Castle Mountain, Canada
Author: Gary Clark
Climbers: Gary & Lynn Clark
I first became aware of this route after the Brutus of Wyde (Bruce Bindner) climbed it during his 1998 Canada trip with Em Holland. I edited the Castle Mtn. part out of the trip report he sent me, only using the part about their subsequent climb of Mt. Alberta. Later another web site visitor nominated the route for the collection, so I decided to look more closely at it. Sure enough, Sean Doughtery's definitive guide "Selected Alpine Climbs in the Canadian Rockies" had this to say about it:
"The classic route of the mountain and one of the classic lines in the Rockies. . . ." We added it to our wish list for Road Trip '99, hoping to do it early in the trip as a warm-up for bigger things.
We called the Alpine Club of Canada to reserve bunks in the hut, and were pleased to hear that it was empty that night! So much for crowded classics, or maybe it was because the weather report wasn't any too optimistic. The guidebook description of the approach was essential and flawless. We arrived at the hut to meet Martin and Gail from Canmore, who said "Oh, you must be the New Mexico couple - the lady on the phone said you had just reserved it." They were real pleasant folks, which was a good thing, because this hut is just big enough for four if two are lying down and the other two doing their best to not bump into each other. It was, we thought, fairly expensive at $21(Can) per person. We reminded ourselves that it was nice to have not carried a tent, pads, a stove, or cooking items up the approach, which is 5th class in spots and comprises 3000' of elevation gain. M & G confirmed that they were just there for the view, and had no climbing plans. They soon took off for a hike on "Goat Plateau", the talus slope that separates the lower and upper ramparts of Castle Mtn. There is a crude climber's trail over to the base of our route, and after a bit we followed them. It was about a 20-minute hike that was mostly routine, but it kept our attention due to the big drop-off below. I was a little concerned about missteps early the next morning in poor light, so we improved a few spots as we went.
We spent about an hour at the base of the route using binoculars to compare the photo and description in the book with the rock in front of us. The route looked quite steep for it's grade, but I knew this was typical of limestone since it is usually heavily featured compared to igneous rock. The exact starting point wasn't obvious, so I soloed up and down two options separated by about 10m, and made a choice so I wouldn't waste time with the decision in the dawn hours of the next day.
When we got back to the hut, Aaron and Tania arrived and introduced themselves. They were staying above the hut in a tent, which was a relief. The maximum capacity of the hut is 6, but it would not be pleasant for any of the six. When I asked whether they were by any chance planning to climb Brewer Buttress, Aaron quickly said "Oh, absolutely". We chatted enough that I could tell this would be a strong rope, so I said we'd be happy to let them climb through if they were climbing faster, and hoped he would do the same for us. I told Aaron we planned to leave the hut around 5:00am. From the expression on his face, I could tell he thought this was overdoing it a bit.
Aug 8, 4:30am: Lynn shook me to indicate it's time to get up. I looked out at stars and whispered "It's frickin black out there - let's sleep another 30minutes!" It was still black at 5:00, but we didn't want to keep waking our hut mates, so we got up and quickly and quietly moved outside. We moved slowly through preparations, hoping to see a little more light before negotiating the "trail". At the base of the route we procrastinated some more, and finally got going about the time Aaron & Tania were leaving the hut.
The only limestone I had ever climbed was a short route in the Banff area, so I was very tentative at first. I tested every foothold by kicking it and every handhold by banging on it with the heel of my hand, until both hands and toes were getting sore. There was some loose rock, particularly on the first two pitches, but on the whole I needn't have worried much. The rock was generally solid, had amazing friction, and was textured and sculpted by wind and rain into an aesthetic treat. I started to loosen up and enjoy the climbing, which, as the reputation had it, was unusual in it's positions, exposure, and verticality for the moderate rating.
The route description was terse but entirely accurate and adequate, given a level of route-finding experience. See the "synopsis & beta" section below for additional notes on the route:
At about pitch 5, we demurred to the other team's speed, but stayed closely on their heels. Aaron had unroped and was waiting on the rim to take photos of me leading the final pitch from a good vantagepoint. The only shame was that we were in the fog, and had been since about pitch 3. The view must have been exquisite of the Bow Valley below, but we had been able to see little but the rock around us for most of the climb.
Now for the descent, which I knew from Bruce's report could be non-routine. The main challenge would be finding the right gully in the fog, then getting down before any significant rain started. The four of us started off together. We headed west as directed, having no idea how far we had to go. After what seemed like quite a long hike, the summit area swung north, then west again. Aaron was out in front, but at one point he started circling back to the east in the fog. I figured he must know something, so followed him for a while until I caught up. I asked him if he knew he was headed east, and he was very surprised when we confirmed it with our compass. He deferred to my route finding for a while, especially as I also had a map. After a hike of surprising length, we knew we must have been getting close. We all were relieved to see the huge cairn at the top of the descent gully appear through the mist. The reputation of the gully is that it is largely a talus scramble, with a few bits of easy 5th-class downclimbing or rappels. We were all confident we'd be downclimbing, so this shouldn't take long at all!
A light rain began which was nearly indistinguishable from the dense fog. I looked down the first downclimb from fixed anchors, and didn't hesitate to start uncoiling ropes. It looked really nasty and dangerous. The gully was dark and wet, with tons of talus just begging to be set free to bound downward. We didn't even try to avoid knocking rocks down; instead just paid close attention to where we all were as we loosed barrages of material with our feet and ropes. There is no way that separate teams could descend this gully safely if separated by more than a few tens of meters.
Three more rappels and a lot of down-climbing, and we were finally free of this sinister slot. All the rappels were short; one rope is sufficient. As we arrived at Goat Plateau again, we could finally realize why the hike over the summit had been so long. The descent gully is the second major one west of the approach to the hut, which itself arrives at the plateau well to the west of the hut. We had almost walked the entire length of the massif in completing a grand circle. This would have been an exceptionally scenic hike in good weather, but without the views, we were just relieved to be down and out of the fog.
We learned that Aaron was to take the guide certification tests the next week. This explained his exceptional competence. We learned a couple tricks from him on the climb and the shared descent, and hopefully he learned a couple from us (like bringing a map and compass on an unfamiliar route!) I'm always leery of sharing climbs with strangers, but in this case their company was entirely welcome, and we felt like a single team by the end of the day. We traded e-mail addresses as Lynn and I headed down the mountain to a celebratory dinner. We had been in Canada only 4 days, and had a great climb in the bag!
Synopsis & Beta:
A long grade II at around 13 normal pitches; as few as 9 pitches with a 60m rope. Take a small rack, as there are a lot of fixed pieces, but plenty of slings to combat rope drag, especially if planning to combine pitches. Ledges are plentiful and comfortable. 3 hours approach to hut, 15-20 minutes to base of route, 4:45 on the route, 2 hours for descent. Consistently quality climbing above pitch 2.
P1: Up the dihedral about 30m right of the toe of the buttress to a stance in the dihedral. Short, (<40m), a bit amorphous and loose. Not a distinguished pitch.
P2: Continue up dihedral on rock similar to P1, but leads to a nice position on an expansive ledge directly on the crest.
P3: Move right up this short pitch (<35m) on corrugated gray rock to a stance behind a small pinnacle. Could combine with P2. Fun pitch.
P4: I combined guidebook pitches 4 & 5. However, with twin 60m ropes, the rope drag became almost intolerable. Excellent high-angle climbing on good holds all to the right of the crest.
P5: Very short (15m) - being now cautious of Limestone-induced rope drag, I just traversed left around the corner to a good fixed anchor (pins) and called it quits. This is the only belay ledge left of the crest. An inviting face stretches directly above.
P6: I combined guidebook P7 & P8. A nice long face up and right, leading to a dihedral. Some tricky moves had me thinking "that must have been the crux". Just before the big roof at the top of the dihedral, step around to the right to a spectacular ledge which must have motivated the comment about "situations not usually associated with this grade."
P7: Long pitch, probably a combination of two again. Unmistakably the crux chimney - a couple of athletic moves I would have called 5.7.
P8: Very cool pitch over a small roof! Climb left of the major crack, and watch for fixed pins. Looks hard from below, but the holds were all there, and it protected perfectly. Airy.
P9: An obvious left-leaning crack on a steep wall led to the top - again, we combined two pitches, which by my count are #12 & 13 in the guide. Very nice ending on vertical wall with great holds.