The next morning, Carissa and I started out at around 8:30 am to climb Castle Peak. (Lin was having trouble with her feet so she did not join us.) Had we known it was going to be difficult we would have opted for a more alpine start.

Castle Peak, at 14,265 feet, is the tallest mountain in the Elk range (the 12th highest in Colorado) and is also one of the most frequently climbed. From the northeast, there is a very “well worn” route that gets you to the top with little trouble. In fact, you can drive to within about 1500 feet from the summit if you have a sturdy jeep.

The standard routes to ascend Castle Peak is along the northeast ridge (shown in blue on the map). We intended, however, to climb the peak directly from the west from the hotsprings (shown red on the map). The hike from the trailhead to the hot springs is along conundrum creek from the north.

According to our guidebook, the approach from the west is a reasonable climb as well, but it turned out to be much more difficult than we expected. In retrospect, scanning around the web there are several reports of people having trouble on this route exactly the same way we did. The problem, in short, is that the mountain is made of bad rock and is simply crumbling away. There is no clear path up the mountain from the west, just one giant steep slope of scree and talus -–- small rocks that have a tendency to avalanche down the mountain, carrying you with them. (In fact, “scree” is from the norse word for “landslide”. Talus, is from french and means roughly the same thing, but sometimes refers to slightly larger rocks).

Physics 1: Angle of Repose. When rocks are piled on a slope, there is some critical angle of steepness of the slope beyond which the rocks starts falling down the slope. This is known as the angle of repose. If the steepness of your slope is much less than the angle of repose, it is unlikely there will ever be much of an avalanche. If the steepness of the slope is greater than the angle of repose, it is completely unstable and is likely to avalanche at any moment. In the photo here, I am walking over a field of talus that is a bit too close to the angle of repose.

Many physicists have spent many years studying rock-piles and avalanches. What is interesting is that such piles have a tendency to tune themselves precisely to the angle of repose -- an example of what is known as "self-organized criticality". If you assume that the rocks are always being added from above (say, from the mountain itself crumbling higher up), then the angle of the slope continually increases as rocks are added until it hits the angle of repose, then there is an avalanche that reduces the angle a little bit, and the angle starts growing again -- such that the angle of the mountain is always near the critical angle of repose. Another interesting feature is that avalanches occur on all length scales -- sometimes small ones, sometimes huge ones. (For the experts, yes I know that sandpile models do not really behave like real sandpiles and rockpiles, but some of the rough ideas are similar).

At any rate, Carissa is a very experienced climber and is extremely sure-footed and quick over bad surfaces (as well as being very good at trail finding -- to the extent that a trail existed in the first place). At some points I started thinking that she must be half mountain goat. In comparison, I felt very clumsy and slow moving. To make matters worse, there was a great deal of ice, frost, and frozen hail (from the storm the previous night) on many of the surfaces which slowed me down even more.

As shown in red line in the map above, we started by traversing northeast along the side of a smaller mountain (I think called Castleabra) to arrive at a large amphitheater and turn southeast to continue climbing. Half way up the amphitheater, we could finally see the peak, but it was not so obvious how we were supposed to get up from the amphitheater onto the ridge that leads to the summit.

Even from very far away, we could see that there were some people up on the ridge leading to the summit. These people had obviously arrrived on the ridge from the other side of the mountain. A few of them seemed to be looking down at us and wondering how we were planning to get up there. (More likely they were looking to the west to see if any bad weather was heading this way.)

There was absolutely no one else on the west side of the mountain that day. This was actually a good thing. Many times I would accidentally kick a small rock and, with the mountain being at the angle of repose, it would tumble a long way down --- sometimes starting a rather substantial avalanche. I was very careful never to be either directly above or directly below Carissa (although it seemed that she was starting avalanches far more rarely than I was).

Actually, it was not quite true that no one was on the west side of the mountain. Just about at the place where we turned from northeast to southeast, we ran into a large heard of mountain goats. You have to look hard in this photo to see them --- there are about a dozen of them -- they are pure white in the middle of the frame just below the small cliff band. (Maybe they were fooled by Carissa's sure footing and they thought she must have been a mountain goat too so they came over to say hi.)

Our guidebook simply said something like "Continue up to Gain the Saddle between Castle and Connundrum (to the north), then follow the ridge to the summit". This instruction seemed more and more mysterious as we continued up the amphitheater. Here's a picture of Carissa leading the way up a snow field through the amphitheater.

(Yeah, I know, I'm not a good photographer).

Even though we did not have proper snow equipment, the snow was still easier going than scrambling through the nasty scree.

Physics 2: Static and Sliding Friction. Everyone knows this principle: once you are sliding, your friction on the surface goes down and you slide even more. An obvious point here. For God sake, don't start sliding!

The weather pattern in these mountains is that thunderstorms tend to arrive in the afternoon. To add to this, all week long (and possibly all summer long) storms had been rather frequent and severe (as evidenced by the storm the previous evening). The climb had been very slow going, and at about 12:30 we still had a long way to go to the top. There were starting to be some clouds in the west, and we were starting to get worried about how bad the situation would look if a storm rolled in quickly. If we felt exposed sitting in a thunderstorm at 11,200 feet the night before, it could only be worse up on a peak near 14,000 feet.

"Predictions are hard to make, especially about the future" This quote is sometimes attributed to Yogi Berra, and sometimes to Niels Bohr, and on Wiki-Quote it is attributed to Robert Petersen, and I have no idea who that is. Whoever said this, it seems quite true about the weather. The truth is, I know almost nothing about meteorology except the important principle that today's weather is probably going to be like yesterday's. Unfortunately, yesterday's weather (and the day before and the day before) were not so good.

To add to the meteorological concerns, we still did not see how we were going to "Gain the Saddle". Here is a view towards the summit from where we stood. At any rate, given that the path was not at all clear (and perhaps not even possible without more serious climbing equipment), we made the decision to turn around and start heading down. We still had a very long day ahead of us -- as once we reached the campsite we still intended to walk all the way out to the trailhead that night.

Here is a photo of us where we turned around. (Photo was taken by Mr. Timer, not by a mountain goat). You can see a few clouds behind us, and to the south (off left of the photo) there were a few more. Here's another report on the web of another guy who also turned around at roughly the same place.

You might think that the hardest part was over, having done all the up-climbing at this point. Unfortunately, that was far from true. Down-climbing was just as difficult and slow. With tired legs (and suffering just a bit from the altitude) my legs were feeling pretty shaky, and on a number of occasions I lost my footing. Falling on my ass in the rocks is certainly not pleasant, but what I was really worried about was if I started tumbling. You see, according to the principles of self-organized-criticality described above, some tumbles would likely be short ones, but other ones might be longer ones. And according to the principles of sliding friction, once you get tumbling, it is really hard to stop.

Well, sure enough, at one point, I did take a bit of tumble. Luckily I caught myself in only about 10 feet. Beyond scrapes and so forth, I walked away with a rather bruised rib; and four days two weeks later, I still can't sleep on my left side. Not a serious injury, but a bit annoying. After that fall, I decided that I had better start walking even more slowly and more carefully. As a result of my slowness, we did not make it back to camp until after 3pm.

Here's a picture, just as we are getting close to camp and we are finally off of the nasty scree. Do I look tired yet?

We finally made it back to camp, and Lin had very kindly prepared us dinner with lots of water. We then packed up our stuff and started the 8.5 mile hike back to the trailhead that night. We had headlamps just in case, but we were hoping to make it back before dark nonetheless, so we tried to hustle.

From the hike out, we had one last really good look at Castle peak.

To quote Carissa in a classic use of double negative, "Well, it is certainly not unsteep".

We made it to the trailhead by dark.

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