The Castle Mountain Conundrum

27 Jul

The city of Aspen is surrounded by gorgeous mountains as far as the eye can see. The people who live here are nature lovers, explorers of the outdoors, and athletes who come here to train (Lance Armstrong has a home next to our concert hall). When mountains surround you, it only makes sense to climb them! At the Aspen Music Festival, we musicians get Mondays off specifically to go hiking. We lock ourselves in practice rooms for hours every day, but sometimes the best inspiration comes from putting your instrument down and taking in your surroundings. The Rockies have inspired so many artists and thinkers, so it’s no wonder musicians come back to Aspen year after year.

The hiking party!

This past Monday, 5 ladies and I decided to climb Mount Conundrum, which sits next to Castle Mountain and has hot springs at the summit. We knew it would be a tough hike as it was 14 miles long and 14,000 feet high, so we set off at 5:30 in the morning with the hopes that we’d be back before the afternoon rain. Hiking here is a completely different experience. Because Aspen sits at 9,000 feet, there is far less oxygen in the air, which makes everything dry. Your body has to work harder to distribute oxygen and maintain normal levels, so working out pumps your heart about twice as much.

There were waterfalls all around us as we climbed the base of the mountain

Before the trail actually started, there was a steep 2 mile rock/dirt road that only 4-wheelers could drive on. Not having the appropriate vehicle, we parked at the bottom of the road and walked up. After what felt like an hour of climbing, we reached the trail! Now begins the fun: we hiked up hill and zigzagged for about three hours, passing stunning waterfalls and smaller mountain peaks. Eventually, about halfway into the hike, the trail just stopped. We hit a valley covered with snow that sat at the bottom of a steep, rock covered mountain. Albeit far away, we could finally see the summit of Conundrum!

snow!

We trekked through the snow until we got to the base of the rocks, which is when things really got sticky… With no trail, we literally got on all fours and scaled the rocks up the side of the mountain. This took forever, as we had no equipment and had to be weary of loose or falling rocks, and we could hear rock slides echoing through from across the valley. A million years later we finally get to another valley, this time covered in ice ponds and beautiful scenery.

Trail blazing on steep rock (we were all balancing pretty hard for this photo)

Since the mountainside was essentially vertical at this point, it took a long time to climb simply because of all the switch-backs (the zigzag trails instead of straight up ones). After another long stretch we made it to the top of the ridge. When I looked up, I saw the most stunning, jaw-dropping view. We could see the Rockies span endlessly in every direction, mountain after mountain.

A view from halfway up the mountain, you can see the rocks we scaled!

The rocks were no longer loose, just large and jagged; it was essentially like climbing a rock wall. About 10 minutes in we hit an impossible cliff, and although we could see people on the summit, we couldn’t find a way to get there! Not to mention if we slipped and fell, we would land about 100 feet down on rocks or ledges. On closer inspection, those on the summit had helmets, harnesses and hooks. Sadly, we decided to play it safe and turn back, rather than risk the climb when we were obviously unprepared. At this point, too, we were simply exhausted. The climb up had worn out our muscles, and the thought of descending was so daunting! We had to shimmy and crabwalk down at first, as it was so steep. When we reached the loose rocks, it was back on all fours, which was nothing compared to the snowy section… The combination of tired limbs plus the sun heating up the snow made for some hilarious face planting. As we were getting off of the snowy path, the guys who were on the summit passed us and said they were so happy we didn’t climb the rest, and that they were anxiously watching at our attempts to find a way without equipment.

Breathtaking views

As we approached the end of our descent, the sky went from being clear blue to Mordor in a matter of minutes. Rain on the mountains is insane. Since you’re already in the clouds, the raindrops are enormous and somewhat painful. As soon as I thought they hurt, it started to hail!! I might still have some bruises. We walked another mile in the hail storm until we reached a campsite, and one of the girls begged a camper to give us a lift in the back of his pickup. We looked like a hilarious and kind of pathetic group: 6 girls, drenched and dirty, piled into the back of a truck. We finally made it to our cars and back home around 4:30pm, where I took what felt like a 3 hour boiling hot shower – it was glorious.

The the next day, one of the girls figured out that we didn’t actually climb Conundrum, but Castle Mountain. Apparently the trails start at the same place and there’s a fork that we missed, a storm probably knocked down the sign. Conundrum was level 2 intermediate, but Castle is a black belt, equipment and experienced only hike. All in all, we were complete badasses, and while my legs are still sore days later, it was SO worth it. The views were out of this world, and the sense of achievement from climbing a mountain is unparalleled. Maybe next Monday we’ll take it down a notch… Then again I still want to find those hot springs!

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2 Responses to “The Castle Mountain Conundrum”

  1. cooking with audrey July 27, 2012 at 1:00 PM #

    LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE this!!!! i’m hoping to move to the mountains soon! it’s just disgusting up there huh?! 😉

    • Michelle@TheDaisyChain August 8, 2012 at 2:25 PM #

      DO IT! It’s so beautiful here. I never want to leave!

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