Peak(s):  Castle Peak  -  14,265 feet
Date Posted:  11/28/2020
Date Climbed:   11/14/2020
Author:  calebmatteson
 Castle Peak and the Blistering Cold   

Castle Peak and the Blistering Cold

Friday November 13th through Saturday November 14th

13.5 miles RT, net 16 hours total hiking

Preparation and Forecast

We read about Castle Peak via the Northeast Ridge in Dave Cooper’s book Colorado Snow Climbs (incredible book) and figured we’d give it a shot. Our team was four men: myself, Lawson, Granquist and Matt, and one sled. We gave ourselves reasonable odds of making the summit; it was a pretty strong team we assembled barring disaster. We watched the weather report for about a week in advance, and in our hubris decided to not postpone even with the weather forecasted to be rather brutal. Snow had accumulated all the week prior: avalanche danger was however green and the only real danger on this route was crossing across beneath Mamelute Peak. We monitored conditions all throughout the day of the climb and never felt we were in any danger. The real hair-raising portion of the forecast lied in the wind, with gusts up to 70 mph, and the cold, forecasted somehow to be a chilling -31â at the summit with wind chill. We figured it would be a good litmus test for how we and our gear would fare in Denali conditions; Denali being a goal of ours we’re loosely planning for in the next five years.

Approach to the 4WD Trailhead and Tree Line

We left Denver around 3 PM and began the drive to Aspen, taking 2 cars—one with myself and Granquist, and the other with Lawson and Matt. Our team hit the 2WD trailhead around 8 PM and began our hike in the dark. The snow had already accumulated pretty heavily on the road, about a foot and a half thick. Our sled was well worth the investment, and we loaded our tents, shovels and snow protection into it to save us a chiropractor visit. Granquist and I tandem-dragged the sled for about three hours until we reached the 4WD trailhead, where we switched with Matt and Lawson who dragged the sled the remaining distance until right below treeline. It appeared Matt and Lawson were struggling a little bit so Granquist and I agreed to try to help them as much as we could: help, in this case, was us keeping them away from sled dragging as much as we could.

I spent a decent amount of time game-planning for that night; I was worried mostly about the wind whipping our tents off the side of the mountain. We bought a snow saw and avy shovels to really reinforce our tents, but we found a sheltered enough location that we didn’t have to truly bury ourselves. We ended up spending a very restful night maybe half a mile past the 4WD trailhead—maybe the coziest night of snow camping I ever had.

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Lawson and Matt dragging the sled about 100m before we reached our campsite.
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Tent gathered snow rather quickly after we had set it up.

Approach to the Northeast Ridge

We rose at 4:30 AM and broke down camp, loading it into the sled. My worry was that the wind, forecasted to ramp up throughout the day, would blow out our expensive four-season tents and leave us hiking back to the car with a load much lighter than our approach. It was a slow morning, and it was clear that Matt wasn't feeling his best. It took until 6 AM until we were on trail. We hiked on the 4WD road that would eventually contour us right up to the headwall before the northeast ridge, the beginning of our summit push. Matt clearly was suffering from some sort of mild altitude sickness and by 8:00 AM the decision was made to split the group. Lawson would stay with Matt, and the two drive back separately while Granquist and myself would push on and try to make the summit. I was impressed with both Lawson and Matt. Matt clearly didn’t want to turn around—the decision to turn back is much harder than the decision to keep going. Knowing your limits is a skill I am truly envious of. It was a hard choice but the correct one. We were prepared to all head back with Matt, but Lawson’s choice to head back with him alone was a selfless move that inspired us all. Granquist and I had a newly inspired summit fever to “make it up for them”, compounding our already powerful summit fever that exists irregardless.

The snow was thick and deep, drifts of maybe ten feet and a general depth of around four. We took turns breaking trail. As Granquist and I approached the end of the 4WD road the cold was already biting and the wind was compounding the situation. The snow was too soft for crampons at the headwall, and so we kept on snowshoes and used the spikes to keep us from slipping as we scrambled up the slope. No trip before had I relied so heavily on my ice ax.

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In the early morning there was still enough warmth for Granquist to give us this beautiful shot.

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Granquist near the top of the headwall; things were beginning to look a little frigid.

Northeast Ridge

At the top of the headwall we ditched our snowshoes in a reasonably sheltered area and set off climbing the northeast ridge. The wind was starting to really pummel the mountain. It became a sort of game: guessing when a breeze would escalate into a gust that would attempt to tear us from the ridge and send us to Kansas. We would yell “Hit the deck!” and anchor our axes into the ice, holding ourselves to the mountain. As the climbing became more technical (light class three) the wind certainly added to the excitement. It was however manageable, and I don’t consider myself an exceptional rock climber by any means. There were a few exposed traverses, a few chimneys, and a few straightforward walls, but the climbing was obvious: stay on the ridgeline. The ridge was longer than expected although the views, when the blizzard cleared enough to offer some visibility, were absolutely stunning. It felt nearly Himilayan, and with our big puffy jackets, we nearly looked the part. We made summit at 11:50 AM and spirits were nearly as high as our altitude; arguably higher. The sun finally crested through the blizzard and warmth was beginning to return to our extremities, and our eyelashes finally had stopped freezing our eyes shut. The blizzard cleared for those ten minutes we were on the summit and the views were miraculous. Maybe it was the brutality of the climb that made the summit so much sweeter, but those were the best views I have ever experienced on a 14er.

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Wind whipping around the early portions of the northeast ridge.

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Wind obscured our views but the sight of the opposing ridges on Conundrum that were in view were beautiful.

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Beautiful summit views, absolutely breathtaking. Wish Lawson and Matt could’ve seen it. Blizzard cleared for those 10 summit minutes.

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Summit Selfie featuring Granquist's Ice Unibrow

Descent

As we began to descend, the blizzard reared its ugly head. Cold like that, at -30â, was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. I was blinking maybe once a second, my balaclava had frozen to my lips, my bangs had collected so much ice that I resembled someone many, many years my elder. It was the little things that really tipped us off to how cold we really were. Watching Granquist’s ice unibrow reform each time I flicked it off his face was a surefire indicator.

We descended down to the top of the headwall to find that, out of the four snowshoes we started with, there were three waiting for us. We had no idea where the last one went; we did an avalanche-style concentric circle grid search, threw snowshoes up in the air to test how far a gust could really carry them. It was the weirdest thing—all the snowshoes were in the same location and thus likely experienced the exact same forces, and yet one snowshoe decided to fly coop. Most likely explanation is a Yeti was feeling klepto. So on the way back, I broke trail (the wind had rendered our earlier trench a figment of the past) while Granquist postholed the entire way back, with his remaining snowshoe strapped to his pack. The easy descent we were hoping for became more grueling than the original climb. We started our climb at 6 AM, made summit by 11:50 AM, and made it to our cars by 7 PM.

The final irony was that the blizzard that sat on us the entire climb chased us back to Denver, closing I-70. Our final testament to the cold was that the waitress at Village Inn gave us free hot chocolate when she saw us shivering at our booth. Altogether an incredible day; Lawson and Matt made it back and we made summit while also surviving our return journey.




Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
Altitude High
User
Gusts up to 70 mph
11/28/2020 17:52
in the forecast, yet you guys decided to go for it. And made it, without serious frostbite or death notices to your next of kin. (Two of you, at least.) Damn, you have guts. Congratulations.


Sbenfield
User
Nice
11/28/2020 14:37
Looks like a fun day


ltlFish99
Beautiful report
11/28/2020 17:06
It sure looked beautiful in that summit shot once the sun broke through.
Thanks for posting this.


CaptCO
User
Nice job
11/29/2020 01:19
Not many people on this forum have the perseverance and determination that you do. Well done


Jay521
User
Very nice.
11/29/2020 10:01
Helluva job!


Will_E
User
Damn
12/09/2020 11:51
That‘s a serious trek. Nice work!



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