After climbing Mount Shavano on Friday, I decided that I wanted to climb something a little more challenging on Sunday, Castle Peak in Colorado's Elk Range. This was my first trip into this area, so I picked the easiest 14er of the six in the range.
I started hiking at 5:44am, later than I had hoped, but I lost about 25 minutes helping someone who had ran out of gas six miles short of the next gas station, and in the slower than expected drive over Independence Pass. The day dawned clear with mild temperatures and it really looked like it would be a good day.
Under normal peak-bagging conditions, the hike goes up a 4WD road up to 12800ft, then on a trail to 13300ft, and then the option of two different ridges, one involving unavoidable 40 degree angle snow slopes, the other involving more rock scrambling. This year, it's a whole different story on the low to moderate altitudes.
The 4WD road crosses a creek twice below treeline, which was flowing quite strongly, but there are bridges at the crossings. The first bridge is only a foot bridge, but a Jeep had crossed the stream, and I was very impressed considering how rugged the streambed looked. In between the first and second crossings, there was a spot with a lot of tree debris which looked like avalanche debris. However, there was no obvious avalanche path that I could see. It looked like a bomb had went off on the trail. I first saw snow at 10400ft (!), and there were several-foot high drifts where I saw all the debris. The second creek crossing was at 11000ft just below a nice waterfall. By now, the road was mostly covered by snow, with bare patches.
Above treeline, at 11500ft, the road became almost totally snow-covered. Since the roadbed is a flat area carved out of sloping ground, the snow was sloped and I found my instep crampons quite useful (but not essential) for the hike on the crusty snow of early morning. Soon after, I encountered a man coming down who had bivied/camped at about 12000ft after summitting Castle at 7pm the previous night. He didn't have an ice axe and said that he wished he had, even though it wasn't absolutely necessary. He also warned me that the last part of the NE ridge was a little hairy/airy. I wouldn't have been worried, but I knew that the snow was going to be very crusty and slick all the way up for me, unlike the evening snow conditions he had had. He also told me that I was first up for the day, which I was happy about.
With all the snow it was impossible to know when the road ended, and it was actually hard to follow the road in spots; the route is still pretty obvious. At the altitude of the end of the road, the summit area of Castle finally comes into full view. And the view is quite impressive. From left to right in a semi-circle is the NE ridge of Castle, Castle's summit, the NW ridge dropping down to a saddle continuing upward to Conundrum Peak, an "unofficial" 14er. The neatest part of this cirque is that right below the ridge from Castle to Conundrum the slope falls off to a genuine "bowl" that drops perhaps 50ft below the side opposite the ridge (and about 500ft below the ridge itself).
One route climbs right up the tall side of this bowl to the ridge saddle. However, the angle here is at least 40 degrees and the snow was hard so I decided to go up to the NE ridge. Also, most of the bowl was covered with avalanche debris; probably none of it was very fresh, but I didn't like the looks of it. Getting up to the level of the bowl required a couple hundred feet of 25-30 degree angle snow, which I climbed in other people's steps. Although I've used the rest step many times before, I really got into a good rhythm with it here. Roach's guidebook says that there is a good climber's trail up to and along the ridge that starts from here, but I had forgotten this. The thing is that you can't see the trail from below. I ended up scrambling on all fours up an obnoxious scree and loose talus slope for about one hundred feet before finding the trail. D-oh!
Shortly after, the trail reaches the ridge, with some fine views down the steep main Castle Creek drainage. The ridge is Class 2 with numerous small sections of borderline Class 3 scrambling on the right side of the ridge or on the ridge itself. There is some exposure in places and it's somewhat reminiscent of Kelso Ridge on Torreys Peak, except not as hard and not as long.
Finally, I got to the part that I had been warned about. The last 100ft or so of the ridge is completely snowcovered. As the guy had told me, if you slid off the left side of this part of the ridge on the snow, and didn't have an axe, you would probably die or be seriously injured when you hit the rocks below. The only thing that you save you would be a quick arrest with an axe, or a quick arrest with your body in the softer snow of late afternoon. However, this part looked much worse than it actually was. The tracks from several days' worth of people were a foot deep in spots, and by following this trench up the ridge (at an angle of 30-35 degrees) this was more exhilarating than dangerous. I was still glad to have my axe. :)
This snow slope quickly levelled off and suddenly I was on the summit at exactly 10am. The flat summit is about 5 meters in diameter and mostly snow covered, which was very surprising because it's completely exposed to sunlight and wind. There are some pretty good dropoffs on most sides and more so than most mountains, it feels like you are on a real summit. This definitely ranks among the best few summits of the twenty-five or so mountains I've been on. The views from the top are terrific indeed, with no signs of civilization in any direction. The Maroon Bells/Pyramid Peak area is about 5-10 miles to the west. Most impressive is that the entire Sawatch Range is laid out from NE to SE. With some map and compass work, you could probably identify nearly all of the Sawatch Range's fifteen 14ers. As icing on the cake, the weather was beautiful with little wind and only some thin cirrus clouds.
While on the summit, I could see someone else on the NE ridge. I finally (reluctantly) left the summit at 10:30, and met this guy at the bottom of the final snowclimb. I decided that while the bowl would be a fine glissade if the snow was soft, I didn't want to take the chance. However, once I made it back down below the bowl to that gentler snow slope, I did about 500ft worth of glissading. This put me down below the level of the road, and I would have been able to do even more glissading into the center of the drainage, but it was kind of rocky. No matter, it was easy enough to traverse over to the road at about 12000ft.
I encountered a couple pairs of climbers above snowline on the descent. Both groups had been planning doing the snowclimb up to the NW ridge, and with an extra two hours of sunlight to work on the snow, this might have gone well. Of course, I have no idea if they all went this way, but all four people did have axes.
I had the same views of waterfalls and trees and snowfields, etc., on the way down, still in beautiful weather. I reached my car at 1:30pm, capping one of my best climbs yet.
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File last modified: 20 December 2004