I’d seen the face a thousand times. In winter, it is white shining with black rock cliff bands like brush strokes across the glow. First time below the wall I was only a wee lad of sixteen years. After that I viewed the face at least a couple times each winter. During most seasons I’d pass below it dozens of times, skiing the high route between Aspen and Crested butte. I’d go over Pearl Pass, beginning with a long shuffle up Castle Creek Road, then rising quickly to the alpine like a long submerged submarine surfacing for fresh air.
Castle Peak is a 14,278 foot summit. I know that sounds high to some folks, but we live here in Colorado on a lofty plateau that boosts all our peaks up higher than they should be. In the real, our vertical relief from valley bottoms to summits is only average. It is not to appear I’ve got an inferiority complex about our mountains, quite the opposite. They’re just the right size for one-day ascents that can sometimes be done in a strong morning.
1990 was our first winter living in our “new” home: I had just completed renovation of a 100+ year old house in Carbondale, Colorado. The project was a year-long brutalization. I worked without a day off for something like 10 months straight, usually about 10 hours a day. (Warning: don’t learn a trade, you might have to do it.) I hung up my climbing gear and skis for most of that time. One can only do so much in a day.
By springtime I was getting fit again. The big wall on Castle Peak dropped into my mind. I had not been obsessing on the line. In fact I’d not thought of it for years. It came to me like a sudden inspiration for vacation might come to a less alpine infatuated person. “Honey, I was just thinking, let’s go to Cancun in a few weeks.”
Cancun, yeah right. I leave Carbondale around midnight, towing our ancient Yamaha snowmobile (the Enticer!) behind our Honda Civic (yes that is another story; we bought a Suburban shortly thereafter). At the trailhead, frozen water riffles on the gravel show me the night is crisp, a perfect chill to condition the spring corn-snow I figure is coating the route. The old Enticer does a fine job of hauling my arse to timberline. I flip on my headlamp and ski up into the dark.
I had a plan, a route. But with no moonlight the east face of Castle grows enormous in front of me as a featureless black mass. I might as well be climbing with my eyes closed, going by smell. Or am I? At least I know which direction (up) — and there is indeed that flinty cool air of the high alpine flowing downward under its weight — hold that in your face and you’ll be ok. So I keep my crampon equipped feet nipping vertical in those small hacking bites you do when climbing steep frozen springtime snow. Lead on, boots.
Truly, it is by smell that my route trends to the right, avoiding the initial cliff bands, then makes a traverse left across a tilted playa of icy runnels and embedded rocks that requires care on the up, and will similarly require caution on the down.
The rheostat of the eastern sky begins twisting. In that faint glow of dawn the central couloir is obvious, just above me, with its now classic little choke. I punch my way through, noting a few steep sections I’d need to take care with on the descent. The climbing is fast, efficient. Perfect frozen corn, crampons, I am a machine. The top of the choke brings you into a small funnel shaped bowl, which then leads to Castle’s easterly ridge and hence to the summit, all a perfect graduated exit from the steeper climbing. Firm snow makes it a sidewalk. All you have to do is not trip on a crampon.
It’s hard to get the timing right on these spring ski descents. This time I’m early at the summit. Climbing the hard frozen snow has been easy, but skiing it would be dangerous. I’ve always been impatient with these situations, so my forced rest leaves little time for sunrise to soften things. But it does, just enough.
We have quite a bit of Castle Peak content here at WildSnow, even a trip report from when I went back and skied the East Face with my son. That was a very good day, as good as the first.