My parents were visiting from Indiana and they were kind enough to stay with our children while my wife Debbie and I escaped to Aspen for a few days of enjoying the good life. We left on Wed morning and while climbing Independence Pass we encountered a driving snow storm; hey climbing in the Elk Range is going to be exciting!
I left our hotel at 3:00am (Thursday) for the short drive to the trailhead up Capital Creek. Only a 25 min drive – sheer ecstasy as it was the shortest “commute” to any 14er yet. I parked at the bottom of the 4wd drive road – Saab has low clearance 🙂 and started the hike up with my Petzel headlamp showing me the way. I don’t care what you say; hiking alone through the forest deep in the mountains at night with just an oval light ahead is “interesting”- BUT VERY FUN.
I headed up the rather nice 4wd road that actually goes all of the way to 12,800. I suppose had I had a 4wd truck I would have considered it, but then I would missed out on all of the sights I saw coming down. Also climbing only 1200 or so makes it sort of like an outing to the local rock climbing crags rather than climbing a beautiful mountain. I made it up to the termination of the road by 5:47 am; 2 hours into the walk. From here it was an easy snow climb to a bowl under the north face of Castle.
Unfortunately, this easy climb was ice not snow. But hey, I had prepared for this as I had brought my crampons along and I had even tried them on my light weight hikers and they worked. BUT as we all do, I debated at the trailhead about weight, etc. and had decided to leave them behind :-(. I was able to make progress my staying in a zig zag set of footprints up this first snowfield using my trekking poles for upward support. I decided these poles would work better than my ice axe (on my back) as I needed to concentrate on not falling, not about self-arresting. (This may sound strange but with cupping of the snow and ice I would not slide far)
Once in the bowl, I debated the northwest ridge route over the northeast. The NW was a moderate snow climb, while the other was on a sharp ridge to the summit. I reasoned I could make better time up the snow and later down the rock ridge. I started up the “moderate” snowfield toward the saddle at 13,800.
The snow was even harder, but with more exposure and less cupping. You know, I really like crampons! I could have front pointed up the whole slope in minutes. It was light by this time but the sun was just breaking over the eastern mountains – fantastic ball of orange suddenly illuminated my climbing! It was glorious; being on a mountain at daybreak BY MYSELF in good weather. I reached the saddle at 6:45 and was greeted by 35mph winds coming over the ridge.
I put on my wind gear and headed up the rather interesting ridge to the summit arriving at about 7:00. I huddled under the rock wall Alan Silversteen had probably built 4 years ago and thought about his report about spending the night up there a few years back – that summit had character.
Not really wanting to down climb the still hard snowfield, I chose the northeast ridge for the descent. It was the same rotten rock that the Elk Range is full of, but a straight forward route. I was back to the bowl in short order. At first I thought there were no glissading opportunities due to the large cupping of the snow/ice, but I spotted a glissade track on lower snowfield and took a flyer for about 400′ to get back to the boulder field at the road.
I only saw three people making their way up as I retraced my steps down the road. Two drove all the way to 12,8o8 and one was walking like me. The approach is filled with jagged views and tumbling waterfalls. It rates as my finest approach yet, even over Mt Lindsey. I was back to the car at 9:35, back in Aspen by 1000 and soaking in the hotel hot tub by 1005. This is the way to climb the 14ers in the Elk range as far as I am concerned – hey, sometime you have to take it a little bit easy!!! 🙂 BTW, the Planet Hollywood rest. in Aspen has great pizza!
10 miles round trip, 4500′ elevation gain, 5 hours, 48 mins