbling down past where I was positioned. Matt was still above us and couldn‘t really see what was happening, and Jon caught the second half from his position below. From where I saw it Nate was looking to clear everything okay, then he took a turn for a rock outcropping, then got spat back to the center of the couloir without a second to spare. He came to a stop near the bottom and to my extreme relief, flashed his hand up to signal he was okay. I did manage to get a few pictures of Matt coming down, then we skied over to Nate to assess the damage, which was thankfully nothing more than a bloody nose and a fat lip.

Here‘s Matt skiing Conundrum Couloir. Icy but still fun.

At this point Nate decided he was going to just chill in the basin and forgo Castle, understandable given the tumble he took. He dealt with it very well actually, I‘d have been more rattled I think. Jon, Matt, and I skied over to the base of Castle‘s North Couloir where we ran into our friend Alex Hudgins and exchanged a few words. A nice staircase was already set for us so the climb went quickly.

Nearing the top of Castle Peak with Conundrum in back.

We hit the top of Castle and got ready to ski. I must say the East Face looked to be in excellent condition and we [i]almost[/i] skied it, but it was a little too late in the day and we didn‘t like the prospect of ending up in a different drainage with no way of signaling Nate. We debated it for several minutes, but decided to stick with the original plan. Skiing right off the top of Castle does require you to flirt with the East Face so we got some views, it would have been a dream ski if the situation was right. Anyhoo…

Off the top for the second time today. Gotta love the Elk Range summit views.

We skied to the first place we could traverse out to the North Face and decided a “detour” was in the cards. A few turns high on the face and we were back in the couloir for some of the best powder turns any of us have ever made. The snow was absolutely perfect; tons of it, at a good angle, in an amazing setting. It was a great run…

Matt went first and in typical fashion, skied almost the entire thing continuously so we have few pictures of him.

I went second – flirting with the East Face. Photo by Jon.

Jon’s turn.

We skied out and met up with Nate who was almost as good as new, then we had another two thousand or so vertical to ski. Nate did get some good turns in for this segment of the descent so he was happy.

The skiing took us to 11,400‘ where were finally forced to give it up.  An hour hike and we were back at the car enjoying some cold ones, with two more descents under our belts.  There‘s still some good snow up there people, go get it!  Thanks for reading.

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