Easter Weekend seemed like a good time to attempt Castle Peak (elevation 14,265). I had wanted to climb Castle for months, but the avalanche danger was always rated moderate to extreme. Several days of warm weather and a cold spell afterwards would freeze the snow solid and stabilize everything it was hoped.
The weather forecast looked really nasty (90% chance of snow) for the 15th and better for the 16th. Normally, in winter, a storm would increase avalanche danger, but in spring, and after all the warm weather we have been having, this time the cold air would help.
Castle Peak from lower Montezuma Basin
April 15, 2006
After meeting in Glenwood Springs the night before, Brock and I drove to the trailhead. It was raining in Glenwood, but by the time we had reached the trailhead at Ashcroft, it was snowing. We donned our gear and set off.
The road walk was sort of a pain because we didn’t have any views and it is a paved road in the summer (the winter/spring road closure is at Ashcroft at 9498 feet). It was snowing pretty hard at times, and we had to pull out the map a few times for navigation. There were no views to be had. We took our time and reached a nice camping spot right at timberline and at 11,430 feet elevation. We had time to continue, but the weather was bad, and it probably wouldn’t have been a good idea to camp above timberline because we couldn’t see the surrounding slopes or avalanche chutes.
After setting up camp, we ate dinner just as the storm began to break. Two skiers from Boulder joined us at our campsite. We observed a small avalanche off the buttress above.
Just before sunset, the storm breaks and we see our first views
April 16, 2006
The morning dawned cold and clear. Perfect conditions.
After a windy night, the morning dawned clear and cold. It was 9F (-11C). Perfect. This would freeze the snowpack solid and it should be pretty stable. We left at 7:30 am. The two skiers were moving faster, but we could follow their trail. The weather was beautiful and we spent much time taking photos of the surrounding peaks. Snow conditions were pretty good, but we still moved slowly. We met up with the skiers in Montezuma Basin and they headed for home.
Conundrum Peak was in full view on the approach to Castle
The North East Ridge of Castle appeared to be the easiest route up the peak, and was the route chosen. The Northwest Ridge looked pretty corniced, but reasonable, but we still didn’t want to take any chances.
Brock climbing the Northeast Ridge
The lower sections of the Northeast Ridge were easy, but the upper section proved more challenging than expected. We probably should have climbed the North Face Couloir. The Northeast Ridge wasn’t really hard, but it was covered with unconsolidated sugar snow, which made for slow climbing. I don’t really like doing exposed traverses on sugar snow, and though the ridge wasn’t that exposed, there would be no chance to self arrest in the event of a fall. Luckily conditions weren’t as bad as they first appeared, but it was still slow going.
Near the summit of Castle
We made the summit at 4:00 pm, a rather embarrassing 8.5 hours after leaving camp. My digital camera froze once we reached 14,000 feet, but I brought a manual backup and we took some summit shots. We had wanted to climb Conundrum Peak as well, but it was too late in the day.
The views were great and it would have been nice to spend more time on the summit, but it was already getting pretty late, we returned via the North Face Couloir and attempted to glissade it. The snow was very soft and powdery which made for a disappointingly slow glissade. This was the theme lower down as well; the snow was always too soft for glissading. It turned out to be the only disappointment of the trip.
After packing up camp, we headed down the trail, fully knowing that it would be well after dark before we reached the vehicle. The walk back seemed endless, and that went double for the paved road walk for the last 2.5 miles. Since it was a warm and sunny day, we got pretty soaked including our “waterproof” mountaineering boots. This made for sore feet by the end. We arrived at the vehicle at 9 pm, fairly late.
Pearl Mountain as viewed on the return
Castle was a great climb, and a fun trip. I’ll be returning to the area next winter for some more climbs.
I have some more climbing to do in the Elk Mountains