North America was privileged with the opportunity to enjoy a rare event during the nights of August 11-13. A rare meteor shower was forecasted for this window of time–unable to be seen at any other time or anywhere else in the world. I timed my conquest of Mt. Castle accordingly, hoping to get an extra sharp view of the shower without the light pollution of the city.
Taking advantage of the meteor shower (plus the long drive to the trail) meant that I was camping again. Saturday afternoon I loaded up the car and drove out to the trail head just outside of Aspen. Notably, the mountain ranges that I have been hiking and the ranges in Aspen were quite different. Unlike the front range, locals call this area the “high mountains.” The mountains sitting in front of me made this nickname feel like an understatement. The mountains themselves were not much taller, however instead of the steeply banked sides with trees and bushes, I was met with thousand foot cliffs, boulder fields, and beautiful aspen trees.
I pulled into the parking lot about four miles from the official trail start. My car cannot make the off-roading treks, so I had to use my legs instead. (Perhaps it is time to trade in for a 4 wheel drive vehicle.) About two miles up the trail I found a treeline, so I set up my eno hammock. After setting up camp for the night, I set my alarm for 4:00 am (peak time for the meteors) and nestled in for a brief sleep.
As planned, I woke up while it was still dark, packed just my hiking bag and leaving all the camping supplies at the campsite, and headed off on the trail while I enjoyed the spectacular meteor shower overhead. One of the most special things about the outdoors, particularly at this elevation, is the lack of technology that infiltrates our society. While I have my phone with me on my hikes, the only feature that works is the camera. No cell reception, no internet, no one else to talk to, it is just me and a million stars visible above. As I hiked the remaining two miles to the trail head I was able to see a meteor every 20-30 seconds. A marvelous show of stars dancing that you can’t find on TV.
I reached the trail head early. Being one of the first on the trail allows for a calm, quiet standoff between myself and the mountain ahead of me. I stare it down, asking ‘what obstacles do you have for me?’, ‘what hidden gems and beautiful views do you hold?, ‘how will you challenge my body and how will you challenge my character?’, and ‘how will you inspire me?’ By the time I have finished my line of questioning, I had hiked up the gravel path and the sun was creeping over the ridge line of Mt. Castle.
As I snaked my way up the gravel road, I rounded one of the unnamed smaller mountains to see my first obstacle for the day: a year round glacier that was the path and trail marker that I was to follow up the steep incline. Unlike a typical trail, no cairns marked the way. I was left to scramble up a giant field of scree (loose rock and boulders) in order to make it to the ridge line.
As I peeked over the top of the glacier trail, I had a perfect panorama of the bowl where I was able to see the entirety of my journey ahead. On the far left sat Mt. Castle, then straight ahead was the the saddle between Mt. Castle and Conundrum Peak, and then to the right was the hill that I just ascended. My plan was to finish at Conundrum Peak, descend back to the saddle, make my way down to Castle lake, and then scramble back down the scree field.
This mountain range was clearly molded by much harsher weather than the front range. I have grown accustomed to hiking switchbacks and stairs to get to the top of a mountains, but this mountain was not going to accommodate my experience. I scurried up more scree and got the the low point on the ridge line and proceeded to boulder and rock climb my way across to the top of Mt. Castle. The terrain was dangerous and the height was somewhat nerve racking.
Yet, this is an aspect of what makes climbing 14’ers both challenging and rewarding. On top of having your heart race from physical exertion and your lungs burn from the lack of oxygen, mental puzzles and obstacles sit in your way, obstacles like six or ten foot rock faces to be climbed. I believe each challenge is pushing me mentally and physically to be a better human for myself and for those in my life. When I conquer the mental and physical obstacles, I earn the incredible reward of standing on the peak of the mountain, staring out at beautiful views, and reflecting on what I was just able to accomplish. Even the comparatively smaller feats like Conundrum Peak, an unofficial 14’er, are meaningful.
As I descended down the saddle of Mt. Castle towards Conundrum Peak I was able to preview the route I was going to take back to the lake and then back to the trail. I continued on the ridge climbing and bouldering my way to the top. The views of crystal clear Castle Lake and the glacier covered ridge from Conundrum Peak were quite spectacular.
I was even able to get a sneak peek of what is to come on my journey (hopefully before winter). I was able to see Maroon Mountain and North Maroon Mountain and behind them, the Snowmass Mountains, and almost dead center the highest point in Colorado, Mt. Elbert.
As I made my way down the mountain back to my camp site, I was able to appreciate all of the views that were not visible in the dark hike up. As I finished the six mile trail, I gathered my camping supplies and made it back to my car, snagging a selfie with the forest map since the trail did not have a dedicated map.