El Nino has come through with his promises and has been hammering the Colorado Rockies with spring storm cycles. From my daily vantage point at DIA, I could see that Pike’s Peak was more white in May than it ever was in March. The rest of the Front Range was no different. After a long and dry winter, we had thought that the ‘big line’ season was going to be relatively short. This new snow has infused all of us with new confidence of a prospective spring season.
According to Lou Dawson, the guru of 14er skiing, the East Face of Castle Peak is a ‘plum’: sought by many, but plucked by few. Because of sheer avy danger, it is nearly impossible to descend in the winter. By the time the snowpack finally matures to stable spring snow, the eastern sun works the snow so fast that it becomes runneled and full of wet slides.
Barrows and I had suspected that because of the recent barrage of spring storms, that the east face ‘just might be in season’. Both of us being 200 miles away, with no insider contacts in Aspen, we decided to take the gamble and head up there on Sunday morning.
As expected, the trailhead at Castle Creek/Pearl Pass road was bone dry. We drove up to the first major snowdrift and then began the hike in. This was my fourth time up this valley, and I was well acquainted with the approach. The first section followed the north bank of the creek, which would be dry all the way to the bridge that crossed over to the shaded south bank. Reluctantly, we shouldered our boards and packed in up the road.
Mandatory springtime photo of a dude dry-packing in snowboard boots
The snow was looking very good on the north face couloirs of Mace Peak. There was no sign of the dreaded ‘snirt’ layer, although I knew it was all there below the powder white surface. After a few short miles, we reached the fork in the road and headed south up Pearl Pass road, past the Tagert and Green-Wilson huts en route to the basin below the East Face. I had lost sight of my partner a while ago, and I figured he had already headed up into the basin. Up here I saw a lot of wet slide activity. It was a little intimidating, but I followed an existing skin track that avoided all of the debris. Still with no sight of my partner, I kept skinning higher and higher, as the sun was retreating behind the ridge to the west. Finally, I was up in the basin and got a good look at the East Face.
East Face of Castle Peak at around 6:00 PM
Although I still hadn’t talked to my partner, I already felt a feeling of discouragement when analyzing this face. It appeard that a wet slide had propagated from the upper ridge, and fell into the thin couloir, where what looked to be a runnel had formed. In addition, the slide debris was blown all over the apron below the couloir. (read my analysis here)
My partner was still nowhere to be found, and I began to freak out. It was getting dark. I didn’t actually think he would have been higher up in the basin, so I figured I’d stand around for another ten minutes, calling his name, before heading down. Just before I was about to head down, I heard yelling far below me. He had taken a left back at the huts and was waiting for me down below. Relieved, I skinned back down to him and we reaquainted. Let that be a lesson in ‘keeping the group together’.
We held a meeting and decided the east face was a ‘no-go’. Not to be defeated, we decided to break for camp and make a go for the north face the next day. I had been up Montezuma Basin before, so I knew the way up in that direction. We camped not far from the huts, set up and made a little dinner while looking out at Mace Peak as it was engulfed in darkness.
Dick Nixon decided to show up for some stew
It was a cold night and I didn’t sleep much. The alarm went off at 4:00 and we started to mobilize. Barrows saved the day with a really cool espresso plunger, and I was able to sit upright in my sleeping bag, drinking a strong cup of espresso. I was quickly energized and we departed at about 5:30 AM.
Heading up before dawn
Montezuma Basin is really a spectacular place. It is a huge glacial-carved cirque surrounded by steep headwalls and peaks. The terrain up here is so gnarly, that a mid-winter attempt would be anything short of a suicide mission.
Here you can see the ‘hugeness’ of Montezuma basin, by the spec of the splitboarder below the huge peaks.
Back in the 19th century, this was home to the silver boom that practically created the first of many ‘rich-ass mofos’ that would reside in Aspen for the next 150 years since. There are even the remains of some old cables where the mine carts followed on down the road. I’m a history nerd, so I snapped some photos for good fun.
On the descent, I actually threaded these cables. Probably not the safest thing to do on a snowboard!
The first part of the approach was relatively mellow, but soon we had to skin up a series of headwalls, each one steeper and bigger than the last. By the third and final one, I was already beginning to feel gassed. The thing that motivated me was thinking of the amazing high speed corn runs I was going to make on them a few hours later. That, and the view of Castle Peak that final came in from the distance.
I called this final headwall the ‘meatgrinder’. If you make it through this, your reward is getting to grovel up the face of the mighty 14er above.
Finally, I had made it into the familiar upper basin. In the summer time, Aspen locals will four-wheel all the way up here, to ski on the small ‘glacier’ that remains at the end of the basin. However, today we were treated with complete solitude high above treeline in the alpine zone. From here, I could see my partner already setting a skin track up the couloir, and I was in awe by the sheer epicness of the Elk Range’s tallest 14er.
Barrows setting the track up the couloir. You can see that it was skiied very recently
I met up with him and switched over to crampons for the climb. At first, we discovered a good freeze and easy climbing. However, the conditions quickly turned to deep, winter powder. Climbing this thing was going to be tough, as each step resulted in a knee-length post-hole. Fortunately, the face was well shaded, and I had no concerns about losing the snow to the sun, so I eased my effort and worked my way up, slowly. The couloir was actually shorter than it looked: probably no more than 800 feet.
Climbing up the couloir
As I slowly made my way up, I didn’t pay much attention to my surroundings. My gaze alternated between my ice axe and boot steps in front of me, and the top of the couloir ahead. Fortunately, I took one break and looked around over my shoulder to the north. I was greeted with one of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen in my five years in the mountains–all of the other 14ers in the Elk Range lined up in a row: Pyramid Peak, The Maroon Bells, Capitol Peak, and Snowmass Mountain!
God, I love Colorado!
Finally, I pulled into the top of the couloir, exhausted. My partner was up on the summit, but my climb stopped here (I’ve been on the summit once before). The ridge was thin, and I was able to peer over into the entrance to the East Face that I had viewed from below the day before. I also looked out at the grand view of the surrounding mountain ranges.
Star Peak in the immediate vicinity, and the Sawatch Range far to the east
The climb was over, and it was time to ride. We were both really looking forward to this descent. It is not often you can find a steep run of pure winter powder in May. All of the post holing and grovelling would be rewarded. Barrows dropped in first, and we leapfrogged all the way down. The snow was incredible.
Enough talk. Here is the stoke:
Barrows dropping in…
Had a bit of condensation on my lens, causing this effect that looks like an acid trip I wish I once had!
Finishing it out
My turn in the white room (photo by Barrows Worm)
The ‘Alaska Shot’! (photo by Barrows Worm)
Then it was time for the bonus turns, another 1500 vert of awesome corn snow, all the way back to camp!
BTW, dude is pulling off this steez in hardboots!
We made it back to camp right around 11:00 AM. The sun was shining and the familiar sounds of spring were all around. I laid out in a T-shirt, refueling on water and soaking up the moment. We decided that aborting the East Face and riding the North Face was the best decision of the year. This was by far my favorite line of the year, and is right up there as my favorite of all time…
…until next year, when the East Face beckons once more…
(Narrative and all photos by Adam L. Reiner, unless otherwise labeled)