When our friend and loved one Raoul Wille died at 45 years old in 1998, of altitude sickness in Nepal, the mountain community lost one of its champions. This was the guy who, in the Aspen area, was a winning nordic ski racer, ripping downhill skier, and the man who “was the gutsiest guy in town — if there was any physical challenge, Raoul was involved in it.” And now, Mount Raoul… but first:
Raoul and I were close. We were fast friends and he was my brother in law. His loss hit his many friends and loved ones hard. So unexpected, for a 45-year-old super fit athlete to die of altitude sickness at the height (around 14,000 feet) he’d climbed to hundreds of times, and lived just below for his whole life.
A few years ago we started calling a mountain by Raoul’s name.
Mt. Raoul is a 13,803 foot sub-peak of Castle Peak that dominates the upper Conundrum Creek Valley in the Elk Mountains southwest of Aspen, Colorado. It has a beautiful north face that can easily be seen from the top of Highlands Bowl at Highlands ski area.
Over the past few years, a group of us close to Raoul have been talking about getting the peak officially named. That’s difficult, but in the meantime we figured we can always ski it — and call it what we want. More, we also recently put together a memorial website for Raoul and his eponymous mountain, so what better time to get a backcountry skiing trip report blog done about it? Our group for this trip consisted of Raoul’s brother Pierre Wille, Kirk Brunswold, who was Raoul’s friend and myself.
On May 16 we left Kirk’s Jeep at the footbridge up Castle Creek at 10,200’. We began the slog in walking shoes and carried our skis and boots. At about 11,500’ we made the switch to skis and skins and cruised up through Montezuma Basin to the Castle /Conundrum saddle.
From the saddle, we booted skier’s left, into the Conundrum side. We had to cross some loose scree until we got to a tongue of snow that we skied down about 800’ of vertical into the basin. We traversed as high as we could skier’s left under cliffs to the bottom of a couloir we hoped would take us to the summit ridge at the obvious low-point saddle between Castle Peak and Mount Raoul.
The three of us were elated to finally achieve the summit. With a little more thought and a little less effort we had succeeded where last year’s effort had failed — it is always sweet to get the backcountry goods when you’ve been previously denied. We ate, drank, took photos and enjoyed our time on top.
We were not sure if the couloir we were looking down was Sloman Couloir — the line we wanted. But it looked right and the snow was as good as it gets. Kirk dropped first. Pierre skied next. We leapfrogged each other down a fantastic upper face, letting out a few loud “Raooooouls!” as we descended. About half way down we found the rock lined couloir that would take us slightly skier’s right to the lower apron.
We regrouped on the apron, exchanging wide smiles as we got the skins back out. Last year we had skied all the way down Conundrum Creek, not an option this season due to the lack of snowcover and heavy coating of “snirt” that made lower altitude skiing less than pleasant.
So we skinned back up to the Castle/Conundrum saddle, using crampons once more for the final 400 vertical feet. After that, we got the long backcountry skiing run down Montezuma back to parking. The snow was dirty and grabby, but still better than walking. We got back to the Jeep nine hours after we left it; all very happy we could go on shorter ski tours again.
Viva Raoul! And remember to check out the Mount Raoul website!
Stats: 10+ miles 5,700’ vert, 9 hours. First descent of Sloman Couloir was probably done by Bob Perlmutter and Bob “Sloman” Slozen around 1981. The peak is also informally known as Castleabra or Castlebra, just joke terms with no real meaning. We prefer Mount Raoul of course!
(Guest blogger John Doyle is a longtime Aspen resident who was a close friend of Raoul’s, as well as being his brother in law.)