The Confidence Trap: Castle-Conundrum


I had originally hoped to climb Castle & Conundrum on my July trip to do South Maroon Bell, but that barely successful effort was so exhausting that I had to go home without even an attempt.

My plan was to return in August to do Castle and Conundrum via the Montezuma Basin after an early morning drive from Boulder. Everything went perfectly, and I arrived at the Castle Creek trailhead right at 7am, as planned.

The rest of the day would not be so cooperative.

The guidebook said to drive up the 4WD road for 2.3 miles to a fork and take the right fork to Montezuma Mine.  At 7:30am, I was over 3 miles up the road with no sign of a fork.  Some bad advice, too much faith in a guidebook, and a couple turnarounds left me 1.5 hours behind schedule before I started hiking from 11,000 feet at 9am.  I found the Montezuma fork 200 yards beyond my first turnaround.

I finished the 1,800′ and 2 miles to the 4WD parking lot at 10:30pm, when I met a couple that had just finished Conundrum.  They said they used the snowfield for a “traverse and climb to the saddle between the summits.”  Since I didn’t have an ice axe, I decided to continue with the Northeast Ridge route; but I made a mental note to consider a snowy descent.  Later, when I could see the snowfield clearly, I saw tracks along the right side of the field skirting the two giant parallel crevasses that spanned the snowfield.

The route finding went easily as cairns were plentiful and the route followed the path of least resistance.  I reached the summit of Castle at 11:45am.  And after a 30-minute break, I left for Conundrum, reaching the northern summit at 1pm.

Castle Peak seen from Conundrum

Castle Peak seen from Conundrum

As I descended from Conundrum, I looked down into the snowfield and considered how much faster it would go than a return to Castle.  I was tempted into taking a look.  As I descended from the saddle, I found the slope steep and loose; I dreaded reclimbing it.  When I reached the “snow” field, I discovered solid ice, and the “tracks” I had seen from the Northeast ridge of Castle were watermarks (grooves) from water running down the face of the snowfield.  At that moment, I considered backing off, but thought I would at least see if I could figure out where the couple had gone.

The only possibility for a “traverse” was via the flat bottom of the upper giant crevasse. As I neared the end of the crevasse, I could see it ended 40 feet short of the rocks. So that wouldn’t work, but I then found another option.  Directly below me was a half-pipe, gouged by water running over the ice, which dropped into the lower crevasse that did reach the rocks.  With too little thought, I decided to give it a try instead of going back up the steep, loose dirt to the saddle.

Since the ice slope was moderate, I figured I could lower myself using rocks like axes to chop holds for my hands and by jamming my feet into the rocky, narrow bottom.  Chopping holds in ice was hard work; and, at first, my concern was the time expenditure, but that soon changed.  The lower I got, the steeper the slope became.  If I slipped, I would be dashed on the rocks in the lower crevasse or I would bounce out of the crevasse and accelerate into the talus 200 feet further below.   And to make matters worse, I could now see that the crevasse bottom was far below the bottom of the half-pipe.  At this point, I finally realized that I had made a terrible mistake.  But I was still alive and was determined to stay that way.  I became even more deliberate in my hold chopping.

When I reached the last 5 feet (after which the half-pipe became too steep), I stopped to consider my situation.  I could see down into the crevasse; it was a 4-foot wide crack filled with large and small rocks with a 2-foot tall lip on the lower side.  I could not lower myself out of the bottom because there was no way to hold on.  If I let myself simply slide out, I would fall into the section of the crevasse that held the largest rocks.  If I jumped out too far, I might miss the crevasse and continue at speed down the ice slope to the rocks.  The only solution was to jump out of the half-pipe to section filled with smaller rocks, somehow land squarely, and then roll over to absorb some of the energy of my body falling 15 feet traveling 7 feet per second per second.

The last problem I considered was the jump takeoff.  I was concerned about my ability to control the jump, since I was jumping from inclined ice.  I figured that if I slipped as I jumped, I might hit headfirst.  I decided to take a few extra seconds and chop out the best holds of the day, and then use my rock hand axes as stabilizers to jump using arms and legs simultaneously (like some giant, crazy inverted crab) out of the half-pipe and down into the crevasse.

At this point, my mind had gone into some kind of detached state.  I felt no fear, but was rather mechanical about the situation.  Some part of my mind knew what to do and set about to do it, while some other part of me was watching.  When the holds were ready, I jumped without another moments thought.  I didn’t think about how to jump or even run through it once in my mind to see myself doing it well.  No power of positive thinking; no worrying; I just jumped.

I seemed to hit instantly, but once I landed everything seemed to go into super slow motion.  As I landed, I realized that I had made it, and I was pleased.  In the next instant I was rolling over to the left, just as I had thought to finish the landing.  This also pleased me, as I wasn’t thinking about what I was supposed to do nor was I in control of anything.  As I started coming back into real time, I was consumed with a wave of adrenaline sickness.  I was surprised by its presence since I had only ever felt it after extreme exertions, and I started to think about how it could have happened but lost the train of thought.  I began to suspect I didn’t get hurt.  All of this was in the first 2 seconds after landing.

As my consciousness hit real-time, I started noticing more pain and blood.  My hands and forearms were hurting and bleeding, probably from hitting the ground on the initial hard landing.  As I lay on my side trying not to vomit, I got out my bandages out of my pack and taped my bleeding fingers.  The nausea feeling subsided after about 5 minutes, and then I stood up to see how well my legs worked.  I had made it.

My improbable route down the snowfield

My improbable route down the snowfield

The hike out and the drive home went slowly due to a sprained ankle, and gave me a lot of time to thing about the mistakes I had made.  I felt I had been given another chance to become a smarter climber.  I promised to take full advantage of the opportunity.


  • A late start, due to problems finding the correct road, created a lasting sense of urgency
  • Received route information from unreliable sources
  • I was alone


(1) Prepared badly

  • Didn’t have any knowledge of the snowfield prior to starting the hike.

(2) Made several bad decisions along the way due to flaws & biases in my thinking.

  1. Confirming Evidence Trap:  By heading down to the snowfield from the saddle, I had implicitly decided to descend that way.  I kept finding reasons to continue and discounting reasons to go back.
  2. Optimism Bias:  I felt optimistic about being able to overcome any unknown obstacles.  As a result, I felt that moving ahead was less risky than retreating back over the known difficulties.  Even as progress became harder, I felt the difficulties would end, and the difficulties I continued to pass reinforced the notion of a dangerous retreat.
  3. Denial Bias:  I failed to consider what might happen if I slipped until I was fully committed to the half-pipe.  If I had paused for a moment of consideration, I would have gone back to the saddle.

How I Got Lucky

  1. Against all odds, I didn’t slip down the half-pipe
  2. Against all odds, I didn’t get badly injured jumping 15 feet into a pile of rocks

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One Response to “The Confidence Trap: Castle-Conundrum”

  1. Flying Blind: Wetterhorn & Uncompahgre « PeakMind Says:

    […] in another trip to collect Castle and Conundrum.  But I would get what was coming to me.  The Castle-Conundrum trip would be my last for a while as another “lost and flying blind” scenario conspired […]

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