|40.79860°N / 110.46596°W
|Aug 9, 2017
|Hiking, Trad Climbing
Red Castle was thought unclimbed and the idea of scrambling up it was on my mind for a long time. It was my last Utah peak above 12000', and my last of Utah's hundred highest. No one had logged all the peaks on either list on peakbagger.com or listsofjohn.com and for all I knew, no one else cared. From neighboring peaks Red Castle looked like a series of small cliff bands interspersed with ledges strewn with precariously positioned rock, all in perfect balance, the slightest disruption sure to cause a rockalanche. I had this conversation with my husband regarding it.
me: "What do you think?"
him: "That looks dangerous."
me: "What part?"
him: "The whole thing."
Fear of failure and fear of a big rock landing on my head prevented me from acting on my dream even though I did scramble up the bonus (not enough prominence to "count") peaks on either side, 12566 and 12338 in 2010, neither of which had any beta on them that I could find. However, that is not too surprising because Utah is not the peakbagging mecca as is Colorado, for instance. Uinta peaks (except for Kings and county highpoints) see relatively little action and mostly seem to be logged by Coloradans who have run out of peaks to climb in their own state.
In 2014, Darren and Jennifer Knezek of Utah recorded the first known/documented/logged ascent of Red Castle/12700. They rated it a 5.6 and I decided I'd better learn how to rock climb. I was both sad and happy. Sad, because Red Castle had lost some of its mystique, happy, because surely, I could muster the skills to do a 5.6 climb.
In 2015, I started climbing at the age of 56. I had a love-hate relationship with it. I'd be in the middle of a climb, legs shaking, hyperventilating, asking myself WTF had I been thinking and how if I happened to survive, I was never, ever going to do this again. But then, somehow or another, I'd make it to the top and everything would be all better and I couldn't wait until next time.
I had hopes that my husband, son, and I would be able to be proficient enough to climb Red Castle on our own, but in the end, I did not think we had enough experience. So, I hired a guide for me and my 20 year old son, Sam. The climbing part turned out to be very easy. Many sections were more like scrambling. However, there is much loose rock that should not be taken lightly. Except for this, and its a big exception, anyone with any trad experience should have no problem with it. The number one thing you should take away from the pictures in this report is how loose and fractured the rock is.
Sam and I started out early Monday morning from the China Meadows Trailhead, heading 10.5 miles in, to the east side of Red Castle. I go backpacking less than once a year so carrying all the weight was tough and it was a big relief to get to our campsite. Rain was imminent so we hurried up and set up the tent and not 15 minutes later were in a deafening downpour of hail. It rained the rest of the afternoon and evening.
Our crux for the trip turned out to be rendevousing with Todd, our guide. There were several contingencies that in retrospect I should have brought up with him but didn't. We were supposed to meet at our camp by 8am. By 11am I had given up all hope of ever seeing him, but by some miracle, we stumbled upon each other on the trail, and life was good again. The day had started out with some promise, but by now it was pretty gloomy and sure to start raining. Nevertheless, after some quick last minute preparations, we started out for the summit.
Our plan was to basically go the way the Knezeks had gone. Take the trail to the east side of Red Castle. Turn off the trail and head to the steep, scree filled couloir between Red Castle/12700 and 12338, via East Red Castle Lake. Head up the couloir to the saddle and then climb to the top.
The couloir was the part I was dreading. I imagined that every step would have the potential to unleash a torrent of rocks and with 3 people, there'd be sure to be problems. The way up wasn't so bad as we made it to the top of the couloir and then angled left to the saddle. We had a few brief moments before it started raining and hailing, just long enough to take some of our climbing gear out and get it wet. We sat for a while under an overhang and then headed back to camp. I found the angling back from the saddle to the top of the scree slope a bit unnerving now that it was wet, but all fours did the trick.
We got back to camp thoroughly soaked. Sam and I hunkered down in our mostly dry 2-person tent. Todd had a tarp draped over a cord, with his climbing rope and pack underneath him. It rained a lot.
The next day started bright and sunny and we quickly made our way to yesterday's turn around point. Todd was great, he didn't waste any time getting things set up and each pitch seemed to go really fast. Sam and I wore climbing shoes and Todd wore approach shoes. Even with climbing shoes, I found the lichen slippery. We used two 60 meter ropes. Todd had brought one and we brought the other. Initially, Todd had planned for Sam and I to climb on separate ropes, but decided that with the loose rock it was better for both of us to be on the same rope. However, we would need both ropes for rapelling on the way down.
The climbing part was super easy. Both Todd and the Knezeks rated it at 5.6. With some route finding I think some of the pitches could have been scrambled, in particular the last one. I would have loved to have found out, but couldn't exactly go exploring while attached to two other people. There was one pitch, however, that was pretty much vertical for about 20' or so and I think most people would not feel comfortable unless on a rope. There is a nice ledge at the bottom, but looking down the ledge as far as I could see, nothing stood out as being easier. Here are some pictures of this section.
The clouds built all morning and by the time we reached the summit ridge it looked quite threatening.
Once on the top, we easily found the large cairn with a small flagpole sticking out and register placed by the Knezeks. There were no other entries in it other than the Knezek's.
The four rappels on the way down were nerve wracking because of the loose rock. I moved several rocks that the rope would have run over. Three of the rappels were short, but the fourth was the full 60 meters and seemed like it would never end. It was a relief to be back at the saddle, our heads intact.
Todd took off as he had to work the next day, guiding climbers up Grand Teton. Sam and I made our way leisurely back to camp, stopping at the lake for a snack. It was a bit too leisurely because it started drizzling just as we neared camp, a precursor of what was to come. I told Sam to go ahead so at least one of us wouldn't be drenched. I got there soon after, a little wet, but not too bad. Then all hell broke loose and it rained until dark with occasional brief respites. Todd must have hiked all the way out in the pouring rain.
The next day we didn't get up until we felt like it and took our time packing up. Clouds were looming, but we hiked the 10.5 miles back to the trail head rain free.