Castle Peak East Face – Fourteener Mountaineering 101?

Post by blogger | May 29, 2008      
Colorado fourteener skiing.
Chad on Castle Peak’s SE Ridge, Elk Mountains, Colorado

The New Rules of Ski Mountaineering:

1) Find a mountain with a steep face.

2) Climb said face instead of easy alternative routes.

3) Clip at least 1 carabiner to your pack or body.

4) Ski down.

In today’s backcountry scene, the rules for climbing and skiing difficult “plums” seem to be changing. No longer is everyone building their skills with patience, working up to bigger steeper lines over lengthy careers. No, now there are guys like me out there…here’s the story.

Chad (to me a couple weeks ago): “Want to ski Castle Peak’s East Face from the Taggert Hut?”

Me: “Sure”

Chad: “Great”

A week and a half later:

Chad: “You still in?”

Me: “Sure”

Chad: “Great, you have an ice axe and crampons right?”

Me: “No, but I can get some…”

I then proceed to finally pick up the guidebook, open to the chapter on Castle Peak, and realize that the East Face of Castle is not the “intermediate” route up from Montezuma Basin I thought it was. Hmmmm. Better make a few phone calls and find some gear.

Colorado backcountry skiing.
Our proposed ascent/decent route (click to enlarge).

Just so no one is too worried at this point of my story, I did have some experience that prepared me for this adventure:

1) I can ski.

2) I hadn’t climbed a 14er since 2002.

3) I had never climbed a 14er in winter, or on snow.

4) I had never used an ice axe or crampons.

5) I hadn’t skied a 14er yet.

So, I was ready. A few phone calls and I secured a helmet (slightly used, I think Captain Safety needs to update BJ’s wardrobe), crampons and a very nice combo of BD Raven Ice Axe and Revelation 45 L pack. Now, up to this point in my life, I have never owned or used an ice axe. But I have had a fascination with them dating back to high school and an Outside Magazine gear review. The review was (intentionally) written by a guy who had zero use for an ice axe, and he wrote of his imagined satisfaction after warding off a home intruder with it, and the resulting “thud” of the axe sinking into the unfortunate criminal’s torso. Wow! Why I hadn’t purchased one yet I’ll never know.

Colorado backcountry skiing.
Dave at 14,265 feet, summit of Castle Peak.

Skip to 3AM Tuesday morning, Green Wilson Hut ( yes, I know I said “Taggert Hut” earlier, but that’s what was said at the time), after a really solid freeze the night before and some in-hut ice axe training, we are out the door for Castle Peak’s East Face. Great time to the bottom, so we spend 30 minutes freezing waiting for a little bit of dawn light so we could see the route. After clearing some wet slide debris and ice runnels at the bottom of the route we encountered a nicely bonded layer of winter-like snow over consolidated spring snow. About halfway up Chad even “let” me break trail for a while. So, 24 steps at a time, I made my way up the face to the SE ridge and to the summit. “Crampon, Crampon, Ice Axe.” “Kick, Kick, Ice Axe.”

Colorado fourteener skiing.
Mike cresting the summit with our exit route to the hut below him.

At this point:

1) I have now snowclimbed a 14er

2) I had used an ice axe and crampons to climb said 14er

I hadn’t skied a 14er, however. So lets work on that. From the summit we traversed the SE Ridge back to our accent line and began skiing a nice, almost winter snow for half the face. Wonderful stuff for May 27th. Into the “pinch”, through a little bit of debris, and corn snow off the face and 1,500 feet back to the Hut. Wonderful.

I have now skied my first 14er!

Colorado backcountry skiing.
Dropping in on the upper East Face. Definitely more timid turns than your average powder day in Marble.

Back at the Hut, my other climbing partner, Mike asks (regarding my first snow climbing, 14er ski, snow tool usage): “So, are you going to ski Pyramid’s Landry Route next?” After a brief pause, I say “Sure. And then I can call it quits on skiing 14ers, right?” Why ski the rest when you can skip right to the good stuff!

**Please note: the above Trip report is not the suggested way to do anything and is an attempt at a light hearted take. One of my partners was a local guide. And I’m not a certified roll model.


18 Responses to “Castle Peak East Face – Fourteener Mountaineering 101?”

  1. Njord May 30th, 2008 9:24 am


    So if I clip 2 of those snap-hook thingys to my pack, I get to come along?


    (Should be home in about 3 weeks or so… save some snow for me!)

  2. dave downing May 30th, 2008 9:36 am

    @Njord: 2 if they are load bearing, 3 if they are key chains:)

    by the time you are back, the pass will be open an my feet will be willing to go into ski boots again.

  3. Matus May 30th, 2008 9:55 am

    Very nice and entertaining trip report. Life would not be that nice without a good ice axe and crampons…

  4. Chad May 30th, 2008 10:00 am

    Njord, maybe the pass will be open by then and we can get some skiing in!

  5. Jess Downing May 30th, 2008 10:10 am

    And now our gear closet will be getting more stuff I have a feeling…

  6. Thomas May 30th, 2008 11:44 am

    try a little self arrest practice on something hard and steep. Realize your good luck. Go to Vegas, put it all on red.

  7. Lou May 30th, 2008 11:53 am

    All, I’ll be taking Dave up to the pass for snow school, NOLS style. Anyone else who’s interested in learning everything there is to know about self arrest and ice axe is welcome to join us. Don’t know the date yet…

  8. dave downing May 30th, 2008 12:47 pm

    @Thomas, I’m definitely thankful for our good luck. We had great conditions to bury that axe handle in deep and solid every step of the way. and i’m still having a hard time prying that thing out of my fingers…
    @Lou, June 5th at 1:30pm, top of the pass … self arrest clinic. small turns class after that? 😀

  9. Chad May 30th, 2008 2:52 pm

    Dave, it’s official, you’re a mountaineer

  10. Josh May 30th, 2008 3:23 pm

    Well, we don’t call him “cowboy” for nothing! Nice work Dave. Keep me posted on that clinic – I’d be very interested to get some training in with the pros…

  11. Sky May 30th, 2008 3:47 pm

    All right, Dave!

    “Why ski the rest when you can skip right to the good stuff!”

    Great question.

  12. Lou May 30th, 2008 5:15 pm

    Dave, just so you don’t stop dreaming, East Face of the Matterhorn is waiting as well .

    But seriously, I should say that you guys did a nice job of climbing with care and finding a good route down. Nice to see.

  13. dave downing May 30th, 2008 5:56 pm

    thanks lou. i think the biggest thing i’ve gained this year that lead into this climb was being willing to turn around, thinking safety, and communicating that with your ski partners. then, if succeed, it never felt sketchy. and if you don’t, you (ideally) turned around before you were in any real trouble.

    as for the matterhorn, i’ll put that on my list. lucky for me, instead of a checklist of “to do” mountains, i have a checklist of “already skied that” mountains 🙂 less pressure to perform that way.

  14. Mark Worley May 30th, 2008 10:51 pm

    Dave, you are getting it right. As to skipping the mediocre stuff, I think you might be onto something.

  15. Njord May 31st, 2008 3:32 am

    @chad: I’m game as soon as I find my ski boots… they might be with your transciever!

  16. Brian June 1st, 2008 9:44 pm

    Very entertaining read and AMAZING pictures Dave. Can I bring my sled and come with you next time?

  17. JIM December 30th, 2008 10:41 pm

    just came across this entertaining story! Lou, i saw you offered up some NOLS style training awhile back…any chance you’ll do the same this year?

  18. JIM December 30th, 2008 10:42 pm

    ^I mean NEXT year ’09

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