Posts Tagged ‘descent’

Castle Peak, North Face

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010
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
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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
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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
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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
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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.
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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!
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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.
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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
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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
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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!
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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
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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…
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Had a bit of condensation on my lens, causing this effect that looks like an acid trip I wish I once had!
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Great powder
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Finishing it out
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My turn in the white room (photo by Barrows Worm)
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The ‘Alaska Shot’! (photo by Barrows Worm)
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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!
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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)


“Live for the Moment”

Sunday, April 6th, 2008

Kendall Mountain, 13,066′
San Juan Mountains, Colorado

The ancient mining town of Silverton lies just about as deep as you can get in the Rockies.  There are only two entrances into town, and both are over treacherous mountain passes.  Many times, one or both of these passes will be closed to traffic, and anyone in town must find something to do.  It is not hard to stay occupied if you are a mountaineer.  The town is surrounded by jagged peaks.  One such peak, Kendall Mountain, rises 4,000 vertical feet from town.  In fact, you can grab a cup of coffee at the Avalanche Cafe and it will still be too hot to drink when you travel the 4 blocks to the trailhead.

Our party consisted of the splitboarders and a skier.  We awoke leisurely in the Triangle Motel Sunday morning, debating what challenge to take on for the day.  We were torn between heading up one of the mountain passes, or go straight up Kendall Mountain and ride the North face.  Conditions were unknown. It had been warm, and spring conditions dominated the day before on Silverton Mountain.  I myself was not ecstatic about a 4,000 vert grovel, but time was wasting and we had to make a decision.

We drove a few blocks south of Main Street and parked in what appeared to be an old train yard.  From there, we donned touring gear and headed straight at the mountain, only to be met with our first obstacle:  a wide flowing river.  Jaime dove in first, and carefully traversed the stream with skis on.  I followed, and tried to stay shallow as best I could.  However, halfway through my foot plunged past the cuff, and I felt the cold water rush down into my boot.  I gave up on trying to tread lightly, and sprinted through the river.  When I got to the other side, my left foot was dry, but my right was wet.  Jaime reported the same conditions.  I worried for a second about continuing up for a long day in possible hypothermic conditions, then shook it off and continued onward.

For the first many, many miles the route followed a 4×4 fire road up around the west flanks of the mountain.  Brian and Mike took off ahead, while I was huffing it in the middle, and Jaime disappeared far behind.  When Jaime caught up with me after a few miles, he was upset and thought that the other two had missed the turn off into the north face.  On cue, an elderly women came running down the trail, directly for us.

“Are we going the right way?” we asked.
“Yes, keep going, just keep going.  You will see an old boxcar, and stay left.  You will see a big gully that snowmobilers take people up to ski.  Its about an hour to the summit.”
“What is that on your hat?” Jaime asked.  Her hat read “Silverton Mountain Club”  (or school, I’m not sure)
“Its a group of people that believe in what you’re doing.”  She responded.
“Does it have to do with Dolores?” the Burly Dude asked.
“Well she was a member.  Have fun!”  she waved goodbye and continued her hustle down the road.

We continued on, and I thought the road was never going to end.  It truly was a grovel.  Finally the road ended and we were faced with a steep treeless slope.

Brian took off ahead and stopped a few hundred feet up the slope, removed his skis, and kicked into the snow.  Mike followed him, while Jaime and I continued on the splitboards for a while.  When it started getting too firm and steep, we finally took off the skis and bootpacked up the slope. 

It was at this point that I realized this mountain was much larger than I had thought.  As I moved up the southwest face of the mountain I could not see up past the snowy ridge ahead. Soon Jaime disappeared, and I could barely make out Mike far off to my right.  I wasn’t sure where Brian and Mike were headed, but I was pretty confident that the summit was up and to the left.  As I climbed, all I could see was the ridgeline, and the horizon beyond.  It did not seem to get any closer as I followed the footsteps in front of me.

Finally, I reached the ridge and was treated with a despairing sight of a massive alpine bowl.  Brian was far out on the right side of the bowl, and Jaime was making his way up the left.  I followed him on skins, slowly up the moderate slope.  I thought I could make out the summit far up and to the left.

I watched Brian reach a saddle at the far East end of the bowl.  My radio crackled to life.

“How you doin, buddy?” he asked
“I’m hurting, bro.”
“Yeah, lets get the group together and we’ll get a plan.  I think we can ski down from my location.”

Skiing down from there sounded like a great idea, but for as much pain as I was in, I felt that I did not travel all these miles for hours on end without a summit push.

When we all met up, Brian and Mike decided to ski down the East bowl, while Jaime and I pushed for the summit.  Suddenly I felt much more alive and rejuvenated.  With the hours of exhausting skinning and climbing, adrenaline pushed be straight up the final 800 feet to the top.

For the first few steps we were able to scramble the ridge, but then we were blocked by another snow gully on the south face.   Jaime started to traverse, as I watched him kick steps with much resistance.

“This snow is firm!”  he yelled.
“I think I’m going to try to go up this ridge,” I said as I took off up the rocky right side of the couloir.  We separated for a few minutes, and I reached the top, to another saddle.  In front of me was a rounded slope of snow, and beyond it I knew was the summit. 
“Stairway to Heaven, dude!” I confidently yelled at Jaime, who was done traversing the couloir and making his was up the right side.

I made it a few feet up the south face with ease, but then things started getting bad.  Each step I took was harder to kick, and the slope got steeper.  The sun had baked the south face all day, and now in the afternoon, it was a sheet of solid, bulletproof ice.  (For whatever dumb reason, I didn’t have my ice axe or crampons.)  I looked up:  I was less than ten feet from Jaime, who was already on top of the knob.  If I could only make that ten feet, I thought.  I took another step, and kicked as hard as I could at the ice.  Nothing.  I started sketching out.  I looked down the 50 degree slope below me and felt vertigo.  If I fell and slid right, I’d probably fall over the cornice into the East Bowl that our partners had skiied.  If I fell and slid left, I would slide about 800 feet down the gully and to the bottom of the West Bowl that we climbed.   Neither was a very comforting option.

“What’s going on?!”  Jaime asked from above.
“Its solid ice!  I’m getting sketched.”  I said.
“Don’t do this to me, man!  If you fall, I have to come down and get you!  Climb down and traverse over to my track!”
Once again, the Burly Dude had the right idea.  I slowly downclimbed by placing each foot carefully in the steps that I had kicked earlier.  It was a sickening feeling having to bend my head down and look at my feet without getting scared of the 800 foot drop below. 

Finally, I reached the rocky saddle that I was laughing at on the way up.  I hugged the rocks and tried to calm my nerves.  I wouldn’t feel totally safe without my snowboard on my feet, so I switched over and strapped in.  Staying on my toeside, I traversed directly across the couloir (about 20 yards) to Jaime’s tracks.  From there I was able to climb easily, although the steepness still freaked me out.  Only when the slope subsided did I regain my composure. 

At the top of the knob, my partner was already gone, I followed his steps up the small ridge for another 50 yards, and finally found him on the summit.

“Thanks for helping me, again.” I said
“I told you not to go that way,  ‘Stairway to Heaven’ you said” he mocked me.  “You have to watch out for those melted out rocks on a south face…they mean ICE!”
Lesson learned, and I was already in picture taking mode on the summit.
“Put the camera away!  Live for the moment!”  The Burly Dude preached.

I followed him over to the entrance to the massive cut couloir on the North Face of the mountain.  We both got stoked immediately.  We were looking at a continuous line of untracked snow for almost a mile long. 

“I’ll make a few turns and then stop at those rocks and then you follow” Jaime said.  He took off with a yell and carved into the powder snow.  I followed and felt as light as a feather on the blower powder, contrary to the weight I felt during the past 5 hours of climbing.

From the first safety zone, we didn’t stop.  The line was much to incredible.  While the open face ended and the terrain narrowed down to a gully, we continued surfing the massive line.  In an almost ideal way, the conditions went from fluffy powder to spring corn, without a single icy or windblown patch in the whole line. 

I think I finally got the idea of “living for the moment.”  After the physical exhaustion and mental challenges that I had to overcome during the climb, I was now savoring every turn on the snowboard, during a 4,000 foot “AK-style” line directly down to town.

We could have rode forever, but our trip was cut by the same river that we encountered in the morning.  I was no longer worried about getting wet.  I was still high from the ride, that I ran right across the water, soaking my feet completely in the flowing stream.  I met my partner on the other side and gave him a high five. 

I turned and looked up at the gully as the truck approached with our compadres.  They had driven to the other side of town, and watched us decend down the entire face.

“How was it?”  Mike asked.
“Epic,” I replied.
“The Gnar,” according to the Burly Dude.