Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Castle Peak

6 June, 2007: The wait is over, and 14er season 2007 is off and running! (And I apologize to prompt readers for the delay in getting this entry posted; it’s been a busy few days.)

On the second of June, Trisha and I implemented a long-deferred plan and got our feet wet (more or less literally!) in the spectacular Elk Range with a climb of Colorado’s 13th highest peak, Castle Peak (14,269 ft., 39.0097°N, 106.8612°W). I had wanted to do this climb early in 2005, and in 2006, but various complications prevented it both times. Castle is the highest peak in the Elk Range, and, as the crest of the range is the county line, it is also the high points of both Pitkin (Aspen) and Gunnison counties. It is also, reputedly the easiest to climb of the Elk Range’s six fourteeners. That is why we chose to start with Castle, but, as detailed below, we managed to continue our informal tradition of making it somewhat harder than it needed to be.

We left Cheyenne Cañon at just after 2 am MST. I had really wanted to leave two hours earlier, so as to be on the trail by sunrise at the latest, but Trisha and I both needed at least a pittance of sleep after a generally sleep-deprived week, so we compromised. The drive to Aspen, over Independence Pass, takes about four hours, however, and there’s the drive up the Castle Creek road after that. The result was that we arrived at the first creek crossing of the dirt road, at about 10,160 ft., at about 5:20. My original plan had been to drive to the second creek crossing, where the “road” over Pearl Pass splits off to the south, which is at 11,200 feet, just far enough back to give us a clean 3,000 ft. ascent. However, the guide books had warned that the first creek crossing could be “challenging” to at least some vehicles during spring run-off (which was certainly in progress). When we got there, we both quickly decided that the best thing to do was to take it easy on the newly-aligned Forester (Thanks so much, Suzanne!) and start from there, even though it meant hiking about three extra miles and climbing about 1,000 additional feet. After hitting the trail at 6:24, we quickly discovered that we wouldn’t have gotten to 11,200 anyway, as several large drifts of snow still blocked the road in between the two creek crossings. Nothing but a snowmobile could possibly have gotten through, and, indeed, we saw several 4WD vehicles parked along the road, mostly facing down, in the first half mile. So, nothing really lost on that score, although I still wished we could have gotten an earlier start.

Still, it was early in the day, the conditions were mild (temperature in the high 30s, utterly clear skies, virtually no wind), and we set off at a pretty good pace.

We made what we felt was fairly good progress for the first couple of hours, which took us up into Montezuma Basin. There, we began to encounter stretches of snow on the road which finally motivated us to put on our crampons. A logistic note: One of the reasons the preceding week had been so hectic was that we knew we would need both crampons and ice axes to do this climb. Castle is actually easier when snow covers the loose rock on the steep slopes of the upper basin, but hiking boots alone usually won’t cut it. And while I have crampons, Trisha doesn’t—yet—and neither of us owns an ice axe. This will be corrected soon, but, for now, we had to do some renting. Unfortunately, the only place we could find to rent either crampons or ice axes was in Boulder! So Trisha had driven all the way up there and gotten them.

So, we donned crampons. The trouble was, the snow cover on the road/trail was intermittent. We needed the crampons for traction on the snow, but they making walking on bare rock rather ungainly and slow. Had we not put them on, the problem would simply have been reversed, so we were slowed down in either case. We actually took them off after a while (although this is a time-consuming process), even though we knew we would have to put them back on before too long.

The road (which was built to service the now-defunct Montezuma Mine) ends at around 12,800 feet. In summer, some owners of high-clearance vehicles actually drive all the way to this point, making the climb of Castle what Roach calls a “lark.” Naturally, this was never considered an option by us. There, one encounters the mostly permanent snowfield called the “Montezuma Glacier,” which leads to the upper basin. So this was where we put on the crampons again, and prepared for continuous use of the ice axes.

While we were gearing up, and munching some snacks, we attracted the attention of a bold and hungry marmot. He (?) was so interested in our gorp that he posed calmly not more than tree feet from me, allowing me to get a couple of very good pictures—the best I’ve ever gotten of a marmot on any of our climbs.

The snow is steep, up to 40º in places, and rather slow going is only to be expected. However, the sun was now well up in the sky, and it was a beautiful, mild day for early June. We would actually have been more comfortable if it had been colder! Long before we reached the lip of the upper basin, we were sweating like pigs, and having to pause after every ten or twenty steps to recover. It’s a good thing we had remembered to apply high-powered sunblock at the trailhead. We didn’t burn much, but we were blasted mercilessly by the sun. With the reflection on the snow, my eyes were right on the verge of pain the whole time, even with very dark sunglasses on.

Finally, though, we made it to the upper basin, now looking more or less due south at the summit of Castle Peak. The summit had been invisible right up until this point. Here we let our tiredness push us into making our biggest mistake of the day. We were actually only a little behind the schedule I had anticipated, and all the delays up to that point could realistically be chalked up to the route and the mountain themselves. But, here, we finally caused our own problem.

If you go right (west), you climb a steep snow field to reach the saddle between Castle and its unofficial 14er neighbor, Conundrum Peak. The route—the standard peakbagger’s route—then proceeds up the northwest ridge to the summit. If you go left, you follow a trail which switchbacks its way up the basin-facing side of the northeast ridge until it reaches the ridge crest. This northeast ridge route is generally considered the easiest route on Castle, provided most of the snow has melted off the approach to the northwest ridge, which then becomes a steep, loose scree slog.

We knew all this. Still, looking at the options, and feeling wrung out from the snow climb we had just completed, we decided that we would rather avoid the necessity of launching into another—and even steeper—snow climb. So we went left.

It was a mistake. The switchbacks were, in fact, easier than the snow climb. But, once on the ridge, we found that the northeast ridge is considerably more rugged than the northwest one. The going, through snow mixed with sections of bare rock, was truly snow. What’s more, the exposure in some of the places where we had to bypass ridge points was very significant. There is an established climber’s trail here, but a lot of it was still invisible under the snow. As a result, we often had to guess about what was the best path to take, choosing between loose, steep rock, and steep, sun-softened snow.

Without even asking, I took the lead, concentrating on kicking reliable steps for Trisha to follow in the many places where there seemed to be no choice but to venture out onto the steep snow fields. In some places I tried two or even three options before I found a route I thought was sufficiently reliable. It was already well past noon.

Along the way, we paused for a few minutes to watch a group of three skiers descend directly down the north face of Castle, from a point just a bit below the summit. These guys knew what they were doing, and it was fun to watch!

The crux of our route turned out to be bypassing the very last major ridge point before the summit. We went more or less directly over the rock on the ridge crest, dropping twenty feet or so into the saddle on the other side. From there, it was just a fairly easy, if steep, snow climb just to the south of the crest to come out—finally!—on the fairly large summit area. Contrary to my original expectations, it, too, was completely covered in snow. If there was a register, we couldn’t find it. It had taken us an astounding seven hours to reach the top.

So, tired but relieved, we simply relaxed and started taking pictures, taking in the unbelievably spectacular views all around us. The view is, indeed, amazing. And, having never been here before, I actually had trouble identifying a lot of what I was seeing. The Maroon Bells were clearly visible, although from an angle quite different from all those picture post card shots you see. It is a measure of how tired we both were that we completely forgot to get out the sign I had made the day before with the peak’s name and elevation on it; it doesn’t appear in any of our summit photos. In fact, I didn’t even remember it until we were halfway across South Park on the way home.

The weather continued to be nice to us, although the cloudless skies of morning had been replaced by some coming-and-going clouds. There was no precipitation, and no significant wind, but we opted to put on our windbreakers before descending. After spending nearly half an hour on the summit, we began—still wearing our crampons—the descent of the route which we really should have taken on the way up, the northwest ridge.

The ridge descent, although both longer and steeper than the one we had ascended, was clearly much easier, and went pretty quickly. All the same, when we got down to the saddle, we knew that we had blown our chance to bag Conundrum along with Castle on this trip. Trisha was even more tired than I was, and we were so far behind our projected schedule that I knew Suzanne would be worrying long before we could get home. So we threw another token in the “Unfinished Business” jar, and prepared for the big fun of the day: glissading down the bowls back to the road.

This was our first opportunity for glissading, and one of the reasons we had made sure to bring ice axes. The axe is a vital tool for slowing one’s descent. Even though we were glissading down into a concave bowl, where the gradually lessening slope would eventually bring one to a stop, and even though the mushiness of the afternoon snow would limit our speed anyway, we didn’t want to take any needless chances.

This was perfectly reasonable. Even though I estimated afterward that neither of us had ever been going faster than about 20 mph, it sure as heck seemed like a lot faster! I spent at least half of that first glissade (off the upper ridge, the steeper of the two segments we glissaded) consciously trying to slow myself down.

Our form was, of course, terrible (but better on the second try than the first!), and the slide filled our clothes with snow. But it was a blast, and it made such fast work of a significant portion of our descent that we wouldn’t have it any other way.

We postholed here and there in the now very soft snow, but it only slowed us down a little. Upon reaching the road once more, me took off the crampons for the last time, and simply stuck to the bare rocks wherever possible from that point on.

We couldn’t help noticing the huge increase in the volume of water running down the various creeks compared to the morning. They were truly spectacular, and I took a few good pictures of them. Tired but satisfied, we finally returned to the car almost exactly eleven hours after we had set out. This was fourteener number 28 for me, and number 23 for Trisha. We’d had our introduction to real snow climbing, and although we were tired, we were very satisfied with our long day.

As of this writing, I still have not finished processing and posting the 80 pictures I took at Castle, so I haven’t posted photo albums yet. Hopefully, this will be completed soon.

Long life and many peaks!


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