Castle Peak - Direct SW Ridge
We set out for a Yellow Pine traverse loop, hoping to do some things differently this time, and to avoid too much narrow trail bobsleigh in lower Yellow Pine and too much drudgery on Upper Setting Road.
The snowfall was on and off and on again, and sometimes we had moments of Sun poking through the blue gaps between the snowclouds. It was fun to see Yellow Pine Lakes bench and lower slopes of Duke in one of these moments, but then it closed again and we topped the Castle in blowing snow. The short glide down was very nice though, fresh powder instead of the usual hard crust. We stopped for the first lunch in the trees on the wide ridge just North of Castle, 4 hours into our tour. The trailbreaking was getting deep, but we had plenty of time and pressed on to Duke.
Duke - East Ridge
I was trying to talk everybody into ascending Duke without skins, but the very first escarpment above 10,200 looked rather severe and we skinned up again. And since the skins were on, and perhaps against my better judgement, we just shot straight up the ridge, which was actually more challenging than the SW ridge of Castle which we've just enjoyed (I knew all along that the better route bypassed this steep point of Duke on the North side, but the straight shot looked irresistible). Once the first steep section was behind, we pondered bypassing the rest of it on the North again, but once more, against the better judgement, tried the South side instead. That was interesting too, since we had to resort to booting to get back to the ridge, and you know that it takes special circumstances to make me take off the skis :)
And with it, the memories of that Duke avalanche of I guess 3 winters (?) back were getting closer too. The snow was becoming rather deep, and cracked suspiciously, the cornices and drifts were lost in the flat light and blowing snow, and it was, like, get me outta here. So the two hours it took us to traverse from Castle over to Duke felt like a real adventure.
Then the plateau started to drop, and the sharp drifts began to get fewer and far between, and in a few minutes we were gliding through deep powder into Upper Yellow Pine lake.
Yellow Pine to Coop Creek
I pondered a possible direct descent route from Yellow Pine Lakes bench from the other side of the canyon a few hours back, but now we weren't so sure. Cracking, deep snow with underlying crusts, and a powdery sluff I've just released between the two Yellow Pine lakes ... ah, forget it. Instead, we cut left in the general direction of the summer trail, staying in the protection of the trees, and reached the creek at 8,900 ft. The glide was just absolutely exhilirating, but if we wanted to reach our car over Upper Setting, we couldn't keep descending much longer.
Contouring left at 8,350 level, we topped a low ridge separating Yellow Pine creek from the hairpin turn of Upper Setting road, which was now barely a third of a mile away. Despite a bit of brush and a few crusted spots, it was surprisingly fun sailing to the road. The snow stopped falling at last and the beautiful rays of Sun poked beneath the last whisps of clouds. Two 10'ers bagged, and back home before dark ... isn't it amazing?