Winter Ascent of Castle Peak
"Where you folks goin'?"
Elaine Holland and I paused, packs on our backs and skis on our feet, by the side of the road at
Boreal Ski area in California, and looked over to where the question originated.
The tow-truck driver seemed friendly enough, as the question drifted on a cloud of steam out of the
window of the cab.
"Into the backcountry."
I answered as politely but vaguely as possible, a faint mental tape-loop of the "Dueling Banjos"
theme from "Deliverance" playing in my head.
"Bad time to be going back there. Them mountains are falling down. Didn't you see Truckee River?
It's overflowing its banks. [shaking his head at our apparent stupidity] Flood warnings all over
the place. It's dangerous."
We thanked him for the information, and as soon as possible, made an excuse to be away, along
the road, wading through streams of meltwater as wind-driven slushy sleet spattered us from an
ominous grey sky.
An early afternoon departure from the trailhead convinced us of the veracity of the truck-drivers words.
Not a single track marred the snowpack. Nevertheless, we hoisted packs and continued, a
lternately roasted with bright sunlight then basted with drizzle and sleet.
Each of us had made previous unsuccessful attempts on Castle Peak. A few weeks before,
someone had died on this same "trail". These cheery thoughts, and the echo of the truckdriver's
voice, accompanied us as we skied onward into the waning afternoon.
Darkness found us deep in the backcountry, pitching a camp on a stable slope, as evidenced by
the numerous large trees surrounding us. I cooked dinner while EM pitched the tent, as a
slushy mix of snow, sleet, and rain drifted down through a blackness cut by two headlamps
and the blue-and-orange ring of an MSR burner alight.
Dawn came too soon, and with it more precipitation. Unwilling to spend a day flailing in whiteout
(great excuse), we slept late and as the sky cleared, packed and headed up, leaving camp
pitched in the event of a late return.
2 P.M. finds us at the false summit, after stashing skis and donning crampons on our tele boots
to negotiate the windpacked ice. The true summit is visible, but looks to be hours away. Elaine
ponders: "Think we can make the top and get back to camp before dark?"
"Not if we stand around talking about it."
With that, we head across the ridge, skirting cornices, wading through hip deep powder,
clambering through moats, and finally scrambling up steep loose snow-crusted rock to
the flat, breezy summit. Snap a few quick photos, then stand, amazed, as the Spectre of Brocken
appears briefly and beckons to us from the mist-filled abyss. Descend, posthole, skitter and
scratch back to the skis. More postholing finds us at long last on terrain that can be skied, at
least by the likes of Elaine. With years of experience at backcountry skiing, she
negotiates the prime line while I pound my face repeatedly into the cold white stuff.
In the dusk of a successful summit day, we break camp, skiing out by starlight, Elaine with
the monster pack from hell to give me a fighting chance to stay upright.
9 pm. We finally have the car dug out, and manage to break the wheels loose from where they
were frozen to the pavement as if bolted down. Tomorrow will be an enjoyable downhill day.
We motor toward Tahoe, the grudge peak fading behind our taillights into yet another
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